Collins English Dictionary defines an “obsession” as “something that preoccupies a person to the exclusion of all other things” and “a persistent idea or impulse, often associated with anxiety and mental illness.”
Roget’s Thesaurus also links “obsession” to insanity, folly, fanaticism, addiction and infatuation. Thus, an obsession seems to be very unhealthy.
In whisky, there are many obsessions: from collectors who have to have every last bottling from a specific distillery, to those who only drink heavily peated whiskies through to those who never touch a blended whisky and those who only drink those whiskies which are aged for more than 15, or 20, or 25 years.
I have come across many and diverse whisky obsessions in the 42 years since I started to work in the industry.
Most of these are harmless, although they can cause considerable damage to a bank account. An obsession can, as I suggest above, be unhealthy, it can also take over one’s life.
My own whisky obsession is understanding: getting that understanding of all aspects of whisky and then passing on that knowledge.
I will admit that my obsession has made me very fussy about what I drink to the extent that some of my friends have admitted to being initially reluctant about inviting me over for a drink in case what they offer me is less than magnificent.
I am, however, very happy to drink blended whiskies, even although there are some that I have tasted that I will not allow to flow across my taste buds again – EVER!
I am happy to drink non-age statement whiskies. I will drink – and enjoy – grain whiskies as well as whiskies from countries other than Scotland. I am evangelical about quality and shout about that when I find it. So now most of my friends are quite relaxed about their whisky offerings.
I attempt to make my tasting notes as objective as possible and am pleased to say that most of the whisky industry (on both the producing and retailing sides) thinks that I have been fairly successful in that regard. I suppose that that is also an obsession: attempting to remain objective whilst I am tasting.
I can understand the opinions of those who do not enjoy the more heavily peated whiskies. People argue that peat is something which you either love or hate, that there is no sitting on the fence regarding peat, but I disagree. The quality of the spirit should be able to shine through, allowing both sides of the fence to appreciate that quality.
Those who only drink heavily peated whiskies however need to open their eyes (and taste buds) further to appreciate the complexity and diversity which is out there without the peat reek.
The obsession which I find the most difficult to understand is that of the collector. I can understand collecting, but when generations of expertise and the finest whisky making goes into the creation of the liquid inside that bottle, I consider it a sin not to drink the whisky.
My first encounter with a collector was 26 years ago. He had a fairly large room completely lined with bottles of whisky that were never to be opened. I consider that to be a crime against humanity.
The main effect that collectors have had on the drinking public is to push up prices as these limited editions become rarer and rarer with the passing of time. I was delivering a whisky course recently and the consensus amongst my students was that it has even got to the stage now where distillers are producing bottlings specifically aimed at the auction markets because they (the bottlers) realise that the price of their release is only going to go up.
Their limited editions often reach the auction market within 24 hours of being released by that distiller.
I even have a friend who has a considerable whisky collection – and he does not even drink whisky!
I have long argued that these people - because there are female collectors (who are every bit as obsessive as the male) - should be forced to throw a party and open all of these bottles so that you and I, dear reader, can taste these gems of the whisky maker’s art.
It would be far more natural and sensible if these collections consisted of empty bottles.
My connection with whisky started before I was born; my grandparents on both sides enjoyed their drams and in most cases, what they drank at that time would have been blended whiskies.
However, my maternal grandfather was in his element in the early 20th century, when, as a bank manager, he was posted to take over the branch in Dufftown. Many of his customers would have been distillery owners and, at that time, much of the industry in Speyside was in financial difficulty following the collapse of a major blending company in 1898.
As his customers were distillery owners, at that time, he would have drunk mostly single malts, and this was at a time when the blending companies were growing exponentially and most of the UK’s drinking population had only had the experience of blends.
My parents were both whisky drinkers and copious amounts of blended whiskies were drunk in our home with me consuming my fair share of these from the moment I turned 18. At this time also, Blended Scotch Whisky was the norm with the number of single malts available in the bottle being countable on the fingers of one hand.
My own comprehension – and thus my obsession with whisky – started around 1976 when Dewar’s, for whom I worked at the time, released “Dewar’s Pure Malt”, a blended malt. It was the company’s ethos to train their staff in all aspects of the company’s business and tours of Aberfeldy distillery were arranged for all of the staff.
For reasons lost in the mists of time, I was unable to attend on my allotted day, so arranged a visit on my own some days later. I was fortunate to be taken around the distillery by the then manager, the great Ricky Robertson.
As I say above, I had enjoyed Blended Scotch Whisky for several years, but tasting Single Malt from a single cask with Ricky that day was a damascene event, I became a convert to Single Malt and my obsession had firmly established itself.
There were no new distillery openings in Scotland during the first half of the 20th century, the first being Tormore in 1956. Since 2011 there has been a veritable rash of openings of Scottish distilleries with a craft distilling sector establishing itself about five years ago. Now my obsession is being constantly fuelled by outside forces over which I have no control.
When it started 40 years ago, life was nice and simple, the number of distilleries was static and had been for the previous 20 years. Even worldwide, the distilling industry, apart from Canada, was fairly static and open. Now, I am having difficulty in keeping up to date with all of the distillery openings.
While they don’t all produce whisk(e)y, a great number of them do. Even were I to limit my interest to those who produce malt whisky, they remain a considerable number. Thus, I must be obsessed to do what I do.
This obsession resulted in my writing my first drinks article in 1986, winning the title “Master of Malt” in 1987 and having my first book published in 1989. It has taken me around the world on whisky-related business, meeting a huge variety of individuals, some of whom are far more seriously obsessed than I have ever been.
Much of it has been immensely enjoyable and has resulted in lifelong friendships which, due to the distances involved, are often conducted by e-mail nowadays.
The latest result of my obsession has been 'Whisky Obsessions', a wee book covering the world’s whiskies – well, as many of them as I could squeeze into its 144 pages. I apologise if your favourite isn’t there, tasting anything is a very subjective process and, as we all have unique palates, we all taste things differently.
The whiskies included in “Whisky Obsessions” are my choice, the ones that tick all the boxes for me. If you also enjoy these drams, well and good, our palates are similar.
Claude Monet stated, “Colour is my day-long obsession, joy and torment.” So there we have it: our obsessions give us joy and torment in equal measure, we have little control over these emotions, so you should just sit back with a glass of whisky and enjoy your obsession.
• John's new book Obsessions: whisky is available now from specialist retailers and online here.