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Hellenic Malt Whisky Society, interviewing the one and only, Serge!

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Dear Members of HMWS and Whiskyforum.gr.
We are more than happy to present you Mr. Serge Valentin. It is our honor and pleasure to have Serge answering all our questions. In case you do not know Serge, .... simply visit whiskyfun page! Enjoy!
(P.S. The following interview is covered by all proprietary terms and conditions of whiskyforum.gr and HMWS).

Dear Serge,

On behalf of HMWS and whiskyforum.gr, I really need to say how thankful we all are, for having you answering our questions.

First, allow me to say that the trickiest and most difficult part was to find a question not already asked and answered and also to select the correct mood for the interview as I needed to keep both the professional mood and also to add a lighter approach, a whiskyfun approach.

HMWS 1. : So, please allow me to start from the “light” part and try to find a question not already asked, please tell us your feeling and opinion regarding the following image (I think you already have this), a t-shirt that belong to a whiskyforum member:



Serge: Well, I find it very flattering, but a little scary too ;-). Which makes me think, I need to show it to my wife and to my bankers!

HMWS 2. :In one of our interviews, Mr. Mark Reynier mentioned how important the first ingredient, how important barley is to whisky. Moreover he mentions “If stills influence the weight of spirit, then barley influences the flavour…One pundit says casks influence 40% of the whisky's flavour. This is lazy, this is poppycock. You do not fundamentally change the spirit's intrinsic flavours with wood, but you can mask it, like make-up.”

On the other hand, Mr. Robbie Hughes mentioned other key factors of making “the difference” are the way the distiller operates the distillery. I wish I could tell you that there is one silver bullet that would work for every distiller but there isn’t. That said, if you don’t use good quality casks to mature your whisky in then all of your earlier efforts could be in vain”.

What is the opinion of Serge about “what is the key attribute, influence of malt whisky taste, flavor and character”?


Serge: I tend to agree with my friend Mark, I’m sure he mentioned yeast as well, didn’t he? I think indeed barley and yeast create the flavours. The stills sort them out, letting some go through, and preventing others form doing so. In a way, the stills select the flavours that were created by the barley and the yeast (and fermentation time). Now you have your ‘primary’ flavours. And then you have two other major ingredients, the casks (not only wood, sometimes also wine or other spirits) and time. The cask bring the secondary flavours, so it’s a way of seasoning the distillate, and of filtering out some undesirable flavours, such as the feinty notes. Time brings the tertiary flavours, the most complex, the most interesting ones, but those are only evolutions of the primary and secondary ones, via oxidation and other chemical reactions.


HMWS 3. :Talking about what influence malt whisky, allow to rephrase the question and ask what influences whisky tasting and how would you describe the correct (if existing) tasting process?

Serge: There are very different kinds of tastings, depending on your aim. Selecting casks? Buying casks? Quality control? Assessing whiskies? Looking for flaws? Creating blends? What I’m trying to do is to take a photograph of a whisky, but since you can’t do that using a camera, I try to use words. Basically, all influences are bad, and it’s better to erase most of them. Distractions, smells, food, whatever. And then, I always compare the whiskies, first with popular references (benchmark whiskies), then with similar whiskies, so that the nuances come out. Say three middle-aged Laphroaigs, for example. I’m very bad at tasting one whisky just like that, without references, out of the blue. That’s even worse if you give scores. Comparison is reason in this case.


HMWS 4. :In “all things whisky” back in 2012 we find that “it’s always been a lame excuse for posting about another passion of mine: jazz and music in general. I know mixing topics is very bad on the Web but that never stopped me”. Let’s try to mix them and be creative. Have you found music into whisky and vice versa? If it was to describe your favorite malt without the whiskyfun way, but only using music terminology, how would that be?

Serge: Oh yes, you may find glissandos and andantes and even bright arias in whisky. In some way, I could use the name of a song for each and every whisky, but that would be a little pretentious, and I doubt many people would understand. But indeed, one recent Glen Garioch made me think of the Purple Lagoon by Frank Zappa, for example. Or was it a Clynelish? Originally, I wanted to pair the whiskies with some recommended music, but that’s too much work! We started to build such a list with Dave Broom, but we stopped after ten or twenty whiskies.

HMWS 5. :In your introduction in dramming.com we find that “Another hobby of his is hitting the Alsatian roads with one of his motorcycles”. If this was your ever last ride on your bike, what would be the one malt to take with you?

Serge: I wouldn’t drink at all, and enjoy the ride to the max! The more you drink, the slower you get, unless you’re totally insane.

HMWS 6. :Japan vs other countries’ whisky. What is the story behind Japan’s success, awards and expensive bottlings?

Serge: I think it’s a fad, the former next best thing. Basically, most Japanese whiskies are good Scotch made elsewhere. They are also very good at PR, and know how to send their best whiskies to award operators. The penny pinchers from up there over Hadrian’s wall won’t do that, they rather think ‘volume’, and try to get medals for their core ranges, of which they have loads and loads. Doesn’t seem to work too well these days.

HMWS 7. :What is your opinion regarding the “transparency debate” and the campaign by Compass Box that is aimed at allowing Scotch whisky companies to reveal more about what is in their bottles.

Serge: I’m all for it, but I doubt it will happen. Because the big boys don’t want to lose their main excuse, which is ‘we can’t tell because we’re not allowed to’. Very convenient. As soon as full disclosure becomes possible, they’ll get assaulted that people needing the truth.


“Common Questions” Section:

HMWS 1. :You started your whisky appreciation with Glenlivet during a distillery visit back in 1970, if I am not mistaken. Some 46 years and around 12.000 drams and 120 different distilleries. Should this be possible, please share with us which are, as per your opinion, the most important things that changed since 1970 in the whisky industry.

Serge: That was rather 1979. But to me, the main changes have been that malts became brands just like blends, with all the consequences. Less ‘craft’, more ‘marketing’. As for technical changes, many had happened even before 1979. More efficient yeast (distiller’s vs. brewer’s), centralized malting plants vs. own maltings, often floor maltings. High-yield barleys. Stainless steel vs. wood (washbacks). Bourbon wood vs. sherry, whether refill or not. Faster fermentation. Steam coil heating of the stills. Hyper-active wood. And so on…

HMWS 2. :Likewise, please share with us the things that you consider unchanged in the whisky industry?

Serge: Well, some are going back to older techniques, especially the newer cats. While a handful never quite changed, such as Springbank. Other than that, actually, everything has changed, gradually. I agree, exactly the opposite of what they’re all claiming to.

HMWS 3. :Regarding whisky distilleries, which are your favorite whisky distilleries? Moreover, how would you describe a distillery that you think / consider a great distillery?

Serge: Among the active ones, Clynelish, Highland Park, Lagavulin, Springbank. Many others come close. Now all distilleries are great! And all can make brilliant whisky. Clynelish and Springbank may be the ones that have the most idiosyncratic styles, that anyone can recognize. That’s very ‘grand cru’ in my book. Others make more ‘middle-o-the-road’ styles.

HMWS 4. :Going one level down, how would you describe a great whisky, a whisky that based on your notes, ranks for 95 and more? Moreover, can you really tell the difference between 97 and 98 or this can also be the effect of other attributes, e.g. your mood during the tasting, whether this was the first dram to taste or the last in the row, etc

Serge: There is a clear difference between a 97 and a 98 if you taste both whiskies alongside each other. If you don’t, that’s more theoretical. Now, during a tasting, I’ve got all glasses in front of me, so there isn’t a ‘first’ one and a ‘last one’. I’m going back and forth and in fact, I’m trying them all at the same time. But a great whisky, to me, is a whisky that 1. I like and 2. Is complex. Complexity makes all the difference.

HMWS 5. :New distilleries in Scotland. Would that be Gartbreck (in general something traditional and rather small) or we are heading to new Roseisle distilleries to cover whisky demand?

Serge: Small ones. I think the times of capacity expansion are over, for a good while, since the warehouses are now shock full of 3 to 9 years old malt whisky. Beyond, a few highly successful brands, I think things are plateauing.

HMWS 6. :Following up on the previous question, is NAS the new standard?

Serge: I doubt it. As soon as the aforementioned stocks reach the age of ten, you’ll see age statements again. Remember what the Americans say, “no ten, no deal”. It’s already happening here and there.

HMWS 7. :Whisky prices today. Are they justified? Let alone the “Manager’s Choice” series from Diageo which is the perfect example, we also see large price fluctuation between similar expressions from different distilleries/companies. Take for instance the Glenfarclas 40y.o. and the just released Old Pulteney 40y.o. … I’m thinking that we have reached a point where collectors rule and a lot of companies set prices however they like, not taking into account the actual production cost.

Serge: Indeed. Many people don’t buy to drink anymore, so the value of the ‘whisky bottle’ item is often not related to what it actually is anymore. These bottles are not only drinks, they’re also speculative instruments, so the logic behind them is very different. But I suspect there’s a lot of whisky at private people’s, in Asia for example. It’s never good when a product is not ‘destroyed’ by the consumer. What’s sure is that there are currently three kinds of stocks, at the distillers, in the network (retailers, distributors), and at the consumers’. The latter has become huge, and frankly scary. We buy much more than we can destroy, no good!

HMWS 8. :Apart from whisky we find a really impressive list of Rum, Armagnacs, Cognacs, Calvados, Mezcals, Tequila, various other spirits including wine that you tasted and registered notes. If it was to create an overall top10 list, would any of these overcome whisky and be part of this list? If not, could you please explain why? Would this a matter of personal taste of you find whisky more mature, complete, whatever… that makes this spirit your preferred one?

Serge: If we’re talking malt whisky, it’s still my preferred category, because the average quality remains very high. Bad ones remain the exception, while with other categories, such as rum, that would rather be the opposite in my book. Same with tequila, perhaps less so with French brandies, which are more or less between both categories. So while I could select ten rums that would beat most malt whiskies, I don’t think they’re representative. In any case, should I come up with a top ten, perhaps I could have around 8 malts and 2 cognacs, something like that.

Dear Serge,

On behalf of HMWS and whiskyforum.gr we would like to thank you for your time and effort allocated to reply to all our questions and we hope to see you in Greece and have the opportunity to have you among us in a whisky tasting event.

Sincerely Yours,

Ioannis Mallios.

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Mallios δεν παίζεσαι αγόρι μου. Αν δούλευες σε περιοδικό θα έβγαζες και φράγκα!

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Νομίζω η καλύτερη συνέντευξη μέχρι τώρα στο φόρουμ μας. Σύντομη αλλά και περιεκτική, χαλαρή αλλά και ουσιώδης, με ερωτήματα πάνω σε σύγχρονα ζητήματα του χώρου αλλά και έτερα με διαχρονικό περιεχόμενο.

Thanks Mallios, thanks Serge.

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Απο το μακρυνο Dubai σας ευχαριστω! Προσπαθω να δινω κατι διαφορετικο! Εχουμε ακομα μια confirmed interview και ελπιζω και η αλλη να συμφωνηθει συντομα. Μου λειπετε ρε @@@λοπαιδα! Θα ειμαι Ελλαδα μετα τις 10 Μαιου. Πολλα φιλια!!!@

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Μαεστρος της ερευνας και διαχειρισης των ερωτησεων,η Οπρα Γουινφρι του φορουμ με αλλο χρωμα και φυλο.

Συνεκτικες και ζουμερες οι "αποριες",χειρουργικες, συμπαγεις και εμπεριστατωμενες οι αποκρισεις,περιμενα τον Σεργιο παιχνιδιαρη και πιο ιλαροπνευματωδη...

Ευχαριστουμε με χερια ψηλα τον Mallios για την χαρα της συνεντευξης και την αδιακοπη προσπαθεια!!!

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Μπράβο Μαλλιος ?

Και αυτό που μου έμεινε:

 "The penny pinchers from up there over Hadrian’s wall won’t do that, they rather think ‘volume’, and try to get medals for their core ranges, of which they have loads and loads. Doesn’t seem to work too well these days."

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Ο φατσοβιβλιορουφιάνος ενημερώνει ότι ο αγαπητός Σέργιος έχει γενέθλια σήμερα. Μια συνέντευξη που αξίζει να διαβαστεί, πολλά πράγματα από όσα λέει αποδείχτηκαν προφητικά (θα έλεγα απλά αποτέλεσμα γνώσης του Σέργιου). Να μας ζήσει ο αγαπητός Σέργιος και με το καλό να φτάσει τα 20.000 malts.

Για όσα μέλη είναι νέα στον χώρο ή για κάποιον λόγο δεν το γνωρίζουν, http://www.whiskyfun.com/  το blog του Serge Valentin με κριτικές για πάνω από 15.000 whisk(eys)

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