A Russian drinks writer once told me a great story about Joseph Stalin. Apparently every year Winston Churchill and Stalin would swop Christmas gifts and Churchill, who knew a thing or two about whisky, would present the Soviet leader with a good Scottish single malt.
Stalin began to feel inadequate, concluding his gifts never matched the Scotch
Stalin began to feel inadequate, concluding that his gifts never matched the Scotch, so he summoned the person responsible for the food ministry and instructed him to move with his family to Siberia, and to spend his time there making a top quality Russian whisky to give to Churchill the following year. It is not recorded if the Russian was too terrified to try and explain to Stalin that such a feat was impossible, or that he tried to but Stalin simply wouldn’t listen, but the outcome was the same – the wretched man left for a relatively easy life given the war conditions but facing the prospect of failing in his task and a possible death sentence, such was Stalin’s fierce reputation.
But when the time came for him to deliver the whisky, no instruction came from Stalin, so the man kept quiet. He continued to live quietly with his family until the following year, and still nothing. And then events took a turn for the worst, Stalin got wrapped up in the war effort and the whisky idea was never mentioned again. The minister and his wife lived in relative comfort for the rest of their lives.
Because of its position as a status symbol whisky holds a strange but special place for dictators and totalitarians. Evil monsters such as Saddam Hussein and Margaret Thatcher had tastes for the finest Scotch, Spain’s whisky is linked to Franco’s desire to push Scotch away, and Hammer Head is a throwback to the old communist regimes of Czechoslovakia.
The story goes that in the late 1980s the Czechoslovakian government started producing whisky but when the wall came down and the old Eastern bloc fell like a pack of cards, the whisky was forgotten. Then, after 20 years, it was rediscovered and has now found its way to market.
And it has found a pretty wide market, with the backing of a dynamic marketing company. The name, the bottle, the modern labelling and the distribution all suggest a victory over substance. It was entered in to the World Whisky Masters without any prompting. I first tasted it in Spain and while many new world whiskies struggle to get any stock in to international markets, Hammer Head has found its way around the world.
And it’s hard not to be cynical. The story is almost too pat, too good to be true, and virtually impossible to verify. The taste of the whisky is odd, too. Twenty years in an oak cask? Really? It doesn’t taste it, and one whisky writer went as far as to say it tasted like it came out of cardboard.
That said, though, it won its Master by impressing a panel which I was chairing in a totally blind tasting. It was one of the only whiskies in the event which I hadn’t asked to enter, so none of us knew what it was and it won entirely on merit. It has an interesting, easy drinking and inoffensive taste, and it’s leading the charge for European whisky – all good reasons to support it.
And you know what? If the food minister had offered it up to Stalin as his next Christmas gift for Churchill, I suspect he’d have got away with it – though what Churchill would have thought is a different matter.