Monday, June 29, 2015

Bruichladdich, The Laddie Ten

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 10 years old, 46%, $60

In the spring of 2012 Remy Cointreau made an offer for the Bruichladdich distillery that it’s Board couldn’t refuse. Mark Reynier, the London wine merchant who had orchestrated the previous purchase of the distillery, was actually the only board member to vote against the deal. The group of investors he assembled late in 2000 had put up £6.5 million to save the distillery. It’s no surprise that eleven and a half years later the majority of the Board voted in favor of the £58 million offer from the French company. The only immediate change that the new owners made was to relieve Reynier of his duty as Managing Director, replacing him with his business partner Simon Coughlin who had been acting as Operations Director.

In a recent post I covered the history of Bruichladdich from 1881 up to the 2012 sale. Now I’m going to take a look at how things have changed since that point and at what might have been if Reynier had remained at the helm.

The sale of Bruichladdich to Remy was officially announced July 23rd, 2012. Other than the immediate departure of Mark Reynier nothing seemed to change right off the bat. Then, in February of 2013, the distillery announced that it would move to double production.

Finally, in September of 2013 we started to see some major changes in the Bruichladdich lineup. There seemed to be a shift towards more emphasis on Scottish barley versus Islay barley bottlings (for all three ranges: unpeated Bruichladdich, heavily peated Port Charlotte and super heavily peated Octomore), all of which were non-age stated. Some of the other offerings, such as Rocks, went away permanently.

About a month before the official announcement of the distillery sale, Bruichladdich announced that starting in August 2012 it would expand into the Travel Retail market, something it had mostly avoided up to that point. This news went largely unnoticed, but clearly foreshadowed the sale to Remy, who had extensive experience with Travel Retail. When the bigger changes started to take place late in 2013, most of the remaining limited production Bruichladdich bottlings became Travel Retail exclusives. These included The Organic Scottish Barley, the vintage dated Bere Barley bottlings, the cask strength releases of Port Charlotte, and the Cask Evolution bottlings of Octomore. Looking at their website today, the only specialty bottling that seems to be available outside of Travel Retail is the 23 year old Bruichladdich Black Art 4, 1990.

But the most significant change and the one that really stoked the ire of a lot of Bruichladdich fans was the discontinuation of the flagship 10 year old. A big part of the problem was how the situation was handled. There was no official announcement; it just mysteriously disappeared from the website. Rumors started that it had been eliminated from the lineup, while others claimed that it was going on allocation with a price increase. By the spring of 2014 it was clear that The Laddie Ten would be a distillery-only bottling, if it was available at all. This was kind of a big deal. The release of the new 10 year old in 2011 was a huge milestone for the team that had saved Bruichladdich. It not only represented their survival and the fact that they were now thriving, it was seen as the bottling that now defined the house style. After years of so many wildly varying limited releases, some wondered if the distillery had lost its way; the new flagship bottling had been the answer to those concerns.

While many are bemoaning the changes that are happening under Remy ownership, some degree of change was inevitable even if the distillery had continued under the old regime. Bruichladdich’s lineup had already tightened with fewer one-off bottlings in the years leading up to the sale and that trend was likely to continue. The company’s terroir driven philosophy also seems to have stayed intact with the change of ownership. After convincing Islay farmers to grow malting barley in 2004 for the first time since World War 1, they now have at least 10 different farms participating. We’ve only seen releases from three of them so far, but with Islay Barley still looking like an important part of the core lineup I think we’ll see that bottling rotate through various farms and vintages.

In addition to Remy being well established in the Travel Retail network, they also have a massive worldwide distribution network and very deep pockets. Under its previous owners Bruichladdich certainly would have continued to grow and expand production, but at a much slower pace. Remy had the resources to quickly double production and the distribution infrastructure to get that whisky to market. But even with a range of mostly non-age stated bottlings, it’s still going to take about six years for the production increase to show up as a supply increase. The Laddie Ten bottling was clearly a victim of this situation.

Interestingly, Mark Reynier expressed his disdain for the constraints of age statements in a post-sale interview that was published in The New Yorker in early 2013. But at the same time I think he understood the importance of age statements from the consumer’s perspective and recognized what the flagship 10 year old represented for the Bruichladdich brand. It would not have been discontinued under the old ownership, but they also weren’t capable of growing quickly enough to necessitate such a move.

If the distillery had not been sold, the changes made to their lineup wouldn’t have been too different from what we have seen over the last three years, in my opinion. I do doubt, however, that any of the bottlings would have been relegated to Travel Retail exclusivity. A recent post on the Bruichladdich website talks about experiments started two years ago (a year after the sale), where malt from different regions of mainland Scotland had been separated into 100 ton batches that were distilled individually. It certainly seems that Bruichladdich is continuing on the same trajectory that was established by its previous owners.

Mark Reynier’s end at Bruichladdich was abrupt. He had a vision and an endgame that went through 2014. At that point he planned to potentially sell the distillery but hoped they could float shares on a secondary exchange to raise capital and provide liquidity to the original shareholders, or be in a position to provide dividends to those shareholders and stick it out as a true independent. We’ll never know what the future of Bruichladdich would have looked like under the latter two situations, but I don’t think the difference from what we see today would be as great as others seem to think.

It’s also hard to say what the longer term future will look like for Bruichladdich. I’d like to think that The Laddie Ten will eventually make a return. Perhaps stocks are even being laid down with a view to someday producing older age stated bottlings. What we see from Bruichladdich 10 to 20 years from now may very well depend on how strong demand is as the whisky made after the doubling of production comes to age.

The Laddie Ten:
The nose has a rich maltiness with many secondary aromas contributing to its beautiful complexity. Gentle floral and grassy notes are intertwined with a coastal contribution of pebbles and sea spray as well as a very subtle hint of peat smoke. On the palate the malty backdrop mingles nicely with the bourbon barrel influence, which adds vanilla and toasted oak to the mix. Delicate notes of beach grass and minerality add complexity. It gracefully moves into the finish where a touch of spice and barely noticeable whisper of peat smoke keep everything in balance. There is a bit of heat on the mid palate that takes a few sips to get acclimatized to, but it’s still quite lovely overall.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Laphroaig Dinner

My critique of Montreal’s whisky bars is a project that’s been on the back burner for longer than I care to admit. I’d occasionally travel north, drink a bunch of whisky, take notes and then fail to follow through. I finally got serious about this undertaking about six months ago and decided to visit each of the relevant establishments for one drink, in a single whirlwind tour, and finally put pen to paper. Well, things don’t always work out as planned and that one trip turned into three for a variety of reasons. With my research compiled the writing can commence, but first a little prelude.

About three years ago I was poking around online and came across an announcement for a Glenfarclas tasting at one of Montreal’s big three whisky bars. Being a big fan of the ‘farclas I should have jumped on that opportunity, but I hesitated and the event was sold out by the time I decided I should attend. While bellied up to said bar this winter, coincidentally sipping on a vintage Glenfarclas, I asked the bartender how to get on the mailing list for their tasting events. She hastily wrote the email address of the manager on my receipt and said a quick note to him would do the trick.

When the announcement for a Laphroaig dinner hit my inbox a few weeks ago I was curious but a little hesitant. Between my personal collection, a tasting at the distillery three years ago and the Laphroaig event I went to in NH last summer, I’ve already tasted through much of what the distillery has to offer. But this dinner was being hosted by the distillery manager. For someone like me, the opportunity to have a conversation with the man who knows better than anyone else how the whisky is made is priceless. Even if I had previously tasted everything poured that night, it would still be well worth the four hour round trip drive and overnight stay. Besides, I still had a few more places to visit to tie up the bigger research project. My hesitation lasted less than 24 hours.

After checking in to my hotel and working through the language barrier to figure out Montreal’s subway system, I arrived at the Burgundy Lion just a few minutes before the 6:00 start time. I was greeted by a well-made Laphroaig Quarter Cask Old Fashioned and told to refrain from drinking the four tasting samples that had been laid out before me until the appropriate time. Other drinks were of course available for purchase.

While this was a whisky dinner, I’d say that the four courses were accompaniments rather than pairings. Of course, it’s pretty tough to pair food with heavily peated single malts, especially four times in a row. But nothing clashed, and that’s all that really matters. As I suspected, each of the four offerings were Laphroaig variants that I was pretty familiar with: Triple Wood, 10 year, 2014 Cairdeas and 18 year. Much to my delight, they brought out one more bottle at the end; the 2009 Cairdeas. Where the first four were roughly 1 ounce pours, the last one was a single bottle split among 50 people, so probably a bit less than ½ an ounce per person.

Events like this aren’t really an ideal setting for taking detailed tasting notes and I’ve previously written pretty extensively about three of the first four tasted, so I’m going to focus more on the information I was able to glean through the evening before posting my thoughts on the 2009 Cairdeas.

I should note that John Campbell first started at Laphroaig in 1994 and also gained experience with brief stints at a handful of other distilleries. He was promoted to distillery manager in 2006 and is the first Ileach to hold that position since Laphroaig was established in 1815. John is a fairly humble and unassuming character who possesses the dry sense of humor that Islay is known for. Discussing the details of whisky production with him was an absolute pleasure and our conversations made me long for a return visit to Islay.

We started off with Laphroaig Triple Wood. One might assume that this is aged in a combination of bourbon barrels and a few different types of sherry casks (as Auchentoshan Three Wood is) or perhaps bourbon barrels, sherry casks and port pipes, since the label on the bottle only mentions that it is “triple matured for peat, oak and subtle sweetness”. But the packaging tube does mention ex-bourbon barrels, quarter casks and European oak.

As John described how this whisky is produced, he told us that it spends 5 to 11 years in first fill bourbon barrels before being transferred to quarter casks for 7 months (these are 125 liter casks made from cut down 200 liter bourbon barrels, being ¼ the size of a 500 liter butt), and finally spending another two years in Oloroso Sherry seasoned hogsheads. What struck me was that the first two thirds of the aging regiment sounded exactly the same as the production of Laphroaig Quarter Cask. When I asked John about this he did confirm that Triple Wood is essentially Quarter Cask with a further two year finishing period in sherry casks. From the standpoint of managing production levels this is a pretty brilliant strategy. Not only does the wide age range used and lack of an age statement give them some flexibility in how much Quarter Cask they can bottle at any given time, they can also shift inventory between Quarter Cask and Triple Wood close to when the whisky reaches maturity rather than hoping they get it right when the spirit is first entered into the casks.

Another interesting bit of information came up about Laphroaig’s traditional floor maltings. The barley that they malt in-house makes up 15% of the total that is used. I’ve been told (at the distillery I believe) that the local peat that is used to kiln their floor malted barley is composed primarily of lichens and mosses which grew in an environment heavy with sea spray, and this is part of what gives Laphroaig its strong iodine-like medicinal flavors. According to John, of the seven distilleries in Scotland that maintain traditional floor maltings, only Laphroaig cold smokes the drying malt, and that is part of what produces their unique range of flavors. Of course I needed to know more and asked if there was some special equipment or particular kiln design required for cold smoking. John told me that it was simply a matter of maintaining a lower temperature peat fire, which I assume makes the process more time intensive.

Next we moved on the 10 year. John mentioned that this is aged exclusively in first-fill Maker’s Mark barrels and accounts for 70% of Laphroaig’s case sales. At the tasting I went to last summer that figure was 75% and Quarter Cask represented 15%; I assume that some of the 10 year’s sales volume was diverted to Laphroaig Select, which was first introduced about a year ago. John also noted that the 10 year historically contained small amounts of slightly older whisky (I think he said 11 to 12 years old) to round out the flavor profile, but since production can barely match demand these days, pretty much every barrel that goes into the 10 year is aged only slightly more than 10 years.

This is where the technical information got really interesting for me. The conversation moved on to the topic of consistency and how important it is for a flagship whisky like Laphroaig 10 year. In order to keep the flavor profile from deviating, batches of 250 barrels are vatted together and given 3 to 4 days to mingle. Then 80% of it is bottled and 20% is left behind to mix with the next batch.

Someone in the group asked about the process of tasting all of the barrels that will go into a batch to ensure that they will combine into the desired flavor profile. Surprisingly, John informed us that this is a procedure that has largely been done away with. They’ve gotten to the point that they know what sort of different aging effects will happen in the various warehouses. Between good quality control of the barrels before they are filled, along with a few quality checks of the whisky in the early stages of aging, they are able to create the 10 year essentially from a formula of barrel locations from the different warehouses.

Next we moved on to the 2014 Cairdeas, which is aged for 8 years in bourbon barrels plus an additional 16 months in Amontillado Sherry casks, resulting in a Laphroaig that is especially peaty, spicy (clove and nutmeg), salty and dry, with a bit of fruit and nuttiness.

John mentioned the stills here, noting that the spirit stills are not all the same size and mixing the whisky from them builds complexity. I did a bit of follow up research and learned that the original set of stills was supplemented with two more in 1923 and a third pair was added in 1968/1969. The three wash stills have a capacity of 10,400 liters each and the three spirit stills each hold 4700 liters. A fourth spirit still with a capacity of 9400 liters was added in 1974.

I had recently read about the soon to be released 2015 Cairdeas, which is a whisky made solely from barley malted on Laphroaig’s traditional floor maltings. This is something I’m really excited about and getting my hands on a bottle is a top priority. I took the opportunity to ask John about this and if laying down 100% floor malted whisky was something they were doing annually. He told me that it was a project he had initiated just after becoming the distillery manager in February of 2006 (making it a little over 9 years old), but that it was a one time thing and they haven’t made more since. Then he wistfully declared that he really should push for more experiments like that.

The conversation perfectly segued into me asking if the distillate from the different sized spirit stills was always mixed together before going into barrels. He confirmed that fact and I suggested that it would be interesting to separate some of it and see how the resulting whiskies differed. With an inspired look in his eye, he agreed that it would be interesting (I’ll gladly take credit for this if we see “Big Still / Little Still” Cairdeas releases ten years from now).

By this point we had moved on to dessert and the elegant, well-rounded 18 year. Curious about the current goings on of Islay, I asked about the status of Gartbreck Farm, the proposed ninth distillery on Islay which was announced in September of 2013 and the start of which seems to have been in a perpetual state of delay. John said he believed they had just recently, finally, broken ground on the project. Then he started to talk about the other proposed new distillery which is planned to be located between Laphroaig and the village of Port Ellen. Apparently news of this potential tenth Islay distillery had only broken a week before, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that I was unaware of it.

With the event winding down, we were treated to the last whisky; 2009 Cairdeas. Laphroaig has been bottling special edition whiskies for the annual Feis Ile festival since 2003. In 2007 they made enough of the festival bottling to also offer it as an online exclusive to members of the Friends of Laphroaig. They decided to make this a tradition, and added the Cairdeas (Gaelic for “friendship”) title to all of the festival bottlings from 2008. Production levels of the Cairdeas releases were later increased further and they have been made more widely available since at least 2012.

2009 Cairdeas is a cask strength 12 year old, aged exclusively in first fill Maker’s Mark barrels and bottled at 57.5% abv. Dry, woody smoke is prominent on the nose. It is big but clean on the palate, showing minimal oak influence and unadulterated peat smoke. It’s dry and fiery, but able to maintain its composure. This is quintessential Laphroaig and really shows what the 10 year is holding back.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Famous Grouse vs. Black Grouse vs. Snow Grouse

Snow Grouse: blended grain Scotch, 40%, $25
Famous Grouse: blended Scotch, 40%, $22
Black Grouse: blended Scotch, 40%, $26

I generally lack any interest whatsoever in buying bottles of whisky when I’m under the duress of an acute hangover. Returning from an adventure in Montreal recently, I stopped at the Duty Free store for no reason other than to use the rest room before crossing the border. When confronted with shelves of whisky bottles though, some of which might not be available elsewhere, I can’t help but look.

While there were a few interesting oddities and tempting Travel Retail exclusives, I was actually enticed by something rather mundane; a trio of Famous Grouse miniatures. Included was their eponymous flagship offering as well as its more heavily peated variant and their blended grain whisky. For just $10 (the prices listed above are typical for 750 ml), how could I pass them up?

The Famous Grouse blend was introduced in 1896 by a long established Perth grocer who had been blending whisky since 1860. Originally called the Grouse Brand blend, it was renamed to the Famous Grouse in 1905. The company was sold to Highland Distillers in 1970 and by 1980 the Famous Grouse had become the best selling whisky in Scotland. Distribution outside of the UK started in the 1980’s, leading to further growth. Today the brand is owned by the Edrington Group, which also has five single malt distilleries in its portfolio (Macallan, Highland Park, Glenrothes, Glenturret and Tamdhu).

Looking at worldwide annual case sales for 2013, which is the last year info is available for, the Famous Grouse is the sixth best selling Scotch, at 3.3 million cases. It leads Dewar’s, which is at 3.0 million and follows J&B (3.8 mil), William Grant’s (4.7 mil), Chivas Regal (4.9 mil), Ballantine’s (5.9 mil) and Johnnie Walker (20.1 mil). Just to add some perspective, the best selling North American whiskey is Jack Daniel’s at 11.5 million cases, and the best selling single malts are Glenfiddich at 1.1 million and Glenlivet at 1.0 million. Remember, these are worldwide figures, and different brands have their strengths in different locations. If you’re thinking, “Ballantine’s? I don’t know a single person who drinks Ballantine’s!”, keep in mind that a lot of their sales growth could be in paces like Asia, South America, India, etc.

I’m going to start off with the Snow Grouse. This is a blended grain Scotch, meaning it is a mix of grain whiskies from more than one distillery. While this style, as well as single grain Scotch, is even rarer than blended malt Scotch, it is not completely unheard of. Scottish grain whisky is usually made from either corn or wheat and distilled in a column still to a very high alcohol level, often approaching the (less than) 94.8% abv limit that defines whisky in Scotland, as well as in the rest of the EU.

In spite of the light style that is produced by being highly distilled, there are some respectable single grain and blended grain Scotches out there. They have usually been aged slowly for a very long time in casks which were previously used quite heavily, taking away their ability to over oak the gentle spirit. That’s not what this is. The label advises to “serve from the freezer”, something which I refuse to do on principal. The colder a beverage is served, the more its flavors are masked. I’m guessing that this whisky is relatively young.

I wouldn’t call the aromas off-putting, but they are unusual. There are some pleasant grain notes, but it’s also a bit metallic and industrial. The aromatics seem oddly hollow at times. It is surprisingly full-bodied (I’ve read that it becomes downright viscous when fully chilled). Like the nose, I find the flavors on the palate to be a strange mix of good and bad. Some pleasant vanilla and spice driven oak notes stand out. Those are sharply contrasted by some chemical-like hints and unbalanced fruit (maybe banana). Warming spice notes on the finish are overshadowed by its youthful, immature character. I was actually expecting much worse based on some of the reviews I had scanned. Chilling it probably would be an improvement, but I’m of the school of thought that if you have to chill a spirit to make it palatable, you should probably just drink something else.

On to the flagship Famous Grouse:
The aromas are subtle and complex, a bit of earthiness, a whiff of peat and slightly sweet maltiness are all well-integrated. It’s fairly assertive on the palate (for a blend), with mild peat notes tying everything together nicely. It also shows good complexity, with the aromas from the nose reflecting on the palate. The finish is full and lengthy. Comparing it to some know quantities, I’d say that it lacks the elegance of Chivas Regal, but still stands head and shoulders above Dewar’s.

And finally, the more heavily peated Black Grouse:
The increased peat is obvious on the nose, but with more of a damp-leaves and clay-like earthiness quality. The aromatic profile is quite different than that of the Famous Grouse, but equally complex. A bit of malty sweetness shows up-front before the phenolic character comes to the fore. This is no Islay single malt, but the healthy dose of peat does grow and expand as it moves through the mid palate and into the early finish. The peat carries the finish quite a bit further here, though it does seem to go slightly out of balance at the very end, with a grassy undertone left to stand alone as the smoke fades. While quite drinkable on its own, this shouldn’t be overlooked by the progenitors of craft cocktails.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Ardbeg, Blasda vs. 10 year

Blasda: single malt Scotch, Islay, 40%, $105 (typical 750 ml price, 50 ml pictured)
10 year: single malt Scotch, Islay, 46%, $47 (typical 750 ml price, 50 ml pictured)

I recently proclaimed that I would begin writing shorter, less research-intensive pieces in order to post more frequently. And then I failed miserably at that resolution with my last effort. Let’s try this again. I also mentioned in that most recent post that it was time to open the last of the bottles that I had brought back from Scotland. That statement was actually in reference to the Bruichladdich bottles covered therein as well as a set of miniatures I picked up at Ardbeg featuring the 10 year and their Blasda bottling.

Before the modern resurgence of Islay as Scotland’s most highly regarded distilling region, Ardbeg, much like Bruichladdich, nearly went the way of Port Ellen which was permanently decommissioned in 1983. Thankfully Ardbeg was rescued from the edge of extinction, as was Bruichladdich, but there were some differences in the circumstances of their respective reprieves.

Ardbeg is located on the island’s south shore, near the village of Port Ellen and along the same stretch of road as its neighbors Lagavulin and Laphroaig, which are 1 mile and 2 miles away, respectively. The distillery was officially licensed in 1815, but it may have been operating as an illicit farm distillery as far back as 1794. In spite of being bought and sold a few times, Ardbeg remained in private ownership for almost 160 years, and with the exception of 1932-1935 appears to have produced whisky continuously during that period. In 1973 the distillery was purchased jointly by Hiram Walker and DCL, with Hiram Walker taking full control in 1977. Four years later, in March 1981, the distillery was mothballed.

In 1987 Hiram Walker was taken over by Allied Lyons (which became Allied Domecq after a 1994 merger, and was then acquired by Pernod Ricard in 2005). Ardbeg was restarted by Allied in 1989, but production was limited to just two months each year. Allied also owned Laphroaig at the time and with that brand being promoted heavily as a single malt, Ardbeg was viewed as an alternate source of peated malt whisky that could satisfy the demands of the blenders. This period of production was only to last seven years though, with Allied closing the distillery and putting it up for sale in 1996.

Fortunately, true salvation for Ardbeg came quickly in the form of a sale (for £7 million) to Glenmorangie PLC early in 1997 and the distillery was operating again after a production gap that lasted just over a year. Glenmorangie (which was acquired by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy in 2004) had the resources to invest in much needed upgrades at the distillery. The aging stock of whisky in the warehouses was Ardbeg’s biggest asset to its new owner, just as the case would be at Bruichladdich when it was sold four years later. In both instances there were some incredible casks from the 1960’s and 1970’s. But where Bruichladdich was restarted after being out of production for seven and a half years (late 93 through mid 01) and had a six year gap in existing stocks (78 through 83), Ardbeg was restarted with a one year gap (mid 96 through mid 97) preceded by seven years of limited production (mid 89 through mid 96) and eight years of non-production before that (mid 81 through mid 89).

Ardbeg had been bottled as a single malt at least as far back as the mid 1960’s and the 10 year old seems to have been the most commonly available age but I’ve seen examples of 12 year and 15 year olds that pre-date 1997. When the new owners bought the place, there was nothing in the warehouses that was 10 years old, but they did have different styles of whisky produced during different time periods.

The whisky from the 60’s and early 70’s was produced in the old school way. Ardbeg’s floor maltings were still in use back then and the malt was dried with local peat composed of older layers of the organic material dug from deep in the ground. This produced spirit with a heavy, oily quality and a tarry, espresso like character. Ardbeg began buying malted barley from Port Ellen Maltings (which would have been dried with younger peat) as early as 1975, but they transitioned away from their floor malting rather slowly, using them for the last time in 1980. The spirit distilled from 89 to 96 was still quite fruity, but was entered into heavily used casks, some being filled for the fourth or fifth time. This is often seen as a detriment, but it can result in lovely whiskies at much older ages. Since production was restarted in 1997, more aggressive yeast strains and shorter fermentation times have changed the character of the whisky. Fresh bourbon barrels are now commonly employed and the peat level has been increased slightly.

Everything that was bottled for the first three years under the new regime was either a vintage dated expression from the 70’s, or the highly regarded 17 year old that came from distillate produced in 1980 and 1981. The 17 year was actually bottled until late 2004, and even though the whisky in the bottle became progressively older, the age statement remained the same to at least give the appearance of consistency. A 10 year old was released in 2000, becoming Ardbeg’s new flagship bottling. In 2008, the 10 year transitioned from Allied produced spirit to that made under Glenmorangie’s ownership. Other than the 17 year, which was bottled at 40% abv, Ardbeg’s new leaders had also move away from chill filtering.

When Ardbeg’s Old Kiln Café and new visitor center opened in 1998, they helped make the distillery an important destination for whisky tourists. In 2000 the Ardbeg Committee was officially formed. This fan club, which is similar to the Friends of Laphroaig, gives members exclusive access to very limited release bottlings. The more popular ones often go on to become regular distillery releases. While most of the vintage releases from the 1970’s had dried up by 2004, Ardbeg successfully transitioned to a series of non age-stated, cask strength bottlings that have proven to be quite popular. Expressions such as Uigeadail, Airigh Nam Beist and Corryvreckan have taken Ardbeg from strength to strength.

While Ardbeg is known as a peat monster, there have been some variations in, and even exceptions to, its peat level. As I mentioned above, the peat character was different in the floor malting days. Even though the peat level was high, it was probably inconsistent as that’s part of the nature of floor malting. From 1979 through 1996 the malt bought from Port Ellen was peated to 42 ppm. When production restarted in 1997, the peat level was raised to 55 ppm. A few batches of lightly peated (no ppm numbers available) Ardbeg were distilled in 1980 and 1981. They were bottled 24 years later under the Kildalton title, at cask strength. I had the pleasure of tasting one of them when visiting the distillery. Occasional runs of lightly peated spirit have been produced in the modern era as well; I’ve read that they were done in the late 90’s, 2002 and 2005. I suspect that pattern has continued. Appearantly they took the peat levels in the other direction too, as evidenced by the 2009 release of Supernova which was peated to at least 100 ppm.

In 2008 Ardbeg released the lightly peated Blasda. It was a limited release of several thousand bottles that was supposed to be available for about three years, but it seems to have lasted a bit longer. This was a fairly polarizing whisky; some people really liked it but others were unhappy about the fact that it was chill-filtered and bottled at 40%, on top of being non age-stated. It was somewhat expensive, but I think they hoped it would be viewed as a cheaper version of Kildalton (It was selling for $75 at the distillery in 2012, but the price listed above was the average going rate in the U.S. as far as I can tell).

As a non age-stated whisky, I’m guessing that it’s a vatting of a few different vintages. It could be a vatting of different peat levels as well. And this is where things get a little confusing. The ppm numbers (parts per million phenols) usually refer to the malted barley. Once in a while a producer will refer to the ppm level of the new make spirit. After mashing, fermenting and distilling, the ppm number typically drops by more than 50%. As the whisky ages that number comes down even more each year and on rare occasion the ppm figure is given for the finished product. Unfortunately, these numbers are often stated without reference to which part of the process they come from.

If you look at the page on Ardbeg’s website that describes Blasda, they note that it is at 8 ppm, compared to the usual 24 ppm. Wait! I thought most of their malt was peated to 55 ppm? Checking a trusted reference I see that Ardbeg’s new make spirit has a peat level of 24 – 26 ppm (and it was 16 – 17 ppm when the malt was peated to 42 ppm). That would indicate that the malt used for Blasda was peated to 18 ppm, at least on average. But I also came across a review of Blasda stating that 8 ppm was the peat level of the whisky in the bottle and that the malt was peated to 25 ppm. That review also had a comment from someone who had worked at the distillery and said that the lightly peated whisky distilled at Ardbeg in 2005 had been made from malt peated to 10 ppm.

Clearly, the actual peating level of Blasda is a very debatable topic. I should just see what it tastes like:

The nose is clean and bright, moderately peaty and shows grassy and malty notes. The aromas seem to be drier in nature than I expected. It is medium bodied. While there’s a honeyed character up front that balances the smokiness, it fades quickly leaving the peat notes to stand on their own. The phenolic character isn’t too intense, but stands out as it is more dominant than any other flavors present at the moment. In this regard, I would liken it to a toned down Caol Ila. A somewhat youngish malt quality appears on the mid palate. Then, late on the finish, fiery spice notes start to build up, adding complexity to the peat that is now reminiscent of the embers of a long neglected campfire.

It’s an interesting expression of Ardbeg, but it still pales in comparison to the Kildalton. This is one that I didn’t really need more than 50 ml of. For where it was priced, non chill-filtered and at least 46% abv would have been more appropriate, as well as some detailed technical information about its composition. Hopefully they are letting more of this lightly peated spirit age much longer. Let’s see how the 10 year compares:

The nose is surprising less expressive than the Blasda. The peat is there though (maybe with a pine-like quality). The aromas seem dense and compacted, like they’re waiting to open up and attack. It is medium bodied, with seemingly little to show right up front aside from a touch of sweetness. But the smoky intensity starts to build quickly. I wouldn’t call it oily, but there is a resinous, slightly bitter edge to the phenolic character. The peatiness expands as each layer builds on top of the last. Smoke and char, dry grass and wet leaves added to the fire. Its complexity is all very peat driven. The finish is long and evolving.

The character of Ardbeg may have changed since the 1970’s distillate (perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to sample it some day), but the modern incarnation is quite impressive in its own right. Where the lack of background flavors in the Blasda seemed to let the peat character stand out, with the 10 year it’s more like the peat has enough intensity to easily overshadow the other flavors that are certainly there.

Well, so much for writing more concise blog posts. At least I managed to put up four of them in a calendar month for the first time in a long time.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Bruichladdich, Laddie Classic vs. Sherry Classic

Laddie Classic: single malt Scotch, Islay, 46%, $69 (typical 750ml price, 200ml pictured)
Sherry Classic: single malt Scotch, Islay, 46%, $60 (typical 750ml price, 200ml pictured)

Just a few weeks more than three years ago I returned from my epic inaugural journey to Scotland. It’s high time that I crack the seals on the last of the many bottles that accompanied me home from that adventure.

One minor regret of my visit to Islay was that I didn’t take an official tour of Bruichladdich. Unfortunately the timing just didn’t work out for a tour there in between the morning tasting tour at Bunnahabhain and getting to Kilchoman in time to have lunch before the café closed and catching their last tour of the day. But we were able to stop by Bruichladdich and have a pleasant visit at the gift shop where a few tasting samples were provided. I also took a brief, self-guided walking tour of the grounds which gave me the opportunity to see the huge variety of casks they had waiting to be filled; from new charred oak to barrels from a few different American distilleries to casks bearing the hallowed names of Bordeaux’s finest producers.

Unbeknownst to all but a few people at that time, the owners of Bruichladdich were in the midst of serious negotiations for the sale of the distillery. The end of an era was fast approaching. This post will take a look at the history of Bruichladdich up to the summer of 2012 and in the not-too-distant future I’ll follow up with another post examining the changes that have occurred under the new ownership.

Bruichladdich was built on the western shore of Islay’s Loch Indaal in 1881, directly across the water from Bowmore, by a trio of brothers. The Harvey brothers were the third generation of a distilling family, but their father had passed away in1862 when they boys were aged 15, 14 and 5. Their inheritance included an interest in the family’s two Glasgow distilleries, Yoker and Dundas Hills, which was managed for them by two of their uncles.

The brothers decided that with a third distillery they would be able to break into the blending business and establish their own brands (Dundas Hills was a malt distillery and Yoker was primarily a grain distillery, but also produced some malt whisky). With the three brothers and two of their uncles as major investors, along with about a dozen minor investors, they were able to raise the capital to build Bruichladdich as a modern distillery using concrete and cavity-wall construction, both cutting-edge at the time. This was also Islay’s first purpose built distillery, all of the others on the island up to that point had grown out of agricultural operations and started off as barns and other farm buildings that were gradually expanded and added on to.

The arrangement to have Yoker and Dundas Hills (which were set up as separate companies) operate in concert with Bruichladdich and for there to be a blending and bottling business that would use the whisky of all three was only agreed upon verbally by the investors. Unfortunately, before the new distillery was even complete, there was a falling out between the family members, pitting two of the brothers against the third and one of the uncles. With no legally binding agreement in writing, the blending and bottling business never materialized, and the three distilleries were operated independently of each other. The Distiller’s Company Limited (the predecessor to Diageo) controlled the market and pricing for Islay single malt, which was all sold to blenders at the time. The new and struggling Bruichladdich couldn’t sell their whisky for a high enough price to be profitable was perpetually flirting with bankruptcy. When they tried to bottle their own whisky to boost profits, DCL ruthlessly threatened to make sure they got no further orders from blenders.

The distillery ceased operations in 1907, lacking the capital to continue. They were able to sell much of the whisky that was in the warehouses to a Glasgow broker for a reduced rate in 1913. That put them on better financial ground, but they weren’t able to resume distilling until after WWI, in 1919. Bruichladdich had a good run in the early 1920’s, but sales dropped off again in 1926 and production was stopped from 1929 through 1935. Finally, in 1937, the Harvey family was persuaded to sell the distillery.

Over the next three decades Bruichladdich changed hands several times, and was silent during WWII, from 1940 to 1945. When new owners, AB Grant, took over in 1960 they doubled capacity by switching from using the traditional floor maltings to buying commercially malted barley. This change coincided with Bruichladdich switching from heavily peated malt to unpeated malt. Some people like to speculate that Bruichladdich was never heavily peated and they look to the description of the distillery in Alfred Barnard’s 1886 book as evidence. He noted that the malt was dried only with peat in his description of every other Islay distillery at the time. But rather than stating that the malt was dried with coke (refined coal) as he did for other distilleries on the mainland, he simply neglected to mention how it was dried. A little research will quickly confirm that Bruichladdich was indeed heavily peated from 1881 to 1960 (or possibly 1961).

In 1968 the distillery was sold to Invergordon, who expanded production in 1975 by adding a second set of stills. After a management buyout from its parent company in 1988, Invergordon was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1990. Whyte & Mackay, which was bought by Jim Beam Brands in 1990, began a hostile takeover bid for Invergordon in 1991. They finally succeeded after two years, taking control of the company in October of 1993. Whyte & Mackay, already owning a handful of malt distilleries, viewed Bruichladdich as surplus and she was mothballed in December of 1993.

The seeds of Bruichladdich’s salvation had been planted years earlier. Mark Reynier, a London wine merchant, had long been enamored with the single malts of Bruichladdich, but received a rather chilly reception upon attempting to visit the distillery while it was closed in 1989. Being a tenacious sort, he resolved to buy the distillery and save it. His annual inquiries to the parent company were met with the same negative response year after year. But that changed in 2000; as Beam Brands was in the lead up to selling off Whyte & Mackay in a management buyout the next year, they opened up to the idea of selling Bruichladdich separately before that deal went down.

Reynier was able to amass 50 investors who pulled together £6.5 million, securing ownership of the defunct distillery on December 19, 2000. He built a solid team, recruiting Jim McEwan to run the distillery. McEwan had been with Bowmore for 38 years, having started there in 1963 as an apprentice cooper at the age of 15. Even though he was only two years from retirement and a pension, McEwan had actually waxed poetic about his dream to restart Bruichladdich back in 1997. He probably didn’t take long to decide to accept the job offer from Mark Reynier. Many of the former members of the production staff came back, and with their intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the distillery, she was back up and running on the 29th of May, 2001.

With the distillery having been silent for seven and a half years, that meant that supplies of Bruichladdich’s flagship 10 year old would start to dry up just two and a half years after the new owners took over and it wouldn’t be seen again until mid 2011. Reynier and his team would have to make the most of what was still resting in the warehouses when they bought the place if they were going to make it through the first ten years. In addition to the gap in distilling, not all production years were represented in the stocks that came with the place. They had whisky from 1965, 1966, 1968, 1970, 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1977, then nothing from 1978 through 1983. Much of the whisky they had from 1984 through 1993 had been entered into rather low quality casks as it had been destined for the blending hall. There was also two weeks worth of production (peated to 28 ppm) from 1998 that was carried out by the team from Jura distillery.

But the new Bruichladdich was full of energy and imagination. A steady stream of new releases and one-off bottlings brought them plenty of coverage on blogs and in magazine reviews, not to mention expanding their shelf presence in the retail setting. Their aquamarine tins and labels, inspired by the distillery’s view of Loch Indaal on a sunny day, were eye-catching. Mark Reynier used his wine industry connections to procure casks from some of France’s most reputable wine producers. They were used to rejuvenate the whisky that had been in those tired old hogsheads since the early 1990’s. Having the names of Bordeaux’s most prestigious regions on the label along with 16 year age statements was a huge selling point.

There were hits and there were misses. The Legacy series showcased the finest of the oldest stocks on hand. The Links series paid homage to Scotland’s love of golf. Of course there were also some younger whiskies, like Rocks and Waves, which were sold a bit before their time behind a smokescreen of marketing. Some criticized the distillery for putting out too many different bottlings and losing their identity in the process. They did tighten up the selection as they moved in on the 10 year mark, and focused more on the fact that they were using either Scottish barley or Islay barley exclusively and able to showcase the terroir of the distillery.

In spite of some tough times along the way, including three cash calls to their investors, the new Bruichladdich made it through the first decade and released their new flagship 10 year old in mid 2011. Upon visiting the distillery shop less than a year later, I was confronted by many of those special releases that had gotten them there.

I’ll be perfectly honest though, I chose the two that I did primarily because they were available in 200 ml bottles and it was going to be much easier to fit them in my luggage.

Laddie Classic:
This bottling seems to have been available for a stretch of about four years, roughly 2009 – 2013. The description on the distillery website only states that it is a multi-vintage vatting, aged exclusively in bourbon barrels. I came across a few reports online that it was a vatting whiskies in the 5-7 year old and 18-20 year old ranges. That would straddle the years of non-production, and it’s supported by the description on the tin: A union of spirits distilled over the last decades. It is labeled as Edition_01. There was never an Edition_02, but perhaps that was represented by the Classic Laddie, Scottish Barley, which followed.
The dark golden amber color is richer than I expected. On the nose it shows density and freshness at the same time. Slightly soapy floral notes and malty aromas show first, with tree fruit, heather, honey and nuttiness lurking in the background. It’s fairly full bodied on the palate and has good complexity. Clover honey and moderate floral notes are balanced by vanilla, oak and subtle citrus. Some nice spice notes come to the fore early on the finish, but a youthful aspect really shows through on the later finish, with young, green-malt notes lingering on the back of the tongue as everything else fades away. I don’t really like where this one goes at the very end, but overall it’s kind of grown on me through the course of a few successive tastings.

Sherry Classic:
Again, we have a non-age stated Bruichladdich that is described as multi-vintage, but this one has been finished in sherry casks after starting in bourbon barrels. It also seems to have appeared in 2009, and it too is no longer available. The distillery description mentions that its average age is 14 years, which would suggest that it’s a vatting of pre and post-closure whiskies. I came across one review stating that the finishing period was 18 months. Between the description on Bruichladdich’s website and the information on the label, I was able to learn that the sherry casks were a mix of Fino, Palo Cortado and Manzanilla casks which were sourced from Bodegas Fernando de Castilla, and had held their “antique” single-solera sherries.
The color is actually about the same as the Laddie Classic, maybe just a touch darker. The nose is even more expressive on this one; dense and chewy with layers of stewed and baked fruits building on top of the malty backdrop and accented by mulling spices and a hint of brine. It’s at least as full bodied as its cohort. On the palate it shows more depth, with an array of dark, dry sherry fruits added to the mix. Similar spice notes emerge as it moves into the finish. While the lingering sherry fruit seems to cover any youthful character, I’m also picking up some subtle tropical fruit at the end. It could show better integration, but it has more depth than the Laddie Classic while being absent of its immature ending.

When I think back to that day at the distillery shop, amongst the many bottles on display, one caught my eye. It was a 30-something year old Springbank from Murray McDavid that had been distilled in the late 1960’s. It was priced out of my reach at about £400 ($650), but I knew that was actually a very reasonable price. Springbank aficionados have an almost mythical regard for bottlings distilled in that decade, and releases from the distillery older than 18 years had become very rare (the retail price on 21 year Springbank had recently jumped from $200 to $600).

I knew there was some sort of tie between Bruichladdich and Murray McDavid but I couldn’t recall the details (Mark Reynier had actually founded the independent bottler back in 1996), so asked one of the girls who was working in the shop. She hesitated a bit, choosing her words carefully and giving kind of a vague answer. I don’t quite remember how she phrased it, but it was something along the lines of saying that there was a connection, but the situation was changing. While that statement seemed curious, I didn’t give it too much thought at the time.

Three months later, when it was officially announced that Remy Cointreau had acquired Bruichladdich, I thought “ah, she must have known about the impending sale and assumed that Mark Reynier would be keeping Murray McDavid” (the independent bottler business actually ended up being included in the sale). While researching this post however, I learned that while the deal was being negotiated, the management team had floated the cover story that they were in talks to sell Murray McDavid so they could focus more on the core business. That was a pretty brilliant move to keep a lid on things until they were ready to let the world know.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Glenmorangie, Lasanta vs. Quinta Ruban

Lasanta: single malt Scotch, Highlands, Sherry cask finish, 46%, $56
Quinta Ruban: single malt Scotch, Highlands, Port cask finish, 46%, $57

Before I wrote my last post, which covered Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or, I briefly considered comparing all three of the Extra Matured Glenmorangies together. But then I remembered that I’ve tasted them together before, and the Nectar D’Or clashed quite badly with the other two. I’ve experienced this phenomenon before, most notably with Crown Royal Cask No. 16 and Crown Royal Reserve. For the sake of giving them all a fair review, and in order to avoid torturing my palate, I decided to split the group into two posts.

In the Nectar D’Or review, I noted that when comparing it to Glenmorangie’s Original 10 year, its Sauternes cask finish had been “thoroughly transformative”. In retrospect this really shouldn’t have been too surprising. By design, Glenmorangie is made from a relatively light and delicate distillate. The shape of the stills is a big part of the reason for that.

As the liquid turns to vapor in the base of the still it is faced with an arduous journey before it reaches the condenser (or worm tub) where it is reverts back to its liquid state. Some of the heavier, less volatile components of the vapor don’t make it to that point, re-condensing along the way and falling back into the still’s pot. Still designs that encourage this effect will produce a lighter, gentler spirit.

What are those still characteristics that make it harder for the vapors to escape the pot? Tall and / or narrow necks, reflux bowls (a bulbous bulge at the base of the neck) and a lyne arm (the part of the still that connects the neck to the condenser) that is horizontal or angled upward. The stills at Glenmorangie are the tallest in Scotland, measuring 26’ 3” in total, with necks that are 16’ 10.25” tall. They also feature pronounced reflux bowls, necks that are quite narrow from that point up, and near horizontal lyne arms.

Starting with a relatively delicate distillate, it stands to reason that the influence that the casks contribute during aging should be more pronounced. Coincidentally, the biggest enhancements to the quality and consistency of single malt Scotch over the past 15 to 20 years have come through improved cask management. Glenmorangie has been leading the charge on this front, with a program that allows them to have precise control of the properties of the barrels that come to them after being used by the American whiskey industry.

Glenmorangie actually owns an area of forest in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, where they selectively harvest white oak trees from north facing slopes (thus receiving less sunlight which results in slow-growth trees with a tighter grain pattern). The staves cut from these trees are then air dried for two years before they are coopered into barrels which are heavily charred and lightly toasted. The barrels are then filled with American whiskey (some are used for Jack Daniel’s, others for an unnamed Bourbon). After seasoning for four years, the barrels are emptied and shipped off to Scotland to be filled with Glenmorangie distillate.

As I’ve discussed many times before, the decline in popularity of Sherry over the last 30 or 40 years has resulted in a very limited supply of quality Sherry casks being available to the Scotch industry. While a few holdouts still age their single malt exclusively in ex-Sherry oak, it is much more common for it to be used during a finishing period after an initial maturation in bourbon barrels. Over the last 10 to 20 years Port casks have also emerged as an alternative to Sherry casks. While a few examples of single malts aged solely in Port casks can be found, they are usually limited production special releases, and it’s much more common to see Port finished Scotches.

Since Glenmorangie Lasanta and Quinta Ruban employ these two finishes and keep all of the other variables constant, they are perfect for a comparison of the two styles.

The Lasanta is aged for 12 years, the last two of which are spent in a combination of Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez casks. Oloroso sherry ranges from dry to sweet, PX is a very sweet style made from late-harvested grapes that are dried in the sun after being picked. The Lasanta is golden amber in color. The nose is full and malty with complex dark berry fruit notes. The aromas carry a bit of sweetness, but none of the nutty oxidized notes that typify the drier styles of Sherry. It’s fairly rich and expressive on the palate. There’s a lot of complexity riding on the malty backdrop; stewed fruits, subtle grassiness, a hint of nuttiness and maybe even a bit of minerality. It shows a graceful evolution of flavor with cocoa powder and mulling spices coming to the fore as it smoothly transitions into the lengthy, warming and dry finish.

The Quinta Ruban is also aged for 12 years, the last two of which are spent in ruby Port pipes. Ruby port is the least expensive and most commonly produced style, which is noted for being fruit forward and dark in color. Pipes are long casks with heavily tapered ends. Their volume ranges from 418 to 630 liters, but 550 liters is the most common size. At first glance the Quinta Ruban appears to be similar in color to the Lasanta, but a few shades darker. Examining it with backlighting reveals a distinctive pinkish hue. The nose is a little more subtle here. Malty aromas still provide the backbone, but the fruit is less pronounced. I’m also getting some clay-like earthiness. It comes across with some weight on the palate, but is certainly less assertive than the Lasanta. As with the nose, the malty backdrop plays host to subtle fruit notes. It also shows a hint of slightly vegetal grassiness. A reverberating spiciness builds as it moves into the finish. The Quinta Ruban is dry from front to back and showcases a more elegant, though less expressive style than the Lasanta.

As with the Nectar D’Or, both of these finishes add quite a bit to the 10 year Original that they start off as.

While recently hosting a private Scotch class / tasting, I explained that most of the names of the single malts were actually anglicized derivations of Gaelic words which describe the grounds of the distilleries. My last minute addition of the translations for the whiskies we sampled ended up generating an unexpectedly enthusiastic level of interest. In light of that experience I’m going to start incorporating that information into my posts. Glenmorangie (it should rhyme with orange-ey if pronounced correctly) means “valley of tranquility”. Lasanta translates to “warmth and passion”. Quinta is actually a Portuguese word for “estate”, pertaining to the places where the grapes are grown. Ruban is Gaelic for “ruby”, referring to the color taken on by the whisky.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Glenmorangie, Nectar D'Or

stats: single malt Scotch, Highlands, 46%, $69

Over the last four years my blog posts have followed a trend of becoming longer, more in-depth and more research intensive. While I enjoy the process of thoroughly exploring a subject and the unexpected conclusions that sometimes result from it, I don’t like the fact that my posts have become somewhat few and far between. I’ve decided to make an effort to add some brief, simple posts to the mix in order to consistently post at least three or four times a month, if not more.

Today I’m going to take a look at Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or. There are quite a few bottlings available from Glenmorangie but the most widely available ones are the Original (their 10 year age-stated, flagship single malt) and three different wine cask finished versions of the Original. Actually, at Glenmorangie they prefer the term Extra Matured to cask finished.

Those three are the Nectar D’Or (Sauternes casks), the Quinta Ruban (Ruby Port pipes) and the Lasanta (Oloroso and PX Sherry casks). The Original is aged for 10 years in a mix of first and second fill bourbon barrels, and is bottle at 43% abv with chill filtering. The other three start off the same way, but after 10 years they are transferred to their respective wine casks for two more years of maturation. They are then bottled without chill filtration at 46% abv and with 12 year age statements. Interestingly, until two or three years ago these Extra Matured Glenmorangie bottlings were not age-stated. Any whisk(e)y gaining an age statement these days is a fairly rare occurrence.

Wine cask finishing has become quite popular in the single malt Scotch world over the last decade. This is quite understandable as distillers try to increase market share by expanding their ranges with more diverse offerings while bourbon barrels have proliferated as the most available and affordable maturation option. When wine cask finishing is employed, the most common former content of those casks is red wine (be it fortified or traditional). Perhaps finishing single malt Scotch in white wine casks is akin to playing with fire. My only experience that I can recall with such a beast, an independently bottled Springbank finished in Hermitage Blanc casks, was somewhat disappointing.

But Sauternes seems to be the exception to that rule. A quick Google search turned up numerous examples of Sauternes finished single malts: a non-age stated Tullibardine, 8 year olds from Hazelburn and the Isle of Arran, a 12 year and a 14 year from Glendronach, and 16 year olds from BenRiach and Bruichladdich. Most of those seem to fall into the typical six month to two year finishing time frame, but the Hazelburn spent a full three years in Sauternes casks.

The iconic sweet wine of Bordeaux is made from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes which have had their sugars concentrated after being partially raisined by the Botrytis cinerea fungus, also known as noble rot. These luscious wines are noted for their incredible balance and great complexity, and are characterized by notes of apricot, honey and peaches, along with a bit of nuttiness.

Surprisingly, the Nectar D’Or is almost identical in color to the Sherry cask finished Lasanta. They each have a golden amber hue, while the Original 10 year has a distinctly lighter pale-straw color. Sauternes is a wine that darkens considerably as it ages in the bottle over several decades. Unlike most white wines, it ferments in casks for up to a year and then sees another two to three years of aging in oak casks. At that point it is bottled, usually with a rich golden color. I’m still a little mystified by the fact that the Lasanta isn’t darker than the Nectar D’Or though.

My tasting notes for the Glenmorngie’s flagship Original can be found in this post comparing it to Glenmorangie Finealta. Fortunately, I still have some on hand to compare to the Nectar D’Or.

The nose is rich, but has a freshness that keeps it from seeming too heavy. It displays aromas of malt and raw honey, with a hint of sweet corn. On the palate it is full bodied and full flavored. Like Sauternes itself, this whisky shows a great deal of complexity and balance. The honeyed malt character is front and center, but the complex fruit notes that exemplify the house style are still evident. A bit of vanilla contributes even more depth. As it moves into the mid-palate, a subtle nuttiness and slightly astringent perfume-like quality help to keep everything in harmony. The intensity of the flavors gracefully fades as it smoothly transitions into the moderately long but delicate finish, which is highlighted by warming spice notes.

Going back to the Original, it is lighter and more ethereal. It also seems somewhat grassy in comparison; a trait that I hadn’t really noticed before. While I find each to be quite enjoyable, the Sauternes cask finish has proven to be thoroughly transformative. I suspect that the slightly higher proof and lack of chill filtration that the Nectar D’Or enjoys helps in that respect as well.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Cleveland Bourbon and MGPI samples

I often seek out various whiskeys to taste for comparative purposes. Sometimes though, the candidates for interesting comparisons present themselves to me rather unexpectedly. I recently had the coincidental opportunity to taste a couple of whiskeys that are oddly related.

First I was presented with a couple of bourbons from a company called Cleveland. Then about a week later a few young samples of MGPI whiskey (a bourbon and a rye) came into my possession. I was unfamiliar with Cleveland, a company that uses an accelerated aging process, but apparently they’ve been around for almost two years. MGPI is the former Seagram’s distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana which has gone through a series of owners since the collapse of Seagram’s in 2000. Since 2011 it has been part of MGPI, a Kansas based food and alcohol producer (confusingly, the distillery is MGP Indiana and the company that owns it is MGP Ingredients).

Accelerated aging of whiskey isn’t an entirely new concept, but recent years have seen a lot of technological development on this front. Efforts to speed up the aging process date back to at least 1886, when a steam heating system was installed in the warehouses of the OFC distillery (now known as Buffalo Trace). In the modern era, new entrants to the whiskey industry have taken advantage of warm climate regions such as Texas and the use of barrels as small as five gallons to get their products to market more quickly. Meanwhile, others have been exploring more advanced techniques to age whiskey rapidly.

Terressentia, which was formed in 2006, is one of those companies. Their TerrePURE technology relies on ultrasonic energy and forced oxygenation. They buy young bulk whiskey, apply their process to it and sell it non-distiller producers who bottle and market it. They weren’t a well known company until they bought the old Charles Medley distillery in Owensboro about a year ago, claiming it would be up and running within 18 months. It hadn’t produced whiskey since 1992, but its last owner, CL Financial, did a lot of restoration work on the plant between buying it late in 2007 and running into a liquidity crisis at the start of 2009. Terressentia also stated that in addition to using their rapid aging process, they would also age some of the whiskey traditionally.

As far as I can tell, Terressentia doesn’t own any whiskey brands. They buy young bulk whiskey, rapidly age it and sell it to companies that deal with their own marketing and distribution. Cleveland Whiskey, on the other hand, buys six month old whiskey, applies their rapid aging technology to it, then bottle and market it all themselves. Their process sounds similar Terressentia’s, but slightly different. At Cleveland the whiskey is dumped into tanks and the barrels are broken down, cut up and added to the liquid. Then a week-long process that involves agitation, rapid pressure changes and oxygen infusion is applied to the whiskey.

Of the two, Terressentia seems much more secretive. I’ve never heard of a whiskey company claiming to be one of their customers or mentioning the use of their process on the label. On top of that, if you look at the Terressentia website it appears that having their clients sign a non-disclosure agreement is a top priority. Whether you love or hate the concept of rapid aging, at least Cleveland owns the fact that the technology is an integral part of their product. They clearly state what they do right on the label and also note that the whiskey is distilled in Indiana. This is a legal requirement for any whiskey that is distilled in a state other than the one in which it is bottled, but the law is flouted by many non-distiller producers.

The only slight issue they have is their age statement. I got the six month figure from older versions of their label posted online, but the statement on the labels of the bottles that I saw said “aged less than two years”, which is essentially meaningless and not an age statement format allowed by government regulations. Unfortunately, for quite some time the TTB has been approving labels that don’t conform to the regulations regarding age statements and even misinforming producers as to when age statements are required. This issue was so pervasive that last year I even mistakenly stated that American whiskies younger than four years old and without the word “straight” on the label didn’t need an age statement. As Chuck Cowdery has reported here and here, it looks like the TTB is finally going to start properly enforcing its own rules on age statements. This is going to make it a little harder for companies that want to hide the fact that they are using rapid aging technology.

So, what is the connection between Cleveland and MGPI? As I said above, the Cleveland label notes that the whiskey is distilled in Indiana. MGPI is the only whisky distillery in Indiana, so that is clearly the source of Cleveland’s distillate. MGPI does produce five different bourbon recipes, but the “21% Rye” is the most common (and most available) one, so it’s very likely that it is the one Cleveland is using. This will essentially give me a “before and after” comparison of the 6 month old MGPI bourbon that Cleveland applies their aging process to.

There’s also another interesting, although ultimately unimportant, connection here. CL Financial, which is the Trinidad based company that owns Angostura bitters, owned the MGPI distillery from 2007 to 2011 (it was known as LDI during that time) in addition to owning the Charles Medley distillery from 2007 to 2014.

Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to taste these side by side, and I really didn’t get a chance to put together proper tasting notes for the Cleveland whiskeys, just general impressions. 

There are two versions of Cleveland that I tasted, The Eighty-Seven, which is 87 proof, and the Black Reserve, which is 100 proof. Both of them retail in the $30-plus-or-minus range. The Black Reserve is much darker in color, but I haven’t seen any definitive statements regarding any technical differences between the two other than proof. The back label of the Black Reserve does mention that the stave segments used in the rapid aging treatment are heat processed. That statement does not appear on the label of The Eighty-Seven, so perhaps that is part of the difference.

As for taste, The Eighty-Seven really comes across as being quite youthful. It’s kind of rough around the edges and not well-integrated. It tastes like whiskey, just not particularly good whiskey. The Black Reserve is by far a much better whiskey. It does away with the excess heat, shows some bold flavors and is fairly well composed. The only real criticism here is that the oak flavors are over attenuated. What do I mean by that? I guess the best analogy would be when one person is singing louder than the rest of the choir. They may be singing very well, just obviously much louder than everyone else in the group.

The bottle of Black Reserve that I tasted was labeled Batch 008. I’ve seen some older reviews with pictures of bottles labeled batch 003. Those reviews were so horrendous that I can only assume that they were terribly biased or that Cleveland has made some pretty big improvements to the product over the past year or two.

Could you find a better bottle of bourbon than The Black Reserve for $10 less? Sure, but you could probably also find a worse bottle for $10 more. I would be very curious to see what kind of results could be obtained by applying this process to bourbon with more age on it, maybe something four years old or so.

You’ll notice the MGPI sample bottles say Ultra Pure rather than MGPI. This has nothing to do with Terressentia’s TerrePURE process. Ultra Pure is the broker that you have to go through to get MGPI whiskey if you are buying in quantities smaller than a tanker truck. I won’t post any pricing because bulk pricing of unaged whiskey is all that is available and that’s not really relevant here. The samples are at 117 proof (bourbon) and 118 proof (rye).

I’ll start with the bourbon. The nose is bright and volatile (but not overtly hot) with strong corn aromatics and a touch of vanilla. It has good flavor development (although at this point in its life it is fairly corn-forward with a mild oak influence) and it transitions pretty smoothly from the start to the finish. There’s some serious heat on the finish and the flavors taste pretty youthful at the very end, but that’s to be expected for any six month old barrel proof bourbon sample. I tasted them more than two weeks apart, but I think I might prefer this over Cleveland’s The Eighty-Seven.

MGPI’s 95% Rye is far and away their most popular product. It first appeared in Templeton Rye and some of the High West ryes, but now it is also used for Bulleit Rye and George Dickel Rye as well as many other smaller brands. The nose has a bit of vanilla sweetness along with the characteristic rye spice notes which have a very floral manifestation here. Again, nice flavor development and smooth transitions, with some grain notes joining the floral spice and mild oak flavors. The finish doesn’t seem quite as youthful as that of the bourbon sample. Perhaps this is due to the absence of corn in the mash bill, which keeps it from having the robust corn flavors associated with youthful bourbon.

The unprecedented length of whiskey’s current boom period is starting to have some serious effects on the industry. The spot market (where excess aged whiskey is sold by distillers for whatever the going rate is) has pretty much dried up. If a company that buys whiskey from distillers to resell it didn’t start buying young or unaged whiskey under contract several years ago, they won’t have aged whiskey for several years to come. If you want to start buying barrels of whiskey from MGPI today and not sell any of it until it is five years old, you’re looking at an investment of nearly $100,000 if you purchase the minimum amount once a year. And that’s just for the barreled whiskey and warehousing. Taxes, bottling, marketing and distribution costs are all in addition to that figure. It’s not much easier if you are a new distiller; as I mentioned in another post, we’re in the midst of a very real barrel shortage. Independent Stave, far and away the biggest source for new barrels in the industry, has had current customers on allocation and a freeze on new orders for well over a year now.

Considering the current state of the industry, the appeal, even necessity of rapid aging is quite understandable. Terressentia may be secretive, but it seems like a pretty big company; they have the resources to buy and restore a defunct distillery. I suspect that there are many products on the shelf that go through Terressentia’s process unbeknownst to consumers. I’ll be honest, the 100 proof Cleveland was better than expected, and I think it’s safe to say that these rapid aging processes will be improved upon as time marches on.

Many bloggers and whiskey discussion forum pundits are currently dismissing this technology in a wholesale manner. While I’m very much a traditionalist when it comes to whiskey production, I’m also a student of history. I can’t help but think of the way that companies like Polaroid and Kodak basically drove themselves into bankruptcy by failing to recognize the importance of and embrace new technologies related to the imaging industry.

There are three paths that the big U.S. whiskey distillers can take here. They can ignore the new technology, possibly at their own peril. They can try to fight it, which would likely involve modifying the labeling requirements and legal definitions for various types of American whiskey. These companies are certainly big enough to have the resources to fund the serious lobbing effort that would be needed to push such a legislative change. Or they could embrace the technology and use it to their advantage.

It will be very interesting to see which direction the big players in the industry take, and whether they act in unity or if the issue divides them.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Old Forester, Signature

stats: Kentucky straight bourbon, 50%, $25

I covered quite a bit of information regarding the Brown-Forman Corporation and their Old Forester brand over the course of three recent posts: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, Old Forester 86 proof and Woodford Reserve. I’m going to taste the 100 proof version of Old Forester today, but first a quick summary with a few additional points and then a brief tangent.

I noted that Old Forester and Early Times have both been made in the same Brown-Forman owned distillery in Shively since 1979. They were also both made in the same distillery in Louisville from 1933 to 1940. From 1940 to 1979, Early Times was made in Shively and Old Forester was made in Louisville. There are some important differences between the two whiskeys though.

The first is their mash bills: Old Forester is 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% malted barley, while Early Times is 79% corn, 11% rye and 10% malted barley. Additionally, the two whiskeys are fermented with different yeast strains. Looking at their respective labels, you might also notice that Old Forester is bourbon and Early Times is not. In 1985 Early Times, at least what they bottle to sell domestically, went from being straight bourbon to being Kentucky whiskey. That change in designation was the result of some (about 20%) of the whiskey being aged in used barrels.

The last difference is the stills. When production was stopped in Louisville in 1979 the still from that facility was moved to Shively and set up next to the existing still there. They are column stills of notably different diameter. Old Forester is distilled on the smaller diameter one that was moved there from Louisville and Early Times is distilled on the larger diameter one that dates to 1955 when the Shively distillery was modernized and expanded.

And that brings me to an interesting point. In the fall of 2014 Brown-Forman announced that they would be building a new Old Forester distillery in downtown Louisville (not on the same site as the original, but less than two miles away), which should be operational by the fall of 2016. The company has stated that the new distillery will be capable of producing 100,000 cases of Old Forester per year. That is slightly less than what they sold in 2014. But production of Woodford Reserve was at 300,000 cases for the same year, and with at least 50% of the whiskey in Woodford Reserve coming from the smaller diameter still at the Shively distillery, clearly both recipes (Old Forester and Early Times) will continue to be made there even after the new distillery is functional. I’m quite curious to see if they build a replica of the smaller diameter still for the new distillery, or if they go with an entirely new still design.

While American whiskey producers have been much more restrained with price increases for most of the past decade than their Scottish counterparts, the effects of supply and demand have finally caught up and resulted in some big price jumps for American Whiskey over the last couple of years. Looking back at my Old Forester Birthday Bourbon post, you’ll see that the price of that bottling went from $40 in 2008 to $60 in 2014. A 50% increase over 6 years is a pretty dramatic rise. While the recent price jumps can be shocking, one really must put them in the context of just how undervalued American whiskey had become by the start of the recent boom.

I decided to do just that, by comparing the price of Old Forester Signature (current and from 2006) with the historical pricing of Old Forester Bonded (essentially the equivalent product, Brown-Forman changed it from Bonded to Signature around 2002 or 2003). Thanks to the key-word searchable newspaper archive on Google that dates back as far as the 1800’s, and the fact that retail whiskey prices used to be listed in newspaper ads, I was able to get a pretty good sampling of prices from the post World War II boom years.

There are a few variables to keep in mind. Bonded whiskey has a minimum age requirement of four years. Coming out of Prohibition most of the whiskey being sold as Bonded was more expensive, older product distilled prior to 1920. There was a notable price drop of Bonded whiskeys in 1938 when the distillate produced after Prohibition finally reached four years of age.

The Federal Excise Tax on distilled spirits is assessed on a proof gallon (a gallon at 50% abv) basis. The rate has changed in somewhat of a random manor over the last 75 years, creating a variable in pricing. It went from $4 to $6 in 1942, to $9 in 1944, to $10.50 in 1951, to $12.50 in 1985, and finally to its current rate of $13.50 in 1991.

During World War II the U.S. Government’s Office of Price Administration (OPA) kept prices artificially low for many products that were in short supply during the war. Those price controls ended for whiskey in October of 1946 and quick price jumps followed. At that time bonded whiskey was expected to remain a scarce commodity for several years as distillers had produced nothing but industrial alcohol for the last two years of the war, and that was followed by a period of limited production due to grain shortages.

Pricing could also vary quite a bit from one location to another around the country at any given time, as it does today. I found a good example of this from1952 in the Eugene Register-Guard which stated that the Oregon price for Old Forester Bonded was $6.30 while the national average was $6.58. It also noted a high of $7.39 in South Dakota and a low of $5.29 in the District of Columbia.

With all that being said, I’m just going to list dates and prices with inflation corrected prices in parentheses, and follow that with tasting notes. All prices are for 1/5 gallon bottles (also referred to as 4/5 of a quart), which is essentially the same size as a modern 750 ml bottle. There is one noted exception where I included a price for a quart bottle of 86 proof Old Forester, assuming that the size and proof differences cancelled each other out.

2015 -  $25.00 ($25.00)
2006 -  $18.00 ($20.96)
1978 -  $  7.95 ($28.62) *86 proof, quart bottle*
1972 -  $  8.09 ($45.43)
1961 -  $  6.95 ($54.56)
1959 -  $  5.98 ($48.23)
1957 -  $  6.49 ($54.21)
1955 -  $  5.60 ($49.05)
1953 -  $  5.99 ($52.66)
1952 -  $  6.58 ($58.28)
1947 -  $  6.98 ($73.47)
1947 -  $  6.74 ($70.94)

Even under OPA price controls in 1946 a typical bottle of bonded bourbon would be priced right around $4 a bottle, which works out to $48.15 in 2015 dollars. It would have been nice to have a some more data to fill in the 1960’s and cover the 80’s and 90’s, but what I’ve put together here still does a good job of illustrating how bad things got for the bourbon industry in the 70’s and 80’s. While it’s unlikely that retail prices ever dropped during that period, they either held steady or rose at a rate that was far outpaced by inflation. Even with the market for American whiskey rebounding in the 1990’s and going into full boom mode during the following decade, when prices are corrected for inflation, they have really only risen in the past five years or so. And the prices that we have now are still a bargain relative to what was typical in the three decades following World War II.

Now on to the bourbon:

The nose has the same dark, brooding character that is evident in Woodford Reserve, but with more sweetness and in more of an elevated, spirit-driven way. On the palate it’s big and full flavored with a good balance of sweetness and oak / leather notes. A big wave of vanilla comes on from the mid-palate. It becomes somewhat aggressive as it moves into the finish, turning drier and spicier around the grain and oak core. The alcohol is obvious but not dominant. Overall its character is bold but not unruly. While the 100 proof Old Forester has a more aggressive flavor profile than 86 proof Old Forester or Woodford Reserve, it is more graceful than the 86 proof but lacks the refinement of Woodford.