Thursday, November 15, 2018

Follow me on Instagram

The Whishk(e)y Room Blog is now on Instagram! While my blog writing has been pretty limited this year, I certainly haven’t stopped buying and drinking whisk(e)y. I did, however, start to chronicle my spirituous adventures on Instagram toward the end of last winter.

There’s a great, vibrant whisk(e)y community on Instagram. It’s nice to have more interaction with other enthusiasts, and the amazing images that I see there have inspired to up my photography game. I’m typically posting two to three times per week, with a mix of new photos and older ones (some that were originally taken for the blog, and others from the many distillery tours that I’ve taken over the years).  The commentary is more along the lines of brief opinions, bits of insightful information and simple updates on what I’m currently drinking.

I do intend to continue writing more in-depth pieces here, and hopefully will get back on track with that sometime soon.

So, if you’re already on Instagram, search for thewhiskeyroomblog and follow me. Not on Instagram? Allow me to explain how it works. First, I should mention that Instagram is really designed to be used on mobile platforms (phones and tablets) as an app. While it is possible to use Instagram as a website, that does limit its functionality.

The easiest way to view things on the Instagram website is to simply go to the web page of a specific user; in my case, https://www.instagram.com/thewhiskeyroomblog/

If you haven’t signed up yourself, all you’ll be able to do is look at the pictures. You can view larger versions of the images and their captions by clicking on them, and there’s a search bar up top which will allow you to explore further.

If you want to interact at all, you’ll have to sign up for an account (it’s a pretty painless process). This will allow you to follow other users (showing their images in your feed when you sign in), “like” images and post comments.

For full functionality, including posting your own images, creating “stories”, using the direct messaging feature, etc., you’ll have to download the app. Again, this is primarily intended for mobile devices. That being said, there is a Windows 10 based Instagram app available, but I haven’t used it and can’t speak to its functionality.

So, what are you waiting for? Get on over to the Insta and follow me!















Monday, July 9, 2018

Scotland 2017, day 9

It looks like I’ve let a bit more time slip by than intended since I took a break from writing about my trip to Scotland last year. I’m going to try to get caught up with the topic at hand sooner than later.

Day 9 was the last day of travel before I settled in to the heart of Speyside for most of the remainder of the trip. After initially planning out a very rough itinerary, I had looked over a map of the distillery locations I was most likely to visit and chose Aberlour village as the location of my home base for the five nights I would spend the area.

I only had a drive of about an hour and a half from Inverness to Aberlour, and the Benromach distillery was roughly mid-way between the two, so that was an easy choice for the first tour of the day.

Closer to my destination was the relatively new Dalmunach distillery, opened by Pernod Ricard / Chivas Brothers in 2014. Dalmunach isn’t open to the public for tours, but I made contact with the proper Public Relations representatives and tried to make arrangements for a visit. Unfortunately they weren’t able to accommodate my request for any of the dates during which I would be in the area.

Another option that I considered was the nearby Ballindalloch, a small (100,000 lpa), single-estate distillery built in converted farm buildings, which began producing in September of 2014. When I looked into the details of a visit I learned that the tours were quite expensive, by appointment only, and 3 hours in duration. I decided to pass, but do feel a bit of regret about that decision now; it looks like a pretty cool little distillery and from all accounts offers an impressive tour.

Ultimately, I decided to stop by Glenfarclas in the afternoon. I had a tour scheduled there the next day, but this was the second of two “must visit” distilleries (along with Edradour) on this trip, so stopping by to spend a little time in the visitor center the day before seemed appropriate. I was also hoping to take home a special bottle from the Glenfarclas Family Casks series and I thought it would be good to have a preview of availability and pricing so I could sleep on the decision before making my big purchase.

I ended up booking a room in a B&B that was on a hillside overlooking Aberlour Village   and about a 10 minute walk from the pub I was most likely to frequent. The owners of the Fairy Knowe House were a retired couple with two rooms for rent and while staying there I felt a bit more like a house guest than the patron of a business. The price was very reasonable, but they only took cash or checks for payment. I had made the reservation somewhat last minute and didn’t bring enough UK currency to cover my stay, so I knew I’d have to exchange cash in Scotland.

I remembered using a currency exchange in a Tesco grocery store in Oban when I visited Scotland in 2012. The Tesco website shows which stores have currency exchanges, and there were several to choose from in the Inverness area. After catching up on some much needed sleep, my first stop of the day was at the Tesco that was a few miles out of the city and just off of the main road that led to the Benromach distillery. It may sound like sort of an odd thing to enjoy as a tourist, but spending a little time wandering around a grocery store and getting a glimpse of everyday life in Scotland was a nice departure after spending most of my time in places that are heavily frequented by tourists.

About four months prior to leaving for Scotland, I had met Richard Urquhart, one of the owners of Gordon & MacPhail, at a tasting in Boston. I talked with him about my upcoming trip and he mentioned the possibility of getting me in for a tour of their warehouse in Elgin. I reached out to him a few weeks ahead of my arrival in Speyside to make arrangements for that visit, noting that I planned to visit Benromach (also owned by G & M) on my way from Inverness.

Richard asked for my planned arrival time at Benromach so he could arrange for my tour there as well. I wasn’t really sure what he had planned for me (if anything, I didn’t make any special requests). I arrived a little before 11:00 and there seemed to be a bit of confusion at the visitor center when I mentioned that Richard had booked me in for a tour. Apparently there had been some miscommunication and they had me in the calendar for the day before.
 


This really wasn’t an issue; I was still able to take the 11:00 tour. Unfortunately though, this was another tour where I was part of a large group where most of the people knew very little about whisky making and English wasn’t their primary language. This being an independently owned distillery, I had assumed that photography would be allowed on the tour. I was wrong. I guess it was my own fault for not figuring that out ahead of time and seeking permission to do so, but it was disappointing nonetheless.

On the positive side, the entry fee for my tour was waived and the visitor center staff members were very accommodating; they spent a great deal of time answering my litany of questions about Benromach after the tour and tasting had ended.

I’ve gone over the story of Benromach and Gordon & MacPhail in a few previous posts, so I’ll just start with a brief recap here.

Benromach is in Forres, which is a town in the northern portion of Speyside, near the coast, and about 2/3 of the way from Inverness to Elgin. The distillery was established in 1898 by Duncan McCallum and FW Burickman. The architecture was by the well-known Charles Doig and construction took place over the course of two years, with operations starting in 1900.

This was one of 18 malt distilleries established in Scotland during the three year period of 1897 through 1899; and that was the end of the whisky boom of the late 19th century. Only one malt distillery was constructed (Inverleven, 1938) between then and the post-WWII distilling expansion, which kicked off with establishment of Tullibardine in 1949.

The downturn that started just before the turn of the century impacted the industry quickly; Benromach closed almost immediately after production began. The distillery was often silent during the next 50+ years and had several changes of ownership through that period.

After the brief start in 1900, the distillery remained closed until 1907. It ran for three years, closing again in 1910. That closure lasted until after WWI (1919 or later). Another shutdown lasted from 1931 through 1936. Finally, like most distilleries in Scotland, it was shutdown at some point during WWII (early 1940’s). Then, in 1953, Benromach went back online after the distillery was purchased by Distillers Company Limited (an industry behemoth and the predecessor of today’s Diageo).

Under DCL’s ownership and with the success that the industry saw after WWII, Benromach had her longest uninterrupted run, 30 years straight. Then, in 1983 the distillery was shut down again, being deemed surplus by DCL as the industry slid into one of its more pronounced downturns. Over the next 10 years, much of the equipment in Benromach was sold off or put to use in her parent company’s other facilities. With not much left besides the buildings and some aging stock, it probably looked like Benromach was closed for good before it was purchased by Gordon & MacPhail in 1993.

Gordon & MacPhail is one of Scotland’s oldest and most well known independent bottlers of Scotch whisky. The company was established in Elgin in 1895 as a family grocers and tea, wine and spirits merchant. John Urquhart joined the company in its first year and became a Senior Partner by 1915. At some point the Urquhart family took full control of the business but kept the long established name. John developed the company’s whisky brokering business and made deals for them to bottle single malts under license for several distilleries; this eventually led to Gordon & MacPhail filling and bottling casks of their own.

Ambitions for a Gordon & MacPhail owned distillery go back quite far; John attempted to buy the Strathisla distillery in 1950 after its owner was jailed for tax evasion and his assets were auctioned off. Unfortunately he was just barely outbid by Chivas Brothers. The dream never died, but the conditions for a distillery purchase weren’t right again until the early 1990’s, when the industry began to rebound from the massive downturn of the 1980’s.

As I mentioned above, DCL had stripped the distillery of almost all of its equipment over the course of its 10 year closure. Gordon & MacPhail had purchased little more than the shell of a distillery and its aging stock when they bought Benromach in 1993. Restoring the buildings and essentially outfitting a new distillery within them took the better part of five years; Benromach officially reopened on August 3rd, 1998.
 

A few turns and a very short distance of driving off of the A96 brought me to the distillery. A group of adjoined buildings house the production areas. The front of this structure presents a straight façade with a variety of rooflines, but the ends and the center section extend further to the rear, forming two alcoves in the back. Directly across a paved driveway from the front of that building is a smaller building which houses the visitor center. Although obviously an older structure as viewed from the outside, the visitor center was quite modern and well-appointed inside, with the full Benromach product line on display. I later learned that this building was the former barley store and drier house. Once the tour group was assembled, we made our way across the street and into the distillery.
 

When the new owners started to rebuild the distillery in 1993, they decided to minimize the use of modern technology, keeping Benromach as a manually operated distillery. They also chose to change the style of the whisky a bit from what had been produced in the years leading up to its latest closing. It would now have a moderate level of peat, which was the classic pre-1960’s Speyside style.

The distillery did operate its own floor maltings until 1968 and, sadly, the pagoda roof over the former kiln was replaced with a simple pitched roof during a period of renovation and modernization in the mid-1970’s. The old malting floors are still intact and currently used as storage space for empty casks. Today, the barley, which is all grown in Scotland, comes from commercial maltings with a peat level of 10-12 ppm.

Each batch uses 1.5 tons of barley, which is run through a Boby Mill. This relatively small unit dates to 1913 and was restored in 1996. Its origins are unknown as it was already at Benromach when the distillery closed in 1983, but it likely came from one of the three distilleries that operated in the Inverness area until the 1980’s.

Once milled, the malted barley grist is combined with hot water in an auger tube that feeds the mixture into the copper-topped, modern style, semi-lauter tun. After mashing takes place in this vessel, the wort is cooled and pumped over to one of the washbacks for fermentation.

The four washbacks are somewhat unusually located in the still room, directly across from the two pot stills. The apparent age of the wood that they were made out of immediately caught my eye. I soon learned that original (pre-1983 at least) Scottish Larch washbacks had stayed in the distillery during its 10 year closure and all of the wood that could be salvaged from them was used to make the current washbacks. The former held 23,000 liters each, but the latter have been downsized to 11,000 liters each. A combination of brewers and distillers yeast is used and the fermentations last from three to five days, producing a wash of 7% to 8% abv.

The two stills, which were newly commissioned as the distillery was rebuilt, were inspired by the original stills, but not exact copies of them. Medium sized in the grand scheme of things, the wash still has a capacity of 10,000 liters and the spirit still 6000 liters. Both are heated by internal steam plates. The old stills were direct oil fired for some time, but I was unable to determine if they were converted to indirect steam heating before the 1983 closure.

The new stills are shaped a bit differently from each other; the wash still has tapered sides on the pot, where those on the spirit still are straight. The shoulder of the wash still is straight with a somewhat shallow angle, while the shoulder of the spirit still has a pronounced curve. The tapered neck of the wash still contrasts to the neck of the spirit still with its reflux ball and minimal taper above that. Both lyne arms go almost straight out, with only a slight downward angle. These extend through the back wall and feed into shell-and-tube condensers, which sit outside in one of the two alcoves, where the original worm tubs were once located. The new make comes off the spirit still at 70% abv and at a rate of 10 liters per minute.

I noticed that some sections of the stills were much darker than other sections and the copper at the base of the reflux ball appeared to be heavily worked. When I asked about this, I was told that the neck of the spirit still had recently been replaced and the neck of the wash still had been replaced a few years prior to that. It seemed odd to me that such repairs would be needed after less than 20 years in service, but a little research has shown that this is quite normal.

In one corner of the still room was the brass spirit safe. It was dated 1980, and said to have come from the Millburn distillery; one of the lost Inverness outfits, which closed in 1985 and was dismantled in 1988.

From the still house we continued outside and around to the back of the building. After a quick look into the closest alcove to see the shell and tube condensers, we entered the cask filling store. The spirit is diluted down to 63.5% abv in the wooden cask-filling vat (it looked like it had some age on it, but I neglected to ask if it was a pre-closure relic) which sits up on blocks, allowing the casks to be filled by gravity.
 

Benromach uses a mix of bourbon and sherry casks, all of which are first-fill. The flagship 10 year old is aged in those two cask types separately (20% sherry, 80% bourbon) for 9 years. Then, that whisky is married together and entered into Oloroso sherry casks for one further year of aging.

All of the whisky produced here is matured for a minimum of five years. Benromach Traditional, the first bottling from the reopened distillery, was always held to that standard even though it carried no age statement. In 2014 the Traditional bottling was re-launched as Benromach 5 year old.

We were told that casks are hand-filled on site two times per week, with a total of 50 hogsheads being filled per week. This led to a conversation about how production has increased at Benromach over that last two decades.

After re-opening, a minimal amount of whisky was made at Benromach in 1998 and 1999. By 2000 they were consistently processing five mashes per week. That resulted in a production level of roughly 130,000 liters per annum, which continued on through 2013. The first significant increase came in 2014, when a second daily shift was added. With nine mashed being processed each week, production rose to 240,000 liters per annum. Three years later it was time for another increase, but this time there was a bottleneck; the washbacks. Nine new European Larch washbacks were constructed and housed in the former kiln (our tour didn’t go through that part of the building). This allowed production to increase to three shifts per day and 14 mashes per week in January of 2017. Four months later, at the time of my visit, they were projecting a production level of 380,000 liters for the year.

From the cask filling store we went back outside and walked just a short distance to enter one of the warehouses. Aerial photos from the 1970’s show two traditional dunnage warehouses on the left side of the land behind the distillery buildings. The larger of the two had fallen into disrepair and was removed by the previous owner prior to the 1993 sale of the distillery. The smaller one was still there during my visit, but I was told it was crumbling and slated for demolition.

Four new warehouses are located behind and to the right of the distillery building. They are of the traditional dunnage style (low roof, earthen floor and casks stacked two to three high on wooden stows), but made with modern materials (steel frames and composite, insulated cladding). The first one was likely built during or shortly after the 1990’s restoration. The second was added in 2007 and the third and forth were added in 2014.
 

The first three of the new warehouses are each 1600 square meters and the forth is 900 square meters. This gives a total capacity of 15,000 casks and at the time of my visit there were 11,000 casks aging on-site.

We spent a little time chatting with the tour guide inside Warehouse #3 (the numbering system takes the two original warehouses into account, so this was actually the first of the new ones). One cask of note which we saw was Cask #1; the first to be filled after the distillery reopened in 1998. We were told that this could possibly be bottled the next year as a 20 year old, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the re-start of operations and the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the distillery.

In mid-May of this year Benromach released their 20th anniversary bottling; a cask strength 19 year old, of which 3000 bottles were produced. I doubt that Cask #1 went into that vatting, but it won’t be 20 years old until August, so it could still be used as a separate 200th anniversary bottling later in the year.

Back to the visitor center, we all sat at tables in the tasting room to enjoy our samples of the flagship 10 year old Benromach. I’ve already opined on this whisky in a previous post, so I didn’t bother with tasting notes at the time.
 

Once the bulk of the tour group had left I spent a good bit of time talking with the visitor center staff and filling in a lot of the details which I’ve written about above. I also garnered some interesting information regarding the Organic and the Peat Smoke expressions of Benromach.

Peat Smoke is quite heavily peated, but it’s made in a single batch each year and the exact peat level varies from year to year. The whisky is matured for roughly nine years in first fill bourbon barrels. These bottles are vintage dated and at 46% abv. The peat levels for the last five years have been:

2013 – 53ppm
2014 – 67ppm
2015 – 62ppm
2016 – 57ppm
2017 – 47ppm

In 2006 Benromach became the first producer to put out an organic single malt Scotch (Bruichladdich wasn’t far behind, introducing their organic bottling in 2009). Benromach Organic is bottled at 43%, vintage dated (with the distillation year and bottling year) and non-age-stated. It was originally in the 5 to 6 year range, but I’ve seen bottles distilled in 2010 that that were bottled in 2015, 2016 and 2017, so they appear to be letting the age creep up.

I’ve been pretty indifferent to the organic single malts I’ve tried in the past. I think they are often fairly young (and usually non-age-stated), but I learned that there may be some other factors that influence the flavor profiles of these whiskies. They are all unpeated, assumedly because there is no certified organic peat. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of no one having made the effort and expenditure to have a peat bed certified organic, or if it’s just not possible to do such a thing since the peat that is dug out of the ground today was the plant material on top so long ago.

The other issue is the casks. I suspect that the wood may have to be certified organic, but the bigger problem is the former contents of the used casks; if it wasn’t certified organic then the residual liquid is in the cask would preclude the organic certification of the next fill. As far as I know, there are no certified organic Bourbons or Sherries being made. For this reason, virgin oak casks are used for organic single malt Scotches.

After my question & answer session with the Benromach staff, it was time to head into the heart of Speyside. My next stop was the Glenfarclas distillery. Rather than sticking to the main roads and passing through Elgin and Craigellachie (I’d see both in the coming days), I chose to take the more direct but less traveled route. While it was nice to pass through some very rural areas, the scenery through this area wasn’t as spectacular as I had hoped.

Once I reached the long driveway to Glenfarclas that all changed. As I approached the distillery, I was treated to a wonderful view of its buildings with Ben Rinnes (the highest peak in Speyside) standing in the distance as a perfect backdrop.
 

I’d seen photos of the outside of the Glenfarclas visitor center before and it seemed a little odd to me, architecturally that is. But there’s a good explanation; Glenfarclas was one of the first distilleries in Scotland to open a visitor center, way back in 1973. The new construction utilized the architectural style that was in vogue at the time, hence the slightly unusual look. Thankfully they had the good sense to crown the entrance with the pagoda top from their former kiln, which had been decommissioned the year before, rather than sending it off as scrap.
 



I was warmly greeted and had a nice time chatting with the visitor center staff (I think they were impressed that I stopped by for a pre-tour visit). The bottle displays they had set up were quite impressive. The full standard lineup alone is a beautiful thing to see. A few of those bottlings were available in the midi size (375 ml) as well, and almost every bottling was there for sale in the miniature format. The only mini exception was the 30 year old, whish they told me was in short supply in general because it was now coming from the mid-1980’s when the last downturn peaked and production was at its lowest. Every available Family Casks bottling was displayed in a large glass case across the end wall of the room and there were separate cases showing off some rare historical bottles.
 

After talking for a bit with one of the staff members, he mentioned that I could wander into the tasting room to sample something if I wanted to (other than the 10 year and the 15 year which I would taste as part of the official tour the next day). I couldn’t pass up that offer! They had a bottle of 50% abv 15 year old (the standard 15 year is bottled at 46% abv, where the rest of the age-stated lineup is at 43%) which had been a special limited release that was only available in the Canadian market. I’m a big fan of the regular 15 year, especially since it isn’t generally available in the US, so it was a nice treat for me to be able to sample this 100 proof version.

I took a few photos inside the visitor center, including one of the price list for the Family Casks bottlings so I could consider the options for my big purchase the next day. I also spent a little more time wandering around the distillery grounds and taking pictures, getting some nice shots of the iconic red warehouse doors.





From Glenfarclas it was just a short drive of a little over 5 miles on the A95 to Aberlour village, and another mile off the main road to my destination. The yard of the house featured well tended gardens and beautiful views of Ben Rinnes (this view was from the north, while at Glenfarclas the mountain is seen from the west).

Once I had settled in and reorganized my belongings, it was time to head out for dinner and a drink. A ten minute walk brought me back to the heart of Aberlour village, and just a few hundred feet beyond Main Street was The Mash Tun. This iconic establishment is a Bed & Breakfast, restaurant and whisky bar.

As much as I enjoy traditional Scottish food, finding an exceptional meal in the UK can be a bit of a hit or miss affair. I was impressed enough with dinner at The Mash Tun that I dined there for four of the five nights spent in the area.

After sampling some of the local ales with dinner, it was time for a whisky. With the Benromach tour fresh in my mind, I decided to sample their 15 year old expression. While not a great departure from the flagship 10 year old, it was nice evolution of that whisky; a little more maturity, depth and complexity compared to what is already a solid performer.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

WhistlePig Visit

An offer to tour a whiskey distillery will always commandeer my attention, especially if it’s a distillery that isn’t normally open to the public. When a friend who works at a local liquor store asked me to accompany him to WhistlePig (which is only about 1.5 hours from where I live) for a private barrel selection back in September, it didn’t take me long to say yes.

Regular readers may have noticed that I don’t spend much time writing about “craft” distillers (I use quotations because it’s a pretty loosely defined term). I’ll be blunt here; there are very few small distillers who make all of their own whiskey and make it well. Woodinville, about which I wrote recently, is one of those exceptions. Most craft distillers either make a sub-standard product or they re-sell whiskey from one of the major producers and do their best to pass the distillate off as their own.

While WhistlePig fell into the latter camp in their early years, they have since moved in a direction of greater transparency, and I’ve softened my stance on the company. I was actually pretty excited to go to the farm and check out their operation. And just for the record, I have no problem with producers who bottle sourced whiskey, as long as they are open and up-front about what they are doing rather than going down the path of deception.

In 2007 WhistlePig’s founder, Raj Bhakta, at the urging a college friend, bought a defunct dairy farm in the rolling hills of Vermont’s Champlain Valley, in the western-central part of the state. The question of “what’s next?” (and of what to do with the farm) was answered the next year after a chance meeting with Dave Pickerell, the former Maker’s Mark Master Distiller. Pickerell knew of an untapped supply of rye whiskey at a distillery in Alberta, Canada, which Canadian producers would only use in small percentages in their blends. Most potential business partners in the US thought that the whiskey’s country of origin would be problematic from a marketing perspective.

Pickerell and Bhakta struck a deal and began importing this whiskey in 2008, transferring it into used bourbon barrels, and further aging it in an old barn on the farm. Two years later, in 2010, WhistlePig Straight Rye was launched.

What’s interesting about this whiskey is that it was made from 100% rye grain and aged in new charred oak. Unlike bourbon, rye whiskey (by the US definition) does not have to be produced in the United States. This whiskey checked all of the boxes required for the Straight Rye designation; whoever imported it to the US and bottled it could choose to label it as either Straight Rye Whiskey or Canadian Whisky.

Bhakta and Pickerell went with the Straight Rye option, knowing that it would be easier to market and sell the product as such. Unfortunately, they chose to be very secretive about the origin of the whiskey in the early days, and the labels on the bottles did not indicate that the whiskey was imported from Canada, as was required. After a good bit of scrutiny and criticism, the company came around and started to be more transparent regarding the source of the whiskey, as well as coming into compliance with the labeling regulations.

The original setup at the farm consisted of some aging on site (the bourbon barrel finishing part) and a bottling operation. Their goal was to set up a functional distillery there and make whiskey from rye grown on the farm. What neither of these men likely realized is that Vermont ranks pretty damn low on the scale of business friendly states. Between some unfriendly neighboring land owners that tried to impede the business any way they could and onerous state environmental regulations, it took them until 2015 to actually get the distillery part up and running. In spite of these challenges, annual growth has been in the 70% to 80% range, and the company now employs 50 people.

A lot of distillers who start with sourced whiskey claim that they will eventually transition over to making everything themselves. But the reality is that it’s nearly impossible to grow a brand rapidly and buy ever-increasing amounts of sourced whiskey while maintaining the level of production that would be necessary to phase out the sourced stuff once their own distillate comes of age.

In articles written in mid-2016, Bhakta claimed that he was still clinging to his original goal of producing WhistlePig entirely on his farm, using rye grain grown there. Around the same time the operations manager of the distillery gave an interview where he stated their flagship product will always be sourced for fear of changing the established flavor profile, while what they distill in-house will be used for expansions to their product line in the future.

After arriving at the distillery, we were joined by representatives of a few other liquor outlets who were picking barrels for their stores and had a combination of a tasting and an informal tour. There are four buildings (in addition to the house on the property) used for operations. We first passed through a long, narrow building (I think this is where they used to milk the cows) which houses all of their offices as well as operations such as barrel dumping and mingling, filtering, bottling, and shipping and receiving. Adjacent to that is a former barn that is used for barrel warehousing. This is where eight barrels were set out for us to taste through. After sampling the selections that ranged from roughly 110 to 120 proof, we moved on and made our way past a recently completed building called Church Mill (well, work on it wasn’t quite done when I was there, so we couldn’t go inside), which is used for grain intake and milling. The last building we entered is another old barn that has been transformed for its current use. Roughly 1/2 of the footprint is split into two floors which are used for entertaining guests. The first floor features displays with information about the various bottlings and details of the company history. The second floor is more of a “great room”, with a large fireplace at one end and minimal furnishings, and will eventually be used to host tastings. Both floors are “works in progress” which will evolve with time. The back 1/2 of the building is an open two-story space which houses the distilling operations. The centerpiece is a 750 gallon copper combo still (a pot on the bottom with a rectifying column on top). The setup seemed quite modern in design, with a cluster a square stainless steel fermenting tanks along one wall, something I haven’t seen before in the many distilleries I’ve toured.
 


























Fast forward four months, and my friend was ready to pick another barrel. Always up for a free tasting on a Monday afternoon, I joined him for the short road trip along with another whiskey comrade. Shortly after arriving we were greeted by Larry, the Steward of the Brand for WhistlePig’s home territory. He almost immediately blurted out that Raj was no longer with the company. We were all a bit surprised by this and collectively asked a few questions:
When did this happen? – Back in November.
What is he doing? – Probably searching for his next big project.
Does he still have an ownership stake in the company? – Yes.
At that point it didn’t seem appropriate to pry much more, so we went on with the business of tasting and barrel picking (the group of four barrels we were choosing from had a 120+ proofer that was quite tasty, and ultimately selected). I’m usually pretty well-informed of what is going on in the whiskey industry and found it hard to believe I hadn’t heard a whisper of this news, especially considering that Raj had been out of the picture for about two months.

When I got back home I fired up the Google machine for more info, and there was nothing on the topic. But I did find some interesting articles that helped to paint a picture of what is going on. Let’s step back a bit in time to put everything into context.

Even when sourcing product from an outside distiller, rapidly growing a whiskey brand is quite a capital intensive venture. Setting up a distillery and then operating it while the new whiskey comes of age also takes deep pockets. Raj Bhakta was trying to do both at the same time with WhistlePig and bringing in outside investors was the only way to make it happen.

In 2011 Bhakta hired Wilco Faessen, a Dutch investment banker, to help raise capital. Faessen also became an investor himself, taking a 15% stake in the company. Faessen also brought in the Santo Domingo family of Columbia, who took a 12% stake in WhistlePig. Faessen and Christopher Evison, another investment banker who manages some of the assets of the Santo Domingo family, become two members of the six member Board of Managers.

Things got weird in the spring of 2016 when the board called a special meeting and presented Bhakta with allegations of misconduct in an attempt to remove him from the board and as CEO of the company he had founded. He was exempted from the vote because of the allegations against him, which left a small enough board that Faessen and Evison could vote him out on their own

Including his own seat, Bhakta controlled half of the votes on the board, so removing him would allow the unbalanced board to vote to sell the company. According to his telling of the story, Bhakta was given the option of accepting this decision and taking the money from the sale (likely $50 million for his 50% stake in the company) along with a symbolic role in the company, or trying to fight them in court, where he would be financially ruined and have his reputation destroyed.

He chose the latter and filed suit in a Delaware business court a month later (WhistlePig is registered as a corporation in Delaware). The court issued a “status quo” order, allowing Bhakta to continue in his role as CEO until the matter was settled.

In November of 2016 WhistlePig announced that a settlement had been reached and a new governance structure put in place. Bhakta stepped down as CEO and was replaced by Roland van Bommel, an early investor in the company. Peter Rhea, another early investor was appointed to the Board of Managers. The board, now consisting of four members, would also include Bhakta, Faessen and Evison. Bhakta’s new role also included the title of Founder and the position of Chief Steward of the Brand. Additionally, the settlement dealt with the issue of the sale of the farm to the company; the property had been owned by Bhakta and leased to WhistlePig, so investor money used to make improvements to the grounds and buildings had previously been a point of contention.

So, how did we go from a settlement of this battle to the company’s controversial founder being ousted a year later? My online searches came up with a few more articles from the summer of 2017 that didn’t garner much attention at the time. On June 22, a Bloomberg news story, quoting “unnamed sources”, claimed that the company was exploring a sale and taking formal bids after being approached by multiple potential buyers. A day later that story was confirmed by Dave Pickerell, WhistlePig’s consultant and Master Distiller, in a phone interview with WhiskyCast.

Raj Bhakta is a pretty polarizing figure; his ability to spin an enchanting tale about his company and its origins is only matched by his ability to rub people the wrong way. In my opinion, if he’s out then a sale of WhistlePig is imminent. I suspect that the details of the deal are being finalized and that we’ll hear an official announcement soon.

I can’t help but wonder if this was the plan Evison and Faessen had from the time of last year’s settlement and they simply outsmarted Bhakta, or if he just finally gave up the fight and decided to take the money and run. Also of interesting note, van Bommel, the current CEO of WhistlePig, previously served as the CEO of William Grant & Sons and held a seat on the Executive Board of Remy Cointreau. Both companies are among the group of big industry players with the potential to buy WhistlePig. I’m curious to see how the rest of this tale plays out.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Eagle Rare, HOTW Single Barrel Select

I wrote a post back in September detailing a private barrel selection tasting I had taken part in with the restaurant group that I work for. We tasted samples from three barrels of Eagle Rare and picked our favorite. This took place toward the end of May, but there was some lag time before our barrel was scheduled for bottling, then transit time from the distiller to the distributor, to the state liquor commission’s warehouse, to the local retail outlet, and finally to our restaurants (Hen of the Wood Waterbury, Hen of the Wood Burlington and Doc Ponds). We had our whiskey in hand the first week of December; now I’d like to go over the details of the barrel we purchased.

As soon as we started to consider buying a barrel from Buffalo Trace, I made a push for it to be Eagle Rare. This was partly because it’s a bourbon that we already sell quite a bit of between the three restaurants, but also because I had a feeling that there might be a shortage of Eagle Rare in 2018. Most distillers cut production in response to the 2008 financial crisis, and it took them a year or two to figure out that the world wasn’t ending and get back to normal production levels. Buffalo Trace and Maker’s Mark seemed to have cut more heavily than others and that was evidenced by shortages of their six year old products in 2014. With a 10 year age statement, Eagle Rare was likely approaching the same situation, making this a great time to buy in bulk.

The barrel we selected carried an ID number; 05-L-12-L-2-60-332.

05-L-12 represents the date the barrel was filled, 12/12/2005 (the L is a month code – 12th letter of the alphabet for December).

The second “L” indicates that the barrel was aged in Warehouse L.

Warehouse L is co-joined to Warehouse M, with a firewall separating the two halves. These were built in 1936, during the distillery’s post-Prohibition era expansion. Both of the warehouses are constructed with brick walls and concrete floors, and each one holds 50,000 barrels. The warehouse has five floors, with the barrels stacked six high on each floor.

The last three numbers indicate the barrel’s specific location in the warehouse:
Floor 2
Rick 60
Barrel 332

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get any information regarding the details of that location (near a wall or closer to the heart of the warehouse, near the floor or the ceiling, etc.)

But I was provided with a little more information about our barrel:
Barrel staves seasoning time - 6 months
Barrel char level - #4
Barrel entry proof - 125
Bottling date - 9/22/2017
Barrel yield - 156 bottles
Bottling strength - 90 proof

This means that the Eagle Rare, HOTW Single Barrel Select was aged for 11 years, 9 months, 10 days. That seems odd for a whiskey that carries a 10 year age statement. Did we get an extra special barrel? Well, yes and no. All three of the barrels we had to choose from were the same age (within a few days). Looking around online I saw that all of the recently reviewed Eagle Rare Single Barrel Select bottlings I could find were aged at least 11 ½ years. And you might recall from my previous post, all of these barrels were approved to become regular Eagle Rare before they were chosen as Single Barrel Select prospects. This tells me it is very likely that all Eagle Rare currently being bottled is pushing up on 12 years old.

There’s a reasonable explanation for this. It was well-known to the folks at Buffalo Trace that there was a looming shortage of 10 year old product coming for 2018. Rather than drop Eagle Rare’s age statement and put progressively younger whiskey into the bottle over 2018, 2019 and maybe 2020 to get across the gap of low production, they chose to be proactive and address the situation in advance. They’ve been bottling less Eagle Rare than they had available (at the appropriate age), probably over the last two to four years, allowing their stocks of aged whiskey to build up while the age of what they were bottling has gradually crept up over that time. Once they get into 2018 and beyond they should be able to maintain the amount of Eagle Rare they can bottle, while the age gradually recedes back to 10 years over the next two to four years.

Further confirmation of this situation came when I learned that Buffalo Trace will be suspending Private Barrel Select bottlings of Eagle Rare for 2018.





The response to our private barrel bottling has been quite positive, and I find this to be a great sipping whiskey. The nose is somewhat restrained, but there are plenty of interesting aromas to be teased out if one spends a little time with it; soft spice, clay and old books come through for me. On the palate it shows sweet caramel up front followed by spearmint and vanilla. It turns drier on the finish with more oak and warming spice notes. What really makes this whiskey stand out for me is how elegant and well-composed it is overall. The flavors evolve nicely from start to finish while it maintains incredible balance.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Bruichladdich, The Classic Laddie - Scottish Barley

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 50%, $55

About two and a half years ago (mid 2015) I wrote about Bruichladdich, The Laddie Ten. That bottling, which had previously been the distillery’s flagship offering, had essentially been discontinued early in 2014. In that post I examined the changes which had taken place at Bruichladdich since its sale to Remy Cointreau in 2012, and I also pondered the future of the brand versus what might have been if the previous owners had continued on.

More recently I wrote about Bruichladdich’s new Travel Retail exclusive, The Laddie Eight. In that post I mostly discussed the history and the merits of younger age-stated single malt whiskies.

Today I’m going to take a look at Bruichladdich’s current flagship bottling, the non-age-stated The Classic Laddie - Scottish Barley. This expression was actually introduced late in 2013 and slid into the position of the distillery’s flagship bottling when The Laddie Ten was discontinued in the spring of 2014. It was originally labeled as “Scottish Barley”, with “The Classic Laddie” in much smaller print. More recently those two titles have switched their relative prominence. I do still have both age-stated expressions on hand as well, so I’ll also be tasting them to see where they stand relative to The Classic Laddie.


Bruichladdich, The Classic Laddie - Scottish Barley
Nose – Quintessential Bruichladdich maritime aromas of briny sea spray and dried beach grass with malty undertones. Delicate floral, spice and white fruit notes add subtle complexity.
Palate – Dry maltiness and coastal minerality are the driving forces here, but a fruity assortment of secondary notes keeps things interesting. The flavors do bounce around a little, but not to the extent that I’d consider this to be a flaw of any significance.
Finish – It definitely becomes more oaky and spice-driven while transitioning into the finish. Notes of fresh cut grass and green malt do become a bit more prominent than I’d prefer at times, but this is still a pretty respectable dram overall.

Bruichladdich, The Laddie Ten
The nose of the Ten is oakier than the other two.
On the palate the Ten is pretty sublime, with well integrated flavors and graceful transitions.

Bruichladdich, The Laddie Eight
The nose of the Eight is more grassy / youthful than the other two
On the palate the Eight is a little more grassy/perfumed/floral than the others, but still makes a good showing.

Aromatically, the Scottish Barley lies midway between the 8 and the 10, but with more complexity than either. The differences between these three are somewhat subtle though.
On the palate the Scottish Barley is more fruit forward than the other two and shows impressive complexity. I might go so far as to say that it’s the most interesting of the three, but the 10 year would still be my top pick of the group.

Where the story of Bruichladdich, The Classic Laddie - Scottish Barley gets interesting is with a move the company made in April of 2016. That was when a new feature was added to the Bruichladdich website which allowed consumers to enter the batch code from any bottle of The Classic Laddie and see a listing of all of the casks (and relevant information about them) that were used in the vatting. This may not seem like such a radical thing to do, but it actually flirts with illegality according to current regulations.

While the issue of transparency has caused debate in the Scotch whisky industry for nearly a century, the regulations in place today date to 2008. They essentially say that any reference to age or maturation period must be only for the youngest component whisky in the vatting. This applies to labels and descriptions, including advertising and promotional materials.

Compass Box, an independent blender established in 2000, learned just how strict the rules were when they ran afoul of them in the fall of 2015. Compass Box had published on their website very specific cask information about two of their whiskies, including the various ages and proportions of the vatting components. They were soon contacted by lawyers from the Scotch Whisky Association (after one of the group’s members lodged a complaint) and informed that they were not in compliance with the law.

The SWA is a trade organization which lobbies the government to influence regulatory policy on behalf of its members. The group also employs a team of lawyers to make sure everyone is following the rules and that no other businesses infringe on the Scotch whisky industry. As is typical of such trade organizations, member companies pay dues based on their size (usually determined by sales volumes) and have influence in proportion to how big they are. Many of the smaller companies in the Scotch whisky industry are tiny compared to the biggest players, and for that reason a lot of them don’t bother with SWA membership; they know that their voices would be lost relative to the large multinationals with which they are often at odds. Back in 2008, when the newest rules were being proposed, SWA members represented 95% of Scotland’s distilling capacity, but only 33% of the companies involved in the industry. The five largest member companies provided 80% of the SWA’s dues, and presumably had an equivalent amount of influence over the group.

On its face the regulations may seem well-intentioned; they are supposedly meant to keep producers from over emphasizing the role of tiny amounts of rare and old whiskies contained in a vatting or blend. But let’s face it, the bigger companies often simply don’t want to tell consumers what is in their most expensive offerings; they’d rather throw their resources at marketing efforts and have you assume that there must be something special in the bottle. The industry regulations give them a legal excuse to hide behind for not disclosing information that they’d rather keep secret.

Compass Box (who is not an SWA member) conceded and removed the offending information from their website. But a few months later, in February of 2016, the company launched a campaign for transparency. In this they proposed an amendment to the current regulations which would allow for the full disclosure of the ages and proportions of all component whiskies in a finished product. They are asking for consumers and industry participants to register their support for this proposal through their website. It will be an uphill battle against the SWA and its most powerful members, but the cause is certainly worthwhile.

Bruichladdich (also not an SWA member) publicly came out in support of the Compass Box campaign the day after it launched and announced plans for their new website feature allowing the disclosure of batch information. Apparently this had already been in the works, but the powers that be decided to push up the schedule and launch the feature just a few months later. Bruichladdich contended that they were in compliance with the law because they were not publishing this information on packaging or marketing materials, and that they would not promote the fact that the information was being made available. Further, the information can only be accessed on the website by inputting a valid batch code, which the consumer can only find on a bottle of whisky.

The ages of the component whiskies are inexact as well. For each group of casks, only a vintage year is given rather than an explicit fill date. The website also only shows the year in which the batch was bottled, rather than giving a specific bottling date. That leaves a margin of plus or minus one year for the age of each component whisky in the mix. The bottling date can be found on the label of the bottle though, so that brings the margin down to plus or minus six months for those who really want to analyze things.

Of course the SWA did publicly question the legality of Bruichladdich’s scheme, but it’s still up and running more than a year and a half later, so Her Majesty’s Royal Customs must have deemed everything to be in compliance.

With all of that being explained, I’m going to examine the information for the batch number on the bottle that I sampled above, which was 15/207 and had a bottling date of 14th August, 2015.


There were eight component whiskies to this batch, with 71 casks in total, spread across four vintages. All of the barley came from the Scottish mainland, but for three of the groups of casks, the barley was organic. Most of the whisky was aged in Bourbon barrels, all of which were 1st fill. There were eight from 2005, eight from 2006, 13 from 2007 (a group of five and a group of eight) and 24 from 2008.

The other three component whiskies were all made up of former French wine Hogsheads. There was a group of four 1st fill red Burgundy casks from 2006, a group of seven 2nd fill sweet red & white Rivesaltes casks from 2008 and a group of seven 2nd fill Sauternes (sweet white from Bordeaux) casks from 2008.

I was curious what other non-bourbon barrel whiskies were going into batches of the flagship offering, so I looked up the codes for a few other bottles that I had access to; 15/224 and 16/320. The first one consists of 86 casks and the second one of 76 casks. In all three examples the casks span four vintages, making the component whiskies roughly seven to 10 years old. Three batches is not a big sample size, but I don’t see any Sherry casks among the non-Bourbon casks; everything else is either wine (mostly red) or fortified wine casks. The Bourbon barrels represent 75% to 80% of the casks in the individual batches, but all of the other casks are Hogsheads, which are twice as big as barrels. That means that roughly 60% to 67% of the liquid in each batch came from former Bourbon barrels.

15/224 has quite a big variety of wine casks, with Hogsheads that formerly held Port, Madeira, sweet red and white from Rivesaltes (France), and red wines from Burgundy, Pauillac (Bordeaux, France), Tuscany (Italy), Bandol (France), Banyuls (France) and Ribera del Duero (Spain).

16/320 is a simpler vatting, with the wine cask components represented by red wine Hogsheads from Ribera del Duero (Spain) and France (no more specific location or style was given).

This information is quite insightful. Recalling from my previous posts, Bruichladdich’s production had grown steadily from 2001 through 2012 (but never too dramatically in any given year). Early in 2013, about six month after taking over the distillery, Remy Cointreau announced that they would double production at Bruichladdich. With a large, established distribution network, Remy Cointreau had the ability to sell a lot more of Bruichladdich’s whisky in a short period of time.

To keep the flagship offering in supply while they waited for the production increases to catch up (after maturation) necessitated that bottling changing to a non-age-stated one with some younger whisky in the vatting. It also meant that many of the wine casks that had been laid down by the previous owners would have to be vatted off into The Classic Laddie - Scottish Barley rather than being utilized for special releases and one-off bottlings.

Some of Bruichladdich’s fans will bemoan the fact that this is the fate of so many potentially interesting wine casks. I actually applaud the company for having the courage to move forward with their transparency initiative, in spite of the fact that it reveals information that is likely to displease some of their core customers. To be honest, I’m kind of surprised that Remy Cointreau, being a large, corporate entity, didn’t force Bruichladdich to come in line, join the SWA and play nice. The rebellious spirit of the distillery’s former owners lives on there.

And for those who are still feeling discouraged by the direction of things at Bruichladdich; take a look at their website. The number of expressions available has increased quite a bit since I wrote about The Laddie Ten in 2015. Back then the only offerings shown besides the The Classic Laddie – Scottish Barley were a vintage-dated Islay Barley bottling, vintage-dated Bere Barley bottlings (two of them, I believe), Organic Scottish Barley and Black Art 4 (1990). Those bottlings all remain, but now there are three vintages of Islay Barley and three vintages of Bere Barley available. Additionally, there is a second Organic bottling (which is vintage dated), The Laddie Eight, The Laddie Ten (second limited edition release), Black Art 5 (1992), and four older, vintage-dated releases; 1984 / 32 year Bourbon barrel, 1985 / 32 year Bourbon barrel, 1986 / 30 year Sherry cask and 1990 / 25 year Pedro Ximinez cask.

The whisky made at Bruichladdich after its production was doubled is not quite five years old at this point. Overall, I’d say that the company is moving in a positive direction and I’ll be watching curiously to see what the next five years brings.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Sazerac Rye vs. Rittenhouse Rye

stats:
Sazerac Rye: straight rye whiskey, no age statement, 45%, $29
Rittenhouse Rye: straight rye whiskey, no age statement, 50%, $24

I’m often asked for my opinion of various whiskeys or for recommendations within a particular category. One recurring request is for a good quality, reasonable priced rye whiskey. And I’m always quick to answer; Sazerac Rye or Rittenhouse Rye (the prices listed above were what I saw in my local store, but these whiskeys are both typically in the $25 to $30 range). I’ve tasted and enjoyed them individually many times over the years, but I’m not sure if I had ever tasted them side-by-side before.

If you were to go back six years, my answer would also have included Wild Turkey Rye. But the highly regarded 101-proof bottling was temporarily discontinued early in 2012. While it did return nearly two years later, it is still yet to become widely available. The 81-proof variant that was introduced to fill the gap just doesn’t compare.

Sazerac Rye is produced by the Sazerac Company (headquartered Metairie, LA), at their Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY. Most rye whiskies distilled in Kentucky contain a percentage of rye in their mash bills that is at or just barely above the 51% minimum. Although Buffalo Trace does not disclose the specifics of their various mash bills, their rye whiskey recipe is generally considered to be roughly 51% rye, 39% corn and 10% malted barley.

Sazerac Rye is bottled at 45% alcohol and carries no age statement, but it is widely regarded to be 6 years old. In fact, it is so often reported to be of that age, that I was surprised to learn this bottling has actually never had an age statement. As a Straight Rye, it must be aged at least 2 years, but the age statement only becomes optional at or above 4 years, so it must be at least that old.

Buffalo Trace produces two other rye whiskies from the same grain recipe, both of which are part of the hard-to-come-by Antique Collection; Sazerac 18 year old (also at 45%) and Thomas H. Handy (barrel proof and aged 6 to 8 years).

Rittenhouse Rye is produced by Heaven Hill (headquartered in Bardstown, KY) at their Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, KY. Heaven Hill chooses not to keep the details of their mash bills secret, and the rye they produce is frequently reported to use a recipe of 51% rye, 37% corn and 12% malted barley.

What I have at hand is the most frequently seen bottling of Rittenhouse Rye, which is Bottled in Bond. That designation requires the finished product to be at 50% alcohol, with a minimum age of 4 years (other BIB requirements are that the whiskey be the product of one distillery and from one distilling season, and that the distillery’s DSP number must appear on the label, as well as the DSP number of the bottling facility if it is different). This bottling carries no age statement, and the whiskey is unlikely to be significantly older than its 4 year minimum. Heaven Hill also produces two other rye whiskeys from the same distillate; a 40% alcohol version of Rittenhouse (which is far less common; I didn’t even realize it existed until I started researching this post), and Pikesville Rye (which only hit the market within the last year or two). The 80-proof Rittenhouse is a Straight Rye without and age statement, which means that it must be at least 4 years old. Pikesville is also a Straight Rye, but is bottled at 55% alcohol and carries a 6 year age statement.


On to the tasting:

The Sazerac Rye has a very aromatic nose, with lavender, clay and spice notes creating an uplifting introduction.
On the palate there is a touch of caramel sweetness up front, with floral rye notes taking over on the mid-palate. Spice notes build and evolve becoming more dominant and drier as it moves onward.
The finish is lengthy, warming and well-balanced.
Overall this is a lighter, brighter style of rye, but it still has plenty of character and transitions elegantly from start to finish.

The Rittenhouse Rye has a less expressive nose. The aromas that do come through are darker, leaning more in the direction of oak, charred wood and earthiness. Some spice and floral aromas are also present, but as much less obvious, secondary notes.
The darker character of the nose carries through on the palate as well. There’s a toffee-like sweetness up front, but drier notes of leather and wood (that are bordering on astringent) come on quickly and carry though the mid-palate, along with savory rye spice notes.
The spice turns a little more fiery on the finish, while clay and oakiness hang on in the background.
Overall, this is a darker, more brooding style of rye whiskey. While it is a little lacking in balance and refinement, it’s still a worthwhile option for the given price category.

Between these two, my preference definitely leans toward the Sazerac Rye, at least for sipping neat. But I could certainly see the Rittenhouse Rye coming into its own as part of a well-crafted Manhattan.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Johnnie Walker Blue vs. Kirkland 24 year blended Scotch

stats:
Johnnie Walker Blue Label: Blended Scotch Whisky, no age statement, 40%, $180
Kirkland Signature: Blended Scotch Whisky, 24 years old, 40%, $70

Johnny Walker Blue is a status symbol whisky. I state that as an observation and not necessarily as a derogatory remark. It’s a product that is almost universally recognized as being expensive and most people presume that the liquid in the bottle will be exceptional in consideration of the price. Sure, you can spend at least ten times as much on a bottle of Brora or Port Ellen, but only whisky aficionados will recognize those for what they are. But that square bottle with a delicate blue tint to the glass and gold accents on the labels will invoke the aforementioned reputation, even among people who know almost nothing about whisky. If you want to impress someone with a gift, your expense account, or a bottle displayed on your desk, Walker Blue is the go-to choice.

That being said, I’ve been meaning to write an honest review of the stuff for some time now. Rather that a straight forward review though, I thought it would be more interesting if I could find another whisky to use for a side by side comparison. I came across the perfect candidate when perusing the liquor section of a Costco Wholesale store; Kirkland Signature Blended Scotch Whisky, Aged 24 Years. If the two whiskies are on par in terms of quality, this could be a much less expensive option for drinkers who aren’t trying to impress their friends and colleagues.

One of the things that sort of bothers me about blended Scotches is the lack of technical or background information associated with them. Usually composed of many different whiskies, you might occasionally be able to find out which distilleries are the major contributors to a blend, but getting a full listing is almost unheard of. That’s partly the nature of the beast; the job of the master blender is to create a consistent flavor profile from year to year, regardless of changes in the supply of whiskies he has to work with. Any history associated with a blend is usually just the history of the brand and that leaves plenty of opportunity for embellishment, especially with the origin stories of older brands.

So, what makes one blend more expensive than another? First is the ratio of malt whisky to grain whisky in the blend. This is something that most producers are pretty secretive about, although there are a few exceptions where this information is included in marketing materials. Malt whisky is notably more costly to produce than grain whisky, so it should typically represent a higher proportion of the liquid in the blend for a more expensive bottling. I’ve read that it is common for cheap blends to have about 10% malt whisky and premium blends to have 30% to 40% malt whisky in them. I have also seen references to blends containing as much as 90% malt whisky.

The next three factors apply to blends as well as single malt whiskies. With ex-sherry casks (and other, more exotic cask types) costing upwards of ten times as much as ex-bourbon barrels, the types of casks used to age the whisky will certainly contribute to the final cost of the blend.

Age is another big cost factor. While lengthy utilization of warehouse space adds to overhead, evaporation from the casks is the biggest driver of the expense associated with extended aging. These losses are typically 2% to 3% of the casks’ contents each year. Since I’m going to compare a non-age stated whisky to a 24 year old, I should mention that the stated age has to be that of the youngest whisky in the blend, and that a wide range of ages can be used to build complexity. If an expensive blend has components that are 40 to 50 years old and there’s also a little 10 year old in the mix, it wouldn’t really make any sense to put and age statement on the label.

Finally, you have the inclusion of rare whiskies as a cost driver for expensive blends. These are typically the remains of long-closed distilleries and the liquid becomes more valuable as time marches on. Unfortunately, most producers usually talk about such exotic component whiskies in rather vague terms, referencing the “rarest stocks” from their inventory. This stands to reason though; such whiskies are a limited commodity and if they are identified by name the producer will eventually have to admit that they are no longer part of the recipe.

At the more extreme end of the high price range, the cost of lavish packaging could also come into play, but that’s not really a factor for these examples.

My blog post research usually involves a few reference books from my personal library and a whole lot of Google searching. But I decided to change things up this time and see what sort of information I could get through official channels. I started off with an email to Diageo’s North American Press Office asking for some detailed information about Walker Blue; percentage of malt whisky in the blend, range of ages of the component whiskies, confirmation of Port Ellen single malt in the blend (I’d heard rumors of this in the past) and any specifics on the “rare and exceptional” whiskies mentioned in the official description. My email got a quick auto-reply and then I heard nothing for two months until I followed-up with another email. This time I was told that I was being connected directly with the Johnnie Walker team. A week later I got an email from someone at a PR firm in New York. And then I had to forward her the questions that I had originally sent to the press office.

Finally, after another month, I got a response which hedged my expectations by mentioning up front that “Blue Label is a bit of a sensitive topic for the blending team”. As for the percentage of malt whisky and range of ages in the blend, they were “unable to comment”. Regarding the component whiskies, they did tell me that Walker Blue includes malt whisky from Benrinnes, Cardhu, Clynelish and Caol Ila, and grain whisky from Cameron Bridge and Port Dundas. As far as blend components go, that’s all pretty standard stuff. Benrinnes did stop using its rather unusual partial triple distillation process (in favor of the more common double distillation) in 2007, so older whisky from that distillery could qualify as being somewhat rare, or at least unique. Port Dundas was permanently closed in 2010, but the distillery did make 39 million liters of spirit each year up to that point, so I wouldn’t call it rare just yet.

To honest, I was surprised that I was able to get any information at all out of Diageo. I had high hopes that Costco would be different in this regard; it seemed like a pretty cool company after all. So I sent a series of questions via Costco’s online Media Inquiry form regarding their 24 year old Blended Scotch; what is the percentage of malt whisky in the blend, is there any whisky significantly older than 24 years in the mix, what are the total number of component whiskies and would they identify any of the individual distilleries, who did they work with in Scotland to create the product and was anyone from Costco involved in developing the blend of influencing its flavor profile?

The response came quickly, I think just a few days later. And the answer was a blunt “we will not be able to accommodate your request”. I was thanked for my interest in the product and my support of Costco. Then the person that emailed me requested that I not attribute her name to the information in the email. I think I read that four-sentence email at least three times looking for the information that I wasn’t supposed associate with its sender. And then I laughed. I don’t think I could ever work for a large corporation.

Taking a closer look at the label, I do see that the Kirkland offering is matured exclusively in bourbon barrels and bottled by Alexander Murray & Co. Ltd.

Before I move on to the tasting notes, I should mention that the price of $180 that I have listed up top for Walker Blue is the price that you will typically see it for in Costco. In more traditional retail settings it usually sells for about $220 to $225.

Both whiskies are medium golden amber in color, but the Kirkland blend is ever so slightly darker.


Walker Blue:
The nose definitely has some good character to it. I’d say the aromas are medium in intensity (probably a little more than I expected from an 80-proofer) and show some really nice complexity. Some fruit comes through, but it is fairly restrained. Damp cellar aromatics (in a good way) are more prominent with dunnage floor, well-aged oak, subtle butterscotch and cedar-driven spice notes coming through. Maybe even a hint of a floral note. A delicate suggestion of peat smoke is there, but barely noticeable.
On the palate, Walker Blue doesn’t quite sing to me the way it does on the nose. Maybe my preference for higher proof (92 and up) whiskies without chill filtration is hard for me to get past. The liquid is somewhat full bodied and the flavors (malt, oak, dry spice notes) seem to be well-integrated, but perhaps its subtleties are lost on me; I just don’t find it to be that interesting.
The flavors do evolve on the finish, with a grassy note briefly emerging as the drying spice notes become more dominant and give the finish additional warmth and length.

Kirkland 24 Year:
The aromas here have a lot less depth than those on the Walker Blue. The notes are primarily oaky, but in a very dry, dusty, woody kind of way. Some caramel and clay-like aromas also eventually emerge. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t say it’s aromatically flawed; it just seems kind of flat by comparison.
This one also seems a little thinner (in terms of body) on the palate. The flavor profile is quite oak-heavy (in an old, tired oak kind of way), to the point of seeming a bit out of balance up front. A fresh-cut grass note emerges on the mid-palate, making thing go a little astringent before it transitions into the finish.
There is a bit of redemption on the back end though; the astringency quickly fades and warming spice notes pull things back into balance for a relatively pleasant ending.

I’ve probably tasted Walker Blue at least half a dozen times over the past 12 years. Each time I felt the same way; not quite understanding what all the fuss (and the high price) was about. I did my best to come into this tasting without bias and I was surprised to find Walker Blue offered so much aromatically.

While Walker Blue clearly has the upper hand, if you were to factor price into the equation, I’d say these two are on pretty equal footing. But they’re both pretty damn expensive for what they have to offer.

The only blend that I actually drink semi-regularly is Chivas Regal 12 year (typically priced around $25 at Costco, $38 elsewhere). I poured myself a little sample of that too, just to see how these two stood up to it. I feel that it bests the Kirkland 24 year blend on all fronts. Walker Blue is a good bit more interesting on the nose. I might even give it a slight edge on the palate, but not by much, and that really says something considering the stark price difference.