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

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

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.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Glenallachie has a new owner

Just about two years ago I wrote a post where I detailed the ownership of every Scottish malt distillery that was currently in operating at the time and had been producing spirit for at least three years. New distillery projects are pretty hard to keep track of and many of them never come to fruition, so if I ever decide to add newer distilleries to this list it will likely be in a separate post a few more years down the road. But I would like to keep the list up to date as far as ownership changes among the distilleries that are already on the list. When changes are made to that original post, I make a note of the edit in the comment section and write a corresponding post with the details of the transaction.

Over the last 25 years, as the industry recovered from the downturn of the 1980’s, there have been many malt distilleries in Scotland that have been rescued and / or resurrected by new owners; Benromach by Gordon and MacPhail in 1993, Ardbeg by the family that owned Glenmorangie in 1997, Edradour by Andrew Symington in 2002 and Glengyle by J&A Mitchell & Co in 2004, just to name a few.

Bruichladdich is one of the great success stories of rescued distilleries in the modern era. Mark Reynier (along with his group of investors) was its savior in December of 2000. Less than 12 years later the Board of Directors accepted an offer for the distillery from Remy Cointreau. Shortly after that, Mr. Reynier was relieved of his duties as managing director. At that point there was much speculation about what his next move would be. Flush with cash from the sale, many believed it was inevitable that he would find another neglected Scottish malt distillery to buy and bring back from the brink.

That was not to be the case though. Apparently Mr. Reynier felt that the asking prices were too high for all of Scotland’s under-utilized distilleries, and that bargains like his previous deal were a thing of the past. Instead, he chose to take his financial resources and a new group of investors to Ireland in 2014, where he transformed a former Guinness brewing facility into a malt distillery. Production commenced in January of 2016; time will tell if Irish single malt whiskey becomes the next big thing.

I last updated the list of distillery owners about 10 months ago, to reflect Brown-Forman’s mid-2016 purchase of the BenRiach Distillery Company (which included three distilleries; BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh) from Billy Walker and his business partners. I detailed that sale in this post, with plenty of information about all of the involved parties.

The quick version of the story is that Walker acquired BenRiach in 2004, GlenDronach in 2008 and Glenglassaugh in 2013. The BenRiach and GlenDronach brands were deftly built up using existing whisky stocks. Glenglassaugh would be a bit more of a challenge to revive though, having recently come off of a 22 year closure. With a few special bottlings from the limited existing stocks, well-marketed younger bottlings and a dramatic increase in production, that distillery had at least been set on a course for success by the time of the 2016 sale to Brown-Forman.

With a hefty profit from the sale of the company that he had cultivated, Billy Walker has now done what many people thought Mark Reynier would have done in the years following the sale of Bruichladdich. Immediately after selling to Brown-Forman, Walker stayed on in the role of master blender. It was announced in February of 2017 that he would be stepping down from that role and parting ways with his former company after a few months of assisting with the transition to his replacement.

That transition was complete by June 12th, and just a month later came the announcement that Walker had purchased the Glenallachie distillery from Chivas Brothers / Pernod Ricard. Glenallachie is one of the post-World War II boom period distilleries, having been established in 1967. The name might not ring a bell for most people; it didn’t for me. That’s because the distillery’s output has been focused almost exclusively on supplying various blended Scotch whiskies throughout its history. Some Glenallachie has been bottled as single malt; a 12 year old was available in the past and more recently it was part of Chivas Brothers’ Cask Strength series. While the whisky from this central Speyside distillery has a good reputation, it has simply never been seriously promoted as a single malt.

When Invergordon acquired Glenallachie in 1985, production was limited and then ceased in 1987. Pernod Ricard purchased the distillery in 1989 through their subsidiary, Campbell Distillers (which became part of Chivas Brothers when they were acquired by Pernod Ricard in 2001). The distillery was brought back to life and production was doubled with the addition of a second set of stills in 1989.

The sale of Glenallachie to Walker includes exiting stocks of whiskey, which should be plentiful considering the production history, and two blended whisky brands, MacNair’s and White Heather. These brands have seen very little use in recent years and are practically unknown. It will be interesting to see what kind of magic Mr. Walker can work this time around.

There’s an interesting footnote with which to finish this post. Glenallachie is not the first distillery that Billy Walker has purchased from Pernod Ricard; BenRiach and GlenDronach were both part of the French conglomerate’s portfolio before Mr. Walker acquired them. This might lead one to assume that Pernod Ricard is shrinking its footprint in the Scotch whisky industry, but a look at the numbers shows that not to be the case. BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenallachie have production capacities of 2.0 million, 1.4 million and 3.9 million liters per annum, respectively. However, in 2009, Pernod Ricard’s Glenlivet distillery expanded from 6.0 to 10.5 mlpa and in 2014 they opened a new distillery, Dalmunich, which has a capacity of 10.0 mlpa (this distillery was too new to make it onto the list I compiled in 2015). They’ve likely expanded capacity at other distilleries as well, but just taking these five facilities into consideration leaves the company with a net gain of 7.2 million liters of spirit per annum.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Woodinville Whiskey Company Bourbon

stats: straight bourbon, Washington, 45%, $55

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m sort of fanatical about whiskey. This will occasionally open up some nice whiskey sampling opportunities for me. Recently, couple of very kind and generous relatives were visiting family members who had relocated to Washington State. On a mid-August morning I received a message on Facebook letting me know that they were in Seattle and planning to visit a distillery in Woodinville (a small city of 12,000 which is part of the Seattle metropolitan area).

My aunt and uncle were wondering if I knew of this distillery and if I had tried any of its whiskey. I was about to explain that with the number of new craft distilleries opening all over the US in recent years, it was hard enough to keep track of the ones in the tiny state where I live, let alone the many that are on the other side of the country. But I kept thinking to myself “Woodinville? Woodinville? Why does that sound familiar?” And then I remembered; I had just read about this distillery on The Chuck Cowdery Blog a few weeks prior.

Woodinville was in the news because it had just been bought out by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH), the French multinational luxury goods conglomerate which has owned Ardbeg and Glenmorangie since 2005. Woodinville was established in 2010 and its owners had a vision of making good craft whiskey which had been aged in traditional 53 gallon barrels for a respectable amount of time, and selling it at a fair price.

I’m going to take a moment to point out a few important differences between craft whiskey and craft beer. Before craft beer started to catch on in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the small number of remaining American macro-breweries were all making essentially the same product, and they weren’t making particularly good versions of it. Craft brewers brought variety and quality, and consumers were willing to pay a premium for that.

While the American whiskey industry had dwindled to just a handful of large distilleries, they had never really compromised on quality. Perhaps Bourbon’s reputation had suffered in general during its years of unpopularity, but American distillers continued to make fundamentally good product. Also, In spite of the small number of distilleries, there were still a large number of brands supported by these producers. This at least gave the appearance of good variety to the casual observer.

When the craft whiskey distillers started to pop up over the last 10 to 15 years, they were at a big competitive disadvantage. Bourbon was a very traditional product and while some innovation would be embraced, anything too esoteric would have a hard time catching on. Most of these outfits lacked the capital and / or financial backing to set up operations and keep producing for multiple years while their whiskey aged properly. Even if they could do that, economies of scale meant that their final products would be much more expensive than those of the old guard.

Some companies took the route of producing vodka or gin to support their whiskey productions. But that market has become oversaturated and it seems like most of the companies that were successful with that model have stayed focused on making money with their clear spirits. Other craft distillers went the route of using very small barrels (5 gal, 10 gal, 15 gal, etc) and short aging times. Despite claims to the contrary, this doesn’t make for particularly good whiskey. Then there’s the business model of setting up a Potemkin distillery and secretly buying aged whiskey from one of the large, established distillers and selling it as your own. Going down that path runs the risk of miring one’s brand in controversy and possibly disgrace, as was the case with Templeton Rye.

Woodinville was one of the exceptions; they made all of their own whiskey and even though they started off with some youthful releases, they were only using 53 gallon barrels and consistently selling a five year old bourbon and a five year old rye by their seventh year of production (although there is no official age statement on the label of the bottle I have). To do this, they had to limit sales to their home state. Granted, their whiskey does sell very well there.

As I noted above, the whiskey business is an extremely capital intensive one to break into. Once established, it takes even money (again with a slow return on investment) to grow operations and expand into new markets. It’s really not surprising that Woodinville sold out to LVMH; it was probably the only way they would be able to grow beyond Washington State.

Many people are bewildered by the astronomical sums that are being paid by the big players in the industry for these relatively small outfits (in the case of Woodinville the sum was undisclosed, but I’m sure it wasn’t cheap). But these valuations aren’t based so much on assets or current sales as they are on the future growth potential of the brand. With a crowded marketplace and many older, established brands already reaching their saturation points, one of the surest paths to future profit is via the acquisition of a brand that is relatively new, but off to a good start with a solid reputation.

My aunt and uncle had offered to procure a bottle of whiskey from the Woodinville distillery shop and bring it back east, riding silently on their drive across the country. I graciously accepted, and noted that I’d love to try this new bourbon from the Pacific Northwest. Little more than a few weeks later the newest addition to the collection was in my hands. I really love the bottle and label design; let’s see how it tastes.

The nose is bold and expressive, but not sharp or punchy. The vanilla aromas are the most obvious, but caramel, spice and delicate toasted notes join in, making it very well rounded. This really does smell like a very well made traditional bourbon.
On the palate it seems like it’s going to be a little hot right up front, but the flavors open up quickly, keeping everything harmonious. A bit of underlying sweetness shows itself early on and lends to a full mouthfeel, but that caramel-driven character stays as a minor influence and is eventually overtaken by drier notes that emerge as things moves on. The mid palate shows leather and a hint of dark red fruits as complex spice notes develop.
The finish becomes increasingly dry. Toasted oak, nuttiness and dry spice become dominant, but balance is maintained.

This really is a lovely bourbon and I’d say it’s every bit as good as Woodford Reserve, which it purportedly competes with in terms of sales volume in Washington State.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Eagle Rare, Private Barrel Tasting

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a small group tasting for the selection of a private barrel of bourbon. I’ll step back a bit and explain how this all came about before I get into the details of the tasting, since it’s an interesting story.

I was working at my regular job, waiting tables, one night toward the end of last January when a solo diner requested a pour of Buffalo Trace bourbon. I informed him that while we didn’t have Buffalo Trace, we did have Eagle Rare bourbon. I mentioned that they were both produced by the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY, and that they were both made from the same distillate of Trace’s low rye mash bill recipe, and both bottled at 90 proof. I then went on to explain that the difference between the two came down to age (with Buffalo Trace being around 6 years old and Eagle Rare carrying a 10 year age statement) and warehouse location (they come mostly from the same warehouses, but Buffalo Trace barrels are stored on the middle floors and Eagle Rare barrels are stored on the lower floors).

He seemed slightly taken aback that some random waiter possessed such bourbon knowledge and complimented the accuracy of my information. When I’m at work, I try not to spout off about my whiskey blog at the drop of a hat; it just strikes me as being unprofessional. Instead I’ll usually let the whiskey discussions progress pretty far before I mention the blog. On this occasion I responded by noting that I had visited Buffalo Trace less than a year prior and had taken their distillery tour. Much to my surprise, the gentleman informed me that he worked for them; it turned out that he was the northern New England Field Sales Manager for Sazerac.

Vermont is a liquor control state and a very small market, but a bar in my town had recently purchased a private barrel of Buffalo Trace bourbon, so I was aware of the possibility. I had also seen a private barrel bottling of Eagle Rare at a liquor store in Massachusetts, so I assumed that was probably an option as well.

We had a series of brief conversations revolving around various whiskey topics throughout the course of his dinner. I’m not sure which one of us brought up the private barrel program, but we discussed it at length and the fact that it might be a viable option where I work, since my employers own three restaurants across which the cost of roughly 240 bottle of bourbon could be spread. Of course, I eventually mentioned the blog and we exchanged business cards before he departed.

Not long after that night, I sent an email pitching the idea of a private barrel purchase to the two owners and the bar manager of our largest restaurant. At the same time I made a strong push for us to go with Eagle Rare, if they decided to move forward. I thought it was important for us to go with private barrel of a different bourbon brand than the one that was already at another establishment in town, and we already sell a high volume of Eagle Rare with our current cocktail program.

The reaction to that email was very positive, but from that point I handed off responsibility for the matter to Chris, the bar manager, since it was more in line with his job duties. Just a few weeks later it was confirmed that a barrel of Eagle Rare had been designated for us, and one week after that we committed to moving forward with the purchase.

Many distilleries have private barrel programs and most of them work on the same basic principle; anyone can buy a barrel, but it must be bottled before it is delivered and the buyer must purchase the entire bottled contents of the barrel at the same time. There’s no volume discount either; the bottles go through the regular distribution and retail channels and are priced at the standard markup. These barrels are occasionally bought by private individuals, but this is typically the realm of large liquor stores or bars and restaurants that sell high volumes of spirits.

It’s likely that each distillery operates their private barrel program a little differently, but here’s how it goes at Buffalo Trace. The potential buyer will request a barrel of a particular brand of whiskey; Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s, etc. The distillery will then approve the purchase (I’m assuming they have a limit on the number of private barrels that they sell each year, so there would probably be a waiting list if demand got high enough) and a barrel is designated for the buyer. This doesn’t mean that a particular barrel has been selected at this point, just that a one-barrel quantity has been allocated from inventory for the purchase that will happen eventually.

When barrels are entered into the warehouses at Buffalo Trace (and likely most other modern distilleries), their eventual fate has already been determined. In other words, when a certain distillate is put into a certain specification barrel and placed in a particular warehouse location, the company intends to bottle that whisky as a specific brand when it’s ready. So a distinct number of barrels are laid down each year with the intention of their contents becoming Eagle Rare ten years later. Of course, these barrels are all tasted at some point before bottling to make sure that they fit what the Eagle Rare flavor profile is supposed to be. As for those that don’t make the cut, they’ll still be used; maybe some special ones are held back to age further and become Eagle Rare 17 year, maybe some not-so-special ones get blended off into something cheap, like Benchmark bourbon.

When a private barrel request comes through, the people that do the barrel tasting at the distillery will pick three different barrels for the purchaser to choose from. Then, a 200 ml sample bottle is drawn from each of the three barrels and these are sent out with a sales rep who will conduct a tasting with the person (or group of people) who will decide which of the three barrels to make their own.

Fast forward to May of this year and we were informed that our samples had arrived. A few weeks later we assembled a small group of people who would collectively select our barrel, and we all got together for a tasting of the samples. This was hosted by a sales rep from the distributor that essentially acts as a middleman between the distiller and our state liquor commission (through which all spirits purchased in-state must go).

This was a pretty informal affair; essentially a round-table discussion where general impressions were bantered back and forth along with the occasional specific aroma or flavor note. Most people at work consider me to be somewhat of an authority when it comes to whiskey, so I was in a position to have the most influence on the group decision, but I wanted to be sure that everyone’s input was valued and that we all had a fairly equal say.

Our samples consisted of three barrel numbers; 033, 332 and 409. I was surprised to see more variation across the three than I had expected. I actually wondered if they had picked some barrels that were outside of the typical Eagle Rare flavor profile, but I was assured through follow-up emails that that was not the case. In retrospect though, it would make sense for them to send the biggest range possible from barrels that do qualify to become Eagle Rare; it wouldn’t be very interesting for buyers to pick from three barrels that are almost identical.

Barrel 033 was sort of the anomaly of the group, its character was much further from the other two than those two were from each other. 033 had very subtle aromas and was quite delicate in the mouth, but there was a distinct mint note that stood out both in a floral way on the nose and in a more herbal way the palate. While some of us found this interesting, we eliminated 033 early on as we all found it to be a little too mild mannered.

Barrel 332 was also a bit restrained on the nose, but I did find some very interesting aromas (including old books) after spending some time with it. What really struck me was how incredibly well balanced it was on the palate.

Barrel 409 had the most assertive nose of the group. It was also big and bold on the palate with a lot of caramel and nutty character.

As a group, we went back and forth between these two for quite some time. To me, 409 was the whiskey that was able to grab one’s attention right of the bat, but 332 was more elegant and well composed overall. While I think either of these would have served us well, the majority eventually gravitated toward 332, and that was what we finally went with. All in all, my first barrel picking session was a fun and insightful experience.

Our barrel is scheduled for bottling right around now. Hopefully the transit time from the distiller to the distributor to the state warehouse to the retail store and finally to the restaurants won’t take too long. Once we have the bottles in hand, I’ll follow up with proper tasting notes as well as some information about the barrel codes that were on our sample bottles and a few other relevant points.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Bruichladdich, The Laddie Eight

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 8 years old, 50%, $60

Regular readers have likely noticed that my posting frequency started to drop off considerably midway through the reports on my most recent trip to Scotland. Summer is a busy season for me with plenty of distractions, but there’s more to it than that. I tend to get bored if I stay on the same subject for too long and drift into procrastination mode. It’s time for me to shake things up a bit and start writing about whatever whisk(e)y topics I’m excited about at the moment. The rest of the 2017 Scotland trip coverage will be interspersed among other posts and will come in due time.

That being said, on to a bottle of whisky that I’ve been itching to open for several months now; Bruichladdich, The Laddie Eight. When single malt Scotch was developing into a product category that could separate itself from blended Scotch in the 1970’s, bottlings with 8 year age statements were fairly common. When the industry hit a rough patch in the 1980’s, years of overproduction would linger in the warehouses before there was a need to bottle that whisky. Naturally, age statements crept up; if you’re competing for a limited pool of consumers and the product’s age is increasing by default, it makes sense to have an elevated age statement as a selling point.

Of course that situation stabilized though the 1990’s and most flagship bottlings had moved to age statements in the 10 to 14 year range by then. When the sales trends had fully reversed and producers were faced with shortages, age statements started to disappear rather than regressing (and of course prices went up as well). Eventually the art of profiteering off of sub-par non-age stated single malts started to hurt the reputation of the NAS category. Finally, younger whiskies with age statements started to make sense again.

Independent bottlers are generally quicker to react to consumer trends, and they led the way with modern bottlings of 8 year age stated single malts. But when Gordon & MacPhail released a series of 8 year olds around early 2012, they were the first company to do so with large enough releases that the bottlings were widely available. A key feature of this series was its modest retail price point. I’ve tasted and written about three of those bottlings; Glenrothes, Bunnahabhain and Highland Park. I also have a yet-to-be-opened bottle of Tamdhu.

While I have seen some online references to a modern Glenfarclas 8 year old, that product seems to be one that is primarily made for Australia and New Zealand. Finally, in the spring of 2016, two new 8 year old official distillery bottlings were announced; Lagavulin’s limited edition 200th Anniversary offering and Bruichladdich’s The Laddie Eight, which would launch as a Travel Retail exclusive.

Fortunately, I live within an hour of a Duty Free store on the US/Canada border. I stopped in on my way home from Montreal at some point that summer to ask if they planned to carry the new release. I was told that it had been ordered already and should arrive by the fall. Like most things in life, it took a little longer than expected, but I finally had it in hand by late February.

Bruichladdich took some criticism when they dropped the 10 year age statement from their flagship bottling. They have done a few limited releases of their 10 year old offering since then, and I viewed this 8 year old as another positive sign from Bruichladdich. I was a bit disappointed with its pricing though. I paid $79 Canadian, which came though as $60.43 on a credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee. Bruichladdich’s flagship Scottish Barley bottling (which is typically a vatting that averages around 9 years old) sells for $67 Canadian in Montreal and $58.29 here in Vermont. As I noted in my Lagavulin 200th Anniversary post, that too was expensive for an 8 year old, but it was still less than their flagship 16 year old (and bottled at a higher proof), and not too expensive for a limited release.

I did manage to by a bottle of Bruichladdich 10 not long before it became unavailable, and I still have some of that on hand, so I’ll do a side-by-side tasting of the 8 year and the 10 year.

8 year, 50% abv
nose – the briney coastal aromas are most obvious and backed up by grassy notes (a mix of beach grasses and fresh cut grass). There’s a malty underpinning to it all, along with fresh fruit (apple, pear and perhaps a hint of orange).
The palate is rich, with an almost honey-like quality up front. It shows a good range of flavors, from malt and tree fruits to grassy notes, though the mid palate.
As it moves into the finish, a maritime minerality comes through and it becomes more oaky with drying spice notes.
It may lack the integration of its older peers, but not to the point of detriment.

10 year, 46% abv
nose – it’s similar to the 8 but with less grassiness and more oak (in the form of soft vanilla) coming through.
As one might expect, there’s not a huge difference in the flavor profiles of these two. The 10 year old shows less of the grassiness that often betrays a more youthful malt whisky. The individual flavors jump out less obviously and it transitions more smoothly from start to finish (everything is a bit more harmonious). Although, that may be partially due to the difference in bottling proof.

Bruichladdich’s new 8 year old is a respectable whisky. It comes across as youthful but not immature. I’d just like to see it priced 10% to 20% lower than their Scottish Barley bottling. Travel Retail is often a place to test the waters with new products. Perhaps we’ll see this as a more reasonably priced general release at some point in the future.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Scotland 2017, day 8

Day 8 was mostly a travel day, but I did manage to incorporate one distillery tour which also helped to breakup the driving. My departure from the Orkney Islands was on a different ferry service than the one by which I had arrived, primarily so I could see a greater variety of scenery. While I had considered visiting another of the historic sites before leaving the islands, I wisely opted for a leisurely breakfast, stress-free organizing and repacking session, and an unrushed drive with an early arrival to check-in for the 11:50 ferry.

The St Margaret’s Hope to Gills Bay crossing actually departs from the island of South Ronaldsay rather than the Orkney Mainland. After the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow at the onset of WWII, which I discussed in my previous post, Winston Churchill ordered the construction of a series of defensive barriers to protect the strategic body of water. Known as the Churchill Barriers, these four structures connect the Orkney Mainland to the smaller islands of Lamb Holm and Glimps Holm, and then to Burray and finally South Ronaldsay. Today these barriers serve as causeways, connecting the five islands via the A961 road.

While the views on this ferry crossing were quite nice, they certainly weren’t as spectacular as those on the Stromness to Scrabster crossing. This was, however, a shorter and less expensive ferry trip at 60 minutes and about $70 (one way, for a car and single passenger). By comparison, my outbound voyage lasted 90 minutes and cost about $95. The two routes are operated by different companies, Northlink and Pentland. The shorter crossing is on a smaller, more utilitarian ferry, while the longer one is on a larger vessel with more upscale accommodations. The island terminals are about equidistant from Kirkwall, but the two companies’ crossing schedules differ significantly.

From the port at Gills Bay it was a three hour drive to Inverness, where I would spend the night. Fortunately, the Clynelish distillery was on my path and about midway between the end points. After departing the ferry terminal I was treated to some new views of northern Scotland’s eastern coast from the A99 until I reached Wick. From there I went back down the road I had followed north the week before. Just ahead of the settlement of Brora I turned off of the A9 and started to head inland, going just a short distance before reaching Clynelish.

As planned, I arrived shortly before the 3:00 tour. I started toward the Clynelish visitor center, which was actually the only accessible part of the distillery building; the rest of it was surrounded by a temporary chain-link fence, segregating it as a construction area. When doing my pre-trip research I had seen on the Clynelish website that mechanical and electrical upgrades at the distillery, which were to last 10 months, had begun in April of 2016. Since this work meant that there could be no visitor access to the production areas of the distillery, tours were instead being offered of the old Brora distillery, which is onsite but had previously been closed to the public.

I was visiting a week into May of 2017, so I had assumed everything would be back to normal by the time I got there. Once inside, I was a little surprised to learn that the work was still ongoing and that I would be getting a tour of Brora rather than Clynelish.
The Brora distillery was actually the original Clynelish distillery, and the two facilities had overlapping periods of production.

My tour guide started off with a little local history. The late 1700’s and early 1800’s saw a transition of the rural Scottish economy as raising sheep became a more profitable agricultural activity than farming. This resulted in aristocratic landowners evicting large numbers of tenant farmers during that period, in what became known as the Highland Clearances. While some people ended up relocating to the poorest quality farmland, many emigrated out of the Highlands, going to the Scottish Lowlands or even as far away North America and Australia.

The Clynelish distillery was founded by one of the more notorious figures involved in the Clearances. George Leveson-Gower, who was known as The Marquess of Stafford until he became the 1st Duke of Sutherland shortly before his death in 1833, is estimated to have been the wealthiest man of the 19th century. His land holdings increased dramatically when he married the Countess of Sutherland, Elizabeth Gordon in 1785. In 1807 they had their agents begin evicting subsistence farmers from their more valuable land and relocating them to the coast, where it was assumed that they would take up fishing as an alternative to farming. Patrick Sellar was hired as their factor (essentially a land manager) in 1809 and oversaw the “improvements” to their lands. Sellar’s methods were particularly brutal, even for the standards of the time, and he carried out extensive clearances between 1811 and 1820.

George Leveson-Gower established the Clynelish distillery in 1819. No doubt it would be a profitable business, but the fact that the distillery would purchase barley from local farms guaranteed that rent was paid by the few tenant farmers who remained on Leveson-Gower’s poor quality land. The distillery was leased by a variety of parties through the 1800’s before being purchased outright in 1896. By 1930 Clynelish was solely owned by Distillers Company Limited, which eventually morphed into today’s Diageo.

As a major contributor to the Johnny Walker blended whiskies, there was enough demand for Clynelish during the boom period of the 1960’s that its owners decided to build a new, much larger distillery next to the original. Construction began in 1967 and the new facility was producing whisky the next year. Once it was up and running, the original Clynelish distillery was mothballed.

But circumstances changed quickly. What I was told on the tour was the simplified version of the story; that the old Clynelish distillery was brought back online in 1969 and heavily peated whisky was produced there to cover for the Caol Ila distillery, which is owned by the same parent company, while is was completely rebuilt. The original Clynelish distillery was renamed as Brora after the town in which it is located, and distillation continued there until 1983. I’ll detail the more historically accurate version of these events in a follow-up post.

Of course, the soft demand that followed through the 1980’s and 1990’s meant that a decent number of Brora casks were spared from the blending hall. There have been many independent bottlings of Brora which date back to at least 1995, but the first official bottling from Diageo came out as a 30 year old in 2002. Since then it has become a mainstay of Diageo’s annual special release group, with cask strength offerings in the 25 to 38 year range and typically about 3000 bottles per release. As the cult status of this whisky has risen, so has its price, with the latest release pushing well past the $2000 mark.

From the visitor center we walked away from the Clynelish still house and toward the Brora distillery buildings, with the old kiln’s pagoda roof standing out above everything else. We passed by a row a seven connected warehouses in the traditional dunnage style, and it appears that no modern warehouses were added to the site when the new distillery was built.

Once inside the Brora still house, we were confined to a small viewing area from which most of the distilling space could be seen through Plexiglas panels. The near-hermetic sealing made me wonder if the space had asbestos issues.

In spite of this restriction, it was still very cool to see the stills that produced such an iconic whisky. The Lyne arms are cut off just before where they would have passed through the exterior wall and much of the plumbing was disconnected from the stills, but they still look glorious. The spirit safe is in position as well as the two receivers it fed, one of wood and the other of cast iron.

I have since learned that Brora used to operate with six wooden washbacks at 29,500 liters each and a similarly sized mash tun. I think it’s safe to assume that those vessels had been located in a room not far from the stills, and wish I had thought to ask if they were still on-site.

Next we stepped back outside and I tried to have a look behind the still house. The area was fenced off and other structures blocked most of the view, but I did catch a glimpse of the large concrete blocks that likely once supported the worm tubs.

A short walk took us to an adjacent building where we entered the former cask filling room. The wooden holding tank is still there along with its pair of hoses and filling nozzles, which rest in a pair of casks dating to 1983 according to the stenciling on their heads.

Speaking of which, the old sheet metal stencils were on display in a small office room off of the filling room. There was also a ledger on a desk here, where all of the information about each cask was entered as they were filled; date, cask number, weight of the empty cask, weight of the full cask, weight of the contents, volume of contents in gallons, strength, gallons at proof, etc.

From there we went back across to the row of warehouses and entered one of them. The seven contiguous warehouses are rather narrow and they vary in length as their rear walls terminate at a road that runs 45 degrees to their orientation. But the longest of them is exceptionally long. Together they currently hold about 6300 casks. Among the many Clynelish casks, two Brora casks were clearly visible; a 1977 and I believe the other was dated 1982. Of course Diageo has a policy of storing a variety of casks from their many distilleries at any given site, so there’s no way to get a sense of how much aging Brora they still possess (and I suspect that most of their employees have no idea either).

We did discuss a few other Brora facts along the way, revealing that Brora had modernized in the 1960’s, at least a little. The stills were converted from direct fired to internal steam heating in 1961. Mechanical power had come from a steam engine and a water wheel until electric motors replaced them in 1965. That was also the last year in which the traditional floor maltings were used. In 1966 the coal-fired boiler was upgraded so it could burn fuel oil instead. While Brora had a maximum capacity of just over 1 million liters per annum, it only produced about 40,000 liters in its last year of production.

We also talked a little bit about Clynelish. When operational they use a long-ish fermentation time of 80 hours and typically run 18 to 19 mashes per week. The distillery is a major contributor to the Johnny Walker range of blends, with 95% of its production going there and only 5% being bottled as single malt. The current capacity is 4.8 million LPA and even though the upgrades being performed are extensive, they are not expanding the production levels.

The project includes replacing three of the six stills and four of the 10 washbacks. Two of the 10 washbacks are stainless steel, but they will be replacing the wooden ones with new wooden ones. Other new pieces of equipment include the mash tun, the draff hopper and the water cooling tower. The project also includes the building of a new yeast room, as well as a new roof for the control room.

My guide also mentioned that Teaninich (another Diageo owned distillery), which lies about 40 miles to the south, is considered to be the sister distillery to Clynelish. When it was rebuilt in 1970 the designers essentially copied the blueprint of the new Clynelish plant. Teaninich is actually located just a few thousand feet away from Dalmore, on the other side of the A9, but is apparently much less visible from the main road.

At the time of my visit, I was told that the construction project would likely be complete by the end of June. Looking online now though, I see more recent estimates of the restart happening in August. My guide didn’t know what the fate of the Brora tours would be once the Clynelish tours were being offered again, but we both agreed that it would be a shame for them to go away altogether. Hopefully they will continue separately, or as an optional add-on to the standard Clynelish tour. I even mused about the possibility of Brora restarting as a small-scale, old-style production distillery; sort of a working museum. But I really don’t think anyone at Diageo has the vision or the fortitude for such a project.

Back at the visitor center, I was presented with two samples; Clynelish 14 year old, which is the only regularly produced official bottling, and a distillery-only offering. The 14 year old is aged 60% in sherry casks and 40% in bourbon barrels, and bottled at 46% abv. This was my first taste from a distillery that had barely been on my radar prior to this trip, and I was pleasantly surprised. This is an old-school style malt; a good representation of what coastal highland whiskies used to be.

I only had the tiniest of sips of my sample from the other bottling (for a direct comparison) and took the rest of it to go in what was essentially a stoppered test-tube. This was from a limited run of just 6000 bottles that were released in 2008. It was bottled at a cask strength of 57.3% with no age statement after maturing exclusively in bourbon barrels. Full strength whiskies have a great appeal to me and this one was certainly bold and interesting, but I still preferred the flagship 14 year old. Its sherry cask component brought a level of complexity that the distillery-only bottling just couldn’t match.

On this sort of trip there have to be a few very special drams along the way. You can’t really plan such things in advance though; they just come along when the time is right. Brora has long been a whisky that was on my list of things I really ought to taste. Having just toured the old distillery and with several vintages available for tasting at the visitor center, this was one of those times. I went with the 2014 release, which was a 35 year old bottled at 48.6%. A single drink at £35 (about $45) is a rare indulgence for me, so I try to be picky when I go there. This one was definitely worth it.

The nose was rich and weighty with macerated tree fruits, showing firm but delicate peat smoke.
On the palate, the dry, earthy peat character seemed to have been mellowed by the years rather than diminished by them. There was a rich, waxy quality and nice complexity along with great balance.
The flavors evolved beautifully as it moved into an incredibly long finish.

After wandering around and taking a few more pictures outside of the distillery, I made my way down to Inverness. The city is bisected by the river Ness, which flows from Loch Ness to the sea. The B&B I was staying at was in the heart of the city and right on the east bank of the river. I had some travel issues to sort out after I settled in and that took up most of my evening. I was actually lucky to find a nearby place for dinner that was open past 10:00; otherwise I might have gone without. Needless to say, the only whisky I got into that night was the sample I had taken from Clynelish.