Monday, January 16, 2017

What's on the shelf? - Hudson, Baby Bourbon and Manhattan Rye

You’d be hard pressed to find a whisk(e)y whose price hasn’t gone up in the last 10 years. While some have risen up a little, others have gone up a lot. Many have crept upward incrementally over several years, but some have leapt dramatically overnight. When a whisk(e)y price goes down in the current environment, that’s something which certainly catches my attention.

Scanning the shelves of some of the New Hampshire state liquor stores during the latter months of 2016, I noticed an interesting price disparity. Sitting right next to each other were two bottles of Hudson Manhattan Rye; at $45 was the 375 ml sized bottle that the brand has been known for since its inception, and at $50 was a recently introduced 750 ml sized bottle. They also had both sizes / prices for Hudson Baby Bourbon.


In an ideal world these two bottles of whiskey would not have been sitting on the shelf next to each other, but there is only so much influence that producers can exert in the retail space. When a distiller doubles the size of their whiskey bottles and the price only comes up by 10%, they are clearly serious about selling a lot more whiskey. Let’s take a look at some background and see what’s going on here.

Tuthilltown Spirits was established in 2004, but it was born out of a failed business venture that dated back to 2001. That was when Ralph Erenzo purchased the Tuthilltown Grist Mill property in upstate New York with a vision of turning it into ranch for visiting rock climbers. Three years of legal challenges from neighbors who opposed his plans crushed that dream.

Looking for an alternative business use for the place, he came across some state regulations that could work to his benefit as a distiller. Right-to-farm laws that protected agricultural concerns would beep the pesky neighbors at bay and a new class of state distilling license introduced two years prior meant that the fee to start the business would be $1500 instead of $60,000, as long as he made less than 35,000 gallons of spirit each year.

Erenzo partnered with Brian Lee, an engineer and technical designer, and they spent the next two years building the distillery, figuring out how to distill and experimenting with aging in small barrels. By 2006 they were selling the first bottles of Hudson Baby Bourbon. Eventually three other aged whiskeys joined the lineup; Hudson Single Malt Whiskey, Hudson Four Grain Bourbon and Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey.

Tuthilltown Spirits was noteworthy for being the first distillery to open in New York since Prohibition and for being the first producer of Bourbon in the state, ever. The brand caught on in the New York City craft cocktail scene, and they quickly built a small but strong following. Then in 2010 they sold the Hudson Whiskey brand, along with the rights to its distribution, to William Grant & Sons (yes, the one that owns Glenfiddich and Balvenie). Erenzo and Lee still own and operate the distillery.

I did a little digging and found some interesting information about their maturation regime. An article from 2011 stated that the Baby Bourbon was aged for four months in three gallon barrels. A 2014 article noted that the barrel size used for these whiskeys ranges from two to 14 gallons. A comment on a blog post from someone who had visited the distillery in 2014 mentioned that the whiskeys were being aged for about a year.

I do take issue with the fact that the Hudson Whiskeys have carried (and still do) age statements of “aged less than four years”. They may be honest about their short aging times in interviews or on distillery tours, but the label is misleading at best. It’s also illegal. TTB regulations for most American whiskey styles (and certainly the ones made by Hudson) state that they must carry an age statement if they are aged less than four years and that the age shown on the label must be that of the youngest whiskey contained in the bottle. Quite honestly, I’m shocked that the TTB approves labels with such flagrant violations of their rules.

Digressions aside, an article from 2013 stated that the Hudson brand had sold 6500 bottles in 2012 and was on track to sell 60,000 bottles in 2013. While that’s a big increase, it’s still not that much whiskey. Remember, those were 375 ml bottles, which translates into 2500 9-litre cases (the industry standard for measuring sales volume). Just to put that into perspective, Glenfiddich sold 1 million cases in a year for the first time in 2011.

William Grant & Sons obviously would want to grow the brand, increase sales and see a good return on their investment. Aging the whiskey for a longer time in bigger barrels will help them do that.

Smaller barrels have a greater surface area of wood for a given volume of liquid compared to larger barrels, allowing them to age the whiskey much more quickly (many would argue that oak flavors are imparted more quickly, but that maturity can only come with time). But that greater surface area means there will be more loss to evaporation, even when aging times are taken into account. I don’t have exact numbers, but I’ll make some up to give you an idea of what I mean. Let’s say a three gallon barrel requires four months of aging. Its total loss to evaporation might be 40%. If you scale up to a 10 gallon barrel it will have to age for a full year to get the same effect on flavor, but it might only lose 30% of its content.

Since labor is a big part of the cost of a barrel, small ones cost much more, proportionally. A four gallon barrel might be around $75 where a traditional 53 gallon barrel can be had for less than $200. Small barrels will get a new distiller’s product to market more quickly, but their cost effectiveness in the long term is terrible.

Once a producer grows their operation to a certain point, everything gets less expensive. Buying grain by the truckload rather than is 50 lb bags costs a lot less. Buying barrels, bottles, labels, packaging, etc in larger quantities will get you volume price breaks. Shipping rates are going to be much better on all of these items if you can take a whole cargo container of them at once rather than paying to ship one palette at a time. The fixed costs of a distillery’s overhead (property taxes, heating the building, etc) all take a smaller percentage out of the bottom line when you start dealing with bigger sales volumes.

Once they had grown to the point that they could reduce the cost of making the Hudson whiskeys significantly, it was time to drop the price, which would fuel further sales growth. In Tuthilltown’s early years, consumers were much more likely to try the product if it was in a small bottle that didn’t break the bank. With a much lower price, it makes sense to shift to bigger bottles which means twice as much whiskey going out the door with each sale.

It will be interesting to see where they go with barrel size and aging time over the coming years.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Lagavulin, Distillers Edition vs. 12 year cask strength

stats:
12 year (2015 release), single malt Scotch, Islay, 56.8%, $135
Distillers Edition (2016 release), single malt Scotch, Islay, 43%, $100

I was fairly excited by the prospect of Lagavulin’s 8 year old, 200th anniversary bottling and the opportunity to compare it to their flagship 16 year old. One thought that crossed my mind was to hunt down a bottle of 12 year Lagavulin and taste all three together to get a sense of the age progression.

With the 16 year at 43% abv, the 8 year at 48% and the 12 year at cask strength (usually around 57%), I’d have to make some adjustments. My plan was to bring the latter two down to 43% with the addition of precise amounts of distilled water. Cask types represented another variable; the 12 year is aged exclusively in American oak ex-Bourbon barrels, but the 8 year and the 16 year both see a small percentage of Sherry cask whisky in their vattings. Lagavulin is known for working with fairly heavily used casks though, so I wasn’t too worried about this added influence.

I had seen Lagavulin 12 year on liquor store shelves in the past, but not too recently. I did recall seeing it in the New Hampshire state liquor stores in the $90-something range, maybe about three years ago. Knowing that it is part of Diageo’s annual group of special release bottlings, I figured it would make an appearance some time in the fall as they all come out together at that time of year. I kept checking the New Hampshire liquor commission website to no avail, then started checking some of the bigger stores in the greater Boston area. When it finally popped up in a few places I was kind of shocked to see it going for $135 to $140.

I thought there might be a bit of special-release price gouging going on, so I was holding out that it would appear at a better price in NH, where prices are very likely to be close to the msrp. No such luck – it never showed up there and a little research revealed that the price of this bottling had gone through a series of increases over the last four years. I understand that whisk(e)y prices are going up all around, but sometimes as a consumer you just have to take a stand on what you are willing to pay for something. For me, this was one of those times. This particular whisky was just not worth that much money to me.

Hoping to make lemonade out of lemons, I went with “plan B”; a quick trip up to Montreal, which was long overdue anyway, where I could sample Lagavulin’s 12 year cask strength as well as their Distillers Edition, without having to buy a whole bottle of either. Diageo started producing the Distillers Edition bottlings of their original six “classic malts” (Lagavulin, Oban, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenkinchie and Talisker) in the late 1990’s and included them in their annual group of special release whiskies. Caol Ila and Clynelish were added to the DE offerings in 2006, as was Royal Lochnagar in 2008. The Distillers Editions of Clynelish and Royal Lochnagar were discontinued after 2012, however.

Each of the DE bottlings starts off as the same whisky (in terms of maturation) as the flagship bottling of its respective distillery. It is then re-racked into some type of fortified wine cask for a finishing period of six months to two years. Different types of finishing casks are used for each brand, but they do not change from year to year. In the case of Lagavulin, Pedro Ximenez casks are used and the finishing period is on the shorter end of the aforementioned range.

After a short walk from my conveniently located hotel in Montreal’s Latin Quarter, I bellied up to the bar at Pub L’Ile Noir and ordered the Distillers Edition Lagavulin. This was the latest release, having been distilled in 2000 and bottled in 2016.



The nose is dark and brooding with plenty of depth. The peat smoke aromas are densely packed, but not too assertive.
It’s full-bodied, and some dark, fruity sweetness from the PX casks does come through on the palate, but it’s really well balanced by the dry, earthy, mineral-driven coastal character.
The peat smoke builds through the mid palate, and then rides along in slowly fading waves as it moves on. Floral notes emerge late in the finish, rounding things out.
This is an interesting take on the Islay classic.

Next, I moved on to the 12 year cask strength Lagavulin which was last year’s release, having been bottled in 2015 at 56.8%.



The peat smoke on the nose is relatively assertive, but a briny, coastal edge and floral / grassy notes come through as well.
A blazing inferno of fiery peat smoke jumps out immediately on the palate. Some secondary flavors dance around on the periphery, adding complexity, but this is really all about the smoke-laden peaty intensity.
It evolves nicely, becoming drier with burning spice notes as it evolves through the long, smoldering finish.
I could add a few drops of water, but I won’t; it’s a wild ride, but an enjoyable one.

Not quite ready to move on to dinner, I decided to have one more whisky. It can be hard to turn back once you’ve gone down the peat road, so I decided to satisfy my curiosity about the relatively new Laphroaig Lore. I was ready to sit back and sip rather than scrutinize and take notes at this point, but I will say that it was quite exceptional.

I had opted for the ½ pour option with all three drinks, which I have a sneaking suspicion is a bit more than half of L’Ile Noire’s standard 1.25 ounce pour. Factoring in the favorable exchange rate, my tab came to about $22 plus tip. I think I made the right choice in taking a little road trip instead of adding to my bloated whisky collection for this post.

Friday, December 23, 2016

What's on the shelf? - Glendronach 12 year

The new “What’s on the Shelf?” series of posts are normally reserved for items which I’ve seen in retail settings and wanted to comment on, even though I didn’t purchase them; I’m making an exception in this case. I purchased a bottle of Glendronach 12 year last week which I may not open anytime soon, but I wanted to mention it here now, as time is of the essence.


The current bottlings of Glendronach’s flagship 12 year old mark the end of an era. Historically, the vast majority of the pot stills used by Scotland’s malt whisky industry were coal fired. Most of them converted over to indirect steam heating (via internal steam coils) in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Today, there are four distilleries that continue to use direct heat with a live flame under at least some of their stills; Macallan, Glenfarclas, Glenfiddich and Springbank. But each of those four switched over from coal to either natural gas of fuel oil decades ago. Glendronach was the last holdout in Scotland to continue the tradition of making malt whisky with coal fired pot stills; until 2005 when they converted to steam.

Since 2016 is rapidly coming to a close I decided I should pick up a bottle of Glendronach 12 while I could still be assured that it was distilled no later than 2004. Of course, older bottlings of Glendronach that were distilled in the coal fired stills will be available for many years to come. Also, When I got this bottle home, took it out of the canister and gave it a good looking over I was happy to see that the bottling date was clearly printed on the glass, The year was even there with all four numerals and the date wasn’t embed in a complex bottling code that I’d have to figure out how to decipher. It was, however, in the slightly unconventional format of year/month/day; 2014/02/18.

Yes, that is correct; this one was bottled nearly three years ago. I guess there may be opportunities to buy Glendronach 12 which was distilled prior to 2005 for some time to come; as long as you are willing to take the bottle out of the packaging while you’re in the store and hold it up to the light to look for that date.

If you wanted to hunt for a bottle of Glendronach that was even more rare and special, you’d be on the lookout for something that was distilled prior to 1996. That’s the year that the distillery decommissioned its floor maltings. I’m not sure if they were supplementing with commercial malt back then, but they had been using local peat in the kiln to dry the malt they made themselves. In those days the average peating level ran up as high as 14 ppm. Most of the malt they buy today is unpeated, but they did come out with a lightly peated bottling last year. It is non-age stated and aged primarily in Bourbon barrels rather than the full Sherry cask maturation that Glendronach is known for. I’d much rather search out one of the older bottlings.

My intention is to sit on this bottle of 12 year for a while, until I can get another example that was distilled after the conversion to steam heat to see how they compare. We’ll see if I can hold out that long.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Old Pulteney, 12 year vs. 17 year

stats:
12 year – single malt Scotch, Highlands, 43%, $42
17 year – single malt Scotch, Highlands, 46%, non-chill filtered, $110

Since my last post mentioned that Wolfburn had recently overtaken Pulteney’s status as the northernmost distillery on the Scottish mainland, I thought I should follow up with a long overdue Old Pulteney post.

The Pulteney distillery is somewhat unusual on a few fronts. You may have noticed that I’ve already been inconsistent with the use of the word “Old” preceding “Pulteney”. Keep in mind that a single malt Scotch is not required to bear the name of the distillery where it was made. Just one example of this is Springbank, which also produces single malts under the Longrow and Hazelburn brands. In this case Pulteney is the name of the distillery and Old Pulteney is the name of the brand of single malt whiskies which are produced there. It’s a small point of distinction, but one worth noting if you’re a stickler for details.

Most of the malt distilleries in Scotland have names that are mildly anglicized derivations of Gaelic words which describe their location or the water source they use. Pulteney is the only one in Scotland I’m aware of that is named for a person, albeit in a roundabout sort of way.

Wick is a fishing village on the eastern shore of the northern tip of Scotland which was at the heart of the Herring boom from the late 1700’s until the start of WWI. The town straddles the mouth of the Wick River as well as Wick Bay, into which the river feeds. The original village was solely on the north side of the river and bay. In the first few years of the 19th century a major initiative to develop a new harbor in Wick Bay and a new fishing town on the south side of the river was led by Sir William Pulteney.

Pulteney was a British Member of Parliament and the governor of the British Fisheries Society. He commissioned Thomas Telford, Britain’s preeminent civil engineer at the time, to design and supervise the construction of these major projects. Pulteney passed away in 1805 though, a few years before his vision came to fruition. The harbor was completed in 1808, and a decade later more than 800 boats were operating out of the port. The new town, built along the south bank of the Wick River and the south shore of the bay, was established by 1810 and named Pulteneytown in Sir William’s honor. Although originally considered a separate town, it has been part of Wick since 1902.

With a rapidly growing population, demand for whisky would soon necessitate a local distillery. Founded by James Henderson in 1826, the Pulteney distillery was named for the new town in which it was located, and indirectly for the man who was responsible for the development of Pulteneytown.

In addition to the distillery’s uncommon name etymology, it is also one of very few urban distilleries in Scotland. That is a term which could be somewhat open to interpretation, but even if you include distilleries with small amounts of dense development in close proximity to them, the only ones that come to mind are Auchentoshan, Oban, Highland Park, Bowmore, Tobermory, Springbank, Glengyle and Glen Scotia.

Old Pulteney’s core range consists of a 12 year, a 17 year and 21 year (which I’ll taste in an upcoming post). The 12 year, which is at 43% and presumably chill filtered, is aged exclusively in ex-Bourbon barrels. The 17 year, which is at 46% and carries an “unchill-filtered” statement on the label, is aged primarily in ex-Bourbon barrels with the addition of some spirit aged wholly in Spanish oak ex-Sherry casks. The 12 year is noticeably darker in color, though neither bottling has a statement claiming natural color.



12 year:
nose – The aromas are gently malty, with hay and beach grass, a touch of vanilla and slightly briny minerality.
palate – It has decent weight, and a nice balance of malt and tree fruits with a touch of vanilla.
finish – The malt carries through, joined by grassy notes and a soft spiciness. The coastal, briny character is well integrated throughout.
overall – Lively and thought provoking with a nice evolution of flavors.

17 year:
nose – The aromas show more maturity than those of the 12 year. There’s still some maltiness and coastal character, but notes of clay and old books overshadow them.
palate – The weight is still there, but it kind of falls flat on the palate. Malt is the obvious character but it’s fairly one-dimensional, with just a bit of salinity coming along.
finish – Generous spice notes join the malt and sea spray, but it still feels like something is lacking.
overall – I don’t dislike the 17 year, it just fell short of my expectations and pales in comparison to the 12 year. If I didn’t know better, I would think this was the lower-proof, chill filtered one out of the two expressions.

I should note that I’ve had this bottle for nearly five years (I tend to ignore the ones that I find underwhelming), so more recent incarnations of the 17 year may have improved. I tasted it close to the time of purchase and not long after thumbed through Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, noticing that he was lamenting the use of tired old casks to mature Old Pulteney 17 year. I tend to agree.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

What's on the shelf? - Wolfburn single malt

Last winter I traveled to Florida to host a Scotch whisky dinner which had a theme focused on malt distilleries that had gone online since 1990. At that time the list included 20 facilities, but only nine of them had been operating long enough to have distillate that had aged for three years; the requisite minimum to legally qualify as whisky. Three of the nine were yet to bottle any of their whisky, at least not as single malt, and several of the others were very hard to come by. Needless to say, it was a bit of a challenge to round up four different whiskies to support the chosen topic.

All of that being said, I was excited to see another distillery from the list have its whisky come of age and appear on retail shelves this fall. The post I linked to above is kind of lengthy, so I’ll re-post the list of 20 distilleries here with the years that they began production shown.

(1990) Speyside
(1990) Kininvie
(1995) Arran
(2004) Glengyle
(2005) Daftmill
(2005) Kilchoman
(2007) Ailsa Bay
(2008) Abhain Dearg
(2010) Roseisle
(2013) Strathearn
(2013) Wolfburn
(2014) Annandale
(2014) Ardnamurchan
(2014) Ballindalloch
(2014) Eden Mills
(2015) Arbikie
(2015) Glasgow Distillery Co
(2015) Dalmunach
(2015) Kingsbarn
(2015) Isle of Harris

The Wolfburn distillery went online early in 2013, so the whisky they are selling now is just three years old, or perhaps slightly older.

There are some interesting points of note, both geographically and historically. Located in the town of Thurso, Wolfburn is now the northernmost distillery on Scotland’s mainland. In doing so it unseated the Pulteney distillery, which is in the nearby town of Wick, from that title. The only distilleries situated further north in the country are Scapa and Highland Park, both of which can be found on the largest island of the Orkney Islands archipelago.

The new Wolfburn distillery was constructed very close to the site of the original Wolfburn distillery, which was founded in 1821. All that remains of the original is its foundation and unfortunately it ceased production before Alfred Barnard made his tour of all of Scotland’s distilleries in the 1880’s, so our knowledge of it is quite limited. What little is known comes from tax records and Ordnance Survey maps. The distillery seems to have stopped operating some time in the 1850’s or 1860’s, but at one point it was the largest in Caithness County.

I first became aware of the fact that Wolfburn was being bottled and shipped to the U.S. when I saw it on a Florida distributor’s list of products in late September. Since then I’ve seen it on store shelves in NH and MA.

The Wolfburn website makes claims of long fermentations and slow distillations. They are also bottling their whisky without chill filtration or artificial color. All of this bodes well for a quality product. I’ve tasted some very impressive young whiskies from Kilchoman and they note that part of their strategy was to use small stills to maximize copper contact during distillation. The stills at Wolfburn are bigger than Kilchoman’s (5500 liters wash and 3600 liters spirit vs. 3230 liters wash and 2070 liters spirit), but nonetheless relatively small in the grand scheme of things.


$60+ does seem a bit expensive for a young whisky, but that’s the price of admission to sample the work of a new distillery when they’re trying to generate some cash flow early on. I’ve been trying to reign in my whisky spending a bit lately and I hadn’t heard anything about this bottling yet, so I held off. But I am curious about it now, so it’s probably just a matter of time before I get around to tasting Wolfburn.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Lagavulin, 200th Anniversary 8 year old

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 8 years old, 48%, $65

For some writers, criticizing Diageo is practically a sport; and the company seems to feed them plenty of ammunition (see the “controversies” section of their Wikipedia page if you don’t believe me). While I really don’t enjoy writing negative blog posts, if the situation warrants it I have no problem castigating Diageo, or anyone else for that matter. I definitely laid into them when I wrote about my experience touring the George Dickel distillery. On the other hand, I’m happy to sing their praises when they do the right thing.

With Lagavulin celebrating their 200th anniversary in 2016, I was curious to see what would be put on offer for her fans wanting to commemorate the special occasion. This was especially true in light of the fact that the distillery’s two closest neighbors marked their bicentennials the previous year and Laphroaig got it so right while Ardbeg got it so wrong. They did bottle a 51.7%, Sherry cask aged, 25 year old Lagavulin. But at $1200, that one was for the high-rollers. We of more modest income got a limited release 8 year old bottling.


I know, some are bemoaning a special release that’s at half the age of the flagship 16 year old and priced only modestly lower. So, why was I impressed? We’ve been presented with a bottling of Lagavulin that is bound to be quite different than the standard expression due to the big age differential. It’s also bottled at 48%, a healthy step up from the 43% of the 16 year old.

This whisky also needs no marketing fluff to distract from a lack of an age-statement, and regardless of its relative youth, a limited-edition special release at $65 is pretty reasonable by today’s standards. Anything older than 16 years would have been exorbitantly expensive (in the mid-$70’s, the 16 year old is already steeply priced for a brand’s main bottling, but it’s not really out of line relative to other producer’s offerings in the 16 to 18 year range).

Many respectable single malts were bottled as 8 year olds back in the 1970’s, but age statements generally crept up as sales dropped off in the 1980’s. As supplies have run thin over the last decade, age statements have largely disappeared rather than retreat. I’ve been a proponent of modestly priced 8 year olds since Gordon & MacPhail introduced such a series about five years ago.

Most importantly though, this 8 year old expression is a tip of the hat to Alfred Barnard, a spirits journalist who toured most of the whisky distilleries in the U.K. over the course of 1885-1886 and published his combined essays as The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom in 1887. While visiting Lagavulin his party tasted “some eight years old”, which he described as “exceptionally fine”.

I own a copy of Barnard’s book, and what was even more interesting to me was the sentence that followed his reference to the whisky he tasted – “The make is largely used for blending purposes, but it is also sold as a single Whisky; there are only a few of the Scotch Distillers that turn out spirit for use as single Whiskies, and that made at Lagavulin can claim to be one of the most prominent.”

Much to my relief, Diageo managed to invoke Barnard without any historical distortions. Let’s keep in mind though, this whisky was inspired by the 8 year old Lagavulin that Barnard praised, it’s not supposed to be a recreation of it. That would have been a fool’s errand; no samples of Lagavulin exist from anywhere near the Victorian era and we know from Barnard’s chronicles that back then the stills at Lagavulin were roughly half the size of the ones that are in use today. Additionally, it’s been more than 40 years since the distillery was modernized, leaving behind its floor maltings, worm tubs and direct-fired stills.

That being said, I did at least expect this bottling to free of artificial color and chill filtration, especially given its elevated alcohol level. But neither of those features was touted on the packaging.

Looking around online, I saw mixed reports as to whether or not this whisky has artificial coloring added. I could imagine them leaving off a “coloring free” statement, even if that was the case, because it might draw attention to the fact that Lagavulin’s flagship 16 year old is artificially colored. But then I started to see documentation of bottles shipped to Germany, where the labeling requirements are more stringent, bearing a declaration of added coloring.

Seeing how light the whisky looks in the glass, I’d say that if there is caramel coloring in the mix it’s an incredibly minor amount, as in just enough to make the color consistent across all of the bottling runs. Looking at the 16 year by comparison shows just how heavily colored that whisky probably is. I believe both expressions have a small Sherry cask component, so that shouldn’t be a factor in their differing color profiles.

I’ve also seen a lot of mixed opinions as to whether of not the 8 year old was chill filtered. Most of those opinions were based on speculation and conjecture. Finally, I came across a comment from someone who had heard Iain McArthur say at a distillery tasting that Diageo chill filters everything from Lagavulin, including the cask strength bottlings. Baby steps Diageo, baby steps.

First I tasted the 16 year old at 43% as a benchmark:

Color – Dark golden-amber.
Nose – The aromas are peaty and bold, with dry earth, dark fruit and coastal minerality.
Palate – It’s full-bodied, with complex, earthy fruit notes showing up-front. By the mid-palate a big wave of peaty intensity has risen up and overshadowed the initial character. Finally, dry spice notes come into play as it evolves further.
Finish – The peat smoke and dry spiciness go back and forth, vying for dominance as it meanders through the lengthy finish. Nuttiness and subtle fruit notes linger on to lend complexity.
Overall – Powerful and balanced; 16 years seems to be a very good place for this distillate.

Then it was on to the 8 year old at 48%:

Color – Lighter than pale straw, it almost looks like clear spirit when the glass is held up to a grey background.
Nose – Peat and minerality come through, but it’s more bright and floral, with some stone fruit showing.
Palate – Apple, peach and pear all show up-front, with the peat smoke becoming more dominant as it moves on. A minty floral character eventually emerges in the background
Finish – Dry spice notes come out to play and mingle with the peat smoke late in the game here as well, but minus the nutty, earthy character.
Overall – There’s a youthfulness to it. Not to the point of being detrimental, but just enough to bring back fond memories of tasting new-make spirit at Lagavulin when I toured the distillery. It may lack some of the refinement of the flagship offering, but it still shows quite well at half the age.



This may not be a ground-breaking expression, but it’s certainly interesting to see a different facet of Lagavulin, and I think that’s really the point of this bottling. Of course, drawing attention to the works of Alfred Barnard will always get a nod of approval from me as well.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What's on the shelf? - Macallan Double Cask 12 year

I travel between northern Vermont and Boston somewhat regularly, and when I do I usually stop at several liquor stores along the way. Sometimes I’m looking for a specific bottling, other times I’m just window shopping; keeping an eye out for new products, following pricing trends, making note of packaging changes, etc.

On one such recent outing I came across a new Macallan bottling; Double Cask 12 year old (clearly, I don’t pay much attention to official distillery press releases). So, what’s this new bottling all about and how does it fit in with their other offerings?


First, a brief history lesson. Although definitely not the case today, if you go back far enough in time, Sherry casks were dominant in Scotch whisky maturation. Their availability was limited during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930’s, forcing some Scotch producers to look elsewhere. When Spain transitioned from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970’s, unions insisted that Sherry be bottled in the country rather than exported in bulk in its oak casks as it had been previously, primarily to the United Kingdom. Finally, worldwide sales of Sherry have been on a steady annual decline since the early 1990’s.

The Bourbon industry has seen periods of strong growth following Prohibition and after World War II, and of course again with the latest whiskey boom. Bourbon producers used new oak barrels initially by tradition and best practice, and have continued to do so by law since 1935. Gradually, over the last century or so, Scotch whisky producers have shifted to primarily using ex-Bourbon barrels for maturation, with Sherry casks falling into the minority.

A few producers stuck exclusively (or at least mostly) with Sherry cask aging though, Macallan being one of them. But even Macallan was sort of secretly hedging their bets. They had quietly been putting distillate into Bourbon barrels since at least the mid 1970’s. If sales growth didn’t develop the way they hoped, all of that whisky aging in Bourbon barrels (which cost about 1/10 what  Sherry casks cost) would go into blends. In addition to Macallan, The Edrington Group also owns Cutty Sark and The Famous Grouse, so there would be a ready outlet for the extra whisky.

If sales did take off, The Macallan would have to introduce a second line of bottlings that incorporated the Bourbon barrel-aged whisky. That is exactly what happened in 2004. The new range, titled “Fine Oak”, featured a flagship 10 year old, but also included a 25 year old and a 30 year old, proving the distillery’s lengthy use of Bourbon barrels.

I need to go on a slight tangent about oak here. There are over 600 different species of oak, but the vast majority of casks used today are made from just four of them. Japanese Oak (Quercas crispula), also known as Mizunara, has been used for maturing Japanese whisky since the 1930’s. It produces some unique flavors, but its porous nature makes it prone to leakage. It’s fairly rare and is mostly just used for finishing whiskies these days. American Oak (Quercas alba) dominates the Bourbon industry. It is also used by the wine industry. European Oak will be one of two types; pendunculate (Quercas robur) or sessile (Quercas petraea). Both grow throughout central Europe with mostly overlapping distributions. Quercas alba is primarily used for Sherry, Port and Cognac. Quercas petraea is primarily used for wine.

You may see references to Spanish Oak, Iberian Oak (referring to the Iberian Peninsula, which includes Spain and Portugal) or French Oak, and possibly other European countries. These are all still Quercas robur or Quercas petraea, but with a more specific regional designation of where the trees were sourced from. The only one that really has any significant additional meaning is French Oak. That designation is only possible if the trees are harvested from certain managed forests with sustainable logging practices. The trees are all aged between 200 and 250 years and only the base sections of the trees are used to makes casks, resulting in a more consistent product.

It’s a little known fact is that most Sherry casks used by the Scotch industry are seasoned with fermenting grape must and/or young Sherry (usually Oloroso) for less than two years. The Sherry producers don’t want to use new oak and they now usually keep their casks until they reach the point of rotting. The Sherry from the new oak that they use, whether they will keep those casks for themselves or are seasoning them on behalf of the Scotch producers, will only be used for very low quality Sherry blends, distilled into bulk alcohol, or even just dumped down the drain.

What most people don’t realize is that the Sherry and Port industries use a lot of Quercas alba in addition to Quercas robur. This is also true of casks which are produced for the Scotch industry and seasoned by the Sherry bodegas. European Oak’s limited supply and higher cost (it’s a more labor intensive material to make casks out of than American Oak) likely play a big role in this reality. Most Scotch producers don’t mention the fact that some of their Sherry casks are made from American Oak. This is probably because American Oak has such a strong association with Bourbon barrels and they don’t want to confuse consumers, giving the false impression that they might not be using 100% Sherry cask maturation.

Oak casks used for wine, Sherry or Port, regardless of species, will be toasted, where Bourbon barrels are always charred. This means there is a further difference between Bourbon barrels and American Oak Sherry casks than just their former contents.

Back to The Macallan. They’ve had many different series of bottlings over the years, and they dropped their age-stated lineup in favor of a group of color-designated bottlings for much of the world not too long ago. But that switch hasn’t happened in the U.S. and those age-stated ranges are what I’m discussing here.

Their long running age-stated lineup has consisted of a 12 year old, 18 year old, 25 year old and 30 year old for a very long time. A cask strength bottling was discontinued a few years ago, but a 40 year old was recently added to the lineup. This was basically the flagship series and didn’t really need a name to differentiate it from anything else they offered. Then in 2004 the Fine Oak series came along. Its range of age statements quickly expanded to include 10, 12, 15, 17, 18, 21, 25 and 30 year olds. At some point after the Fine Oak series was introduced, the original series took up the Sherry Oak moniker. At least that’s how they’re now designated on the Macallan website; the phrase does not appear on the bottles.

Once the new Double Oak 12 year Macallan was on my radar I started digging to try to figure out exactly what differentiates these three series. The first thing that got my attention was the description printed on the Sherry Oak series labels; “Exclusively matured in selected Sherry Oak casks from Jerez Spain”. That statement doesn’t really tell us much; “Sherry Oak” doesn’t indicate the type of oak used, just that the casks were seasoned with Sherry. Also, Jerez is in the south of Spain, far from the northern forests where Spanish Oak grows. The location is clearly an indication of where the casks are seasoned rather than where the oak comes from.



On the other hand, the label of the Double Cask clearly describes the cask types used; “Matured exclusively in the perfect balance of Sherry seasoned American and European Oak casks”. A nearby Fine Oak bottling carried and equally detailed description; “The Macallan Fine Oak is triple cask matured…..European Oak casks seasoned with Sherry, American Oak casks seasoned with Sherry and American Oak casks seasoned with Bourbon…..”







That surprised me; I had purchased a bottle of 15 year Fine Oak when it was still a fairly new product and only remembered it being described as aged in a combination of Bourbon barrels and Sherry casks. I ran up to the attic and dug through several boxes of empty whisky bottles before I found what I was looking for. Sure enough, that label carried the following statement; “Carefully matured in a unique combination of Bourbon & Sherry Oak casks”.

After a good bit of looking at images of Fine Oak labels online, I came to the conclusion that the description’s change coincided with a redesign of the label. This happened across the range of ages at the same time, I think around 2008, indicating to me that they most likely had simply switched to a more accurate description rather than changing the whisky’s aging regime.

Considering the vague description on the Sherry Oak label and the fact that both the Fine Oak and the Double Cask bottlings used American Oak Sherry casks, more research was needed. After a good bit of digging, I had finally come across enough evidence to convince me that the Sherry Oak series had been partially aged in American Oak Sherry casks for a very long time, if not all along. So, if Sherry Oak Macallan and Double Oak Macallan both use American Oak Sherry casks and European Oak Sherry casks, what’s the difference between them? Proportions. The Sherry Oak bottlings are aged primarily in European Oak, while the Double Cask bottling is aged primarily in American Oak. All of it is of course Sherry seasoned; only the Fine Oak series sees time in Bourbon barrels.

Output at the Macallan distillery has grown dramatically since the early1970’s and it ranks near the top of the list of Scotland’s largest malt distilleries. In addition to quietly putting whisky into Bourbon barrels as an insurance policy for the future, I believe The Macallan grew its production to the point that their need for Sherry casks far outstripped their supply of European Oak. They’d been using American Oak to make some of their Sherry casks for a long time, but eventually they would have to make a much greater proportion of those Sherry casks from it.

As Macallan’s sales growth continued at a strong pace it would have become obvious at some point that a new series of bottlings would be necessary to utilize all of that whisky maturing in American Oak Sherry casks. Perhaps this would have been the inspiration for the new labeling on the Fine Oak series. Then they could dumb things down to “triple cask” and “double cask” symbols to help avoid consumer confusion. Of course they’d have to keep the Sherry Oak series labeling vague and continue to let people assume that it only used one type of cask. Besides, if they suddenly added clarity to the Sherry Oak description, they’d risk giving the false impression that they had changed the whisky. You can’t really do that with a successful product in an industry where consistency is king.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Kirkland 12 year Blended Scotch vs. Chivas Regal 12 year

I first tasted Costco’s Kirkland brand 12 year old blended Scotch about three years ago when a relative shared a bottle of it at a Christmas party. My first impression was quite good, but by the time I got around to looking for a bottle to buy for review it had become temporarily unavailable. I took the opportunity to write about Costco’s Kirkland Bourbon and Kirkland Canadian Whisky in the meantime though.

Fast forward a few years and I finally have my hands on a proper sample of the 12 year blend. I’m sure this is a whisky that a lot of people are curious about, so I wanted to do a side-by-side tasting with an equivalent (80 proof and a 12 year age statement) blended Scotch that many people would be familiar with. My first thought was Johnnie Walker Black Label. Then I started to consider the fact that I’m not particularly fond of Walker Black and I realized that it wouldn’t be a particularly fair comparison from the outset. Having a much more favorable opinion of Chivas Regal 12 year (I don’t often drink blends, but when I do Chivas is my go-to), it became the logical choice.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of making tasting notes, I’d like to explore the ins and outs of buying spirits at Costco. The membership-only, wholesale warehouse club began in 1983 and has grown to more thane 700 stores world-wide. Close to 500 of those stores are in the United States, covering 45 states and the District of Columbia. A map showing all of the U.S. and Canadian locations can be found here.

Of course, there is the issue of membership. You can’t shop at Costco unless you’re willing to pony up the $50 annual membership fee. While there are great savings to be had at Costco, for some people, especially those who live alone or don’t live anywhere near one of the stores, paying for a membership isn’t really cost effective.

However, there are a few ways to work around that. Non-members are allowed to patronize the stores if they are using a Costco gift card. Those gift cards can only be purchased by members though, so it might just be easier to have your friend with a membership purchase the whisky for you. Unless that friend lives far away, then it would make sense to have them buy the gift cards for you and mail them to you.

In certain states there is another exception. A dozen states have laws that don’t allow the retail sale of alcohol by members-only clubs. Any such stores that want to do so have to make the alcohol they sell available to the general public. According to a few different online sources, those states are:

Arizona
California
Connecticut
Delaware
Hawaii
Indiana
Massachusetts
Michigan
Minnesota
New York
Texas
Vermont

A similar federal law applies to pharmacies, so non-members can get prescription drugs from Costco in any U.S. store that has a pharmacy. The people who check for valid memberships at the entrance may not be aware of these laws, so you might have to ask for a manager before they’ll let you in, and possibly again at the register. And if you’re not member you won’t have a Costco credit card, so be prepared to pay cash if you’re not using gift cards.

Not all Costco stores are created equally, though. The liquor laws of the various states may preclude the stores from selling spirits, or even any alcohol at all. First, there are the liquor control states. There are currently 18 such states, where the distribution of liquor is a monopoly controlled by the state government. Washington State deregulated away from this type of system in 2012 after Costco spent millions of dollars lobbying for the change.

All of these states control spirits; a few also control beer and/or wine. You won’t find spirits in a Costco in any of these state (though you may find beer or wine) because the state’s monopoly on distribution defeats Costco’s business model of using its buying power to negotiate for lower prices on the wholesale level. Maryland is actually a mixed state, where there are certain “control counties” and the liquor business is privatized in the rest of the state. The other seventeen control states are:

Alabama
Idaho
Iowa
Maine
Michigan
Mississippi
Montana
New Hampshire
North Carolina
Ohio
Oregon
Pennsylvania
Utah
Vermont
Virginia
West Virginia
Wyoming

All of the Provinces and Territories of Canada operate similarly to U.S. liquor control states. As far as I can tell, only Alberta has reformed their regulations to the point that will allow Costco to sell liquor.

 There may be other exceptions as well. One example is Massachusetts. Until 2012 the state government there only allowed any individual business owner to have three licenses to sell alcohol. That limit changed to five, rose again to seven in 2016 and will top out at nine in 2020. Each town or city in the state still has a limit on the total number of licenses they can dispense based on their population. Costco has six stores in the state, but was originally limited to selling alcohol in just three of them. I’m not sure if they’ve added liquor sales to any of the other stores there since the limit on licenses increased though.

While Costco carries a pretty huge variety of products, they are usually limited to a small number of brands and few choices for a given brand. That’s the tradeoff for the great pricing they can offer with their bulk buying power. When I recently visited one of the stores in Massachusetts, they only had about half a dozen different single malt Scotches (not counting a few bottled under the Kirkland brand). But they were selling Macallan 12 year for $47; significantly less than the $60 to $66 range that I’ve been seeing it in lately.

I’m guessing that Costco tries to keep pricing consistent from store to store, but there’s likely to be some variation in spirits pricing as you move from state to state since the tax rates for alcohol vary widely among them. The price of the Kirkland 12 year blend in the store I visited was $38 for a 1.75 liter bottle. That store didn’t have Chivas Regal but I also visited a nearby BJ’s (another wholesale club store) that did have it, and it was going for $55 for 1.75 liters. Both stores had Macallan 12 year for the same price, so I think the Chivas price was comparable to what it would have been at Costco. The more typical price for a big bottle of Chivas 12 year is around $67.
 


Chivas Regal 12 year
Nose – Malty but dry, with floral undertones that lean toward the grassy end of the spectrum
Palate – It’s somewhat light bodied and starts off mild up front, but picks up steam quickly. There’s a nice balance of malt and oak, with gentle smokiness. Subtle floral notes add complexity.
Finish – It maintains good depth on the backend, with dry spice notes coming to the fore and carrying it to the end.
Overall – To my mind, this is the epitome of what a blended Scotch should be; approachable and balanced, but able to maintain good complexity and just enough depth of character.
 

Kirkland Blended 12 year
Nose – The aromas are malty here too, but with a more masculine edge. Notes of caramel, soft leather and a touch of vanilla round things out.
Palate – It’s more full bodied than the Chivas, with notable sweetness up front. The sweetness morphs after the entry, gaining a dark sherry fruit note. At the same time, there’s a bit of dry oak working to balance to the caramel-driven, malty core. If there’s any peat smoke here it’s all but undetectable.
Finish – The leathery, masculine theme carries through the finish as it gains some dry, spicy notes.
Overall – The Kirkland blend is a solid performer and a great value, but it doesn’t quite stand up to the grace and elegance of the Chivas Regal. That being said, they do have notably different flavor profiles, so personal preferences will certainly come into play here.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Buffalo Trace update - increasing capacity

When I toured the Buffalo Trace distillery back in February I had visited Four Roses earlier in the day and Maker’s Mark the day before. Both of those distilleries were in the midst of major expansion projects. Four Roses had announced their plans to add a second still as well as the rest of the equipment and infrastructure to go along with it six months earlier, doubling production at a cost of $55 million. At Maker’s Mark, their third still had just gone online three months prior and many new warehouses were under construction; the $67 million expansion would increase production by 50%.

Of course, I had to ask Buffalo Trace tour guide if they were operating at the maximum capacity of their still and if there were any plans to expand. She told me the answer to the first question was yes and the answer to the second question was no. Well, it turns out that she was mostly right, but partly wrong. I’m not criticizing our guide, Shelly. She did an amazing job, and I’ve seen conflicting and even inaccurate information come directly from distillery managers and official press releases before.

She was right that there were no plans for expansion at that time, at least none that had been officially announced. That news broke in a press release dated May 19th. She was also right that the distillery was operating at maximum capacity. But the bottlenecks in production were in areas other than the still, so the still itself wasn’t operating at maximum capacity.

Buffalo Trace had already been ramping up production over the last six years. Whiskey supplies have been tight all around for several years, but Buffalo Trace seemed to hit a particularly rough patch with supply issues around 2014. Since most of their whiskey averages about six years of aging, I think it’s safe to assume that they cut production more than their competitors did in response to the 2008 financial crisis. Demand didn’t drop as expected and the chickens came home to roost six years later. They’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

Once they cranked production up as far as they could, warehouse space became an issue. Many of the warehouses on the distillery site had been converted to other uses when the industry cratered in the 1980’s. The eight warehouses that remained active (well, some may have been empty for a while, but they weren’t converted for other uses) were B, C, D, H, I, K, L, and M. They have a combined capacity of a little over 281,000 barrels.



In July of 2015, Buffalo Trace announced the opening of their new, high-tech, $20 million distribution center. This freed up three former warehouses, N, O and P, which were being used for finished goods storage. Four other warehouses, R, S, T and U, which had been sold off and converted to offices, were also recently reclaimed. Those seven warehouses each hold about 50,000 barrels, for a total capacity of 350,000 barrels. Three of those seven warehouses are already full and the other four won’t be far behind.

The big news in the May 19th press release was that Buffalo Trace was investing another $200 million to expand production. That investment will span seven years and include more equipment for cooking, fermenting and bottling, as well as new warehouses; basically everything except another still.

The warehouses will be built on 200 acres of farmland adjacent to the current distillery campus that was purchased a few years ago. There are plans for 30 more warehouses, with one being built every five months for the next 10 years. There was no mention of their size, but no one really builds small whiskey warehouses these days.

All of that begs the question, “How much capacity do they have with their current still?” Remember from my recent post about the Hard Hat Tour, their column still is one of the biggest in the industry at 84 inches. Figuring out capacity can be a little tricky because there are a few different ways to measure it. Also, some distillers will state their actual current capacity, while others will give a number that is the maximum their still is capable of, even though they don’t have the rest of the equipment to reach that number.

Proof-gallons are probably the most accurate way to state capacity. That is a gallon of distillate at 100 proof (50% alcohol). This standardizes the measurement since different distillers run with different levels of proof coming off the still. In Scotland the equivalent measure is LPA, or liters of pure alcohol. It’s the same thing but with metric volume and adjusted to 100% alcohol. One proof-gallon is roughly 2 LPA, if you want to compare. These are almost always measured on and annual basis.

Capacity can also be stated in barrels filled per day, week or year. This is a popular way to state it on tours because it’s easier for people who don’t work in the industry to relate to the numbers.

Another way to measure capacity is cases per year. This is standardized to 9 liter cases (12 bottles, 750 ml each). I don’t think this method is standardized around a particular bottling strength, e.g. 80 proof or 100 proof. This method is most often used to express the sales volume of a particular brand, but it is sometimes used as a measure of distillery capacity as well.

Poking around on Google, one can find many stories about the new distillery that Diageo is building in Kentucky to support their Bulleit brand. Most of them state the distillery will produce 1.8 million proof-gallons, or 750,000 cases. I’ve seen other sources that equate 1.5 million proof-gallons to 750,000 cases. Barrel production can be converted to proof-gallons if you know the size of the barrel (53 gallons is the Bourbon industry standard) and the barrel entry proof. But if a distiller tells you how many barrels they produce per day, you have to guess at how many days they are actually producing for each year.

In a 2007 interview, Mark Brown, the current president of Sazerac, said the Buffalo Trace distillery was capable of producing 6 million cases a year. That equates to somewhere between 12 million and 14.4 million proof-gallons, depending on which of the numbers in the paragraph above are used.

You could also look at barrels produced per day. That was stated at 800 on the tour. I’m assuming that they run five days a week and that they close down for eight weeks in the summer. That equals 220 production days per year, which gives 176,000 barrels per year. With 53 gallon barrels and spirit entered at 125 proof, you end up with 11.66 million proof-gallons.

It’s documented in the National Register of Historic Places registration form that Buffalo Trace’s annual production peaked at 200,000 barrels in 1973. The production equipment was the same then as it is now; but it’s well know that a lot of distillers used to enter their whiskey into the barrel at lower proofs than they do now. When the industry went through its rough times in the 70’s and 80’s, the accountants figured out that money could be saved with a lower entry proof. More water would be added at bottling, so you’d end up with the same amount of product but have to use fewer barrels to get there. Assuming that the barrel entry proof was 110 back then, 200,000 barrels still gives 11.66 million proof gallons.

So, how much capacity can Buffalo Trace add without bringing in a second still (or upgrading to an even bigger one)? It’s pretty hard to say. Maker’s Mark has three stills, each at 36 inches, but I couldn’t find any solid numbers for their capacity in proof-gallons. Four Roses is going from 4 million proof-gallons to 8 million per year by adding a second still, but I couldn’t find a figure for the diameter of the column still. The numbers that are out there for still diameter and annual proof-gallon capacity seem to be all over the place. I get the impression that some producers would rather add another still than run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The best equivalent I could find was Wild Turkey. They went through a massive expansion in 2011, growing from 5 million proof-gallons per year to 11 million. They put in a new column still, but it replaced the old one rather than accompanying it. Its diameter remained the same though, at 60 inches.

The cross sectional area of a column still equates to its production capacity. I’m assuming that the differences caused by the various internal still designs are negligible. The 60 inch still has a cross sectional area of 2826 square inches. For the 84 inch still at Buffalo Trace that number is 5539 square inches. If the 60 inch column is capable of 11 million proof gallons then the 84 inch one should be able to produce 21 million proof gallons.

It’s hard to say if Buffalo Trace will go that far, but we will be able to figure it out in the coming years based on what they add to their fermentation capacity. They have 12 fermenters now and can make about 12 million proof-gallons per year. If the new ones are the same size as the old ones (92,000 gallons), each additional one should give them another million proof-gallons of capacity.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

What's on the shelf? - Ardbeg 21 year

My blog posts this year have been few and far between (although lengthy and research intensive, in my defense) and that has come with a corresponding drop in page views. I’ve decided to shake things up a bit and start mixing in some shorter posts as well as more posts that don’t involve making tasting notes.

Part of this is going to be a series called “What’s on the shelf?” These posts will discuss whiskies that I’ve come across while perusing the retail shelves. The subjects will be bottlings that I thought were worthy of my commentary, but not worth prying my wallet open for.

First up is Ardbeg 21 year, which I spotted in a store in the suburbs south of Boston. Of course it was the only bottle on the shelf without a price tag. I assumed it was going to be more money than I was willing to part with, but I had to ask just to be sure. Yep, $500. My normal ceiling for single malts is $200, but it in reality I rarely go over $100. I suppose if something was incredibly special I might go as high as $400, but I haven’t come across one of those yet.


What’s special about this whisky is the period during which it was distilled. I’ve covered the various periods of production at Ardbeg in previous posts, so I’ll recap that info as briefly as possible here.

Ardbeg was mothballed in March of 1981 and produced nothing for the next eight years. Whisky made prior to the closure was a product of particularly long fermentation times, and much of it was from floor malted barley (the floor maltings were gradually phased out between 1975 and 1980). Ardbeg dug older peat from deep in the ground, which was further decayed and their kilns had no extraction fans, lending a unique character to their malt.

When Ardbeg reopened in mid-1989 the distillery went into a period of limited production, distilling just two months per year. This lasted until the next closure in mid-1996. Whisky from this time period still saw long fermentation times, but it was a time of neglected maintenance. Supposedly the still’s purifier was frequently not working properly during these years. The use of very old casks, frequently 4th or 5th fill was also common during this period.

When production resumed again in mid-1997, a different yeast strain was employed and fermentation times decreased significantly. The peat level was increased and fresh casks became the norm.

This 21 year Ardbeg bottling would have been distilled in 1994 or early 1995, a precarious time in Ardbeg’s history. Not much whisky was being produced then and a lot of it would have been bottled as the distillery’s flagship 10 year old from mid-2000 until mid-2008, when they transitioned over to stocks produced after the 1997 re-opening.

This is very likely a spectacular whisky. I have a bottle of Airigh Nam Beist which is a product of the same period (distilled 1990, bottled late in 2007) that I’m sipping on now and it’s delicious. Both are non-chill filtered and bottled at 46%. The more heavily used casks employed during this period are usually better suited to longer aging, which also bodes well for this bottling.

When I found the Airigh Nam Beist in 2012 it was a pretty rare item, and I paid just under $100 for it. At $200 I would have snapped up the 21 year in a heartbeat. At $300 I would have seriously considered it. But honestly, after getting burned spending $100 on the 200th anniversary Perpetuum, I’d think twice and look for some trustworthy reviews before pulling the trigger on any high-priced Ardbeg limited release. Speaking of Perpetuum, I’m surprised that Ardbeg didn’t release this last year as a 20 year old as part of their anniversary celebrations. In honor of the same occasion, Laphroaig gave us a fairly unique Cairdeas bottling priced at $75 for the masses as well as a 25 year and a 32 year for the high rollers.

We may still be in a period of high demand, but I think the market is getting a little over-saturated with limited release single malts in the $200-and-up price range. New Hampshire, a liquor control state, lists inventory by store online. I suppose they could have more of something in their warehouse, but the information they publish can still give you a good idea of how special releases are selling. A year after Laphroaig’s 200th anniversary, they’re still sitting on 18 bottles of the $1200 32 year old and 77 bottles of the $500 25 year old. They’re showing 30 bottles of Ardbeg 21, and that number hasn’t changed from when I first saw it a few weeks ago. It will be interesting to check in occasionally to see how long these linger.