Friday, May 20, 2016

Whisky Road Trip, Florida Scotch dinner part 3

Continuing on from part 1 and part 2, the dinner’s third whisky was Kilkerran, Work In Progress 7 - Sherry Wood; a product of Campbeltown’s Glengyle distillery. This was Scotland’s next new malt distillery after Arran and as I mentioned previously, there was a time span of almost 10 years between their openings. In the case of Glengyle the location wasn’t chosen because it was exceptionally marketable, although the region’s whiskies do have a small but very passionate following.

The building of a new distillery in Campbeltown was a key step in the process of restoring some of the former glory to what was once the “whisky capital of the world”. Accomplishing that goal would, in turn, raise the profile of the new distillery, advancing its image in a self-fulfilling sort of way.

I’ve already talked about some of the factors that led to the explosive growth in the number of distilleries in Campbeltown. All of that happened between 1823 and 1835, when the total number of active distilleries in the small city peaked at 28. A few fell by the wayside in 1837. Others occasionally came and went through the ensuing decades, with the number of operating distilleries hovering between the mid twenties and the high teens until 1922. Then the real collapse came.

Campbeltown lost 15 distilleries from 1923 through 1928. One other held out until 1934, and then the city was left with just two distilleries; Springbank and Glen Scotia. There were many factors that put Campbeltown’s whisky industry in a weakened state in the latter half of the 19th century. I’ve written abut them elsewhere and those details are beyond the scope of this post, so I’ll simplify things a bit and just say that the post World War I economic downturn was the final nail in the coffin of “Whisky City”.

For a time it looked as if distilling in Campbeltown might end entirely. Glen Scotia was closed from March of 1930 through November of 1933, as was Springbank from some time in 1930 until early in 1936. But the two pressed on, surviving the chaos of World War II and the industry downturn of the 1980’s, even though both were closed for much of that decade.

Understanding how the opening of Glengyle fully ties into the resurgence of Campbeltown requires a look at the history of Springbank and the Mitchell family. The Mitchells first came to the Kintyre peninsula around 1660 as part of a wave of farmers who migrated there from the Lowlands. Several generations later, the Mitchells were at the center of Campbeltown’s distilling revolution. Archibald Mitchell Sr. (1734 – 1818) was a prominent farmer in the area. His son, Archibald Jr., was a maltster around the turn of the century, and is even said to have operated an illicit still on what would eventually become the sight of the Springbank distillery. All five of his children, Hugh, Archibald III (1804 – 1863), John (1811 – 1892), William and Mary, were involved with Campbeltown distilleries.

1825 – Archibald Mitchell III is part of the group that establishes the Rieclachan distillery. Hugh Mitchell later joins them.
1828 – The Springbank distillery is established by William Reid, who is related to the Mitchells by marriage.
1834 – Mary Mitchell is involved in the establishment of Drumore distillery. It appears to have closed in 1837, reopened at an unknown later date, then closed for good in 1847.
1837 – The Reid family suffers financial difficulties and they sell Springbank to John and William Mitchell.
1851 – John Mitchell is part of a group that acquires the Toberanrigh distillery, which was built in 1934. It closes nine years later, in 1860.
1872 – John and William have a falling out after quarrelling about a difference in sheep farming. William leaves Springbank, joining his other brothers at Rieclachan. Later that year he establishes the Glengyle distillery, which opens in 1873. After William’s departure, John brings in his son, Alexander (1853 – 1912), to help him run Springbank. At some point the company name is changed to J & A Mitchell, as it remains in the present day.
1919 – Glengyle is sold and no longer part of the Mitchell family.
1925 – Glengyle closes and all of the distilling equipment is sold off shortly thereafter. The space is later rented to the Campbeltown miniature rifle club, serving as its range for much of the 1930’s.
1934 – Rieclachan closes.
1940 – The Glengyle distillery and brand are sold to the company that owns Glen Scotia. An attempt is made to reopen the distillery, but that is scuttled by World War II.
1957 – The Glengyle buildings are sold again, and another attempt to reopen the distillery fails to come to fruition.
1969 – Springbank acquires the independent bottler Cadenhead’s. This was done to provide consistent work for the staff of their recently opened bottling hall, which is located in a former warehouse of the defunct neighboring Longrow distillery (1824 – 1896).
1970 – The former Glengyle buildings become the depot and sales office of the Kintyre Farmers Cooperative. Eventually all use of the buildings is abandoned.
1973 – Springbank first distills a heavily peated malt (which was double distilled, further differentiating it from the two-and-a-half times distilled Springbank), naming it Longrow. Initially this is done only as an experiment in 1973 and 1974.
1985 – Longrow first released as a 10 year old.
1987 – Distilling of Longrow resumes, with small quantities made in 1987, 1989 and 1990 before it goes into regular production in 1992
1997 – Springbank begins producing Hazelburn, an unpeated, triple distilled malt, which is also named for a former Campbeltown distillery.
2000 – Hedley G. Wright, the Chairman of Springbank and a direct descendent of the Mitchells, buys the former Glengyle buildings and tasks distillery manager Frank McHardy with their restoration and the assembly of a modern distillery within them.
2004 – The first distillation run happens at Glengyle.
2005 – Hazelburn is first released as an 8 year old.
2009 – Kilkerran (Glengyle) single malt is introduced as a limited release 5 year old.

While Springbank has always had a good reputation, it was during the 1990’s that the distillery gained an almost cult-like status, especially in the Japanese market. Glen Scotia was mothballed from 1994 to 2000, but has been producing steadily since reopening after a change of ownership. Along with Springbank regularly making three distinctly different styles of single malt, the addition of a third active distillery to Campbeltown would go a long way in raising the profile of the once mighty region.

On a side note, when researching such things there is a lot of conflicting information regarding Hedley G. Wright’s exact place in the Mitchell family lineage. I think much of the confusion comes from the fact that there were three Archibald Mitchells and many texts speak of Archibald Sr. and Jr., when they are actually talking about Jr. and the 3rd. Also, the name is often written without any corresponding suffix, adding to the ambiguity. I’ve spent more time than I care to admit researching this topic and am confident that I have it properly sorted out. Mr. Wright is the great-great-great-great grandson of Archibald Mitchell Sr., and the great-great-great grandson of Archibald Mitchell Jr. He is the great-great grandson of John Mitchell. That would also make him the great-great-great nephew of Glengyle founder William Mitchell (keep in mind, your grandfather’s brother would be your great uncle, so the number of “greats” is not the same when you go from father to uncle across the same generation). Even the information on the Springbank and Glengyle websites seems inaccurate, but what I’ve laid out here does work with their statement that Mr. Wright is the 5th generation of the Mitchell family to own and manage the Springbank distillery (Archibald Jr. should not be counted; there is only tangential evidence that he operated an illicit still on the site, and that was before Springbank was established).

The resurrection of Glengyle was significant on many levels. Campbeltown has long struggled economically and any new business is a blessing. Surely, part of the motivation behind the project was the shaping of Hedley G. Wright’s legacy, not to mention the family connection coming full circle. Having a third working distillery in town also helped in legitimizing Campbeltown as a recognized distilling region.

Managing this project was also the crowning jewel of the career of Frank McHardy, which ultimately spanned more then 50 years in the whisky industry. While there are many traditional aspects to the production of whisky at Glengyle, the distillery has an efficient layout, utilizing modern mezzanine flooring. Much of the equipment was purchased new, but the malt mill came from Craigellachie (surplus after an upgrade there) and the stills, condensers, spirit safe and receivers all came from Ben Wyvis. This was a malt distillery which was operated on the grounds of the Invergordon grain distillery from 1965 to 1977. Interestingly, Frank McHardy began his career at Invergordon, serving there from 1963 to 1966.

The barley used at Glengyle is all malted on the traditional floor maltings at Springbank (and to the same peating level) and the casks are stored in Springbank’s warehouses. The two distilleries are at the opposite ends of adjoining properties, and the company owns all of the real estate between them. Should future demand necessitate it, a complex of warehouses could be built between the two production facilities. The former floor maltings at Glengyle are still intact, though in need of restoration. This could easily be done if the two distilleries grow beyond the capacity of Springbank’s malting floors.

As noted in the timeline above, the Glengyle brand was sold to the company that owns Glen Scotia in 1940. They sold the buildings in 1957, but kept the brand and used the name on a blended Highland Malt in the 1990’s. That is why the new distillery could be named Glengyle, but the whisky had to have a different name. Kilkerran is a reference to the original settlement led by Saint Kieran and located where Campbeltown stands today.

There have been annual Kilkerran releases since 2009 under the WIP (work in progress) moniker. 2010’s WIP 2 consisted of 18,000 bottles, which seems out of place compared to the 9000 bottles released the year before and each of the two years after. Today we are patiently awaiting the official 12 year old release of Kilkerran, which is coming in August of 2016. But I did come across an interview of Frank McHardy from 2008 where he stated that Kilkerran would come out as an 8 year old in 2012. Perhaps that target was adjusted in 2010 and the size of following two WIP releases scaled back accordingly.

In 2013 the WIP 5 release was split in two; bourbon matured and sherry matured, with 9000 bottles of each produced. That output level was repeated for 2014’s WIP 6. In 2015 the bourbon matured bottling was at cask strength (all other WIP’s were at 46%) with 6000 bottles of it released alongside 12,000 bottles that were sherry cask matured. There was also a single cask (ex-Calvados) bottling of Kilkerran released in 2015 which had been distilled in May of 2006.

The WIP 7 sherry cask matured Kilkerran is the one which I selected for the Scotch dinner. None of the WIP bottles carry age statements, but the whole point of the series is that the bottlings get progressively older. My suspicion / best educated guess is that the whisky used for the WIP releases came from the first two years of Kilkerran’s production, so each subsequent release was older than the one before it, but not a full year older (probably closer to eight months). If I’m correct, that would make the bottle at hand roughly 9 years old, rather than the 11 years that is often assumed.

The nose is beautifully complex. Malty baked goods are the predominate note. Joining the fray are gentle floral aromas, baking spices, Oloroso sherry fruit, a touch of musty oak, and just enough peat smoke to be present and accounted for.
On the palate it is medium to full-bodied. An initial hit of sweetness up front is quickly knocked back by warming, dry spice notes. The sherry fruit is present but muted. Peat smoke, mint and botanical notes become more evident when exhaling through the nose after swallowing.
The flavors jump around a little on the palate and a touch of immaturity shows as it moves through the latter stages of the finish. Don’t get me wrong, this is damn good whisky but it will benefit from a few more years of aging. Now I’m really looking forward to tasting the 12 year old when it is released.

There was still some liquid left in my WIP 2 bottle, so I went back for a sample to compare to the latest release. The nose is less developed, but still has some interesting aromatics. Malty, spicy, grassy, gentle perfume and a touch of peat; all well integrated. It’s a little one dimensional on the palate. There are some nice flavors present, they just don’t evolve much; at least not until the spice notes emerge later on the finish. This is surprisingly well-composed for a less-than-6 year old whisky. That being said, the latest version just has so much more going on, both on the nose and on the palate. The Works in Progress have progressed nicely.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Whisky Road Trip, Florida Scotch dinner part 2

After briefly being distracted by a bottle of Glenfarclas 105 20 year, I’m getting back on track and continuing the coverage of this winter’s Florida Scotch dinner, which began here and should be read before continuing on with this post.

By the luck of coincidence, the order in which I wanted to taste through the evening’s whiskies happened to match the chronological order of the openings of their associated distilleries. So after starting with Monkey Shoulder to represent Kininvie (1990), we moved on to the Port Cask Finish bottling from the Arran distillery (1995).

The distillery is located on the eponymous Isle of Arran. This relatively large (167 square miles) island is situated in the Firth of Clyde (in Scotland a firth is coastal body of water that can range in size from a small inlet to a large bay), which is bound by the Scottish mainland to the east, the Cowal peninsula to the north and the Kintyre peninsula to the west.

In 1993 Harold Currie, a retired Chivas Regal executive, founded the new distillery. Construction began in 1994 and distillation commenced in the summer of 1995. To put the timing into context consider that the Scotch whisky industry suffered through a terrible decade in the 1980’s, with 18 malt distilleries permanently lost. Even though things started to turn around in the 1990’s, the fallout from the downturn wasn’t over and the first half of the decade saw the loss of four more distilleries; Lochside (1992), Pittyvaich (1993), Rosebank (1993) and Littmill (1994).

Yes, two new distilleries did open in 1990, but the Speyside distillery was somewhat of an anomaly having been under construction for nearly three decades and Kininvie had some mitigating circumstances. It was built in a way that utilized much of Balvenie’s existing infrastructure which would minimize investment, and its sole purpose was to supply whisky to existing blends so there was no need for the costly promotion and marketing of a new brand. When the Arran distillery opened it really was a pioneer, and it would be nearly a decade before another new malt distillery went online in Scotland.

The island hadn’t been home to an active distillery for a very long time, but it still had a rich distilling tradition, with more than 50 illicit distilleries having operated there at various times, primarily in the early 1800’s. The only licensed operation on the island ran from 1825 to 1837.

The question of where to locate a new distillery has always been important, although the considerations influencing that decision have changed with time. Historically, the remoteness of Scotland’s islands proved quite useful for hiding from the tax collectors. As the laws were reformed to make legal distilling a more profitable venture, other factors became more important. Local natural resources, transportation infrastructure and technology all played roles.

A combination of factors led to the explosive growth in the number of Campbeltown distilleries in the 1820’s and 1830’s. The list includes a local coal seam, plentiful peat and barley across the Kintyre peninsula, a reliable water source in Crosshill Loch, and a natural harbor which provided a commercial link to Glasgow and London. Another point that is often overlooked is the introduction of steam engines. This new technology allowed the establishment of many distilleries in a dense urban area, something that would not have been possible if they were all powered by waterwheel, as had been the previous tradition.

Distilling was long established on Islay and in Speyside based on their abundant resources, primarily peat on the former and water in the later, but large scale commercial distilling only became viable in these areas with improved transportation infrastructure. In the case of Islay this came in the form of steam powered, shallow draft “puffer” ships and for Speyside it was the penetration of railroads into the remote northern portion of the country. Both of these developments happened in the latter half of the 1800’s.

In the modern era truck transport is king. Any location with good road access (and reliable ferry service in the case of the islands) has commercial distilling potential. Of course a good water source on site is still essential, as well as a connection to the electric grid, but all other resources and finished product can be trucked in and out. Over the last five decades the percentage of malt whisky sold as single malt, rather than in bulk to blenders, has grown steadily. With this shift, the marketability of a distillery’s location has become ever more important.

Clearly the founder of the Arran distillery understood this. If a new distillery were to be located in Speyside, it would be incredibly difficult for it to stand out among the sea of neighboring facilities. By having an island all to itself, Arran immediately established an identity through its unique location. The ability to draw in whisky tourists so they can connect with the home of the brand has definitely become an important part of the equation.

According to the distillery’s web site, its location was chosen for three reasons; the exceptionally pure water source, the relatively warm microclimate that is beneficial to the aging process, and the island’s historical reputation for producing high quality whisky. Beyond that, it would be the only distillery on an island which has many other attributes with appeal to tourists.

Arran is often referred to as “Scotland in miniature”, with its varied geography showcasing many of the features that can be seen around the rest of the country. The island is also home to seven golf courses, three castles, and several prehistoric “standing stone” and “stone circle” sites.

The island can be reached from Glasgow in little more than two hours (one hour driving and one hour on a ferry). From there it’s less than a 30 minute drive to the distillery. The distillery itself is located on the northern end of the island at Lochranza, home to one of the one of the Arran’s golf courses as well as one of its castles. This is also the island’s other ferry access point, from which the Kintyre peninsula can be reached in just 30 minutes. From there the adventurous whisky tourist could head south to Campbeltown, north to Oban or just across the peninsula to Kennacraig, which has ferry service to Islay.

This picturesque distillery is in what I would consider to be the medium size range, with a production level of 750,000 LPA. Most of the distillate is unpeated, but they do produce whisky from barley peated to 20 ppm for four weeks and 50 ppm for two weeks each year.

As a new, independently owned distillery, some younger releases were inevitable in the early years. The first legal whisky was a limited 3 year old bottling in 1998. That was followed by a 4 year old the next year, and a Single Cask bottling vintage dated to 1995 was launched in 2002. A Calvados finished bottling was released in 2003 and a variety of vintage dated bottling and cask finished bottlings came out in the following years.

The official bottling of 10 year Arran was released in 2006, becoming the flagship offering of the distillery’s range. A cask strength 12 year old was added in 2008 as well as a 14 year old in 2010. There were limited releases of 16 and 17 year old in the two years leading up to the official 18 year old bottling being added to the lineup in 2015. That core lineup now includes three wine cask finished bottlings (Sauternes, Amarone and Port), Single Cask Sherry and Bourbon bottlings, and Machrie Moor; an expression made from Arran’s 20 ppm peated malt.

The Port Cask Finish bottling that I selected for the dinner is one that I’ve tasted before, but I was quite excited to revisit it more than three years later. It was recommended to me by a bartender at the Jack Rose Dining Saloon, which says a lot considering the volume of their collection. I recall enjoying it immensely, but that was at the end of a long night of sampling and my hand written tasting notes were barely legible.

The first thing I noticed on the nose was an earthy character (dunnage warehouse, the dirt floored cellar of an old house in New England). Complex stewed berry fruit follows and is joined by aromatics slightly reminiscent of shoe polish.
On the palate it’s full bodied and has a firm embrace. The malty character comes through up front. There’s a nicely balanced interplay of gingerbread cookies, subtle sweetness (somewhere between honey and agave nectar) and the fruit notes of a well-aged tawny port.
As it moves through the finish it becomes drier, with warming spice notes growing in intensity. Eventually the other flavors fade, leaving the pleasant spicy character to its own devices.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Glenfarclas, 105 20 year

stats: single malt Scotch, Speyside, 60%, $358

As my 45th birthday rapidly approached, the urge for an overdue visit to Montreal grew stronger. My unorthodox work schedule had me occupied the night before and the night after, but I was free on the actual day of celebration. Having covered the obligatory time-spent-with-family in the previous two weeks, I was now left to my own devices. Finally, I pulled the trigger and made hotel and dinner reservations just a day in advance.

Once I was checked-in at the hotel and the car was tucked away in the parking garage it was time to get to the closest whisky bar (which happened to be just outside of said parking garage) for something special.

I’m pretty open about my adoration of Glenfarclas. When it comes to single malts, they are second only to Springbank with regards to earning my reverence. Last year, when I made the first of what ended up being three “research” journeys to Montreal in advance of writing about the whisky bar scene up there, I went all in with the first drink of the day, opting for the 1979 Family Casks bottling from Glenfarclas. I concluded that lengthy evening at Pub L’Ile Noire with the 15 year offering from Glenfarclas. While enjoying this lovely dram I continued to scour the whisky list and scan the bottles on display, both behind the bar and in the locked glass case.

That was when I noticed something special; a 20 year age-stated Glenfarclas 105 (their cask strength bottling). The standard Glenfarclas 105 is about half that age; some of the bottles carry a 10 year age statement on their back label, while others are non age-stated but said to be matured for about as long. While I knew of the existence of this whisky, I had never seen a bottle in person before and was kind of surprised to come across one, especially one that hadn’t even been opened yet. I made a mental note of my find and swore that I’d come back to sample it at some point in the future.

Of course, a little background research followed my discovery. According to their website, George S. Grant bottled a cask of Glenfarclas in 1968 at its natural cask strength of 60% ABV so he could give the bottles to friends and family as gifts. This was the inspiration for the official bottling of cask strength Glenfarclas, which has always maintained that same level of alcohol through careful cask selection. It became known as “105” because that is the equivalent proof of a 60% ABV spirit under the old British proof system. It’s rarely used these days, but the British version of “proof” was 7/4 of the alcohol by volume percent, unlike the American system where it is twice the ABV.

Although they don’t mention exactly when it became available to the public, it’s noted that Glenfarclas 105 was the first commercially available, cask strength single malt, and it is known to have been in production by the early 1970’s. Back then it carried an 8 year age statement and the label noted the 105 proof more as a statement of strength than as a title. In the 1980’s the “105” became bigger, looking more like a title on the label. The 8 year age statement held on through a few redesigns of the label before disappearing in the early 1990’s, when the age statement was replaced with the phrase “Cask Strength”. The modern bottle that I have at home does have a 10 year age statement on the back label but as noted above, I’ve seen others without it.

In 2008 Glenfarclas put out a very limited release (893 bottles) of 40 year old 105 to mark the 40th anniversary of that first (unofficial) bottling of Glenfarclas 105. That was followed by the 2012 release of 20 year 105, which was limited to 4000 bottles.

I ended up making four other trips to Montreal in 2015 without managing to get this whisky in my crosshairs. This time around I made it the first order of business upon my arrival. Looking at the SAQ website I see that Glenfarclas 105 20 year is no longer available, but when it was, the bottle was priced at $358 while the standard 105 goes for $88.75 a bottle. I went with a full pour (which was at the upper end of my comfort zone at $45) along with a half pour of the regular 105 for the sake of comparison.


Both have the big, rich, malty / butterscotch nose with a weighty sherry fruit backdrop. Those aromas are slightly downplayed in the 20 year, but with the added complexity of old oak and notes reminiscent of the inside of a damp dunnage warehouse.

Both whiskies are robust and full bodied, almost chewy on the palate. The maltiness is more pronounced up front on the original 105, with the 20 year showing more oak and a drier profile.

As the standard 105 moves into the finish, it presents a battle between sweet notes (malt, butterscotch and sherry fruit) and drying spice notes. The 20 year started off drier and stays that way through the finish, with a nice interplay of mature oak notes and building spice character.

These are both wonderfully big, powerful single malts. The drier, more oak-driven profile of the 20 year was obvious, but I think it also showed slightly better integration relative to the borderline rambunctious nature of the original 105.

To be honest though, the 20 year isn’t too dramatically different, or even outright better, but more of an interesting variant of an old favorite (and one that was well worth trying on a special occasion).

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Whiskey Road Trip, Florida Scotch dinner part 1

I believe it is occasionally necessary to shake things up in life; break out of one’s routine and go in search of adventure. And from my perspective there is no more satisfying of an adventure than one which is whiskey-centric.

Having visited 14 distilleries in Scotland in the spring of 2012, it has long seemed a bit peculiar to me that I write as much as I do about whiskey and was yet to have visited any of the distilleries in my own country. This is even less excusable in light of the fact that I can reach the heartland of America’s distilling industry in a single day of driving; granted, an extremely long day of driving, but a single day nonetheless.

A road trip to Kentucky during the spring season was something I had been contemplating for some time, as this is when work is slow and it’s less costly to take time off. Then, when I was considering the invitation to host another Scotch dinner in Florida, I began to explore the option of visiting a friend or two on the way there. Since neither of my potential stops, or my start point and end point for that matter, was anywhere near a major airport hub, the necessary number of connecting flights would have been disconcerting at best. Add to that my general disdain for flying (the flying itself doesn’t bother me, but flight delays, lost luggage, cramped quarters and getting nickel & dimed by the airlines are all things I can do without), and driving to Florida was starting to sound like a viable option.

Looking at the map and pondering the return drive, a detour through central Kentucky on the way back to Vermont seemed like it wouldn’t really take me all that far out of my way. The plan for a grand whiskey adventure was suddenly coming together. My strategy coalesced around a two week vacation running from late January to early February. Of course taking a lengthy road trip through the northeast in the dead of winter is somewhat of a gamble. But I’ve lived in Vermont for all of my adult life; I’m certainly no stranger to driving in the snow (I actually relish the challenge to a certain extent) and I’m rolling on trustworthy snow tires, what could possibly go wrong?

Then, about five days before my intended departure, I started to hear rumors of a big storm potentially coming up the east coast. Of course, I never trust weather reports that far ahead. But as the days passed the storm grew in size and certainty; I was going to be heading straight into a major blizzard. Not one to be easily deterred, I monitored the forecasts ever more closely and thought through multiple travel strategies.

My original plan was to leave early on Saturday and I had set Friday aside for organizing, packing and tying up a few loose ends around the house. I’m confident in my ability to drive through damn near anything, but the capabilities of those on the road around me are beyond my control and that was cause for great concern. I needed to get out ahead of this thing as much as possible, get to my first destination and hunker down until the worst of the storm had passed, so I pushed up my departure time by 24 hours. Even though I was able to get out of working Thursday night, the change had put me under a time crunch and I only managed to get two hours of sleep before heading out at 0630 on Friday.

I altered my route to stay as far from New York City and Washington DC as possible and actually managed to get through eight hours of driving before I saw a flake of snow. As the road conditions slowly worsened, spun out cars, jackknifed tractor-trailers and even a flipped over electric utility truck failed to serve as deterrents. I pushed on at a decent rate of speed, passing every conceivable type of vehicle that should logically perform better in the snow than what I was driving. Well, except for a couple of State Police cars, I’ve learned the hard way what happens when you pass them on slippery roads. I finally arrived at my first stop in central Virginia; 12 hours after leaving home and just 30 minutes after the roads started getting really bad.

After 24 hours of heavy snow and high winds the storm had mostly passed, moving further north. It was time to dig out and get back on the road. They don’t deal well with snow down south, so the highway was fairly desolate in spite of being plowed. Travel condition gradually improved as I got further from the epicenter of the storm and I was actually able to make good time to my next stop in South Carolina. I spent a day and a half there catching up with an old friend before tackling the third leg of the journey to Florida. It was another ten and a half hours behind the wheel, but by the end of it I could finally roll down the windows and laugh about the fact that I was cruising around the Sunshine state on snow tires.

The first order of business was visiting with family on Sanibel Island for five days. There was plenty of time to comb the beach for interesting sea shells, but I had also brought a little box of 1-ounce and 2-ounce bottles of whisky samples poured from my collection at home. With this I was able to work through the Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist post during the rainy days.

Then, after a quick jaunt across the state to the east coast, it was time to focus on the big whisky dinner. With a proclivity for procrastination and being one who only works efficiently with a looming deadline, I had barely scratched the surface of my preparations before arriving in Palm Beach Gardens. Consequently, much of the 24 hours before the event was spent hunkered down in my hotel room; researching histories, laying out timelines, organizing talking points and editing a series of relevant images.

Inspired by my fascination with the bust and boom cycles of the industry, my original idea for this iteration of the whisky dinner was to taste two single malts from distilleries that were lost to the last downturn, and two from some of Scotland’s newest distilleries; products of the current upswing. Sourcing rare whiskies as a third party and in a state far from where I live can be incredibly challenging. This fact had already proven true thrice over as I had previously prepared for my presentations in Florida. No Scottish malt distilleries have been lost since the early 1990’s and at this point in time most of the whisky from them is either unreasonably expensive or quite hard to come by, if not both. I decided to go easy on myself this time around and have the theme focus solely on new distilleries; those opened since 1990.

Three of them would be easy; Arran (1995), Glengyle/Kilkerran (2004) and Kilchoman (2005) are all of reputable quality and readily available. Over the last 26 years, 20 new single malt distilleries have been established in Scotland. Such projects usually require investors with a long vision and plenty of confidence. With the current growth phase of the industry having been long sustained and surviving the Global Recession of 2008-2012, many financial backers have more recently jumped on the bandwagon, allowing 11 of those new distilleries to come online since the start of 2013. The distillate from these newest producers was all too young to even legally be called whisky at the time of the dinner.

That put me down to six potential candidates. Ailsa Bay (2007) and Roseisle (2010) are the new industrial giants owned by William Grant & Sons and Diageo, respectively. These distilleries were purpose built to supply large quantities of malt whisky to the blends owned by their corporate masters. Neither one is likely to be seen bottled as a single malt any time soon, if ever. Daftmill (2005) is a tiny farm-distillery that produces just 20,000 liters-per-annum. The stills have been running for more than 10 years, but the owners are yet to release any of their maturing stock. Abhainn Dearg (2009) is another small producer, also making 20,000 liters-per-annum. Some single malt has been released but it was quite young, fairly expensive, very limited and as far as I know none has been exported to the U.S. The last two options were Speyside (1990) and Kininvie (1990).

Construction of the Speyside distillery actually started in 1962, but the project was a labor of love that took 25 years to complete. Production began three years later, putting it within my timeframe criteria even though the initial work on the distillery dates back to the previous boom period. I had, however, seen some less-than-stellar reviews of its whisky so I decided to pass on this option.

That left me with Kininvie, a single malt distillery which is integrated into the Balvenie distillery and has been quietly pumping out large quantities of whisky since 1990 to support the blends owned by William Grant & Sons. Kininvie has only been bottled as single malt since 2013, and only as a 23 year old which is fairly expensive and quite limited. I knew that the chances of getting a bottle were slim, but I had a backup plan; Monkey Shoulder. This is a Blended Malt (a vatting of multiple single malts without a grain whisky component) which is a marriage of Kininvie, Balvenie and Glenfiddich. As I suspected, Monkey Shoulder was all that was available to represent Kininvie, but the club did get on the waiting list for the next release of the 23 year old Kininvie, so attendees of the dinner will likely have the opportunity to taste it at some point in the future.

I started off with an explanation of my chosen theme and a quick historical recap. The last boom period for Scotch whisky during the 1800’s happened in the 1870’s and 1880’s after Phylloxera devastated France’s wine and brandy industries. A series of financial crises toward the end of that century brought the good times to an end and Glen Elgin (1900) was the last new distillery that would be built in Scotland for quite some time.

World War I, Prohibition, The Great Depression and World War II all added up the make the first half of the 20th century a pretty tough time for the industry. Inverleven (1938), a malt distillery built within the Loch Lomond grain distillery, was the only new facility constructed during that period. Tullibardine (1949) was a sign of the industry’s coming good fortune, but it took many years of economic recovery before the post WW II boom period to really get going, with most of the related distillery construction happening between 1957 and 1975.

The late 70’s and most of the 80’s saw another sharp downturn. There were surely some economic issues at play, but the biggest factor was the consumers’ changing preferences. Things slowly turned around in the 1990’s, and the current boom period has accelerated almost uninterrupted for the last decade and a half. A quick breakdown of how many distilleries were established and how many were lost during each decade paints a pretty clear picture of these trends.

1950’s (+4)(-0)
1960’s (+13)(-0)
1970’s (+5)(-3)
1980’s (+0)(-18)
1990’s (+3)(-4)
2000’s (+5)(-0)
2010’s (+12)(-0)

Considering that we’re only half way through the last decade listed, I think it’s safe to say Scotland is in an unprecedented era of distillery construction. I also put together a chart in Excel which shows a timeline of the opening of new distilleries since 1990. You can see that the pace was starting to ramp up about 10 years ago, but the global financial crisis of 2007/2008 proved to be a bit of a speed bump. There are many examples of potential distillery projects from that time which never came to fruition due to a lack of funding. The chart really illustrates how things have taken off in the past few years, and there are also many more new distilleries in the construction or planning stages.

Some people consider Kininvie to be merely an extension of the Balvenie distillery. While the former is an integral part of the latter, one can easily make the argument that it qualifies as a distinct distillery. The malt mill is really the only piece of equipment that the two distilleries actually share. Kininvie has its own dedicated mash tun, which shares a space with Balvenie’s mash tun. Ten Douglas fir washbacks which are used exclusively for Kininvie are housed in two rooms in Balvenie’s buildings. The wash is then piped 200 meters to the separate still house. It may look unglamorous and utilitarian with its sheet metal siding, but only Kininvie is distilled there. The three wash stills and six spirit stills employed by Kininvie clearly differ in shape and size from the ones used to distill Balvenie.

In 1990 the industry was just beginning to transition out of unprosperous times and a few distilleries were yet to fall victim to challenges posed by the previous decade. It’s logical that Kininvie would be the first newly built distillery of this era; its purpose was to support existing brands of blended Scotch so there was no need to build a market for a new single malt, and investment in the project could be contained by utilizing a lot of the infrastructure that was already in place at Balvenie.

I put together a timeline of the various William Grant & Sons assets to put everything in perspective:

1887 – Glenfiddich built
1892 – Balvenie built
1898 – Grant’s brand of blended whisky launched
1963 – Girvan grain distillery built
1963 – Glenfiddich is the first brand to be marketed as a single malt world-wide
1966 – Ladyburn built (malt distillery within the Girvan grain distillery)
1973 – Balvenie first bottled as single malt
1976 – Ladyburn closed
1990 – Kininvie built
2005 – Monkey Shoulder introduced
2007 – Ailsa Bay built (malt distillery within the Girvan grain distillery)
2010 – Kininvie closed
2012 – Kininvie reopened
2013 – Ailsa Bay capacity doubled
2013 – Kininvie released as single malt

Some people assume that very little whisky is made at Kininvie because the releases of its single malt are so limited. This is not the case. What have traditionally been considered some of the smallest distilleries in Scotland (Edradour and Kilchoman) can make about 100,000 LPA (liters of alcohol per annum), though some of the newest generation are capable of only 20,000 LPA. All of the distilleries owned by William Grant & Sons are massive by comparison, with their capacities measured in MLPA (millions of liters per annum):

Glenfiddich – 13 MLPA
Ailsa Bay – 10 MLPA (originally 5 MLPA)
Balvenie – 7 MLPA
Kininvie – 4.8 MLPA

I don’t particularly care for Glenfiddich, at least in its mass-produced, flagship 12 year old incarnation, and I’m not really a fan of Balvenie’s house style unless it’s been tempered by a strong sherry or port cask influence. Knowing that Kininvie’s flavor profile is said to lie somewhere between that of Balvenie and Glenfiddich, my expectations were fairly low but I was pleasantly surprised upon tasting Monkey Shoulder for the first time.

This is the 43% ABV version that is found in the U.S., not the 40% ABV bottling found in most other markets.

The nose is somewhat light and bright. Tree fruit (apple and pear) aromatics meld nicely with malty undertones. There is a floral component, but it’s fairly subtle and restrained. Oaky notes add just a bit of weight.
On the palate it shows more body than depth of flavor up front. Delicate fruit and gentle maltiness are quickly joined by warming spice notes.
It becomes more floral / grassy as it moves into the finish, with the spice notes building and evolving.
Overall it is an approachable aperitif-style whisky. It’s not overtly complex and shows some youthfulness, especially as it moves into the finish, but these points aren’t too detrimental. I find the quality to be reasonable considering the bottle’s $30 price tag.

You might be wondering where the name Monkey Shoulder comes from. This is a point I forgot to mention during the dinner and only explained at the tail end of the event, with just a few stragglers left, when someone commented on the seemingly odd name. Monkey Shoulder is a colloquialism for a repetitive strain injury which was common to maltmen back when the malting process was performed at the distilleries on open floors and by no means other than manual labor. Endless hours of shoveling, turning and grubbing tons of malting barley would often leave the workers with one shoulder hanging lower than the other, hence the name. The injury has long vanished, but the name has been resurrected here as a tip-of-the-hat to the traditional floor malting that is still carried out at Balvenie for a small percentage of their barley.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Oban, Little Bay

stats: single malt Scotch, Highlands, 43%, $75

Back at the end of 2014 I had the opportunity to try Oban’s newest expression, the non-age-stated Little Bay – Small Casks, while attending a fairly extensive tasting. I did a short write-up but the circumstances of the sampling only allowed for a general impression rather than detailed tasting notes. I recently got to spend a little more time with this bottling. Little Bay is Oban’s first real foray into the NAS arena (their Distiller’s Edition lacks an age statement but the label notes the years of distillation and bottling, and their NAS cask strength offering was a distillery-only bottling).

The nose is extremely coastal, with plenty of brine and the aromas of a stiff breeze blowing over grassy dunes. A touch of minerality adds complexity to the pronounced sherry fruit notes.
On the palate it’s more oak and sherry fruit driven, with the coastal notes taking a back seat. Stewed berry fruits, dry spice and a touch of vanilla.
The spice notes become more dominant as it progresses into the warming finish.
It’s sort of fiery and edgy; a little bit up front but even more so as it moves into the finish, hinting at some degree of youthfulness. Well composed overall, though.

The delicate subtleties of Oban are kind of lost here – “big” and “assertive” are the first words them come to mind upon tasting Little Bay. This is an interesting expression of the distillery’s house style in its own right, but it could seem oafish if compared side by side with the flagship 14 year.

As I noted in my earlier post, the official descriptions of the maturation regime are vague, only indicating that it has been aged initially (assumedly in 2nd fill bourbon barrels, as is most Oban), then finished in smaller casks. Like the 14 year, this expression is bottled at 43% abv. The price of $75 noted above seems to be the average, but I’ve seen some pretty wide variations. In fact, in spite of whisky prices generally being on the rise, there are actually many examples that can be found at a broad range of price points.

The bottle of Little Bay that I used for this post came from New Hampshire at $63, but a store that I frequently visit in Massachusetts has it for $83. That store also sells Johnnie Walker Double Black for $60, while it can be had in NH for $42. But the above mentioned store does not have universally high prices; I recently picked up a bottle of Laphroaig Triple Wood there for $60. I’d never seen this whisky for less than $75, and $80 is the going rate in NH. I also picked up a bottle of Blanton’s there not long ago for $45, where $55 to $60 is its typical range.

In some cases a retailer (or a liquor control state) will slowly sell off old stock of a particular item with the markup based on what they originally paid for it. Meanwhile that bottling goes through several price increases in places with greater sales volume where the inventory turns over more quickly. Eventually the former will run out and have to order more, bringing along a shocking price jump. One such example can be seen here in Vermont with Aberlour A’bunadh. For quite some time its price held at $55 while slowly rising in surrounding areas, then the state’s price suddenly shot up to $80, essentially catching up to everyone else.

There are rare occasions where prices drop too. Bernheim wheat whiskey can now be found for less than $30, but many places are still selling old inventory at the former price point, which was over $40.

I’ve also learned that some producers are basically probing to see how high they can raise some of their prices before sales are negatively impacted. While talking to the whisky buyer for one of the bigger retailers in the greater-Boston area, I noted the seemingly schizophrenic pricing of a few single malts, specifically Laphroaig 18 year and Oban 18 year. I mentioned that I was surprised to see Oban 18 year recently reappear in NH at $100, which was the same price they had it for the year before, while it had appeared in VT at $156 during its absence in NH. The two states typically have pretty similar markups and if the price of a bottle goes up in one state the other state usually follows suit next time they get more of the same item.. He informed me that the importers and distributors had imposed big price jumps and that the savvy retailers then passed on those products. With fewer retailers buying those bottlings, and the ones that did unable to sell much, most of the product just sat in the warehouses. Then the prices at the distributor level came back down and the products started to move again. But the retailers who didn’t balk at the higher prices were stuck with what they had bought.

My point here is that if you’re a whisky consumer, it can be quite beneficial to pay close attention to pricing and shop around. You’re very likely to find some great deals and to occasionally avoid overpaying.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Bunnahabhain Roundup

Regular readers of this blog may recall my travels to Florida to host Scotch dinners in 2013 and 2014. Those who are especially observant may have also noticed that the event was absent from my writings in 2015. Lengthy travel wasn’t an option for me last winter for a variety of reasons, but my presence in the sunshine state was still requested. The most workable solution was for me to orchestrate the event as usual but host the dinner remotely, via Skype.

Unfortunately, the date chosen for the dinner ended up being in conflict with other commitments for most of the potential attendees and it had to be cancelled at the last minute. A year later, I did end up back in Florida for a repeat performance, but logistical issues forced me to find a new theme and select different whiskies than the ones I had lined up for the event that never came to be.

Before the Skype dinner was called off though, my counterpart in Florida had sent me one-once samples of all the whiskies that were to be discussed. Since those little bottles have been sitting on my shelf for about a year now, it’s high time that I taste through them and explore some relevant topics.

The origins of the theme for this event actually go back to my first visit to Frenchman’s Creek. As I observed my surroundings in their various food & beverage outlets, a bottle of whisky caught my eye; a green bottle of Bunnahabhain 12 year. That was early in 2013, and more than two year prior, in the fall of 2010, Bunnahabhain had stopped chill filtering their single malt bottlings, as well as raising the alcohol level to 46.3% and doing away with caramel coloring. Those changes coincided with the traditional emerald green glass bottle being replaced with one that was a dark shade of brown referred to as “smoked oak”.

It was likely that no one there knew that they were sitting on something that was already somewhat of a rarity and which would only become more scarce as time marched on. I noticed that a few of those bottles were still floating around the private resort community on my second visit a year later and decided that they really ought to be taken advantage of. Six months later, when the subject of a third dinner came up, I was told that there was still enough of the old Bunnahabhain 12 year in inventory to use for the event. I asked that it be set aside and started my search for the other bottlings I would need.

My plan was to focus just on Bunnahabhain and explore the full range of flavor profiles that can come from a single distillery, in addition to having a pretty direct comparison of a whisky with and without chill filtration. I also wanted to include Toiteach, Bunnahabhain’s heavily peated expression, as part of the lineup. This would be a perfect accompaniment to the hand-rolled cigars with which the event typically ends. For the fourth selection I wanted something that differed more drastically from the 12 year than the official 18 year old bottling. I ended up going with a Gordon & MacPhail bottling of Bunnahabhain which is 8 years old. Fortunately I still have just a bit left in my own bottle of the 18 year, so I can throw that in the mix as well.

The plan was to have two screens set up at the event; one to display me on Skype and the other with a slide show of images from my tour of the distillery. Topics of discussion were to include the technical differences between the various expressions, the history of the distillery, the changes of ownership and the effects they’ve had on the brand over the last 20 years. For this post I’m going to taste through everything, then lay out all of the imagery and finally cover the above-mentioned topics.

But the first order of business was to have been a toast. “Westering Home” has been Bunnahabhain’s adopted motto since it was first bottled as single malt in the 1970’s. For many years part of the traditional Scottish ballad that inspired the motto was printed on the back of the back of the bottle:

Westering home, and a song in the air,
Light in the eye, and it’s goodbye to care;
Laughter o’ love, and a welcoming there;
Isle of my heart, my own one!

Tell me o’ lands o’ the Orient gay!
Speak o’ the riches and joys o’ Cathay!
Eh, but it’s grand to be wakin’ ilk day
To find yourself nearer to Isla.


8 year (Gordon & MacPhail), 43%, chill filtered:
color – Pale, golden-yellow. Chardonnay-like.
nose – There’s a slightly youthful, almost corn-like grain character but it’s pretty well balanced by pear notes and a pleasant grassy quality.
palate – The grassy notes lead, but they are backed up by the fruit character as well as a hint of malt and a gentle floral note.
finish – Warming spice notes come on to hold things in balance and keep the youthfulness and grassy notes in check.
overall – An approachable aperitif-style whisky. The world needs more honest, moderately aged and modestly priced single malts

12 year, 43%, chill filtered:
color – Darker golden yellow.
nose – There’s some commonality with the aromas of the 8 year, but it seems more refined and mature. It shows less grass and grain, and more fruit. A subtle hint of leather also joins in.
palate – This shows a nice balance of oak, complex fruit and gentle malt, but it also shows some of that perfumed floral character which I’m not a fan of.
finish – The flavors evolve gracefully, though very subtly as it moves through the finish. Everything is very well integrated.
overall – Stylistically, this isn’t really my cup of tea, but it is very well made and I can see why this bottling had its devotees.

12 year, 46.3%, non-chill filtered:
color – Darker than the 43% 12 year, moving away from yellow and toward mahogany.
nose – The tree fruits still come through, but the more dominant note is a gingerbread-like maltiness. Hints of cola and vanilla add complexity to the aromatics.
palate – Sweet (but not overtly) maltiness is the key note here; ginger snap cookies, brown sugar and a touch of butterscotch. Elements of dried fig and warm apple pie add depth.
finish – Cinnamon and other baking spices quickly come in, turning the finish dry and making a lovely counterpoint to the sweet, malty notes that were dominant up front.
overall – A subtle hint of the perfumed floral notes might still be coming through, but just enough to add complexity. For my tastes this is a dramatic improvement over the 43% 12 year.

18 year, 46.3%, non-chill filtered:
color – Darker still, more of a golden brown.
nose – The malty character is toned down in this expression, with dark, stewed sherry fruit notes becoming more prominent. Leathery oak notes come out as well. The tree fruit character is all but buried here.
palate – This one is less sweet and more deftly balanced up front than its younger sibling. The gingerbread-like malty notes are still there, but with more sherried fruit notes; Dundee cake, Demerara sugar and stewed berry fruit. Dry spice notes arrive on the mid-palate along with some oxidized nuttiness.
finish – Leathery oak and dry spice come to the fore, with a slightly astringent note (but in a respectable, mature way). Long and contemplative.
overall – I think the 18 year actually differs from the 12 year more than I realized when I compared them a little over three years ago.

Toiteach, 46%, non-chill filtered:
color – Quite pale; straw yellow. Lighter than the 8 year.
nose – Peat smoke is the dominant note, but the aromas have a very elegant quality. A bit of grassiness comes through and it has an obvious coastal character: brine-soaked fish nets draped over smoldering peat embers.
palate – As on the nose, the peat smoke on the palate is the dominant flavor, but it’s not a huge, in-your-face peat monster. The elegance is sustained and the peat makes an intriguing counterpoint to the grassy notes and tree fruit.
finish – The coastal qualities seen on the nose were subdued up front, but they’ve been resurrected on the finish and joined by gentle, warming spice notes. The spice notes build as it meanders and evolves.
overall – This is a subtle and thought provoking dram; it’s no wonder my hastily made notes from the fist time I tasted it at the distillery were lacking.

It’s hard to find technical details of these whiskies, especially with regards to the types of casks they were matured in, but I’ll go over what I came across. First, it should be noted that much of Bunnahabhain’s production goes to blends. I found a review from about five years ago which mentioned that only 5% of what was produced was bottled as single malt. A more recent piece put that figure at between 10% and 20%. Most of the distillate ends up in Bourbon barrels, with just 10% finding its way to Sherry casks. It’s likely though that most of the whisky going to blenders is in Bourbon barrels, so the single malt bottlings can still have a fairly high percentage of Sherry cask whisky in the mix. The tech sheet for the Gordon & MacPhail 8 year states that it is aged exclusively in refill Sherry casks. I should mention that this bottling is only done for the U.S. market. A similar looking 8 year old is available in Europe, but it is made from heavily peated malt.

Speaking of peat, most of the barley that Bunnahabhain uses is very lightly peated, to 2 ppm or less. The tech sheet for the 12 year states that it is aged in Bourbon barrels (20%), Oloroso Sherry casks (20%) and refill casks (60%). That description leads me to believe that the first two parts are first-fill casks, but the 60% portion’s description is pretty open ended. That could be any type of casks and it could be 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc, fill. They’re a little more specific with the 18 year, listing it as 35% Bourbon barrels and 65% Oloroso Sherry casks. But, without it stated, it’s hard to know if these are 1st fill, 2nd fill, 3rd fill, etc.

The Toiteach is made from malt which has been peated to between 35 and 40 ppm. I’ve seen a report stating that when this distillate is run, the cut of the heads and the tails coming off the second still are adjusted to be different than the runs of regular distillate. It does not have an age statement, but is said to be between 10 and 11 years old. I also found some references to this being aged in a mix of Bourbon barrels and Sherry casks, and even with a few places noting them as Manzanilla Sherry casks. My suspicion is that it’s aged primarily in Bourbon barrels and has a Manzanilla finish. Okay, on to the history of the distillery.

Located on the remote north shore of Islay, Bunnahabhain was established in 1881 by a small group of entrepreneurs who had experience in the whisky industry. It’s likely that the distillery was built where it was primarily for the natural bay there. This made the distillery easily accessible to puffers, the shallow-draft, commercial steam boats that transformed the economies of Scotland’s islands from the late 19th century.

The puffers were a reliable connection to the mainland, bringing in coal, barley and casks, and taking out aged whisky. But that part of the island was previously uninhabited, so in addition to building the distillery and warehouses, the company also had to construct a pier, a village with housing and a school to accommodate the workforce, and a road to connect everything to the rest of the island. The views from that route, as well as from the distillery itself, across the sound of Islay to the Paps of Jura are no less than stunning. Today, the puffers have been relegated to history and large trucks use that road as a link to the nearby modern ferry terminal at Port Askaig.

In my writings on Bruichladdich, I mentioned that it was Islay’s first purpose built commercial distillery; with all others before it morphing out of farming concerns where distilling had been a supplemental activity. Bunnahabhain could make the same claim, as both were established in 1881, but for the fact that this distillery took longer to go into production. Because of all of the supplemental construction, it wasn’t until October of 1882 that the first spirit ran and full production didn’t begin until January of 1883. Outside of Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain, and until the opening of Kilchoman in 2010, all of the other distilleries on Islay, both operational and long closed, had been established before 1850 (okay, I’m ignoring Malt Mill, which was a small distillery that operated within Lagavulin from 1908 to 1962).

I’ve seen many different phonetic spellings of Bunnahabhain, but “BOO-na-HA-ven” seems to convey the proper pronunciation fairly well. The Gaelic origins of the name mean either “mouth of the river” or “foot of the river”, depending on how one translates it back to the original words from which the name was derived. The river the name references is the Margadale, which feeds into the bay just north of the distillery and is the source of Bunnahabhain’s water. Originally drawn from the river after flowing over peaty bogs, the source water is now piped to the distillery directly from the spring that feeds the river, a distance of over a mile. This keeps the source water free of any phenolic influence.

The company that established Bunnahabhain in 1881 started off as the Islay Distillers Company. In 1887 William Grant & Co, who had established the Glenrothes distillery in 1878, merged with the Islay Distillers Company to form Highland Distillers.

From here the history of Bunnahabhain’s ownership looks simple at first glance, but it’s actually a little more complicated when you scratch below the surface. Highland Distillers slowly added distilleries to their portfolio through the years, bringing on Glenglassaugh in 1892, Tamdhu in 1899, Highland Park in 1937, Glenturret in 1990 and finally Macallan in 1996. They also acquired the company that owned the Famous Grouse brand of blended Scotch in 1970, as well as buying the Black Bottle blended Scotch brand in 1995. This is when Black Bottle was reformulated to include whisky from all of the active Islay distilleries, and its new recipe was centered on Bunnahabhain.

This is where things get a little confusing. In 1999 Highland Distillers was purchased by the Edrington Group in a joint venture with William Grant & Sons (with 70% and 30% stakes, respectively). If you’re thinking “Wait, wasn’t William Grant one of the two companies that joined to form Highland Distillers in the first place?” you might be on to something. But that was an entirely different William Grant (note the “& Sons” versus the “& Co” in their names); the one I’m talking about now established Glenfiddich in 1887 and Balvenie in 1892.

There is still a link to the past though. One of the founding members of the Islay Distillery Company was a man named William Robertson. He had started off as a Glasgow based whisky broker, establishing his firm, Robertson and Baxter, in 1861. The company had many subsidiaries and was involved in warehousing, bottling, coopering, distilling and blending. Finally, in 1961, the three Robertson sisters inherited the various business interests of William Robertson, who was their grandfather. They brought everything together under one holding company, naming it Edrington. In fact, Edrington already held a 28% stake in Highland Distillers before the 1999 purchase.

Robertson and Baxter had also owned the Glengoyne distillery since 1965, so with the 1999 purchase of Highland Distillers there were eight single malt distilleries under Edrington’s ownership. The company decided to focus its efforts on a few of the brands in its portfolio, primarily Macallan, Highland Park and Famous Grouse. Others were neglected and eventually sold off. Bunnahabhain and Glengoyne were the first two to go, in 2003. Next went Glenglassaugh in 2008. Then in 2010 they sold the Glenrothes brand (while keeping the distillery itself) to Berry Bros. & Rudd while at the same time acquiring the Cutty Sark blended Scotch brand from them. Finally, in 2011 Tamdhu was sold off.

In the 2003 sale, Bunnahabhain, along with the Black Bottle brand, was bought by Burn Stewart. That company was established in 1948 as a London-based blending, brokering and export business. In 1988 it was bought by a group of whisky industry insiders and shortly thereafter began to acquire distilleries. Deanston was first in 1990 and Tobermory followed in 1993. Burn Stewart itself was bought in 2002, going CL Financial, a Trinidad based conglomerate, a year before the Bunnahabhain purchase. Then, in 2009, CL Financial had a financial meltdown resulting in a liquidity crisis and eventual government bailout. This situation meant an uncertain future for many of the company’s assets, including Burn Stewart. The situation was finally resolved in 2013 when Burn Stewart was sold to Distell, a multinational brewing and beverage company which is based in South Africa.

For much of its history Bunnahabhain has chugged along uneventfully; a workhorse which supplied malt to a variety of blends. In spite of a closure that lasted from 1930 to 1937, the distillery survived the difficult times of the first half of the 20th century. Its first significant changes came in 1963.

There was plenty of demand in the post World War II boom period, but consumer tastes were changing and there was strong market for lighter, more delicate whiskies. In response Bunnahabhain switched over from the traditional, heavily peated style of whisky that they had always made to using malted barley that was essentially unpeated (2 ppm or less) in 1963. Bruichladdich actually made the same move a few years earlier (1960 or possibly 1961). All of the other distilleries on the island continued to make the intensely peaty, signature Islay-style whisky that they were known for.

That was just one of several changes at Bunnahabhain in 1963 though. Use of the traditional floor maltings ended and the distillery began to purchase commercially malted barley. The number of stills doubled, from two to four. The six washbacks were taken out of the stillhouse and a separate tun room was created to house the six new washbacks, which were nearly four times the size of the original ones. This was also when the stills were switched over to internal steam heating and the worm tubs were done away with in favor of modern shell and tube condensers.

Bunnahabhain was first bottled as a single malt in the late 1970’s, but the 12 year expression was the only official bottling and the distillery was still primarily focused on supplying blends. When the next industry downturn hit, Bunnahabhain was mothballed during 1982 and 1983, and production was somewhat limited for much of that decade. When things started to rebound in the 1990’s, there was also a renewed interest in heavily peated single malts. A run of medium-heavily peated whisky (28 ppm) was done in 1991, and another batch was made at 38 ppm in 1997.

When Edrington took over in 1999, Bunnahabhain was not considered to be an important part of the portfolio and its production was relegated to just a few weeks a year; essentially making only what was needed to supply the Black Bottle and Famous Grouse blends. Thankfully it was only four years before Bunnahabhain and the Black Bottle brand were sold off to Burn Stewart. The new owners immediately brought production back up and worked to improve quality.

They also resumed production of the heavily peated distillate in 2003. It was just made for a few weeks a year initially, but that had increased to 6 weeks in 2006 and was up to 9 weeks in 2014. Some of that heavily peated whisky from 1997 was used for a limited release bottling in 2004 called Moine (Gaelic for “peat”). Then the heavily peated version became a regular, though limited, part of the lineup with the 2009 introduction of Toiteach (Gaelic for “smoky”, pronounced “toe-chack).

The biggest change from Bunnahabhain’s new owners was the 2005 introduction of the 18 year and the 25 year bottlings. While there had been the occasional limited releases going back as for as the early 1980’s, they were always vey limited and this was the first time the standard lineup had been expanded beyond the flagship 12 year old. Then in 2010 another big change came. Bunnahabhain 12, 18 and 25 were all switched over to being bottled without chill filtration and without any artificial coloring. The bottling proof of all three was also raised to 46.3%. The 12 year had been bottled at both 40% and 43% previously, depending on its intended market. The 18 and 25 had both started out at 43%. When Toiteach was introduced the year before, it was already non-chill filtered and at 46%.

There had been a string of good news from Bunnahabhain after Burn Stewart took over in 2003, but I have seen some troubling signs since the company was bought by Distell in 2013. A little more than five months after the change of ownership, Black Bottle was re-launched with a new look and a new formula. It’s supposedly been taken back to its north-eastern Scotland roots, with little Islay influence and a healthy dose of Speyside malts (I say supposedly because there is speculation that the Aberdeenshire malts it was originally based on back in 1879 were actually quite smoky, an attribute which was gradually lost with time). From everything I’ve read, Black Bottle has been thoroughly gutted and is now quite unimpressive.

The other thing that concerns me is how rapidly the price of Bunnahabhain has risen over the last three years. When I reviewed the 12 year and the 18 year in 2012, they were priced at $40 and $80, respectively. I considered the 12 to be a tremendous value and the 18 to be fairly reasonable. The 12 year jumped up to $55 pretty quickly and now it is not uncommon to see it as high as $70. The 18 jumped up to $120, and while that still seems to be the average price I have seen it as high as $150.

I understand that all whisky prices are on the rise these days, but to almost double the price of a single malt that is not all that well known over the course of three years seems a bit excessive. Also, the flagship offering of the lineup should be priced so that loyalists can afford to buy on a regular basis and first time buyers are willing to take a chance on it. For a well-established, heavily marketed single malt I think that ceiling is currently around $60. For a lesser known brand like Bunnahabhain which is trying to gain market share, it should be closer to $50. Time will tell how Distell’s strategy works out.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Ardbeg, Airigh Nam Beist

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, distilled 1990, bottled 2008, 46%, $90

I occasionally have grandiose ideas about stringing together multiple blog posts in order to make thought provoking connections and paint a broader picture of the topics I’m exploring. When I recently uncorked the bicentennial Ardbeg Perpetuum I was keenly interested by its description, which stated that what was in the bottle “represented Ardbeg’s past, present and future”, and that it “took inspiration from the differing styles of whisky produced by Ardbeg over the last 200 years”.

The Perpetuum post focused on comparing and contrasting that whisky with Laphroaig’s 200th anniversary bottling; the 2015 Cairdeas. But before I wrote that piece, my mind had been set to pondering the bottles in my collection. I had squirreled away a bottled of Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist about three and a half years ago. Last bottled in 2008, it was becoming scarce when I snapped that one up and can likely only be found on the secondary market for a hefty price today.

A follow-up post focusing on the Airigh Nam Beist could include a comparison of all of the Ardbeg bottlings I had at hand; and Perpetuum would be the one that unified them all. A slight problem with this plan arose when I actually tasted the Perpetuum. It was one of the more disappointing bottles of whisky I had come across through the years, especially when taking price and expectations into consideration.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Ardbeg can currently be found from three distinct periods of production at the distillery. The first is from the early 1970’s through March of 1981, when the distillery closed for eight years. Much of the whisky from this era was made with barley malted on the traditional floor maltings, which were gradually phased out between 1975 and 1980. The lack of extraction fans in Ardbeg’s kilns and the fact that they harvested very old, heavily decayed peat from deep in the ground lent a unique character to their malt. This was also a period of particularly long fermentation times.

From mid-1989 through mid-1996 Ardbeg saw production limited to just two months a year. This was a period of neglected maintenance (the spirit still’s purifier was said to not be working properly much of the time during these years) and the use of very old casks, often fourth or fifth fill.

The third period, from mid-1997 onward, saw much investment in the distillery and is characterized by shorter fermentation times with a different yeast strain, fresh casks and an increased peat level.

The premise for this post was nearly scuttled when I was let down by Perpetuum. But I only had a last precious half-ounce of whisky from my bottle of Uigeadail. The production code on that bottle dated it to 2008, meaning that a good part of its older, sherry cask matured component was drawn from stocks distilled in the earliest production period mentioned above.

Airigh Nam Beist was a temporary part of the distillery’s core range for three years; 2006, 2007 and 2008. But those releases were all vintage-dated with a distillation year of 1990, making it a prime example of the middle period of production. I also have some current 10 year Ardbeg and a bit of Corryvreckan; both from the latest period of distillation, which started in 1997. Considering the rarity and expense of whisky made at Ardbeg before the 1981 closure, this would probably be my only chance to compare the three distinct periods of distilling at Ardbeg in the post World War II era.

When Ardbeg was purchased by Glenmorangie in 1996, they had to work around the limitations of and eight year closure followed by seven years of limited production and another year of being closed. That led to Ardbeg 17 year acting as their flagship bottling from 1997 until 2000, when it was joined by a new 10 year old. The 17 year, which was drawn primarily from stocks distilled in 1980 and 1981, grew older than its age statement as the years ticked by, until it was discontinued in 2004.

Viewed as a replacement for the 17 year, Airigh Nam Beist was a non-age stated bottling which carried its distillation year as a Vintage, as well as showing its year of bottling on the label. Over the three years it was produced, it would have been roughly 16, 17 and 18 years old.

Ardbeg’s source water travels a long journey, starting at Loch Uigeadail and following the Ardilistry River to Loch Iarnan before arriving at the distillery via the peat bogs of Ardbeg Burn. Loch Iarnan is locally known as Loch Airigh Nam Beist. This name translates from Gaelic as “shelter of the beast” and evokes legends of a primeval creature that is said to lurk there. The alternate translation, “resting place of the cattle”, is probably a bit closer to reality.

I’m going to start with the 46% abv 10 year old and work my way back.
The aromas are dense but uplifting, with a pine-like edge to the peat smoke and perhaps a hint of a floral note.
On the palate a touch of sweetness shows upfront. In spite of being a bit weighty in nature the character of the spirit is clean enough to give the peat plenty of room to express itself. The smoky intensity builds with plenty of char and a touch of bitterness.
Complex in a peat-driven sense, it evolves nicely as it moves through the long finish while a burst of iodine also appears.

The nose of the Airigh Nam Beist shows much less intense peat aromas, with a round character driven by soft, woody notes, coastal brine and subtle hints of spice.
On the palate, peat smoke and oak notes are deftly balanced and intertwined. Wonderfully complex spice notes come to the fore on the mid palate. The flavors seem to ride a fine line where they carry on with just enough backbone but don’t reach the point of being too sharply intense.
There’s a delicate, graceful evolution of the flavors as they move into the drying finish while maintaining sublime balance.

The Uigeadail bottling combines older sherry cask matured whisky with younger bourbon barrel aged whisky. At 54.2%, has a seemingly sharp, volatile nose but careful inspection reveals what it has to show; damp oak and dunnage floors, dry sherry notes and mature peat smoke.
Big and chewy in body, the palate shows great depth and range. The sherry casks express themselves with dry, dark fruit and a bit of oxidized nuttiness. Spice notes and maltiness join in enthusiastically and the peat notes bring great complexity, from bacon and tar to campfire and kelp. It holds a firm grip on the palate, evolving but refusing to fade as it moves through the finish.

Next up is Corryvreckan. This moniker was somewhat of a coup in terms of marketing; it was named for a notorious whirlpool which forms in the Sound of Islay and is easily visible from the Caol Ila distillery, on the other side of the island. Corryvreckan was introduced in 2009 as a replacement for Airigh Nam Beist. It is aged in a combination of ex-bourbon barrels and new French oak and is said to be between 10 and 12 years old, though it carries no age statement.
At 57.1% abv, the nose is surprisingly less intense than that of the Uigeadail. Light and slightly floral peat smoke aromas stand out with just a hint of tree fruit and tropical fruit. On the palate it comes out of the gate showing a sharp, angular nature. Once it settles in, dry spice, leather and smoldering beach fire notes become the main players. Notes of sandy soil and subtle fruit come out as well.
The long finish mingles vanilla and warming spice notes with lingering peat smoke. As different as this one is, it still has more in common with the 10 year than it does with the other two.

And finally, a quick revisit to 47.4% abv Perpetuum.
The nose has a coastal, briny edge and somewhat restrained peat notes which are sort of vegetal in nature while remaining dry and earthy.
As it did on my previous tasting, the palate shows a Jekyll and Hyde-like nature, starting off sweet and malty before abruptly turning astringent with sharp, cutting peat smoke and jarring iodine.
On the finish it drifts further from the balance that it never really had, with overt notes of barrel char and burnt toast taking center stage.

While it was interesting to compare such radically different expressions of Ardbeg, it wouldn’t be particularly realistic to view this as an outright comparison of the brand’s different distilling periods. With such a variety of ages and cask types used in these bottlings, there were just too many other variable at play.

I’m fully aware of the fact that Ardbeg had to sell off most of the great quality whisky that came with the distillery after its 1996 sale in order to rebuild the brand and remain profitable. Consequently the timing for putting together a special bottling to commemorate their bicentennial was pretty horrible. Sure, they restarted operations in 1997, 18 years before the big event, but back then everyone’s attention was focused on the survival of the distillery. By the time success was assured, it was a little too late to plan a special whisky in advance.

It’s ironic that bottlings like Airigh Nam Beist and early (pre 2010) Uigeadail, which served to build up the reputation that Ardbeg enjoys today, would have been perfectly worthy of commemorating its 200th anniversary, but we got stuck with Perpetuum.

While I view the description of Perpetuum as being mostly marketing-driven hyperbole, I couldn’t resist looking for a deeper meaning. If it truly represents the future of Ardbeg, that could be viewed in two different ways. If high priced, non-age stated bottlings which bear the flaws of overproduction are the future, then I fear for this iconic distillery. On the other hand, if some link to the past is the way to the future, there is hope. Hope that at least for a portion of the production season some of the old ways could be revived; a resumption of floor malting and the use of the third kiln (the only one which hasn’t been repurposed yet) with hand-cut peat from those deep, ancient layers. Maybe even some lengthier fermentation times and long aging in refill casks. This distillate could be separated out for special limited releases. Ardbeg is just one of many distilleries that I think could find their future by looking back to their past.