Monday, May 25, 2015

Bruichladdich, Laddie Classic vs. Sherry Classic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 18, 2015

Glenmorangie, Lasanta vs. Quinta Ruban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 8, 2015

Glenmorangie, Nectar D'Or

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Cleveland Bourbon and MGPI samples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Old Forester, Signature

stats: Kentucky straight bourbon, 50%, $25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now on to the bourbon:

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

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Woodford Reserve, Distiller's Select

stats: Kentucky straight bourbon, 45.2%, $37

In my last post, which covered 86 proof Old Forester, I discussed a few of the many acquisitions that Brown-Forman has made since the end of Prohibition. Now I’m going to look at another distillery, Woodford Reserve, which the company actually purchased two different times, in transactions that took place more than 50 years apart.

Located in Versailles, KY, the current distillery building was constructed in 1838, but Elijah Pepper had established his farm and distilling operation on the site in 1812. It is often mistakenly stated that distilling here dates to 1780; an inaccuracy that springs from the fact that Elijah Pepper began his distilling career in 1780. At that time he lived in Virginia though, and he didn’t relocate to Kentucky until 1797. He and his brother-in-law established a distillery in Versailles which they operated together for several years until Pepper started his new farm distillery in 1812, which was located about five miles away.

Elijah Pepper passed away in 1831 leaving the distillery to his son, Oscar Pepper. In 1833 he hired Dr. James Crow as his master distiller. Crow held that position until his death 23 years later, and made many advances in the methods of bourbon production during his tenure. It was in this period that the distillery officially took the name Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, likely when the building dating to 1838 was constructed.

Oscar Pepper passed away in 1865 and the ownership of the distillery gets a little confusing here, as he left no will. His oldest son, James Pepper, who was 15 at the time, began running the distillery. When the court finally settled the estate in 1869 they divided it between Oscar Pepper’s 7 children. The portion of the property with the distillery (and everything else that made money) was given to his youngest son, O’Bannon, who was only 7 years old. This was done so Oscar Pepper’s widow could be left in charge of the finances of the property. She leased the distillery out to Gaines, Berry & Co. in 1870.

The official distillery name was not changed during this period, but due to the fame and reputation of Dr. Crow, the distillery may have sometimes been referred to as the Old Crow distillery while he was employed there and in the years following his death. It appears that whiskey from the distillery was not sold under the Old Crow brand until Gaines, Berry & Co. took over the operation.

In 1872 James Pepper sued his mother in order to take back control of the distillery. Two years later, James Pepper entered into an agreement with Col. E.H. Taylor, who provided capital for improvements to the distillery. Taylor had been a partner in Gaines, Berry & Co. when they leased the distillery, but he left the firm later in 1870.

James Pepper declared bankruptcy in 1877, leaving Col. Taylor as the sole owner of the distillery. Shortly thereafter, Taylor was forced into bankruptcy himself. George T. Stagg, who had been one of Taylor’s creditors, paid off Taylor’s debts for pennies on the dollar and ended up with the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery. Later in 1878 he sold it to James Graham, who then partnered with Leopold Labrot.

In spite of a legal challenge from James Pepper after he emerged from bankruptcy, the new owners kept using the original name of the distillery, although it was amended slightly to Labrot & Graham’s Old Oscar Pepper Distillery. While the members of the partnership that owned the distillery changed several times over the following 62 years, the proprietorship continued using the Labrot & Graham name. The distillery was forced to close during Prohibition (1920-1933), leaving the buildings vacant and unused after much of the equipment was sold for salvage. At the end of this hiatus the company was re-established and the distillery rebuilt. As far as I can tell, it was at this time that the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery moniker stopped being used and the official name was changed to the Labrot & Graham Distillery.

Finally, in 1940, Brown-Forman purchased the distillery for the sum of $75,000. A series of improvements were made, increasing capacity. During this period the whiskey made here was primarily sold as Early Times bourbon. Early Times became the best selling bourbon in America in the 1950’s, so the demand required that it be produced in this distillery as well as Brown-Forman’s facility in Shively. Once the distillery in Shively was modernized and dramatically expanded in 1955, the days were numbered for the Labrot & Graham Distillery. Production ceased in 1957, but they continued to store whiskey in the warehouses until 1965. The mothballed distillery property was sold in 1973 to a local farmer who used it primarily for agricultural storage.

When the bourbon market showed signs of revitalization in the early 1990’s Brown-Forman began exploring the possibility of creating a premium bourbon using traditional methods. They investigated potential sites for this project and their old Labrot & Graham Distillery ended up being the most viable option. The property was repurchased in 1994, and Brown-Forman continued to call the facility the Labrot & Graham Distillery, as they had done through their first period of ownership.

During the two year restoration many of the historical aspects (in terms of architecture and production equipment) of the distillery were preserved. The biggest nod to traditional techniques in the new distillery was the reintroduction of the use of copper pot stills. This is certainly how whiskey would have originally been made here, as the column still didn’t start to see widespread use until at least the mid 1830’s. I’ve only seen documentation that the distillery was using a column still prior to the start of Prohibition, but I think it is likely that the switch from pot stills to a column still coincided with the building of the new still house in 1938. The new bourbon would be named Woodford Reserve, for the county in which the distillery is located.

It’s often rumored that Woodford Reserve is nothing more than over-priced Old Forester in a fancy bottle. While this rumor is not completely true, it does have some basis in fact. Not wanting to lose ground to their competitors, Brown-Forman chose to start building the brand for their new bourbon as soon as the distillery renovations were complete. Of course “straight” bourbon has to age for at least two years, so there was no way that the Woodford Reserve initially sold was a product of the new distillery. For several years it was in fact made up of the better barrels of bourbon from the Shively distillery that would have otherwise been used in Old Forester. Woodford Reserve is currently, and probably always will be a vatting of column still whiskey from Shively and pot still whiskey from Versailles. The reason is likely two-fold; so the bourbon sold as Woodford isn’t too dramatic of a departure from the whiskey the brand was built on, and because the Versailles distillery doesn’t have the capacity to meet the demand for Woodford Reserve.

I did a bit of research and was able to glean some information about how Woodford Reserve has transformed over the years. The first 89 batches of Woodford were distilled solely at the Shively distillery. Batch 90 was the first one to have pot still whiskey from Versailles in the mix; that was released in May of 2003. As of 2005 there were numerous reports that Woodford Reserve was pretty inconsistent from batch to batch, and a well-respected source suggested it would likely be several years before the product had a consistent flavor profile. Somewhere around 2005 the batch size increased from 1000 cases to 5000 cases; a change that could only help the consistency issue.

The column still whiskey from Shively used in Woodford Reserve and the pot still whiskey from Versailles both use the same yeast and the same mash bill (72% corn, 18% rye, 10% malted barley) as Old Forester. The percentage of pot still whiskey in the mix varies from batch to batch as they try to attain the desired flavor profile. Brown-Forman doesn’t disclose these numbers, but in 2006 there was a claim on a discussion forum that it ranged from 25% to 50%. In 2010 a well-respected source stated that there was no difference between the barrels of column still whiskey that went into Woodford Reserve and those that went into Old Forester when those barrels were laid down. After a few years of aging in Shively, some barrels would be selected to finish aging in Versailles before they were used in Woodford. Although it carries no age statement, Woodford Reserve is said to be about 7 years old on average.

The annual limited release Master’s Collection from Woodford Reserve is always made up of 100% pot still whiskey, but those have each had unusual wood finishes or different grain recipes than the standard Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select. And just one last historical footnote before my tasting notes; in 2003 the official name of the distillery in Versailles was quietly changed to the Woodford Reserve Distillery. That change went largely unnoticed and the “Labrot & Graham” name can still be found on every bottle.

The nose is not too intense, but focused and concentrated with a dark character – leather and shoe polish notes are prominent. On the palate it shows very good complexity. Leather, vanilla, cinnamon spice, oak, nuttiness and gentle sweetness are all well-integrated. It gently shifts to a drier, spicier character, with leather and charred oak as the prominent notes, as it transitions into the finish. All the while it maintains its complexity and the alcohol level stays in check. Overall, the flavors evolve gracefully with subtle transitions. It’s approachable but still has good depth and plenty of character.

Anyone who tells you that this is just over-priced Old Forester simply hasn’t tasted the two side by side.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Old Forester, 86 proof

stats: Kentucky straight bourbon, 43%, $22

I covered much of the history of the Old Forester brand and the Brown-Forman Corporation in my recent Birthday Bourbon post. There were a few points that I skipped over though, in part to keep that post from getting too long, but also because I wanted to save those topics for a few other bottles that were sitting on the old whiskey shelf.

First a slight correction; in the above mentioned post (which has since been updated) I stated that Old Forester was introduced in 1870. In actuality, the company that eventually came to be known as Brown-Forman was founded in 1870, but they sold whiskey by the barrel under several other brands before introducing Old Forester in 1873. In that post, I talked about the production of Old Forester transitioning through a variety of different distilleries during its long history, but didn’t cover some other changes that have happened along the way.

It was originally bottled at 90 proof and stayed that way until Prohibition. As I mentioned before, Brown-Forman was one of only a handful of companies that were able to obtain a license to sell medicinal whiskey during that dark period. Medicinal whiskey was a product that was highly regulated by the federal government, and one of the requirements was that it had to be Bottled in Bond. There are a few different regulations that a whiskey must conform to in order to qualify as being Bottled in Bond. One of the stipulations is that it must be bottled at 100 proof (50% abv), so Old Forester saw its proof go up at the dawn of Prohibition for the first time since its inception.

Brown-Forman chose to keep Old Forester as a Bottled in Bond product after Prohibition ended, but in 1959 they added an 86 proof bottling to the lineup. Then, around 2002 or 2003 the Bottled in Bond designation was dropped from the 100 proof version of Old Forester. Bonded whiskeys must be the product of one distillation season, so this change would have given the company a little more flexibility in terms of vatting together whiskeys with a wider variety of ages. In 2006 the 100 proof bottling was re-launched with new labeling as Old Forester Signature. The reasoning given was that the barrels were now being specially selected to produce a different flavor profile than the 86 proof bottling. In the past, the 86 proof Old Forester had just been a watered down version of the 100 proof bottling.

I’m going to taste the 86 Proof Old Forester today, but first I want to go off on a brief tangent. Since Prohibition ended, Brown-Forman has stayed on a significant path of growth which has been fueled by a steady stream of acquisitions. I’m just going to consider a few of them here.

In 1945 they purchased the Louisville, KY facilities of the Wood Mosaic Company. The plant dated to the early 1920’s and had started as a furniture factory. At the onset of World War II, it was converted to make riffle stocks for the British and plywood parts for military aircraft. After the war, Brown-Forman transformed the factory into a cooperage so they could make their own whiskey barrels. This facility was named Bluegrass Cooperage, but in 2009 it was renamed as the Brown-Forman Cooperage.

Another important acquisition happened in 1955, with the purchase of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, TN. Why is the significant? Well, Jack Daniel’s may have just been a small regional distillery at the time (producing only 200,000 cases of whiskey per year), but Brown-Forman was able to grow the brand into the best selling American whiskey by 1996. Worldwide case sales for the brand were up to 8.9 million in 2006 and they hit 12.4 million cases in 2012, vastly outpacing Brown-Forman’s other whiskey brands.

Making that much whiskey takes an awful lot of barrels. The Bluegrass Cooperage had long supplied barrels to distilleries outside of the Brown-Forman family, but the growth of Jack Daniel’s put and end to that practice in 2006. The company announced that it would build a second cooperage in Alabama in mid 2012, and that facility went online two years later, in mid 2014. The facility, named Jack Daniel’s Cooperage, won’t be up to full capacity until at least the end of 2015, but once it reaches that point it will match the output of Brown-Forman Cooperage. The company is presently still only producing new barrels for its own use, and I’ve been told that is unlikely to change in the next two to three years (that was the personal opinion of an employee, not an official company statement).

While there are a handful of other barrel producers, all of them operate on a very small scale, with one exception. That one exception is the Independent Stave Company. Started in 1912 as a stave and barrel head producer, Independent Stave expanded into bourbon barrel manufacturing in 1951. Eventually the lion’s share of the barrels produced in the US were coming from either Brown-Forman or Independent Stave. Once Brown-Forman stopped doing external barrel sales in 2006, Independent Stave, with its two cooperages (Lebanon, KY and Lebanon, MO), was really the only game in town for all of the other whiskey distillers.

Then, in the March of 2014 the online store section of Independent Stave’s website had a message stating that they had current customers on allocation and were unable to take new orders. It also said that they hoped to be able to address new inquiries within 6 to 12 months. By December of 2014 that message had been updated to say 9 to 12 months, and it as of today it has not changed. The barrel shortage is here and it is real.

Where this story really gets interesting is with a request to connect with someone on LinkedIn that I got a few months ago. This came from a gentleman in China who owns a company that produces oak barrels. They seem to be focused on wine barrels now, but surely the whiskey industry will be in their sights soon (and if not them, I’d imagine a similar company will try to fill the void).

And that brings up a whole host of intriguing questions. Does the species of oak that is native to northern Japan (Mizunara, aka Quercus mongolica var. crispula) and used by their whisky industry also grow in China? Are there other oak species growing in China that are suitable for barrel making? How will the quality control of Chinese made barrels be? How much of a cost savings will a producer see with Chinese barrels? Will barrel origin become a selling point for American whiskeys? Currently, bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels; will the laws be updated to only allow American Oak?

Okay, back on track and on to the whiskey.

The nose has moderate intensity and shows notes of grain, leather and dry spice, along with a good hit of alcohol. On the palate it is mild up front, but rapidly picks up stream as it moves along. There’s a prominent but short-lived wave of sweetness on the mid-palate (candy corn and maple sugar) which is quickly followed by leather and a touch of oak. On the finish it quickly turns dry and spicy with the heat from the alcohol becoming more dominant. Wood and spice notes carry it along late in the finish, but it does fall a little flat at the very end. Overall it’s a little clumsy as it transitions from start to finish, but I’d still call it a respectable glass of whiskey.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Oban, 18 year

stats: single malt Scotch, Highlands, 43%, $158

My current employers are wise enough to not pass up a good resource that is at their disposal. So after less than six months of employment they asked me select new single malts for their existing restaurant and pick the Scotches that they would feature in their soon-to-open, second location. Neither establishment is particularly whisky-centric, so the single malt groupings had to be small, focused and well-selected. A little more than a year after the opening of the second, larger outlet, I was asked to put together a short list of potential additions to their Scotch collection from a higher price range. The only caveat was that it had to be something with good brand recognition.

That was actually kind of a tough exception for me. I’m not all that fond of many of the more easily recognized whisky brands for a variety of reasons. The other single malts I had previously chosen were picked to fit a theme of having been produced by traditional methods, at least to some degree (long fermentation, slow distillation, floor malting, direct-fire stills, worm tubs, non-chill filtration, etc), and I wanted to stick to that if possible. Adding a flavor profile that would compliment what we already had on offer was something to be considered as well.

Being in a small liquor-control state also puts some limitations on what is available. My short list was pretty short; just four selections from three producers (well, I also tacked on one more without much name recognition, just to hold true to my principles). The selection that eventually came out on top was 18 year Oban.

Of the twenty-something malt distilleries owned by Diageo, Oban is the second smallest, with a capacity of 670,000 liters per year. Just to put that into perspective, Caol Ila, Diageo’s workhorse on Islay puts out 6.5 million liters per year, and two of Scotland’s smallest distilleries, Kilchoman and Edradour are at 100,000 liters per year.

When the distillery was established in 1794, the town of Oban was a small fishing village with a minimal population that was just starting to establish other industries, such as shipbuilding, trading and quarrying. Further growth of the town was fuelled by its connection to Glasgow by rail in 1880. Today Oban has a population of 8500 people. That may not seem like a lot, but the fact that it is the largest town on Scotland’s west coast and its dense, compact layout make Oban have more of an urban feel than one might expect. Oban’s bay allows it to serve as a major ferry port, acting as a hub to many of the Hebridean islands, and supporting tourism, which has been its principal industry for the last 60 years.

The town grew and developed through the 19th and 20th centuries with the distillery at its center. This has left the facility unable to expand in modern times, limiting Oban to its current capacity. I’ve actually found a few references from 10 to 15 years ago stating that 80 percent of Oban’s production went to blends. I couldn’t find a current figure, but I’m sure that number has shifted downward since then allowing for the growth in popularity of Oban as a single malt. I’ve also seen older references to Oban using bourbon barrels for three or four cycles, but during my visit to the distillery three years ago I was told that they use second fill bourbon barrels exclusively. This focus on cask management is another indication that they are shifting away from using the whisky in blends.

As for modernization, Oban stopped using their traditional floor maltings in 1968, and when they shut down from 1969 to 1972 and rebuilt the stillhouse, the stills were converted from being direct fired with coal to using internal steam coils. Importantly though, the worm tubs were retained and the fermentation times were kept relatively long, at four days. These factors certainly have an impact on the character of modern Oban.

Originally released as a distillery bottled single malt in the late 1970’s, Oban started off as a 12 year old at 40% abv. In 1987 they transitioned to a 14 year old at 43% abv, which is still their flagship, and is easily Oban’s most widely available single malt. There have been quite a few other bottlings from the distillery over the years though.

In the early 1990’s there were three bottlings under the “Manager’s Dram” title; a 13 year, a 16 year and a 19 year. All three were sherry cask matured and bottled at cask strength. These were apparently special bottlings for employees and friends of the distillery, and not released to the general public.

In 1998, Oban began annual releases of the “Distiller’s Edition”, a series that is used for many of the Diageo owned single malts. In the case of Oban it is aged primarily in bourbon barrels and finished in Montilla Fino butts. The first release was about 20 years old, but the ages drifted down over the next five releases and since then they have been aged 14 years plus an additional 6 to 18 months finishing time. Currently 300 casks are set aside each year for the Distiller’s Edition.

In 2002 there was a limited release (6000 bottles) of 32 year Oban which was distilled in 1969. It was matured in sherry butts and bottled at 55.1% abv. The original retail price was $350, but any that are still floating around out there today will cost at least $1000.

In 2004 the distillery put out another limited release (1260 bottles). This one was aged in bourbon barrels for 20 years and bottled at 57.9% abv.

18 year Oban was initially introduced as a limited release (about 8800 bottles) in 2008, matured in bourbon barrels, bottled at 43% and retailed for $150. It was exclusive to the U.S. and the distillery shop.

Another exclusive to the distillery shop first appeared in 2010. This one was a non-age stated cask strength bottling.

Then, at the end of 2011, Oban announced that the 18 year would return as a regular part of the standard lineup, though limited in production and exclusive to the U.S. market. The distillery now sets aside 300 casks each year for this bottling. I’ll spare you the boring math details, but that works out to about 60,000 bottles per year. Looking online I see an unusually broad range of prices for 18 year Oban, from $95 to $185. The price listed up top of $158 is the going rate here in Vermont.

2013 saw the release of a limited (2860 bottles) release of 21 year Oban, matured in a mix of bourbon barrels and sherry casks, bottled at 58.5% and selling for $385.

I also mentioned the 2014 introduction of Oban “Little Bay” here.

Before tasting the 18 year Oban I sat down with a glass of the flagship 14 year to reacquaint myself with it for the sake of comparison. It certainly has a malty core, but with more of a lighter, softer, honeyed character (as opposed to some other single malts that have more dense, molasses and baking spice aspect to their malt signature). Orange citrus notes, a subtle floral aspect, a touch of brine and soft peat notes all round out the profile.

With the 18 year Oban, the nose is less malty, with a little more oak showing. It’s also more delicate / elegant, and the aromas are a bit more harmonious. On the palate, the primary notes are similar to those of the 14 year. Honeyed malt, citrus (primarily orange), delicate peat smoke and a touch of brine are all there but toned down and the oak character is a little more prominent. It turns slightly floral (more so than the 14 year) as it moves into the warming, spicy finish. Overall, this is not a dramatic departure from the 14 year, but more of a pleasant refinement of it.

This is essentially what I was expecting, considering that the two are bottled at the same proof and matured in the same type of casks, with just a 29% increase in age. With the 18 year, you’re paying a premium more for the rarity of an older Oban than you are for a significant shift in the flavor profile. This is a good example of why a lot of Scottish malt distillers have started to use increasing proportions of sherry cask maturation (and sometimes higher alcohol levels) as they move up the age range of their offerings. It makes it much easier for them to justify the significantly higher prices of their older bottlings.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bruichladdich, Legacy Series Five, 33 Aged Years

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 40.9%, $180

I lost my best friend today. When you’re a socially inept recluse with a fear of relationships, a wayward black cat can come to mean an awful lot to you. She was on my lap nuzzling and purring incessantly while I wrote much of what has been posted here. She’d even occasionally poke her nose into my glass to see what all of the fuss was about; and that would come with a rude awakening if I was tasting something from the more pungent side of Islay. It’s not easy to type with a twelve pound cat draped across your forearms and it’s tough to complete a thought with claws digging into your wrist for a little more attention. Those are distractions I’d be thrilled to tolerate as I write this.

My views on the grey market (i.e. personal sales) of whisky have changed over the years. I originally thought of those who engaged in it as vultures. Then, as I sat in a pub on Islay three years ago and mentioned tasting Ardbeg Kildalton on a distillery tour, the bartender asked how it tasted and said that she had a bottle but didn’t want to open it as it was one of her “investment bottles”. That altered my outlook a bit and I thought maybe it was okay to view special bottles of whisky as a commodity. Perhaps I could use my whisky knowledge to put a little money in my pocket. Upon returning to the states I quickly snapped up an Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist and a Bruichladdich Legacy V - 33 year old, with the intention of flipping them and doubling my money. Shortly thereafter eBay closed their loophole on spirits sales and the most accessible illicit whisky market was gone.

Once I was stuck with those bottles, my frustration gradually turned to gratitude. These are special whiskies, meant to be enjoyed and cherished, not bought and sold for the sake of profiteering. They are links to the past; bottles of liquid history; ties to a less complicated time for the industry.

I almost opened the 33 year Bruichladdich on the most recent New Years Eve, but it just didn’t feel like the right night. I chose to crack into my bottle of Big Peat that night instead. This is incredibly ironic as I reached out to the Big Peat when in need of an emotional crutch this morning, but upon further reflection concluded that only my most treasured of unopened whiskies was befitting of a toast to my abruptly departed feline companion.

When Bruichladdich was rescued and restarted in mid 2001 it had been mothballed for nearly eight years. The new owners needed cash flow and their greatest asset was in the warehouses. The distillery had produced heavily peated malt up until 1960, before following the industry trend of the time and switching over to very lightly peated malt. The heavily peated spirit was all long gone, but the warehouses did contain stocks from 1964 up to 1994, as well a two weeks worth of production (moderately peated, at 28 ppm) that was carried out in 1998 by the staff of the Jura distillery.

The character of the whisky began to change when a second set of stills were introduced in 1975 and production levels were increased. Although much of the original Victorian era equipment remains in use at Bruichladdich to this day, it is likely that the period from 1975 to 1979 is when fermentation times were shortened, worm tubs were replaced with modern condensers and the stills were changed over from direct fire to steam heating.

After 1980 much of the spirit was entered into marginal quality casks. There was plenty of good whisky spanning 1964 to 1998 in the warehouses, but the new owners had to pick and choose casks wisely. This is a big part of why wine cask finishes were so important for the reawakened Bruichladdich and why she put forth such a wide range of limited edition bottlings in the early 2000’s.

The Legacy series bottlings were released annually from 2002 through 2007 and represent some of the oldest stocks that were in the warehouses, from 1964 to 1972. Release Five was bottled in September of 2006 and is made up of bourbon barrels and sherry casks from 1972 and 1968. It was a limited release of just 1690 bottles, and it’s quite shocking that I came across several of them on a store shelf in the summer of 2012 at their suggested retail price. The few Legacy series bottlings that I see for sale now are typically in the $400 to $500 range.

The nose is expressive; wood, leather, dark stewed sherry fruits and a touch of dry spice. Putting a drop on the finger and letting it dry brings out coconut aromas and more complex spice notes. It’s full bodied, but not to the point of being clumsy. There’s a lovely evolution of flavors. Biscuits and Dundee Cake lead up front, followed by coconut and subtle tropical fruit in the background. A briny coastal quality comes through on the mid palate as well. It becomes more spice driven as it moves into the finish; cinnamon, teaberry and delicate mulling spices all do their part. It turns drier as it progresses and becomes more woody as the spice notes fade, but not to the point of being detrimental. Its character is dark and brooding, but graceful and complex too. The density of flavor is impressive for 40.9% abv, but I guess that is the difference between the alcohol level coming down through three decades of evaporation and a younger whisky that has just had water added to it.

Old whisky, like friendships and life itself, should be savored and cherished, not traded or hoarded as a trophy. Cheers Frida.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, 2008 vs. 2014

2008 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, Kentucky straight bourbon, 13 years, 47.0%, $40
2014 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, Kentucky straight bourbon, 12 years, 48.5%, $60

Old Forester is a brand that often flies under the radar these days, but it still has a long and impressive history. In 1870 George Garvin Brown, a young pharmaceuticals salesman, started a whiskey business in Louisville, KY that would eventually grow into one of the largest spirits companies based in the U.S. The early years saw several name changes as various partners and investors came and went, but in 1890 the company took the name Brown-Forman when George Forman, an accountant who had been an employee since 1872, became a minor partner. Forman passed away in 1901 and his shares were bought back from his widow, but his name remains as part of the company moniker to this day.

George Brown introduced Old Forester bourbon in 1873, and it became his company’s flagship product. Most notably, it has the distinction of being the first bourbon to be sold exclusively in bottles, which was actually the whole premise of the brand from its start. This was done in order to market it to physicians, who commonly prescribed whiskey to their patients at the time.

During that era, whiskey sold on the wholesale level was notorious for its irregular quality and the unscrupulous practices of the merchants who dealt in it. George Brown was one of the honest wholesalers who had a talent for picking quality barrels from the distillers and blending them together to create a consistent product. He realized that if his bourbon was only available in sealed bottles, doctors and consumers could have faith in its source and the quality of what they were buying. For added measure each label had a signed, hand written pledge guaranteeing the authenticity of the whiskey.

Since its inception Old Forester has been a Brown-Forman product, but it hasn’t always been made at the same distillery. As noted above, John Brown started off as a wholesaler who blended together whiskey sourced from several distilleries. In 1902 Brown-Forman acquired the B F Mattingly distillery in St Mary, Kentucky. This distillery had been one of their major suppliers for more than 20 years, but even after buying it they continued to source whiskey from other producers, the Mellwood distillery in Louisville, KY chief among them.

Both of those distilleries ceased operations in 1918 during the lead up to Prohibition. Brown-Forman obtained one of the few licenses to bottle medicinal whiskey when Prohibition began and they bought many distilleries, brands and existing stocks of whiskey during that time period. The most significant purchase was Early Times in 1923. It was a major brand that dated to 1860 and they kept it alive through Prohibition by bottling its remaining stocks as medicinal whiskey, even though they sold off the land and building associated with it.

Another purchase consisted of a property in Louisville with a pair of defunct distilleries in 1924; White Mills distillery and Lynndale distillery (the first dates to at least 1886 and the second was an expansion dating to around 1900). When Prohibition came to an end in 1933 a new distillery and new corporate offices were built on the site of the old White Mills and Lynnwood distilleries. Both Old Forester and Early Times were distilled at this facility.

 In 1940 Brown-Forman acquired the Old Kentucky distillery in Shively, Kentucky, which had been constructed in 1935. This facility became the new home of Early Times, and by 1953 it had been renamed to Early Times Distillery. It was dramatically expanded and modernized in 1955. At some time prior to that the Louisville plant had taken the name Old Forester Distillery. Then in 1979 production of Old Forester was moved to the Early Times distillery in Shively and from that point on the Louisville location was used only for bottling, warehousing and corporate office space. Around 2005 the Shively plant was renamed as the Brown-Forman Distillery.

For most of its history Old Forester was just, Old Forester. Then, in 2002 the brand introduced its first specialty bottling; Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. This is a vintage dated, small batch bourbon, selected from a single day of production and the labels state the “barreled” and “bottled” years. It is released each year on September 2nd to commemorate the birthday of George Garvin Brown. For 2014, the Birthday Bourbon represents about 20% of the Old Forrester produced on the selected day.

The ages have all been in the 12 to 13 year range. The alcohol level of each bottling has been between 47% and 49%, with the exception of the first few years. It was 43% in 2002, and there were actually two different batches in 2003; one distilled in the spring of 1990 and bottled at 46.5%, the other distilled in the fall of 1990 and bottled at 44.5%. While most specialty bourbon bottlings strive to have some degree of consistency from batch to batch, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is meant to be a unique expression the distillery’s style each year. I’ve had a mostly full 2008 bottle sitting on my shelf for quite a few years, so when my local watering hole got a few bottles of the 2014 release it was a perfect opportunity for a side-by-side tasting.

2008 Birthday Bourbon

nose – Very strong aromas, shoe polish and leather. Quite boozy smelling.
palate – There’s an initial hit of sweetness that is short lived. The candy corn opening quickly gives way to oak and saddle leather notes.
finish – It gets kind of hot and a little astringent early in the finish before pleasant warming spice notes emerge later on in the finish providing some redemption.
overall – The flavors do evolve, but it’s sort of one note at a time and it moves from one to the other in somewhat of a clumsy fashion. The bold and fiery finish was the most appealing part for me.

2014 Birthday Bourbon

nose – Still very aromatic, but not so aggressive as the 08. The shoe polish and leather character is here too, but with caramel and clay soil as well.
palate – Pronounced sweetness with maple syrup and caramel is nicely balanced by toasted oak, leather and a gentle nuttiness.
finish – A smooth and gradual transition leads it into the spice driven finish which is quite complex; cinnamon, ancho chile powder and turmeric all make subtle contributions.
overall – Very well mannered compared to the 08. Good integration and smooth transitions. The flavors are actually similar between the two, but the 14 is more refined and more complex although some might find it a little too tame in character.