Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Whiskey Road Trip, George Dickel tour

Having fulfilled my whisky dinner hosting obligations in Florida, as documented here, here, here and here, it was time to transport myself northward and partake in some long overdue tours of American distilleries.

When this trip was being planned, a limited number of dates were given to me as options for the Florida event. The one that worked best happened to be on a Monday. I was also trying to not take any more Saturdays off from work than necessary; that being my most profitable night of the week. That left me with a four day window, but the lengthy drives involved meant that it would break down to two travel days and two touring days.

The first step of the planning process was to take a look at a map and see where Kentucky’s major distilleries were actually located. They’re pretty spread out, but are basically arranged in two clusters; those around Bardstown and those around Frankfort. My first thought was that it made sense to end in Frankfort because it’s slightly further east, putting me a bit closer to home when I started the long drive back to Vermont on Friday morning. That was still going to be a 15 hour drive; not easy, but manageable. I’d done a few 17 hour solo drives in my younger days, so at least I knew what I was getting myself into.

I figured I wouldn’t get on the road too early the morning after hosting the Scotch dinner, and while I was looking at drive times on Google Maps I saw that it was going to be a 14 hour run whether my destination was Bardstown or Frankfort. Not liking the sound of that and preferring to have a bit more recovery time before jumping into distillery tours first thing the next morning, I started to consider the Tennessee option. This would mean a roughly 11 hour drive to the southern part of the Volunteer State, a nearby distillery tour the following morning and then a three to four hour drive to a Kentucky distillery for an afternoon tour.

A little more research ruled out visits to any new / craft distilleries in Tennessee, leaving Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel as the options. The latter was the more interesting of the two to me, so that decision was quickly settled. Of the major Kentucky distilleries, Buffalo Trace and Four Roses topped my priority list. They’re both part of the Frankfort cluster, so spending two nights in the state capital and visiting them on the second day of taking tours made the most sense.

Now I just had to figure out what to do in the afternoon following the Dickel tour. My first inclination was to do something a little different and visit a cooperage. Independent Stave, one of the two big players in the industry, offers tours at their Lebanon, KY facility. Unfortunately they only run two tours per day; one at 9:30 and one at 1:00. Even if I took the first tour at Dickel at 9:00 and left by 10:00, the nearly four hour drive between the two would have me arriving an hour too late.

Then, for some reason, I thought I should check to see if I was going far enough west to cross from the Eastern time zone to the Central time zone at any point. Yep, sure enough the line zigzags through the middle of both Tennessee and Kentucky, and I would be crossing it. All of the distilling industry points of interest in and around Bardstown and Frankfort are on East Coast time, but Dickel (as well as Jack Daniel’s, which is nearby) is in the Central time zone. For a brief moment I thought I might be getting back the hour that I needed to get to Independent Stave in time for their second daily tour. But a closer look showed that I’d be losing an hour on the drive from Tennessee to Kentucky. On the upside, I would get an extra hour of sleep after the long drive from Florida.

Now my timing between tours was going to be even more of a critical factor, and I eventually came to the realization that Maker’s Mark was the only Kentucky distillery that was close enough (in terms of the drive time from Dickel) and that offered a tour late enough in the afternoon to be a candidate for my second visit.

I ended up spending the night before the Dickel tour in Winchester, TN, a town which is about 20 miles south of the distillery. The drive up from Florida, which was primarily on Interstate 75, was fairly routine aside from seeing the overtly religious billboards that we just don’t have up north. As expected, I got a late start leaving Florida. The time zone crossing made up for that delay, and in spite of getting stuck in rush hour traffic in Atlanta I was still able to reach my destination in 11 hours. What was probably the most scenic and interesting part of the drive, where Interstate 24 passes through the Monteagle Mountain section of the Cumberland Plateau, was unfortunately done after dark and with thunderstorms rolling in.

Driving to the distillery the next morning took about 30 minutes. After passing through the small but densely developed town of Tullahoma, the last mile and a half of the road leading out the distillery quickly becomes quite rural as it brings you into secluded, tree covered rolling hills. While the distillery is by no means small, it still has the feeling of being tucked away in a classic Tennessee hollow (you’ll want to pronounce that “holler” if you’d like to fit in with the locals). All but one of the Dickel barrel warehouses are hidden from sight behind the hills surrounding the distillery, furthering its image of isolation.

This not being my first rodeo, I was well aware of the fact that Dickel was a Diageo owned distillery and that meant there would be no photography allowed in the production areas during the tour. This was a corporate policy that I learned about the hard way while visiting several of their distilleries in Scotland. I’m not really one to look for special treatment from the industry, but considering my intention to document these tours, being able to take pictures was kind of important to me. I decided to make this request about a week in advance through someone I know (albeit peripherally through a mutual acquaintance) who works at Diageo. While I had his ear, I also mentioned that I’d be happy to chat with the new master distiller if she was available (a long time Dickel employee named Allisa Henley, who had replaced the recently departed John Lunn). The response was quick, and I was told that she would be expecting me.

Well, I’m not sure what happened, but when I arrived shortly before 9:00 and mentioned that I was there to see Allisa I got a blank stare and a polite “who are you?” After a quick phone call or two they apologized for the fact that I wasn’t on her schedule and noted that she’d be in meetings all morning. In spite of the fact that I’d spent a good chunk of the previous evening brushing up on Dickel’s history and brainstorming topics for discussion, meeting with the master distiller would still have been a bonus to what I originally asked for; permission to take pictures during the tour. That first tour of the day didn’t start until 9:30, even though the information on the website gave the impression that it started at 9:00, so I was left with a half hour to putter around the visitor center.

Located across the street from the main distillery buildings is a replica of an old-timey general store which has the visitor center on one side and a gift shop, functional US Post Office and a small room for post-tour tastings on the other side. There was an interesting collection of historical artifacts related to the distillery on display, as well as a diorama of the equipment used in the distilling process.

When it was time for the tour to start, the guide laid out the ground rules, which of course included no photography once we were across the street on the production facility grounds (apparently the rather professional looking business card I presented when I originally introduced myself doesn’t carry much weight). At that point I was actually tempted to just say “fuck it” and leave, but after driving as far as I had I figured I should at last walk through and see the place.

The tour itself was fairly standard fare, although it did feel a bit scripted and I got the impression that asking too many questions might throw the whole thing out of sync. I think it’s kind of pointless to go into the nuts and bolts of what I saw in the distillery without any corresponding images to show, so I’ll just skip on to some of the interesting info I was able to pick up along the way.

The distillery is currently producing seven days a week with two shifts per day and an output of 600 barrels per week. The barrel warehouses, which are all single story and six barrels in height, are grouped together, on location. They have a total capacity of 200,000 barrels (which equates to about six and a half years worth of production). Like most of the major American distilleries, double distillation is performed here. First a column still brings the distillate to 115 proof, then a doubler (a type of pot still) takes it up to 130 proof. That distillate is then diluted down to 112 proof before barrel entry.

But before barrel entry, the distillate goes through the Lincoln County Process. This step of filtering the liquid through sugar maple charcoal is what essentially defines Tennessee Whiskey and differentiates it from bourbon. People love to argue about whether or not Jack Daniel’s and / or George Dickel are bourbons. In actuality they both fit the technical definition of bourbon, but are not simply because their producers choose not to label them as such. The process does differ slightly between the two brands. At Jack Daniel’s the liquid slowly trickles down through 10 foot tall vats of charcoal, while at Dickel the liquid is first chilled to 40 degrees F and then filled into 13 foot tall vats of charcoal, where it stays for about a week before being drained off.

One of the more interesting points that came out during the tour was when the guide mentioned that a distillery-only 17 year bottling would be coming out in the spring. In my post comparing Dickel No. 8 and Dickel No. 12, I discussed the more recent history of the distillery; specifically the events related its four and a half year closure, from January of 1999 through September of 2003. A new 17 year old would clearly be from some of the last distillate produced before that closure. The first word of an upcoming new whiskey is usually broken when its label approval appears on the TTB website. In the case of the 17 year Dickel bottling, word of the new label approval broke around mid April, as can be seen here. Finding out about the new release more than two months ahead of it becoming common knowledge was pretty cool.

At the time, I was told that it would be a smaller bottle size (than 750 ml), but that no price information was available yet. I didn’t ask about what proof it might be bottled at. When it finally became available in early June, those details emerged; 375 ml bottle, 43.5% ABV, $75. Looking at the Certificate of Label Approval on the TTB website, I noticed that the back label has information for bottle deposits in the states that require them (ME, VT and IA) and that the “net contents” section of the form list three sizes; 375 ml. 750 ml and 1 liter. This leads me to believe that the distillery-only release may be a precursor to wider distribution.

Now we come to the part of the tour where I get a little riled up again. This time it has to do with the distorting of history. The whiskey sold by George Dickel was originally produced in a distillery about a mile from the current one and marketed under the Cascade Distillery brand. Diageo has a pretty poor track record when it comes to using accurate historical information in the marketing of the Dickel brand, as documented here by Chuck Cowdery. What rubbed me the wrong way on the tour was their accounting of how the current distillery came to be.

The original distillery was established around 1877 and ran until Tennessee instituted state-wide Prohibition in 1910. Whiskey for the Cascade Distillery brand was then produced at the A. Ph Stitzel Distillery in Louisville, KY until national Prohibition was instituted in 1919. Finally, the current Dickel distillery was built in 1958. The construction project was overseen by a man named Ralph L. Dupps, who went on to serve as the distillery manager until 1963 and the president of George A. Dickel & Co. until 1985.

On the tour, they mentioned that Dupps had tasted and had an affinity for the pre-Prohibition Dickel whiskey (this is a questionable fact considering that he was born in 1917, though not entirely impossible). But the big problem was when Dupps was spoken of as if he was some sort of random benevolent character who just decided to up and move from Kentucky to Tennessee in the late 1950’s, build a distillery and bring back the old Dickel, all on a whim.

In reality, the Shwab family, relatives of Dickel’s business partner, sold the company trademarks to the Schenley Distilling Company in 1937 (George Dickel died in 1894, his wife, Augusta died in 1916 and Victor Shwab, her brother-in-law, died in 1924). Schenley was one of a small number of companies that bought up the tattered remains of many of the American distilling businesses that had been thriving before Prohibition. In 1956 the owners of Schenley made an unsuccessful attempt to buy Jack Daniel’s, whose founding family instead chose to sell to the Brown-Forman Company. Schenley’s response was to take the Cascade Hollow and George Dickel trademarks that they owned, as well as the original recipe, and build a new distillery based on them as close to the original facility in Tennessee as possible to compete directly with Jack Daniel’s. Ralph Dupps, a Schenley employee who ran their Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, was charged with that task.

Now, lest you think I’m singling out Diageo here, I’m not. Plenty of other companies twist around the historical facts related to the distilleries they own to suit their marketing purposes. It’s a travesty whenever it happens, and they should all be called out for doing it.

On to the whiskey in the gift shop. Five offerings were available; Dickel #1 (which is labeled as a white corn whiskey), Dickel #8, Dickel #12, Barrel Select and a Hand Selected Single Barrel bottling.

One of the first things I noticed was that the George Dickel Rye was not among the lineup. When I asked about that, I was told that state regulations didn’t allow them to sell it in the distillery store since it isn’t made there. Dickel sources their rye whiskey from MGP in Indiana, which is the same 95% rye recipe used by, well, damn near everyone. It does go through the same charcoal mellowing process as the other Dickel whiskeys, but in the case of the rye that happens after aging rather than before. Why? Because it is sourced whiskey that was purchased well after it had been entered into the barrels.

While the tour was still in progress, the guide mentioned the typical ages of the three non-age stated bottlings. It was 5 to 7 years for the #8 (80 proof), 7 to 9 years for the #12 (90 proof), and 10 to 12 years for the Barrel Select (86 proof). My previous Dickel post, which I also referenced above, noted the typical ages of these whiskies from a few different time periods. I asked about the rather stark difference I had noticed between the #8 and #12 the last time I tasted them side-by-side and was told that in addition to the age and proof differences, the master distiller chooses the barrels for each with a specific flavor profile in mind. That seems counterintuitive to the philosophy of single-story warehouses which largely eliminate the variable of barrel location during maturation. This is something I would have loved to discuss further with the master distiller.

I’m not sure if I’ve expressed my opinion of white whiskey on here before or not, so here it is for the record. Every time I taste a white whiskey I think to myself “Oh yeah, that’s why they go through the trouble of building warehouses, coopering barrels and aging the stuff for years on end”. I do think white whiskey is an important educational tool. It should be available on tours and in smaller format bottles for those who want a greater appreciation of where their whiskey comes from. I don’t really think it’s something that should be sold (or bought) as an everyday drinker though. That being said, I was surprised to see Dickel’s white whiskey priced at a scant $2 less than the #8 ($23 vs. $25). But before I even thought to question that, the tour guide launched into what seemed like a preemptive defense of the product, noting its higher alcohol level (91 proof) and extolling its virtues as a brilliant cocktail ingredient. They must get questioned on this frequently. The #12, which nearly matches the proof of the #1 and is aged more than the #8, was priced at $29. It seems to me like they’ve chosen to cash in on people who are willing to pay too much for white whiskey.

Speaking of cashing in, I was kind of shocked to two bottles of Barrel Select sitting next to each other on the retail shelf with different prices ($40 and $45). The only difference was that the more expensive ones had been signed by the master distiller. When I mentioned this the next day to my tour guide at Four Roses, where they had bottles signed by their master distiller with no additional markup, the response was a slack-jawed look of disbelief. In the case of Dickel, it appears that the corporate bean-counters have the authority over such decisions.

The final bottle on the shelf was a Hand Selected Single Barrel offering. It was 103 proof with a 9 year age statement and priced at $99. The tour guide had mentioned that this bottling was available as a 9 year old and a 14 year old. I did a little research after the fact and learned that the Hand Selected Single Barrel program was started in 2013, so at the time the 14 year old and 9 year old bottling would have come from whiskey distilled shortly before and shortly after the Dickel’s lengthy closure (Jan 99 through Sept 03). I also learned that the 14 year old was limited to 50 or 60 barrels. The 9 year old has been an ongoing release (the one at the distillery was bottled in 2015); perhaps the 14 year will become available again by the end of 2017.

If I recall correctly, I was given the option of purchasing either two or four samples after the tour. The Hand Selected Single Barrel wasn’t on offer and I was already pretty familiar with the #8 and the #12, so I tasted the #1 and the Barrel Select. I liked the #1, keeping in mind my above stated opinion of white whiskeys in general, of course. Corn is certainly the driving force of its flavor profile, as one would expect, given Dickel’s mashbill of 84% corn, 8% rye and 8% malted barley.

In my last Dickel post I noted that I was quite fond of my first bottle of #12, which dated to 2007, but a more recent example from 2013 was far less impressive. The former was probably aged 10 to 12 years, while the latter was likely in the 6 to 9 year range. I’ve also sampled a bottled from 2015, and it was essentially the same as the 2013. When I tasted the Barrel Select at the distillery the memories came flooding back; there was the flavor profile of that original bottle of #12 that I knew and loved. It was wonderfully flavored, but smooth, mellow and balanced. The current Barrel Select is said to be aged 10 to 12 years, but I think there is more than just age at play here. I prefer the #8 to the current #12, and according to the research I did the 9 year Single Barrel was generally preferred over the 14 year, which was said to still have a strong showing of the Flintstone’s vitamins / minerality character.

In spite of my less than stellar experience at Dickel, I would still recommend visiting the distillery. If I was in the area again though, I’d make a full day of it. The site of the original Cascade Distillery is close by and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1994. Some physical remains, including the still house foundations and the spring dam can still be seen there. Also nearby, Machine Falls at the Short Springs State Natural Area looks like a great spot if you’re up for a short hike. I’m sure it would be interesting to follow up with a visit to Jack Daniel’s as well, to compare and contrast. All of that being said, if someone at Diageo wants to make amends by sending me a bottle of the 17 year Dickel, I’d be happy to give it a fair and honest review (I actually have no expectation of this happening, but it can’t hurt to throw it out there).

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Whisky Road Trip, Florida Scotch dinner part 4

After tasting through Monkey Shoulder, the Port Cask Finish bottling from Arran, and Kilkerran, Work In Progress 7 - Sherry Wood, we moved on to the final whisky of the latest installment of the Florida Scotch dinner; Kilchoman’s Machir Bay. Although not a prerequisite, something smoky always seems appropriate for the last dram of this event as it accompanies a round of hand rolled cigars.

With distillate flowing for the first time in December of 2005, Kilchoman was the next new distillery to come to life in Scotland after Glengyle. More significantly though, it was the first new distillery on Islay in 124 years.

There are currently eight distilleries producing whisky on Islay. Additionally, 20 others are known to have existed in the past. It’s very likely that there were many others, of which we have no record simply because they would have been small scale, unlicensed, farm distilleries that came and went 200 or more years ago. Even of the 20 that we know about, most of them were established in the first half of the 1800’s and were out of production before the end of that century. There are three exceptions to that generalization. Lochindaal operated from 1829 to 1929, Malt Mill (which was a small but separate distillery within the Lagavulin complex) ran from 1908 to 1960, and Port Ellen went from 1825 to 1983 (but that included being mothballed for a lengthy period, from 1929 to 1966).

The introduction of steam powered “puffer” ships in the late 1800’s, which dramatically improved the commercial transportation links between mainland Scotland and the islands, prompted the building of two new distilleries on Islay, Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain, both of which were established in 1881. It’s very likely that many of the existing distilleries on Islay expanded significantly during this period as well.

Interestingly, Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain were the first two purpose-built commercial distilleries on the island; all of the others had grown organically out of smaller scale, farm-based operations. They were also the last two distilleries built on Islay (ignoring the anomaly that was Malt Mill) until Kilchoman came along nearly a century and a quarter later. The most fascinating part of this story is that while Kilchoman was established as a commercial distillery, its initial concept was that it would only use barley from local farms, which would all be malted at the distillery on traditional floor maltings.

Kilchoman was established by Anthony Wills, who had been in the whisky industry as an independent bottler for eight years. When that business became increasingly difficult as surplus whisky stocks dried up and buying opportunities for independent bottlers became quite scarce, Wills decided that the only way forward in the industry was to start his own distillery. Such an endeavor requires a lot of capital, and luring investors isn’t easy when the necessary aging of the product results in a lengthy timescale before financial returns can be realized. At least today it’s trendy and popular to start a new distillery; I’m sure it was exponentially harder to convince investors that this was a good idea back in 2002, when planning for Kilchoman began.

But Wills prevailed and was able to secure £1million; enough to at least get the distillery constructed. Once he had gotten that far it was easier to shop the idea around than when it was just words on paper. Of course more money was needed to fuel operations and growth, and to date the project has had a total investment of more than £10million.

In the early days of Islay’s distilling history, its remote location and abundant peat resources were its biggest assets. Before the Wash Act of 1823, the British government had excise taxes set so high that most legal distilling wasn’t economically feasible. Barely accessible by the tax men, Islay became a haven for illicit distilling.

When the post World War II boom period was going full swing in the 1960’s, consumer preferences were also changing in favor of milder, more approachable whiskies. That trend was highlighted by the fact that both Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich switched their spirit over from heavily peated to unpeated in the early 1960’s. Islay’s reputation for producing big, bold peat monsters meant that the boom period’s beneficial effects were muted on the island. Port Ellen going back into production in 1966 after a 37 year closure, and Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich adding second sets of stills (1963 and 1975, respectively) were really the only notable expansions of that period.

When the downturn of the 1980’s came along, Islay was hit particularly hard. Port Ellen closed for good in 1983, Ardbeg was closed for most of the decade, and all of the other distilleries limited production, often to just a few days a week. It’s doubtful that anyone could have seen the coming resurgence in the popularity of Islay whisky when the industry began to rebound in the 1990’s. Today all of the island’s distilleries are revered by the many lovers of smoky single malt and Islay is the ultimate destination for many of the enthusiasts who embark on a whisky pilgrimage.

Anthony Wills had the foresight to recognize the importance of this trend and capitalize on it when he chose a location for his new distillery. Just having the word “Islay” on the label draws a lot of attention. The buzz around the first new distillery to be constructed on the island in well over a century drew a lot of media coverage. Being one of eight distilleries on an island that’s a prime destination for touring enthusiasts guarantees a steady stream of visitors.

All of that is irrelevant though, if the whisky isn’t up to snuff. The second smartest thing Wills did (after his choice of location) was hiring Dr. James Swan as a consultant. For the new distillery to be economically viable it would be necessary to start selling whisky when it was relatively young. The goal, which was deftly achieved by Dr. Swan, was to produce a quickly maturing spirit. This was done by designing the equipment and process to make a fruit-forward, gentle spirit and minimize the heavier compounds which require lengthy aging to tame. Long fermentation times, maximizing copper contact and the use of 1st fill casks primarily were the keys to this strategy. The first Kilchoman I tasted was the spring 2011 release, a mix of 4 year old and 3 year old whisky; I was immediately won over.

I mentioned above that the original concept was for Kilchoman to be a complete farm distillery. The realities of the local barley supply and the distillery’s floor malting capacity didn’t quite allow for that. Currently 20% of their barley is from the farm surrounding the distillery and malted in-house. There are five other distilleries in Scotland that malt some, but not all, of their own barley. They all blend that together with the commercially malted barley that makes up the majority of their supply. At Kilchoman the two are kept separate and local barley is only and exclusively used for their 100% Islay bottling. The floor malted barley is peated to 20 ppm and the commercial malt is peated to 50 ppm, further differentiating the two.

Production has grown steadily since spirit first came off the stills in December of 2005. In 2006 50,000 liters (of alcohol) were produced. By 2012 that was up to 110,000 liters. The projected quantity for 2016 is 200,000 liters, and the distillery’s maximum output is estimated to be 250,000 liters unless more stills are added. In November of 2015 Kilchoman purchased the surrounding Rockside Farm, which has been the source of most of their local barley, ensuring that the “farm distillery” concept will continue to be a part of their business model going forward.

As time has marched on, the ages of the various Kilchoman bottlings have slowly been creeping upward. While none of the labels carry age statements, information about their maturation is usually pretty easy to find. When the 100% Islay expression was introduced in 2010 it was a 3 year old. By the spring of 2015 its age had surpassed the 5 year mark. The Vintage releases come out every other year, but they are from distillate produced in successive years, so each is a year older than the one before it; the 2006 Vintage (released in 2011) was a 5 year old, the 2007 Vintage (released in 2013) was a 6 year old, the 2008 Vintage (released in 2015) was a 7 year old, and the 2009 Vintage will be and 8 year old (when it is released in 2017). Loch Gorm, which is their expression aged exclusively in Oloroso Sherry casks, started off as a 5 year old in 2013 and it has now crested the 6 year mark.

According to Wills, most of the core expressions will ultimately end up somewhere in the 8 year old to 12 year old range. He won’t be more precise than that until the whiskies actually get that old and can be properly evaluated.

For the Florida event we went with Machir Bay, which is Kilchoman’s flagship bottling. It was introduced in 2012 as a vatting of 3 year old (60%), 4 year old (35%) and 5 year old (5%), all of which was aged in 1st fill bourbon barrels, with the 4 year old portion finished for an additional 8 weeks in Oloroso Sherry butts. The bottle at hand is from the 2015 release, which is reported to be a 6 year old that spent 5.5 years in 1st fill bourbon barrels and 6 months in Oloroso Sherry casks.

The nose is fragrant with obvious peat smoke, but there’s a mellowness to it; the peat has depth, but isn’t harsh or jarring. Malt character and briny coastal notes round out the aromatics.
In the mouth it is full bodied, with a hint of malty sweetness up front. A big wave of peat smoke quickly rises up and takes center stage. Notes of burning beach grass and smoldering driftwood embers reverberate and linger. There are some interesting complexities, with the dry phenolic character countered by subtle tropical fruit and a touch of freshly cut hay.
It gracefully meanders through the increasingly spice-driven finish before slowly fading off.
This is very nice as it is, but I’m curious to see where it goes as the age edges upward.

An interesting point which I noticed is that the year of the release for Machir Bay was clearly noted on the label and on the box it came in for the first three years (2012, 2013 and 2014). That is no longer the case with the 2015 release, although the year can still be identified by the bottling code that is printed directly on the glass. To me, this signals that the year-to-year changes may now be subtle enough that the information isn’t too important. It also gives them the flexibility to make age changes midway through a calendar year and not have to worry about maturation information being inaccurate.

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.