Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The whisky bars of Montreal, part un

Finally, here it is; my long overdue, much ballyhooed review of Montreal’s whisky bars. I’ve lived with two hours of Quebec’s largest city for nearly 20 years and I’ve been an occasional visitor there since the late 1980’s. With my whisky obsession going back at least 10 years it’s kind of surprising that it wasn’t until 2010 when I was struck by the revelation that a world-class city like Montreal must have at least a few good whisky bars.

I found my way to two of the big three right off the bat and eventually got to the third, as well as a handful of lesser known establishments that are also serious about the whisky. I’m going to split this up into three posts, starting with the big players, moving on to the second tier and finishing up with some honorable (and not so honorable) mentions. First though, I’ll give a little orientation of the city.

Montreal lies on an island situated in the Saint Lawrence River, with a secondary island-city, Laval, just to the north-west. Located a mere 30 miles north of the U.S – Canadian border, the city is easily reached from Vermont via Interstate 89 or New York via Interstate 87. The city grid is oriented along the Saint Lawrence, which runs to the north-east (slightly more north in the area of the city). This can make maps and directions a bit confusing if you are unfamiliar with Montreal since everything that is labeled as east and west (est and ouest) looks as if it should logically be north and south (nord and sud).

While some parts of the city are located on smaller, surrounding islands, the city of Montreal does not cover the entire island of Montreal. There are currently 15 other independent municipalities on the island which cover roughly 1/3 of its total area. There’s an interesting history of municipal reorganization on the island which is detailed here. The city itself is broken down into 19 boroughs. Those boroughs, each with a mayor and council, are composed of varying numbers of distinct neighborhoods.

All of the points of interest I’ll be discussing are located in three of the city’s contiguous boroughs; Le Sud-Ouest, Ville-Marie and Le Plateau-Mont-Royal. If one is driving into the city from the South Shore, the most likely approach is across the Champlain Bridge. One of the first exits after crossing the bridge will keep you on Autoroute 10 Ouest. Travelling along this arc, Le Sud-Ouest will be almost entirely to your left. As Highway 10 terminates and feeds onto city streets, it leads into the heart of downtown Montreal (also know as Centre-Ville), which is part of the Ville-Marie borough. The rest of this roughly “L” shaped borough is situated to the north and to the east (as the city grid is arranged) of downtown. A short drive due north across the downtown will bring you to Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, a pie-shaped borough that fills the inside angle of the “L” shape of Ville-Marie.

Ville-Marie is the most heavily touristed part of the city, more specifically the Old Montreal neighborhood and the west end of downtown. In these areas visitors to the city are likely to outnumber the natives. Le Sud-Ouest was historically made up of industrial sites and working-class neighborhoods. As local industry collapsed in the 1970’s, the area became depressed and was mainly known for low-income housing. Over the last 15 years gentrification has brought an economic and social revival to many parts of Le Sud-Ouest. The Plateau, confusingly, is the predominant neighborhood in the Le Plateau-Mont-Royal borough. Many areas here have a close-knit urban neighborhood feel. The Plateau has Montreal’s highest population density and is often included in “hippest places to live” lists. This is the best part of the city to immerse your self in French-Canadian culture. I’ve often felt like I was the only tourist in this area, which can be a nice thing.

Like the rest of Quebec, Montreal is primarily French speaking with smaller Anglophone enclaves. The city is, however, incredibly bilingual. The locals are usually quite accommodating for non-French speakers, assuming you aren’t projecting the stereotype of a loud, arrogant American. The accent alone can be a bit of a language barrier at times though, so even conversations in English can occasionally prove cumbersome.

Navigating the city by car is pretty straight forward but like most modern urban areas, street parking can be scarce and expensive, depending on where exactly you are. I prefer to use the parking garage under the Grand Library on Rue Berri ($9 or $12 for 24 hours depending on when you enter) and walk, or use public transportation. Cabs are plentiful and the three boroughs mentioned above are well-serviced by the green and orange lines of the Montreal Metro (the two lines cross at the Berri-UQAM station, which is a 6 minute walk from the noted parking garage). It’s a flat-rate system ($3.25 for a single trip), so the cost-effectiveness depends on the distance travelled.

Quebec is essentially the same as a liquor control state in the U.S., with the system covering the entire province. The SAQ (Société des alcools du Québec), which runs the monopoly, imports a pretty good selection of Scotch. American whiskey: not so much. Even Canadian whisky is less abundantly available here than one would expect. Basically, if you’re not interested in Scotch, you shouldn’t bother with Montreal as a whisky destination.

On the upside, Quebec will sometimes get whiskies that aren’t imported to the U.S. On the downside, alcohol is taxed very heavily here (I believe that goes for the rest of Canada too). The pricing isn’t consistently higher though. I’ve seen some bottles that are very close to the prices I pay at home and others that are literally twice as expensive. Knowing that the prices are high, I’ll only consider buying bottles to bring home if it’s a whisky that can’t be had in the States. The SAQ does list their inventory online by store, which makes it easy to plan purchases in advance.

I don’t know if bars and restaurants pay retail prices for bottles of liquor in Quebec like they do here in Vermnt, but they do have to add on two taxes for the end consumer: 5% federal and 10% provincial. This results in a combination of high-ish prices and smaller pours. While we’ve become accustomed to getting 1.5 to 2 ounces in a glass of liquor in the U.S., the normal range in Quebec is 1 to 1.25 ounces. Thankfully the exchange rate is currently very favorable, with our dollar being worth about $1.30 Canadian. Of course that helps with anything else you’re spending money on too, not just the whisky.

As I alluded above, coverage of this topic has been a long time in coming. There were several false starts along the way, where I’d go to the city, drink some interesting whiskies, scribble down some notes, take a few pictures and never follow up with any writing. Feeling the need for an adventure during the past winter, I decided that the impetus to getting the job done would be a whirlwind tour of the relevant establishments. The plan was visit five places in the evening, spend the night and stop by two more the next afternoon before heading home. Of course, the best laid plans often go awry, and that single trip turned into three. The additional visits did allow me to add an eighth bar to the list and include some extra details though.

Pub Burgundy Lion
address: 2496 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest
borough: Le Sud-Ouest
neighborhood: Little Burgundy
closest metro station: 6 minute walk from Lionel-Groulx (the orange and green lines cross here)

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this now, but when I first started searching out whisky bars in Montreal back in early 2010 I didn’t really pay attention to the Burgundy Lion because their website just didn’t make the place look very appealing. In my defense, they had been open for less than two years at that point after starting with just 40 bottles of whisky, so what I passed up then probably wasn’t nearly as impressive as the place is today.

What finally caught my attention was a Glenfarclas tasting with George Grant that they hosted in September of 2012. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a pretty huge fan of Glenfarclas, and the fact that they had the Brand Ambassador / heir to the distillery running a tasting was quite remarkable. The event sold out quickly and I had waited too long to try to sign up, but at least it motivated me to go check out the Burgundy Lion early in 2013.

This is a world class whisky bar. They’ve built up a selection of over 400 bottles, the majority of which are single malt Scotches. Independent bottlings are also well represented, primarily from Hart Brothers, Gordon & MacPhail’s Connoisseur’s Choice series and Douglas Laing’s Old Malt Cask series. At some point they also acquired a private collection, so there are a few rare offerings that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.

The space is modeled after a classic British pub; warm and inviting with an emphasis on lighter wood tones. Every time I’ve been there it’s been bustling with activity; in fact one of the few downsides to this pub is that I’ve often had a hard time getting a seat at the bar. Detailed food descriptions are beyond the scope of this post, so I’ll only mention that there is a full menu which is driven by classic British pub fare. The greatest strength of the Burgundy Lion is their ability to put together impressive tasting events which are usually hosted by distillery representatives, such as the Laphroaig dinner I attended a few months ago. An additional space on the second floor with a smaller bar, a few high-tops and several tables can accommodate upwards of 50 people and allows them to keep the special events separated from their other patrons.

This was the first stop on what was supposed to be my epic 24-hour expedition. I very rarely go for a drink in the $40 to $50 range, but I decided to throw down the gauntlet early on and also partially redeem myself for missing that Glenfarclas event a few years ago. I was torn between the 40 year old and the 1979 Family Casks bottling (a single cask series launched in 2007 and covering every vintage from 1952 to 1994). The former was at 46% and bottled in 2010, thus distilled in 1970 or earlier. The latter was at 52.2% and bottled in mid 2012, making it 33 years old, give or take six months. When I told the bartender which two I was considering, she pulled down both bottles, removed the corks and let me nose them: the ’79 spoke to me. In fact, as I sat there slowly enjoying my first dram of the day in the early afternoon, its aromas elicited a comment from the person sitting next to me, with an inquiry as to what I was drinking.

The nose had an amazing character with great depth of sherry fruit, old wood and earthen floored cellar. The palate was incredibly rich and complex, showing stewed fruits with malt and notes of caramel, leather, butterscotch and cinnamon. The finish was long and warming with lovely spice notes. Overall it was very well composed and balanced throughout, but the underlying sweetness up front gradually faded into a relatively dry finish. Not an everyday drinker, but well worth the price of admission.

A little follow-up research showed that this limited release of 211 bottles was aged in a “plain” Hogshead. While the standard Glenfarclas lineup is aged exclusively in sherry casks, they do use some former bourbon oak (never first fill though), usually for whisky that will be sold to blenders. At Glenfarclas the term “plain” is used to indicate that the former contents of the cask will have little to no contribution to the character of the Scotch that is being aged in it. They use the term both for refill bourbon casks and 4th fill sherry casks. The term Hogshead (250 liter) does not exclude bourbon casks. Bourbon barrels (200 liter) that have been disassembled for shipping can be reassembled into the larger Hogsheads by using more staves.

Whisky Cafe
address: 5800 Boulevard Saint-Laurent
borough: Le Plateau-Mont-Royal
neighborhood: Mile End
closest metro station: 8 minute walk from Rosemont (orange line)

I almost gave up on the Whisky Café. Normally open seven nights a week, it was to be the third stop of my five venue evening, but they were closed that night. I assume this was because they were expecting little to no business on Super Bowl Sunday. I decided to skip the two stops planned for the next afternoon since there was a huge snow storm bearing down on the region and I was going to have to come back again to visit the Whisky Café anyway.

When I returned almost three months later, they were closed again. This time it was my fault. They open at 5:00 every day, except Sunday when they open at 7:00. I thought Monday was the late opening day and showed up at 6:00 on Sunday. I can never remember the days of the week in French so I didn’t realize my mistake when I looked at the sign with their posted hours. I was on the fence about giving this a third go, but six weeks later I was back in Montreal for the Laphroaig dinner at the Burgundy Lion and as soon as it ended I took the metro straight to the Whisky Café.

This was the first whisky bar that I visited in Montreal back in 2010, and I have to admit that I’ve had somewhat of a negative opinion of the place since that initial visit. I was excited to have the opportunity try a Japanese single malt whisky from Nikka’s Yoichi distillery, something we were years away from having available in the U.S. The place didn’t seem so bad on first glance, but it did have sort of a stuffy, pretentious atmosphere. The bartender kept talking about how smooth the whisky I was drinking was. I liked the Yoichi, but “smooth” is about the last word I would have used to describe it. The prices seemed high here, but I had no frame of reference until I found my way to another whisky bar later that night and saw the same Yoichi I had been drinking earlier at half the price I had paid.

While the Whisky Café has an upscale feel to it, it also feels dated. The business was established in 1989 and being there sort of feels like stepping back in time to that period. The space can present an impressive image on first glance with its black leather seating, backlit wall of whisky bottles on display and bar-top adorned with single malt labels. But after spending some time there that all starts to seem like a façade. The large espresso machine behind the bar dominates an area that should be reserved exclusively for whisky bottles. The stark white ceiling looks clinical and out of place. A trip to the men’s restroom reveals that it is the source of the light emanating from the frosted glass on the backside of the whisky display wall. Even the labels that decorate the bar top look like they were supplied by an importer rather than having been carefully removed from sadly finished favorite bottles.

All of that being said; my opinion of the place softened considerably on my last visit. Maybe it was because I excited about the whisky I was drinking and felt like I had paid a fair price for it. Or perhaps it was the good nature of the bartender who was on duty that night. Whatever the reasons, I was able to look past flaws that had bothered me in the past and really enjoyed this visit.

A few other points are worth mentioning. In blunt contrast to the Burgundy Lion, every time I’ve been to the Whisky Café there have very few people there; at most a dozen and on my last visit I was the only guest there shortly after arriving. Located on the northern outskirts of Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, the Whisky Café is far from the crowds of downtown and several blocks past the end of the Plateau neighborhood. It was purposely situated in somewhat of a no-man’s-land in order to become a destination location. I’m also under the impression that it doesn’t draw in as many people as it once did, but this could be a good thing if you prefer to avoid crowds. Parking in this area is more plentiful and less expensive as well.

The whisky selection is respectable with about 140 single malts on the list, a few rare gems among them. There is also an attached cigar lounge here, one of a small number in the city that were grandfathered after Montreal’s 2006 ban on smoking in public places. This will have significant appeal for cigar aficionados visiting from the States as businesses in Canada can legally import and sell cigars from Cuba. The Whisky Café also offers a small menu of appetizer sized food items which are all served cold.

On a previous visit I had spied a bottle of Ledaig 15 year old here. I’ve always been intrigued by the Tobermory distillery and its more heavily peated variant. But this wasn’t a current bottling and I knew that peat levels and quality from this producer had varied over the decades so I wanted to do a little research before I tried it.

I’ve written extensively about the history of Tobermory here, so I’ll just go over the information relevant to this post. Tobermory, the only distillery on the Isle of Mull, produces two different single malts; unpeated Tobermory and heavily peated Ledaig (the distillery has gone by each name a couple of times in its long history). After a closure that lasted more than 40 years, it was reopened in 1972 but only operated for about three years, until 1975. During this period all of the whisky was heavily peated but some casks were labeled as Tobermory and other as Ledaig.

The distillery restarted with new owners in 1979 and ran until1983. It was closed until 1989, then opened again and was finally purchased by its current owners in 1993. The practice of making two separate single malts, peated and unpeated, began in 1979. The peat levels (and quality) were inconsistent between 1979 and 1993, but somewhat low on average; maybe around 15 ppm. By the mid 1990’s the new owners had raised the peat levels of the Ledaig distillate to 37 ppm.

From the mid 1990’s to the early 2000’s the distillery bottled a 15 year old and a 20 year old, both at 43%. The 20 had red lettering on a white label and the 15 looked similar, but with blue lettering. As far as I can tell, that 15 year bottling was all from distillate produced between 1979 and 1983, while the 20 year was from two periods, 1972-1975 and 1979-1983. I have seen one 20 year bottle that carried a 1974 vintage, but I’m not sure if all of the bottles from that earlier, more desirable period were vintage dated. There were also a few non-age stated Ledaigs bottled around the same time that I’m assuming were from the distillate produced between 1989 and 1993.

The nice thing about finding the 15 year Ledaig at the Whisky Café is that even though it’s a bottling that’s very difficult to find now, it has likely been sitting on their shelf since it was commonly available so it’s still reasonably priced.

It opened with delicate peat on the nose, as well as aromas that were grassy, malty and a bit floral. It had very soft peat on the palate and was surprisingly well-composed, but it still carried too much of the perfumed floral character that goes against my personal preferences. The finish was smooth but lengthy and maintained a good deal of character.

I think this one was better overall but not dramatically different than the 16 year old Ledaig I’ve had from Gordon & MacPhail that was distilled in 1990.

Pub L’Ile Noire
address: 1649 Rue Saint-Denis
borough: Ville-Marie
neighborhood: Quartier Latin
closest metro station: 5 minute walk from Berri-UQAM (the orange and green lines cross here)

The Quartier Latin (confusingly this neighborhood is entirely within the newly defined Quartier des Spectacles, which is entirely within the area defined as downtown) has been home to L’Ile Noire since it opened in 1989 (about 6 months before Whisky Café). Originally located on Rue Ontario, the pub was forced to move after 21 years in business when they were unable to renew their lease as the area went through a period of gentrification. The move wasn’t far though, a mere 750 feet and just around the corner on Rue Saint-Denis.

My first visit to L’Ile Noire was at the original location in April of 2010 and I was completely unaware of the impending move that would take place two months later. When I returned for a second visit in October of 2010, I was quite surprised to find that they had relocated. The original space, while following the British pub theme, had a very different feel to it than the Burgundy Lion does. It was much darker, both the wood tones and the lighting. Accented by many candles, it was more lounge-like. But it was still a lively and vibrant place with a solid whisky collection.

The new space had a much different feel to it. It had more of a cold, post-modern interior design character. There was much less wood and a lot more glass, polished stone and stainless steel. Of course the whisky was still there, as well as the friendly staff and the same interesting, eclectic music selection; it all just felt sort of out of place. I’ve often voiced the opinion that it seemed like the owners got it wrong by spending too much money creating the new space and many a Montrealer has agreed with me.

Of course, when I made that second visit everything was still brand new and shiny. Five years later the space is starting to feel like it’s breaking in, maybe some patina is even starting to form. I don’t think it will ever match the original space, but L’Ile Noire does seem more comfortable in its own skin now.

The food menu is small and limited to simple snacks. As for the whisky, the list shows about 200 single malts, but I think they have quite a few more that aren’t listed so they’re probably closer to 250. I’ve definitely had some interesting rarities here over the years, like Highland Park Earl Magnus 12 year and 15 year (which weren’t released to the U.S.), as well as a cask strength 23 year old North Port (Brechin distillery) and a cask strength 25 year old Hillside (Glenesk distillery), both of which were distilled in 1971.

In spite of the Whisky Café being closed on my first attempt to visit for this post, I soldiered on through the -15 F temperatures to the rest of my scheduled stops. L’Ile Noire, being closest to my hotel, was the last one of the night. I decided to go with the 15 year Glenfarclas for a couple of reasons. Having started the day with the 1979 Glenfarclas, it seemed apropos to come full circle. Also, the first time I tried Glenfarclas 17 year was during that visit to L’Ile Noire’s original location. Oh, and we don’t get the 15 year in the U.S. Bottled at 46% and non-chill filtered, Glenfarclas 15 year is somewhat of an anomaly. Most of the rest of their standard lineup (the 10, 12, 17, 18, 21, 25 and 30 year olds) are bottled at 43% and chill filtered.

The nose had lovely dark berry and sherried fruit aromas with a malty backbone and just a hint of peat smoke. On the palate it had good intensity up front with barley malt and stewed fruits leading the charge. It got a little hot on the mid-palate with some of the flavors dropping back a bit. But it regained its balance as it moved into the finish when remnants of the malty core came to the fore and were joined by dry spice notes and a subtle touch of peat smoke. Overall this was an interesting contrast to the 1979, and a nice representation of the Glenfarclas. I should really pick up a bottle of this next time I’m north of the border.

Before I started this little adventure, I knew that the whisky pours in Montreal were smaller than what I get at home. But I wasn’t sure what size they were or if they were uniform from place to place. I didn’t start asking until the second trip, so I had to email a few place to get the info. It turns out that the Burgundy Lion offers a 1 ounce pour while L’Ile Noire and the Whisky Café go with 1 ¼ ounces. L’Ile Noire also offers ½ pours (presumably 5/8 of an ounce), which the other two don’t. These are priced a bit higher than half the cost of a full pour, but can still be a nice way to try some of the more expensive options.

Speaking of prices, I should compare the relative expense of drinking at these three establishments. I looked at about 16 different single malts (I say about because some of them only appeared on two of the three lists) that spanned a wide range of price points. I also adjusted the Burgundy Lion’s prices to account for the smaller pour size. Some solid trends emerged, but as expected there were exceptions. If one place buys a bottle and two years later another place buys the same bottle but its price has gone up 50% (as can happen these days), that would throw off the trend.

L’Ile Noire has the best prices almost universally. Of the malts I looked at, Burgundy Lion only beat their price on one and was tied on another. The prices were higher at Burgundy Lion by 5% to 50% and price point didn’t seem to be a factor in the differential. As I said, this is after adjusting Burgundy Lion’s prices up 25% to take account for the smaller pour size.

The Whisky Café has higher prices than L’Ile Noire across the board. On the low end of the price range the Burgundy Lion is usually slightly more expensive than the Whisky Café. As you get into the higher priced options, L’Ile Noire and Burgundy Lion stay close to each other, with the former usually keeping a slight advantage. But this is where the prices at the Whisky Café really take off. Just a few examples, the location abbreviations should be obvious:

Oban 14 year - $16.25 (BL), $15 (WC), $13 (LN)
Glengoyne 17 year - $16.25 (BL), $18 (WC), $13 (LN)
Glenfarclas 40 year - $55 (BL), $80 (WC), $60 (LN)*
anCnoc 35 year - $63 (BL), $60 (LN)
Bunnahabhain 25 year - $50 (BL), $45 (LN)
Balblair 1975 - $95 (WC), $50 (LN)
Highland Park 25 year - $50 (WC), $30 (LN)
Highland Park 30 year - $55 (BL), $90 (WC)

*2012 price, possibly higher now but the picture was blurry.

With a diverse variety of positive attributes, each of these places is worth visiting. Which one you’ll like most comes down to personal preference. Hopefully my review will help point people in the right direction.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Bruichladdich, Islay Barley, 2007 Rockside Farm

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 6 years old, 50%, $65

When a distillery finds itself under new ownership, it’s not uncommon for some changes to occur regarding the methods of production. Whether these changes are an attempt to improve consistency and quality or to increase output and boost profit margins, the character of the whisky is bound to be transformed by them.

While researching a couple of recent posts about Ardbeg, I learned that after it was taken over in 1997 by Glenmorangie a lot of long overdue maintenance and equipment upgrades were finally attended to. At the same time, having Dr. Bill Lumsden at the helm meant that there would be a much sharper focus on cask management going forward. But, I’ve also read (from the Ardbeg distillery profile on the Whisky-Online site, which I consider to be a reliable source) that more powerful yeast strains and shorter fermentation times have been employed during the latest era of Ardbeg ownership. In this example the positive and negative effects of these changes probably cancel each other out in terms of overall quality. Certainly though, the character of the whisky produced after 1997 is markedly different than that produced before.

While researching my piece on Bruichladdich’s 10 year old, I examined the direction that the distillery had moved in since coming under new ownership in 2012. Early in 2013, just six months after being bought by Remy Cointreau, it was announced that production was set to be doubled. The group that saved Bruichladdich in 2001 had been very proud of the quality of the distillate produced after they got the place up and running again, touting the long fermentations and slow distillations they employed. When a distillery is pushed to rapidly make a large increase of its output, corners are often cut to achieve the desired production numbers. I certainly had concerns about the changes that could have potentially been going on under the radar recently at Bruichladdich.

I did a little digging and came across an article announcing that they were going to start making twice as much whisky, where a distillery spokesperson claimed that they were determined to maintain the traditional methods of production at Bruichladdich. He went on to state that doubling output was possible without making any changes at the plant, aside from adding warehouses. At that time two new warehouses had been built in the previous two years, one was under construction, and a fourth was in the planning phase.

Being the skeptic that I am, I still had my doubts. I decided to dig deeper and take a look at some numbers to see if these claims would hold up to scrutiny.

The distillery had stated that it would be going from 750,000 LPA (liters of pure alcohol) per year to 1.5 million LPA and doing so with 24 hour production for five and a half days per week. Most of the other numbers I’m using are coming from the Misako Udo book The Scottish Whisky Distilleries, which was published in 2007. Bruichladdich has the following equipment: A single mash tun which takes 7 tons of grist and produces 36,000 liters of wort, 6 Oregon Pine washbacks that can each take a charge of 36,000 liters, two wash stills that each take a charge of 12,000 liters and two spirit stills that each take a charge of 7,100 liters. Fermentation times are stated as 60-67 hours during the week and 100-107 hours over the weekends.

I started off with the assumption that they were using a production cycle similar to that of Springbank which I was familiar with from their Whisky School. Springbank also has a single mash tun and six washbacks, and they were running five mashes per week. Bruichladdich’s spirit yield is 401 liters of alcohol per ton of grist. If you multiply that by 7 tons per mash and then multiply by 5 days per week and 52 weeks per year, you get roughly 730,000 liters per year. That’s close enough to 750,000 for me to assume that five mashes per week is the correct number.

Going over my notes from my time at Springbank, it looks a mash cycle should take four to five hours. Both distilleries run four batches of water through a mash (three is more typical of Scottish malt distilleries). Bruichladdich does produce more wort from a bigger mash (36,000 liters from 7 tons of malt vs. 21,000 liters from 3 tons of malt), but even if their mash cycle takes twice as long as Springbank’s, there is still plenty of time to run two mashes in a day without changing the process or the equipment.

With the given fermentation times, the mash done on Monday gets distilled on Thursday, Tuesday’s gets distilled on Friday, Wednesday’s on the following Monday, Thursday’s on Tuesday and Friday’s on Wednesday. Once his sequence has been established, there should never be more than three washbacks filled at any given time.

If the number of mashes doubles to two a day, then two washbacks are being filled each day. For the cycle to work out properly, you have to split the washbacks into two sets of three. A washback from one set gets filled in the first half of each production day, and a washback from the other set gets filled in the second half of each production day. Running like this, the above mentioned fermentation times are maintained and each of the six washbacks is getting filled six to twelve hours after it is emptied on an ongoing basis.

While there’s a little extra capacity here in theory (you have one washbacks that’s empty for six to twelve hours on each of the five production days), it’s probably not practical to put an extra mash through they system each week. I haven’t accounted for the time it takes to fill and then drain the washbacks, or the time it takes to sanitize them between fillings (this is done by pumping them full of steam). Adding an extra mash would have the staff constantly filling washbacks the moment they were ready. The best practice is to pitch the yeast as soon as possible after the wort is cooled to prevent any wild yeast or bacteria from establishing a foothold. That would mean the mashing cycle would have to be matched to when the washbacks became available, rather than a regular schedule of mashing at the same two times each day. I’m sure that would not be very practical.

On to the stills; the wash still takes 1/3 of what each washback holds (and the spirit still takes what the wash still puts out), so they would have been doing three distillation runs (each through a wash still / spirit still combo) each day that they were operating. The wash still run lasts five hours and the spirit still run lasts six hours and 40 minutes. A little bit of time is also needed to pump the spent lees and pot ale out of the stills after distillation is complete, but that shouldn’t add much ore than 20 minutes to the times above. With Bruichladdich’s two sets of stills, it is possible to do six distillation runs during a 24 hour period. There is a bit of lag time as the spirit stills can’t start running until the wash stills have done their first run. But once the spirit stills get started, they should both be able to push through three runs each for every 24 hours that they keep running. That lag at the start of the week’s distillations is probably part of the reason that Bruichladdich is running five and a half days a week rather than five.

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised to find that my suspicions were unfounded in this case. Bruichladdich is now running at maximum capacity, at least in terms of washbacks. They could increase output further by running seven day a week; with two mashes and six distillation runs every day. If they did that without adding washbacks, that would mean fermentation times would be 60-67 hours for every single mash. As it stands now, for every two mashes that ferment 60-67 hours there are three that ferment 100-107 hours. That gives an average fermentation time of 87-88 hours. A reduction of 27% would be significant. If we hear of any future increases in production at Bruichladdich let’s hope the news is accompanied by an announcement of the distillery itself growing.

Okay, enough of the number crunching, let’s see how this relatively young whisky from Islay grown barley tastes.

The nose is quite fragrant, with floral notes and a slightly soapy quality (but not in a bad way). More subtle aromas are reminiscent of a salty, coastal breeze pushing across grassy dunes. On the palate it is somewhat full bodied and brings a nice range of flavors right up front. Gentle malt and stony minerality lead the way, with hints of fish nets and driftwood rounding things out. A youthful edge of green malt appears briefly as it transitions from the mid-palate to the finish. Warming spice notes take over at the end and are balanced by an oh-so-subtle touch of peat smoke.

In comparison, the 10 year has a more dense malt character with notes of gingerbread and American oak.

This Islay Barley bottle carries a 6 year age statement as well as the notation that it was distilled in 2007 and bottled in 2013. The bottling code, however, indicates that it was bottled in July of 2014. All of the lettering is printed directly onto the glass, rather than on a label. I suspect that they printed up too many bottles and didn’t fill them as quickly as they expected to. I would think it is actually 2007 distillate; why would they print more bottles than they had whisky to fill. So this should be between 6 ½ and 7 ½ years old, depending on when in 2007 it was distilled.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Ardbeg, Uigeadail vs. Corryvreckan

Uigeadail: single malt Scotch, Islay, 54.2%, $80
Corryvreckan: single malt Scotch, Islay, 57.1%, $75

I recently compared Ardbeg’s flagship 10 year old to their moderately peated, limited edition Blasda bottling, while at the same time going over the history of the distillery. Now I’m going to have a closer look at Uigeadail and Corryvreckan, the two Ardbeg bottlings that, along with the 10 year, currently make up the brand’s core range. But first a quick overview of how the range has evolved during the last 18 years.

As you’ll recall from the post linked above, when the mothballed Ardbeg distillery was bought and restarted by Glenmorangie in 1997 there were stocks of whisky from two distinct periods in the warehouses; the early 1970’s through March of 1981 and mid-1989 through mid-1996. The latter period was limited to two months of production per year. The new owners would also have the whisky they began producing themselves from mid 1997 onward as that spirit came of age. Production methods differed for each of these three periods giving three distinct styles of Ardbeg that would shape the evolution of the brand’s offerings for years to come.

The only bottlings put out by Ardbeg in 1997, 1998 and 1999 were their 17 year old and a series of vintage releases dated to the mid 1970’s. The 17 year is often said to be made up solely of distillate from 1980 and 1981, but I have seen a quote attributed to Glenmoranie’s Dr. Bill Lumsden stating that the 17 year also contained distillate laid down between 1975 and 1977.

The 17 year old and the 1970’s vintage bottlings continued on until 2004, but they were joined by a new 10 year old offering in 2000. This bottling was the first use of whisky from the period of limited production between 1989 and 1996.

Another annual release was started in 2001; Lord of the Isles was a vatting of whiskies from 1976 and 1977. It was part of the lineup until 2007 and much like the 17 year, its label stayed the same but the whisky grew older with each subsequent bottling.

The next significant addition to Ardbeg’s lineup was Uigeadail, which first appeared in 2003. It was described at younger bourbon barrel aged whisky vatted with much older sherry cask matured whisky.

Then there was a series of bottlings which tracked the progress of the whisky that the new owners began distilling in 1997. First was Very Young in 2004 which was followed by Still Young in 2006, Almost There in 2007 and finally Renaissance in 2008.

There were two very limited releases of lightly peated, cask strength Ardbeg Kildalton. The one in 2004 was distilled in 1980 and put into 700 ml bottles. The 2005 release was distilled in 1981 and only bottled in miniatures.

The next addition to Ardbeg’s standard lineup was called Airigh Nam Beist. It was bottled for three years, 2006, 2007 and 2008, but all of them were vintage dated to 1990. Many people viewed Airigh Nam Beist as a replacement for the iconic 17 year.

At some point in 2008 the flagship 10 year old was transitioned from distillate produced between 1989 and 1996 to distillate produced from 1997 onwards. There was a change in the label design mid way through 2008 that is generally considered to indicate when the transition took place, but some people claim to have tasted the change in the flavor profile several months before the labels were modified.

Another lightly peated release called Blasda was bottled in 2008, 2009 and 2010. It was non-age stated, but said to be about 7 years old.

Corryvreckan was the next addition to the lineup, arriving in 2009. Upon its introduction it was touted as the replacement for Airigh Nam Beist. This bottling is aged in a combination of French oak and American oak ex-bourbon barrels. It is non-age stated but said to be in the 10 to 12 year range (making it all from post-1997 distillate).

There seems to be some conflicting information about the French oak aged portion of Corryvreckan. It was actually first seen as an Ardbeg Committee bottling in 2008 using first-fill French oak casks (either Burgundy or Bordeaux casks, I’ve seen mentions of both). Most reputable sources now state that Corryvreckan uses new French oak rather than first-fill French oak (along with the bourbon aged component). I’m not sure if this was a gradual transition over a few years or a sudden change when it became part of the regular lineup, but the bottle of Corryvreckan I have from 2009 seems to show little if any wine cask influence. While I was at the distillery in 2012 I was told that Corryvreckan was aged in toasted new French oak.

The limited releases have continued from Ardbeg as well. There was the more heavily peated (100+ ppm) Supernova in 2009 and 2010. Also released in 2010 was Rollercoaster; a vatting of the first ten years (1997-2006) of the new owners’ production. Next, in 2011, was Alligator; a vatting of ex-bourbon barrels and heavily charred, new American oak barrels. 2012 saw the release of Galileo, which was distilled in 1999 and aged in a combination of bourbon and Marsala casks.

Recent years have also seen wider releases of the annual festival bottlings from Ardbeg; Day (2012), Ardbog (2013), Auriverdes (2014) and Perpetuum (2015).

With all of these limited releases and changes to the core lineup, it can be pretty tough to keep track of what was bottled when at Ardbeg. And that has led to the Ardbeg Project. This privately run website attempts to catalog all official Ardbeg releases by their corresponding bottle codes and provide additional information when possible.

In the case of Uigeadail, the Ardbeg Project is particularly helpful. When it was first bottled in 2003, the sherry cask component of Uigeadail was distilled in the 1970’s and aged to about 25 years. I haven’t seen any information about the age of the bourbon barrel component of the early bottlings of Uigeadail, other than the generalization of it as being “young”. At that time though, most of the limited production from the 1989-1996 period was probably being used for the 10 year old, so it stands to reason that the bourbon barrel aged whisky in Uigeadail would have been distilled after the facility was restarted in mid 1997 and at about 6 years old.

Of course, with limited stocks of whisky from the 1970’s which were becoming increasingly more valuable as time marched on, it was inevitable that the recipe for Uigeadail would change. Perpetually on a quest to taste new whisky, it’s rare for me to purchase the same bottle twice. But I was so enamored by my early bottle of Uigeadail that I picked up another a few years later and would recommend it to anyone who asked. At the time all of this history was unknown to me, but the second bottle I had, while genuinely impressive, didn’t seem quite so magical as the first. I originally heard about the change in recipe from a tour guide while visiting the distillery in 2012.

More detail of Uigeadail’s changing formula can be found in this 2013 interview with Dr. Bill Lumsden (at the 23 minute mark), where he states “I’ve tried to gradually drift the recipe to a more appropriate age profile”. I’ve read on other blogs that the most highly regarded bottlings came from 2003 through 2009, and the most noticeable change happened across 2010, 2011 and 2012. I pulled the bottle from my shelf which had just enough liquid left in it for a few drinks, and checked the code against the information on the Ardbeg Project. Much to my surprise, it had been bottled on March 23, 2008. Next it was up to the attic to find my first (and long empty) bottle of Uigeadail. That one dated to April 20, 2005.

I’ve read that the sherry cask component accounts for 35% to 45% of Uigeadail, and that the percentage hasn’t really changed over the years. Having youthful bourbon barrel aged whisky in the mix is part of what makes this bottling what it is, so I suspect that component has remained around the 6 year mark. I’m also speculating a bit on the sherry cask portion, but I feel like they must have started transitioning it pretty early on from late 70’s / early 80’s distillate to the 1989-1996 distillate, and then transitioned to the 1997 and newer distillate across 2010, 2011 and 2012.

If I’m correct, over the course of 10 years the sherry matured component of Uigeadail has drifted down in age from roughly 25 years to around 15 years. Not only that, but it has also transitioned across three distinct periods of Ardbeg’s history, each with its own style of distillate.

I feel quite fortunate to have some 2008 Uigeadail left to taste today:
The nose is sharp and biting. It almost seems astringent at first but shows its true nature upon more cautious inspection; dense, chewy peat smoke aromas are intertwined with dry, nutty, oxidized sherry notes. The palate shows incredible depth and complexity. While the peat smoke is the most obvious element, there’s so much more going on along with it. There’s a gingerbread-like maltiness, mint and wide range of spice notes. The sherry fruit character is dark and moderately dry, with a hint of nuttiness. A touch of brine rounds out the flavor profile. The lengthy finish evolves without losing balance and maintains a good level of grip even as it fades.

Corryvreckan (bottled 2009):
There are some nice aromas on the nose, but a healthy dose of alcohol riding along with them. The peat smoke is somewhat light and floral in character and is accompanied by some subtle tree fruit and tropical fruit notes. There is less heat and aggressiveness on the palate than expected considering its nature on the nose. Notes of dry spice and leather come to the fore and add complexity to the smoke of driftwood burning on a beach. A bit of earthiness and a subtle stone fruit element come into play as well. The finish is long and warming, with a building spice element and lingering peat notes.

Comparing Uigeadail and Corryvreckan to the 10 year, its peat smoke stands out more on the palate. But that is, in my opinion, a matter of the other two having wider ranges of accompanying flavor elements. And while the Corryvreckan stands nicely on its own, it simply pales in comparison to the Uigeadail.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Bruichladdich, The Laddie Ten

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 10 years old, 46%, $60

In the spring of 2012 Remy Cointreau made an offer for the Bruichladdich distillery that its Board couldn’t refuse. Mark Reynier, the London wine merchant who had orchestrated the previous purchase of the distillery, was actually the only board member to vote against the deal. The group of investors he assembled late in 2000 had put up £6.5 million to save the distillery. It’s no surprise that eleven and a half years later the majority of the Board voted in favor of the £58 million offer from the French company. The only immediate change that the new owners made was to relieve Reynier of his duty as Managing Director, replacing him with his business partner Simon Coughlin who had been acting as Operations Director.

In a recent post I covered the history of Bruichladdich from 1881 up to the 2012 sale. Now I’m going to take a look at how things have changed since that point and at what might have been if Reynier had remained at the helm.

The sale of Bruichladdich to Remy was officially announced July 23rd, 2012. Other than the immediate departure of Mark Reynier nothing seemed to change right off the bat. Then, in February of 2013, the distillery announced that it would move to double production.

Finally, in September of 2013 we started to see some major changes in the Bruichladdich lineup. There seemed to be a shift towards more emphasis on Scottish barley and Islay barley bottlings (for all three ranges: unpeated Bruichladdich, heavily peated Port Charlotte and super heavily peated Octomore), all of which were non-age stated. Some of the other offerings, such as Rocks, went away permanently.

About a month before the official announcement of the distillery sale, Bruichladdich announced that starting in August 2012 it would expand into the Travel Retail market, something it had mostly avoided up to that point. This news went largely unnoticed, but clearly foreshadowed the sale to Remy, who had extensive experience with Travel Retail. When the bigger changes started to take place late in 2013, most of the remaining limited production Bruichladdich bottlings became Travel Retail exclusives. These included The Organic Scottish Barley, the vintage dated Bere Barley bottlings, the cask strength releases of Port Charlotte, and the Cask Evolution bottlings of Octomore. Looking at their website today, the only specialty bottling that seems to be available outside of Travel Retail is the 23 year old Bruichladdich Black Art 4, 1990.

But the most significant change and the one that really stoked the ire of a lot of Bruichladdich fans was the discontinuation of the flagship 10 year old. A big part of the problem was how the situation was handled. There was no official announcement; it just mysteriously disappeared from the website. Rumors started that it had been eliminated from the lineup, while others claimed that it was going on allocation with a price increase. By the spring of 2014 it was clear that The Laddie Ten would be a distillery-only bottling, if it was available at all. This was kind of a big deal. The release of the new 10 year old in 2011 was a huge milestone for the team that had saved Bruichladdich. It not only represented their survival and the fact that they were now thriving, it was seen as the bottling that now defined the house style. After years of so many wildly varying limited releases, some wondered if the distillery had lost its way; the new flagship bottling had been the answer to those concerns.

While many are bemoaning the changes that are happening under Remy ownership, some degree of change was inevitable even if the distillery had continued under the old regime. Bruichladdich’s lineup had already tightened with fewer one-off bottlings in the years leading up to the sale and that trend was likely to continue. The company’s terroir driven philosophy also seems to have stayed intact with the change of ownership. After convincing Islay farmers to grow malting barley in 2004 for the first time since World War 1, they now have at least 10 different farms participating. We’ve only seen releases from three of them so far, but with Islay Barley still looking like an important part of the core lineup I think we’ll see that bottling rotate through various farms and vintages.

In addition to Remy being well established in the Travel Retail network, they also have a massive worldwide distribution network and very deep pockets. Under its previous owners Bruichladdich certainly would have continued to grow and expand production, but at a much slower pace. Remy had the resources to quickly double production and the distribution infrastructure to get that whisky to market. But even with a range of mostly non-age stated bottlings, it’s still going to take about six years for the production increase to show up as a supply increase. The Laddie Ten bottling was clearly a victim of this situation.

Interestingly, Mark Reynier expressed his disdain for the constraints of age statements in a post-sale interview that was published in The New Yorker in early 2013. But at the same time I think he understood the importance of age statements from the consumer’s perspective and recognized what the flagship 10 year old represented for the Bruichladdich brand. It would not have been discontinued under the old ownership, but they also weren’t capable of growing quickly enough to necessitate such a move.

If the distillery had not been sold, the changes made to their lineup wouldn’t have been too different from what we have seen over the last three years, in my opinion. I do doubt, however, that any of the bottlings would have been relegated to Travel Retail exclusivity. A recent post on the Bruichladdich website talks about experiments started two years ago (a year after the sale), where malt from different regions of mainland Scotland had been separated into 100 ton batches that were distilled individually. It certainly seems that Bruichladdich is continuing on the same trajectory that was established by its previous owners.

Mark Reynier’s end at Bruichladdich was abrupt. He had a vision and an endgame that went through 2014. At that point he planned to potentially sell the distillery but hoped they could float shares on a secondary exchange to raise capital and provide liquidity to the original shareholders, or be in a position to provide dividends to those shareholders and stick it out as a true independent. We’ll never know what the future of Bruichladdich would have looked like under the latter two situations, but I don’t think the difference from what we see today would be as great as others seem to think.

It’s also hard to say what the longer term future will look like for Bruichladdich. I’d like to think that The Laddie Ten will eventually make a return. Perhaps stocks are even being laid down with a view to someday producing older age stated bottlings. What we see from Bruichladdich 10 to 20 years from now may very well depend on how strong demand is as the whisky made after the doubling of production comes to age.

The Laddie Ten:
The nose has a rich maltiness with many secondary aromas contributing to its beautiful complexity. Gentle floral and grassy notes are intertwined with a coastal contribution of pebbles and sea spray as well as a very subtle hint of peat smoke. On the palate the malty backdrop mingles nicely with the bourbon barrel influence, which adds vanilla and toasted oak to the mix. Delicate notes of beach grass and minerality add complexity. It gracefully moves into the finish where a touch of spice and barely noticeable whisper of peat smoke keep everything in balance. There is a bit of heat on the mid palate that takes a few sips to get acclimatized to, but it’s still quite lovely overall.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Laphroaig Dinner

My critique of Montreal’s whisky bars is a project that’s been on the back burner for longer than I care to admit. I’d occasionally travel north, drink a bunch of whisky, take notes and then fail to follow through. I finally got serious about this undertaking about six months ago and decided to visit each of the relevant establishments for one drink, in a single whirlwind tour, and finally put pen to paper. Well, things don’t always work out as planned and that one trip turned into three for a variety of reasons. With my research compiled the writing can commence, but first a little prelude.

About three years ago I was poking around online and came across an announcement for a Glenfarclas tasting at one of Montreal’s big three whisky bars. Being a big fan of the ‘farclas I should have jumped on that opportunity, but I hesitated and the event was sold out by the time I decided I should attend. While bellied up to said bar this winter, coincidentally sipping on a vintage Glenfarclas, I asked the bartender how to get on the mailing list for their tasting events. She hastily wrote the email address of the manager on my receipt and said a quick note to him would do the trick.

When the announcement for a Laphroaig dinner hit my inbox a few weeks ago I was curious but a little hesitant. Between my personal collection, a tasting at the distillery three years ago and the Laphroaig event I went to in NH last summer, I’ve already tasted through much of what the distillery has to offer. But this dinner was being hosted by the distillery manager. For someone like me, the opportunity to have a conversation with the man who knows better than anyone else how the whisky is made is priceless. Even if I had previously tasted everything poured that night, it would still be well worth the four hour round trip drive and overnight stay. Besides, I still had a few more places to visit to tie up the bigger research project. My hesitation lasted less than 24 hours.

After checking in to my hotel and working through the language barrier to figure out Montreal’s subway system, I arrived at the Burgundy Lion just a few minutes before the 6:00 start time. I was greeted by a well-made Laphroaig Quarter Cask Old Fashioned and told to refrain from drinking the four tasting samples that had been laid out before me until the appropriate time. Other drinks were of course available for purchase.

While this was a whisky dinner, I’d say that the four courses were accompaniments rather than pairings. Of course, it’s pretty tough to pair food with heavily peated single malts, especially four times in a row. But nothing clashed, and that’s all that really matters. As I suspected, each of the four offerings were Laphroaig variants that I was pretty familiar with: Triple Wood, 10 year, 2014 Cairdeas and 18 year. Much to my delight, they brought out one more bottle at the end; the 2009 Cairdeas. Where the first four were roughly 1 ounce pours, the last one was a single bottle split among 50 people, so probably a bit less than ½ an ounce per person.

Events like this aren’t really an ideal setting for taking detailed tasting notes and I’ve previously written pretty extensively about three of the first four tasted, so I’m going to focus more on the information I was able to glean through the evening before posting my thoughts on the 2009 Cairdeas.

I should note that John Campbell first started at Laphroaig in 1994 and also gained experience with brief stints at a handful of other distilleries. He was promoted to distillery manager in 2006 and is the first Ileach to hold that position since Laphroaig was established in 1815. John is a fairly humble and unassuming character who possesses the dry sense of humor that Islay is known for. Discussing the details of whisky production with him was an absolute pleasure and our conversations made me long for a return visit to Islay.

We started off with Laphroaig Triple Wood. One might assume that this is aged in a combination of bourbon barrels and a few different types of sherry casks (as Auchentoshan Three Wood is) or perhaps bourbon barrels, sherry casks and port pipes, since the label on the bottle only mentions that it is “triple matured for peat, oak and subtle sweetness”. But the packaging tube does mention ex-bourbon barrels, quarter casks and European oak.

As John described how this whisky is produced, he told us that it spends 5 to 11 years in first fill bourbon barrels before being transferred to quarter casks for 7 months (these are 125 liter casks made from cut down 200 liter bourbon barrels, being ¼ the size of a 500 liter butt), and finally spending another two years in Oloroso Sherry seasoned hogsheads. What struck me was that the first two thirds of the aging regiment sounded exactly the same as the production of Laphroaig Quarter Cask. When I asked John about this he did confirm that Triple Wood is essentially Quarter Cask with a further two year finishing period in sherry casks. From the standpoint of managing production levels this is a pretty brilliant strategy. Not only does the wide age range used and lack of an age statement give them some flexibility in how much Quarter Cask they can bottle at any given time, they can also shift inventory between Quarter Cask and Triple Wood close to when the whisky reaches maturity rather than hoping they get it right when the spirit is first entered into the casks.

Another interesting bit of information came up about Laphroaig’s traditional floor maltings. The barley that they malt in-house makes up 15% of the total that is used. I’ve been told (at the distillery I believe) that the local peat that is used to kiln their floor malted barley is composed primarily of lichens and mosses which grew in an environment heavy with sea spray, and this is part of what gives Laphroaig its strong iodine-like medicinal flavors. According to John, of the seven distilleries in Scotland that maintain traditional floor maltings, only Laphroaig cold smokes the drying malt, and that is part of what produces their unique range of flavors. Of course I needed to know more and asked if there was some special equipment or particular kiln design required for cold smoking. John told me that it was simply a matter of maintaining a lower temperature peat fire, which I assume makes the process more time intensive.

Next we moved on the 10 year. John mentioned that this is aged exclusively in first-fill Maker’s Mark barrels and accounts for 70% of Laphroaig’s case sales. At the tasting I went to last summer that figure was 75% and Quarter Cask represented 15%; I assume that some of the 10 year’s sales volume was diverted to Laphroaig Select, which was first introduced about a year ago. John also noted that the 10 year historically contained small amounts of slightly older whisky (I think he said 11 to 12 years old) to round out the flavor profile, but since production can barely match demand these days, pretty much every barrel that goes into the 10 year is aged only slightly more than 10 years.

This is where the technical information got really interesting for me. The conversation moved on to the topic of consistency and how important it is for a flagship whisky like Laphroaig 10 year. In order to keep the flavor profile from deviating, batches of 250 barrels are vatted together and given 3 to 4 days to mingle. Then 80% of it is bottled and 20% is left behind to mix with the next batch.

Someone in the group asked about the process of tasting all of the barrels that will go into a batch to ensure that they will combine into the desired flavor profile. Surprisingly, John informed us that this is a procedure that has largely been done away with. They’ve gotten to the point that they know what sort of different aging effects will happen in the various warehouses. Between good quality control of the barrels before they are filled, along with a few quality checks of the whisky in the early stages of aging, they are able to create the 10 year essentially from a formula of barrel locations from the different warehouses.

Next we moved on to the 2014 Cairdeas, which is aged for 8 years in bourbon barrels plus an additional 16 months in Amontillado Sherry casks, resulting in a Laphroaig that is especially peaty, spicy (clove and nutmeg), salty and dry, with a bit of fruit and nuttiness.

John mentioned the stills here, noting that the spirit stills are not all the same size and mixing the whisky from them builds complexity. I did a bit of follow up research and learned that the original set of stills was supplemented with two more in 1923 and a third pair was added in 1968/1969. The three wash stills have a capacity of 10,400 liters each and the three spirit stills each hold 4700 liters. A fourth spirit still with a capacity of 9400 liters was added in 1974.

I had recently read about the soon to be released 2015 Cairdeas, which is a whisky made solely from barley malted on Laphroaig’s traditional floor maltings. This is something I’m really excited about and getting my hands on a bottle is a top priority. I took the opportunity to ask John about this and if laying down 100% floor malted whisky was something they were doing annually. He told me that it was a project he had initiated just after becoming the distillery manager in February of 2006 (making it a little over 9 years old), but that it was a one time thing and they haven’t made more since. Then he wistfully declared that he really should push for more experiments like that.

The conversation perfectly segued into me asking if the distillate from the different sized spirit stills was always mixed together before going into barrels. He confirmed that fact and I suggested that it would be interesting to separate some of it and see how the resulting whiskies differed. With an inspired look in his eye, he agreed that it would be interesting (I’ll gladly take credit for this if we see “Big Still / Little Still” Cairdeas releases ten years from now).

By this point we had moved on to dessert and the elegant, well-rounded 18 year. Curious about the current goings on of Islay, I asked about the status of Gartbreck Farm, the proposed ninth distillery on Islay which was announced in September of 2013 and the start of which seems to have been in a perpetual state of delay. John said he believed they had just recently, finally, broken ground on the project. Then he started to talk about the other proposed new distillery which is planned to be located between Laphroaig and the village of Port Ellen. Apparently news of this potential tenth Islay distillery had only broken a week before, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that I was unaware of it.

With the event winding down, we were treated to the last whisky; 2009 Cairdeas. Laphroaig has been bottling special edition whiskies for the annual Feis Ile festival since 2003. In 2007 they made enough of the festival bottling to also offer it as an online exclusive to members of the Friends of Laphroaig. They decided to make this a tradition, and added the Cairdeas (Gaelic for “friendship”) title to all of the festival bottlings from 2008. Production levels of the Cairdeas releases were later increased further and they have been made more widely available since at least 2012.

2009 Cairdeas is a cask strength 12 year old, aged exclusively in first fill Maker’s Mark barrels and bottled at 57.5% abv. Dry, woody smoke is prominent on the nose. It is big but clean on the palate, showing minimal oak influence and unadulterated peat smoke. It’s dry and fiery, but able to maintain its composure. This is quintessential Laphroaig and really shows what the 10 year is holding back.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Famous Grouse vs. Black Grouse vs. Snow Grouse

Snow Grouse: blended grain Scotch, 40%, $25
Famous Grouse: blended Scotch, 40%, $22
Black Grouse: blended Scotch, 40%, $26

I generally lack any interest whatsoever in buying bottles of whisky when I’m under the duress of an acute hangover. Returning from an adventure in Montreal recently, I stopped at the Duty Free store for no reason other than to use the rest room before crossing the border. When confronted with shelves of whisky bottles though, some of which might not be available elsewhere, I can’t help but look.

While there were a few interesting oddities and tempting Travel Retail exclusives, I was actually enticed by something rather mundane; a trio of Famous Grouse miniatures. Included was their eponymous flagship offering as well as its more heavily peated variant and their blended grain whisky. For just $10 (the prices listed above are typical for 750 ml), how could I pass them up?

The Famous Grouse blend was introduced in 1896 by a long established Perth grocer who had been blending whisky since 1860. Originally called the Grouse Brand blend, it was renamed to the Famous Grouse in 1905. The company was sold to Highland Distillers in 1970 and by 1980 the Famous Grouse had become the best selling whisky in Scotland. Distribution outside of the UK started in the 1980’s, leading to further growth. Today the brand is owned by the Edrington Group, which also has five single malt distilleries in its portfolio (Macallan, Highland Park, Glenrothes, Glenturret and Tamdhu).

Looking at worldwide annual case sales for 2013, which is the last year info is available for, the Famous Grouse is the sixth best selling Scotch, at 3.3 million cases. It leads Dewar’s, which is at 3.0 million and follows J&B (3.8 mil), William Grant’s (4.7 mil), Chivas Regal (4.9 mil), Ballantine’s (5.9 mil) and Johnnie Walker (20.1 mil). Just to add some perspective, the best selling North American whiskey is Jack Daniel’s at 11.5 million cases, and the best selling single malts are Glenfiddich at 1.1 million and Glenlivet at 1.0 million. Remember, these are worldwide figures, and different brands have their strengths in different locations. If you’re thinking, “Ballantine’s? I don’t know a single person who drinks Ballantine’s!”, keep in mind that a lot of their sales growth could be in paces like Asia, South America, India, etc.

I’m going to start off with the Snow Grouse. This is a blended grain Scotch, meaning it is a mix of grain whiskies from more than one distillery. While this style, as well as single grain Scotch, is even rarer than blended malt Scotch, it is not completely unheard of. Scottish grain whisky is usually made from either corn or wheat and distilled in a column still to a very high alcohol level, often approaching the (less than) 94.8% abv limit that defines whisky in Scotland, as well as in the rest of the EU.

In spite of the light style that is produced by being highly distilled, there are some respectable single grain and blended grain Scotches out there. They have usually been aged slowly for a very long time in casks which were previously used quite heavily, taking away their ability to over oak the gentle spirit. That’s not what this is. The label advises to “serve from the freezer”, something which I refuse to do on principal. The colder a beverage is served, the more its flavors are masked. I’m guessing that this whisky is relatively young.

I wouldn’t call the aromas off-putting, but they are unusual. There are some pleasant grain notes, but it’s also a bit metallic and industrial. The aromatics seem oddly hollow at times. It is surprisingly full-bodied (I’ve read that it becomes downright viscous when fully chilled). Like the nose, I find the flavors on the palate to be a strange mix of good and bad. Some pleasant vanilla and spice driven oak notes stand out. Those are sharply contrasted by some chemical-like hints and unbalanced fruit (maybe banana). Warming spice notes on the finish are overshadowed by its youthful, immature character. I was actually expecting much worse based on some of the reviews I had scanned. Chilling it probably would be an improvement, but I’m of the school of thought that if you have to chill a spirit to make it palatable, you should probably just drink something else.

On to the flagship Famous Grouse:
The aromas are subtle and complex, a bit of earthiness, a whiff of peat and slightly sweet maltiness are all well-integrated. It’s fairly assertive on the palate (for a blend), with mild peat notes tying everything together nicely. It also shows good complexity, with the aromas from the nose reflecting on the palate. The finish is full and lengthy. Comparing it to some know quantities, I’d say that it lacks the elegance of Chivas Regal, but still stands head and shoulders above Dewar’s.

And finally, the more heavily peated Black Grouse:
The increased peat is obvious on the nose, but with more of a damp-leaves and clay-like earthiness quality. The aromatic profile is quite different than that of the Famous Grouse, but equally complex. A bit of malty sweetness shows up-front before the phenolic character comes to the fore. This is no Islay single malt, but the healthy dose of peat does grow and expand as it moves through the mid palate and into the early finish. The peat carries the finish quite a bit further here, though it does seem to go slightly out of balance at the very end, with a grassy undertone left to stand alone as the smoke fades. While quite drinkable on its own, this shouldn’t be overlooked by the progenitors of craft cocktails.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Ardbeg, Blasda vs. 10 year

Blasda: single malt Scotch, Islay, 40%, $105 (typical 750 ml price, 50 ml pictured)
10 year: single malt Scotch, Islay, 46%, $47 (typical 750 ml price, 50 ml pictured)

I recently proclaimed that I would begin writing shorter, less research-intensive pieces in order to post more frequently. And then I failed miserably at that resolution with my last effort. Let’s try this again. I also mentioned in that most recent post that it was time to open the last of the bottles that I had brought back from Scotland. That statement was actually in reference to the Bruichladdich bottles covered therein as well as a set of miniatures I picked up at Ardbeg featuring the 10 year and their Blasda bottling.

Before the modern resurgence of Islay as Scotland’s most highly regarded distilling region, Ardbeg, much like Bruichladdich, nearly went the way of Port Ellen which was permanently decommissioned in 1983. Thankfully Ardbeg was rescued from the edge of extinction, as was Bruichladdich, but there were some differences in the circumstances of their respective reprieves.

Ardbeg is located on the island’s south shore, near the village of Port Ellen and along the same stretch of road as its neighbors Lagavulin and Laphroaig, which are 1 mile and 2 miles away, respectively. The distillery was officially licensed in 1815, but it may have been operating as an illicit farm distillery as far back as 1794. In spite of being bought and sold a few times, Ardbeg remained in private ownership for almost 160 years, and with the exception of 1932-1935 appears to have produced whisky continuously during that period. In 1973 the distillery was purchased jointly by Hiram Walker and DCL, with Hiram Walker taking full control in 1977. Four years later, in March 1981, the distillery was mothballed.

In 1987 Hiram Walker was taken over by Allied Lyons (which became Allied Domecq after a 1994 merger, and was then acquired by Pernod Ricard in 2005). Ardbeg was restarted by Allied in 1989, but production was limited to just two months each year. Allied also owned Laphroaig at the time and with that brand being promoted heavily as a single malt, Ardbeg was viewed as an alternate source of peated malt whisky that could satisfy the demands of the blenders. This period of production was only to last seven years though, with Allied closing the distillery and putting it up for sale in 1996.

Fortunately, true salvation for Ardbeg came quickly in the form of a sale (for £7 million) to Glenmorangie PLC early in 1997 and the distillery was operating again after a production gap that lasted just over a year. Glenmorangie (which was acquired by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy in 2004) had the resources to invest in much needed upgrades at the distillery. The aging stock of whisky in the warehouses was Ardbeg’s biggest asset to its new owner, just as the case would be at Bruichladdich when it was sold four years later. In both instances there were some incredible casks from the 1960’s and 1970’s. But where Bruichladdich was restarted after being out of production for seven and a half years (late 93 through mid 01) and had a six year gap in existing stocks (78 through 83), Ardbeg was restarted with a one year gap (mid 96 through mid 97) preceded by seven years of limited production (mid 89 through mid 96) and eight years of non-production before that (mid 81 through mid 89).

Ardbeg had been bottled as a single malt at least as far back as the mid 1960’s and the 10 year old seems to have been the most commonly available age but I’ve seen examples of 12 year and 15 year olds that pre-date 1997. When the new owners bought the place, there was nothing in the warehouses that was 10 years old, but they did have different styles of whisky produced during different time periods.

The whisky from the 60’s and early 70’s was produced in the old school way. Ardbeg’s floor maltings were still in use back then and the malt was dried with local peat composed of older layers of the organic material dug from deep in the ground. This produced spirit with a heavy, oily quality and a tarry, espresso like character. Ardbeg began buying malted barley from Port Ellen Maltings (which would have been dried with younger peat) as early as 1975, but they transitioned away from their floor malting rather slowly, using them for the last time in 1980. The spirit distilled from 89 to 96 was still quite fruity, but was entered into heavily used casks, some being filled for the fourth or fifth time. This is often seen as a detriment, but it can result in lovely whiskies at much older ages. Since production was restarted in 1997, more aggressive yeast strains and shorter fermentation times have changed the character of the whisky. Fresh bourbon barrels are now commonly employed and the peat level has been increased slightly.

Everything that was bottled for the first three years under the new regime was either a vintage dated expression from the 70’s, or the highly regarded 17 year old that came from distillate produced in 1980 and 1981. The 17 year was actually bottled until late 2004, and even though the whisky in the bottle became progressively older, the age statement remained the same to at least give the appearance of consistency. A 10 year old was released in 2000, becoming Ardbeg’s new flagship bottling. In 2008, the 10 year transitioned from Allied produced spirit to that made under Glenmorangie’s ownership. Other than the 17 year, which was bottled at 40% abv, Ardbeg’s new leaders had also move away from chill filtering.

When Ardbeg’s Old Kiln Café and new visitor center opened in 1998, they helped make the distillery an important destination for whisky tourists. In 2000 the Ardbeg Committee was officially formed. This fan club, which is similar to the Friends of Laphroaig, gives members exclusive access to very limited release bottlings. The more popular ones often go on to become regular distillery releases. While most of the vintage releases from the 1970’s had dried up by 2004, Ardbeg successfully transitioned to a series of non age-stated, cask strength bottlings that have proven to be quite popular. Expressions such as Uigeadail, Airigh Nam Beist and Corryvreckan have taken Ardbeg from strength to strength.

While Ardbeg is known as a peat monster, there have been some variations in, and even exceptions to, its peat level. As I mentioned above, the peat character was different in the floor malting days. Even though the peat level was high, it was probably inconsistent as that’s part of the nature of floor malting. From 1979 through 1996 the malt bought from Port Ellen was peated to 42 ppm. When production restarted in 1997, the peat level was raised to 55 ppm. A few batches of lightly peated (no ppm numbers available) Ardbeg were distilled in 1980 and 1981. They were bottled 24 years later under the Kildalton title, at cask strength. I had the pleasure of tasting one of them when visiting the distillery. Occasional runs of lightly peated spirit have been produced in the modern era as well; I’ve read that they were done in the late 90’s, 2002 and 2005. I suspect that pattern has continued. Appearantly they took the peat levels in the other direction too, as evidenced by the 2009 release of Supernova which was peated to at least 100 ppm.

In 2008 Ardbeg released the lightly peated Blasda. It was a limited release of several thousand bottles that was supposed to be available for about three years, but it seems to have lasted a bit longer. This was a fairly polarizing whisky; some people really liked it but others were unhappy about the fact that it was chill-filtered and bottled at 40%, on top of being non age-stated. It was somewhat expensive, but I think they hoped it would be viewed as a cheaper version of Kildalton (It was selling for $75 at the distillery in 2012, but the price listed above was the average going rate in the U.S. as far as I can tell).

As a non age-stated whisky, I’m guessing that it’s a vatting of a few different vintages. It could be a vatting of different peat levels as well. And this is where things get a little confusing. The ppm numbers (parts per million phenols) usually refer to the malted barley. Once in a while a producer will refer to the ppm level of the new make spirit. After mashing, fermenting and distilling, the ppm number typically drops by more than 50%. As the whisky ages that number comes down even more each year and on rare occasion the ppm figure is given for the finished product. Unfortunately, these numbers are often stated without reference to which part of the process they come from.

If you look at the page on Ardbeg’s website that describes Blasda, they note that it is at 8 ppm, compared to the usual 24 ppm. Wait! I thought most of their malt was peated to 55 ppm? Checking a trusted reference I see that Ardbeg’s new make spirit has a peat level of 24 – 26 ppm (and it was 16 – 17 ppm when the malt was peated to 42 ppm). That would indicate that the malt used for Blasda was peated to 18 ppm, at least on average. But I also came across a review of Blasda stating that 8 ppm was the peat level of the whisky in the bottle and that the malt was peated to 25 ppm. That review also had a comment from someone who had worked at the distillery and said that the lightly peated whisky distilled at Ardbeg in 2005 had been made from malt peated to 10 ppm.

Clearly, the actual peating level of Blasda is a very debatable topic. I should just see what it tastes like:

The nose is clean and bright, moderately peaty and shows grassy and malty notes. The aromas seem to be drier in nature than I expected. It is medium bodied. While there’s a honeyed character up front that balances the smokiness, it fades quickly leaving the peat notes to stand on their own. The phenolic character isn’t too intense, but stands out as it is more dominant than any other flavors present at the moment. In this regard, I would liken it to a toned down Caol Ila. A somewhat youngish malt quality appears on the mid palate. Then, late on the finish, fiery spice notes start to build up, adding complexity to the peat that is now reminiscent of the embers of a long neglected campfire.

It’s an interesting expression of Ardbeg, but it still pales in comparison to the Kildalton. This is one that I didn’t really need more than 50 ml of. For where it was priced, non chill-filtered and at least 46% abv would have been more appropriate, as well as some detailed technical information about its composition. Hopefully they are letting more of this lightly peated spirit age much longer. Let’s see how the 10 year compares:

The nose is surprising less expressive than the Blasda. The peat is there though (maybe with a pine-like quality). The aromas seem dense and compacted, like they’re waiting to open up and attack. It is medium bodied, with seemingly little to show right up front aside from a touch of sweetness. But the smoky intensity starts to build quickly. I wouldn’t call it oily, but there is a resinous, slightly bitter edge to the phenolic character. The peatiness expands as each layer builds on top of the last. Smoke and char, dry grass and wet leaves added to the fire. Its complexity is all very peat driven. The finish is long and evolving.

The character of Ardbeg may have changed since the 1970’s distillate (perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to sample it some day), but the modern incarnation is quite impressive in its own right. Where the lack of background flavors in the Blasda seemed to let the peat character stand out, with the 10 year it’s more like the peat has enough intensity to easily overshadow the other flavors that are certainly there.

Well, so much for writing more concise blog posts. At least I managed to put up four of them in a calendar month for the first time in a long time.