Friday, December 30, 2011

Johnnie Walker, Black Label vs. Double Black

stats: Johnnie Walker Black Label, Blended Scotch, 12 year, 80 proof, $36
          Johnnie Walker Double Black, Blended Scotch, no age statement, 80 proof, $42

The world of blended scotch whisky is all about consistency. Even when faced with supply interruptions of key component whiskies, among other challenges, the blender is tasked with composing a product that tastes very consistent from bottle to bottle. Yet, in spite of this fact, the flavor profile of a blend is occasionally changed on purpose. This is typically done to cater to evolving consumer demands – in simple terms, make the whisky taste more like what is currently popular. This can be a dangerous game - you want to put out a product that appeals to a new, younger generation of customers, but at the same time not change it so quickly or drastically as to alienate your core consumers.

I’ve been told that at some point in the mid 1990’s Johnnie Walker Black Label saw a fairly dramatic change, rapidly becoming significantly less smokey. I’m guessing that may have turned away some long time devotes. With heavily peated whiskies growing in popularity in recent years, the time was nigh for Black to change again. But, it appears that a lesson was learned, and rather than changing what many know and love, they chose to introduce a new, smokier version alongside the original. Once you get past the marketing double speak and stop trying to figure out what the "double" in the name refers to, it appears that some of the whisky in the new blend is also aged in barrels that are more heavily charred than normal.

Let’s see how the two compare.

Color - light to medium amber
Nose  - slightly floral, light on its feet
Palate - not too heavy, the floral notes quickly come to the fore, with the other balancing elements dancing in the background
Finish - it picks up some steam early in the finish, gaining a bit of depth. But later in the finish the floral notes begin to dominate again, pulling it out of balance a bit.
Overall - a respectable blend, but I’m not a big fan of whiskies with a strong floral influence (personal preference). Given the choice, I would drink Chivas 12yr or maybe even Famous Grouse first.

Double Black
Color - almost the same as the Black, maybe just a touch darker
Nose - a little more dense, doesn’t reveal itself as easily as the black
Palate - The floral notes are still there, but kept in check by a more substantially malty base and a smokey, peat element that is absent in the Black
Finish - this one proceeds through the finish with much more continuity, and is smoother late in the finish.
Overall - a much more cohesive whisky, very well integrated from start to finish. For the modest price increase, I would pick this over Walker Black every time.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Gordon & MacPhail, Glenturret 11yr

stats: single malt scotch, Central Highlands, 92 proof, $60

As I gaze across my collection of whisky bottles, queued up and waiting to blogged about, I notice that there are several from independent bottlers. In my early days as a whisky consumer I viewed independent bottlings with a suspicious eye, assuming that they came from inferior casks which the distilleries had unloaded on little companies that didn’t produce any whisky, to be sold at discounted prices. While my old assumption may hold true at times, it would very much be the exception rather than the rule.

By the simplest definition, an independent bottler is someone who buys casks of whisky from distilleries (and possibly ages it for some additional time), then bottles and sells it themselves. This is a phenomenon that is fairly, though not completely, unique to Scotland. In the United States, contract distilling is much more common – a situation where one has a whiskey company but no facilities, and hires a distillery to make their product from start to finish. In this case the client would specify the details of production throughout the process.

Modern independents represent a vast array of business models. Some of the largest firms have a connection to a distillery, with Gordon & MacPhail acquiring and resurrecting the defunct Benromach in 2002, and the owners of Springbank distillery purchasing Cadenhead in 1972. At the opposite end of the spectrum there are companies like James MacArthur and Deerstalker, which essentially operate as one-man-bands. Between these extremes there are many mid sized independents, such as Signatory, Hart Brothers, and Murray MacDavid. Some independent bottlers have their own warehouses and/or bottling lines, others may pay a fee to keep their casks in someone else’s warehouse and contract out the bottling process.

In spite of these differences, they all have a common origin. In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, malt whisky in Scotland was primarily sold by distillers in bulk (usually in barrels) to grocers and wine merchants, who sold it on to consumers. Around 1830, the column still was invented and grain whisky became a cheap alternative. By 1860, many of the whisky merchants began blending malt and grain whisky. Several of these brands grew in size and popularity, and live on to be a common sight on store shelves today. But some merchants stuck with malt whisky, and they are the ancestors of the modern independent bottlers. Currently, most malt whisky produced in Scotland (upwards of 90%) is sold in bulk to blenders. That was even more true 50 to 60 years ago, before the malt distilling companies began to tap into the unexploited market for single malts. For many decades, independent bottlers were the only source of single malt from most distilleries. That has changed over the years since WWII, but even today a few distilleries do not market an official single malt bottling.

So the independent bottlers are buying in bulk alongside the blenders, just at a much smaller volume. In times of low demand, they occasionally have the opportunity to buy excess stock from the blenders as well.

Aside from offering single malts from distilleries who do not market their own, what do independent bottlers do to differentiate themselves? Well, there are distilleries that offer an official bottling, but with minimal production levels and limited distribution. The independents add greatly to the availability of these more obscure brands.

They also frequently offer single cask bottlings. Distillers strive for consistency from bottle to bottle in their official releases, so they typically marry together several hundred barrels to come up with a vatting that is uniform in flavor from batch to batch. Independents don’t have to do that, and they will often seek out odd barrels – of fine quality, just deviating from the standard house flavor profile – and bottle them individually to produce a unique product. Distiller bottled single malts typically end up being bottled between 80 (the legal minimum) and 86 proof. Independently bottled single malts often end up at a higher proof, from 92 right up to undiluted cask strength. The independents also have the flexibility to bottle their whiskies with a greater variety of age statements than their distilling counterparts do. Additionally, since they offer their products to a niche market, they see smaller swings in demand levels, and are often able to bring older whiskies to market at much more attractive pricing levels than the distilleries can.

There are also two practices that are far less common in independent bottlings – artificial coloring and chill-filtering. It is legal to add caramel coloring to scotch, but the practice is frowned upon by critics. It is usually done to give consistent color from batch to batch, but can be detrimental to the flavor. When whisky gets cold (by adding ice, or any other way), it gets cloudy. The compounds that cause this haze can be stripped out by chilling and filtering the whisky – chill-filtering. Sadly, much flavor gets stripped out at the same time. The industry as a whole is slowly moving away from these practices due to media criticism and the demands of increasingly savvy consumers. Still, these practices are far less common amongst independent bottlers.

The independents have a few other tricks up their collective sleeve, but I’ll save the details on those for some reviews that will be following in the coming weeks.

And now on to the 11 year Glenturret from Gordon & MacPhail.

Dark amber to medium brown in color. A rich, malty nose, with very little in the way of sweetness or fruitiness. Dense and chewy. Like a liquid desert (in flavor, but not with sweetness), with notes of toffee, caramel and cocoa powder / unsweetened chocolate, possibly balanced by a hint of cinnamon. The finish is relatively long and dry. Quite unique, unlike any other single malt I’ve tasted. I’m curious to know how this compares to the official distillery bottling.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Whisky Hunter

I hope I’m stating the obvious when I say that I really enjoy drinking a good glass of whisky. But what is likely less apparent, is that I also enjoy the thrill of the chase just as much. The world of whisky retail sales is complex and dynamic – there are new products introduced with limited distribution, seasonal releases of rare items which are only available for a few weeks each year, certain brands which only make their way to a few select regions, and existing stock of items which are no longer produced can linger in hidden pockets of the market for some time, not to mention the obscure items that a less informed consumer might pass up for something equally good but more commonplace. Whether I’ve made a concerted effort to hunt one of these whiskies down, or just happened across one randomly in my travels, I find it quite satisfying to end up face to face with a bottle from my wish list, add it to my collection, and have the opportunity to sample something outstanding that wasn’t so easy to come by.

Living in a liquor control state (as well as being bordered by another) means that a typical trip to the local liquor purveyor is unlikely to result in a special purchase. Don’t get me wrong, these can still be fertile hunting grounds, but it takes time to figure out the inner workings of each state’s system, and then most of the leg work is done online. When I travel to states where the liquor business is in the domain of the free market, I’m always on the look out for a store with a serious whisky program. One good source for leads is the Specialty Retailer Guide found in the back of Whisky Advocate magazine.

It was here that I noticed a listing for Town Wine & Spirits in Rumsford, RI (claiming a collection of 300+ single malts). Being just an hour from my parents’ house, it seemed a little road trip was in order during my visit to the Boston area. Soon enough my father and I were exploring the wilds of East Providence and the hunt was on.

When I spotted the sign for the store, I was a bit surprised. We were in the heart of a mid-grade retail strip. Sure, it wasn’t a ghetto, but there was certainly nothing upscale about the area. And my surprise morphed into disappointment as I got a closer look at the exterior of the store, a modest cinder-block structure. No way were there 300 single malt scotches here, not in this neighborhood, not in that building.

But I’d come all this way, so I reminded myself not to judge a book by its cover, and headed in with lowered expectations. The store did look much more promising inside, but the limited square footage kept my hopes dampened. I glanced around and noticed some bourbon bottles against a far wall. As I made my way over to them I caught some familiar boxes and bottles in my peripheral vision. My head spun to the right, and I was overwhelmed by the sight of an alcove densely packed with scotch. Boy was I wrong about this place. As I took in the glorious scene, I made note of ample selections from Springbank and Glenfarclas (my litmus test for the legitimacy of a retailer’s whisky endeavor).

Standouts in their well rounded selection included Mackinlay’sHighland Malt Whisky, the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project, 40yr Glenfarclas, several types of Hudson Whisky, and 21yr Auchentoshan, just to name a few. 

After selecting a young scotch from a new distillery, an esoteric single malt from a low profile distiller, and a hard to find limited edition bourbon, we prepared to head home. My father was asking an employee for the fastest way back to the interstate, and when he mentioned the distance we had come in search of rare whiskies we were asked if we had met Elliot. Who’s that? The store owner and resident malt fanatic. After talking shop for a few minutes and discussing my purchases with Elliot, we were invited out back for an impromptu tasting. No need to ask twice, let’s go!

First up was a 15 year Highland Park from independent bottler Murray McDavid, which was aged primarily in bourbon barrels and finished in Chateau Lafite casks. Mind-blowing, no way I could walk out of the store without a bottle of that. Next up were the anCnoc 12yr and 16yr. They were notably different from each other as the elder was aged in bourbon barrels and the younger in sherry barrels, but both were quite enjoyable. Lastly we tried out the new Johnnie Walker Double Black – very impressive, and a vast improvement over the standard Walker Black. All in all, it turned out to be an exceptionally successful outing.