Monday, February 27, 2012

Silent Stills part 2: Gordon & MacPhail, Littlemill 18yr

stats: single malt scotch, Lowlands, 80 proof, $50

When I first became aware of the phenomenon of closed distilleries and their finite stocks of whisky which would eventually disappear forever, I viewed the situation with a sense of tragic loss. Something special, something unique and irreplaceable was being lost to the tumultuous up and downs of an unpredictable industry.

But over the years my outlook has grown to be much more philosophical. When stills go silent, their whiskies gain a certain mystique. Some of these malts would go unnoticed by most, with the bulk of their production ending up in blends, were it not for the attention drawn to them by the closure of their distilleries. This really adds to the intrigue and allure of Scotch whisky, in my opinion.

I now view these losses as an integral part of a cycle, and with endings come new beginnings. Mothballed stills have been relocated and repurposed in new endeavors or restoration projects. Long defunct distilleries have come back into operation, decades or more after closing, even if only in name. The expansion periods can even give birth to entirely new distilleries.

Littlemill was a Lowland distillery with many owners over its long history, possibly going back as far as the mid 1700’s. The Lowland tradition of triple distillation was practiced until the short closure of 1929 – 1931. Upon reopening under new ownership, the switch was made to double distillation. The operation was supposedly mothballed from 1984 – 1989, but the bottling I have claims to have been distilled in 1985, so there is a slight discrepancy there. Littlemill was modernized and reopened in 1989, but only made it to 1994 before closing again when its owners went bankrupt. The equipment was dismantled in 1997, and plans to restart production never came to fruition. The remaining buildings were lost to fire in 2004.

Straw in color, it is ever so slightly lighter than the Rosebank reviewed in the last post. The nose has a good amount of density, going a bit floral / piney. This is rather big on the palate, surprising considering its modest 80 proof. The flavor profile starts off fruity then it drifts into the realm of cat pee, but not to the point of being detrimental. It eventually turns to warming oak flavors. Good complexity, it evolves nicely from the start through the lengthy finish.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Silent Stills part 1: Gordon & MacPhail, Rosebank 12yr

stats: single malt scotch, Lowlands, 80 proof, $50

The Whisk(e)y industry is one of expansions and contractions, booms and busts. And with the long lead time between production and maturation, especially for Scotch whisky, forecasting future sales levels is a black art at best. With these two factors at work, it is no surprise that every once in a while a distillery will fall silent. During tough times some distilleries manage to get through by cutting production back to one or two days a week. Others cease operations entirely, sometimes just for a year or two, sometimes they are mothballed indefinitely, and occasionally they just close permanently.

When the stills go silent, whether it is an independent distillery that has gone out of business, or a single malt brand with weak sales which doesn’t fit into the portfolio of distilleries owned by a large conglomerate, there will usually be a significant quantity of aging spirit left in a warehouse – a valuable asset to be sold off over time. With the distillery closed, this product typically becomes the domain of blenders and independent bottlers. The independents will bottle it as single malt, and the legacy of a lost distillery can live on for several decades. Blenders will typically utilize the remnants of closed distilleries in one of two ways. Inferior barrels which aren’t up to snuff for bottling as single malt can be blended in with several hundred other barrels of whisky, cheap filler if you will (at least it doesn’t go to waste). The higher quality liquid can be used as a marketing tool to help top-shelf blends command greater prices. One example of this is the King George V version of Johnnie Walker Blue, which claims to contain some of the highly sought after Port Ellen malt, and fetches around $550 a bottle.

As the stocks of any brand dwindle over time, prices are certain to rise, but typically independent bottlings from closed distilleries fall into one of two camps: those that were highly regarded to begin with and whose loss was much bemoaned, and the lesser known brands that remain as more of a historical curiosity. The former will sell for top dollar, while the latter can represent tremendous values. Either way, selling a taste of liquid history is one of the independent bottlers’ greatest assets.

Many consider Rosebank to be the finest example of a Lowland malt, and it is one of the more sought after silent distilleries. But, probably due to the lack of interest in Lowland whiskies in general, there seems to be a good supply of Rosebank out there, and it can still be had for a reasonable price. Up until the distillery’s closure in 1993, Rosebank was produced in the Lowland tradition of triple distillation, a practice which has all but disappeared since.

Straw to very light amber in color, it is lightly fruity, with dry grass / grain on the mild nose. It’s kind of light and grassy on the palate, with a bit of malt to back it up. Not terribly complex, but it has some backbone and a respectable finish. This is fairly easy-drinking single malt, but still quite enjoyable.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Murray McDavid, 1995 Highland Park 15yr, Lafite cask

stats: single malt scotch, Islands, 92 proof, $90

Over the last century the scotch industry has slowly migrated from ex-sherry barrels to ex-bourbon barrels as the vessel of choice for aging its spirit. With bourbon barrels being far more plentiful and coming in at 1/10 the cost of sherry barrels, it stands to reason that they currently account for 90% of the containers used to age Scotch whisky.

While a handful of brands are exclusively sherry aged and quite a few are exclusively bourbon aged, many will marry the two together (normally with bourbon taking the higher percentage of the mix) to create their house style. There are, however, many other cask options available to the more adventurous distiller. At their disposal are barrels which formerly held a vast array of libations, such as port, various sweet dessert wines, rum, cognac and a variety of red and white wines, among others.

It is not unheard of to age whisky in one of these alternative barrels from start to finish, but the more common practice is to age in bourbon barrels primarily (say for 5 to 10 years or so), then transfer the spirit to the alternate barrels for a finishing period (typically for a few months to a few years). But the term “finish” seems to have gone out of favor for this process in recent times, with Bruichladdich using “additional cask enhancement”, or “ACE” and Glenmorangie preferring “extra matured”.

That leads us to another arrow in the quiver of the independent bottler – the option to explore an alternate cask finish on the spirit of a distillery that doesn’t normally partake in this practice. When wine barrels are employed, typically the grape varietal is specified, but for wines of a higher pedigree the appellation or even the producer may be given credit. I was lucky enough to recently stumble across just such an example.

Independent bottler Murray McDavid has taken Highland Park distilled in 1995 from its original bourbon barrels and at some point in the latter part of its 15 years of aging, transferred it to Chateau Lafite casks. For those not familiar with the red wines of France, Lafite is one of only five First Growth Chateau in Bordeaux. With their wine selling in the neighborhood of $1000 a bottle, I’m sure their used oak doesn’t come cheap.

I’m a big fan of the official bottling of Highland Park (at least the 12yr and 18yr that I’ve had), but the whisky has truly been transformed here.

It is a dark ruby-amber in color, with a hue more typical to bourbon.

The nose is big and bold, with a complex assortment of fruit, oak and peat elements. And that nose is only a prelude to what it has in store for the palate.

Great depth and length, with a labyrinth of intertwined flavors layered upon one another. It pushes the limits of sensory overload, and I feel I won’t do this one justice if I try to rattle of specific taste descriptors.

What really strikes me about this whisky is that it can keep such a level of intensity through the incredibly long, evolving finish.

This is clearly a heavyweight, but it refrains from going over the top and in spite of being so immense, it retains a certain gracefulness. I’ve tasted significantly more expensive whiskies that can only aspire to be what this one is – it’s well worth the price tag if you are lucky enough to come across one of the 1900 bottles from this limited release.