Friday, November 30, 2012

Glengoyne 17 Year vs. 21 Year

Glengoyne 17yr, single malt scotch, Highlands, 43%, $58
Glengoyne 21yr, single malt scotch, Highlands, 43%, $125

In my Springbank 10yr vs. 15yr and my Bunnahabhain 12yr vs. 18yr posts I focused on examining the efforts that distillers make to create more difference in flavor between whiskies in their core ranges with different age statements. As I mentioned previously, I’ve experienced scotches which taste very similar even when one has been aged 50% (or more) longer than its sibling.

In the example of the two Springbanks, as well as that of the two Bunnahabhains, I’d say the difference was moderate. While being enough to set the two expressions apart in each case, it wasn’t so much that they seemed like entirely different whiskies.

Glengoyne is a good example of a single malt where this differentiation between the various ages is taken quite a bit further. I had tasted the 17 year for the first time a few months before going to Scotland, and I liked it enough that I was pretty excited to visit this distillery that I actually knew very little about. The distillery tour started with a short video and a healthy dose of the 10 year. Much to my surprise it was significantly different than the 17 – a lot lighter in color and considerably more fruit forward, especially bright tree fruits like apple and pear.

I think (I was pretty sleep deprived at the time) the tour guide said that all of the Glengoynes had “some” sherry cask whisky in them. I asked what the percentage of sherry cask whisky in the 10 year was, but couldn’t get a straight answer. I suspect that it has very little, if any content that has seen time in sherried oak. It’s obvious from the taste and color that the 17 year that there’s a much higher proportion of sherry aged malt in it. If I had to make an educated guess, I’d say 60%.

Thankfully, the distillery shop at Glengoyne had a good selection of miniatures, so I was able to bring back a 17yr and a 21yr in addition to the 700 ml Teapot Dram bottling I came away with.

I noticed that the label on the 21 year has “sherry matured” printed on it, which is absent from the labels of the younger bottlings. I’m taking that to mean it is 100% sherry matured. Just looking at the color difference between the two, I’m expecting a big difference in flavor as well.

color - medium golden (between dark chardonnay and light amber)
nose – gentle fruit with subtle floral notes
palate – the signature apple and pear notes are still obvious, but instead of being dominant like in the 10yr, they mingle with more dry oak notes and mild dark fruit
finish – dry spice notes are joined by floral / grassy flavors
It’s been a while since I tasted the 10yr, but I think it may have had some of the same floral qualities. The 17yr really brings this whisky a long way from the 10yr. There is a substantial difference between the two, and the 17yr is much more to my liking.

color - medium amber brown
nose – fruit with dry oak notes
palate – spice box up front, then a wave of bright tree fruit that quickly gives way to darker baked fruits, there’s still a hint of the floral aspect, but it becomes a quiet background note in this expression.
finish – dry oak spice finish which turns slightly nutty at the very end
nicely balanced, great complexity (cedar, cinnamon and unsweetened cocoa all pop up along the way) right through the long finish.

The 17yr is very nice, but the 21yr has been refined into something quite special. The difference between the 21yr and the 17yr is not quite as dramatic as the difference between the 17yr and the 10yr, but their dissimilarity is still very significant, especially when you consider that the time spent in cask has increased by less than 25%.

Of course the jump from the 10yr to the 21yr is striking enough that in a blind tasting many people might not even recognize them as being from the same distillery. I appreciate the variety, and find it interesting to see what sort of magic can happen in the warehouse. But there is the downside that someone could try the younger expression, not like it, and pass up its elders which they could potentially have really liked.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Nostradamus effect

When I was a much younger man, I was in awe of the apparent clairvoyant abilities of Nostradamus. As I grew older and wiser (and significantly more cynical), I came to realize that he was likely nothing more than a charlatan. As far as I know, none of his prophetic writings have ever predicted anything correctly in advance. They are merely retroactive prognostications – cryptic writings which have been interpreted to have predicted events only after said events have transpired.

You may be wondering why I’m blathering about a 16th century figure whose story is better left to the History Channel – well, I’m about to go out on a limb and make a bold prediction. Of course my forecast is related to whisky, a subject of which I have some knowledge. And I’m only going to prophesize a year into the future at most – I have no intentions of telling you what people will be drinking in the 25th century.

A little less than a year ago I wrote a blog post comparing Johnnie Walker Black to the new Double Black. A quick look at the stats reveals that this is far and away the most viewed post on the blog - obviously the subject is of great interest. In recent months my father has been lamenting about his inability to locate the Double Black in the greater Boston area. My arrogance got the best of me as I proclaimed that I’d have some for him in no time. A little online research showed not a single bottle in New Hampshire and a stock status of “Unavail (Do not order)” in Vermont.

I think it’s safe to say that Johnnie Walker is having supply issues with their new Double Black. You may remember my post about Bulleit Bourbon from early October, where I analyzed how the brand dealt with a shortage of product around 2008. Since both brands are owned by Diageo, I think we may see some similar actions in response to the current issues.

The Double Black carries no age statement, so it would be easy for them to reformulate the blend with some younger whiskies. I think this is likely to happen, but only to a minimal extent. Considering the great reviews it has received along with the marketing being heavily focused on its flavor profile, they would be playing with fire if they were to alter the way it tastes too drastically.

As for simply adding water to dilute the whisky and stretch existing stocks (like Bulleit did in select markets), the Double Black was already at 40% abv. Since that is the minimum legal strength for Scotch whisky, lowering it further is not an option.

Limiting availability (at least on a continual basis) doesn’t seem to be the way of the scotch industry in general or Diageo in particular, so I don’t think that will be a part of any long term strategy once we get past the current shortage.

That leaves just one last option – a price increase, and I fear it will be a fairly drastic one. Also, when you consider my original opinion of the price versus quality of Double Black and regular Black label, I think the new whisky had the potential to really decimate sales of Walker Black. The easiest way to keep that from happening and not have one expression steal sales from another expression is to vastly widen the price gap between them. Last year you would pay a 10% - 20% premium for Double Black over Black. Whisky prices have been rising rapidly lately, so I’m probably not making too bold of a prediction here, but I really think that by the end of 2013 it will be impossible to find Double Black for less than 50% more than the price of Walker Black.

Interestingly, I wrote most of this post last night and went on a little whisky hunting mission south of Boston before proof-reading and posting – and sure enough, at the third store I stopped by there was the elusive Double Black, at $60 a bottle! I suppose this store could have stumbled across some forgotten inventory and engaged in a bit of price gouging, knowing that no one else in the area has what they have. But I really think that this price is the new normal and will become widespread over the next 6 to 12 months. Time will tell.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bunnahabhain 12 Year vs. 18 Year

Bunnahabhain 12yr, single malt scotch, Islay, 46.3%, $40
Bunnahabhain 18yr, single malt scotch, Islay, 46.3%, $80

When I went on the tasting tour of the Bunnahabhain (pronounced boona-ha-ven) distillery back in April I sampled both the 12 year and the 18 year. They seemed quite similar but I had them one after the other rather than side by side, which makes it harder to compare. At the time, I also tasted a new-oak aged Bunnahabhain and a heavily peated expression. Each of those was different enough to make the 12 and the 18 seem identical by comparison.

In light of the Springbank 10yr / 15yr comparison I did last week, it makes sense to revisit the Bunnahabhain 12yr and 18yr and see how they measure up to each other. On a side note, I was perusing the Springbank website a few days ago, and noticed that they actually give some composition information for the various expressions. The 10yr is 60% bourbon / 40% sherry matured and the 15yr is aged 100% in sherry casks (they are a little vague with the 18yr listing it simply as bourbon/sherry, and strangely more specific with the 12yr cask strength’s description of 60% fresh sherry hogsheads / 40% refill sherry butts).

Before the tasting, a little Bunnahabhain history is in order. The distillery was established in 1881, and in 1887 a merger led to Bunnahabhain being owned by the newly formed Highland Distilleries Company Limited. In 1999, the Edrington group took over Highland Distillers and Bunnahabhain entered a period of relative neglect, with the company paying much more attention to the higher profile distilleries in its portfolio. In 2003, Edrington sold the distillery to Burn Stewart, owners of Tobermory and Deanston, and a much needed revival began.

For much of its history, the only regularly available official distillery bottling was the 12 year old, and occasional special releases would be put out on a limited edition basis. In 2005 the standard line was extended to include the 18 year and a 25 year. In 2010, all three expressions were raised from 43% abv to 46.3% and all chill filtration was eliminated.

a dark brownish red in color
malt and baked goods on the nose
a little dark fruit on the palate (dried fig, baked apple pie) adds depth to the core of sweet malt, butterscotch and ginger snap cookies
finishes long, with warming dry spice notes (cinnamon) balanced by some lingering malty sweetness

very close in color to the 12yr, maybe just a hint darker.
similar nose, but much less malty richness
on the palate, the malty sweetness is quite toned down, with the butterscotch edged out by toasty oak notes
the finish is equally long, but noticeably drier, with gentle spice notes lingering on for some time

The 12yr possesses a beguiling juxtaposition of flavors, while the 18yr comes across as being more subtle and refined. The difference between these two is more significant than I had originally thought, probably close to the degree of difference I saw between the 10yr and 15yr Springbank last week. I’m actually quite enchanted by each of them, but for an everyday drinker, the 12 year is much more attractively priced. Looks like I may have to hunt down a sample of the 25yr Bunnahabhain after all.

It’s interesting to note that I did taste the 12 year Bunnahabhain that was at 43% abv several years ago, and it was much lighter (body and flavor), and less malty but more floral on the palate, if I recall correctly. I was a little suspect of that bottle as I knew it had been opened and partially consumed for several years, but I now have a feeling that chill filtering had stripped out much of its character. 

The 8yr Bunnahabhain from Gordon & Macphail that I wrote about back in March is much more dramatically different compared to the current 12 year than the 12 and 18 are compared to each other. None of the three is chill filtered, so I guess the dissimilarity comes down to age, proof and cask selection.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Springbank, 10 Year vs. 15 Year

Springbank 10yr, single malt scotch, Campbeltown, 46%, $69
Springbank 15yr, single malt scotch, Campbeltown, 46%, $104

I think I expounded on the inner workings of the Springbank distillery during my time there (starting here) to the point of leaving nothing to discuss for this post. But fear not, another burning topic will lend itself to this tasting quite well.

Over the years of comparing various whiskies, I’ve noticed that many times different age variants of the same whisky can have very little difference in their flavor profiles. I think this first came to my attention five years ago, with 12yr Chivas Regal and their 18yr old. Slightly less smoke and slightly more oak was all that really stood out to me. All of that for a fairly significant jump in price (not to mention that I kind of preferred the 12yr). Around the same time I compared 10yr and 18yr Glenmorangie, and found them very similar.

But I’ve recently seen this trend reversing, and current releases of 18yr Glenmorangie taste quite distinctive compared to the 10yr. I suspect that many consumers grew wise to the fact that a considerable increase in age, along with a much bigger price tag, often didn’t correspond to very much of a difference on the palate. And I’m guessing that many distillers, eager to drive sales of their more expensive offerings, realized that they had to take extra steps to make their older bottlings taste more unique.

Bottling the different ages at different proofs is one quick and easy way to achieve this. Chill filtering the entry level offering and going unfiltered on the older examples would also do the trick. For distillers that use a combination of bourbon and sherry casks, varying the percentages in the mix seems like it is becoming more common, usually with the amount of sherry cask whisky in the vatting increasing as you progress through the age range. Some prime examples of the last technique would be Tobermory 10yr and 15yr, Glengoyne 10yr and 17yr, and An Cnoc 12yr and 16yr (in this case the younger of the two sees more sherry wood). Another method is to simply utilize cask management / selection. The distillery manager will pick casks with a certain flavor profile for the flagship age, and hold back casks that taste different / better for further maturation.

So, how do the two Springbanks compare?

light golden amber in color.
fruit and mild peat on the nose.
amazingly full flavored, with plenty of fruit (apple and orange), followed by a hint of vanilla and brine. as the fruit fades, dry oak spice and gentle, but firm peat smoke take up the slack. wonderful complexity and a long, enduring finish. a true classic.

very close to the 10yr in color, just a touch darker.
the nose is more restrained, with dry oak spice notes leading the way.
there’s plenty of flavor here as well, but the fruit is less bright, more along the lines of dark and baked fruits (apple pie, etc). the oak spice is drier and warmer (cinnamon spice). the brine and peat smoke are still present, but toned town quite a bit. the finish is also lengthy, but much drier.

I think the folks at Springbank have done a nice job of making some differentiation between these two expressions without taking it too far. They aren’t radically different from each other, but still distinctive enough so that consumers wouldn’t feel like they wasted their money on the 15 year. I have to admit that, even though I’d be happy to drink either one, I do like the 10 year a little more. I would put that down to personal preference though.

 I’m guessing that there is slightly more sherry aged whisky in the 15, and possibly some cask selection leaning toward a drier profile. Unfortunately, one thing I missed at whisky school was the process for selecting the group of casks that would be vatted together before bottling. Given the opportunity, I’d be sure to explore this topic further.