Monday, December 31, 2012

The Glenrothes, 1985 vs. 1998

Glenrothes, 1998 vintage (bottled 2010), single malt scotch, Speyside, 43%, $60
Glenrothes, 1985 vintage (bottled 2005), single malt scotch, Speyside ,43%, $120
prices listed for 750ml bottles, 100ml bottles pictured.

The grape is a fickle fruit, and as hard as vintners work to cope with the challenges of difficult weather the quality of the harvest can vary wildly from year to year. Having the vintage of a wine identified on the bottle is essential for the informed consumer.

The barleycorn is far more hardy, and the quality of the harvest varies little from season to season, regardless of the vagaries of the weather. While vintage dated single malts are uncommon, they are far from unheard of. So, when it comes to whisky, does vintage dating serve a purpose or is it just a marketing tactic? And most importantly, can the extra information on the label ever be useful to the end consumer?

As The Glenrothes uses vintage dating more extensively than any other producer of single malt scotch, this comparison/review is an ideal opportunity to explore the topic.

Most distillers reserve the use of vintage dating for special editions and limited release bottlings. One such example is the small batch series from Glen Garioch. On occasion, the practice will make its way into a producer’s standard lineup. 10 year Longrow had a run of declared vintages from 1992-1996, but the practice seems to have been given up in more recent bottlings. 18 year Macallan has carried a vintage date for more than two decades, in opposition to their10 yr, 12 yr, 25 yr and 30 yr offerings. Vintage dating is the rule rather than the exception at The Glenrothes. Instead of a standard lineup of set age statements, they rotate through a series of bottlings produced in different years. New vintages are released as others sell out, and there appear to be seven choices currently available. While the bottles don’t expressly carry an age statement, it can be easily determined as they show a date of bottling in addition to the distillation date.

With very little (if any) variance in the quality of the barley crop from season to season, combined with the fact that most distillers use grain sourced from across the UK (with many importing additional barley from mainland Europe), it would seem that vintage dating is just a marketing tool used to make consumers seek out multiple bottlings of the same single malt from a variety of production years. I feel that this is likely the case more often than not, but knowing what era the liquid in the bottle hails from can be quite useful none the less.

I’m slowly becoming fascinated with the effects that changes in the production methods employed by distillers can have on the final product. As time marches on, the process continually evolves at most distilleries, for better of for worse. The following are examples of major distillery changes that vintage dates would be helpful in identifying.

Springbank takes great pride in being the only Single Malt Scotch made with 100% of its barley malted in-house. However, this was not the case from 1960 until 1992, when the old floor maltings were restored. You never really hear anything bad about this era, and Springbanks from the 1960’s are highly revered, but that likely due to the abundance of high-quality sherry casks available at the time.

Historically, most Scottish pot stills were direct fired by coal (and rarely by peat), but in the 1960’s most of the industry converted to indirect heat, via steam coils inside the stills. A handful of distillers continue to use direct fire, but with more modern fuel oil burners. Glendronach was the last coal fired holdout, until they converted their stills to steam heat in 2005. The youngest Glendronach with an age statement is their 12 year, so in 2017 it will start to become harder to tell if a bottle from that distillery was produced in the era of direct coal heat or indirect steam heat.

For many years The Macallan was made entirely from Golden Promise barley. But as whisky production rose and farmers switched to more modern, higher yielding varieties, that became something that was no longer possible to do. In most of the years since 1994, The Macallan has been produced with between 20% and 30 % Golden Promise.

Many critics claim that Bowmore had a decade-long run of sub-par whisky. While no one knows what the distillery was doing differently, (and they deny that a difference even exists), vintage dates would help the savvy consumer to avoid Bowmore from the 1980’s.

Glen Garioch is known to have had peating levels that varied quite a bit over the last 4 dacades. This is a single malt that was traditionally lightly to moderately peated. But then a new maltster, who had been trained on Islay, joined the team in 1973 and the amount of peat smoke going through the malt increased dramatically during most of the mid 1970’s. The levels gradually eased back, until 1997 when the old floor maltings were decommissioned and the distillery began purchasing unpeated malt.

Vintage dated single malts may be rare, but it seems to be common for most brands to update their label design and/or bottle shape every ten years or so. This does make it possible to at least determine what era and older bottle has come from, in the absence of a vintage dated label.

With all that being said, I’d love to tell you that I uncovered some paradigm shift in the production methods of The Glenrothes that occurred between 1985 and 1998. Unfortunately this is not the case, but even if it was, it wouldn’t be relevant as The Glenrothes aims to put out a unique flavor profile with each vintage release. I am still pretty excited to compare these two whiskies.

nose – big, fruit (especially banana), cereal, hay that comes across in a perfumed manner
palate – light fruit and grain flavors start nicely before being joined by a blast of vanilla, but they all fade as perfumed grassy notes come to the fore and the whisky goes slightly out of balance.
finish – pleasantly warm and long but could use a little more intensity of flavor toward the end.

nose – berry fruit, candy corn, more masculine / spicy perfume notes.
palate – berry compote, slightly tannic oak, becomes less fruity and more floral as it transitions into the finish.
finish – alternating waves of heat and cinnamon spice, with the perfumed notes as a background element that gains a little momentum in the latter stages of the finish. 

The 1985 is better balanced and has more continuity overall. It is certainly more to my liking than the 1998, but I think this is another example of a whisky whose house style simply doesn’t suit my personal preference.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Hill Farmstead, Damon vs. Grassroots, Viola Sofia

Viola Sofia: barrel aged Imperial Stout, 10.8% abv, Denmark, $8-$10 (330ml)
Damon: bourbon barrel aged Imperial Stout, 10% abv, Vermont, $15-$17 (500ml)

My little stash of oak aged beers is down to just two; their origins may straddle the Atlantic, but they share a common thread. The two beers are Damon from Hill Farmstead and Viola Sofia from Grassroots Brewing. To understand the connection will take a brief history lesson.

Over the last two and a half years Shaun Hill has emerged from the rural Northeast Kingdom of Vermont as a preeminent craft brewer in the United States. But his rise to glory was preceded by a long personal journey of introspection, philosophy, and international exploration.

A high school science project would provide his first brewing experience and he went on to start a home-brewing club while attending college in Boston and studying as a philosophy major. After moving back to Vermont for a teaching job, he picked up part time work as a keg washer at the (now defunct) Shed brewpub in Stowe. This eventually led to Shaun taking the head brewer position at the Shed, where he was given a good bit of creative freedom and started to make a name for himself. He held that position for two years before going to Trout River Brewing, where a gained more production experience for the next year.

Inspired to eventually start his own brewery during his last year of college, Shaun began to develop a plan to turn his vision into reality on the old family farmstead in Greensboro VT. His original idea was to lease a small facility in a nearby town and operate Grassroots Brewing there. Once that operation was profitable enough, he would rebuild a barn that burnt down on the family property in 1978 and use that space to setup Hill Farmstead Brewery, either with the equipment from Grassroots, or possibly keeping the Grassroots facility in operation, and running the two brands simultaneously.

But 2008/2009 brought about some significant changes in his plan. The reputation he built and the connections he made during his time at The Shed and Trout River led to an opportunity for Shaun to go to Denmark and be the guest head Brewer at Norrebro, a microbrewery and restaurant in Copenhagen. During his 20 month stint there, from March 2008 through November 2009, Shaun expanded his sphere of contacts and friends within the industry, as well as his reputation. He also set up the oak aging program at Norrebro, and three of the beers that resulted from that effort ended up winning medals (2 gold, 1 silver) in the 2010 World Beer Cup in Chicago.

While in Europe, Shaun’s future plans went through a metamorphosis. He had established an industry network with enough depth that he was able to raise the capital necessary to start a brewery on the land that had been in his family since the late 1700’s, with the intermediate step of setting up the Grassroots Brewery no longer being necessary.

And then came another opportunity, Fano Bryghus. The Fano Brewery, located on the opposite side of Denmark from Coppenhagen, was established in 2006 but operated for only 2 years before going bankrupt. After lying dormant for 6 months, the facility was purchased by Norrebro, and Shaun found himself splitting his duties between the two breweries. It was here that the Grassroots brand took on a new life, as Shaun began brewing his own beers under that label in the Fano Brewery. It would become Shaun’s European brand, brewed under contract (by him at first, and for him after he returned to the US) at Fano.

On to the beers. Viola Sofia is an Imperial Stout that was aged for 3 months on top of cocoa nibs in Jack Daniel’s barrels. It was brewed to celebrate the birth of a close friend’s daughter, whom the beer is named after. Damon is an Imperial Stout brewed in honor of his family’s Black Lab (1993 – 2004). I’m sampling the 2011 release which was aged in Blanton’s Bourbon barrels for 8 months. Future releases of Damon will spend time in a variety of barrels (wine, port, multiple bourbon brands, etc) which will be bottled separately.

Viola Sofia
visually, both beers are black and essentially opaque.
nose: wood and chocolate, but somewhat restrained, especially compared to Damon.
palate: thick in the mouth with plenty of body. the roasted malty sweetness up front is quickly reigned in by a balancing bitter component (I’m assuming from both hops and the cocoa nibs). a wave of chocolate flavors builds to a crescendo on the mid-palate, only to be cast aside by the bitterness which eventually dominates and then gently fades through the incredibly long finish.
overall: great depth with an entertaining evolution of flavors.

nose: dense and thick, dark and sweet
palate: viscous, syrup-like body. while there is a decent amount of complexity, the sweetness is an overriding theme. richly toasted malt, vanilla and dark chocolate sauce are interlaced with subtle oak notes, and these flavors dominate until a mild wave of bitterness comes to the fore late on the finish.
overall: well made, but a little more sweetness than I prefer. this is a pretty big contrast to the Viola Sofia, which brings more depth and balance to the table with its edgy bitterness.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Harviestoun, Old Engine Oil vs. Ola Dubh 12 and Ola Dubh 16

Old Engine Oil, Porter, 6% abv, Scotland, $4 (11.2 oz)
Ola Dubh 12, Highland Park cask aged Porter, 8% abv, Scotland, $7 (11.2 oz)
Ola Dubh 16, Highland Park cask aged Porter, 8% abv, Scotland, $9 (11.2 oz)

The next group of oak aged beers lurking in my fridge comes from across the Atlantic - Alva, Scotland to be exact. Ola Dubh (pronounced oh-la dew) starts off as a higher alcohol version (8% abv instead of 6% abv) of a beer called Old Engine Oil from the Harviestoun brewery. As for the type of beer, the bottle I have is labeled as a Black Ale, I’ve seen bottles pictured online that say Dark Beer, but the official website (as well as what seems to be the current label) has it listed as a Porter.

The Ola Dubh version is then transformed by spending 6 to 8 months aging in former Highland Park single malt scotch casks. While many oak aged beers aren’t too specific about the former contents of the cask (bourbon, rum, pinot noir, etc), quite a few do specify a particular distillery or winery (Jack Daniel’s, Sokol Blosser, etc), but Harviestoun takes things a step further, producing several different expressions of Ola Dubh, each of which has been aged in Highland Park casks that were used for a different age variant of the single malt. The current lineup consists of Ola Dubh aged in casks that formerly held 12 yr, 16 yr, 18 yr, 30 yr and 40 yr Highland Park.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the age numbers; the standard Highland Park range has a 12 yr, 15 yr, 18 yr, 25 yr, 30 yr and a 40 yr, but no 16 yr. A little digging through their website revealed that the 16 yr was a Duty Free exclusive offering, which was in production from 2005 through 2010. Harviestoun must have secured quite a few of these casks.

The next question I began to ponder was whether these were bourbon barrels or sherry casks, prior to having been filled with single malt. A good bit of research uncovered an interesting fact, and a common misconception. I learned that Highland Park is aged exclusively in sherry casks, but those sherry casks come from both Spanish oak and American oak. Many assume that the use of American oak implies bourbon barrels, not so in this case.

A little more digging revealed that the 12 yr and 18 yr are aged primarily in Spanish oak, with the 15 yr is aged mainly in American oak. I didn’t come across any information about the type of wood used for the 16 yr or any of the other expressions for that matter.

Visually, all three are essentially black, but the Engine Oil does appear to let through a little more light than the other two.

The nose of the Old Engine Oil is more delicate than expected, with just a little roasted malt and chocolate coming through. Comparing the nose to that of the two Ola Dubh’s, I think there is some subtle difference in each of them, but the aromas are just too light for the differences to be obvious.

Engine Oil
Medium bodied (I expected it to be much more viscous, in fact; I had it on draught last year and remember it being somewhat heavier). On the palate roasted malt, toast, coffee and bitter chocolate all play together fairly well. Slightly floral hop flavors evolve into hop bitterness on the moderately long finish, adding depth and balance.

Ola Dubh 12
There’s a noticeable increase in body, I’d classify it as medium to heavy. The first thing that jumps out at me on the palate is the peat smoke. Sure, it doesn’t slap you in the face like a dram of Laphroaig, but it certainly is there. The flavors are actually pretty similar to those of the Old Engine Oil, but joined by peat smoke coming across as Lapsang Souchong tea. Compared to the OEO, the flavors here seem to be more well-integrated.

Ola Dubh 16
I actually went into this tasting half expecting there to be no discernable difference between this beer and the Ola Dubh 12. After all, as I’ve discussed in recent posts, the difference in flavor between various age expressions of a single malt can be minimal – and these beers are aged in casks that simply used to hold Highland Park for varying lengths of time. But my skepticism was unfounded. The peat smoke is there, but toned down relative to the 12yr. Also, the chocolate flavors come across as more sweet than bitter relative to the younger cask variant. It would be interesting to know if the casks used for the 16 yr are primarily American oak.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Founders, Breakfast Stout vs. Kentucky Breakfast Stout

BS: Imperial Stout, 60 IBU’s, 8.3% abv, Grand Rapids, Michigan, $4 (12 oz)
KBS: bourbon barrel aged Imperial Stout, 70 IBU’s, 11.2% abv, Grand Rapids, Michigan, $6 - $8 (12 oz)

As winter gently sets in, every opening of the fridge reminds me that I have a small stockpile of beer for which the weather is becoming most appropriate. They are all dark and heavy, and most of them have been aged in whisk(e)y casks. A few of their non-oak-aged counterparts are in the mix, which will make for good comparisons.

The phenomenon of oak aging beer primarily started in the American craft brewing scene with the use bourbon barrels in the early to mid 90’s. After a slow start followed by a decade or so of steady growth, the popularity (and production) of barrel aged beers has really taken off in recent years. And while beer can be found slumbering in casks that formerly held almost anything, from wine to rum to calvados to Grand Marnier, the majority of aging is still done in whisk(e)y casks.

Of course there is more to it than simply putting any beer in a random cask – I’ve definitely tasted a few barrel aged beers that fell short of the mark. Beer style, former cask contents, number of times the cask has been used, and how long the beer will be aged are all important factors. There is definitely an art to the process.

I’m going to start off with one of the early success stories of bourbon barrel aged beer – Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout. I also have the non-aged Founders Breakfast Stout to taste, but it appears that these are two different beers - the KBS is not simply Breakfast Stout which has been barrel aged.

The Breakfast Stout is described as a “double chocolate coffee oatmeal stout”. The KBS may have changed recently, as the current website description is “an imperial stout brewed with a massive amount of coffee and chocolates, then cave-aged in oak bourbon barrels for an entire year”, but a previous description found online calls it a “strong stout brewed with a hint of coffee and vanilla then aged in oak bourbon barrels”

appearance: black and thick
nose: full, pungent and sweet at the same time, chocolate milk and gentle espresso.
palate: the mouth-feel is rich and thick, but not cumbersome. good complexity with nicely evolving flavors. the coffee is obvious but not overdone and well balanced by the dense malty flavors. interesting interplay of bitterness from the hops, coffee and chocolate. the enduring finish fades off very slowly.

appearance: blacker and more viscous looking when pouring
nose: intriguing, chocolate and vanilla, but it has a unique quality that I can’t quite put my finger on.
palate: extremely dense and rich, the Breakfast Stout almost seems watery in comparison. the flavors explode in a massive blast and continue on in a sustained attack. syrupy chocolate, vanilla, oak, gentle spice. the flavors evolve and mingle playfully through the long, smooth finish.
As I’ve been writing and drinking slowly the beer has warmed up, and it seems more comfortable closer to room temp than fridge temp.

Each of these is actually a great beer in its own right. It feels like an “apples to oranges” comparison - the KBS does things that the BS is simply not capable of, but that doesn’t really take anything away from the greatness of the Breakfast Stout. With the BS you get the roasty, toasty nature as its dominant feature, whereas the KBS is defined by a thick sweetness that is only kept in check by a chorus of elements that are able to act as a counterbalance.