Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Kilchoman, Inaugural 100% Islay vs. Winter 2010 Release

stats: Inaugural 100% Islay, single malt scotch, Islay, 50%, £60 ($96)
         Winter 2010 Release, single malt scotch, Islay, 46%, £45 ($72)

Having been quite impressed by the Spring 2011 Release from Kilchoman, I was very excited to visit the distillery last spring and see Islay’s newest operation in person. The concept here is that of a “farm distillery”, where the barley is grown, malted, mashed, fermented, distilled, aged and bottled all on the same property.

Some distillers, such as Springbank, produce “local barley” bottlings where the barley is purchased from nearby farms. As far as I know, Kilchoman is the only one in Scotland that actually grows there own barley. But the small farm can only put out enough barley to supply 30% of the distillery’s needs. The rest of the barley is purchased (malted to order) from Port Ellen Maltings, on the southern end of Islay.

What they do grow themselves is malted in-house, on a traditional floor malting, with peating levels between 10 and 20 ppm phenols, and used exclusively for their 100% Islay bottlings. Only six other distilleries in Scotland currently malt their own barley, keeping alive a tradition that was the norm until the 1960’s. Kilchoman’s purchased malt is peated to 50 ppm phenols and is used for all of their other bottlings.

As I traveled from one distillery to the next during my two week stay in Scotland, each tour would be followed by a visit to the gift shop, and that was the moment of truth – what did they have for miniatures? When you visit 14 distilleries and have to fly home, well, you can only pick up so many full sized bottles. But why get a miniature of something I can easily get at home? The special 50ml bottles were what I was really after. At Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Oban, not a single mini was to be seen. Tobermory had their 10 year in miniatures, as did Bunnahabhain with their 12 yr. I would have greedily snapped up minis of their 15 yr and 25 yr, respectively.

Tourism has become an important aspect of the Scotch Whisky industry. Many distillers are realizing the need for quality visitor facilities and engaging tours. Hopefully more will recognize the relevance of miniatures, especially of high end and limited edition whiskies. In this regard, both Glengoyne and Kilchoman scored top marks.

Needless to say, I purchased all that Kilchoman had to offer. I’ll be tasting two today and two more very soon. The prices listed above are typical 70cl bottle prices, I find that better for comparison sake, and I don’t recall what I paid for the miniatures.

The Inaugural 100% Islay and the Winter 2010 Release were both aged for 3 year in first-fill bourbon barrels. The biggest difference between them is the peating levels outlined above, but there is also a small difference in abv, 50% and 46%, respectively.

Inaugural 100% Islay
Pale straw in color. Mostly peat coming through on the nose, but in a clean, light way. There are some slightly floral aromas that remind me of the new make spirit I nosed on a few distillery tours. The nose is pretty representative of the palate, with floral notes and moderate peat doing most of the work. I’ll be honest, it comes across pretty green and immature (it is only 3 years old after all). It definitely needs more time for flavor development and to become better integrated. Its pleasantly long finish may be the highlight for me. Still, it’s showing good potential, and it is interesting to see the roots of this whisky.

Winter 2010 Release
Also pale straw in color. At first glance the 100% Islay looks slightly lighter, but I think it is just the colors of the labels playing tricks on my eyes. Primarily peat on the nose again, but with a sharper, more aggressive manner. Some of the same “new make scent” is present here too although much more subtle. Certainly more peat intensity than the 100% Islay, and it comes off as being a little more well-tied-together. I think that added peat intensity helps to mask what it is lacking in flavors contributed by the casks. It goes a little off course on the mid palate with the floral notes coming to the fore, but this one also shines on the finish.

I don’t think these are inherently floral malts, like Tobermory and its peated cousin Ledaig. The young examples of Kilchoman just haven’t seen enough time in the cask for the floral attributes of the spirit to fade out. The Lagavulin new make spirit I tasted had similar qualities, which are undetectable in the 12 yr and 16 yr bottlings.

I’ve been holding on to the last bit of my Kilchoman 2011 Spring Release to compare to the others. A little extra time (30% 4yr, 70% 3 yr) and a partial Sherry finish (30% for 5 weeks) go a long way. I tend to dote over other reviewers’ numerical ratings, but I hate assigning them myself – for the sake of comparison I’ll go 80, 84, and 88 here; quite respectable considering the youth of the whisky at hand.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Johnnie Walker Green Label

stats: blended malt scotch, 15 year, 43%, $60

Last week I mentioned the fact that, as of 2009, the Scotch Whisky industry had done away with the terms “vatted malt” and “pure malt”, and replaced them with the newly coined term “blended malt”. This change was instituted by the Scotch Whisky Association, but agreement on the move was far from universal within the industry.

To explore the circumstances that led to this change in terminology, we have to look back on a controversy that happened 10 years ago.

As I’ve stated many times before, the whisky industry is one of bust and boom cycles. With the aging process putting a lag time of many years between distillation and a finished product that is ready for sale, setting production levels can be a task fraught with peril. Whisky companies have been caught out with supply shortages numerous times before, and in 2003 Diageo found itself in just such a situation, with a scarcity of single malt from its Cardhu distillery.

Keep in mind that when it comes to Scotch whisky, Diageo is the proverbial 800 lb gorilla in the room. With 28 malt distilleries and 2 grain distilleries in their portfolio, as well as ownership of Johnnie Walker and several other blended scotch brands, Diageo is responsible for roughly one third of the Scotch that is produced each year.

Between rapidly growing sales of Johnnie Walker Black (of which Cardhu is a major component) and an unforeseen rise in popularity of Cardhu single malt in the Spanish market, Diageo had a problem. Common solutions would have included raising prices and limiting distribution. Supplies can also be stretched by lowering the bottle proof, but Walker Black and Cardhu were already at 40% abv, the legal minimum for Scotch Whisky. Blends utilizing Cardhu could have been reformulated to lessen their dependence on it, or Cardhu’s 12 year age statement could have been lowered or dropped, but Diageo chose to get much more creative with their solution – they turned Cardhu into a pure malt. By that, I mean they added other single malts to the whisky. It did still contain Cardhu single malt, but that was now mixed with other Speyside single malts, drawn from Diageo owned distilleries which had produced surplus whisky. However, the name on the bottle remained the same, and in fact they kept the same distinctive bottle shape and left the label as similar to the original as possible, primarily just changing the word “single” to “pure”.

Surely this was the first time that a pure malt had prominently featured the name of one of its component distilleries on the label, thus masquerading as a single malt – and said controversy ensued.

The switch occurred in March of 2003, and by November of 2003 the situation had reached a boiling point. I’m sure there must have been some unhappy consumers, but most of the anger at this move came from within the industry. Diageo’s competition felt that the reputation of the industry in general and single malt scotch in particular was at stake.

In December of 2003 Diageo gave in to the pressure and agreed to update the Cardhu label, changing its color from red to green and making the words “pure malt” far more prominent. They also agreed to run promotional campaigns in regions where Cardhu had a strong presence to clear up any confusion about the product. Finally, in March of 2004, Cardhu pure malt was withdrawn from the marketplace. Some online sources have referenced plummeting sales after the conciliatory label change. Cardhu 12 year single malt was reintroduced in 2005.

Of course, the powers that be felt that a more permanent solution to this issue would be needed to keep history from repeating itself. That happened in 2009 when the SWA updated their rules, regulations and definitions for Scotch Whisky industry. It seems obvious to me that the answer would be to make a rule which did not allow the name of a single malt or malt distillery to be prominently featured on the label of a pure malt bottle. At the same time, one of the terms, either “pure malt” or “vatted malt”, should have been chosen (and officially defined) and the other dropped from use.

But that is not what happened, the SWA chose to remove both terms from the Scotch vernacular, and replace them the “blended malt”. I guess their thinking was that the word “blended” had a strong enough association with inferior quality products that any bottle bearing it could never be successfully passed off as a single malt.

Many in the industry protested this move. Blended Scotch and Blended Malt Scotch are hard to distinguish from one another. Not to mention that the whole “Cardhu incident” could happen all over again, this time with the words “single malt” replaced with “blended malt”.

But the SWA forged ahead and made the change anyway. In my opinion, with their misguided attempt to defend the name of single malts, the SWA has inadvertently sullied the name of pure malts, not to mention causing undue confusion among consumers.

So, where am I going with all of this? There’s an interesting footnote to this story. As the controversy raged in the fall of 2003, Diageo first attempted to defend the change they had made with Cardhu. They asserted that the implications of the move had been distorted and over-dramatized, and they also made claims that the new whisky was an innovation in an industry mired by tradition.

It was a nice attempt at media spin, but pure malts were nothing new, and Diageo had even introduced one in 1997 with Johnnie Walker Pure Malt. In late 2003, Diageo worked through the Cardhu debacle by negotiating with the SWA. I believe that was when it was determined that “blended malt” would eventually become the official (and only) term for the category. Shortly thereafter, in 2004, Walker Pure Malt was re-launched as Walker Green Label, and described as a “Blended Malt Scotch Whisky”. The phrase “the art of pure malt” was also put on the bottle, on a lower label.

Walker Green is composed of fifteen single malts, each of which has been aged for at least 15 years. None of the distillery names are shown on the bottle, but the names of the four key single malts (Caol Ila, Talisker, Cragganmore and Linkwood) do appear with equal prominence on the back of the box in which it is packaged.

In December of 2011, it was announced that Green Label would be dropped from the Johnnie Walker lineup, but that stocks were sufficient for it to remain available in the U.S. market through the summer of 2013. I have read reports that this change was prompted by falling worldwide sales volume for Walker Green, with a 30% drop from 2008 to 2009 and a 65% drop from 2010 to 2011.

Anyway, on to the tasting:

The nose is full, but with a certain softness to it. Complex malt and floral aromas mix with subtle peat notes. On the palate, the vibrancy of the island malts comes through up front, with the Caol Ila adding weight and the Talisker bringing its signature black pepper spiciness to the table. Dark berry fruit notes emerge on the mid palate, adding to the malty base. The floral complexities of the Cragganmore come to the fore as it moves through the finish, while the spice notes hang on throughout. The peat notes are far less prominent than I expected, primarily manifesting themselves as spice and evergreen.  I wish Linkwood was in the repertoire of single malts I have tasted so I could try to identify its contribution here. I’d also love to know the proportion of each of the single malts in the vatting. I like this whisky, but I think part of my appreciation for it comes from my familiarity with its component malts. I can see why I might have been indifferent toward it in my less well informed days.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Nikka, Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 yr

stats: Japanese pure malt whisky, 40%, $70

I’ve covered quite a few Japanese whiskies over the past 5 months and they have all been products of Suntory, the only company in Japan that was exporting whisky to the United States. Back in April of 2010, I ventured up to Montreal to check out a few whisky bars. As I scanned the list at my first destination, something jumped out at me – a Nikka Yoichi single malt (I can’t remember if it was a 10 year or a 12 year). Nikka whiskies weren’t available in the U.S., but apparently they were in Canada.

Obviously that was my first drink of the night. At this point, I only remember my general impression of it – it was pretty good, and showing plenty of promise, but at the same time it was kind of rough around the edges with a little too much heat overshadowing its positive attributes.

Almost 2 years later I learned that retail liquor sales in Quebec were controlled by the provincial government – essentially the same way that Vermont and New Hampshire (among others) are liquor control states, except the entire province was run as one big unit. I’m not really a fan of such systems as I feel that industries are better managed by private businesses rather than governments. But there is an upside in this case; inventory numbers are available online, by store and updated daily (New Hampshire does this as well). Search their web site for the alcoholic beverage of your choice and you can see which stores have it in stock, as well as how many bottles are at each location.

My excitement about this new resource was slightly dampened as I looked over the pricing of what was available; it was pretty much all more expensive that the domestic price levels I was used to. Strangely though, there didn’t seem to be a direct correlation between the prices here and the prices there. Some whiskies were just a little more expensive (5% to 10%), while others literally cost twice as much. Smuggling whisky across the border wasn’t going to be a concern of mine. But what I was after wasn’t something I could get in the States - Nikka whisky.

Searching the SAQ website, I was disappointed by the absence of any Yoichi single malts. But there was still something from Nikka, the 12 yr Taketsuru pure malt. It didn’t take me long to head  north and retrieve a bottle. Around that time, I had decided that my whisky collection was getting a little out of hand. I knew I didn’t have the will power to stop buying whisky, so I imposed a moratorium on opening new bottles. The only exception I would make was if I needed to open something to write about it.

Then I went to Scotland and added many more bottles to my collection. Needless to say, the Nikka Taketsuru sat in the corner collecting dust with a few other special bottles. Then last week, as I was thumbing through the new issue of Whisky Advocate magazine, there it was; a review of Taketsuru 12 yr, along with the news that it and Yoichi 15 yr had landed in the States. Well, time to crack open my bottle and start writing.

Pure malt is a term that has gone out of fashion in Scotland. Actually, it was legally banned by the Scotch Whisky Association in 2009, along with the term vatted malt. Both had historically been used to identify whisky comprised only of single malts, but from more than one distillery. They were superseded by a new term, blended malt. I’ll go into a little more detail about the circumstances that prompted that change in my next post. For now, I’ll just say that the new terminology was not universally embraced, and many in the industry feel that it causes more problems than it solves.

Thankfully the Japanese have had the good sense to continue calling a pure malt a pure malt. And that is just what we have here, a marriage of single malts from the two Nikka distilleries, Yoichi and Miyagikyo.

The price listed at the top of this post is the suggested selling price for a 750ml bottle in the U.S. The bottle that I have is 660ml and I paid about $82 (the American and Canadian dollars were essentially on par at the time).

The color is a medium brownish amber. It looked a lot darker in the bottle, and just before opening, I realized that the glass has a significant tint to it. The nose is full, but not overly dense or aggressive. Malty grain and biscuit notes come through, possibly with just a hint of vanilla. Medium to full bodied. There’s an underlying sweetness on the palate. It seems delicate up front, but the flavors quickly build, with just enough heat to add balance. Malty, floral and nutty oak elements work in harmony. As it moves through the finish, some vegetal/ammonia flavors come to the fore. They are not strong enough to be a critical flaw, more of a minor detraction.

My fascination with Japanese whisky continues. Hunting down a 15 yr Yoichi should be a simple matter now. Finding someone to fetch me a bottle of Miyagikyo from Japan on the other hand………

Friday, March 1, 2013

Hibiki 12yr

stats: Japanese blended whisky, 43%, $57

My fascination with Japanese whisky is likely fuelled in part by the fact that very little of it has been exported to the United States. In recent months, I’ve written about all three of the Japanese single malts currently available in the U.S. The 12 yr Yamazaki from Suntory led the way in 1990, six years after its 1984 release in Japan. It was slow to catch on here, and we would have to wait fifteen more years for a second option. Finally, in 2005, it was joined by 18 yr Yamazaki, which had been available in its homeland since 1992. And, most recently, whisky from Suntory’s second malt distillery made its way to U.S. shores at the end of 2011, in the form of 12 yr Hakushu (it has been available in Japan since 1994).

The Japanese whisky industry has much in common with the Scottish whisky industry after which it is modeled. Historically, blended whisky has been the mainstay for each of them. While both have seen a dramatic rise in the popularity of single malts over the last 30 years, blends still account for the vast majority of the whisky they produce each year.

It wasn’t until 2010 that one of the many Japanese blended whiskies came to market in the U.S. When I first started to see Hibiki 12 yr on store shelves, I knew very little about it, other than the fact that it was a Suntory product. One thing that immediately stood out was the price; it was roughly 25% more expensive than Yamazaki 12 yr. I found it quite unusual that a blend would cost more than a single malt that was presumably one of its key components if they carried the same age statement. Some investigating was in order.

First a little background information. Hibiki was introduced in 1989 in commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the founding of Suntory. As far as I can tell, they started with just a 17 year. A 21 year followed in 1994, and a 30 year in 1997. The 12 year was introduced in 2009. The 24 sided bottle represents the 24 seasons of the old Japanese lunar calendar - perhaps an ode to the whisky's complexity. Hibiki is the Japanese word for “echo” or “resonance”. Everyone I know seems to pronounce the name of this whisky slightly differently. The closest I can come phonetically is hee-bee-kee, with no particular emphasis on any one of the three syllables. An audio clip can be found here.

Hibiki is the product of malt whisky from Yamazaki and Hakushu, as well as grain whisky from Suntory’s Chita distillery. The histories of the first two are fairly well documented, but very little information is available about the Chita grain distillery; it is barely even mentioned on the Suntory website. I wasted untold hours trying to learn more, not so much because it was important for this post, but just because I wanted to know. All I really came up with was a Swedish language whisky forum where one person listed 1972 (with a question mark) as the establishment year for Chita. Another person replied that they began making grain whisky in 1975.

Back to the subject at hand, why is Hibiki rather expensive? It is often refered to as a “premium” or “high-end” blend. Most blends typically contain 60% to 80% grain whisky. Some cheap ones probably go as high as 90% grain, and the best quality blends might have 50% or less. I found one reference claiming that Chita grain whisky comprises roughly 70% of a bottle of Hibiki. Nothing special there, that brings us down to age and cask type.

If a bottle carries an age statement, that is the age of the youngest whisky in the mix. With Yamazaki 12 yr there is probably only a small amount of whisky (if any) that is just a few years older than the stated 12 years. But Hibiki 12 yr may use a much larger range of ages to build complexity. A bit more floundering around on Google brought me to a blog claiming that 75 year old Yamazaki was a component of Hibiki 12 yr. I find that hard to believe, but not impossible. Glenlivet has bottled a 70 year old single malt, and Suntory has bottled some 50 yr Yamazaki, which retailed around $13,000. I got to wondering what would be left in a cask after that much time. I let an Excel spreadsheet do the math for me and found that a 500 liter cask losing 2% of its contents to evaporation each year (assuming it never sprang a leak in all that time) would be down to 110 liters after 75 years. More online research brought me to a site (quoting an official press release) stating that 12 yr Hibiki contained some 30 year old single malt. If the piece about the 75 year old has any truth to it, I suspect that might be the oldest malt in the Hibiki that carries a 30 year age statement.

As I’ve mentioned before, distillers will pay a premium for certain rare casks, adding to the price of the whisky. Some of the Hibiki is supposed to be aged in Mizunara, a rare Japanese oak with a hefty price tag. Some of the whisky in the blend is also finished in casks that formerly held Japanese plum liqueur (Umeshu).

One last item of note that I came across is that Hibiki is mellowed by the additional process of bamboo charcoal filtering. This too would add to the production costs.

Tasting notes:

Medium to light golden in color.
Fairly dense nose, slightly reminiscent of bourbon, primarily with grain and oak notes.
Medium bodied. The flavors are delicate, but build nicely through the mid palate with good complexity. It comes with a little heat, but just enough to give it some backbone, not so much that the flavors are masked. Nicely balanced, with flavors of grain, oak, fruit and mild nuttiness. It has some unique characteristics in the flavor profile, perhaps that is the Mizunara coming through. Smooth transitions from the start through the moderately long finish. A well behaved, approachable blend that doesn’t come across as meek or the result of too much compromise, as blends sometimes can.