Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Caol Ila, Unpeated 12 year vs. Gordon & MacPhail 1995

Caol Ila, Unpeated Style, 12 year, 2010 release, distilled 1997, Single Malt Scotch,
Islay, 57.6%, £52 (700 ml)
Caol Ila, Gordon & Machphail, no age statement, distilled 1995, Single Malt Scotch,
Islay, 40%, £3 (50 ml)

A month and a half before leaving for Scotland last year I met a Glaswegian (that’s a person from Glasgow, if you were wondering) who, in addition to correcting my mispronunciation of Oban, mentioned that “there was nothing quite like a proper Scottish ferry ride”, or something along those lines. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the six hours I spent on ferries was the highlight of my two week trip, the maritime crossings did have an endearing quality.

It was on the two hour passage from the Kintyre peninsula to Islay that I noticed the vessel’s gift shop was rife with single malt miniatures. One stood out to me, a Caol Ila bottled by Gordon & MacPhail. Where I live, independent bottlings are a rare commodity and single malt minis are almost unheard of; that purchase didn’t require much consideration.

With a fortunate bit of timing, the five minute drive from the Port Askaig ferry terminal to the Caol Ila distillery put us there just in time for the start of the 3:30 tour. We saw the inner workings of the recently renovated distillery, stared in awe at the massive stills, and took in the beautiful sight of the Sound of Islay (for which the distillery is named) through the expansive stillroom windows. Then we were ushered back to the retail space for a generous tasting. It was here that my father decided to pick up a bottle of the unpeated Caol Ila, not being a big fan of the heavily peated style of Scotch.

My memory of what we paid for these two bottles has long since faded, but I’m confident that the numbers I’ve listed above are reasonably accurate estimates.

Caol Ila, Unpeated, 12 year

The nose is mild but smells volatile – light fruit and mild peat riding on a wave of alcohol vapor. It tastes unexpectedly peaty, and becomes a little floral in the mid palate, followed by drying spice notes on the finish. Perhaps natural peat flavors from the source water are accentuated by the high alcohol level and lack of other flavors. Aside from the spice laden finish, it’s hard to believe this is from first fill bourbon casks (as is noted on the label); I’d expect more vanilla, butterscotch, etc. up front and on the mid palate. It’s not bad, but I was expecting more depth and complexity, which would bring a noted improvement.

Caol Ila, Gordon & MacPhail, 1995

The nose is rich with peat and brine. The aromas have good intensity without being overly heavy. On the palate it comes out swinging with a big wave of peat and perhaps just a hint of underlying sweetness. The flavors swell and expand in the wake of the viscous body of liquid. The intensity of its flavor and balancing alcoholic heat seem contrary to the low proof at which it is bottled. The whisky comes across as being fairly youthful up front, and in spite of never showing great complexity it does seem more mature on the lengthy finish. Eventually the finish fades off very gracefully.

This isn’t really a direct comparison, as these two whiskies were tasted many months apart. It is more of and ode to a beautiful day on Islay, a day when two very different bottles of Caol Ila were acquired and the distillery was eagerly toured just minutes after setting foot on the island.

My tasting notes of the standard-issue peated Caol Ila 12 year, which I made during my trip to Florida last winter, are posted here.

I was really quite surprised that the unpeated Caol Ila tasted the way it did. Sure, it had nowhere near the level of peaty intensity found in traditional Caol Ila bottlings, but it was far more smoky than I expected. Of course this set me off on endless hours of research, seeking some sort of an explanation.

The label on the bottle my father had purchased proclaims that unpeated Caol Ila is made just once a year. With a little digging online, I learned that they actually started making it in the mid-80’s to add to the variety of single malts that the blenders would have to work with. Remember, Caol Ila is owned by Diageo, and 95% of the distillery’s production goes into blends, primarily the company’s Johnny Walker bottlings.

But it wasn’t until 2006 that unpeated Caol Ila was released as a single malt (an 8 year old that had been distilled 1997). Several other unpeated bottlings have come out since. I’ve read through many of their reviews, and only those of the 12 year old bottled in 2010 mention noticeable peat flavors.

So, the theory that I had posed in my tasting notes, that the peat flavors came from the water used to make the whisky, seems to be implausible.

The only other explanation I could come up with was that the redistilled feints and foreshots from a previous distillation run of peated whisky had carried over the smoky flavors into the unpeated whisky. As I mentioned in a previous post, during my visit to the distillery we were told that redistilling the feints and foreshots was considered important enough that the distillery had recently held them in a tanker truck outside of the distillery for six months during renovations.

Additionally, I remembered an important bit of information from the Springbank Whisky School. When Frank McHardy was speaking to us about transitioning production between the unpeated Hazelburn, the moderately peated Springbank and the heavily peated Longrow; he mentioned that the feints and foreshots from the first two whiskies could be redistilled into either of the other two, but that after making Longrow the feints and forshots could only be redistilled with Springbank and not Hazelburn, as the peat flavors therein were too strong and would come through on the unpeated whisky.

I was pretty sure I had my answer, but I wanted to run some numbers for my own satisfaction, and I was still curious as to why this phenomenon was unique to the bottling I tasted. Surprisingly, Diageo has production numbers listed online for the various unpeated bottlings (among other limited releases). I found it insightful to group them by the year of distillation: 

Distilled in 1997
              8 year (59.8%)…………….12990 bottles
            12 year (57.6%)……less than 6000 bottles
            14 year (59.3%)……….……..5958 bottles

Distilled in 1998
              8 year (64.9%).......…………9690 bottles
            10 year (65.8%)…...…………6000 bottles

Distilled in 1999
            12 year (64.0%)……less than 6000 bottles

Distilled in 2000
              8 year (64.2%)……….……..5664 bottles

When I toured the distillery (April of 2012), the guide mentioned that it had been seven years since they made any unpeated Caol Ila. I have seen statements online also mentioning that it has not been produced in recent years due to the increasing popularity of peated whisky. We know there was a bottling from 2000, and it sounds like that last unpeated distillation run was in 2005 or 2004, but it is unknown if any was made during the years in between.

While looking at the production numbers above, the downward trend is obvious, but they paint an incomplete picture. There is no way to know how much has gone into blends or how much is still out there in warehouses, quietly aging. Trying to determine how much unpeated Caol Ila was made each year from the above numbers would be akin to gazing at the night sky and trying to figure out how much dark matter there is in the universe.

But those numbers do still have some relevance. After the unpeated wash has been cycled through the stills once, the feints and foreshots on subsequent batches won’t make a peaty contribution. So, if the smoky flavors are coming from a previous peated run, how much whisky is coming from that first unpeated batch relative to the size of the unpeated single malt bottling in question?

First, I’m making one pretty big assumption – that the three sets of stills at Caol Ila are run in parallel, meaning that the feints and foreshots from each of the three spirit stills are redistilled through the same respective stills. If they are run in series, with the feints and forshots from the first spirit still being redistilled through the second spirit still, and so on, then my numbers would only be 1/3 of what I’m about to calculate.

So, I dug up my notes from Whisky School to get some reference numbers. A distillation run of Springbank produces 1400 liters of spirit. The Springbank spirit still has a capacity of 12,274 liters. The spirit stills at Caol Ila are 30,000 liters each and there are three of them, giving a combined capacity is 90,000 liters. That equates to 10,265 liters of spirit coming from one distillation run (of the three sets of stills). Of course Springbank is using the unusual 2 ½ times distillation and every distiller varies the process in their own way, but I think this number is at least in the right neighborhood.

I know how much water they add to the new make spirit at Springbank before it goes into the casks. I’m assuming Caol Ila adds roughly the same amount, increasing the volume of liquid by about 16%. Then, assuming an annual loss of 3% to evaporation while aging, after 12 years in cask, they would be left with 80.5% of the volume of liquid that originally came off the stills. That leaves us with 8263 liters.

It looks like most of the unpeated Caol Ila goes into 0.7 liter bottles, so I’ll assume all of it does to keep the math simple. That would translate to 11,804 bottles. That’s more than enough to cover the 6000 bottles from the release I’ve tasted. And even if my innitial assumption was wrong, 2/3 of the whisky in each bottle could still be from the first run of unpeated whisky that carried flavors over from the previous peated batch.

Why do we not see this issue with any of the other unpeated releases? I’m guessing that of the three releases that were distilled in 1997, the peaty tasting casks only ended up in the 12 year bottling. Any additional peat-affected cask from 1997, as well as those from other years may all have gone into blends, or they could still be aging in the warehouses, waiting to show up in future releases.

Before my father bought that bottle at the distillery, we had the opportunity to taste a sample. Neither of us remembers it being the least bit peaty. I had assumed that it just wasn’t noticeable after tasting a couple of regular Caol Ila samples. But now I’m considering the possibility that the sample we tasted could have been from a bottle of the unpeated 12 year old that was distilled in 1999.

Sometimes I wonder if I should just drink my whisky and not think about it so much; but I guess that’s not really my nature.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Jefferson's, Presidential Select 18 Year

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 18 year, 47%, $90

I prefer to keep the company of women who enjoy good whiskey. It was one such acquaintance who purchased a bottle of Jefferson’s bourbon on a whim (i.e. never having tasted it before) for a debaucherous evening of drinking about three and a half years ago. Unfortunately, we were both thoroughly disappointed upon tasting it. I can’t really blame her for buying the Jefferson’s though, it’s a good looking bottle – it has shelf presence.

Little effort is required to figure out that Jefferson’s is the product of an NDP (non distiller producer). They are one of many companies who buy whiskey from distilleries which are in the business of supplying others, then bottle and sell that whiskey under their own brand. Jefferson’s might not come right out and tout this fact, but unlike many other NDPs, they make no attempt to create the illusion that they distill the whiskey they sell.

What we had tasted was the standard “very small batch” version, which retails around $30. After that had left a bad taste in my mouth (both literally and figuratively), I was less than inclined to open my wallet for a sample of the $40 “reserve” bottling.

A year or so after that initial tasting, I read a review which stated that the entry level Jefferson’s had been improved with the new formula containing a higher percentage of older whiskey. But I live in a liquor control state where the sole distributor (the state) will sometimes buy an item in large quantities (relative to the size or our tiny population) and slowly meter that product out to the stores over many years. Without a new label or abv change to signify the reformulation, giving Jefferson’s another try was a $30 gamble I wasn’t interested in.

Okay, in fairness the bottles do carry a neck label with a batch number and bottle number. It may have been possible to figure out the batch number above which the improvement had taken place, but that was more legwork than I really wanted to get into. So I basically wrote off the brand.

That is until last fall, when I heard about Jefferson’s Presidential Select, which was supposedly made up of Stitzel-Weller whiskey. I was curious, but skeptical. It was late in 2012 and this was an 18 year old, but Stitzel-Weller last produced whiskey in 1992.

I finally got around to trying the Presidential Select a few weeks ago when I paid a visit to the local pub to see a good friend on her last night behind the bar. Of course this was followed by a healthy dose of research where I learned quite a bit from some past threads on a bourbon discussion forum.

The big questions are: Is this actually Stitzel-Weller bourbon? And how did it end up being bottled as Jefferson’s instead of Van Winkle?

The label says right on it that the whiskey was distilled in the fall of 1991 and aged in Stitzel-Weller barrels. The first fact that surfaced as I researched was that the Jefferson’s Presidential Select had been available longer than I realized. I seems to have originally appeared as a 17 year old in 2009, followed by the more commonly seen 18 year old in 2010. It just took a few more years to make it to my neck of the woods.

There seems to have been a fairly steady supply of 18 year old (all distilled in 1991) over the last two or three years. I’m guessing that they bottled a few batches at 17 years in 2009, then fearing that the oak would dominate if they let it age much further, bottled quite a few more batches at 18 years in 2010 and have been slowly releasing them since.

There were rumors of some barrels being held back to age further, but the 21 year old Jefferson’s Presidential Select that came out this past spring was not from Stitzel-Weller (nor was it even a wheated bourbon). You never know what they have waiting in the wings, but an older S-W release seems unlikely at this point.

Back to the subject of authenticity – there were some online debates a few years ago as to whether or not this bourbon was actually distilled at Stitzel-Weller. Some claimed that the term “aged in Stitzel-Weller barrels” used on the labels could mean that the bourbon was distilled elsewhere and aged in barrels that once held S-W whiskey. But this is straight bourbon, which must be aged in new barrels by law, so that theory was quickly ruled out.

Then the idea was put forth that this could be whiskey distilled in some un-named distillery and aged in the Stitzel-Weller warehouses. They could legally say the whiskey was aged in S-W barrels in this scenario, but the idea was eventually deemed highly unlikely, and the online consensus was that the wording of the label was just poorly phrased. The whole conversation does however illustrate the level of mistrust that has been created among consumers by the less-than-forthright practices of some non distiller producers.

As to how Jefferson’s got a hold of Stitzel-Weller bourbon, there are a few thoughts. The Van Winkle family certainly had rights to purchase S-W bourbon, but it is not known if they were only allowed to take a certain percentage of what was produced or if they simply took what they deemed to be up to their standards (or fit their flavor profile) and passed on the rest.

Either way, Diageo (the company that evolved out of United Distillers, who were the owners of Stitzel-Weller when the distillery went silent) have had an unknown quantity of S-W whiskey all along. There have been unconfirmed rumors for years that some of this bourbon was going to Canada and being used as a flavoring component in Crown Royal – Canadian Whisky can legally have up to 9.09% of almost any other liquor mixed in with it.

Whether it was surplus turned down by the Van Winkles or whiskey destined for Canada which Diageo chose to take more profit from, it seems that the people who produce Jefferson’s were able to purchase some of the last bourbon produced at Stitzel-Weller.

But the question of quality still remains. Looking through past discussions, the quality of the Presidential Select seems to have varied significantly from batch to batch. Some are highly recommended, while others are said to not be worth the price of entry.

The bottle that I tasted was from batch 13. I can say with confidence that the flavor profile is very similar to that of the 15 year PappyVan Winkle Family Reserve that I polished off a few monthsago. This is definitely Stitzel-Weller bourbon in my opinion.

It has a pleasant nose of grain and oak. On the palate it is full flavored and well balanced. There is a nice interplay between the heat and the complex array of flavors (grain, oak, vanilla, caramel and subtle floral notes). The finish is respectably long, but the whiskey may fall slightly out of balance at this point, going a little too dry / oaky.

Overall it is a very good bourbon. But I guess it’s a matter of opinion if it is worth the going retail price to get a hold of what is likely to be some of the last Stitzel-Weller whiskey that will be available in the retail market.