Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Glenmorangie, Finealta vs. The Original

Finealta, Single Malt Scotch, no age statement, Highland, 46%, $75

The Original, Single Malt Scotch, aged 10 years, Highland, 43%, $43 (100ml bottle pictured, typical price for 750ml bottle)

I had come across references to Alfred Barnard several times over the past two or three years while searching for information on various Scotch topics. But it wasn’t until last summer that I realized the magnitude and importance of Barnard’s research and writings.

So, “who is Alfred Barnard?” you ask. In the late 1800’s Barnard was the secretary of the London wine and spirits journal Harper’s Weekly Gazette. In 1885 he set off with the goal of touring every distillery in the United Kingdom. Over the course of two years Barnard managed to visit all of the 129 distilleries in Scotland (along with all 28 in Ireland and 4 of the 10 in England).

At many of these facilities Barnard recorded detailed information about the buildings, water sources, machines, vessels and other equipment, as well as documenting the processes that were employed. In addition to all of this he also wrote about some of the inns and hotels where he stayed, his modes of transportation, the countyside through which he travelled and some of the people he met along the way.

Barnard’s writings were printed in Harper’s on a regular basis during his journey and then, late in 1887, composed into a 500 page book called The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, which was illustrated with sketches and engravings showing many of the scenes he had observed during his travels. A century later the number of original copies of the book still in existence had dwindled while interest in Scotch Whisky was on the rise. Thankfully this incredibly important historical reference was reprinted in 1987, and has been again several times since.

It wasn’t until a little more than a year ago that I came to realize the scope and relevance of Barnard’s work. That was when, while searching for information about the rise and fall of Campbeltown’s whisky empire, I came across the Whisky Story blog. The blog is the work of an adventurous soul who sets about following in Barnard’s footsteps 125 years later with the intention of visiting all of the sites in Scotland that Barnard did, as well as every current distillery in the country.

The Whisky Story blog, with its mission to compare and contrast how the industry has changed since Barnard’s time, has been inactive for the last year. But from mid 2010 through late 2012 more than half of the intended distillery sites were covered. I am hopeful that this is a temporary hiatus and the work will resume. But even if it doesn’t, what the author has accomplished thus far is truly monumental.

The Whisky Story blog has been a great source of information as well as inspiration for me. While a lot of the technical details from Barnard’s book can be found on the blog, I think I have gotten to the point where my fascination with esoteric historical distillery information requires that I add a copy of The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom to my reference library.

The Whisky Story blog has quite a bit to say about Glenmorangie, but Barnard wrote very little about the distillery. This was because at the time of his visit the place was in a state of disrepair and the owner was making preparations for a complete rebuild. Nonetheless, the bottle of Finealta (pronounced fin-alta) hiding on the back row of my whisky shelf served as motivation to finally write about Alfred Barnard. Finealta is based on a recipe from the turn of the century which was discovered in the distillery’s archives. It is lightly peated, non chill-filtered, and matured in a combination of American white oak casks and Spanish Oloroso sherry casks for various periods of time.

I could think of no better way to pay homage to the works of Barnard and Whisky Story than to compare the modern day Glenmorangie with a recreation of one dating to 1903, a mere 17 years after Barnard’s visit.

In recent years a few distillers have made replica whiskies based on existing samples that were 100 or more years old. Finealta is based on a recipe, so without a sample to compare it to we’ll never know how accurate of a reproduction it is. In the press release for Finealta they talk about following the recipe meticulously, but unfortunately little information is given regarding the details of that recipe.

I’d love to have a little more information about the formula they found in the archives and how much guesswork went into formulating Finealta. In spite of this I still think the recreation is a worthwhile project and I’m excited to see how it compares with Glenmorangie’s flagship bottling.

The Original:
It is straw yellow in color and the nose is very mild and clean, with delicate waxy fruit notes coming through.
On the palate it’s primarily fruit driven, with a mix of citrus, tropical and stone fruits. A spicy element joins in midway through keeping everything in balance.
As it moves into the finish, the fruit fades as the spice intensifies and oak notes join in adding woodiness, vanilla and butterscotch. Overall The Original is very clean and approachable. There is really nothing to dislike here, and it is little surprise that Glenmorangie has been the best selling single malt in Scotland for much of the last three decades.


It is light amber in color, just a bit darker than The Original, and while the nose is similarly delicate, it seems to have the same fruity characteristics with the addition of just a whiff of peat.
Right of the bat it comes across as being fuller and richer on the palate. The quintessential fruitiness is still there, but it is now joined by stewed dark berry fruits. But the biggest difference, especially from the mid palate on through the finish, is the more intense peaty character. The Original is supposed to be peated to 2 ppm (parts per million phenols), which is barely detectable in most cases. The Finealta bottle is labeled as being “Lightly Peated”, and my guess would be somewhere in the 7 – 9 ppm range.
On the finish the spice and oak are still present, but less dominant, and nicely balanced smoke and heather driven peat notes.

As I said above, there’s nothing to dislike about The Orignal, but there’s a lot to love about Finealta (the word is Gaelic for elegant, and you could really apply that term to either of these whiskies). Whether it is an accurate representation of Glenmorangie from 100 years ago, or simply a solid single malt presented with a reasonable peat level, a healthy dose of sherry cask maturation and non chill-filtration is hard to say. But either way I like it, a lot.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Edradour 10 year

stats: Single Malt Scotch, Highlands, 43%, $50

I first tasted Edradour a little over a year ago. It made a good initial impression, which piqued my interest enough to at least take a look at their website. They pride themselves on doing things the old-fashioned way and are still using much of the Victorian era equipment that has been in the distillery since its early days.

The website makes reference to their use of a Morton’s Refrigerator and claims it is the last working one in the industry, but they don’t mention what it does or how it works. I did have an idea though.

After the mashing process (where the grain steeps in hot water), the wort (the resulting liquid) must be cooled from roughly 160°F to around room temperature before being transferred to the washback. If this step is skipped, the yeast will die when it is added to the still hot liquid. The modern method employs a counter-flow chiller (or a plate chiller), where hot wort enters from one end and cold water enters from the other. The two liquids are kept separate, but coaxial tubing (or alternating channels between the plates) allows heat to be transferred between them, cooling the wort and warming the water. The oldest method of cooling the wort was to place it in a large, shallow, open topped tank, where the temperature could drop sufficiently over night, when the large surface area was exposed to the cooler nocturnal air.

The photos above show the remnants of the old cast iron cooling tank and the modern (thought slightly dated) chiller at Springbank. My suspicion was that the Morton’s Refrigerator was either a different name for the open-air, shallow tank (they are called coolships in the beer industry), or some intermediate technology between that and the modern chiller.

I’m certain I will return to Scotland some day, and when I do Edradour will be near the top of my list of places to visit. The distillery is said to be quite picturesque and is easily accessible, being located just 60 miles north of the midway point between Glasgow and Edinburgh. I would love to see the Morton’s Refrigerator and the rest of the vintage equipment in action, but as my return to the land of heather and peat is not immanent, I’ll have to resort to a Google search to learn more for now.

Edradour (pronounced edra-dower, rhymes with power) claims to be the smallest distillery in Scotland. With their capacity a little over 100,000 liters of pure alcohol per year, Edradour is on par with Kilchoman, which began distilling late in 2005. Since then three new Scottish distilleries have come online with significantly lower capacities.

The distillery had gained a bit of a dodgy reputation after struggling with consistency issues for many years, but that era came to an end in 2002 with a change in ownership. This was when Edradour was purchased by the independent bottler Signatory, and a former Laphroaig distillery manager was brought in to steer the ship and straighten things out.

As for the mysterious Morton’s Refrigerator, I had to do little digging but I finally found the information I was looking for. It turns out that this was an intermediate step in technology between the large, shallow cooling tank and the modern chiller. It is essentially an open trough, set on a slight angle, which the wort flows through. There are pipes in the trough, oriented perpendicular to the flow of the wort, which carry cold water. Heat is transferred from the wort to the water through these pipes.

The Morton’s Refrigerator at Edradour dated to 1934 (it may not have been the original; the technology had been around since at least the 1880’s). But after 75 years that cast iron unit had reached the end of its useful life. It would have made sense to replace it with a modern chiller, but the owners chose to hold on to tradition and commissioned a stainless steel replica of their retired Morton’s Refrigerator.

Thanks to the Whisky Cyclist Blog for letting me borrow their photos of both the original unit and its replacement.

Now that I have that mystery sorted out, it’s on to the whisky.

The rich nose is made up primarily of malt and sherry notes.
On the palate it is slightly nutty with dark fruit elements well integrated into the malty core. The slightest hint of a floral note (or perhaps it is mint?) adds depth, and it has just enough heat to hold one’s attention right through the pleasantly long finish. Very lightly peated malt is used, but the other flavors carry enough intensity that the smokiness is all but hidden.
It’s weighty, but not cumbersome. Overall, a single malt that is well made and quite enjoyable.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Glen Garioch, Small Batch Release, 1994 Vintage

stats: Single Malt Scotch, Highland, 53.9%, $110

The Scotch Whisky industry is steeped in tradition, and its distillers work very hard to put out a product that is consistent from bottle to bottle. In spite of this, we are dealing with a dynamic commodity and it is inevitable that single malt flavor profiles will evolve over longer time spans.

I started to explore this topic in the last post with an examination of how Lagavulin’s stills have changed in shape and size throughout the lifespan of the distillery. This time around I’m going to examine several of the other factors that have led to the changes in the way single malts taste over the last 50 years. Some of these changes are the result of consumer demand and others have happened in the name of modernization and increased efficiency, but either way their examples are numerous.

The most recent change started roughly 10 to 15 years ago. This one, initiated at the behest of more sophisticated consumers, is the move away from chill-filtration. This change is often accompanied by an increase in alcohol level, as the unfiltered whisky can go cloudy with just the addition of a bit of cool water if it is bottled below 46% abv. Bunnahabhain made the leap in 2010, doing away with the process across their line and increasing from 43% to 46.3% abv. The whisky was transformed and much for the better, say I.

Concurrently, many distillers have done away with the use of caramel coloring. Most claimed it was used in trace amounts to ensure color consistency, but I suspect some used heavier doses to attain a darker tone that they thought would be more appealing to consumers. Those who employed artificial coloring all claimed it had no effect on flavor, but many whisky writers and critics have argued otherwise. I feel that this “industry pressure” is largely responsible for the current decline we see in the use of caramel coloring.

Over the last five decades, with the growth of the Bourbon industry and the dwindling popularity of Sherry, Scottish distillers have experienced an evolution of the types of casks that are available to them. While Bourbon barrels now abound, Sherry casks are several times more expensive and difficult to come by in quantity with any likelihood of consistent quality. This has resulted in many a distiller slowly and quietly transitioning from Sherry oak to Bourbon oak. I have seen speculation that Cragganmore is a very likely candidate for this phenomenon.

As the production levels of single malts have grown, warehouse capacity has had to increase as well. Many of the bigger companies that own multiple distilleries have gone the route of developing large, centralized warehouse complexes, typically in the same locations as their blending and bottling facilities. It has been argued that this can erode a distillery’s individual character, as the local climate no longer has an influence on the whisky through its many years of aging in the cask.

Looking back to the 1960’s, this seems to have been the most transformative of the past five decades. Not only was this a time of rapid modernization and consolidation, but also of changing consumer tastes. Most distillers made the move from direct-fired stills (traditionally coal fueled, but the few remaining now use natural gas or oil) to indirect-fired (utilizing internal steam coils). The fact that Glenfarclas tested indirect heating on one of their stills in 1980, then switched it back to direct heating just three weeks later certainly shows the significance of the change.

Whether or not the move from traditional wooden washbacks (fermentation tanks) to their lower maintenance stainless steel counterparts has an effect on the flavor of the whisky is highly debatable. But the shortening of fermentation times from upwards of a week to a mere two or three days (many distilleries have done this to increase capacity without adding infrastructure) has resulted in spirit that is noticeably less fruity.

Also, the switch by most producers from traditional worm tubs to modern shell-and-tube condensers has had the effect of a decidedly less heavy spirit being produced.

However, the most significant change of the 1960’s was when most distilleries gave up their traditional floor maltings and began to purchase barley malted to order, which was now available from several modern, industrial facilities. A change in flavor could easily be introduced by switching to commercially produced malt. The types of organic material that peat is composed of can vary greatly as you move around Scotland. The peat that is local to a distillery (along with the source water) would make a unique contribution to the distillery’s flavor profile, and this could be lost when the malting process was outsourced.

More importantly, this transition ushered in an era of changing peat levels. Since the local availability of peat (or coal) was no longer a factor, it was much easier for distillers to adjust their peating levels. And that is just what happened with consumer demand trending toward a lighter, gentler style of whisky at the time. Traditionally every distiller on Islay made heavily peated malt whisky. Bruichladdich changed over to being very lightly peated in 1960, and three years later Bunnahabhain followed suit. Then, in the early 1970’s, Bowmore reduced the peatiness of their whisky to what is generally considered a moderate level.

I have recently become fascinated with the story of a distillery where the peat levels have changed many times over the last 50 years. Most Highland distillers slowly drifted away from using healthy doses of peat long ago (I’m guessing this trend started in the late1800’s as the newly built railroads made it possible to transport coal to remote areas). Glen Garioch, pronounced glen geery, was still hanging on to this nearly forgotten tradition, as well as using its old floor maltings, when it closed due to the lack of a reliable water source in 1968.

Glen Garioch was purchased by Morrison Bowmore in 1970, and after a more dependable water source was secured, it was finally reopened in 1973. At that time a new maltster was brought in and, having been trained on Islay, he actually increased the peat levels. For many years the standard lineup of Glen Garioch had a 21 year old and I’ve read accounts of it becoming noticeably smokier in the mid 1990’s.

While there is no clear record of the exact peating levels used at Glen Garioch, and I even came across a report of it supposedly varying quite a bit from batch to batch at one point, it clearly decreased over the ensuing two decades and it sounds like there were significant drops in 1975 and 1985. The distillery closed again from mid 1995 to mid 1997, and that event marked the end of the use of Glen Garioch’s old traditional floor maltings. Since reopening, the distillery has been purchasing unpeated, commercially malted barely.

In 2009 Glen Garioch single malt was relaunched with a completely revamped lineup. In addition to the new 12 year and no-age-statement Founder’s Reserve, there have been several vintage dated small batch editions released. So far they have spanned from 1978 to 1997, covering a broad range peat levels.

Today I’m tasting the 1994 Vintage, which spent 17 years in bourbon barrels before being bottled in 2011 at a cask strength of 53.9% abv. This is some of the last of the peated Glen Garioch that was produced.

The color is a light golden amber.
The nose is fairly intense, but not heavy, with grassy, hay-like notes mixing in with gentle floral, earthy and malty aromas. If there is any peat evident on the nose, it is masquerading as the earthiness.
In the mouth the body is quite heavy and the whisky is exceptionally full flavored up front. The flavors, which are primarily malt and toffee, with hints of mulling spices and grassy / floral notes, evolve and recede as the high alcohol level becomes prominent on the warm, peppery finish. The peat notes are absent up front, but come in subtly on the back end, tying everything together very nicely. There’s quite a bit of length at the finish, and even though the warmth of the alcohol plays a lead role, just enough flavor rides along to keep it in check.

Although it has some flavor elements that deviate from my personal preferences, I still found this whisky to be quite enjoyable. In and ideal world I would have three more bottles in front of me: the 1997 Vintage to try an unpeated version (even though I don’t think I would like it as much), the 1990 Vintage which has the added element of some sherry cask whisky, and the 1978 Vintage to experience some of the more heavily peated Glen Garioch.

Looking back, much of the modernization that has taken place in the industry since 1960 has helped Scottish distillers to cut costs and produce whisky that is more consistent from batch to batch (though many would argue it is not of the same quality). But after examining all of the flavor altering changes that distillery managers have employed over the years, it almost seems silly that they would have the dents of a decommissioned still recreated on its replacement, as I discussed in the Lagavulin post.