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 Thankfully this incredibly important historical reference was reprinted in 1987, and has been again several times since.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.

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