Thursday, October 31, 2013

Laphroaig, 18 Year vs. Cask Strength 10 Year

18 Year, Single Malt Scotch, Islay, 48%, $80
Cask Strength 10 Year, Single Malt Scotch, Islay, 55.7%, $65 (typical 750ml price)

I found myself laughing at the width of the roads here in the U.S. every time I drove for the first week or two after returning from Scotland. I had become so accustomed to the narrow roadways of the U.K. that when I got behind the wheel for the first time back home, it felt as if I was sailing along an ocean of asphalt.

When the trip was still in its planning stages, I consulted about driving over there with a good friend who had lived in England during the early years of his childhood and went back occasionally to visit relatives. He recounted the story of renting a car with an automatic transmission, as that was all his wife could drive. Since the vast majority of cars in Europe are standards (the complete opposite of how it is in the States), getting an automatic limits your choice to larger, luxury models. To emphasize how undesirable such a car would be, he mentioned something about driving down a road so narrow that both of the side mirrors were dragging along the hedgerows lining the street at the same time. He also allayed my fears that the layout of the pedals might be in the reverse order of what we drive here.

So, small and manual it would be. No concerns there; that describes what I’d been driving for the previous five years. I knew that shifting with my left hand would be a challenge, but at least I’m left-handed, so there is a little more coordination on that side. Aside from that, I just needed to remember to stay on the left side of the road.

Long before the trip began, it was decided that I would do all of the driving and my father would serve as co-pilot. “Keep dad against the curb, keep dad against the curb” was the mantra that I continuously repeated in my head as we drove along, ensuring that I stayed on the proper side of the road.

Not long after leaving the airport in Glasgow, you’re bound to encounter a roundabout. I’m no stranger to such road features, but driving around one in a clockwise direction for the first time proved quite unnerving. And with less than a foot of extra space on each side of the car in most places, the driver’s undivided attention is required at all times. In practice that’s probably safer than the ridiculously wide roads I’m used to driving on, which allow for all manner of distraction. Once I settled in, I truly did enjoy driving in Scotland, especially on the single track roads that snaked around the Isle of Mull.

I was surprised by a number of unexpected little differences though. I nearly grabbed the door handle more times than I’d care to admit while trying to shift. Every time I wanted to look in the rear view mirror I found myself gazing off to the right at…..well, nothing. My right hand also spent a good deal of time waving around in the center of the car in search of my seatbelt. And more often than not, leading up to a departure either my father or I would approach the wrong side of the car. This turned into somewhat of a Laurel & Hardy-esque routine; “tired of driving Mike? Ready to be the passenger?” or “Oh, did you feel like driving this time around, dad?” would come from one of us each time the other made the mistake.

As you can clearly see in the picture above, I’m standing next to the passenger side of the car, proudly displaying my newly acquired miniature of Cask Strength Laphroaig 10 Year. Just after that photo was taken was the only time that I actually got in the car, closed the door, and then came to the realization that there was no steering wheel in front of me. That picture will always bring a smile to my face.

Prior to the 2004 introduction of Laphroaig Quarter Cask, the Cask Strength 10 Year was the only non-chill filtered whisky in Laphroaig’s standard lineup. In 2009 they phased out the 15 Year and replaced it with the 18 Year which is non-chill filtered, leaving the flagship 10 Year (bottled at 40% or 43% abv, depending on where it’s being sold) as the only Laphroaig bottling to undergo that process. It’s nice to see a whisky company moving in the right direction.

The Cask Strength miniature that I picked up at the distillery is a bottling that was produced from 2004 through 2008, at 55.7% abv. Earlier bottlings were at 57.3% abv and had a green strip across the label rather than the red stripe seen on version I have. From 2009 onward the Cask Strength Laphroaig has been released in annual, numbered batches, where the proof changes from batch to batch (there is some inconsistency in the system, but that’s the topic of another post).

I thought it would be interesting to compare the Cask Strength 10 Year and the 18 Year since they are basically the opposite ends of the spectrum of the standard Laphroaig lineup. I do have some Quarter Cask on hand for reference as well.

18 Year:
It is light-to-medium golden amber in color.Pungent peat smoke with iodine and a hint of sea spray come through on the nose but with a relatively refined manner.
As expected, the body is thick and oily. The medicinal peat, slightly sweet vanilla and brine notes are all beautifully woven together. The well-integrated, complex flavors move seamlessly into the wonderfully long finish. Eighteen years in cask has barely tamed the beast; this is still very much a robust, masculine whisky.

Cask Strength 10 Year:
The color is notable darker than the 18, more of a medium amber.
On the nose, the pungent peat smoke is accompanied by a vegetal earthiness in this case. The aromas are a little more concentrated than the 18 Year, but not as unruly as I was expecting them to be.It’s even more viscous on the tongue than the 18, and it has more intensity across the board on the palate. But the flavor profile is quite different too; it has more of a nutty / woody character (rather than the luscious vanilla) joining the pungent, fiery peat notes. The vigorous intensity pulls through to the finish, carrying it along noticeably further than that of the 18 Year, which is by no means short of length.

I originally wrote about Laphroaig Quarter Cask in April of 2007 (the 2011 date is when I moved the older posts to the current format). As odd as my early writings seem to me now, I still feel essentially the same way about the Quarter Cask. I’m truly enjoying all three of these Laphroaig expressions; the 18 Year has a wonderful elegance and the Cask Strength shows its unbridled vigor, but the Quarter Cask is still my favorite. It’s beautifully balanced and wonderfully complex, with bold waves of flavor that keep crashing down on the palate, one after another.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Forty Creek, Barrel Select

stats: Canadian Whisky, 40%, no age statement, $25

I’ve been feeling somewhat conflicted about this post for the past few days. Forty Creek Barrel Select is a whisky that I really like and some unique methods are employed in its production. But the distiller has made some statements while describing his whisky making process that I’ve taken exception to. The issue at hand is important and I feel the need to discuss it, I just don’t want to focus too much one small negative aspect of an innovative distiller who’s creating great whisky.

So, we’ll start by taking a look at what makes Forty Creek Barrel Select special. After spending 22 years as a winemaker, John Hall wanted to do something different and expanded into producing spirits when he purchased the Kittling Ridge Distillery in 1992. Over the last 20 years whisky has become his main focus. This fact was emphasized last year when he changed the name of the distillery to Forty Creek, making it eponymous with his whisky brand.

The vast majority of modern whiskies are made with either distiller’s yeast or brewer’s yeast (or some combination of the two). Bringing his winemaking background into play, John Hall has chosen to ferment with wine yeast, taking advantage of the unique qualities it adds to his whisky.

Aside from malt whisky (which is made solely from malted barley) most modern whiskies are made from a mixture of grains, which are typically combined prior to mashing and fermentation. But at Forty Creek the three grains used (corn, rye and malted barley) are kept separate and made into individual whiskies, which are later blended together. This emulates the standard practice of the wine industry, where different grape varietals are made into individual wines before being blended together (if the grapes are mixed together prior to fermentation, the wine will be labeled as a “field blend”).

Continuing to follow the winemaking tradition, each of the three base whiskies at Forty Creek are aged separately as well. In order to accentuate the individual qualities of the different grains, the whisky from each one is aged in a different type of oak barrel: lightly charred for the rye, medium charred for the barley, and heavily charred for the corn. After 6 to 10 years in these barrels, the whiskies are finally blended together before being aged for a further 6 months in sherry casks.

The actual distillation process carried out at Forty Creek is also somewhat unique, but this is where I have a bit of an issue. While discussing his still setup, Mr. Hall essentially makes a blanket statement that whisky made in column stills is inferior to whisky made in pot stills. He also insinuates that because his whisky is made in a single pot still distillation that it is superior to double or triple pot-distilled whiskies.

A lot of people around the world have romantic notions of pot stills and a corresponding bias against spirits produced in column stills. While perhaps not completely baseless, these feelings are for the most part unreasonable.

Pot stills are easy to understand. Liquid with a low level of alcohol (wash) is added to the vessel and then heat is applied to its base. The more volatile components of the liquid (mostly alcohol) turn to vapor, rise up and escape through a tube connected to the top of the still. These vapors then move into a condenser where they are cooled and turn back to liquid. The process is usually repeated once or twice more to achieve the desired concentration of alcohol.

The way in which a column still works isn’t so obvious. A tall cylinder has a series of metal plates inside, spaced out from top to bottom. These plates are riddled with small holes, allowing the passage of liquid and vapor. Alcoholic liquid enters the column from the top and steam is pumped in at the base. As the liquid moves down and the steam moves up, the liquid is heated causing the alcohol to evaporate out of it. At the same time most of the steam will re-condense back into water. The mostly alcoholic vapor flows out of the top of the column and into a condenser where it is cooled, becoming a liquid again. The waste liquid (mostly water) is drained out of the bottom of the column. The perforated metal plates simply serve to spread out the liquid and slow its movement as it descends inside the column, allowing the steam to heat the liquid sufficiently. It is a little more complicated as the diagram below shows, but that’s basically how a column still works.

In addition to the fact that it’s not easy to understand how a column still works just by looking at one, their lowly reputation may be due in part to appearances; they resemble the type of industrial equipment that might be used to make gasoline. But the real issue at hand is the degree to which the spirit has been distilled. When the concentration of the alcohol coming out of the still goes up, the character of the original ingredients that gets carried through to the spirit diminishes.

Column stills are more efficient than pot still because they function in a continuous process as opposed to a batch process. A pot still is loaded with liquid, heated for a time to separate out the alcohol, then the remaining liquid is emptied out and the cycle is repeated. With a column still, as long as you keep feeding wash in at the top and steam at the base, it will continue to produce spirit. The column still can also put out highly concentrated spirit, above 95% abv (the legal maximum for whisky by most definitions), whereas with pot stills it’s hard to get the abv much above 80%.

So yes, you can make bad whisky with a column still (and plenty is). But that doesn’t mean whisky from a column still has to be bad. Let’s look at some numbers. We’ll start with some pot still examples from Scotland: doubled distilled Longrow comes off the still at 69% abv, two-and-a-half times distilled Springbank at 71%, and triple distilled Hazelburn at 73%. Auchentoshan, which is also triple distilled, comes out at 81%. A quick look at the laws that regulate how Bourbon is made reveal that it must be distilled to less than 80% abv. The vast majority of Bourbons are made in column stills, and while few distillers publish the numbers, I suspect that many of the better quality Bourbons are distilled to a lower number than the legal maximum of 80% abv. The degree to which a column still concentrates alcohol is easily adjusted by changing its internal configuration. There may be a little more to it, but I believe that it’s mostly a matter of how many metal plates are used along with the number and size of the holes in them.

Consider some of the top names in Bourbon: George T Stagg, William Larue Weller, Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, The Parker Heritage Collection, Four Roses Single Barrel Limited Edition releases. Those are some serious whiskeys, all of top quality, and every one of them made in a column still.

Conversely, it is possible to make bad whisky in a pot still: low quality wort from high yielding strains of grain, short fermentation times with fast acting yeast, and finally a quick distillation driven by high heat. Pot stills are no guaranty of quality.

Of course there are some grey areas to consider too. The first is a piece of distilling equipment known as a thumper (or a thump keg, or a doubler). This is a closed vessel that, if used, sits between the still and the condenser (the diagram shows on being used with a pot still, but they are also used with column stills). It’s partially filled with water and the pipe coming into it from the still will have its opening below the water line. Another pipe goes from the top of the thumper to the condenser. The vapors coming off of the still will cool a little as they bubble up through the liquid in the thumper. That cooling causes some of the water in the vapor to re-condense and stay in the thumper. The vapors that exit the thumper now have less water than when they entered, so the alcohol has become more concentrated before moving on to the condenser.

Even though it functions by cooling rather than heating, some people consider the thumper to be a type of pot still. Nearly six years ago Chuck Cowdery wrote a great post about a Bourbon that was claimed to be the product of pot still distillation even though it was actually distilled in a column used in conjunction with a thumper.

I’m basically on the same path as Chuck here. You see, the main still that makes most of the wkisky at Forty Creek is a 6000 liter combi-still (combination still or hybrid still). It is basically a pot still base with a column still on top of it. Some of the wash starts in the pot, and once it heats to the point where it starts to vaporize, more wash is fed into the top of the column. The vapors move up through the column stripping alcohol out of the wash that is coming down and at the same time losing some water content along the way. The diagram below is just an example of this type of still.

John Hall has been somewhat of a pioneer in a Canadian whisky industry that has been slow to innovate, and for that he deserves credit. The spirit coming off of his still is at 65% abv; a sure sign of quality distillate, and as I said above I really like this whisky. But I get a bit rankled when I hear claims of the superiority of pot still whisky which clearly infer inherent inadequacies in the output of column stills. I also think it’s disingenuous to call the product of a combi-still a single pot still whisky, and I find it revealing that every photo of the still on the Forty Creek website either has the column cropped out or is taken from an angle that makes it barely visible.

Okay, enough of my column still crusade, time for a glass of whisky:

The nose is fairly complex, with subtle fruit and delicate floral aromas, but it’s the butterscotch notes that seem to stand out above the others.
While it doesn’t evolve dramatically on the palate from start to finish, there is good complexity throughout and all of the flavors are well integrated. Butterscotch, vanilla and spice notes are the most obvious flavors, but stone fruit, nuttiness and a floral aspect are all present as well.
The warm, spicy finish is smooth and of reasonable length.

It’s refreshing to see a Canadian Whisky that breaks from tradition. Next time I visit Montreal I may have to take a detour through Ontario and see if I can hunt down some of the Forty Creek bottlings that aren’t available in the U.S.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Johnnie Walker Swing

stats: Blended Scotch Whisky, no age statement, 40%, $65

The greatness of Scotland lies within its people, and I had the pleasure of meeting many wonderful Scots during the two weeks I spent there. But one man in particular stands out in my mind. After little more than 24 hours in the country, my father and I had a bit of spare time before catching a late afternoon ferry from Oban to Mull. We made our way to Dunstaffnage Castle, but before heading inside to explore, we ended up in a conversation with an older gentleman (I’m guessing mid to late 60’s) who was in charge of overseeing the restoration work that was being carried out on the castle. He was friendly and gregarious in a very genuine but stoic sort of way.

Our new acquaintance was quite interested in knowing about where we had come from and the nature of out trip. He seemed to delight in the whisky-centric theme of our travels and mentioned that his father had worked in the Oban distillery for 30 years. 

It was with a slight look of sadness that he spoke of the distillery not being anything like it had many years ago. If I had known then what I know now, I certainly would have asked him what time period his father’s tenure at Oban had covered. I’m guessing that his father most likely worked there during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. And if I’m correct, I’m sure his father would have lamented the changes in his workplace as modernization saw the elimination of coal fired stills and traditional floor maltings at Oban as the 1960’s gave way to the 70’s.

He went on to mention that his father had gotten whisky from the Politician as a boy and this was what had sparked an interest that eventually led to his father’s employment in a distillery. Knowing nothing of this bit of history, I was thinking perhaps a corrupt public official had exchanged whisky for votes many decades ago. I must have shown a confused look, as he then informed me that the Politician was a boat that carried whisky.

Still a little perplexed, I mentioned Cutty Sark (the whisky was named for the ship, but the ship never transported whisky). He reiterated that the Politician was the name of the boat which carried a load of whisky, but from there the conversation meandered on to other topics.

I likely would have forgotten that discussion, but the Politician came up again just 30 hours later while my father and I were enjoying a few post-dinner single malts in one of Tobermory’s pubs. I ended up talking with a retired Englishman who had been traveling to the Hebrides (Scotland’s western isles) for many years in his free time. He mentioned that the Isle of Mull was just a brief stopover and that he would be on Eriskay, drinking in the Politician the next night.

I excitedly replied “Isn’t that a boat? Someone was just telling me about it yesterday”. Then I got the full explanation: the S.S. Politician was a cargo ship that ran aground in 1941 in the Outer Hebrides with a massive load of whisky, much of which was “salvaged” by the islanders. The story was the subject of a novel which was later made into a movie, and eventually a pub was named for the ship on Eriskay, the closest island to its grounding.

Apparently the book and the movie were both quite popular in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. And even though the story is now ingrained in Scottish folklore it seems to have been largely forgotten in the U.S.

My curiosity was certainly piqued, and once I got home I began looking for the book so I could learn the details of the story. This was when I discovered that there had actually been two books written about the Politician: Whisky Galore (which inspired the movie of the same name) was a fictional tale loosely based on the story of the Politician and was published in 1947, and Scotch on the Rocks was more of a documentary / investigative work exploring the true story of the Politician and was published in 1963.

The later of the two was of far more interest to me and fortunately a new printing had been released in 2005, making it widely available again. While the tale of the Politician is a fascinating one in its own right, a substantial portion of Scotch on the Rocks is dedicated to recounting the author’s efforts to uncover the facts of the story 20 years after the events took place. This seemed like unnecessary peripheral information to me at first, but I eventually came to realize that what I originally viewed as a shortcoming was actually one of the book’s strongest attributes.

The author, Arthur Swinson, manages to contrast life in the islands vs. the mainland U.K. as well as highlighting societal changes that had taken place between the early 1940’s and early 1960’s, which adds some interesting facets to his account. But only now, 50 years after the book was written, as we are firmly entrenched in the age of electronic information, have some parts of the narrative become so captivating. As the author details his travels and detective work that were necessary to uncover the truth and paint a full picture of the events, it becomes overwhelmingly clear just how much the times have changed.

In case it’s not already obvious, I regard this as highly recommended reading. I did find the sizeable cast of characters a bit hard to keep track of, but this issue may have been compounded by the fact that I read the book at a fairly slow pace. And although a few maps are included, they don’t detail some of the locations referenced in the book very well. I found the following map very helpful in alleviating some of my confusion:

As for the whisky, roughly 250,000 bottles of Scotch were aboard the Politician when she ran aground. Whisky Galore only mentions a few brands but notes that the ship’s liquid cargo was of top quality. I’ve come across other sources that mention more brands and bottlings. They all appear to be blends, and that makes sense; very little single malt was being bottled as such during that time period.

As I scanned my whisky shelf looking for an appropriate bottle to tie-in to my anecdote and book review, there it was; Johnnie Walker Swing. It’s a blend that was introduced in 1932, and with Walker Black and Walker Red supposedly part of the Politician’s cargo I’d be surprised if there weren’t at least a few cases of Swing on board as well. But it’s the bottle that separates it from the rest of the Johnnie Walker lineup. The decanter is reminiscent of many that are used for Cognac, however it has a unique convex base that allows it to swing gracefully back and forth (rather than falling over and breaking) while onboard a vessel which is encountering rough seas. The maritime connection couldn’t be more fitting.

The aromas are dense but not aggressive, showing complex notes of malt and fruit with a delicate floral aspect and a hint of dry earthiness (probably peat induced).
On the palate it strikes me as being very well-composed and balanced, with an intricate mix of flavors. Perhaps it is this balanced complexity that almost makes it seem too mild up front, as no aspect really comes to the fore.
But then, as it transitions into the finish, it starts to show some backbone. With a warming, spice laden character rearing up, it gives the impression of a higher alcohol level than what is actually there. At the same time some delicate peat notes emerge. It all eventually backs down, slowly and gracefully fading.

Blended Scotches don’t generally do too much for me, and the blends that I’ve taken a liking to all tend to have a healthy dose of peat smoke. Walker Swing seems to fall midway between those that I like and those that I’m totally indifferent toward.