Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Holiday Whiskyfest Tasting

Sometimes getting the opportunity to taste rare whiskies is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. While I was visiting Massachusetts around Thanksgiving I stopped by a few of the more reputable whisky purveyors in the area to see if they had anything interesting on their shelves.

While I was perusing the selection at Luke’s Liquors in Rockland, an announcement came down from above, promoting their Holiday Whiskeyfest, which was just a week away and would feature many limited and older offerings. Then I overheard another customer saying that he’d been to the event in previous years and it was the best five dollars that he’d ever spent.

While it’s unusual for me to come down out of the mountains and travel to the Boston area twice in little more than a week, luck would have it that I needed to be back in the neighborhood for a social engagement the first weekend of December.

I was near the store the night before the event and stopped by for a quick glance across the shelves. I struck up a conversation with a few of the people working there and pressed for a little information about the tasting. It was scheduled from 1:00 to 3:00, but they suggested that I get there before 1:00 just to find parking. The vendors would all stop pouring at 3:00, so getting there early would also maximize the tasting opportunities.

Punctuality not being my strong suit, I rolled up at 1:05 to a nearly full parking lot and a store packed with people. I paid my $5 entry fee and was given a guide book and a complimentary tasting glass. They ran out of those glasses about 10 minutes after I got there. A combination of spirits companies, importers and distributors had 30 tables set up around the store, each featuring anywhere from one to a dozen whiskies.

With roughly 150 bottlings on offer, there was no way to taste them all. I was anxious and jumped right into the action. In retrospect, I should have taken a few minutes to go through the guide book, prioritize and strategize. Some of the presenters only brought one bottle of each of their high-end offerings so some things that I would like to have tasted weren’t available toward the end. There were also some tables that I never even made it to. I probably spent a little too much time tasting whiskies that weren’t all that important to me early on as well.

Obviously this was no time for putting together detailed tasting notes, so most of what follows will be more along the lines of general impressions.

First up was the Dewar’s table, featuring several variants of that blend and two of its component single malts – Aberfeldy and Craigellachie. I’ve never been a big Dewar’s fan, but I tried the 15 year (they also had the 12 year and 18 year on offer). It was nice, and a far cry better than Dewar’s white label, but still not really my cup of tea. I passed on the Aberfeldy; had them before, not my style. I had seen the Craigellachie on the shelf recently but didn’t know much about it. This is a fairly large distillery located in the heart of Speyside that was established in 1891. In 1998 its ownership passed from Diageo to John Dewar & Sons. Very few official bottlings of Craigellachie had been released over the years, with the bulk of the distillery’s production gong into blends. That all changed with the introduction of a new line of single malts in the fall of 2014. It consists of a 13 year, 17 year, 19 year and 23 year. The 19 year is exclusive to Travel Retail, and there is rumor of a 31 year coming soon. I tasted the 13 year and the 23 year. While both were quite good, stylistically they weren’t really my favorites. That being said, they did earn my respect on several fronts. I’m always happy to see official bottlings from distilleries that didn’t get much attention in the past. The whole lineup is bottled at 46% abv, with natural color and non-chill filtered. Craigellachie is also one of just a handful of single malt distilleries still using traditional worm tubs to condense the vapors coming off the stills. This results in a weightier, more sulfury spirit (and I’m a sucker for traditional methods).

Next up was a new offering from Oban called “Little Bay”, which carries the sub-title “Small Cask” on the label. I had seen it on the shelf the night before and was curious about it but there was really no information online, so I was quite happy to see it at the tasting. The information on the tube says that mature Oban is given extra time in small oak casks to make the Little Bay version. Part of me wants to be critical of the rather vague term “mature” being used instead of an age statement here. But Laphroaig basically does the same thing with their Quarter Cask bottling, and I’m a big fan of that whisky. The lack of age statement is understandable if they are putting a wide age range of single malts into the smaller casks for finishing, as Laphroaig supposedly does. It would be nice to see some unofficial info from the distillery on the range of ages in the mix though. As for the whisky, it was definitely a bolder, spicier, more oak driven incarnation of Oban. Interesting, but I prefer the more elegant persona of the flagship 14 year.

I’ll just do a quick run-through of some other notables.

Jim Beam Single Barrel – not bad, but still tastes like Jim Beam. I guess I’m just not a fan of the funky flavors that are a characteristic of Beam’s proprietary yeast strain.

Johnnie Walker Platinum was nice but kind of pedestrian for the price (this has long been my opinion of Walker Blue as well).

Wild Turkey Forgiven (a vatting of their straight bourbon and straight rye; the concept was supposedly inspired by a barrel dumping mistake at the distillery) was a whiskey that I felt pretty indifferent towards when I tasted it. It seemed to me like it was a little too similar to the 81 proof Wild Turkey rye.

This was my first time tasting Wild Turkey’s Kentucky Spirit (101 proof, single barrel, no age statement, but website says 8.5 to 9.5 years) and their Rare Breed (108.2 proof, no age statement, said to be a vatting of 6, 8 and 12 year). I liked them both, but did prefer the Kentucky Spirit.

16 year Glen Grant stood out to me with an enchanting spicy character.

I was quite impressed by the 18 year Talisker. I really like the flagship 10 year and Talisker Distiller’s Edition, even though they are quite different from each other. The 18 year is elegant and refined, showing another unique face of the only distillery on the Isle of Skye.

18 year Bowmore may have been the surprise of the day for me. The distillery has enjoyed a stellar reputation for the whiskies it produced in the 1960’s, but its image has been tarnished more recently. Whisky produced there through the 1980’s has an extreme perfume-like character. Some refer to this as FWP Bowmore (French whore’s perfume). I’ve also found their more recent non-age stated bottlings to be rather uninspiring. The 18 year I tasted was exceptionally well composed and actually smokier than I expected (Bowmore starts off moderately peated and that is a characteristic that generally fades with time in the barrel).

I thought the 12 year Glen Garioch was quite good, but another that was not really my style. I much prefer pre-1995 Glen Garioch bottlings, which were distilled before they switched to completely unpeated malt.

In the past I’ve said that I really don’t care for the house style of Balvenie, but I find it more palatable in older and/or sherry finished expressions, like the 17 year Double Wood. Apparently I was partly wrong as I found out when I tasted the 25 year Single Barrel Balvenie (at $500 a bottle I was unlikely to try this anywhere besides at a free tasting). It is aged in ex-Bourbon barrels, and I found it just as unappealing as their similarly matured Founder’s Reserve 10 year old. I would be curious to try something from Balvenie that was aged exclusively in Sherry casks, but that seems to be a rare bird.

I’ve had a bottled of 17 year Old Pulteney that was thoroughly disappointing sitting on my shelf at home for a few years. The 12 year that I sampled at the tasting was good enough to restore my faith in that distillery. I wish I had gotten to that table before they ran out of the 21 year.

I tried a few vintage dated single malts from Balblair (a 1975 and the other was either 94 or 95) that were at least interesting enough to make me want to research the distillery and revisit the whisky.

One distiller has piqued my interest with their offerings that I’ve seen on the shelf lately. The product of the Knockdhu distillery, anCnoc single malts have gone by that name since 1994 to avoid confusion with the Knockando distillery, which has a rather poor reputation. The current owners, Inver House, restarted the distillery when they bought it in 1989, after a six year closure. The lineup consisted of just a 12 year and a 16 year for some time, but there have been a series of limited vintage releases over the last 10 years. They have also added an 18 year, a 22 year and a 35 year to the lineup. In 2012 anCnoc put out a series of limited edition bottlings in conjunction with Scottish born illustrator Peter Arkle. In 2014 they put out a range of peated single malts with various phenol levels (measured in parts per million, ppm). These were named for various traditional peat cutting tools. I was able to taste one called Flaughter (14.8 ppm). I was quite impressed even though it was toward the end of the event and I was suffering from palate fatigue. I certainly hope to revisit this series soon.

The part of the event that I found simultaneously amusing and annoying was the fact that I came across several people who were pouring whisky and dispensing blatantly incorrect information about it. The Buffalo Trace table had both Sazerac Rye and E.H. Taylor Rye. When I mentioned that they came from two different mash bills and that the Taylor had no corn in it (information which is readily available on the company’s website) he looked surprised before disagreeing with me and insisting that it must have some corn in the recipe. After tasting the 25 year Balvenie, and not knowing anything about it at the time, I asked if it was aged exclusively in Bourbon barrels. The response blurted out at me was “it’s aged in oak”. The gentleman representing Diageo’s Scotch selections stated at least three times that Oban was a completely unpeated single malt. The fact that Oban is lightly peated (actually, on the heavier side of lightly) is basic single malt knowledge and should be obvious to anyone who tastes it. I was too polite to correct him in front of a large crowd. When I asked him about the new Oban Little Bay, he admitted that it was quite new and that he didn’t know much about it. Then he told me it was aged exclusively in small casks. When I pointed out that the blurb on the packaging mentioned something about “fully mature” Oban, he changed his mind and told me it was a vatting of whisky aged only in small casks and whisky aged only in traditional sized casks, stressing that that makes a big difference in the flavor profile. I let the conversation go there, but re-reading the packaging later it was quite clear that Little Bay is primarily matured in Bourbon barrels before being finished in small casks. There was a woman pouring at one of the Beam tables who was likely recruited based on looks. After a brief conversation she deferred to one of her more informed colleagues for the details I was asking about. She also mentioned that I was probably more qualified to be behind the table pouring than she was. Her honesty was like a breath of fresh air.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Maker's Mark: 90 proof vs. 84 proof vs. Cask Strength

Maker’s Mark (standard issue), Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 45%, $28
Maker’s Mark (lowered proof), Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 42%, $28
Maker’s Mark (Cask Strength), Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 56.6%, $40 (375ml)

I’ll always have a soft spot for Maker’s Mark; it was the bourbon that got me into bourbon after all. While my preferences have evolved over the past 15 years, Maker’s still stands as a consistent, reliable pour, and one that is almost universally available.

Over my last three posts, I’ve examined how American whiskey brands have dealt with product shortages, looking at George Dickel, Wild Turkey Rye and the Old Grand Dad / Basil Hayden family. The success and growth that has been sustained by Maker’s Mark over several decades finally caught up with them early in 2013 and the situation involving their supply challenges has been fascinating.

First a quick background of the brand. Maker’s Mark was started by William “Bill” Samuels, Sr. in 1954 after he purchased an existing distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. Five years later, in 1959, the first bottles of Maker’s went on sale. From the start, the company was a little different. Maker’s Mark carried a premium price tag, though it was never dramatically more expensive than other bourbons. Their primary objective was to produce top quality whisky in small batches. Techniques such as low distillation proof and low barrel-entry proof, the use of Cyprus fermentation tanks, and rotating the barrels through the warehouses for even aging allowed them to justify their price point and promote their focus on quality.

Unique packaging set them apart too: the square-ish bottle with its distinctive red wax seal, and spelling Whisky without the “e” on the label helped Maker’s stand out from other bourbons on the shelf. Another thing that was different about Maker’s Mark was the use of wheat instead of rye in the mash bill. It wasn’t the only, or even the first wheated bourbon made, but Maker’s has used that fact to promote their product more successfully than any other brand.

When the American whiskey industry collapsed in the 1970’s, the conventional wisdom was to fight for the few remaining consumers by cutting costs and appealing to them with low prices. But the Samuels family stayed the course, refused to compromise on quality and even used the fact that Maker’s Mark was expensive as a selling point. That strategy paid off in the early 1980’s when the industry finally started to turn around. After 20 years of slow, steady growth, Maker’s was ready to really take off.

But really taking off requires capital. Often, selling out to a bigger entity is the most realistic way to attain that capital. And that is just what the Samuels family did in 1981 when they sold Maker’s Mark to Hiram Walker & Sons (since then the corporate ownership has transitioned to Allied Domecq in 1987, Fortune Brands in 2005, Beam Inc. in 2011 and Beam-Suntory in 2014).

Bill Samuels, Jr. had been the company president and CEO since 1975 and retained that role after the sale. As he neared retirement Samuels wanted to do something innovative, ensuring that his legacy would encompass more than simply not screwing up the good thing that his parents started. The result was the 2010 introduction of Maker’s Mark 46, a variant of the original that has seared French oak staves inserted into the barrels for a few months at the end of the aging process, and is bottled at the slightly higher 94 proof. The next year Bill Samuels, Jr. retired at the age of 70, handing off the president and CEO positions to Rob Samuels, his 36 year old son.

But Maker’s 46 is somewhat of an anomaly; for all of its prior history the company had made almost nothing but the standard Maker’s Mark, aged 6 to 7 years and bottled at 90 proof. Their driving principle has been that they perfected the product early on, so there was no sense in changing it or producing other variations of it. That fact made the February 2013 announcement that Maker’s Mark would lower its proof from 90 to 84 a bit harder for consumers to accept than if similar news had come from any other bourbon brand.

The proof-lowering news from Maker’s started what is arguably the biggest controversy in recent American whiskey history. While some pundits called the move unprecedented, that simply was not the case. Jack Daniel’s had lowered the proof of their flagship black label bottling from 90 to 86 proof in 1987, and then to 80 proof in 2002. Many consumers were outraged by that move too, but it was a different time; the internet wasn’t so pervasive back then and the 24-hour news cycle was only starting to establish itself. The consumer angst was short lived and those higher proof JD’s were all but forgotten before long.

It was a different story for Maker’s Mark in 2013 though. News of the proof change spread quickly online and consumer anger over the change went viral. The media latched on to the story and it was being covered not just by the spirits industry press, but also by mainstream news outlets. When people who don’t even drink whisky are talking about whiskey, you know the news is big.

Almost all of the coverage and reaction was negative. Fans were shocked by what they assumed would be a detrimental change to a product that they were loyal to and passionate about. The dreaded “watered down” phrase was freely bandied about. Many also viewed the proof lowering without a corresponding drop in price as a de facto price increase. Criticism from their customers was so sharp that Maker’s Mark reversed the decision just eight days after announcing it.

The situation garnered so much attention that some people began to speculate that the whole thing had been a publicity stunt. That idea was reinforced by the fact that the Samuels had been so brilliant with their marketing for the brand’s entire history up to that point. It seemed odd that they would suddenly do something so stupid. Then, in September of 2014, Maker’s Mark introduced a new Cask Strength bottling. This new release was viewed by some skeptics as evidence that Maker’s Mark didn’t really have supply issues and that the proof lowering fiasco was a marketing ploy to drive sales.

Let’s look at some numbers and try to get a sense of what’s really going on. As I said above, the Samuels family members have always been brilliant marketers. And once the company had corporate backing, they were in a position to achieve double digit growth percentages year after year. That means production increases had to be managed to match future growth. While they have essentially been able to keep up, demand has continually been slightly ahead of supply.

Looking at the numbers for annual net sales growth is interesting (it’s been right around 15% each year since 2010), but the numbers that I was able to find for annual case sales are more relevant because they can be compared to output capacity.

1994 – 175,000 cases
2007 – 800,000 cases
2011 – 1,000,000 cases
2013 – 1,400,000 cases

In 1996 a second still house was added, doubling capacity from 750,000 cases to 1,500,000 cases. Remember though, the whiskey has to age for about six years, so they wouldn’t have been able to grow beyond 750,000 cases per year until 2002.

While the 1.4 million cases sold in 2013 was less than the distillery was capable of producing, it’s unlikely that they had entered more than that into barrels in 2007. Going back 6 years from the start of the shortage, we land squarely at the start of the 2007/2008 Financial Crisis. I think it’s highly likely that there was a knee jerk reaction at Maker’s Mark to that period of economic instability. They probably cut production, or at least stopped increasing it, bringing about the shortage six years later.

In fact, there’s further evidence that the shortage was real. By the spring of 2013 Maker’s had limited (or even suspended) production of their 1.75 liter bottles. Diverting whiskey from the bigger bottles was necessary to ensure that they could fulfill all of the orders they had for the standard size bottles. The management at Maker’s also revealed that they had begun to employ a barrel rinsing process to extract as much whiskey from the oak as possible to reach that 1.4 million case total for the year.

Plans for the addition of a third still house had been announced in 2005, which would increase capacity 50%, to 2.2 million cases per year. That project got delayed when the corporate owner switched from Allied Domecq to Fortune Brands later that year. I suspect the financial issues of 07/08 delayed investment in that project even further. The latest expansion finally got under way last spring, but the production increase won’t go into effect until mid 2015 and the additional whiskey won’t hit the shelves until 2021.

The thought of the proof lowering fiasco having been part of grand marketing scheme did sound plausible to me on the surface, but as I’ve dug deeper and looked at the numbers, the idea has simply stopped making sense to me. There was no reason for them to engage in a risky marketing strategy when major production increases wouldn’t come to fruition for another eight years.

The management at Maker’s Mark probably bumped production back up pretty quickly in 2008 as the economic situation stabilized. That would give them enough extra whiskey to be able to put out the new Cask Strength bottling. And considering its substantially higher price point, it probably won’t draw too heavily from their supply.

The production of 84 proof Maker’s Mark early in 2013 lasted about a week. Considering their production level for that year, they probably bottled between 20,000 and 30,000 cases of the lower proof version. It went through the normal distribution channels but spread pretty unevenly around the country; some states saw none at all and others got quite a bit. It took some work, but I was able to get my hands on one of those bottles. Writing about it was something that I just kept putting off for various reasons. However, my procrastination ended up being beneficial; a side-by-side tasting of the 84 proof, the flagship 90 proof and the new Cask Strength will make for a much more interesting comparison.

Maker’s Mark (90 proof)
nose – Leather and shoe polish are the most obvious notes, but there is also a dusty grain quality and an underlying touch of sweetness. It is nicely balanced with just enough alcohol mingled in with the aromatics.
palate – The sweetness comes more to the fore on the palate but certainly not to the point of being cloying. Corn-driven grain notes mix with a vanilla and leathery oak character.
finish – Warming spice notes do come into play on the finish, but without the floral and cinnamon character common to rye based bourbons.
overall – It’s approachable but by no means lacking backbone. While the flavors don’t evolve in a dramatic way, they are well integrated. There might be a touch of astringency late on the finish, but one would be hard pressed to find any major flaws here.

Maker’s Mark (84 proof)
nose – The aromas are similar to the 90 proof Maker’s, but notably thinner. I’m also picking up a bit of mint that I didn’t notice in the original.
palate – There is less depth of flavor overall, but the balance has shifted as well. The sweetness and oak character have dropped back while the corn-driven flavors have become more dominant.
finish – It has the same warming spice quality on the finish, but far less flavor has carried along to that point.
overall – This is a significant departure from the 90 proof Maker’s; thinner, drier, more corn-like and not nearly as well-integrated.

Maker’s Mark (113.2 proof)
nose – It’s quite similar to the 90 proof in terms of the aromas, but much fuller, sharper and more dense.
palate – The classic Maker’s sweetness jumps out right up front, along with all of the flavors that keep the 90 proof version in check, but everything is amplified. That sweet start transitions into a drier mid palate rather quickly though, with lots of oak character and subtle nuttiness providing a pleasant segue to the finish
finish – It has a big, bold, spicy finish. While this is certainly alcohol driven, plenty of flavor (leather, oak, spearmint, teaberry) has carried along to keep things in balance. The finish is very long and warming.
overall – Robust and powerful, but still sippable neat. It has an interesting contrast from start to finish, going from sweet to dry. It’s a little pricey to be a regular pour, but well worth seeking out if you are fan of Maker’s Mark (or even if you weren’t before).

Maker’s Mark has been known almost exclusively for its 90 proof version through most of the brand’s history, but there have been higher and lower proof offerings for the export market. A few higher proof variants went to Japan almost 15 years ago, as reviewed here. In Australia, Maker’s went from 90 proof to 86 proof around the year 2000, and to 80 proof around 2010. Those changes probably had more to do with Australia’s proof-based import taxes than supply issues though.

The obvious conclusion from this tasting is that 90 proof is kind of a sweet spot for Maker’s, although higher proofs certainly don’t hurt it. The important questions lie in what the future holds for the brand. Current capacity of the distillery has been stated at 1.56 million cases per year. I’ll guesstimate that the barrel rinsing program boosted that by 5%, so maybe 1.64 million cases per year. 2013 sales were 1.4 million cases, and they have seen steady 15% annual growth since at least 2010. That means they’re pretty much maxed out now even if they had the foresight to maximize production six years ago. With the increased output of the third stillhouse not coming to maturation until 2021 and a failed attempt to lower the whiskey’s proof behind us, the only logical conclusion is that we will be coming into a period of rising prices and/or product allocation for Maker’s Mark.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Old Grand Dad 80 proof vs. Basil Hayden's

Old Grand-Dad 80 proof, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, no age statement, 40%, $15
Basil Hayden’s, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, no age statement, 40%, $41

Like the Wild Turkey Rye that I recently reviewed, Old Grand-Dad Bourbon has also become a favorite pour of the ever expanding craft cocktail movement. And like Wild Turkey Rye, Old Grand-Dad has also had to deal with supply issues in recent years. Before I examine how the situation has been handled, let’s take a quick look at the history of the brand.

The story of Old Grand-Dad starts with, well, Old Grand-Dad himself. Basil Hayden was an American colonist of English descent who was born in Maryland in the mid 1700’s. In the late 1700’s he led a group of settler’s to what is now Nelson County, Kentucky. He established a farm there and began distilling as a supplemental activity. According to some accounts, he was noted for using a higher percentage of rye in his whiskey than most other distillers in the area.

The farm and the farmer-distiller tradition were passed on to Basil’s son, Lewis, around 1820. Lewis’s second son, Raymond Bishop Hayden, who was born in 1821, took over the farm and its small distillery after his father’s passing, at some point in the 1840’s.

In the ensuing decades the surrounding area developed and new railroads expanded trade beyond the markets that were accessible by river, allowing the whiskey business to become more commercialized. Raymond Hayden decided to capitalize on this situation and with a business partner he built the R.B. Hayden and Company Distillery, in Hobbs, Kentucky (just outside of Clermont), in 1882. Their flagship bourbon was named Old Grand-Dad in honor of Raymond’s grandfather, Basil Hayden.

Just three years later Raymond Hayden passed away with no heirs and controlling interest in the business was sold off by his estate. By 1899 the distillery and its main brand had been sold to three brothers from the Wathen family, which was rapidly becoming a powerhouse in the Kentucky whiskey industry. They changed the official name of the distillery to Old Grand-Dad.

The next generation of Wathens carried the brand into Prohibition. They became consolidators, buying whiskey from the warehouses of other former distillers, and were licensed to sell medicinal whisky through their American Medicinal Spirits company. Although the original distillery never reopened, the brand lived on and survived Prohibition. In 1929 the Wathens sold out to the National Distillers Products Corporation, a company which had become a large shareholder in AMS. National and another company named Schenley went on to be the two big post-Prohibition spirits companies in the United States.

In 1940 National bought the K Taylor Distillery, located just outside Frankfort, and renamed it Old Grand-Dad. That distillery had been built by one of E.H. Taylor’s sons, Kenner Taylor. It was completed in 1937, just after his death, but still named after him. Old Grand-Dad bourbon was made there until National was acquired by Jim Beam Brands in 1987. It is now produced at either Beam's Clermont, KY plant, or their Boston, KY plant, or both.

At the time of that last acquisition there was still an American whiskey glut. Beam bought National for its other assets; primarily the DeKuyper family of cordials. National’s many whisky brands just came along as part of the package. Most of the brands that were kept active were switched over to Beam’s standard recipe and house yeast. But since Old Grand-Dad was such a prominent brand and still commanding a respectable price, the folks at Beam wisely decided to let it keep a separate mash bill and its unique yeast. The standard Beam recipe has about 15% rye, where the Old Grand-Dad recipe has about 30% rye.

Then, in 1992, Beam introduced their Small Batch Bourbon Collection. Three of its four bottlings (Booker’s, Baker’s and Knob Creek) use whiskey made with the standard Beam mash bill. The fourth, Basil Hayden’s, uses the high-rye Old Grand-Dad recipe.

Toward the end of the first decade of the new millennium Old Grand-Dad, particularly the 100 proof Bottled-in-Bond variant, started to become quite popular with serious bartenders. Basil Hayden’s was also seeing strong sales growth, with a 29% jump in 2011 (a trend which continued in 2012 and 2013).

This put pressure on supplies and by 2012 something had to give. Old Grand-Dad had been available in three proofs; 86, 100 and 114 (I compared them early last year) for a long time, longer than Beam had owned the brand.  Basil Hayden's, on the other hand, had only been offered at 80 proof (which is the legal minimum) since its inception. 
Adding a fourth, lower proof Old Grand-Dad would have cluttered store shelves and likely not helped the supply problem much. With a few rare exceptions, Old Grand-Dad had been a brand without age statements throughout its history, but Basil Hayden’s had carried an 8 year age statement all along.

Beam ended up doing two things. They lowered the least expensive Old Grand-Dad bottling from 86 proof to 80 proof and they dropped the 8 year age statement from Basil Hayden’s. The reduction in proof happened in the second half of 2012 and the age statement was lost early in 2013.

From a public relations perspective, these were the least damaging moves they could have made. As I said in my last post, anger over a dropped age statement is often short-lived, if the change is even noticed at all. As for Old Grand-Dad, the 86 proof ended up being the sacrificial lamb for the rest of the lineup. I’m sure their thinking was that the majority of people buying the 86 proof were focused primarily on price. While some consumers would undoubtedly be upset by that change, most of the people who really care about such matters were already drinking the 100 proof and/or the 114 proof. Messing with either of those bottlings would have resulted in significant outrage from Old Grand-Dad loyalists.

But this brought about an interesting situation; the lowest proof Old Grand-Dad and Basil Hayden’s were now both 80 proof non age-stated bourbons made from the same distillate. Was there any difference between them?

I did a little research and found information posted by Chuck Cowdery in 2008 saying that Beam did have some production differences for the their Small Batch Collection. Barrel management was part of that, with specific warehouse locations reserved for barrels that were destined to be used for the Collection bottlings. I’m not sure if they differentiated the quality of the oak (tighter grain, air dried staves, etc) as well, but I suppose that is possible. Distillation proof was the other factor with Booker’s and Baker’s coming off the still at 125 proof, Knob Creek at 130 and all Jim Beam bottlings at 135. Basil Hayden’s and Old Grand-Dad were said to come off the still at 127 proof. These bourbons are entered into the barrel at 125 proof across the board.

So, it looks like the only technical difference between the two is barrel management and possibly age. Basil Hayden's is certainly matured longer than Old Grand-Dad, but without official age statements on the bottles, there's no way to know how much of an age difference we're dealing with. Time to taste them for myself:

Old Grand-Dad, 80 proof
Nose – Pleasant, with the signature clay-like earthiness, and a subtle floral/spice aroma.
Palate – It has some rye character (both in a floral and an earthy way) but the flavors come across in sort of an astringent, chemical-like manor. Not in a horrible way, just slightly off-putting.
Finish – Respectable warming spice notes come to the fore on the finish, but the flavors that were prominent up front linger on in the background.
Overall – There’s nothing terribly offensive about it, but the redeeming qualities of the finish only manage to elevate it to mediocrity.

Basil Hayden’s, no age statement
Nose – Similar in style, though somewhat less aromatic. The clay-like earthiness is less pronounced and it shows more vanilla and woody notes.
Palate – Nice mix of dry earthiness, floral rye notes, vanilla and oak. The spicy character starts sooner here; more on the mid-palate.
Finish – The spice notes are reminiscent of “cinnamon red hots” and build as the other flavors fade moving into the finish. It gets a little thin toward the end, but not to a fault.
Overall – It has more depth and complexity than the 80 proof Old Grand-Dad. It’s still somewhat delicate overall, but I like the way it evolves from start to finish.

I sampled some 86 proof Old Grand-Dad to see how it compare to the new 80 proof. I found it to be a little more aromatic and much better composed. The 80 proof is like a light switch, going from the floral/earthy mid-palate to spicy finish. The 86 proof is more balanced up front and has a more gradual building of the spice notes moving into the finish; those notes also get more fiery at the end. Then I took a quick sip of 100 proof Old Grand-Dad and it showed them all who’s boss.

After several years of tight supplies, all of the Old Grand-Dad bottlings are probably not much older than the 4 year minimum required of non age-stated bourbons. When Basil Hayden’s lost its age statement, it’s not as if it would suddenly jump from being 8 years old to 4 years old. The age will gradually creep down as needed to meet demand until supply can catch up. That’s the important thing to keep in mind here; there was a significant difference in the two whiskeys I compared today, but that difference may diminish over the coming years if sales continue to grow faster than production has grown.

Many people criticize Basil Hayden’s for being too mild. But it does serve a purpose; it’s a good transition into bourbon from blended Scotch or Canadian whisky. The funny thing is that it could also act as a good stepping stone – to 100 proof Old Grand-Dad. In light of my last Old Grand-Dad review, my biggest surprise here was just how good the new 80 proof OGD was able to make the old 86 proof look.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Wild Turkey Rye: 101 proof vs. 81 proof vs. Russell’s Reserve

Wild Turkey Rye 101: Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, no age statement, 50.5%, $30
Russell’s Reserve Rye: Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, aged 6 years, 45.0%, $45
Wild Turkey Rye 81: Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, no age statement, 40.5%, $23

In my last post I took a look at what can happen if a distiller produces too much whiskey. The end result is older whiskey at suppressed prices and potentially shutting down operations for some length of time if the situation isn’t corrected quickly enough. There was a period where the whole industry went through this cycle. Whiskey drinkers may not have recognized it at the time, but the late 70’s through the 80’s was a great era for them; underpriced, extra-aged whiskey was bountiful in those years.

Of course that is far from an ideal scenario for the producers who are struggling to remain profitable, so it’s understandable why distillers didn’t ramp up production too quickly in the early part of the current boom. But now that demand for whiskey has continued to grow unabated for a surprising number of years, we’ve gotten to a point where no one has enough whiskey.

In such a situation, producers who had been operating below capacity can just turn up the wick, but they still have to wait for the whiskey to age. For the ones who need to add infrastructure in order to increase output, they also have to wait the additional time needed for permitting and construction.

In the short term there are four things that can be done to deal with the issue. The first is to put whiskeys on allocation (this is where producers allot certain quantities of product to various distribution areas every so often) and/or limit their distribution (the product would only be distributed in certain key markets that the distiller feels are most important). The second is to raise prices in order to temper demand.

Both of these strategies are dangerous because they have the potential to alienate consumers. If said consumers switch to another brand when their old favorite isn’t available (regularly or at all), it might be hard to win them back once supplies are restored. Raising prices enough to keep new customers at bay (at least temporarily) is okay, but raising them to the point of pushing away existing customers could also make it difficult to get them back. Constricting supply and lowering demand through pricing both have the potential to be detrimental to long term growth.

The other two things that can be done to deal with whiskey shortages; lowering proof and reducing age, are what I’ll focus on for this post and the next two. Lowering proof is just a matter of adding more water at bottling, and instantly stretches supplies. Reducing age is a little trickier because it’s a bit more of a shell game. You’re tapping into your future supply for today’s finished product, and you can only do that for so long. It can buy you time, but sooner or later some big production increases have to come up through the warehouses to balance things out.

If a whiskey never had an age statement, then changing its age isn’t too problematic, assuming the changes happen somewhat gradually. Most styles of American whiskey do require an age statement if they are less than 4 years old, so at least that reassuring floor of youth exists. Many consumers have found the profusion of disappearing age statements that we’ve been witness to recently off-putting though. That being said, angst over the loss of an age statement is usually short lived; few people complain about a dropped age statement years down the road. Proof, on the other hand, is always there to be seen on the label. Partiality to a particular alcoholic strength is a matter of personal preference, but most whiskey connoisseurs associate higher proofs with more concentrated flavors and higher quality. When proof is lowered to the mid-80’s or less, the term “watered down” is often bandied about. Again, producers run the risk of alienating faithful consumers with these changes.

Even though Rye is a small category of American whiskey relative to Bourbon, the former has exceeded the latter in terms of sales growth in recent years, at least on a percentage basis. The popularity of the craft cocktail movement and its fascination with pre-Prohibition cocktails has been a driving force behind the growth of Rye. Wild Turkey 101 Rye (as well as Rittenhouse Rye), with its bold flavors and reasonable price, became a favorite of bartenders at the fore of that movement.

Originally introduced in the 1970’s, Wild Turkey’s 101 proof Rye started off as a sourced product. Some time in the late 1980’s production was brought in house. Then in 2007 they introduced the Russell’s Reserve Rye, at 90 proof. The original 101 proof version remained the more popular of the two, and by early 2011 supply problems began to crop up, along with rumors that it was on allocation. A year later they got to the point of having to do something more drastic; it was time to drop the proof.

Clearly concerned about making their customers unhappy, Wild Turkey introduced an 81 proof Rye as a new product, rather than as a reformulation of the much-loved 101 proof Rye. Soon after that they stopped bottling the 101 proof Rye, but the move was announced as a temporary suspension; they promised that it would come back eventually. Skeptics had their doubts, but the distillery had managed to minimize consumer outrage over the move.

After an absence of nearly two years, Wild Turkey Rye 101 did return late in 2013, albeit in a limited way. It was only made available in select markets and only in 1-liter bottles, which the distributors were cajoled into selling primarily to bars and restaurants. A year later it is still only available in 1-liter bottles and still pretty tough to come by, but most people who are seeking it out seem more excited that there’s a chance they might find it again rather than being upset that it was unavailable for almost two years.

As far as age goes, the Russell’s Reserve Rye has been consistent with a 6 year age statement since its introduction. Neither the 101 proof Rye nor the 81 proof Rye has ever had an age statement. It’s likely that their ages have differed from each other and varied over the years, but it’s impossible to know when or by how much.

As for pricing, the 81 proof has held pretty steady at about $23 since its introduction. That price is just slightly higher than the $22 that Wild Turkey 101 Rye was typically priced at before its absence. Since it was marketed as new product rather than a reformulation of the old one, no one really got upset about what could have been viewed as a big drop in proof accompanied by a slight bump in price. Some people did experience a bit of sticker shock when the 101 proof Rye returned. Prices for it vary quite a bit, but $40 seems to be the average. Adjusting for bottle size, that equates to $30 for 750ml. That is a 36% increase, but many still consider it to be reasonably priced, and after a lengthy absence few are complaining about the cost if they can find one. Over the last seven years, the price of the Russell’s Reserve Rye has slowly crept up from its introductory $25 to its current $40. I’m surprised that I’ve never heard of anyone complaining about this price increase, but I suspect that’s a result of Russell’s Reserve Rye having never really caught on in popularity like the 101 Rye did.

101 proof
nose – Primarily clay and leather work gloves, with some spice character and subtle floral aromas.
palate – Bold and full flavored. A bit of sweetness up front quickly gives way to wintergreen mint and cinnamon red hots.
finish – Warming and dry on the finish, which is quite lengthy.
overall – It’s brash and even a bit aggressive, but not to the point of getting out of line, and it maintains nice continuity from start to finish.

Russell’s Reserve
nose – Pretty similar to the 101 but the aromatics are sharper and more dense.
palate – Sweet and woody, pine needle notes stand out.
finish – Warming spice notes do come into pay on the finish, but they are not as pervasive as those on the 101. It seems a little tannic at the very end.
overall – The sweetness at the start carries a little further on this variant. It’s interesting, but not as endearing as the 101.

81 proof
nose – Similar again, but with the aromas reprioritized. The clay and leather are toned down, the spice is very delicate, and the floral aspect is more prominent and slightly perfumed.
palate – There is some sweetness, but the slightly perfumed floral character is the main player here. That being said, the clay/leather/spice combo is just strong enough to keep it from going out of balance.
finish – There’s a minimal amount of spiciness on the palate which carries through to the finish, but the spice character does not gain much strength going into the finish as it does in the other two examples.
overall – I would probably miss this as being a rye whiskey in a blind tasting. It’s not a bad whiskey, just not what I would expect from a rye, especially one carrying the Wild Turkey brand.

My best estimate is that the 101 proof bottle I have is from 2008 or 2009. My initial impression back then was that it had some good flavor but that it was just too hot. Now that it’s had a few years to breath, it seems to have settled down and come into its own. I suppose it’s also possible that my palate has evolved and I may have originally mistaken some of the fiery spice notes for alcoholic heat. The Russell’s Reserve bottle dates to about 2010 and has been open for a while, but not as long as the 101. This may explain the fuller nose I experienced on the Russell’s. The 81 proof bottle was purchased last year and just opened for this tasting.

While I don’t dislike and of the three, I prefer them in the order that I have them listed above. I’m surprised they’re not more similar to each other; this was more of an apples-to-oranges comparison than I expected.

Friday, October 31, 2014

George Dickel, No. 8 vs. No. 12

George Dickel No. 8, Tennessee Whiskey, 40%, $22
George Dickel No. 12, Tennessee Whiskey, 45%, $24

In spite of some economically uncertain times, the worldwide whiskey industry has been enjoying a sustained boom period for upwards of a decade now. But even the best of times can be terribly challenging for an industry whose products see years of aging between their making and their eventual sale. Distillers can’t just increase production levels in lock-step with demand; if that demand vaporizes by the time the whiskey reaches maturity, they risk a logistical nightmare.

Over time many producers have learned to temper their reactions to consumer trends. Between Prohibition, the two World Wars, the Great Depression, the economic recessions of the 70’s and 80’s, and the rise in popularity of clear spirits in the latter half of the 20th century, the last 100 years has seen far more bad times than good for the whiskey industry. It’s understandable that they’ve been a little slow to react to the longest sustained upswing in demand since the post WWII years.

Over the past few years though, we’ve gotten to the point in the American whiskey industry where demand is truly outstripping supply. While dramatic price increases have largely been the domain of the Scotch whisky industry over the last 10 years, American whiskey producers have only recently started to go down that path. They are trying to keep the rising prices somewhat in check though. This is primarily being accomplished by stretching inventory through lowering proof and age. Consumers sometimes view these tactics as de facto price hikes, and it has been very interesting to see how the various companies have dealt with imposing these changes and managing the impact on their images and public relations.

This post is the first in a series of four that will consider different examples of how distillers are attempting to work through their supply issues. Actually, the first case is more of a prelude: a situation where oversupply was followed by a shortage, which happened well before the current boom started causing headaches for most producers.

The George Dickel brand became part of the portfolio of a company called United Distillers in 1987 after that company acquired Dickel’s former parent company, Schenley. In the early 1990’s, United Distillers selected several of its American whiskey brands, Dickel among them, to target for major sales growth in Europe and Asia. Production was ramped up to meet the future demand that was expected from the marketing push.

Unfortunately that demand never really materialized, at least not to the extent that had been forecast. But United Distillers was a very large company that sometimes lacked focus and oversight with its many brands; a situation which led to the overproduction at Dickel continuing unabated for several years longer that in should have.

If the distillery had been producing bourbon, this wouldn’t have been as big of a big problem. The excess could be blended into other, better selling brands owned by the parent company, or even sold on the open market to non-distiller producers. However, Dickel is Tennessee Whiskey, a category unique amongst themselves and Jack Daniel’s. So the distillery was essentially stuck with whatever they had overproduced.

In 1997 Guinness (the parent company of United Distillers) merged with Grand Metropolitan (which had a large European spirits portfolio), forming Diageo. The new company had a lot of debt which required some cost cutting and consolidation. They decided to move their focus away from American whiskey and sold off most of those assets by early 1999, only retaining two brands; Dickel and I. W. Harper (in recent years Harper’s distribution was limited solely to the Asian markets, so you’re unlikely to see it in the U.S.).

The Dickel brand had a loyal following in certain regional markets in the U.S., but overall was not that well known. With the warehouses filled to capacity, production was stopped in February of 1999, the distillery was closed and the marketing budget reduced to zero.

Dickel’s core products, No. 8 and No. 12, carry no age statements, but the distillery does have a target age range for the whiskey that goes into each. With years of production that far outpaced subsequent sales, all they could really do was let the age of the whiskey that they were putting in the bottle slowly creep upwards. The retail price of Dickel was already pretty low, with the No. 12 at $14 and the No. 8 at $13 (as of 2001). Increasing prices wouldn’t help the oversupply situation, so they stayed low.

The stuff was an incredible bargain for a good number of years, which also means it probably wasn’t very profitable. It would have made sense to fire up the closed distillery for a month, or even a few weeks every year to ensure some product continuity and avoid a big gap in the age of the product. But Diageo claimed that the Dickel distillery needed some costly repairs before it could produce whiskey again, and that they wouldn’t make the investment until they were ready to go back to full production. Whether that is true or they were purposely trying to create a shortage as a tool to increase prices is hard to say (but either way, the price hikes did come). Finally, in September of 2003, the distillery was reopened and firing on all cylinders.

Diageo did reinstate a marketing budget for Dickel in 2002. That may have paid off in a big way or it may have been the case of a rising tide lifting all ships, as American whiskey in general was in the midst of a major resurgence. Either way, demand surged in the ensuing years.

But whatever the cause of its new found popularity, that four and a half year gap in production was coming back to haunt the company. By mid 2007 a shortage of the No. 8 was becoming apparent. Of course whiskeys sell at different speeds in different regions, so supply dried up at different times around the country. Late in 2007 a new product called Cascade Hollow was introduced. It carried an age statement of 3 years (most American whiskey categories require an age statement if they are under 4 years old), but its label was almost identical to that of the No. 8, and they shared the same retail price.

By mid to late 2008 they had switched the Cascade Hollow’s black label over to a new red label. This change could have been in response to complaints of deception, or because the company decided to keep the new whiskey around after reintroducing No. 8 and wanted to avoid confusion.

At the end of 2008, after an absence of more than a year, George Dickel No. 8 was back on store shelves, now with a significantly higher price of about $22. The Cascade Hollow bottling remained as a lower priced part of the Dickel lineup until 2013. There was never an outright supply interruption of the No. 12 bottling, but there was a period around 2009 where inventory got pretty tight and it could be hard to find in some areas. Between early 2008 and mid 2009 the price of No. 12 jumped from $14 to $24. Of course some areas move through product more slowly than others, so there were instances where individual stores were selling No. 12 at a lower price than No. 8 for a short period of time.

Looking back and considering that the distillery didn’t produce a drop of whiskey for four and a half years, it’s pretty amazing that the No. 8 was only unavailable for a little over a year and the No. 12 was never completely unavailable. Obviously there was a great deal of liberty taken with the age range of the whiskey that went into these bottlings. Even though these are both no-age-statement bottlings, distillery personal will occasionally mention the age ranges used, and while I wouldn’t trust such statements absolutely, they can be insightful.

I dug up a newspaper article from September of 2003 where Dickel’s master distiller David Backus is quoted as saying that the No. 12 on store shelves is actually 12 years old, and they would prefer it to be about half of that age (I interpret that as 7 years old).

In an interview in the 4th quarter 2006 issue of Malt Advocate, Dickel’s new master distiller John Lunn state that generally Barrel Select is 11 to 12 years old, No. 12 is 10 to 12 years old, and No. 8 is 8 to 10 years old. The most recent info I could find came from a combination of Dickel’s website and a few fairly reliable blogs. They put the Barrel Select at 10 to 12 years, the No. 12 at 6 to 8 years, and the No. 8 at 4 to 6 years.

My first experience with George Dickel was a bottle of No. 12 that I believe I bought some time in 2008. I still have the empty bottle, and according to its code, it was bottled in mid 2007. The whiskey was pretty phenomenal, and I do remember only paying $14 for it.

The bottle of No. 8 that I’m tasting for this post was bottled late in 2008 and the No. 12 that I’m tasting was bottled some time in 2013.

George Dickel No. 8
The nose is full but soft, with mellow corn, complex oak notes, a hint of vanilla sweetness and subtle clay-like earthiness.
On the palate there’s some sweetness up front which is soon overshadowed by a soot-driven smoke and mineral quality. As that mellows, it becomes more vanilla-centric.
The finish sees a nice progression of dry oak and warming spice notes.
Overall it has good complexity but comes across as being a little youthful, though not to the point of being disjointed.

George Dickel No. 12
The nose is similar to the No. 8, though more restrained (surprising given the difference in proof). There is also more of a funky oaky/minerality quality.
On the palate it seems promising up front, but a bitter, astringent mineral-driven character quickly comes to the fore.
This mellows slightly on the finish revealing some dry oak, but it’s pretty one-dimensional overall.

While I didn’t expect this bottle of No. 12 to impress me as much as the one from 2007 (that surely had much older whiskey in it), I was surprised to find the No. 8 so much more to my liking. Many people describe the signature George Dickel character as tasting like Flintstone’s Vitamins. I think this is what I’ve been describing as minerality. While present in the No. 8, it wasn’t to the point of being off-putting. Unfortunately, that seems to be the driving force in flavor profile of the No. 12.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Balvenie, 12 year DoubleWood vs. 17 year DoubleWood vs. 14 year Caribbean Cask

Balvenie 12 year DoubleWood: single malt Scotch, Speyside, 43%, $57
Balvenie 17 year DoubleWood: single malt Scotch, Speyside, 43%, $150
Balvenie 14 year Caribbean Cask: single malt Scotch, Speyside, 43%, $68

I’ve never been an ardent admirer of the Balvenie. I have nothing against the brand and the whisky is highly regarded by most people; it’s just that the house style not really compatible with my personal preferences. I’ve always had a hard time enjoying single malts that have a strong floral component, as the Balvenie does. That being said, I do find some of their expressions a little more palatable than others. Those tend to be the longer aged and/or cask finished bottlings, where to original character of the spirit has been somewhat muted by the maturation process.

When I was whiskey hunting in New Hampshire last year, I was quite excited to come across a three-pack of Balvenie miniatures. I’m always keen to sample whiskies that I’ve never had before and the distillery has been putting out quite a few new expressions in recent years. But it seems silly to buy expensive bottles of single malt that I’ll likely be indifferent toward; three miniatures for $20 is the perfect solution.

I started looking into the history of Balvenie and found some interesting things, especially regarding a few related distilleries. Established in 1892 by William Grant & Sons, Balvenie was built to supplement demand for whisky from its nearby sister distillery, Glenfiddich, which had gone into production just five years earlier, in 1887.

In that era very little single malt Scotch was sold as such; almost all of it was bought by blenders and married with grain whisky. In 1898 William Grant & Sons launched the Grant’s brand of blended Scotch whisky. This move made the company less dependent on other blenders and helped to ensure sales of the malt whisky they produced.

In 1963 the company made a couple of interesting maneuvers. Having grown Grant’s into a very successful line of blended Scotches, they built the Girvan grain distillery. This put them into a position where they were producing most of the whisky (both malt and grain) that went into their blends. In the same year, they started bottling and selling Glenfiddich as a single malt. They weren’t the first distillery to do this, but up until then single malts had been a niche market and were really only sold domestically. Glenfiddich was the first to build a brand around a single malt distillery and they did pioneering work to develop “single malt Scotch” as a category, especially in foreign markets. The company eventually followed suit with Balvenie, officially bottling it as a single malt in the early 1970’s.

With Glenfiddich enjoying rapid sales growth, the company likely felt the need to produce more single malt for their blends. I suspect this situation is what prompted them to build the Ladyburn distillery in 1966. It was a single malt distillery with four pot stills, which was located within the Girvan grain distillery. The whisky industry downturn that started in the 1970’s and lasted through the 1980’s is likely the reason that Ladyburn was decommissioned after just ten years, in 1976. But that wasn’t the only “distillery within a distillery” that the company would construct.

The industry had started to rebound in the late 1980’s, and in 1990 William Grant & Sons built the Kininvie single malt distillery, which may be Scotland’s most obscure. It is located within the Balvenie distillery and really consists of nothing more than a stillhouse. The rest of the whisky making process is carried out in Balvenie’s facilities. Kininvie does maintain a dedicated mash tun and group of washbacks, but they housed in buildings that are an integral part of Balvenie.

I have seen the argument put forth that Kininvie shouldn’t even be considered a separate distillery; that it should rather be classified as Balvenie’s second stillhouse. But if you dig around online you’ll find pictures of Kininvie’s stills, and their shape is dramatically different than those of the Balvenie. In my mind, that makes all of the difference in the world, and entitles Kininvie to its status as a separate distillery. Those who have tasted all three say that the whisky from Kininvie is stylistically midway between that of Balvenie and Glenfiddich. With nothing more than a stillhouse that visitors rarely get to see inside and the fact that no Kininvie was bottled as single malt until a limited release in 2013, it’s easy to understand why this is possibly the least known distillery in Scotland.

Then, in 2007, William Grant & Sons made another big move. They built the Ailsa Bay distillery; a new, modern single malt distillery within the Girvan grain distillery (quite close to where Ladyburn had originally been). In 2010, three years after Ailsa Bay went online, Kininvie was mothballed, but there are rumors that it went back into production in 2013.

What really surprised me though were the relative sizes of these distilleries. Glenfiddich maintains the title of best selling single malt in the world. As such, one would expect the distillery to have a pretty big production capacity, and it does at 10 million lpa (liters per annum) of alcohol.

While the single malts from Balvenie can’t match those of Glenfiddich in terms of sales volume, they do garner more prestige and respect. The Balvenie also projects an image of producing a more handcrafted whisky on a smaller scale. Even though the distillery went through the typical period of modernization in the 1960’s, they have held onto some traditions. Chief among them is growing barley on their 1000 acre farm and malting barley on a traditional floor malting. Like most of the handful of distilleries that still malt barley in-house, it is only a percentage of the total that they use each year. As production goes up and the amount of floor malted barley remains the same, that percentage goes down; it is currently between 9% and 10% at the Balvenie. The distillery is also one of the last to have its own cooperage and a coppersmith on staff to maintain the stills, although those resources are shared with Glenfiddich.

In spite of its artisanal image, production at Balvenie is still quite massive at 5.6 million lpa. Considering that there is little more to Kininvie than a stillhouse, which is often disparagingly referred to as a shed behind Balvenie, it’s natural to assume that a lot less whisky is made there. Surprisingly, Kininvie is capable of putting out 4.8 million lpa of alcohol. Ailsa Bay, which likely won’t be bottled as single malt since the primary purpose of the distillery is to provide malt whisky for the Grant’s blends, originally had a capacity of 5 million lpa. But the number of washbacks and stills at Ailsa Bay were doubled in 2013, increasing capacity to 10 million lpa, and equaling the output of Glenfiddich.

Just to put all of that in perspective, Edradour and Kilchoman, which are some of the smallest distilleries in Scotland are each capable of producing just 100,000 lpa.

Okay, enough of the history lesson, on to the whisky. Most of the bottlings in the Balvenie range were matured in former bourbon barrels (or traditional oak whisky casks, as the company prefers to call them). Many of the expressions have an additional cask finish, usually done for short periods of time. When their 10 year Founder’s Reserve expression was retired in 2009, the 12 year DoubleWood moved into the position of being the Balvenie’s flagship offering. It is aged primarily in bourbon barrels with a finish of just a few months in European oak Sherry casks. The 14 year Caribbean Cask bottling was introduced in 2011. This expression is also aged primarily in bourbon barrels, with just a short finish in American oak casks (I suspect these were also former bourbon barrels) that had been seasoned with rum from the West Indies at Balvenie. The 17 year DoubleWood was introduced in 2012. Like its 12 year sibling, it sees a relatively short finish in European oak Sherry casks, but it spends an extra four years in bourbon barrels beforehand.

Balvenie 12 year DoubleWood:
The nose is floral and grassy, with perhaps a slight vegetal note. Some dry oak aromas come through as well.
On the palate, vanilla and honey also come into play but the floral notes become more dominant by the mid-palate.
As it moves into the finish a dry woodiness emerges along with a very subtle Sherry influence and just a whiff of peat smoke.
Overall, it is well balanced and approachable.

Balvenie 17 year DoubleWood:
The nose is somewhat restrained. Although similar to the 12 year, the aromas lean a bit more toward vanilla and clay.
On the palate it has a little more sweetness up front, but it’s also primarily driven by vanilla and honey. The floral notes are still present, but subdued and playing second-fiddle to the vanilla notes that carry further through on this expression.
It does eventually become dry on the finish, which is much more spice driven compared to the 12 year. The Sherry and peat are still there, but have an even more delicate presence.
Overall, the flavors are more robust throughout compared to the 12 year.

Balvenie 14 year Caribbean Cask:
The nose is oaky with vanilla and a hint of molasses.
On the palate it stays somewhat dry, in spite of the vanilla and demerara sugar notes.
The floral aspect doesn’t really emerge until it moves into the finish, where it also becomes spicy and notably bitter. The peat smoke is all but undetectable.
Overall, it is surprisingly less floral than I expected, but it becomes astringent too a fault on the finish and doesn’t have enough other redeeming qualities to sway my opinion.

With or without my anti-floral biases, the 17 year DoubleWood is the clear winner here. Of course, I’m not about to run out and plunk down $150 for a bottle of it. As for the other two, even though the 14 year Caribbean cask is less offensively floral to me, I can still be unbiased enough to say that the 12 year DoubleWood is clearly its superior.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin vs. Kilchoman Sherry Cask Release

Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin: single malt Scotch, Islay, 51.2%, $80
Kilchoman Sherry Cask Release: single malt Scotch, Islay, 46%, £60

I have quite a few unopened bottles of whisky in the collection, and last week’s Laphroaig tasting served as a good reminder that I’d been meaning to crack open the bottle of Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin that I’d been sitting on for two years. While I was at it, the bottle of Kilchoman Sherry Cask Release that I’d brought back from Scotland in the spring of 2012 seemed like something that would make for an interesting comparison.

Since Laphroaig’s quarter casks play a prominent role in this story, I should address a few common misconceptions about them. They are re-coopered from fresh bourbon barrels, not made new. Also, they are not ¼ the size of a standard 200 liter bourbon barrel. They are 125 liter casks; ¼ the size of the 500 liter butts that were most common when the ¼ casks were originally developed for easier transportation.

Laphroaig has been a bit cryptic when describing the compositions of some of their past Cairdeas bottlings, so it took some research to get a solid idea of what I was dealing with. The Cairdeas Origin is the 2012 release, which celebrates 18 years of the Friends of Laphroaig. The description on the label states that it “combines some of the original liquid used to first create Cairdeas, further matured and complimented with newer Laphroaig spirit that has been fully matured in quarter casks”.

Additionally, I found a quote attributed to the “Distiller’s notes” which states “We specially retained some of our very first Cairdeas for the 'Friends' 18th birthday expression .This whisky is now between 13 and 21 years old. We then blended it (50:50) with some new spirit fully matured in quarter casks for 7 years and bottled it without any chill filtering for maximum flavour”.

The first Cairdeas was released in 2008; I actually tasted it when I toured the distillery in April of 2012. At the time, I was told that it was a vatting of 33 casks – two 17 year 2nd fill sherry butts and 31 bourbon barrels. The bourbon barrels were 9 to 15 years old when the liquid in them was transferred into fresh 1st fill bourbon barrels and aged for another four years. However, that information seems to have been slightly inaccurate.

There’s an interview with Robert Hicks, the master blender who created the original Cairdeas, where he talks about using barrels from an experiment that was done in the development of Laphroaig Quarter Cask. It appears they had started off entering new make spirit directly into the quarter casks for several years, likely starting in 1993. They eventually figured out that it was better to take whisky that had been aging in 1st fill bourbon barrels for several years and then finish it for seven to eight months in the quarter casks. At that point, in 2004, they transferred the whiskey from those experimental quarter casks into 1st fill bourbon barrels to see how it would develop. That is the whisky, along with the two 17 year 2nd fill sherry butts, that was used for the 2008 Cairdeas. It ranged from 9 to 15 years old total, so it was distilled between 1993 and 1999.

The most common production number for 2008 Cairdeas is 3600 bottles. I’ve seen higher numbers, from 7000 to 12,000, but I don’t think they are accurate. I did some calculations to account for evaporation losses, and found that if the 3600 number is correct, it would have been 31 quarter casks that were transferred into an unspecified number of bourbon barrels along with the two sherry butts to compose that bottling.

So, that brings us back to 2012. From the “Distiller’s notes” quoted above, they say that the whiskey from the original Cairdeas is now between 13 and 21 years old. That leads me to believe that there was more of the whisky that had started in quarter casks between 1993 and 1999, and that by 2012 it had been in bourbon barrels for 8 years. That would give it a range of 13 to 19 years old. If more of the sherry butts that were 17 years old in 2008 were aged until 2012 that would put them at 21 years. Of course, that’s just half of the whiskey in the 2012 Cairdeas, the other half is 7 year old that has been aged entirely in quarter casks.

Assuming a somewhat high evaporation rate with the quarter casks, roughly 80 of them would have been needed to represent half of the whisky in the 20,000 bottles of Cairdeas that were released in 2012. That leaves some interesting questions. Did they continue experimenting with quarter casks that were filled with new spirit after 2005? Did they fill quarter casks with new spirit between 2000 and 2004? If so, how many of these quarter casks were produced each year, and has any of the whisky from them been transferred to larger casks?

It seems like there are really interesting stories behind the creation of some of these Cairdeas bottlings. I just wish Laphroaig had chosen to tell us those stories and had been be a little clearer with the details of the composition of the whiskies.

Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin (2012):
The nose has a dry, earthy peat smoke character, but it’s also slight grassy. Imagine throwing straw and a small amount of fresh cut grass on a dying campfire. Oaky notes persist as well.
The palate has just a touch of vanilla up front which quickly gives way to stronger flavors. The earthy peat smoke seems mild at first, but it gradually builds in intensity. Dry, woody oak notes come into play as well.
Some warming spice notes emerge on the finish, but it’s really all about the peat and the oak, each of which has a very dry quality, vying for dominance.
Overall I was a little unsure of this one on the first sip, fearing that it was fatally over-oaked. As I took some time to get to know it however, I found to be an unusual but interesting face of Laphroaig. This is an instance where I don’t find the whisky to be terribly complex overall, but it makes up for that evolving nicely from start to finish.

I wasn’t too fond of the 2008 Cairdeas when I tasted it at the distillery, but maybe it didn’t stand a chance in the company of the 25 year and the 30 year. Compositionally, the 2012 Cairdeas is sort of an evolution of the 2008, so I wasn’t really expecting to care for it, but it has definitely grown on me.

After being quite impressed with Kilchoman’s Spring 2011 Release, I was very exited to visit Islay’s newest distillery while I was in Scotland in the spring of 2012. Their visitor center was well stocked with a good variety of miniatures, which I wrote about here and here. I could only fit so much whisky in my luggage, so I was very selective about the full size bottles that I purchased; no sense in buying anything I could easily get at home. The first bottle I decided to pull the trigger on was Kilchoman’s Sherry Cask Release, which had just become available. Production was limited, and even though some of it was going to the U.S., it was highly unlikely that I’d come across one of those 600 bottles.

Looking over Kilchoman’s website today, I was pleased to see that things seem to have been progressing nicely there since I was there two and a half years ago. In October of 2013 they completed a new, much larger warehouse capable of holding 10,000 casks. The beginning of 2014 saw the addition of several new pieces of equipment that would improve production: two new vatting tanks where batches will be married prior to bottling, a new corking machine and a bottle conveyor, as well as a malt conveyor to move barley from the malting floor to the kiln.

Kilchoman has released quite a few single cask bottlings along with an annual Feis Ile festival bottling and even a Travel Retail (Duty Free) offering. But the bulk of the distillery’s output is seen in four different bottlings. Each of the four carries either a vintage date or an edition number, as they are gradually increasing the age of each bottling year by year.

Machir Bay is their core expression and the whisky is matured in bourbon barrels to a variety of ages, and some of it has been finished in sherry casks. The Vintage series is aged exclusively in bourbon barrels, both 1st fill and refill, and uses some of the oldest stock they have on hand. The 100% Islay bottling is made from barley grown at the distillery which has been malted on their traditional malting floor, and is aged in bourbon barrels. It is peated to a lower level than all of their other expressions, which are made using malt from Port Ellen Maltings.

The fourth expression, Loch Gorm, is aged exclusively in sherry casks. It was introduced in 2013, but the Sherry Cask Release bottle that I have from 2012 is essentially the predecessor to the series. The three bottlings (Sherry Cask Release, 2013 Loch Gorm and 2014 Loch Gorm) are all aged primarily in Oloroso butts, but specific details beyond that are a little spotty. As best as I can tell, the Sherry Cask Release is all 5 year old, the 2013 Loch Gorm was aged 5 years and had an additional 6 week finish in Oloroso hogsheads, and the 2014 Loch Gorm was aged exclusively in Oloroso butts for 5 years.

Kilchoman Sherry Cask Release (2012):
The nose very sherry-forward, with aromas of dark candied fruits being nearly as dominant as the dense peat smoke, which is very full but not in a sharp way. Subtle floral notes add complexity on the nose.
On the palate, it is full bodied and richly flavored. It has an element of sweetness up front, which is quickly followed a big wave of peaty intensity, then sherried fruit notes (more sweet than oxidized).
The finish is lengthy, with the peat smoke subsiding and making way for malty baked goods and warming spice notes.

The flavors are bold and interesting, but they tend to dart around a bit. Overall it feels like a whisky that’s yearning to be more mature and refined, but it can’t quite find its way there. I’d call this a work in progress; it has elements of greatness, and while the individual components aren’t completely at odds with each other, they haven’t really come together yet. I’m really curious to see how the Loch Gorm series progresses as the age of the whisky creeps upward.

This was a very interesting compare / contrast, with two heavily peated Islay single malts that are near opposites in terms of how they are aged (younger Oloroso butts vs. older bourbon barrels and quarter casks). At the same time, a quick revisit to the 2014 Cairdeas revealed that it is quite different from both, with its lack of subtlety and an initial dose of sweetness followed by its dry nutty finish.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Laphroaig Tasting

I’ve never been much of a morning person. Combine that with the fact that I work nights and you can see why I’m rarely awake before 10 AM. Then an email came through my inbox a few weeks ago with the phrase “free Scotch tasting”; that certainly got my attention. But it was a two hour drive from home and it started at 9:45… the morning. I had my doubts.

The tasting was hosted by Laphroaig and upon rereading the email I noticed that it would include the flagship 10 year, the new Select bottling, the 2014 release of the Cairdeas series, and a “surprise special treat from the Laphroaig Vault”. I was starting to think I shouldn’t pass this one up. It only took a few days of contemplation before I decided that I’d just have to suck it up and break out the old alarm clock.

The invitation came to me by way of the Friends of Laphroaig, a club that can be joined by anyone upon purchasing a bottle of Laphroaig. I signed up shortly before heading to Scotland two and a half years ago, enticed by the fact that a complimentary miniature when visiting the distillery is one of several member benefits. The tasting was only open to Friends of Laphroaig, but it was held in conjunction with the New Hampshire Highland Games and Festival, an event which is in its 40th year and one of which I was somehow previously unaware.

Fortunately, most of the drive was on less travelled roads through sparsely populated areas of Vermont and New Hampshire. The narrow, twisting section of route 112 that runs along the Wild Ammonoosuc River brought back fond memories of driving in the Scottish countryside. Cool temperatures, low cloud cover and even a scenic, high-elevation pond all conspired to set a perfectly appropriate tone for the event I was heading to.

As I closed in on my destination, I began to realize the magnitude of the event. Hundreds of people were milling about and lining up for entry, and nearly everyone was outfitted with traditional Scottish attire. Even the police officers directing traffic and providing crowd control were wearing kilts. It was quite a sight to see. Regrettably, I had to get home by mid afternoon for work; I would have liked to have lingered for a bit and enjoyed the festivities after the tasting.

By the time I found a place to park and figured out where exactly I was supposed to go, I had managed to settle in just a few minutes before things got under way. The first three whiskies had been pre poured and a cup was set out for the fourth. About 30 people were in attendance, but the room had tables set up for many more, as several larger tastings were being held in the same location throughout the weekend. I really prefer to sample whisky out of glass rather than plastic, but I understand that the logistics of large tastings dictate otherwise.

Our host was Simon Brooking, the Scotch Whiskies Brand Ambassador for Beam Suntory, Laphroaig’s parent company. Simon is a master of his craft and did a wonderful job. With a fine repertoire of toasts and literary quotes, plenty of insightful information and the ability to not get too far off topic, he was able to keep the group engaged and keep the tasting moving at an appropriate pace.

The elusive fourth whiskey was Laphroaig Highgrove, an exclusive bottling produced one barrel at a time and sold only in London’s Highgrove Shop. Profits from the sale of Highgrove products are donated to the Prince of Whales Charitable Foundation, and Laphroaig has been the only whisky to carry the Royal Warrant of the Prince of Whales. The distillery has held that honor since 1994.

With a little time left at the end, Simon produced a fifth bottle for us to sample. He had brought one of his personal favorites, the 1989 Vintage 17 year Laphroaig which was bottled for the 2007 Feis Ile festival. His original intention had been to use it to toast Scottish independence, which had been voted on two days prior. In light of his plan being scuttled by the vote going the other way; he chose to generously share the bottle with us instead.

As for the whiskies, I’ll start of with some production details, tasting notes and general impressions of each first, then follow up with some more philosophical thoughts on them. And just a quick side note, picking out specific flavors and aromas is somewhat of a slow, contemplative process for me. As a result, my tasting notes made in a setting such as this tend to be more rudimentary than what I put together when I’m home alone.

Laphroaig 10 year – 43%, $50, chill filtered, aged exclusively in first fill bourbon barrels. Dense, weighty peat smoke with iodine and sea spray on the nose. It starts off with big bold peat smoke up front, which gently and gracefully fades. There is some vanilla sweetness up front, but its finish is fairly dry. It has moderate complexity, but doesn’t evolve dramatically from start to finish. I think it’s a good idea to start a Laphroaig tasting with the flagship 10 year, as it gives a nice frame of reference for the other expressions being tasted.

Laphroaig Select – 40%, $55, chill filtered, aged in a combination first fill bourbon barrels, quarter casks, Oloroso Sherry buts and PX seasoned hogsheads, all of which are vatted and entered into straight American white oak for one year. Most people assume these are new barrels, but the Laphroaig web site does not use the word “new”. I suspect they might be re-using the barrels from Laphroaig’s QA Cask offering, which starts in first fill bourbon barrels and is finished in new charred American white oak. Peat smoke is still the dominant aroma, but it is less dense than the 10 year. It starts of with a hint of sweetness and seems light up front, but a wave of peat comes up quickly. The peat smoke lingers but isn’t too intense as other flavors build and evolve, primarily dark sherry fruit and sweet vanilla notes. It gets a little weird on the mid palate to early finish, where some bitterness comes into play (overly tannic perhaps?) and it seems not so well-integrated. It does come around late on the finish and redeems itself a little as it slowly fades.

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 – 51.4%, $75, non-chill filtered, aged in first fill bourbon barrels and finished for one year in Amontillado hogsheads (there is no age statement, but we were told it spent 8 years in the bourbon barrels). The nose has sharp, focused peat aromas with brine and medicinal notes. It has a weighty character from the start. There’s a hint of vanilla driven sweetness up front, but that is quickly rolled over by an iodine laden wave of peat smoke. The intense peaty character echoes on for a while before the nutty sherry character emerges late and it gets quite dry on the finish. It has a fascinating interplay of peat smoke and dry nuttiness as it moves through the finish.

Laphroaig Highgrove – 46%, £60, non-chill filtered, 12 year, aged first fill bourbon barrels (the bottle at the tasting had no label, and some research shows that prior to 2008 the Highgrove bottlings were chill filtered and at 43%, but I’m assuming this was a more recent bottle). The aromas show a lot of subtle complexity, with peat smoke that has great depth but not in a sharp, aggressive way. It is very elegant and well composed on the palate with fishing nets and slowly smoldering peat being the dominant aspects.

Laphroaig 1989 Vintage 17 year, 50.3%, £50, non-chill filtered. I was unable to find any cask-type information, so I’m assuming is all from first fill bourbon barrels. The price listed is the original offering price; current auction prices go considerably higher. It has lots of brine and sea spray on the nose, with very subtle peat aromas. On the palate it is big and fiery (but not overly hot), with a peaty intensity that one would not expect after nosing it. A bit of a rollercoaster ride, but it manages to stay in balance.

One of the other interesting aspects of spending an hour with someone like Simon Brooking is that you can catch a lot of inside information if you pay attention. Here are a few of the interesting bits that I picked up.

Currently Laphroaig 10 year accounts for 75% of their sales volume and Quarter Cask is at 15%. That leaves just 10% for all of their other bottlings combined.

Simon also mentioned that there were plans to phase out the 18 year and bring back the 15 year that it replaced in 2009. The 15 year had been chill filtered and the 18 year is not, hopefully they don’t bring back that aspect of the younger version. This realignment could be the result of increased demand, but I’m curious to see if they are making way for another release that will fill the price gap to the $400 25 year; perhaps a $200 21 year?

Laphroaig, as well as Maker’s Mark, has had a common ownership with Jim Beam for many years. Laphroaig uses Maker’s Mark barrels almost exclusively.

The Laphroaig distillery is pretty much running at capacity and they are considering adding a second still house to increase production. One idea being considered is to build it on the narrow strip of land between the ocean and the existing buildings. That doesn’t seem like much space, but a still house which looks out over the water, like that of Caol Ila, could be quite stunning.

The distillery will celebrate its 200th anniversary next year. Festivities are still being planned, but they likely occur in November. Big crowds are expected and one idea they are looking at is a floating hotel, on a barge right in front of the distillery. I imagine they have been planning a special bottling to mark the occasion for some time.

As I mentioned above, I’ll follow up with a few more thoughts about the whiskies we tasted. I don’t dislike the 10 year per se, but tasting most other Laphroaig expressions shows how much more the distillery has to offer. I, like many other purists, wish the 10 year was bottled non-chill filtered at 46%. Interestingly, the Highgrove bottling should give the closest glimpse of what that would be like. Unfortunately I didn’t realize this until after the tasting. If I’m ever passing through London I will definitely pick up a bottle of Highgrove for a proper side-by-side with the 10 year.

Of the obtainable bottles we tasted, the 2014 Cairdeas was the standout to me. It impressed me enough that I stopped by the local liquor store and picked up a bottle before heading home. I’ll add some background details on the series.

The Feis Ile, Islay’s festival of whisky and music, was started by residents of the island in 1984. By 2000, the distilleries on Islay finally started to get behind the festival, many of them offering special tours and tastings and putting out limited bottlings for the event. Laphroaig’s first Feis Ile bottling was in 2003. They bottled just one barrel (a few hundred bottles) for the festival that year and for each of the next two or three years. In 2007 they expanded it to 4000 bottles (this was the one tasted above) and also made it an exclusive online offering to members of the Friends of Laphroaig. That bottling also marked the occasion of the opening of their new Friends Lounge at the distillery. In 2008 they started to use the word Cairdeas (Gaelic for friendship) on all of the Feis Ile bottlings, as they were now made available to the Friends of Laphroaig as well as at the festival. Laphroaig has been distributing the Cairdeas bottlings more widely since at least 2012, and the production numbers reflect that: 5000 bottles in 2010, 20,000 bottles in 2012 and 28,000 bottles in 2014. Confusingly, they have put “Cairdeas” on the label of at least on non-Feis Ile bottling; a 30 year expression that I tasted at the distillery a few years ago.

As for the Laphroaig Select, that was my only disappointment for the day. Some of the marketing material says it is composed of casks which represent their 10 year, Quarter Cask, Triple Wood and PX cask. Many reviewers have mistakenly said it is an actual combination of those four whiskies, which it is not. I hope this is an unfortunate coincidence and not something that was done intentionally. As for the whisky itself, I had seen a few unenthusiastic reviews beforehand, but tried to go in with an open mind and judge it fairly. It wasn’t horrible, but it certainly didn’t make me swoon. The stated goal of this bottling is to be an approachable introductory whisky. It actually kind of fails on two fronts; it alienates Laphroaig loyalists by tempering the expected big peaty character, and I don’t think it will entice newcomers on price point or flavor profile. Even though the peat is restrained and a healthy does of sweetness is added, it just isn’t that well composed overall.

After a good deal of consideration, I’ve come up with a strategy that I thing could have worked better for them. In my opinion, they’re goals would have been better served by the introduction of a “lightly peated” Laphroaig, age stated at 8 years and bottled at 40% with chill filtration. At the same time, they could have moved the 10 year to 46% and non-chill filtration.

As for Laphroaig devotees, I think the majority of them would welcome such a change to the 10 year, even if it came with a modest price increase. They would also have realistic expectations of a Laphroaig carrying the “lightly peated” moniker, and would either view it as a new facet of Laphroaig that they’d like to experience, or as something they simply weren’t interested in. With the Select, many Laphroaig drinkers try it just because it is the newest bottling and then end up being disappointed.

A lightly peated 8 year aged primarily in first fill bourbon barrels (maybe with a little new charred oak and/or sherry wood if some additional sweetness was desired) could come in at a lower price point ($40 to $45) that would entice new consumers and could act as a perfect gateway to the more robust, fully peated Laphroaig bottlings.