Friday, January 17, 2014

Powers Gold Label

Powers Gold Label: Blended Irish Whiskey, 40%, $20
Powers Gold Label: Blended Irish Whiskey, non-chill filtered, 43.2%, $25

I feel mildly guilty about the fact that I’ve been writing a whisk(e)y blog for nearly three years without a single mention of Irish Whiskey. I wanted to start off with a thorough historical background of the country’s whiskey industry, but the topic has been perpetually stuck on the back burner.

Then, about a month ago I got an email from a PR rep letting me know that Powers Gold Label was being re-launched with new packaging, a higher proof, and the elimination of chill filtering. Along with that info was an offer for a sample bottle. Now a free bottle of whiskey will never buy my opinion, but it will move you to the front of the queue of topics I’m planning to write about.

When it comes to Irish Whiskey, Jameson rules the world, at least in terms of sales volume and shelf presence. Bushmills and Tullamore Dew are both significant players, but basically tie for a distant second. All of the other Irish brands are left to fight for scraps. Quality however does not always go hand in hand with popularity, and Powers is a fine example of that axiom.

Case in point:
A bar that I used to work at had a bottle of Powers on the shelf on a fairly regular basis. One day a guy from Ireland walked in and upon seeing it he said “You’ve got the Powers?” in a tone of disbelief. A moment later he followed that with “Oh bloody hell, they’re not supposed to let that out of the country.”

Since I already had a fairly favorable opinion of Powers, I was pretty excited to hear that they were raising the proof and doing away with chill-filtration; these are almost always beneficial changes. This wasn’t the only change to the Powers lineup that was being announced though, and it took me some time to cut through the fluff of the press releases and get a clear picture of what was going on.

I do need to clarify some definitions that really only apply to Irish whiskey first though. Like with Scotch Whisky, Ireland has malt whiskey (which is distilled in pot stills only from malted barley) and grain whisky (which is distilled in column stills, usually to a relatively high proof, and usually from grains other than barley). When the two are mixed together the result is blended whiskey. But there is a third type of whiskey that is unique to Ireland. Traditionally it was called “pure pot still whisky” and sometimes “Irish pot still whiskey”, however in recent years these terms have given way to the name “single pot still whiskey”. Whichever name it goes by, it is whiskey that is distilled in post stills and made from a mix of malted and unmalted barley.

Blended Irish whiskey can be made by mixing grain whiskey with either malt whiskey or pure pot still whiskey, and there is no requirement to make any differentiation on the label (beyond having the word “blend” present). Pure pot still Irish Whiskey bottlings were historically plentiful, but until making a recent comeback the style had all but died with just Redbreast and Green Spot remaining in regular production.

Going back just a year, the Powers lineup consisted of two bottlings: The standard Gold Label priced at $20 and the Gold Label Special Reserve 12 Year priced at $40. Both were blends bottled at 40% abv. Then, in the spring of 2013, Powers introduced their new John’s Lane Release. This bottling is a single pot still whiskey with a 12 year age statement, at 46% abv, non-chill filtered and priced at $70. Around the same time Powers Gold Label Special Reserve 12 Year was discontinued.

Fast forward to December of 2013 and we get two more bottlings from Powers. First the standard Gold Label was re-launched with updated packaging, non-chill filtration, a bump in strength to 43.2% abv, and a bump in price to $25. At the same time Powers announced the new Signature Release, a single pot still whiskey with no age statement, at 46% abv, non-chill filtered, and neatly filling the price gap at $45.

There is also some variance in cask types used among the three bottling. The Gold Label is aged exclusively in American oak, the Signature Release is age primarily in American Oak with a small amount going into Oloroso Sherry casks, and the John’s Lane Release is aged primarily in American Oak with a small amount going into Iberian Oak.

Wanting to do a direct comparison and assuming that time was of the essence, I convinced a local pub to let me smuggle in my sample bottle so I could have a head-to-head tasting with the older bottle of Powers Gold Label that they had on the shelf.

Powers Gold Label 80.0 proof
color - golden amber
nose - subtle but pleasant, malty grain and clay-like soil
palate - good mouth-feel, slightly sweet with grain and honeyed tree fruits
finish - clean, warming, gets a little hot as the flavors fade, but in a good way
overall - not terribly complex, but balanced and enjoyable. the late heat adds some backbone and keeps it from falling flat as the flavors fade

Powers Gold Label 86.4 proof
color - maybe a touch darker, but I’d be lying if I said I could see a difference between the two
nose - surprisingly less aromatic than the 80 proof. very little there, but it seems more fruit forward
palate - no more viscous than the 80 proof but the flavors are quite a bit different. slightly floral and more berry fruit than tree fruitfinish - the heat is still there but the flavors hang on a lot longer and are joined by some spicyness, adding a bit of complexity
overall - greater intensity in general (both flavor and heat, but a warming spicyness on the finish is especially noticeable). good balance. still not super complex but it has a lot more going on with the fruit flavors and spicyness carrying much further into the finish.

Chill filtration strips out congeners (esters, fatty acids, aldehydes and higher alcohols) to keep the whisky from turning cloudy at lower temperatures. Of course this can strip out flavor and body as well. Some of these congeners are soluble in alcohol but will precipitate out at lower temperatures, so most non-chill filtered whiskeys are bottled at 46% abv or higher to allow the consumer to add a little cool water without the whiskey going cloudy. In the case of Powers Gold Label we’re dealing with a blend, so the grain component is distilled in a column still (likely to a relatively high abv) and in this case the pot still component (be it malt whiskey or pure pot still whiskey) is triple distilled. Both of these factors result in a higher level of refinement compared to a typical double distilled single malt. This translates to fewer congeners making it through the distillation in the first place, and is why Powers can get away with bottling the Gold Label non-chill filtered at 43.2% abv.

I’ll be honest; I went into this tasting expecting the difference between these two whiskeys to be quite minimal. Considering the information in the above paragraph, I was surprised to see as much of a difference between the two bottlings as I did. The lack of aromas in the new bottling is a complete mystery to me though. From the research I have done it sounds like chill filtration should reduce aromatics, completely the opposite of what I experienced here. 

I enjoyed both examples, but I would say the new offering is an improvement, and one that is roughly commensurate with the price increase. I’m going to make sure I hold back some of my sample bottle so I can throw it in the ring when I eventually get around to comparing the flagship offerings from Jameson and Bushmills.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Scapa, 14 Year vs. 16 Year

Scapa 14 Year: Single Malt Scotch, Islands, 40.0%, $40
Scapa 16 Year: Single Malt Scotch, Islands, 40.0%, $74

My attention was drawn to the nearly depleted bottle of Scapa 14 Year languishing on the back of my whisky shelf when I mentioned the distillery in my Ledaig 10 Year post about a month ago. Not long after that I was trying to decide which single malts to get my father for Christmas. And then it came to me; if I got him the newer Scapa 16 Year we could have a little post-holiday, side-by-side tasting of the two.

Located on Orkney’s Mainland (the largest island of the archipelago collectively known as the Orkney islands), the Scapa distillery lies just a half a mile south of Highland Park which is Scotland’s northernmost distillery.

There was a time when most of the whisky produced at Scapa went to blends; Ballentine’s being the main recipient. But in recent years they have been putting more emphasis on promoting their single malt and seem to be making an effort to step out from the shadow of their much more well-known neighbor to the north. According to their website, only a minimal amount of Scapa goes to blenders these days.

When Alfred Barnard visited in 1886 (the year after the distillery was built) he noted that the malt kiln was “heated with peat in the ordinary manner”. The distillery stopped using their traditional floor maltings in 1962 and has been buying unpeated malt since then. It is likely that the peat level was reduced (perhaps gradually) somewhere between 1886 and 1962, as I’ve seen references to bottlings of Scapa from the early 1960’s that were only mildly smoky.

While the more modern bottlings are made from unpeated malt, they do all have a heathery / peaty (but not in a smoky way) character that is said to come from the source water which is piped in from springs that are more then half a mile from the distillery. The water originates on the local hilltops, percolates through sandstone and then passes through a layer of “live” peat (I assume this means the organic material is still going through the process of decaying) before being drawn off to the distillery.

The distillery was purchased by Hiram Walker & Sons in 1954, and that is likely when it became a major component in the Ballantine’s blends, which had been under Hiram Walker ownership since 1937. Later changes of ownership at Scapa have been the result of larger acquisitions rather than the distillery itself being sold. Hiram Walker & Sons was taken over by Allied Domecq in 1987, and they were subsequently bought out by Pernod Ricard in 2005.

As I’ve said many times before, the 1980’s were a tough time for the Scotch industry. Many distilleries were lost in that decade, and the repercussions were still being felt in the 1990’s with several distilleries mothballed for many years and teetering on the brink of extinction while others closed forever.

A victim of the times, Scapa fell silent in 1994. Production did resume in 1997 on a limited basis, with the crew from Highland Park coming over to breath life into the place for about one month each year. This may have been to fulfill contracts with blenders or simply to give the equipment and annual workout to keep it from falling into a state of total disrepair.

Finally, in 2004, the prognosis for the industry was good enough for the owners to embark on a program of extensive refurbishment. Full production resumed in November of that year. The distillery was shut down again in April of 2005, but only briefly as the second phase of the renovations commenced. Later that year Allied Domecq was acquired by Pernod Ricard, but the distillery owner is often listed as Chivas Brothers as they are the subsidiary of Pernod Ricard that is in charge of the company’s Scotch whisky and premium gin holdings.

As for official distillery bottlings, Scapa has largely been a one-horse show. For many years their only bottling was a 12 Year old at 40% abv. Toward the end of 2004 the 12 Year was discontinued, giving way to a new 14 Year old, also at 40%. Late in 2008, that 14 Year was replaced by the new 16 Year, which retains the same alcohol level. For a time in the early 90’s there was also a 10 Year old at 43% abv, but that was only available in a 1 liter format and sold exclusively in Duty Free outlets. There was also a 25 Year old Cask Strength at 54% abv which came out in 2005, but that was a limited release of just 2000 bottles.

Scapa is certainly not the only distillery that has had to work through a gap in their whisky stocks caused by a period of closure and/or limited production lasting upwards of 10 years. Other recent examples include Ardbeg, Bruichladdich and Benromach. There are several ways to deal with the issue. Limited edition releases of young whisky and no-age-statement vattings of young and old whisky have been two common solutions. Distillers that feature a lineup with a range of age statements will usually drop one or two at a time and bring them back eventually as the gap works past those ages. In some cases the age on the label remains the same but the whisky in the bottle gets older. Ardbeg is said to have done this with their much-loved 17 Year in order to keep loyal fans from thinking they had to switch to an older version that they may not be as fond of. I’ve heard that the 17 Year was well over 20 years old by the time it was dropped from the lineup.

Scapa seems to have chosen the path of sticking with a single age-stated bottling and simply raising that age every so often as they ration out the whisky from the last few years of production before shutting down. But I suspect that the situation is a bit more complicated that, so I’m going to taste the 14 and the 16 and try to dig a little deeper.

Scapa 14 Year
color - pale straw
nose - floral (heather) with a hint of vanilla and a malty background
palate - grassy / floral, with subtle heathery peat notes. the malty / biscuit-like core adds some weight
finish - soft and gentle, of moderate length

Scapa 16 Year
color - light brownish amber
nose - same malty background and hint of vanilla, but a little less floral and a bit more fruit forward
palate - a bit more robust on the palate, with the grassy floral and heathery peat notes taking more of a backseat to increased fruit (dark berry / cherry) and just slightly more oak as the maltiness remains about the same
finish - slightly more bold, with a bit more heat and it goes a little further

First I’ll mention that they are both well made single malts with no obvious flaws, but my personal preference does lean toward the flavor profile of the 16 Year. Beyond that, my initial reaction was that these two were surprisingly different from each other. It may not be a “night and day” difference, but it is quite noticeable and more than I would expect from just two additional years of aging (that extra two years represents a mere 14.3% increase in aging time). I suspect that the 14 Year is aged primarily (if not entirely) in Bourbon barrels and that a significant proportion of the 16 Year has been aged in Sherry casks.

A look at the Scapa website revealed some interesting information. A page detailing the process notes that all of the spirit is filled into Bourbon casks. In another place they talk about the 14 Year being replaced by the 16 Year and mention that it has seen “an extra two years in first fill American oak casks”. My theory about the 16 Year having a Sherry cask component may seem shaky, but I’m not ready to give up on it yet. You can’t take everything on a distiller’s website as gospel; it is after all a tool to paint an image of the brand.

The statement that all of the spirit goes into bourbon casks may be true today, but that doesn’t mean it has always been that way. In a historic section of the website, the son of a former Scapa distillery worker talks about stenciling fill volumes onto butts and hogsheads in the 1930’s and a photo from the late 1940’s shows a cask labeled with a fill volume of 109. That would have been Imperial gallons at the time, which equals 495 liters. Clearly the casks in the photo are butts. 250 liter Hogsheads and 500 liter butts are the domain of Sherry, while Bourbon is always stored in smaller 200 liter barrels.

As for the statement about the 16 Year spending two more years in American oak, that does not necessarily mean Bourbon barrels. Oak trees are much more plentiful in North America than Europe and many Sherry casks (perhaps the majority of them) are now made from American oak. With a little more digging I was able to find a listing for a 1993 Scapa bottled by Gordon and Macphail which was aged in refill sherry casks. We now know that the distillery had a long history of using sherry casks and was still using them to some extent when they started distilling the spirit that would eventually become the 16 Year old.

Next I want to look at how the age statements and release dates line up with the distillery closure. Keep in mind that the whisky in the bottle can be older than the stated age on the label, but never younger. I was able to find an independent bottling of Scapa that was distilled in the spring of 1994, and I also uncovered a reference to the Highland Park crew operating Scapa for four weeks in late June / early July, during their maintenance shutdown. This happened annually starting in 1997, so we know the actual production gap lasted for just about three years.

The 12 Year was discontinued at the end of 2004, so it would have been distilled late in 1992 or earlier. They switched over to the 14 Year at that point and it was produced until late in 2008. That whisky would have been distilled from the end of 1990 through the closure in mid 1994 (assuming that the whisky in the bottle wasn’t much older than the age on the label).

The timing of the 16 Year is where things get interesting. It was first released late in 2008 (their website says 2008 on one page and 2009 on another, that former is correct) and was still being bottled at the end of 2013. That would put its range of distillation dates at late 1992 through the end of 1997, right across the three year closure.

There are two likely scenarios. They could have set aside enough casks from the second half of 1993 and first half of 1994 to get them through three years and just kept bottling progressively older whisky while keeping the 16 year age statement on the bottle, until mid 2013 when the distillate from 1997 reached the proper age. Or, they could have taken that allotment of casks from the last year before the closure and, once they reach 16 years, dumped them into large stainless steel tanks and bottle from them over the next three years. It’s basically the same thing, but the latter method will produce a more consistent product.

When they switched from the 12 Year to the 14 Year the price remained the same, in the $35 to $40 range. The release of the 16 Year saw a big jump, going up to the $70 to $80 range. I think this was done to temper demand as they knew that the last year of production before the closure would be spread over four years of sales (16 Year sold from mid 2009 through mid 2013) and for the next seven years after that the 16 Year would come from just four weeks worth of annual production. Perhaps the addition of some available sherry cask whisky was an effort to change the flavor profile and make the consumers feel like they were getting something for the big price hike.

I think we will see the 16 Year carry on for many years to come. If it does, it will be interesting to see if the sherry cask component is eventually phased out of it. Since full production resumed in November of 2004 I think the 16 Year will be joined by a 10 Year at the end of this year, or a 12 Year at the end of 2016, either of which should be more modestly priced.