Friday, March 28, 2014

Florida Scotch dinner, part 2

This is the second part of a two part post. If you haven’t read the beginning, please start here.

When it comes to traditional whisky making techniques, the methods utilized by Springbank are about as comprehensive as it gets. While a few bits of modernity can be seen around the distillery, it is in many ways a working museum.

They utilize a wide range of cask types at Springbank, but most of the less traditional ones are reserved for limited edition bottlings. Bourbon barrels and Sherry casks are exclusive to their standard lineup, but the proportions vary from one expression to the next. In the case of the 12 year Cask Strength, it is 60% fresh Sherry hogsheads and 40% refill Sherry butts (just for reference, the 10 year bottling is from 60% Bourbon barrels and 40% Sherry casks).

As I mentioned above, Springbank does employ the direct firing method. But that is only on their wash still, and that still also uses an internal steam coil. Their other two stills are heated indirectly with internal steam coils.

I also made note of Springbank’s condensers above. The wash still and the #2 low wines still have the modern shell and tube arrangements, while the #1 low wines still uses the traditional worm tub.

Like Glengoyne, Springbank distills at a very slow speed. The photo below shows their three receiver tanks. You can see the dipsticks going into the tanks (all three are visible, but the one on the right is the easiest to see). During distillation, the liquid level in the tank should rise 7 cm every thirty minutes. This is checked and recorded in a log book. If it is rising too fast the steam valve is closed a little to slow down the distillation, and if it is rising too slowly the steam valve is opened a little to speed things up.

Where Springbank really stands apart from other Scotch producers is the parts of the process that lead up to distillation. First, they only use barley that was grown in Scotland, where many others source barley from England or even continental Europe. When I first heard this I thought it was just a matter of national pride. But I later learned that Scotland’s far northern location (which gives it a long summer with many hours of daylight) and its position right in the path of the Gulf Stream (which gives it a cool damp maritime climate) provide a long, slow growing season which results in barley that is low in nitrogen and has a high starch content, and that is ideal for making whisky.

The barley itself has evolved over time, especially since the 1960’s. New varieties are constantly being introduced in the hunt for better disease resistance and higher yields (both in terms for the tons grown per acre, and the amount of sugar available per ton). Golden Promise was the industry’s variety of choice from the mid 1960’s through the mid 1980’s. The succession then went: Triumph, Chariot, Optic; all of which had overlapping runs of about 15 years. Newer varieties come and go more rapidly, but Optic, whose prime years were 1995 to 2010, is still around. In fact, Optic is still the barley of choice at Springbank, at least as of mid 2012.

The next step is malting the barley. In Barnard’s time almost all of the distilleries did this in-house, on traditional floor maltings. That rapidly changed in 1960’s when most of the distillers embraced mass production in an effort to meet the demands of the post World War II whisky boom. Large malting companies had mechanized and automated the process, making it far less labor intensive and in turn less costly. I mentioned above that many single malt producers reduced their peat levels in the 1960’s to meet the requirements of the blenders who bought most of their whisky. Purchasing malted barley made this a little easier as they could just specify the peat level (in parts per million phenols) of the malt they were buying, rather than making and fine tuning adjustments to a process they were doing themselves.

There are currently only eight distilleries in Scotland that maintain traditional floor maltings. Most of them only malt 20% to 30% of what they use and purchase the rest malted to order. Springbank is typically touted as the only distillery to malt 100% of their own barley. In actuality, their sister distillery, Glengyle (which produces Kilkerran single malt) does as well. Glengyle currently only produces whisky one month a year, when Springbank is closed for maintenance. So Springbank’s malting floors are available for and able to cover the malting needs of both distilleries. The old malting floors at Glengyle are still intact, so when they eventually expand production, a little restoration work could easily have them back in action.

Many whisky writers say that traditional floor maltings are now used for no reason other than as a tourist attraction. I spent a long time trying to figure out if this was true. It seems logical that automating the malting process, a lot of which is temperature and moisture content sensitive, would make for much more consistent results. I couldn’t think of any quality advantage to be gained by the traditional method. Then it struck me; it’s the ability to maintain the flavor of the local peat. As you move around Scotland, the organic matter that makes up the peat varies from place to place. Highland Park buys unpeated malt and heavily peats the 20% that they malt in house. The two are mixed together to achieve a moderate peat level that showcases the floral, Heather driven smoke flavors of Oarkney’s peat. The staff at Laphroaig hand cut peat from their own beds. It is composed of an unusually high amount of lichens and mosses. Even malting just 30% of the barley they use is enough to let the pungent iodine-medicinal flavors of their local peat come through. I’m not sure what the peat local to Campbeltown is composed of, but it comes through as a soft, dry, earthy smokiness. And that characteristic is even more evident in Springbank’s heavily peated Longrow single malt.

After malting and milling, it’s time for mashing. This is where hot water is mixed with the barley so it can steep at specific temperatures which will activate enzymes, causing starches to convert into sugars. This happens in a vessel which has changed over the years. The older style, called a mush tun, is made of cast iron with an open top and slotted brass floor plates that separate the liquid from the grain. The newer version, called a lauter tun, is made entirely of stainless steel with a closed top (if the top is copper, that material was chosen for cosmetic reasons). The mash tun is generally deeper and has what is called a stirring gear, which rotates as it circles the vessel, keeping everything well mixed. Water, which is added through one large pipe, is drained off then refilled successively three or four times. The lauter tun is a shallower vessel so the water travels through less grain. A sparging arm rotates around in the tun, slowly sprinkling hot water down onto the grain. Mixing blades attached to the arm mix the grain and water. This arrangement allows a continuous flow of liquid through the lauter tun.

A lauter tun will do the job faster, and it will produce a wort (sugar laden water) with a higher original gravity (higher sugar content). At Springbank, they use a traditional mash tun, but they also run significantly more water through it than they really have to. This probably helps to pull every bit of sugar out of the grain, but the real reason they do it is to dilute the wort and send it off to ferment with a very low original gravity. The original gravity of the wort has a definite effect on the flavors produced during fermentation. By starting with such a low original gravity, Springbank is, to a certain extent, emulating the results that would have been achieved by the low yielding barley strains that were common prior to the mid 1960’s. This also means that they end up with  a wash that is between 4% and 5% abv, where they typical modern distiller will be in the 9% to 11% range. I assume this means the stills have to do more work to get that liquid up to the target of 72% abv.

Speaking of fermentation, there are a few more factors at play here. Tradition washbacks (the fermentation tanks) are made of wood. Larch and Oregon Pine (the Scottish name for Douglas Fir) are commonly used. Many distillers have switched over to stainless steel washbacks, which last longer and are easier to maintain. Distillers with wooden washbacks say there are micro-organisms in the wood that have a distinct effect on the flavor of the whisky. At every distillery I visited that had stainless washbacks, I was told that they had no effect on the flavor. I guess that point is up for debate. But the length of fermentation is certainly not debatable. Prior to the 1970’s, fermentations lasting up to a week were the norm. Most of the alcohol is produced in the first two days of fermentation, but a lot of flavor development happens in the ensuing days. As production levels needed to rise in the 60’s and 70’s, fermentations times were cut back. Combined with faster distillation cycles, this resulted in many single malts losing their distinctive fruity character (typically citrus, tropical, stone and/or pome fruit flavors). Most distillers ferment for two to three days now, but Springbank holds on to the long fermentations of yesteryear, with five to six days being typical.

Although they have no impact on the taste of the whisky, a few other sights around Springbank are worth noting. The riveted seams on their wash still hearken back to the days before welding copper became commonplace, and they are a thing of beauty.

Modern distilleries have electric motors placed anywhere that mechanical motion is required. In Barnard’s time, a steam engine or a water wheel would run a series of belts, pulleys and shafts; transferring that energy to various locations around the distillery. Many of these ancient drivelines have been kept in tact at Springbank, and the old steam engine replaced by one big electric motor. The system provides a wonderful insight into how things would have looked in the 19th century.

Springbank 12 year Cask Strength, 50.3%
nose: Big and sharp. Malt, fruit and moderate peat smoke followed by a distinct oxidative quality.
palate: Robust, full bodied. Bold fruit up front (apple, orange, baked berry fruit). Springbank’s signature soft, dry, earthy peat character follows shortly thereafter, but is less intense than I expected. A hint of brine comes through as well.
finish: Long with warming spiciness (dare I say, even a little hot?), a bit of fruit and peat smoke linger on as the spice notes slowly recede.
overall: Unbridled, a bit of a wild ride. Adding a healthy splash of water tones down the aromas but seems to accentuate the peat notes. I’d still call it full flavored with water added, but that seems to have tamed the beast. Everything is still there, but now it seems more refined and well-integrated. It’s rare that I add water to a whisky, even those at cask strength, but I think it makes a nice improvement in this case.

The last single malt of the evening would be accompanied by a round of hand rolled cigars, so something heavily peated was in order. I chose 10 year Ledaig because I’m quite fond of it, I like introducing people to relatively unknown scotches, and it related nicely to the last few points that I wanted to discuss.

Ledaig is the heavily peated offering from Tobermory. It’s the only distillery on the isle of Mull and has had checkered history since it was established in 1798. The last 21 years however, has been a period of relative stability under the ownership of Burn Stewart.

The company has owned the Deanston distillery since 1991 and Bunnahabhain since 2003. In 2010 they made the decision to eliminate the chill filtering process for all of the single malts from their three distilleries. Chilling the whisky before filtering it causes fatty acids, esters and proteins to come out of solution so they can be removed. This procedure will keep the whisky from going hazy at low temperatures and is done purely for aesthetic reasons. But many believe it has the ugly side effect of stripping flavor out of the whisky too.

Chill filtering has been around since the 1920’s, but it didn’t become common practice in the Scotch industry until the 1960’s. While still prevalent, many single malt Scotch producers have started to move away from the practice. Since the compounds that would be filtered out are more soluble in alcohol than water, the non-chill filtered whiskies are normally bottled at a higher alcohol level; otherwise they could go hazy even at lower room temperatures. 46% abv is usually the minimum level, but some lighter style whiskies that have fewer of those compounds to start with may be bottled at a lower abv. Burn Stewart raised the alcohol level of all of their single malts to 46.3% when they did away with chill filtration.

The addition of caramel coloring is allowed by the Scotch industry. This is a practice that sort of goes hand in hand with chill filtering. Producers who do it claim they add a minimal amount to ensure consistent color from batch to batch. Many critics feel that the artificial coloring is often added in a heavy handed manner to make the whisky more visually appealing, to the point that is has a negative impact on the flavor. Like most Scotch producers who eliminate chill filtering, Burn Stewart swore off caramel coloring at the same time.

The last topic that relates to Ledaig is the location of the aging warehouses. Much like the use of local peat that I mentioned above, aging the whisky in warehouses located close to the distillery can impart a local flavor. As far as I know, this phenomenon only manifests itself in coastal locations, where the sea air can infiltrate the warehouse. Slowly over time, that air will impregnate the casks as whisky evaporates out of them, imparting distinctive brine-like notes. If there are other local climate factors that can affect the flavor of the whisky as it ages, I am unaware of them.

In the age of mass production, large companies that own several distilleries are often involved in blending too, and will have a centralized location for their bottling and distribution operations. In this case it makes sense (from a business perspective) to have most of their warehouses consolidated at the same location. But this has resulted in the whiskies of some coastal distilleries losing the maritime character that they once had.

In the case of Ledaig, the Tobermory distillery sold off its only warehouse to a real estate developer in order to raise capital in 1979. Once Burn Stewart took over, they started aging all of the Tobermory and Ledaig casks in the Deanston warehouses, located outside of Sterling; about as far as one can get from the ocean on the Scottish mainland.

Then, in 2003, the acquisition of Bunnahabhain and its surplus warehouse space gave them an opportunity to age these island malts on the edge of the sea again. Ledaig and Tobermory may not be aged on the same island where they are distilled, but at least they are once again resting quietly with throwing distance of the ocean.

Ledaig 10 year, 46.3%
What I’m tasting today comports with the notes I made back in December, so I’m copying them here for the most part.
nose: Fresh, hearty peat smoke mixed with fields of hay and a gentle floral aspect.
palate: The mouthfeel is oily, and it attacks with bold peat up front. An intense campfire comes to life on the mid-palate and then it slowly backs down allowing other flavors emerge. Grassy, floral, nutty and vanilla notes come together providing good complexity.
finish: Most of the flavors from the mid palate continue on and fade gracefully though the finish.
overall: It’s well composed throughout and has just the right combination of youthful exuberance and aged refinement

Just a few brief footnotes before I wrap up. The folks at Springbank are quite proud of the fact that their whisky has never been chill filtered or had artificial color added. I would have preferred to use the non-chill filtered versions of Glenfarclas and Glengoyne, both of which are bottled at cask strength. Glenfarclas 105 was out of stock and probably would have put me way over budget, but I do have a bottle of it at home in the queue for blogging. Glengoyne used to have a cask strength 12 year old. They recently changed to a 43% abv 12 year old and a “no age statement” cask strength bottling. Unfortunately, that cask strength Glengoyne is the only member of their standard lineup that isn’t imported to the U.S. All of the official bottlings from Cragganmore are chill filtered. I have read that much of the weightiness that is gained by their use of worm tubs is lost in the process. As I said in my tasting notes, it seems to be holding something back; I suspect chill filtering is to blame. I’m definitely on the lookout for a non-chill filtered independent bottling of Cragganmore.

After a long day of final preparations and making my presentation, a little fishing was in order the next morning. The keen observer will note that I’m wearing the exact same outfit that I had on while fishing in the same spot last year. What can I say? I live in the mountains; my wardrobe is sparse when it comes to beach attire.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Florida Scotch dinner, part 1

I suddenly find myself in sunny Florida, a bit like a fish out of water. Surrounded by warmth, wealth and development; this is not my natural environment. But where whisk(e)y opportunities abound, I shall go; and I’ve been invited back for an encore performance of the single malt scotch dinner that I hosted last year.

When it comes to whisky, I do what I do with enough confidence to make it look easy, but believe me, putting together such an event is no simple task. Coming up with an engaging theme and picking whiskies that will fit said theme is one thing. But when you factor in a budget that puts a lot of interesting whiskies out of reach and the fact that it’s not uncommon for many bottings to temporarily go out of stock these days, the challenges involved can mount quickly.

Also, a great deal of time and effort must be put into figuring out how long to talk and what exactly to say. Researching little facts to make sure I have them right as well as scouring my archive of images from Scotland to provide a little visual stimulation all adds to the undertaking. I’m sure the expectations of the dinner’s attendees are only exceeded by the expectations I place upon myself.

All of that being said, I was quite pleased with the single malts I was able to procure (not to mention that I was within 60 cents of my target budget), and the presentation as a whole. So, here’s a (not so) little overview of the 2014 Frenchman’s Creek single malt Scotch dinner that I had the honor of hosting.

As for the theme, I started off tossing around ideas for a few topics I wanted to explore, but soon realized that sourcing whiskies for them was going to be prohibitively difficult. With the event rapidly drawing near, I needed to come up with a subject that would lend itself to more readily available whiskies.

Within the last six months I’ve been tasked with making single malt selections for the restaurant where I work as well its newly christened sister outlet. The restaurants’ wine lists focus on natural wines; those made with minimal technological intervention and often produced by traditional methods. I carried that idea through to the single malts I picked, choosing selections from producers that in one way or another have shunned the wave of distillery modernization that swept through Scotland in the 1960’s and 70’s. With that topic fresh in my mind, it made a logical choice for the tasting I’d be presiding over.

I started off with an opening talk where I mentioned that even though the Scotch Whisky industry is steeped in tradition, the methods of production have gradually evolved over time. After going into a little background on Alfred Barnard and his book, Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, I explained that the book gives us great insight into how a distillery would have functioned 130 years ago, as well as reading a quote from the book’s preface to set the mood.

That opening provided the perfect segue to the topic of steam heated stills, some of the earliest examples of which are mentioned by Barnard. Most distilleries in Scotland held on to the traditional method of heating their stills with a coal fire until the 1960’s. At that time, most of them switched to internal steam coils, a method referred to as indirect firing. At the same time, the direct fired holdouts were switching to natural gas or fuel oil. The last coal fired stills in Scotland were extinguished in 2005 when the Glendronach distillery converted to stills with internal steam coils.

Today, just four Scottish distilleries have direct fired pot stills: Springbank, Glenfiddich, Macallan and Glenfaclas. It is said that the direct firing method promotes caramelization of solids (mostly small bits of grain and yeast) in the liquid being distilled, having a significant effect on the flavor of the final product. Glenfarclas tested internal steam heating in one of their six stills in 1980. That test lasted just a week or so before the still was changed back when the owners decided that the whisky produced in it wasn’t the same; “it had no guts”. That is why I chose Glenfarclas 12 year to open the evening.

Glenfarclas 12 year, 43%
nose: Rich and malty with a biscuit like quality, some brown sugar-like sweetness, a hint of spice and just a whiff of peat smoke.
palate: Rich and complex. Malty sweetness balanced by dry spice notes, along with a variety of baked goods. Dark, sherried fruit notes are there but stay more in the background.
finish: Long and warming with spice and just a hint of peat hanging on.
overall: Very well made and immensely enjoyable.

I also took a moment to describe the rummager that must be used inside a direct fired still. A rotating vertical shaft drags a series of copper chains across the bottom of the still to keep everything inside moving around. This prevents overcooking and ensures that no burnt flavors come through in the final product. Pictures of the rummager in Springbank’s wash still were shown as an example, as well as the pictures of the bell on its external drive shaft that the distiller must listen for to be sure that everything is working properly.

From here, we moved on the Glengoyne 15 year. Glengoyne has been completely unpeated for quite some time, at least since the 1960’s. I made the point here that many single malts became less peaty, some to a greater extent than others, in the 1960’s and 70’s. This change didn’t happen because of modernization so much as it did at the behest of changing consumer tastes, and consequently changing demand from the blenders who were purchasing most of the malt whisky produced at the time.

I showed an image of the malt kiln pagoda at Glengoyne as evidence of its presumed peaty past. In retrospect, that was a misstatement on my part. Distilleries malting their own barley in the traditional method would have their kiln topped with the iconic pagoda regardless of whether peat or another fuel was being used to dry the malt. A quick look in Barnard’s book revealed what I was looking for. He clearly states that the kiln at Glengoyne was fueled by both peat and coke (a refined form of coal that produces little to no smoke).

For quite some time Glengoyne went a little too far in emphasizing the fact that it is made with unpeated malt. Some of their statements made it sound as if they were the only malt distillery in Scotland producing completely unpeated whisky (which they certainly are not), and they also phrased things in a way that made it sound as if the inclusion of peat smoke was detrimental to malt whisky. After coming under increasing criticism, they’ve fortunately changed course in the past few years and put most of their marketing emphasis on the slow speed of their distillation.

That slow distillation is the reason I chose Glengoyne for the second whisky of the night. Modernizing the distilleries was all about cutting costs and increasing production. A lot of the processes were sped up to make the most efficient use of the equipment at hand. But distilling slowly increases the amount of time that the spirit is in contact with copper, and the copper acts as a catalyst, causing chemical reactions. This removes sulphur compounds that can cause bitterness and encourages the formation of esters which produce many of the lighter fruit flavors.

When single malt producers started running their stills hot and fast 40 to 50 years ago, a lot of whiskies lost the fruity character that made them so special. Glengoyne claims to have the slowest distillations in Scotland. Running at five liters per minute, they say that is 1/3 of the speed typically used today. Another unique feature at Glengoyne is that they double distill with three stills. Each batch coming off the wash still is split in half and entered into their two spirit stills. This setup further increases the surface area of the copper that is available for the spirit to interact with. I actually find the 10 year expression of Glengoyne to be too fruity, but as you move up the range (increasing both age and the amount of Sherry cask influence), it really comes into its own.

Glengoyne 15 year, 43%
nose: Wonderfully fruity aromas. Full but not overpowering. The fruit notes are bright overall, but it has a nice balance of tree fruit and darker Sherry fruit notes spread across the canvass of a malty background
palate: Good balance of flavor intensity and heat. Apple and pear show just briefly right up front before giving way to a malt driven core accented by stewed berry fruit notes.
finish: The fruit and malt continue to evolve while they fade, and the warming spice notes pick up intensity as it moves on. Once the spice notes trail off, just a hint of a floral / fruity element remains at the very end.
overall: Maybe not quite as much depth as the retired 17 year or as refined as the 21 year (it’s been some time since I’ve tasted them), but still quite a good whisky in its own right It’s somewhat masculine (at least for a completely unpeated single malt), but without any rough edges.

Next we moved on the Cragganmore Distiller’s Edition. This starts as the standard 12 year old before it is finished for one additional year in Port casks, adding another layer of complexity to a single malt that is already noted for being quite complex.

This gave me an opportunity to talk about how the role of the cask has changed in the Scotch industry over the years. Back in the 1960’s Scotland had an abundant supply of high quality Sherry casks. Sherry was much more popular back then and it was often shipped in cask to the UK, where it was bottled. This gave distillers the ability to fill those casks with whisky very quickly after they had been emptied.

Today, Sherry is much less popular and it is all bottled in Spain. Meanwhile, Bourbon sales have taken off, especially over the last 20 years, and that product must be aged in new barrels, adding to the supply side of the equation. Many Scotch producers have shifted their aging regimes, either partially or completely from Sherry casks to Bourbon barrels for both cost and quality reasons. This has happened over the last 50 years, but the phenomenon has accelerated during the last two decades.

The most recent trend has been the focus on finishing Scotches in casks that previously held other spirits (usually rum or brandy), fortified wine (port, Madeira, even specific types of Sherry) or any variety of table wine. This is usually done after the initial aging period in Bourbon barrels. The practice can add variety to a product range, and it can help breath new life into mediocre whisky that started off in tired old casks.

Some distillers are more transparent than others about their shifting cask regimes. In the case of Cragganmore there is at least anecdotal evidence that they have slowly, quietly been shifting from primarily Sherry cask maturation to mainly Bourbon barrel maturation. Add in the Port cask finishing of the Distiller’s Edition and we have a single malt that neatly exemplifies the current trends in Scotch aging.

Conversely, Cragganmore does embrace an old school distilling technique that isn’t seen too often these days. It was once the norm for Scotch producers to condense their spirit in a worm tub. Today, all but 13 of them have switched over to the modern shell and tube condenser.

The worm tub is just and extension of what the original farm distillers would have done. A large, open-topped vessel (the tub) usually made of wood, sits in close proximity to the still. Inside it is a big coil of copper tubing (the worm) that winds around, gradually decreasing in diameter as in goes down. The top end of the worm is connected to the lyne arm (the pipe that comes off the neck of the still). The tub is filled with cold water, and during distillation it is receives a constant supply of fresh cold water flowing in from the top. The vapors coming off of the still condense as they move through the worm, finally emerging as liquid at the lower end (where the worm exits through the side of the tub at its base) and flowing into a receiving tank.

The worm tub is not a particularly efficient device, both in terms of how much space it takes up and how much cold water it must use. The modern improvement is called a shell and tube condenser. And enclosed cylinder, usually made of stainless steel, is packed with a series of small copper tubes that run down its length. The tubes are all connected together at both ends. Vapors coming off the still enter these tubes at the top and are condensed into liquid on their way to the bottom. Cold water enters the outer shell at its base and heats as it moves upward before exiting at the top. Because of its counter-flow nature and increased surface area (the result of many small diameter tubes), the shell and tube condenser is much more efficient, taking up less space and using less cold water to do the same job. I suspect it can also be run faster more easily by increasing the flow of cold water, if one were inclined to speed up their stills. I illustrated these devices with a picture from Springbank, since they use one worm tub and two shell and tube condensers.

Again, we have a modernization that affects the flavor of the whisky. The reactions prompted by contact with copper that serve to purify the spirit continue during condensation. But the increased surface area of cooper in a shell and tube condenser goes beyond the point of being beneficial, producing whisky that is notably lighter in style. Conversely, worm tub whiskies are weightier, with greater texture and character. Switching to shell and tube condensers isn’t necessarily bad for the whisky, but the move certainly alters its personality.

Cragganmore Distillers Edition (distilled 2000, bottled 2013), 40%
nose: There’s certainly a floral component there, but it’s rounded out by a complex mix of other aromas. Malt, grain, subtle fruit (primarily dark berry and baked fruit notes), a hint of peat smoke and perhaps a bit of minerality.
palate: The palate shows good complexity, with just about everything seen on the nose coming through, as well as some dry spice notes. Still, it gives the impression that it’s holding something back.
finish: Soft and gentle. Of moderate length, though it seems to go slightly out of balance at the very end.
overall: This is a very approachable single malt. It has some weight to it, but without too much intensity. I think I was initially attracted to this whisky when I first tasted it in Scotland two years ago because the additional time in Port casks has the effect of muting the strong floral notes that I feel are too dominant in the standard 12 year bottling (I last tasted 12 year Cragganmore about five months ago; it didn’t seem quite as floral as I remembered it being from many years ago. It’s hard to know if it is the whisky or my palate that has evolved).

I’ve gotten a little too wordy, so I’m going to split this post in two before I lose everyone’s attention. Part two will follow soon as it is already mostly written.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Talisker, Distiller's Edition vs. 10 Year

Talisker Distiller’s Edition: Single Malt Scotch, Islands, 45.8%, $85
Talisker 10 Year: Single Malt Scotch, Islands, 45.8%, $65

Failing to come across even a trace of Talisker Distiller’s Edition in Montreal meant that I was going to have to hunt down and buy a bottle for my review. It is not an item that I would find close to home though, as Vermont and New Hampshire are both liquor control states that do not stock it. This would take a bit more effort.

My next best option was to try to find one when I was in the Boston area during the holidays. A quick search online showed that it could be had at Gordon’s Fine Wines in Waltham. A respectable retailer with a single malt collection 300 bottles deep, I had visited the store at least twice in the past. But I was in the mood for exploration and decided to venture a little further from the city to Julio’s in Westborough. I’d heard great things about this store and had wanted to pay it a visit for some time. If I struck out on the Talisker DE there, I could always swing by Gordon’s on the way home.

Well, Julio’s certainly lived up to its reputation and I felt like a kid in a candy store. In addition to the usual single malt suspects and a solid array of limited edition bottlings, they also had a great variety of independent bottlings. The highly regarded Amrut whiskies of India were well represented and the store’s Japanese selection was outstanding, including most of the expressions that have only recently begun to appear in the U.S.

I even came across a non-chill filtered variant of Aberlour 12 year; something that I didn’t even know existed. But my whisk(e)y collection has grown to be unwieldy and I was only here for one bottle. As difficult as it was, I did manage to restrain myself and walk out of the store with nothing more than a bottle of Talisker Distiller’s Edition.

The Talisker DE, like the Oban DE that I wrote about in my last post, starts off as the distillery’s standard expression before it is transferred to fortified wine casks for a finishing period. In this case that would be 10 years in Bourbon barrels before it is transferred to Amoroso Sherry casks. It carries no age statement, but the label lists the year of distillation as 2002 and the year of bottling as 2013. That gives a margin of 12 months on each end, so the finishing time could be anywhere from a few months to a few years, but I suspect it is in the neighborhood of one year.

Of course my next logical step was to try and find out what Amoroso Sherry is, as I was unfamiliar with the term. Sherry classifications are a little confusing to begin with, and it turns out that some of the regulations have changed recently so it took me a while to get the information all sorted out.

I’ll try to keep the Sherry lesson concise as it seems to be a subject whose details can easily snowball. There are two main styles of Sherry; Fino and Oloroso. All Sherries are fully fermented in stainless steel tanks before they are transferred (along with the yeast) to oak casks for aging. The indigenous yeasts of Andalucía used to ferment Sherry go through a transformation after all of the sugar has been converted to ethanol. They then begin to convert acids into other compounds, and at the same time the cells attain a waxy coating causing them to float. They form into a protective coating called “flor” on top of the liquid, shielding it from oxygen. Sherry casks are only filled to 5/6 of their capacity, leaving plenty surface area for the flor to occupy.

Sherry is only fortified after it is placed in cask. Fino Sherries will be fortified to an alcohol level of 15% to encourage the growth of flor. Fino Sherries are pale in color and light in flavor. The flor protects them from oxygen and also contributes to their flavor. Oloroso Sherries will be fortified to an alcohol level of 17.5%, creating an environment in which the flor cannot survive. This allows the wine to oxidize as it ages, producing a wine which is dark in color and has a rich, nutty character.

Manzanilla is an especially light variant of Fino that comes from a small coastal village. Amontillado is a style that starts off like Fino, aging for several years under a layer of flor. Then it is further fortified, which eliminates the flor, and it continues to age oxidatively. This produces a hybrid style mid way between Fino and Oloroso. Palo Cortado is Sherry that was intended to be Oloroso, but did not develop its powerful bouquet. Palo Cortado has the nose of an Amontillado with the concentrated mouth feel of an Oloroso.

Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel are sweet styles for Sherry named for the grapes that they are made from. The grapes are laid out in the sun to dry, concentrating their sugars to the point that even after fully fermenting they still have residual sugars. They are then fortified to an alcohol level of 18-20%.

Sweetened versions of Oloroso Sherry are created by adding Pedro Ximenez or Moscotel to dry Oloroso. Names such as Rich Oloroso, Sweet Oloroso and Oloroso Dulce were used until new regulations went into effect in the spring of 2012. Those terms are now banned, and the word Oloroso can only appear on the label of its sweetened versions under certain conditions.

Categories for sweet Oloroso Sherry have been created and are defined by the amount of residual sugar (in grams per liter) in the wine. They are as follows:
Dry Sherry: 5 – 45
Pale Cream Sherry 45 – 115
Cream Sherry 115 – 140
Medium Sherry 5 – 115

This is fairly confusing as Dry Sherry isn’t “dry”, and the residual sugar range for Medium Sherry covers two of the other categories.

Now, back to where this all started; Amoroso. That is just an alternate term for Medium Sherry. So, the Talisker Distiller’s Edition has been finished in a cask that once held a sweetened version of Oloroso Sherry, one which covers a broad range of residual sugar levels (but not as sweet as Cream Sherry). I was unable to determine if the term Amoroso was banned with the new regulations that went into effect in 2012. But even if was, that wouldn’t really matter as the regulations apply to bottle labels for Sherry, not cask descriptions for Scotch.

I fortunately managed to line up my Talisker Distiller’s Edition next to a bottle of their flagship 10 year for a proper side by side tasting.

Talisker 10 year
nose: sea spray and peat (intense, but not overtly smoky).
palate: a quick hit of sweetness up front, followed by peat smoke which gradually intensifies as the characteristic black pepper spice starts to kick in.
finish: the smoke gives way as the black pepper element grows to dominate before slowly fading.
overall: the transitions aren’t harsh but it moves from one intense flavor to another, each being somewhat one dimensional.

Talisker DE
nose: more restrained overall. the salt and peat are still there but with the addition of some fruit (tree fruit and dark berry fruit), and perhaps a subtle floral note.
palate: the sweetness up front is more flavorful here, with fruit notes gracefully combining with butterscotch. the peat rises up on the mid palate as the early flavors carry through and are joined by brine and delicate floral notes.
finish: equally long but not as intense. the signature black pepper is still there, but toned down and joined by other flavors.
overall: more depth throughout and very well integrated. it makes the 10 seem quite monochromatic as the 10 moves through each of its three distinctive phases (sweet-smoke-pepper). The peat intensity is probably about the same for the two, but it stands out more with the DE because its peppery finish is much less dominant than that of the 10 year.

Talisker is unique not just for being the only single Malt from the Isle of Skye, but also for its distinctive black pepper finish. While I think the DE is the better of the two whiskies here with its far greater complexity, I can see some people being turned off by its diminished black pepper character and still having a preference for the raw power of the 10 year. I can also see myself occasionally being in the mood for the simpler yet more forceful style of the 10 year.