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.

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