Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Tullibardine, Gordon & MacPhail 13 year

stats: single malt Scotch, Highlands, 46%, $70

My whisky purchases usually involve much planning and forethought, but every once in a while I do pick up a bottle on a whim. This is one such case. After having become enamored with the Edradour distillery while drinking the flagship 10 year old and researching their Morton’s Refrigerator, making my way there for a tour become a top priority for my next visit to Scotland, whenever that may be. The picturesque distillery is located near the geographic center of the country, roughly 60 mile north of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Of course if you’re planning to drive out to the center of Scotland just to visit a distillery, it’s only logical to visit a few others along the way. Looking at a map of the country, there are five distilleries running in somewhat of a north-south line, spread across 25 miles of the Central Highlands. Edradour is at the north end and Tullibardine is at the south end, with Blair Athol, Aberfeldy and Glenturret lying between them. Daydreaming of such an adventure kept these distillery names fresh in my mind, prompting me to pick up this 13 year old bottling of Tullibardine in spite of the fact that I knew very little about their whisky or where it was made.

That was a little over three years ago. While official distillery bottlings from Tullibardine did exist at the time, they were sort of hard to come by. I have, however, started seeing Tullibardine on store shelves with some frequency more recently. Let’s take a quick look at the brand’s history.

First, lest there be any confusion, there was a distillery named Tullibardine that operated from 1798 to 1837, which was also in the village of Blackford, but not in the same location as the current distillery. The modern Tullibardine distillery was constructed in buildings that had operated as a brewery dating back to the 12th century. There are records of King James IV of Scotland stopping here to purchase beer on the way to his coronation in 1488. That year is sometimes associated with the current operation even though work on the distillery began in 1947 and spirit first flowed in 1949.

That start date is actually pretty interesting. After a spate of distillery construction in the late 1800’s, primarily in Speyside, Scotland’s whisky industry entered an exceptionally long bust period. This was primarily caused by World War I, Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II. With a single exception in 1938, no malt distilleries were built in the country between 1900 and the post-World War II boom period. Tullibardine was the first of this expansion phase for the industry, but it was way ahead of its time. All of the other new distilleries constructed in that period came online between 1957 and 1975.

The original owner, William Delmé-Evans, sold the distillery to a Glasgow based whisky broker, Brodie Hepburn Limited, in 1953. That firm was taken over in 1971 by Invergordon Distillers Limited, who increased capacity by adding a second set of stills in 1973. In 1993 Invergordon was acquired by Whyte & Mackay, and by the end of 1994 they had closed Tullibardine. The distillery was finally purchased by a business consortium in 2003 and they had it up and running again by the end of the year.

While an official 10 year old bottling had been available in the 1980’s and 1990’s, most of the distillery’s output was sold to blenders during that period. The new owners switched to a series of vintage dated bottlings and non-age stated wine cask finished bottlings. The cask finished single malts started off with distillate from 1992 and 1993, but eventually they had to switch over to younger whisky made after the nine year period of non-production. This happened once the whisky made after 2003 was at least 5 years old, and there was a coinciding price reduction.

Finally, the Tullibardine was sold in 2011 to its current owner, Picard Vins & Spiritueux; an independent French company which also owns vineyards and four distilleries in France. In 2013 the entire range was relaunched with six new bottlings.

The example of Tullibardine from Gordon & MacPhail that I’m tasting tonight was distilled in 1993, bottled in 2007 and carries a 13 year age statement. Judging from the color I’m assuming that it was aged exclusively in former bourbon barrels.

The color is pale golden straw.
The nose is delicate and quite grassy, with a subtle hint of clay. The aromas seem mature and well integrated, but not particularly oaky.
There’s some weight on the palate; it has a respectable amount of body. Hay and fresh-cut grass are the most obvious notes on the palate. Cereal grain, nuttiness, honeysuckle and dry oak notes all surface to a lesser degree, rounding it out with good complexity.
Warming, exotic (perhaps middle-eastern?) spice notes come into play on the finish.
This is an interesting whisky; it has a Lowlandesque flavor profile, but with a density more characteristic of the Highlands.

Most of the official distillery bottlings currently available go in one of two directions; nearly twice the age of this bottling, or non-age stated (but said to be less than half as old) and with various wine cask finishes. I’d be curious to taste any of

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Ardbeg Perpetuum vs. 2015 Laphroaig Cairdeas

Perpetuum: single malt Scotch, Islay, 47.4%, $100
2015 Cairdeas: single malt Scotch, Islay, 51.5%, $75

A 200 year anniversary is a big deal, especially when you’re talking about the survival of a distillery on the rain battered, wind lashed shores of Islay. It’s even more impressive when one considers the challenges imposed on whisky producers by the geopolitical turmoil of the first half of the 20th century. The fact that Ardbeg and Laphroaig are both celebrating such a momentous occasion this year is quite noteworthy.

With the current state of the industry, no popular Scottish single malt distillery can really let a significant anniversary slip by without issuing a special bottling to commemorate the milestone. Such an event can certainly be capitalized upon by a distillery to help drive sales. More importantly though, devotees of the brand will be expecting the opportunity to experience a distinctive expression of the whisky they adore while toasting the affair.

Such a bottling should be special and somewhat unique, but it’s also important to keep its price in a range that won’t be off-putting to the average consumer. Along the same lines, a large enough quantity of said bottling needs to be produced so that it is readily available. Frustrated enthusiasts don’t make for a cheerful celebration. So, let’s see what Ardbeg and Laphroaig have come up with.

Both distilleries (as well as most of the others on the island) long ago started producing limited, annual Feis Ile bottlings for Islay’s music and whisky festival, which is held in May each year. These started off in very small quantities and could only be purchased at the distillery shops during or shortly after the festival. Eventually these bottlings from Laphroaig and Ardbeg grew in size and were also made available for online sales. In 2012, both distilleries further expanded production of their festival bottlings. They were still limited releases, but they could now be purchased from retailers around the world.

Rather than putting out two competing special editions for 2015, both Ardbeg and Laphroaig chose to make the festival bottling and the anniversary bottling one in the same. Both distilleries kept the pricing for these bottlings at the same levels as the festival bottlings that have come before them for the past three years.

Laphroaig also released two other limited bottlings this year. The first is a 21 year old which was billed as celebrating the 21st anniversary of the Friends of Laphroaig (the distillery’s official fan club). It was only available in 35cl bottles at £99, and could only be bought online, initially through a ballot system. The second is a 32 year old which was aged exclusively in Oloroso Sherry hogsheads. 5880 were produced and they are retailing for $1200.

As for the festival/bicentennial bottlings, Ardbeg and Laphroaig took pretty different approaches. Perpetuum is supposed to pay homage to the different styles of whisky that Ardbeg has made over the last two centuries and represent the distillery’s past, present and future. Unfortunately the official description of this whisky is long on vagaries and short on specifics. The most detail that they give only reveals that this is a mix of old and young Ardbeg and a mix of Sherry casks and Bourbon barrels. They also mention that a tiny amount of the oldest stocks left in the warehouses went into the vatting.

You may remember from one of my previous Ardbeg posts that the since the current owners took control of the distillery in 1997, they’ve had three styles of Ardbeg made during three distinct periods of production to work with. I’d like to think that Perpetuum is a vatting of whiskies from all three phases, but I haven’t seen anything specifically indicating that to be the case. I’ve also seen rumors that Perpetuum was overproduced and its quality was compromised in order to meet quantity targets (I intend to taste with an open mind nonetheless). I decided to look for some numbers and found that there were 6660 bottled of Ardbeg Auriverdes (2014 Feis Ile) made and 72,000 bottles of Perpetuum made, plus another 12,000 bottles of Perpetuum at a slightly higher proof that were only available at the distillery.

Laphroaig, on the other hand, has told us very specifically how the 2015 Cairdeas was made. This whisky was distilled in 2003 and was an early project of John Campbell, the current distillery manager. Most significantly it is made entirely from barley malted on Laphroaig’s traditional floor malting. The distillery normally uses a mix of 85% commercially produced malted barley and 15% which is malted in-house. The latter is distinctive because it is dried by burning peat hand harvested by distillery workers, and that peat is composed primarily of lichens and mosses that grew in an area heavy with sea spray. Also, Laphroaig uses a cold smoking process in the malt kiln, where they start with a low temperature fire which produces a lot of smoke but doesn’t serve to dry the barley until the temperature is eventually brought up. Even just 15% of the malt being treated this way is enough to give Laphroaig its signature iodine-like medicinal character.

This whisky was also produced only using the small stills at Laphroaig. A fourth spirit still which is twice the size of the other three spirit stills was added in 1974. Distillate from all four is usually blended together, but not in this case. Furthermore, the 2015 Cairdeas was aged in first-fill Bourbon barrels in Laphroaig’s No. 1 Warehouse, which sits right on the edge of the sea. This whisky is John’s interpretation of what Laphroaig from 200 years ago would have tasted like. Laphroaig did make 28,500 bottles of 2015 Cairdeas (or 30,000, I’ve seen both numbers), which was barely up from the 28,000 bottles of 2014 Cairdeas that were produced.

The nose shows pleasant peat notes, but they’re different than expected; somewhat restrained and a little one-dimensional. The peat smoke aromas have a dry, earthy character, and if there are any fruit notes, they are very subtle.
The palate starts off going in one direction, and then makes an abrupt turn. It has a lush, sweet, malty character right up front, but that suddenly gives way to iodine and somewhat abrasive smoke notes.
It then goes out of balance while moving into the finish, with burnt toast notes coming to dominate.
Overall, the whisky is poorly integrated and has transitions that are less than graceful. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a bad whisky, but it certainly isn’t worthy of the occasion it was earmarked to celebrate.

2015 Cairdeas:
The nose is defined by sharp peat notes, brine and iodine. A touch of vanilla adds depth. The lack of sherry fruit and maltiness makes it seem oddly lithe, in spite of the assertive aromas.
Exceptionally full bodied right up front, it follows with peat smoke that is dense but not sharp or biting. I was expecting a punch in the face, but got more of a giant bear hug; my palate gradually but forcefully enveloped. Laphroaig’s signature medicinal character is certainly present, but surprisingly doesn’t seem particularly amplified relative to their other bottlings.
Warming spice notes, mint and eucalyptus all come into play, mingling with a peaty campfire as it moves into the finish.
Depth and weight define this whisky, but it stays in balance and evolves gracefully.

I love the concept and truly enjoyed this whisky, but I’d like to see Laphroaig take this idea to the next level. Sure, using worm tubs and direct fired stills would be too big of a challenge logistically. But starting with a watered-down, lower original gravity wort to emulate the lower yielding barleys of yesteryear (as Springbank does) along with running an exceptionally long fermentation time wouldn’t be too hard to do for a limited edition whisky.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Old Overholt Rye, 3 year vs. 4 year

straight rye whiskey, 3 years old, 40%, $16 (2015 price)
straight rye whiskey, 4 years old, 40%, $16 (2011 price)

My last post looked at the recent revamping of the long-bottled Jim Beam Rye. This time around I’m going to look at Old Overholt, the other rye brand Beam has produced for many years.

The roots of the Old Overholt brand stretch all the way back to 1810. It was in that year that Abraham Overholt (1784-1870), a Mennonite of Swiss descent, took the family tradition of farm-distilling rye whisky and turned it into a commercial enterprise. He and his brother Christian Overholt (1786-1868) built their log cabin distillery in West Overton (in southwest PA) and began producing their Old Farm Pure Pennsylvania Rye brand. Abraham bought out his brother’s share of the farm two years later, and in 1814 a larger stone distillery with 10 times the capacity of the original was built.

Abraham’s two oldest sons, Henry Stauffer Overholt (1810-1870) and Jacob Stauffer Overholt (1814-1859), began working at the family distillery when they were quite young, and by 1850 they had both become full partners in the business. Demand for their whiskey was so great that in 1855 the family decided to establish a second distillery about 12 miles from the original, at Broad Ford; a site chosen for its river access. Jacob left the West Overton business to run the new enterprise and in 1856 took his cousin Henry O. Overholt (1813-1880) on as a partner. The whisky produced there was sold under the brand Old Monongahela Rye.

After Jacob’s death in 1859, his interest in the Broad Ford distillery was purchased by his father. The distillery was expanded in 1867, greatly increasing its capacity. In 1868 Henry O. Overholt sold his interest in the distillery to Abraham Overholt Tinstman, one of Abraham Overholt’s grandsons. After the deaths of Abraham Overholt and his son Henry in 1870, the company had a complex series of owners, most of whom were family members, but by 1881 the distillery at Broad Ford was owned by the famed industrialist Henry Clay Frick, another of Abraham’s grandsons. It was in the mid 1870’s that the distillery started to use the Old Overholt brand, in honor of Abraham Overholt and with his likeness on the label.

With Frick running the company, Old Overholt became the best selling rye brand in the country, and the entire plant at Broad Ford was reconstructed and enlarged between 1899 and 1905. Frick had sold a one-third interest in the distillery to his friend Andrew Mellon in 1887. As the executor of Henry Clay Frick’s estate, Mellon was able to take control of the distillery in upon Frick’s death in 1919.

The distillery at West Overton was closed at the onset of Prohibition and never reopened. But Andrew Mellon, as Secretary of the Treasury, was able to grant himself a medicinal whisky license which allowed the Broad Ford distillery to sell prescription whiskey and even occasionally produce more in spite of Prohibition. This asset made the company quite valuable during the ensuing period of consolidation in the industry. National Distillers, which formed in 1924, acquired all of the assets of Old Overholt in 1927.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, production resumed at the Broad Ford plant and Old Overholt once again became the best selling rye whiskey in the U.S. But Pennsylvania’s distilling heritage was on a downward spiral as Americans continued their previously established shift from rye to Bourbon, and eventually shifted away from whiskey in general.

National Distillers finally closed the Broad Ford plant for good in 1950 and moved production of Old Overholt to their nearby Large Distillery in West Elizabeth, PA. When National closed that distillery in 1958 they contracted the distilling of Old Overholt out to another Pennsylvania distillery in Schaefferstown, which went by the name Pennco at the time.

Somewhere between 1960 and 1980, National Distillers pulled out of Pennsylvania completely and moved production of Old Overholt Rye to their Old Grand Dad distillery in Forks of Elkhorn, KY. When Jim Beam acquired National Distillers in 1987, that distillery was closed and they switched Old Overholt over to the rye whiskey that they were already producing for Jim Beam Rye.

This was the low point of rye whiskey’s popularity and Beam probably only kept Old Overholt alive because there were still some pockets consumer demand left over from the brand’s heyday. There was no point in promoting Old Overholt, which had become a pretty mediocre product by that point, or trying to differentiate it from Beam Rye.

Fast forward to the current rye renaissance, and these two labels were suddenly fighting for the same segment (bottom shelf mixers) of the expanding rye market. As I mentioned up top, my last post examined the recent re-packaging of Jim Beam Rye and its boost from 80 proof to 90 proof. As a non-age stated straight rye it has to be at least four years old. At some point in 2013 a less noticeable but equally significant change was made to Old Overholt. The four year age statement, which was inconspicuously shown in small print on the corner of the label, was replaced with a three year age statement and made even less conspicuous by moving it to the back of the neck label.

Fortunately I have a mostly full bottle of Old Overholt that’s been in my collection for about 10 years, so I can do a little side by side.

Old Overholt, 3 year
The nose is kind of thin and basic. Some clay (maybe a hint of banana too) and gentle spice notes come through. There’s nothing offensive about it though.
There’s not much up front on the palate, but a burst of flavor soon pops up. The peanut-like “Beam funk” mixes with some Play-Doh notes and floral character.
As it moves into the finish, the rye flavors shift from being floral-based to spice-driven, while the other flavors linger on in the background.
Overall it seems pretty young and spirit-y.

Old Overholt, 4 year
The nose has similar aromas to the three year old, but with more oak, and more depth and intensity.
This one has more weight on the palate and seems better composed, with more continuity. The peanut-like note is much less obvious and there seems to be more tannic, oaky character balancing out the floral and spicy rye notes. The warming spice notes that characterize the finish aren’t too complex, but it winds down with more balance than the three year old does.

Comparing these two along with the two Beam ryes, it’s clear that the company has succeeded in creating more distinction between the two brands, both in terms of their flavor profiles and their packaging.

I wouldn’t rank either of these Old Overholts very high on a list of whiskeys to be sipped neat, but the four year old is better suited to such duty. The three year old is, however, perfectly capable of producing a respectable cocktail. It’s actually the mixing rye that we use where I work, so I’ll give a few examples of drinks that we use it in. One originated before Prohibition, and the other shortly after.

The Ward 8 has several origin stories, but the most likely one pegs its creation a bar in Boston in 1898.

2 ounces Old Overholt
1 ounce Grenadine
½ ounce lemon juice
Combine ingredients over ice in a mixing tin, shake for a five count, strain into an ice filled rocks glass, top with a splash of club soda and garnish with orange and lemon wedges and a cherry.
We use fresh squeezed lemon juice and house made Grenadine (equal parts by volume of fine white sugar and Pomegranate juice at room temperature, shaken vigorously until incorporated), which probably makes a big difference in the quality of the drink.

The Vieux Carré was invented by a New Orleans bartender in 1938. The name is French for “Old Square”, an alternate term for the city’s “French Quarter”.

1 ounce Old Overholt
1 ounce Courvoisier VS
¼ ounce Benedictine
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
Combine ingredients over ice in a mixing tin, stir gently for a 15 count, strain over a single large ice cube in a rocks glass and garnish with a lemon zest.
The original recipe calls for equal parts (3/4 ounce) rye, Cognac and sweet vermouth. After experimenting with a variety of sweet vermouths, none of which he was happy with, our head bartender tried the above recipe and was finally satisfied, so that’s how we make it.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Jim Beam Rye, Yellow label vs. Green label

Jim Beam Rye, yellow label: Straight Rye Whiskey, 40%, $19
Jim Beam Rye, green label: Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey 45%, $21

The lineup of whiskeys offered by the Jim Beam distillery has been expanding and evolving for several years now. When I recently noticed the new green label in stark contrast to the former yellow label on their eponymous rye bottling, I immediately looked to see if the liquid inside might be different or if they had simply updated the packaging. Two things instantly stood out: the proof had risen from 80 to 90, and they were now calling it “pre-Prohibition style” rye.

The fact that they upped the proof from its former anemic level was certainly welcome news, but what of this “pre-Prohibition style” business? Let’s do a little historical overview and at the same time dispel the widely believed myths that rye was the dominant style of American whiskey up until Prohibition and that Prohibition was entirely responsible for its demise.

Looking back to Colonial times (pre-1776), whiskey production was largely a secondary farming activity, and it was concentrated in Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia (New England had a booming rum industry at the time which was fueled by the supply of inexpensive molasses from the Caribbean). Rye was the main ingredient of that early American whiskey because it was the grain that grew best in that mid-Atlantic portion of the colonies.

The trickle of settlers who migrated west of the Appalachians before the American Revolution had turned into a flood after that seminal event. When farmers (which most people were in those times) expanded westward, so did distilling. But the fertile, newly settled lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River were much better suited to growing corn than other grains. The style of whiskey that emerged from this new distilling frontier eventually came to be known as Bourbon. Its production was centered in Kentucky, but it was also made in surrounding states such as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri.

Aging whiskey in charred oak barrels had become standard practice in the U.S. by the early to mid 1800’s, significantly transforming the product. By the middle of the 19th century whiskey distilling was transitioning into an industry in its own right, rather than simply being a facet of farming activity. This held true both east and west of the Appalachians, but most of the growth in the industry happened in the west. While the eastern distillers focused on supplying their nearby population centers, the western distillers had access to river networks that led to the Mississippi and ultimately the important New Orleans market. Later, the new railroads also gave them access to markets further west. Fertile soils supporting high yielding corn crops allowed the western distillers to take advantage of this growth potential.

Most of the commercial distillers in Kentucky and its surrounding states also made rye whiskey, but almost always in very small quantities relative to their mainstay, Bourbon. Overall, rye was the leading American whiskey style being made before the Civil War (1861-1865), but Bourbon production outpaced rye from that point onward. Rye’s share of production ranged from 60% to 85% between 1790 and 1810, but its share had dropped to 38% by 1878. While Prohibition wasn’t solely responsible for the near death of rye whiskey, it certainly expedited the process. That period was tough on all distillers but the eastern rye producing region was hit particularly hard, with only a handful of Pennsylvania’s 3000 distilleries surviving Prohibition. That thirteen year stretch and the following decades were a time of great consolidation in the industry. Most of the popular eastern rye brands were bought up by the few surviving companies and production was moved to their distilleries in Kentucky.

There’s in interesting point of distinction that I haven’t mentioned yet though. The rye whisky produced by the new distilleries west of the Appalachians was made in a fashion similar to Bourbon, while the eastern distillers held on to their old traditions and even refined the process in some ways, essentially leading to two distinct styles of American rye whisky.

The first difference was corn. Most of the eastern ryes being made by the end of the 19th century had no corn in their mashbills; they were primarily rye with some barley malt, and some had a bit of malted rye. If any of them did have corn in the mix it would have been a very small percentage. The western ryes were made in corn country and had quite a bit of it in their mashbills. Their rye content would have been at or slightly above the 51% minimum required and they would have had some malted barley (5% to 10%) for its enzyme content. But the remaining percentage was corn.

The next difference was the sour mash process. This was a technique that bourbon producers had come up with where some of the spent stillage from the previous distillation is added to the next mash. This is done to adjust the pH level making a more hospitable environment for the yeast that will be added. The western distillers applied this new method to their rye whiskeys while the eastern distillers stuck with the traditional sweet mash approach.

The third difference was the stills. When the western distillers scaled up and modernized, they switched over from pot stills to column stills. In the early 1800’s eastern distillers came up with a new still design that fell somewhere between the two mentioned above; the “three-chambered still”. This was an arrangement of three pot stills housed within a wooden column. Live steam was injected directly into the pots to strip off alcohol, and each pot would feed the next.

While Bourbon took over as America’s prominent whisky after the Civil War, the western distillers were only making small amounts of rye, leaving the bulk of the country’s rye whisky production (and leading brands) in the eastern states up until Prohibition. One could easily make the argument that this late 19th century / early 20th century eastern style of rye is what actually defines “pre-Prohibition style” rye.

So, is this new Jim Beam Rye truly “pre-Prohibition style”? The short answer is no. The folks at Beam don’t disclose their mashbills, but it’s widely accepted that the one rye recipe they have used for many, many years is at or near the 51% rye mark. If they had done something so remarkable as coming out with a second rye recipe with little or no corn, or made a sweet-mash whiskey or set up a three-chamber still, any of those would be a huge selling point. It would also be something well worth screaming about in their marketing.

Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not saying that they’re lying. The term “pre-Prohibition style” isn’t legally defined anywhere. What I’ve laid out above is a historical perspective of what the term should mean. The Beam family has been making rye whiskey since before Prohibition (albeit primarily in the western style), making them somewhat entitled to put the term on their label. But it’s highly unlikely that the stuff in this bottle is any different than what was in the bottle with the yellow label, aside from having 5% more alcohol.

Why put the pre-Pro terminology on the label now? Craft cocktail culture is currently one of the prime drivers of rye whiskey sales. If you want to make an authentic whiskey cocktail from a pre-Prohibition recipe you’ll need a bottle of rye. A “pre-Prohibition style” rye will be that much more appealing.

Fortunately I’ve had a nearly full bottle of Beam’s yellow labeled rye kicking around on my whiskey shelf since some time in 2006, so I can do a proper side by side. I should also mention that at some point Beam had updated the “traffic safety” yellow label to a more easy-on-the-eyes, muted brownish-yellow label, but as far as I know the whiskey remained the same through that change.

Yellow label:
I really love the aromatics on this whiskey. There’s a lot going on, but it’s not very assertive – subtle complexity. Well rounded spice notes, a little bit floral, some clay and a hint of oaky sweetness.
Unfortunately the palate can’t keep the promises made by the nose. The flavor development just doesn’t come together. It starts off kind of flat, and then shows a brief moment of promise on the mid-palate with some gentle spice and subtle floral notes, before it goes out of balance and turns hot as it moves into the finish.
Some burnt toast notes stand out later on the finish. It’s not horrible, but comes across as being poorly integrated and is mostly disappointing because the nose showed so much potential.

Green label:
The nose seems to be less complex but fuller and still well composed. The spice and floral aromas have an interesting pine note riding along with them.
This one is a little more agreeable on the palate. The spice notes are complex with cinnamon red hots, pine and a touch of mint. The “Beam funk” that is a characteristic of their house yeast definitely comes through. I know that this is a polarizing trait and it’s one that I don’t love, but I find it less offensive here than I do in their Bourbon. I think the rye notes are able to balance it out to a certain degree.
The finish is lengthy with some nice spicy warmth. Everything is pretty well integrated here. Opinions of this whiskey are going to be very dependent on personal preferences.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Kilchoman Tasting

In light of the loss of Port Ellen (1983) and the near losses of Ardbeg (mothballed 1981-1989) and Bruichladdich (mothballed 1993-2001), it was a pretty big deal when Kilchoman opened in December of 2005 as the first new distillery built on Islay in 124 years. My first experience with Kilchoman was their Spring 2011 Release, a bottle which I had purchased in the fall of that year and finally sampled shortly before my trip to Scotland in the spring of 2012.

I was quite impressed by this young offering, especially considering its age (70% 3 year and 30% 4 year). Making a pilgrimage to and taking a tour of the Kilchoman distillery had become a top priority of the four days I would spend on Islay. Fortunately their gift shop was well stocked with a nice variety of miniatures. In addition to the 700 ml Sherry Cask Release bottle that I bought there, I also picked up 50 ml bottles of the Winter 2010 Release and Inaugural 100% Islay (reviewed here) as well as the 2006 Vintage and 2012 Machir Bay (reviewed here).

When I recently received an email from the Burgundy Lion in Montreal detailing their upcoming tastings, the Kilchoman event hosted by Anthony Wills, the distillery’s founder, immediately caught my attention. As the distillery had started out selling some very young whiskies, I was really curious to see how their products had evolved over the last three and a half years. The average age of their bottlings has crept up a little every year, but they do have to sell a pretty good amount of whisky to keep the operation going, so they’re certainly not offering a range of 9 year olds as the distillery approaches the 10th anniversary of the start of production.

Before I get into the individual whiskies, I’ll touch on some of the insights that I gained from the man who established the business. Starting an independent distillery from scratch is no easy task. Mr. Wills knew this, but as an independent bottler he also knew that it was getting harder and harder to source quality whisky and that distillery ownership was the best way to secure a future in the industry. Understanding that the reputable name of an established single malt brand can be a big asset to an independent bottler, he also realized how important the Islay “brand” and location would be to a new distillery, and he wisely chose to locate there.

The biggest challenge would be finding investors; trying to start a brand new distillery was almost unheard of 10-plus years ago and the return on investment would come on a very long time scale. He was able to pull together £1 million; just enough to get the distillery built. Once the vision had a physical manifestation, it was a little easier to attract more capital to keep the place running and growing. The total investment to date has been £10 million. That’s quite a leap of faith.

Having a respectable product to sell early on would be critical to keeping the place going. Wills had the foresight to bring on Dr. James Swan as a consultant with the objective of creating a spirit that would mature quickly. They targeted a style that would be light, clean and fruity. I’m sure every aspect of the process was scrutinized, but the small stills with tall, narrow necks were chosen to maximize copper contact with this goal in mind. The almost exclusive use of 1st fill casks is also an important part of the equation (we were told at the tasting that Kilchoman only uses 1st fill Bourbon barrels from the Buffalo Trace distillery and fresh Sherry casks from the same source as Glenfarclas, but I know some of their early bottlings were aged at least partially in refill Bourbon barrels).


Kilchoman has charted a steady course for growth. Production in 2006, their first full year, was 50,000 liters of alcohol. I believe it was a little over 110,000 in 2012, and we were told that they were likely to come in at 170,000 for 2015 and were forecasting 200,000 liters for 2016. Production will max out at 250,000 liters per year with the current set of stills.

The original idea was for this to be a complete farm distillery, with all of the barley grown on site and malted in house. They quickly realized that this wasn’t feasible but kept the concept alive for one whisky. Their 100% Islay bottling is made from barley grown on a neighboring farm (which they have since bought, bringing that part of the process under their control too) and malted to 20 parts-per-million phenols on a traditional floor malting. The other 80% of their barley, which is used for all of the other bottlings, comes from the Port Ellen malting facility and is peated to 50 ppm.

Kilchoman also does their own bottling and 100% of the whisky they produce ends up as single malt; none of it goes into blends. Everything they bottle in non-chill filtered and natural color.

One of the big questions that I had (and it must be a common question because it was answered before anyone asked it) was “what is the end game in terms of the level of maturation they will eventually build up to?” The answer was 8 to 12 years. Until they have whisky in that age range, they won’t really know where the sweet spot is though. I did get the impression that Anthony was leaning toward the younger part of that estimate as being more likely though. This seems pretty reasonable to me considering how well their spirit performs even down around 4 years of age. Also, looking back to the 1980’s and 1990’s, 8 year old single malts were actually quite common before they were lost to an arms race of increasing age statements.

Of course we’ve now moved into unprecedented boom times and those higher age statements can’t be sustained, so non-age stated single malts are becoming the norm. While Kilchoman has never used official age statements on their labels, preferring to let the whisky stand for itself, they’ve always been very forthright with the age information on their website. Anthony made the very good point that it’s much better to have started without age statements than to have built a reputation around them and then find yourself in a position where you have to eliminate them and try to put a positive spin on the change, as many distillers are now doing.

First up was the 100% Islay bottling. The miniature of this offering that I got at the distillery was the inaugural edition, bottled in 2010 and aged just three years. For the event we tasted the 5th edition which was released in May of 2015. This latest edition is a 5 year old, coming from barrels filled in 2009 and 2010. In both cases the whisky was aged solely in 1st fill Bourbon barrels and bottled at 50% abv.

The nose is very aromatic, with fresh peat smoke, sea spray and fish nets.
On the palate there is a moderate peat level accompanied by tree fruit with a slightly floral edge.
The finish shows good length.
Overall it is clean and well-integrated, with good intensity but not too assertive.

Next up was the Machir Bay bottling, which is Kilchoman’s core expression and accounts for 20% of their sales. The miniature of this bottling that I picked up at the distillery was from the initial release that came out in 2012. Back then it was a vatting of 3 year (60%), 4 year (35%) and 5 year (5%), all of which was aged in 1st fill Bourbon barrels and the 4 year old having spent another 8 weeks in Oloroso Sherry butts. The 2013 bottling was a vatting of 4 and 5 year old Bourbon barrels, with the 4 year old being finished in Oloroso Sherry butts for 4 weeks.

For the event, I’m not sure if we tasted the 2014 or the 2015 Machir Bay (I never saw the bottle), but I believe it was the former. We were told that it was a 5 year old, 90% of which was aged in Bourbon barrels and 10% in Oloroso Sherry casks. The Kilchoman website describes the 2014 as a vatting of 5 and 6 year old Bourbon barrels and Oloroso Sherry butts. There’s no info on the site about the 2015 bottling but I did find a review online claiming that it is aged 5.5 years in 1st fill Bourbon barrels and finished for 6 months in Oloroso Sherry casks, giving a total age of 6 years. All of the Machir Bay bottlings have been at 46% abv.

Compared to the 100% Islay, the nose has fuller, deeper peat smoke aromas, but still with plenty of maritime character.
On the palate the peat is bigger and more robust, with the fruit character dropping into the background.
The smoky notes reverberate and evolve through the lengthy finish.
Surprisingly, this one came across with less apparent maturity than the 100% Islay.

The third whisky of the event was Kilchoman’s Original Cask Strength. This one is from a release of 9200 bottles that came out late in 2014, and as far as I can tell there hasn’t been a 2015 release to date. Aside from a small number of single cask bottlings, this is the distillery’s first cask strength offering, so it has no equivalent among the earlier samples I was able to try. At 59.2% abv, this is a 5 year old coming from a vatting of 35 Bourbon barrels that were all filled in 2009.

The nose has an intense campfire-like smokiness. It has somewhat restrained coastal qualities, with aromas of fresh, wet beach grass thrown on to burning driftwood.
It’s big and assertive on the palate. Pine and wintermint are mingled in with the peat smoke adding nice complexity.
The smoke becomes a bit sooty in nature as the flavors evolve into the finish.
Adding a few drops of water helps to reveal greater depth.

The fourth and final whisky we tasted was the 2015 bottling of Loch Gorm, which is the version of Kilchoman aged exclusively in Sherry casks. There were Loch Gorm releases in 2014 and 2013 as well. The Sherry Cask Release bottle that I acquired at the distillery was essentially the 2012 predecessor to the Loch Gorm series. These have all been bottled at 46% after aging exclusively in Oloroso Sherry casks.

The Sherry Cask Release was aged for 5 years in butts with 6000 bottles produced. The 2013 Loch Gorm was a release of 10,000 bottles and was aged for 5 years in butts with a further 6 weeks in hogsheads. The 2014 Loch Gorm was a release of 17,000 bottles aged for 5 years in butts. The 2015 Loch Gorm is slightly older with a mix of casks filled in 2010 and 2009, all of which were at least 5 years old. 10,000 bottled were produced from a mix of butts and hogsheads.

The nose has lovely, rich 1st fill Sherry cask notes beautifully integrated with the aromas of smoldering peat embers.
The palate has a nice back and forth between the peat smoke and lush Sherry fruit.
Overall it shows good depth, complexity and length.

I mentioned above that I had sampled the Winter 2010 Release and the Spring 2011 Release. I was curious what had happened to this series, so I did a little research and learned there had been four other bottlings. The Inaugural 2009 Release was the distillery’s first general release and had a total of 8450 bottles. It, along with the Autumn 2009 Release and the Spring 2010 Release, was aged about 3 year in Bourbon barrels and finished in Oloroso Sherry Casks (6 months, 2.5 months and 3.5 months, respectively). The Summer 2010 Release and Winter 2010 Release were each aged for more then 3 years, solely in Bourbon barrels. The Spring 2011 Release was a vatting of 3 year old (70%) and 4 year old (30%) aged in Bourbon barrels, with the 4 year old portion finished for an additional 5 weeks in Oloroso Sherry casks. These were all bottled at 46% abv. Looking back it is quite obvious that this series of bottlings was the predecessor to the Machir Bay offerings.

The 2006 Vintage release was another of the miniatures I picked up at the distillery, and that series has continued on. These are aged exclusively in Bourbon barrels and bottled at 46%. They have been released every other year, but the age of the whisky has gone up by a full year with each new release. The 2006 Vintage was bottled in 2011 as a 5 year old, the 2007 Vintage was released in 2013 as a 6 year old, and the 2008 Vintage was released in 2015 as a 7 year old.

A good variety of single cask bottlings have come from the distillery over the years, but each is quite rare by their nature. Aside from everything discussed above, the only other general releases to date have been the Port Cask Matured bottling (fall 2014) and the Madeira Cask Matured bottling (fall 2015). These were both distilled in 2011 and aged exclusively in their namesake cask types. Each release was at 55% abv with a yield of about 6000 bottles.

It was a pleasure to revisit the Kilchoman whiskies almost four years after seeing the distillery in person. Their offerings are progressing nicely and the nearly-10-year-old distillery looks like it is on the path to fulfilling its potential.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Upcoming Scotch Tasting

I'll be hosting a Scotch tasting at Doc Ponds restaurant in Stowe, Vermont, on Sunday, November 22nd at 6:00 PM. The $40 price includes food, five single malts and me talking for two hours. I'll be discussing Scotland's distilling regions, their historical origins and their significance in the modern era.

The malts that I've selected to represent the five regions are:
Auchentoshan Select (Lowlands)
Oban 14 year (Highlands)
Glenfarclas 12 year (Speyside)
Springbank 10 year (Campbeltown)
Ardbeg 10 year (Islay)

All of the tastings that I've conducted to date have been private events; this is the first one that is open to the public, but we are limiting it to 20 people. As of a few days ago, only eight spaces were still available. If you'd like to sign up, sending a message through the Doc Ponds Facebook page is the preferred method, but if you're not on Facebook you could also call the restaurant.

If the response is strong and all goes well, this may turn into a regular series of tastings (I'm guessing once or twice a month with a break during the busy summer season).

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Glen Elgin, 16 year

stats: single malt Scotch, Speyside, 58.5%, $110

While I was exploring the whisky bars of Montreal earlier this year and making tasting notes for what would eventually become a three part series of posts on those establishments, I ended up including several whiskies that aren’t available in the U.S. One of those, Glen Elgin 12 year, was a single malt that I knew very little about until I did some research on it after the fact. I was pretty excited when I realized that this bottling was primarily distributed in Europe and that it wasn’t exported to the States at all. I also discovered that it is the only regularly available official bottling from Glen Elgin.

Then, as I was working on the relevant post, something caught my eye when I looked over a picture of the whisky list from Else’s. Not only did they too have the 12 year Glen Elgin (I had tasted it at Le Boudoir), they also had a 16 year listed. The price for a drink wasn’t too bad at $17 and I had a feeling this might be somewhat of a rare bird. It wasn’t listed on the SAQ website anymore, which means the bar was unlikely to get another bottle, so it went to the top of my list of whiskies to try next time I was in the city.

That “next time” happened a few days ago when I travelled up to Montreal for a Kilchoman tasting (details on that coming soon). I had done enough digging to learn that this was a fairly limited, cask strength bottling from several years ago which had been aged in European oak Sherry casks. I’m pretty confident in saying that the 12 year bottling (at 43%) is aged primarily, if not exclusively, in Bourbon barrels, so I expected this expression would be quite different. Needless to say, Else’s was my first stop after checking into the hotel.

The nose shows ripe fruit, stewed berries and subtle butterscotch. The aromas are actually somewhat restrained in spite of the high proof.
It is, however, much bigger on the palate. There’s big Sherry fruit and some sweetness right up front with a touch of vanilla. It expands and evolves as it progresses with some grain notes joining the fray as the heat and bold flavors vie for dominance.
Intense spice notes, vanilla bean and butterscotch amongst them, come to the fore as it moves into the finish which is incredibly long.

The 12 year by comparison (yes, I did follow up with one) is brighter, more floral and shows more stone fruit, less berry fruit and less spice. Once again, this is great example of extra age and sherry cask maturation taking a single malt whose house style I’m somewhat indifferent toward and really transforming it into something special. The higher proof of a cask strength bottling never hurts either.

In my review of Glen Elgin 12 year I mentioned that it had been available for about 15 years. That wasn’t completely accurate. There was a 12 year bottling from the distillery, also at 43%, available in the 1970’s. It continued on into the 1980’s, though with a revised label design. The 12 year seems to have gone away in the 1990’s, but there was a non-age stated bottling at 43% for the Japanese market during at least part of that decade. The official 12 year, still at 43%, came back as part of the Flora & Fauna range around 2001. Then it moved to the Hidden Malts range for a few years before finally becoming part of the Classic Malts in 2005.

There have been a number of independent bottlings of Glen Elgin over the years, but those are fairly rare. Equally hard to come by (and unavailable in the U.S.) are the few limited releases that the distillery has put out in addition to their mainstay 12 year. As far as I can tell, the following are the only other official bottlings to date.

There were three bottlings that were only given to staff and friends of the distillery, but some of those have ended up on the secondary market so they are worth mentioning. Each was likely a single cask bottling, so probably 200 to 400 bottles of each was produced. In 1988 there was the Manager’s Dram 15 year old at 60.2%, in 1990 there was a 14 year old Christmas bottling at 43%, and in 1993 there was a Manager’s Dram 16 year old at 60%.

In 2000 they released a special Centenary bottling to mark the occasion of the distillery’s first 100 years of operation (Glen Elgin was founded in 1898, but production didn’t commence until May of 1900). This was a 19 year old at 60% and only 750 bottles were produced.

In 2003 they bottled a limited edition 32 year old. It was marked as being distilled in 1971 and was at the relatively low cask strength of 42.3%. Just 1500 bottles were produced.

The 16 year old that is the subject of this post was bottled in 2008, at 58.5%. It is much more plentiful than the other limited releases, with 9954 bottle produced, but still pretty rare in the grand scheme of things. I was lucky to find this seven years after its release.

The only other official bottling I could confirm was from the Manager’s Choice series, which showcased a single cask from each of Diageo’s 27 functioning malt distilleries at the time. The one representing Glen Elgin was bottled at 61.1% in 2009. It carried no age statement, but was distilled in 1998. The rejuvenated European oak cask produced 535 bottles.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Glenrothes, Select Reserve vs. Sherry Cask Reserve

Select Reserve: single malt Scotch, Speyside, 40%, $47
Sherry Cask Reserve: single malt Scotch, Speyside, 40%, $60

I often go into liquor stores with no intention of buying anything. Sometimes I just want to see what’s new, what’s available (or not available), where prices are going, which items have new packaging, etc. It’s a quick, at-a-glance way of keeping my finger on the pulse of the industry. It was during such a shelf scanning session that something notable caught my eye.

There was a new Glenrothes bottling, and it definitely looked like an official distillery bottling, but the Berry Bros. & Rudd moniker was clearly displayed on the packaging. The company is a London based wine and spirits merchant which puts out a line of independently bottled single malts, so it seemed odd to me that their name would show up on a bottle from the distillery’s lineup.

In the ensuing months I heard a few good things about this new Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve, so I decided to pick up a bottle. I’ve also had a bottle of their Select Reserve lingering in my collection for some time, so I’m going to take the opportunity to compare the two and spend some time getting to the bottom of the Berry Bros. mystery. My last post covered the history of the distillery and explored the differences between their Vintage bottlings and their Reserve bottlings, so I won’t repeat that information here.

First a quick note on what differentiates these two non-age stated, multi-vintage bottlings. It really comes down to cask type primarily. The new Sherry Cask Reserve is aged exclusively in first-fill Sherry casks, which are predominantly made from Spanish oak.

The Select Reserve was the first in the Glenrothes Reserve series, introduced in 2005. The distillery has always been a little cagey about its composition; they state that it is a vatting of casks distilled in different years and represents the “house style” in its early prime. A little further digging reveals that “different types of wood” are used. Well, Glenrothes really only uses three types of wood; Spanish oak Sherry casks, American oak Sherry casks and American oak bourbon barrels. I’m assuming that the majority of this vatting is aged in ex-Bourbon barrels. That assumption is based on the fact that Sherry casks are significantly more expensive and that Select Reserve has essentially the same price as the Alba Reserve, which is aged exclusively in former Bourbon barrels.

As for Berry Bros. & Rudd, the company was founded in 1698 and their involvement with the Glenrothes distillery stretches all the way back to 1923. That was the year when Berry Bros. & Rudd first introduced their Cutty Sark brand of blended Scotch, and Glenrothes single malt was a key component of it.

There’s a very complicated history of mergers, acquisitions, holding companies and subsidiaries associated with Glenrothes. I’m going to simplify it very much here. In 1887 the owners of Bunnahabhain and Glenrothes merged, forming Highland Distilleries. Edrington was established as a related holding company in 1961 and had taken complete control of Highland Distilleries by 1999. Several other single malt distilleries have been associated with Highland/Edrington over the years. The company’s relationship with Berry Bros. & Rudd was strengthened in 1936 when they took over the blending and bottling of Cutty Sark.

In 1982 the Director of Berry Bros. & Rudd first pitched the idea of his company selling and marketing a distillery bottling of Glenrothes. That finally happened with the introduction of a 12 year old in 1987. They have acted as the agent for Glenrothes single malts ever since, and it was Berry Bros. & Rudd who had the idea to switch the single malts from Glenrothes over to Vintage bottlings in 1995. Then in 2010 Edrington bought the Cutty Sark brand and Berry Bros & Rudd took over the Glenrothes brand. Edrington still owns the distillery and the whisky produced there, but long term supply contracts were part of the deal.

Select Reserve:
The nose shows raw grain and barley malt with perfumed floral notes. Delicate fruit and a subtle meaty quality also come through. The aromas are complex but seem slightly immature.
On the palate there’s a bit of heat up front. It builds and vies for dominance with spearmint, gentle vanilla and assorted fruit notes.
The finish is spice-driven and lingering, but with the perfumed notes still lurking in the shadows.

Sherry Cask Reserve:
The nose brings together aromas of ginger bread, malted barley and a mix of stewed and baked berry fruits. Floral aromas exist only as delicate background notes.
On the palate, young, sweet Oloroso Sherry fruit notes come to the fore and dance with ginger and mint.
The spice notes build on the finish as the other elements fade gracefully.
The Sherry cask maturation adds a nice balance to the house style. It does come across a bit thin at points though, leaving me to wonder how this would present itself without chill filtering and at a higher proof.

Seeing the rather odd arrangement between the two companies, with the Glenrothes brand and distillery under separate ownership, I thought it would be a good opportunity to put together a list of who owns each of Scotland’s single malt distilleries.

I’m going for a comprehensive list of active distilleries here. When a distillery is mothballed, it’s put into a state of suspended animation that it can be brought out of rather quickly. There are also some that run on a limited basis, maybe one month a year. This makes it hard to say for certain which is active. Several distilleries (nine, I think) are either very new or still under construction. I’m ignoring the ones that don’t yet have legal whisky (aged at least 3 years). There are also some distilleries that share infrastructure (mash tun, wash backs, etc). If it has a separate name and its own set of stills, I’m counting it as a unique distillery. To the best of my knowledge all on this list of 99 are currently distilling and were distilling prior to 2013.

I’m going to list the direct owner and its parent company or individual owner if applicable, as well as the home country of the ultimate owner. Single malt names in use that differ from the distillery name will also be listed.

Diageo (England)
Ben Rinnes
Blair Athol
Caol Ila
Glen Elgin
Glen Ord
Glen Spey
Lochnagar (bottled as Royal Lochnagar)

Chivas Brothers / Pernod Ricard (France)
Allt a’Bhainne
Glen Keith

Beam Suntory / Suntory Holdings (Japan)
Glen Garioch

John Dewar & Sons / Bacardi (Bermuda)
Brackla (bottled as Royal Brackla)
Macduff (sometimes bottled as Glen Deveron)

Inver House Distillers / Thai Beverage (Thailand)
Knockdhu (bottled as An Cnoc)
Pulteney (bottled as Old Pulteney)

Edrington (Scotland)
Highland Park

Whyte & Mackay / Emperador / Alliance Global Group (Philippines)
Isle of Jura

William Grant & Sons (Scotland)
Ailsa Bay

Burn Stewart / Distell (South Africa)
Tobermory (heavily paeted variant bottled as Ledaig)

Brown-Forman (USA)

Angus Dundee Distillers (Scotland)

The Glenmorangie Company Ltd / Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (France)

Ian Macleod Distillers (Scotland)

J&A Mitchell & Company (Scotland)
Glengyle (bottled as Kilkerran)
Springbank (unpeated and heavily peated variants bottled as Hazelburn and Longrow)

Loch Lomand Group (Scotland)
Lock Lomand
Glen Scotia

Kilchoman Distillery Co / Anthony Wills (Scotland)

Campari (Italy)
Glen Grant

David Prior (Australia)

Francis and Ian Cuthbert (Scotland)

Gordon & MacPhail (Scotland)

The Glenallachie Consortium / Billy Walker (Scotland)

Isle of Arran Distillers (Scotland)

J&G Grant (Scotland)

La Martiniquaise (France)
Glen Moray

Mark Tayburn (Scotland)
Abhainn Dearg

Nikka (Japan)
Ben Nevis

Picard Vins & Spiritueux (France)

Remy Cointreau (France)
Bruichladdich (heavily peated variants bottled as Port Charlotte and Octomore)

Signatory Vintage Scotch Whisky Co / Andrew Symington (Scotland)
Edradour (heavily peated variant bottled as Ballechin)

Speyside Distillery Co / Harvey’s of Edinburgh (Scotland)
Speyside (also bottled as Drumguish)

Takara, Shuzo & Okura (Japan)

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Glenrothes, Vintage 1991 vs. Gordon & MacPhail 8 year

Vintage 1991: single malt Scotch, Speyside, bottled 2006, 43%, $80
Gordon & MacPhail: single malt Scotch, Speyside, 8 years old, 43%, $35

The Glenrothes distillery, located in the heart of Speyside, established a reputation early on in its history for the high quality of the whisky produced there. Demand from blenders has pushed the distillery to expand several times through the years, but that sequence of expansions has been punctuated by a series of destructive events.

After beginning with two stills in 1879, work on the distillery’s first enlargement began 1896. A second set of stills, six more washbacks and a second malt kiln were all in the works in 1897 when the construction crew started a fire that caused serious damage. Repairs and the expansion work were finally completed in 1898, doubling capacity. Several buildings were lost to a big explosion in 1903, and in 1922 a fire in the original warehouse resulted in the loss of 2500 casks of maturing whisky. Glenrothes recovered from these setbacks though, and continued on. The next fire, which came in 1962 and partially destroyed the distillery, was followed by the next expansion, from four stills to six, in 1963. Two more stills were added in 1980 and a further two in 1989, bringing the total to ten stills with a maximum capacity of 5.6 million liters (of pure alcohol) per year.

Like most malt distilleries in Scotland, Glenrothes also went through a period of modernization about 50 years ago. The traditional floor maltings were gradually abandoned between 1950 and 1966. The expansion from four stills to six in 1963 coincided with the switch from worm tubs to modern condensers as well as the move from direct heating of the stills to the use of internal steam coils.

When Glenfiddich started to bottle and market their whisky as single malt outside of Scotland in 1963, they established single malt Scotch as a new premium spirits category and other Scottish malt distillers slowly began to followed suit. Glenrothes joined the fray in 1987 with a 12 year old official distillery bottling. Then, in 1994 they changed their approach, dropping the flagship 12 year old in favor of a series of ever-evolving vintage dated bottlings. I reviewed a couple of different Glenrothes Vintages and discussed the relevance of vintage dating whiskies a few years ago in this post.

Working under the premise that casks of aging whisky don’t all reach their peak maturity after the same number of years, the Glenrothes distillery manager will pick groups of casks distilled in single years which are judged to be at their best and vat them together to produce Vintage bottlings. Rather than trying to make a product that is consistent year after year, as is the case with most age stated expressions, each Vintage is intended to showcase the distillery’s characteristic flavor profile and at the same time express the Vintage’s unique personality. Spanish oak Sherry casks, American oak Sherry casks and American oak Bourbon casks are used in varying proportions, creating more distinction between the different Vintage bottlings, which can also vary significantly in age.

In 2003 the Glenrothes distillery also began to offer some single cask releases, which are Vintage bottlings as well by their very nature. The single casks releases are meant to exhibit the distillery’s finest work. They are rare and expensive, with only about 15 casks deemed worthy so far, each producing between 150 and 400 bottles.

Then, in 2005, the brand shifted tactics. The Vintage bottlings were still the bread and butter of the range, but they were joined by the first Reserve bottling; Select Reserve.
Over the last decade that part of the lineup has expanded and now includes 10 different Reserve bottlings. The non-age stated Reserves are composed of casks from multiple Vintages, allowing the distillery to maintain their claim that the whisky is always bottled at its ideal point of maturation.

What the Reserve bottlings really do is bring an element of consistency to the range of expressions the Glenrothes puts out. Having a series of Vintage bottlings, each of which comes and goes and is replaced by a newer Vintage is a cool concept and sets the Glenrothes apart from other single malt distillers. But there is a certain segment of the consumer base for whom consistency is valued above all else. Once they find a product they really like, they want to stick with it indefinitely rather than perpetually trying something new. In my opinion, the Reserve bottlings are meant to help the Glenrothes retain the loyalty of this important demographic.

For a long time the distillery claimed that only the best 2% of their whisky was bottled as single malt. I have read that the figure is now closer to 3% and I assume that 2% still goes to the Vintage bottlings, with the additional 1% going to the Reserve bottlings. Presuming that the plant is running near full capacity, which I believe it is, 3% translates to about 43,000 9-liter cases (at 43% abv) per year. Just to put that into perspective, Johnny Walker (all varieties of the brand combined) sells almost 18 million 9-liter cases per year. The batch size for a Glenrothes Vintage will range from a few hundred cases to several thousand cases.

The year of distillation is shown prominently on every Vintage Glenrothes bottle, with the “bottled in” year listed under it in smaller print. If you look closely at the label, you will also see a couple of specific dates listed. They are marked as “checked” and “approved”. In some cases the “approved” date matches the “bottled in” year, in other cases they are off by a year or more. I had to do some digging to find an explanation of these dates.

According to Ronnie Cox, the Glenrothes brand ambassador, the “checked” date indicates when the new make spirit was accepted for maturation in the casks selected for that Vintage. This statement indicates to me that there is a pretty serious cask management program; to the point where the best quality casks are identified and their contents designated to be bottled as single malt before the casks are even filled. The “approved” date is when the casks from a particular Vintage were approved for bottling.

Once a batch of casks is set to be bottled, they’ll be married together and reduced to 45%. At that point it is best to give the whisky time to integrate, so it will be entered back into “inactive” casks (casks which have been used to the point that they will no longer contribute to the flavor of their contents) for about 6 months. For larger batches there can be multiple bottlings; one six months after the marriage, and others is subsequent years. Because the whisky is in “inactive” casks after the marriage, these bottlings of the same Vintage should taste the same. But this is why the “approved” year doesn’t always match the “bottled in” year on the label, and why there can be more than one “bottled in” year for a given Vintage even if the “approved” dates are the same.

Some Vintages are also revisited after a gap of several years. In this case a group of casks from a particular vintage may be deemed ready for bottling after a certain number of years, while other casks from that same vintage are determined to need more time in the warehouse. Those casks could be vatted together and bottled several years further along than the first batch from that Vintage was. Just one example is the 1985 Vintage which was bottled in 1997, 1998 and 2005.

Today I’m tasting two very different Glenrothes bottlings; an 8 year old from Gordon & MacPhail and a Single Vintage that was distilled in 1991 and bottled in 2006.

Gordon & MacPhail 8 year old
Pale golden-yellow in color.
Grassy floral notes are showcased on the nose with a touch of cornmeal and a slightly phenolic character (in a non-peated way).
Full bodied with grassy and slightly perfumed floral notes layered over a malty backdrop. Dry spice notes emerge and slowly fade as it moves into the finish. Damp meadow and toasted oak are all that remain at the very end. It’s a bit hot on the palate and shows some youthfulness through a lack of continuity, though it did grow on me as I worked my way through a glass.

Vintage 1991
Medium golden-amber in color.
Fairly concentrated aromas bring together corn, ethanol and subtle biscuit-like malt notes. After a few minutes in the glass more of a malty, berry fruit character emerges on the nose.
Full bodied, with a bit of heat up front. Ripe and stewed berry fruit, malt extract and slow-cooked ginger provide good complexity on the palate. Age and sherry cask influence seem to have greatly dampened the usual floral character of the Glenrothes that goes against my personal preferences. There’s a graceful evolution into the spice-driven finish which finds balance with a lingering malty character.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The whisky bars of Montreal, part trois

The first post in my series covering the whisky bars of Montreal explored the “big three” on the city’s whisky scene and the next post continued with the city’s second tier of whisky dispensaries. This third and final installment will look at a few establishments that are worthy of mention for one reason or another, even though they each fall short of achieving full whisky bar status.

Station Ho.st
address: 1494 Rue Ontario Est
borough: Ville-Marie
neighborhood: Gay Village
closest metro station: 11 minute walk from Beaudry (green line), 14 minute walk from Sherbrooke (orange line)

When I belly up to the bar at just about any pub or restaurant, my eyes tend to gravitate rather quickly toward the whisky bottles on display. My reaction to what I see can range from indifference to excitement. There are about a dozen single malts, each the flagship offering of their respective distilleries, which are as ubiquitous as they are well-known. These are the bottlings that receive the most marketing attention and biggest slice of the promotional budget from the companies that own them. Those parent companies also tend have the most extensive distribution networks.

When establishments have small selections of single malts, say 15 or less, the majority of them are usually plucked from the above mentioned group as well as some of their brand siblings a step or two up the price scale. That’s not to say that there is something wrong with any of those whiskies on their own, but seeing them almost everywhere without alternatives does get boring awfully fast and elicits my indifference. Conversely, what gets me excited is seeing a small list that is well-selected. Ideally it will have a mix of little-known, high-quality single malts along with obscure and limited bottlings that don’t run too far up the price scale. And that is exactly what Station Ho.st has.

Owner Fred Cormier established his Hopfenstark brewery in 2006. Its location in L’Assomption, an off-island suburb north of the city, is a good place to lease industrial property and make beer. It’s not such a great place for showcasing that beer to its target audience. So mid way through 2013 the brewery’s tasting room was closed and the Station Ho.st beer bar was opened in the city, taking its place.

While Dieu Du Ciel is Quebec’s best known craft brewery, Hopfenstark has more of an underground presence and a cult following. Fred’s beer can be eccentric and follows no rules or trends, but garners great respect from those who know it. One example is the Boson de Higgs; part Saison, part Berliner Weisse, part Rauchbier, and named after a sub-atomic particle.

If you’re concerned about the neighborhood where this bar is located (which really shouldn’t be an issue in the first place), don’t be. The Gay Village is an expansive area and Station Ho.st is located on the periphery of it. I actually had no idea which neighborhood this locale was part of until I looked on the map. This was previously somewhat of a rough section of Rue Ontario in terms of drug abuse and panhandling, but a wave of gentrification has gradually pushed that activity further east over the past few years.

The space is simple and rustic, but still warm and inviting. It serves its purpose well, which is to showcase the beers and whiskies that are offered. About two years after opening they expanded into the space next door, but the dividing wall remains intact and the new room is only used when needed for large crowds, keeping the feel of the original space intact. Their third summer also saw the addition of seasonal outdoor seating.

Food is available but limited so a small number of items that can be prepared behind the bar. The owner is not a fan of the latest trend of people going out to public gathering spots only to bury their faces in their smart phones, so expect to engage in conversation with those around you or be subjected to scornful looks. I know a lot of modern bars struggle with the question of whether or not to have televisions. They don’t want to have a “sports bar” atmosphere, but they don’t want to be completely empty during major sporting events. Station Ho.st has found a good compromise here; one of my visits was during a big NHL playoff game and they chose to show it, but projected onto a wall, in black and white, and with no sound.

When it comes to whisky lists, more is almost always better because you’re getting greater variety, if nothing else. But the selection of single malts at Station Ho.st shows what can be done with just 20 bottles if the person picking them truly knows Scotch and isn’t required to include popular bottlings. A list that size featuring 10 year Springbank, 12 year Hazelburn, 21 year Old Pulteney, Highland Park Freya and an Amarone cask finished Arran gets instant respect from me. I went with a cask strength (61.4%) Caol Ila bottling from Gordon & Macphail that was distilled in 2000 and bottled at the end of 2012. Official cask strength offerings from Caol Ila are quite rare and their lower proof standard offerings are all chill filtered. Most of the Caol Ila distillate ends up in bourbon barrels, so the fact that this bottling is from first fill sherry casks makes it even more special.

The nose is intense, with peat smoke that is dry and earthy in nature accompanied by a touch of brine and slightly medicinal notes. In the mouth this is classic Caol Ila, big and oily. On the palate there is a sharp attack up front that starts with malt and mint before the peat smoke starts coming in waves and building in intensity. Moving into the finish the smoke evolves, taking on a hot spicy character, but it remains bracing and phenolic for some time. This is a big, powerful whisky, but not to the point of being unruly. The sherry cask influence was less obvious than I expected. I’m sure it added balance, but the peat smoke took center stage with everything else appearing as background notes, as is the case with bourbon barrel aged Caol Ila bottlings. It’s nice to see the potential of this distillery realized, but this example is not for the faint of heart.

Bar Big In Japan
address: 4175 Boulevard Saint-Laurant
borough: Le Plateau-Mont-Royal
neighborhood: Little Portugal (a small sub-neighborhood that is within The Plateau)
closest metro station: 13 minute walk from Mont-Royal (orange line)

If you dig deep with online searches for whisky bars in Montreal and try to find something beyond the usual suspects, the name Bar Big in Japan might come up. If you investigate further and peruse their online reviews, you’ll see that of the ones which mention their whisky selection, about half make positive comments and half make negative comments. This seemed quite odd to me and I had a theory about it, so I decided to stop in, investigate and get to the bottom of the mystery.

Easily confused with its similarly named sister establishment, Restaurant Big in Japan, the two are located on the same street, about four blocks apart. Even if you’re looking for the correct place, it can be kind of tough to find as it follows the modern speakeasy formula of having a semi hidden entrance. No sign, no bright light, no marked street number, just a non-descript door (originally red, later brownish-gray, sometimes with graffiti) with a couple of very small Japanese characters on the window. Looking through that window is like staring into a tunnel with just a bit of light at the end.

Walking through the door, you find yourself in a long, dark, curtain lined hallway. At the end it opens into the main room, which is connected to smaller secondary room further back. The space is dimly lit but accented by many candles. The interior design and uniquely shaped bar create a space that is quite stunning visually. The staff members, outfitted in Tuxedo shirts and bow ties, make the atmosphere feel uptight and pretentious though.

Craft cocktails are the driving force of Bar Big in Japan, and I assume that is something they do well. But what of the whisky? Well, as I had expected, the selection was rather anemic; just two Japanese whiskies, four single malt Scotches and 10 American whiskies (and really nothing exotic or even too interesting among them). Was there an explanation of those online reviews talking up their extensive whisky collection? Well, the bar does have a unique feature. You can buy a full bottle of Japanese whisky (limited to the two selections on the list) and if you don’t finish it, they will put your name on it and hold it for your future visits. There is a ceiling beam running down the center of the bar with metal rods hanging down from it, each rod having a bottle cap affixed to its end. The stored customer bottles are screwed onto those caps, creating a line of several dozen bottles hanging like pendants down the center of the room.

As I suspected, the people raving about the great whisky collection here are the ones who are too dumb to realize that each of these hanging bottles is one of the two available that can be purchased whole and stored. Bar Big in Japan may be a great place to bring a first date that you are trying to impress, but it is not worthy of the attention of whisky aficionados.

Since I made the effort to find the place and see what it was all about, I felt obligated to have a glass of whisky and make a few notes. Thankfully they did have Nikka Yoichi 10 year (45%), which is what I drank on that first visit to the Whisky Café, back in 2010 when this whole odyssey began.

On the nose it shows delicate peat smoke, malt and just a touch of citrus. On the palate gentle peat smoke, malty grain notes and stewed fruits come through up front, but it’s a bit rambunctious, with a little too much heat relative to the level of flavor intensity. It quickly turns very dry as it rolls into the finish. A hint of earthy peat smoke lingers and is joined by dry spice notes. Overall it shows much potential, but lacks refinement.

Dominion Square Tavern
address: 1243 Rue Metcalf
borough: Ville-Marie
neighborhood: Downtown
closest metro station: 6 minute walk from Peel (green line), 8 minute walk from Bonaventure (orange line)

A friend who visits Montreal often mentioned that I should check out the Dominion Square Tavern if I was writing about Montreal’s whisky bars. There really wasn’t much online to indicate that this might be a whisky destination, but it is owned by the people who own the Whisky Café. Scrutinizing some pictures of the place, what I could see of the whisky bottles on the shelf didn’t look too promising. I did consider the possibility that photos might not be current, and since I was making a third trip to the city to visit the Whisky Café, I decided to stop by here too for the sake of being thorough.

Designed as a vintage 1920’s era tavern, the interior is masterfully done. You really do feel as if you’re stepping back in time nearly 100 years as you walk through the door. The heavily patinated mirrors that line the wall behind the bar don’t photograph well, but they provide an impressive look in person. Perusing their menus, it’s obvious that the greatest strengths here are the food and the cocktail program.

As for the whisky, they do have a respectable selection of 25 single malts. And while there were a few interesting rarities on the list, the majority of the bottles were selected from that group of all too common single malts that I mentioned above. I wouldn’t put Dominion Square Tavern on a list of pure whisky destinations, but it’s still worthy of mention. If you are stuck with a group who are particular about food and cocktails and they don’t want to stray from downtown Montreal, you can take them here and still have some respectable whisky options for yourself.

I was happy to find Bruichladdich Waves on the list. This is a relic of the irreverent days at Bruichladdich when they put out a never-ending stream of new and unique bottlings, and one which I was yet to have tried. There were several editions of Waves released between 2006 and 2012, and the bottling was inspired by Islay’s rough seas and storm-lashed coast. The overall theme here was young (think 6 to 7 years), slightly elevated peat level, and a mix of Bourbon and Madeira casks. This example appears to have been bottled early in 2012 and was at 46% abv.

The nose is very coastal, with bright malt notes, sea spray, fish nets, beach grass and pebbles. Tree fruit and gentle malts notes are joined on the palate by a discernable bit of peat smoke. Some immature malt character comes to the fore as it moves into the finish, but it’s not overtly offensive. Gentle spice notes come around at the very end providing redemption. Overall it’s very approachable without being too mild mannered.

As for price and pour size, I won’t bother with that information for Bar Big in Japan since it really isn’t relevant as a whisky establishment. Dominion Square Tavern has a 1 ¼ ounce pour, but their prices are on the high side across their range (actually, their food looks pretty pricey too, it’s just an expensive place, period). I also noticed that their listed prices do not include the required 15% tax, which is added when you get the bill. They seem to be the city’s exception rather than the rule in that regard.

Station Ho.st had been issuing 1 ½ ounce pours. When I mentioned the drink size of other bars in the city to the owner, he said he might back down to 1 ¼ ounces. The prices here are still very reasonable, even if Fred does follow through with a slightly smaller pour.