Saturday, January 31, 2015

Highland Park, 12 year vs. Gordon & MacPhail 8 year

Highland Park, 12 year: single malt Scotch, Islands, 43%, $53
Highland Park, Gordon & MacPhail, 8 year: single malt Scotch, Islands, 43%, $33

When a distillery project in the Shetland Islands failed to come to fruition several years ago, Highland Park was able to retain its status as Scotland’s northernmost distillery. It is one of just two distilleries located on the Orkney Islands, and its neighbor Scapa lies just slightly to its south and west. Both distilleries are on the Orkney Mainland, which is the largest of roughly 70 islands that make up the archipelago that lies just north of mainland Scotland.

Highland Park was established 1798 and licensed 1825, and it is one of only seven malt distilleries in Scotland that still employs a traditional floor malting. It maintains a medium level of peat intensity, a noticeable step down from the well-known heavy hitters and falling in line with Bowmore and Springbank in that regard.

At some point in the past Highland Park increased production beyond the capacity of their in-house malting facility and they began to supplement their own malt with that of one of Scotland’s large, commercial malting facilities. The floor malted barley is heavily peated (35 to 40 ppm) and the additional malt is unpeated or minimally peated (I’ve seen conflicting reports). The two are always mixed to make a consistent, moderately peated product from batch to batch.

However, over the last 50 years the whisky made by Highland Park has become less peaty as the amount of commercially malted barley has increased relative to the amount of floor malted barley that they can produce. The ratio is currently 20% floor malted to 80% commercially malted. While some might bemoan this gradual loss of phenolic intensity, I think it is a fair tradeoff in order to keep from diluting the terroir represented by the peat local to the Highland Park distillery.

When a distiller buys commercial malt they have no control over the source of the peat that is used in the drying process. If a traditional floor malting is used, the kiln is typically fired by peat that is harvested from sources close to the distillery. As one moves around Scotland the character of the peat found in each area differs from that of other areas, as it is made up of the unique decomposed organic materials that are present in that area. The strength of that local flavor is diminished if peated commercial malt is added to the mix.

Highland Park has eliminated that effect by mixing unpeated commercial malt with their house malt which is dried with the heather-based peat found on Orkney. A few others eliminate the effect in different ways. Springbank is the only distillery in Scotland to malt 100% of their barley on a traditional floor malting and Kilchoman makes separate batches of whisky with their floor malt and their commercial malt, and labels them accordingly. I’ve been told that the strong iodine / medicinal flavors found in Laphroaig are derived from the peat that is hand harvested near the distillery and has a composition heavy in lichens and moss. Apparently this comes through quite clearly even though 70% of the heavily peated malt they use comes from a commercial source. I’d love to try a Laphroaig bottling made solely from their floor malted barley if they ever were to produce such a specialty.

Highland Park has always enjoyed a good reputation, but its popularity has really soared over the last few decades. That has caused some growing pains, primarily in the form of some big price jumps. I have also heard rumors of wavering quality over the years, but I don’t drink Highland Park (or any other whisky) on a regular enough basis to have observed this myself. One online source that I have a good deal of faith in states that the quality of 12 year Highland Park did suffer for a time, but the problem has been rectified since 2008 through better cask management policies.

On the pricing front, I recall that back in 2006 the 12 year was going for $38 and the 18 year was at $75. Today they retail at $53 and $130, respectively. That is roughly a 39% increase and a 73% increase. While substantial, that’s not really out of line with where single malt prices have generally gone over the last nine years, and it follows the trend of older whiskies having their prices rise more rapidly than younger ones.

There’s an interesting misconception about Highland Park’s cask program. They often mention that the 12 year and the 18 year are aged primarily in Spanish oak and that the 15 year is aged primarily in American oak. Many people mistakenly assume that American oak is synonymous with bourbon barrels, when in fact many sherry casks are made from American oak. Highland Park has stated that they use sherry casks exclusively, made from both types of wood. Sherry casks are much more expensive than bourbon barrels, mainly due to matters of supply and demand. Quality sherry casks are also harder to come by in significant quantities, so it’s no surprise that Highland Park’s stature slipped a bit as production grew rapidly.

All of the casks they use are seasoned with Oloroso Sherry, and the distillery employs both first fill and refill casks. The ratio of first fill to refill casks is adjusted to add further differentiation between the 12 year and the 18 year, with 20% of the former and 45% of the latter coming from first fill casks.

Today I’m tasting the flagship 12 year against an 8 year old expression from independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail. Looking at the G&M website for info, it appears that this bottling has been discontinued and replaced by an updated version with a different label design. The one I have is aged 100% in refill sherry casks (no indication of oak type) and the newer version is a mix of “refill sherry hogsheads and bourbon barrels”. I’m assuming that any Highland Park that does go into bourbon barrels is intended for blenders or independent bottlers, and not to be used in the official distillery bottlings.

Anyway, let’s see how these two stack up.

12 year
nose – Approachable, floral peat aromas with citrus notes over a malty base
palate – Vibrant; stewed fruits and a malty sweetness up front. The peat is obvious, but with a light, heathery style.
finish – It becomes more dry as it moves into the finish, with the peat notes turning more smoky and less floral. A briny, coastal quality emerges. The long finish becomes oaky, with a spicy, earthy quality.
overall – A good all-a-rounder. It has enough backbone to keep me entertained and enough civility to be an everyday drinker.

8 year
nose – There’s a malty back-drop with delicate peat notes and grassy, clay-like quality that is almost reminiscent of cat pee (not in a bad way though)
palate – Full bodied but mild mannered up front. A little bit of mint and malty sweetness is quickly pushed aside by strong grassy notes.
finish – Much more intensity on the back end. An earthy clay note is followed by a dry spice character that almost masks the peat smoke. The underlying grassy notes ride through almost to the end.
overall – Less depth and less evolution of flavors compared to the 12 year. It’s still a respectable single malt and a good value considering the price.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Chivas Brothers, The Century of Malts

stats: blended malt whisky, Scotland, 40%, $56

Since I wrote about a Blended Malt Scotch in my last post, I’m going to take the opportunity to follow up with another Scottish Blended Malt that’s been sitting on my shelf for a while. The Century of Malts is a vatting of 100 different single malts that were assembled from the cellars of Chivas Brothers, and was originally released in 1995.

The bottle comes with a neat little book written by Jim Murray, which has a brief profile of each of the 100 distilleries represented in the vatting. But beyond that there’s very little background information to be found about The Century of Malts, which kind of makes since it came out about 10 years before anyone was really writing about whisky online.

The text on the label implies that 100 casks were vatted together; in other words, one from each distillery. Apparently there were two releases though, one at 40% abv and another at 43% abv. My guess is that the first one met with lackluster reviews so they raised the proof for the later release in an attempt to improve it.

It’s hard to say how many bottles of this whisky were produced. It certainly sounds like a one-off limited release, but it seems to have lingered in the distribution chain for many years. The yield per cask could vary quite a bit depending on cask size and age, but I’ll say 200 bottles on average. Even if they only did one vatting of 100 casks, and the first release was a partial bottling with the rest of that vatting kept in tanks until it was bottled for the second release, that would still mean about 20,000 bottles were produced. Of course, the number could be much higher.

I stumbled across this bottle some time around late 2009 / early 2010. I’ve done a little research and figured out that in all likelihood, it had been hidden away, collecting dust in the state liquor warehouse since mid-1997. I paid the standard retail price listed above but unbeknownst to me at the time, that was right around when retail supplies of it mostly dried up and people began to perceive it as having a collectable value. It was fetching prices as high as $150 on the secondary market back then and today it appears to range from $150 to $300.

At the time that it came into my collection, I had the attention of a girl who appreciated good whisky. I thought I’d impress her with my new acquisition, so I brought the unopened bottle to a late-night rendezvous. I don’t recall her exact words, but she likened the flavor to a pair of old gym socks. Needless to say, I no longer try to captivate women with whiskies that I haven’t yet previewed.

It’s been a few years since I’ve nipped into this bottle, so it’s time to give it a fresh tasting.

nose – It displays an interesting range of aromatics, and they vary notably with the nose-to-glass distance. A biscuit-like maltiness, delicate but complex peat notes, heather and other floral aromas, a subtle clay-like character and sherry driven fruit notes.
palate – It comes across as being more muddled on the palate. Too many cooks in the kitchen and none of them are really able to shine. There’s some decent flavor here, but the nose made promises that the palate can’t keep.
finish – It carries some weight into the finish, and the intensity of flavor holds up well considering the low proof, but it gets a little astringent and loses balance with a strong grassy note at the tail end.
overall – It’s better than I remember it and I wouldn’t put it in the “gym sock” category, but it does fall short of expectations, both by dint of its provenance and its collectable status.

Scotland has historically had about 100 operational malt distilleries at any given time. As a blender, Chivas normally keeps a healthy stock of a great variety of single malts. They need that variety because it is common for blends to have 30, 40 or even 50 different single malts in the mix, and as some go in and out of availability, having viable alternatives on hand is essential for consistency. What makes this whisky interesting, at least on paper, is that it dates from a time when many of the casks held by Chivas were from distilleries that had gone silent in previous decades, as well as other rare oddities from the period. The values of such whiskies have grown dramatically in recent years, and it’s unlikely that they would be vatted into a blended malt today, but many short-lived single malt variants and distilleries that did not survive the 80’s (or even the 70’s for a few) are represented in The Century of Malts. Unfortunately, the little book of distillery profiles has proven to be more interesting than the whisky in the bottle.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Big Peat, Christmas Edition

stats: Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, Islay, 57.8%, $70

I’ve never really been a strong proponent of saving certain bottles of whisky for special occasions. I’m even likely to open a rare or expensive bottle for no reason other than the fact that the mood to do so has struck me. That being said, there are a few nights of the year, my birthday and New Years Eve chief among them, when I like to nip into something special, whether it was previously unopened or a bottle on which I’ve already cracked the seal.

After a long night at the office on the last evening of 2014 I was ready to sip on something a bit aggressive. The bottle of Big Peat that I’d been saving for just over a year was exactly what I was looking for.

Big Peat is a Blended Malt Scotch Whisky; that is a marriage of two or more Single Malt Scotches without the addition of any Scottish grain whisky. That addition would make it a Blended Scotch Whisky. Blended Malt is a category which historically was called Pure Malt or Vatted Malt. The shift in terminology became a legal requirement in 2009 and I discussed the reasons for this in my Johnnie Walker Green post. Additionally, all of the Single Malts in Big Peat were distilled on Islay.

Conceived in May of 2009 and launched the following November, Big Peat is produced by Douglas Laing, a Glasgow based independent bottler of Scotch whisky which was established in 1948. Being a Blended Malt makes it a bit unusual, but not completely unique. Other examples of the style include Sheep Dip and Monkey Shoulder. Of course there is also Walker Green, but a 2012 revamp of the Johnnie Walker lineup saw the Green label go into very limited production with distribution restricted to the Taiwanese market, where Blended Malts are especially popular.

There are two things that set Big Peat apart though. The first is the label. The bold, cartoonish image of the Big Peat character, seemingly taking a slap across the face from the bracing, pungent, peaty flavors of the whisky is quite a departure from the norm of Scotch Whisky labeling. The design of Scotch labels is usually steeped in tradition and best described as conservative and old-school. This break from established practice, clearly meant to appeal to a younger audience, is also exemplified by comic-like labels on the independent bottlings of That Boutique-y Whisky Company, which first came to market late in 2012.

I have mixed emotions about this new trend in labeling. Part of me really likes the traditional style and the respect it pays to centuries of distilling heritage. Another part of me finds the new style of labels to be refreshingly amusing and light hearted.

The other thing that makes Big Peat stand out is that its component distilleries are named on the label. While this is done almost universally for Single Malts, it is the exception rather than the rule for Blended Malts. Walker Green does name four distilleries on its box (rather than its label), but there are 11 others in the mix that go unnamed. The label of Big Peat proudly proclaims that is contains whiskies from Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and Port Ellen. Since they are not listed in alphabetical order, I’m assuming that they are listed in order of decreasing quantity.

Looking on their website, they do mention that Big Peat contains a few other peated Islay single malts that are not named. While Laphroaig and Lagavulin seem like the obvious answers, it’s entirely possible that there could be some Kilchoman or some peated Bruichladdich in the mix. Kilchoman, Islay’s newest distillery, started production at the end of 2005. It seems logical that they would have been in a position to sell some new make spirit to an independent bottler to generate much needed revenue in their early days. Bruichladdich, which was restarted by new owners in 2001 after an eight year closure, would also have benefited from raising much needed funds by selling un-aged whisky to an independent bottler. Since these distilleries were trying to build and rebuild their respective images, it makes sense that they would sell off some whisky to Douglas Laing on the condition that it be used without being named.

And then there is Port Ellen, the Islay distillery that was shuttered for good in 1983, and whose whisky now has a cult-like following, not to mention skyrocketing prices. At first glance it seems odd that such a valuable commodity would be vatted into Big Peat. But in the years leading up to its closing, all of the whisky made at Port Ellen was destined for blending. Chances are good that much of it ended up in casks of marginal quality. Douglas Laing is said to have substantial stocks of Port Ellen whisky. I’m sure they bottle anything that can stand on it’s own as single malt. The whisky from the questionable casks, if used in small amounts will probably add a bit to the complexity of Big Peat without being noticeably detrimental. But its big contribution is really lending its name to the label.

Let’s look at it from a financial perspective. The Big Peat website states that a typical batch is about 5000 barrels. Let’s say there is one bourbon barrel of Port Ellen in the vatting. A 200 liter barrel would have 111 liters left after aging for 31 years (assuming 3% annual evaporation). With 5000 bottles at 700ml each, it would represent 3.2% of the total composition. I’m really venturing into speculation here, but let’s say having the Port Ellen name on the labels allows them to bump the price 10%. It typically retails for $55, but might otherwise only command $50. A $5 price increase across 5000 bottles comes to $25,000 (I know, those are retail prices and I’m ignoring markups in the distribution chain, but I’m trying to keep it simple). If that one barrel of Port Ellen had been bottled as single malt, 111 liters would yield 158 bottles (at 700ml). To generate $25,000, they would have to be priced at just about $158 per bottle. While that’s a very reasonable price for Port Ellen these days, if the whisky wasn’t good enough to stand on its own then bottling it as single malt would only hurt Douglas Laing in the long run.

The standard Big Peat is bottled at 46% abv, non-chill filtered and with natural color. Each year since 2011 they have bottled one batch at cask strength and released is late in the year as the Christmas Edition. These annual releases have unique labels which are holiday themed variants of the original. Their bottling strengths have been 57.8% (2011), 53.6% (2012), 54.9% (2013) and 55.7% (2014). There was also a very limited run of just 250 bottles (500ml) at 50% abv released in 2013. The bottle I have is actually the original Christmas Edition from 2011.

color – Pale straw. The color makes me assume that it is composed entirely from bourbon barrels, likely with few first-fill barrels in the mix.
nose – Sharp, with a good dose of alcohol, but plenty of peat to balance it out. It has notes of brine and fish nets with uplifting peat aromas that are floral and grassy.
palate – Medium bodied, it is more weighty in the mouth than the light color would lead one to expect. The attack is rapid and aggressive. It’s a little malty with a touch of sea spray right up front but that quality is quickly overwhelmed. Some peat smoke is evident from the start, but it bides its time as the grassy floral notes come to the fore on the mid palate
finish – As it moves into the finish, the peaty character begins to dominate. It builds and evolves with campfire, burning wet leaves, ash and soot. When the smoke and fire finally die down late in the finish, some of the grassy notes reemerge. The smoldering finish takes quite some time to fully abate.
overall – The complexity is nice, but it’s the evolution of flavors that has really impressed me here. Everything is bracingly tied together by a backbone of alcohol as it moves from start to finish, which is perfectly personified by the caricature on the label.