Sunday, May 31, 2015

Ardbeg, Blasda vs. 10 year

Blasda: single malt Scotch, Islay, 40%, $105 (typical 750 ml price, 50 ml pictured)
10 year: single malt Scotch, Islay, 46%, $47 (typical 750 ml price, 50 ml pictured)

I recently proclaimed that I would begin writing shorter, less research-intensive pieces in order to post more frequently. And then I failed miserably at that resolution with my last effort. Let’s try this again. I also mentioned in that most recent post that it was time to open the last of the bottles that I had brought back from Scotland. That statement was actually in reference to the Bruichladdich bottles covered therein as well as a set of miniatures I picked up at Ardbeg featuring the 10 year and their Blasda bottling.

Before the modern resurgence of Islay as Scotland’s most highly regarded distilling region, Ardbeg, much like Bruichladdich, nearly went the way of Port Ellen which was permanently decommissioned in 1983. Thankfully Ardbeg was rescued from the edge of extinction, as was Bruichladdich, but there were some differences in the circumstances of their respective reprieves.

Ardbeg is located on the island’s south shore, near the village of Port Ellen and along the same stretch of road as its neighbors Lagavulin and Laphroaig, which are 1 mile and 2 miles away, respectively. The distillery was officially licensed in 1815, but it may have been operating as an illicit farm distillery as far back as 1794. In spite of being bought and sold a few times, Ardbeg remained in private ownership for almost 160 years, and with the exception of 1932-1935 appears to have produced whisky continuously during that period. In 1973 the distillery was purchased jointly by Hiram Walker and DCL, with Hiram Walker taking full control in 1977. Four years later, in March 1981, the distillery was mothballed.

In 1987 Hiram Walker was taken over by Allied Lyons (which became Allied Domecq after a 1994 merger, and was then acquired by Pernod Ricard in 2005). Ardbeg was restarted by Allied in 1989, but production was limited to just two months each year. Allied also owned Laphroaig at the time and with that brand being promoted heavily as a single malt, Ardbeg was viewed as an alternate source of peated malt whisky that could satisfy the demands of the blenders. This period of production was only to last seven years though, with Allied closing the distillery and putting it up for sale in 1996.

Fortunately, true salvation for Ardbeg came quickly in the form of a sale (for £7 million) to Glenmorangie PLC early in 1997 and the distillery was operating again after a production gap that lasted just over a year. Glenmorangie (which was acquired by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy in 2004) had the resources to invest in much needed upgrades at the distillery. The aging stock of whisky in the warehouses was Ardbeg’s biggest asset to its new owner, just as the case would be at Bruichladdich when it was sold four years later. In both instances there were some incredible casks from the 1960’s and 1970’s. But where Bruichladdich was restarted after being out of production for seven and a half years (late 93 through mid 01) and had a six year gap in existing stocks (78 through 83), Ardbeg was restarted with a one year gap (mid 96 through mid 97) preceded by seven years of limited production (mid 89 through mid 96) and eight years of non-production before that (mid 81 through mid 89).

Ardbeg had been bottled as a single malt at least as far back as the mid 1960’s and the 10 year old seems to have been the most commonly available age but I’ve seen examples of 12 year and 15 year olds that pre-date 1997. When the new owners bought the place, there was nothing in the warehouses that was 10 years old, but they did have different styles of whisky produced during different time periods.

The whisky from the 60’s and early 70’s was produced in the old school way. Ardbeg’s floor maltings were still in use back then and the malt was dried with local peat composed of older layers of the organic material dug from deep in the ground. This produced spirit with a heavy, oily quality and a tarry, espresso like character. Ardbeg began buying malted barley from Port Ellen Maltings (which would have been dried with younger peat) as early as 1975, but they transitioned away from their floor malting rather slowly, using them for the last time in 1980. The spirit distilled from 89 to 96 was still quite fruity, but was entered into heavily used casks, some being filled for the fourth or fifth time. This is often seen as a detriment, but it can result in lovely whiskies at much older ages. Since production was restarted in 1997, more aggressive yeast strains and shorter fermentation times have changed the character of the whisky. Fresh bourbon barrels are now commonly employed and the peat level has been increased slightly.

Everything that was bottled for the first three years under the new regime was either a vintage dated expression from the 70’s, or the highly regarded 17 year old that came from distillate produced in 1980 and 1981. The 17 year was actually bottled until late 2004, and even though the whisky in the bottle became progressively older, the age statement remained the same to at least give the appearance of consistency. A 10 year old was released in 2000, becoming Ardbeg’s new flagship bottling. In 2008, the 10 year transitioned from Allied produced spirit to that made under Glenmorangie’s ownership. Other than the 17 year, which was bottled at 40% abv, Ardbeg’s new leaders had also move away from chill filtering.

When Ardbeg’s Old Kiln Café and new visitor center opened in 1998, they helped make the distillery an important destination for whisky tourists. In 2000 the Ardbeg Committee was officially formed. This fan club, which is similar to the Friends of Laphroaig, gives members exclusive access to very limited release bottlings. The more popular ones often go on to become regular distillery releases. While most of the vintage releases from the 1970’s had dried up by 2004, Ardbeg successfully transitioned to a series of non age-stated, cask strength bottlings that have proven to be quite popular. Expressions such as Uigeadail, Airigh Nam Beist and Corryvreckan have taken Ardbeg from strength to strength.

While Ardbeg is known as a peat monster, there have been some variations in, and even exceptions to, its peat level. As I mentioned above, the peat character was different in the floor malting days. Even though the peat level was high, it was probably inconsistent as that’s part of the nature of floor malting. From 1979 through 1996 the malt bought from Port Ellen was peated to 42 ppm. When production restarted in 1997, the peat level was raised to 55 ppm. A few batches of lightly peated (no ppm numbers available) Ardbeg were distilled in 1980 and 1981. They were bottled 24 years later under the Kildalton title, at cask strength. I had the pleasure of tasting one of them when visiting the distillery. Occasional runs of lightly peated spirit have been produced in the modern era as well; I’ve read that they were done in the late 90’s, 2002 and 2005. I suspect that pattern has continued. Appearantly they took the peat levels in the other direction too, as evidenced by the 2009 release of Supernova which was peated to at least 100 ppm.

In 2008 Ardbeg released the lightly peated Blasda. It was a limited release of several thousand bottles that was supposed to be available for about three years, but it seems to have lasted a bit longer. This was a fairly polarizing whisky; some people really liked it but others were unhappy about the fact that it was chill-filtered and bottled at 40%, on top of being non age-stated. It was somewhat expensive, but I think they hoped it would be viewed as a cheaper version of Kildalton (It was selling for $75 at the distillery in 2012, but the price listed above was the average going rate in the U.S. as far as I can tell).

As a non age-stated whisky, I’m guessing that it’s a vatting of a few different vintages. It could be a vatting of different peat levels as well. And this is where things get a little confusing. The ppm numbers (parts per million phenols) usually refer to the malted barley. Once in a while a producer will refer to the ppm level of the new make spirit. After mashing, fermenting and distilling, the ppm number typically drops by more than 50%. As the whisky ages that number comes down even more each year and on rare occasion the ppm figure is given for the finished product. Unfortunately, these numbers are often stated without reference to which part of the process they come from.

If you look at the page on Ardbeg’s website that describes Blasda, they note that it is at 8 ppm, compared to the usual 24 ppm. Wait! I thought most of their malt was peated to 55 ppm? Checking a trusted reference I see that Ardbeg’s new make spirit has a peat level of 24 – 26 ppm (and it was 16 – 17 ppm when the malt was peated to 42 ppm). That would indicate that the malt used for Blasda was peated to 18 ppm, at least on average. But I also came across a review of Blasda stating that 8 ppm was the peat level of the whisky in the bottle and that the malt was peated to 25 ppm. That review also had a comment from someone who had worked at the distillery and said that the lightly peated whisky distilled at Ardbeg in 2005 had been made from malt peated to 10 ppm.

Clearly, the actual peating level of Blasda is a very debatable topic. I should just see what it tastes like:

The nose is clean and bright, moderately peaty and shows grassy and malty notes. The aromas seem to be drier in nature than I expected. It is medium bodied. While there’s a honeyed character up front that balances the smokiness, it fades quickly leaving the peat notes to stand on their own. The phenolic character isn’t too intense, but stands out as it is more dominant than any other flavors present at the moment. In this regard, I would liken it to a toned down Caol Ila. A somewhat youngish malt quality appears on the mid palate. Then, late on the finish, fiery spice notes start to build up, adding complexity to the peat that is now reminiscent of the embers of a long neglected campfire.

It’s an interesting expression of Ardbeg, but it still pales in comparison to the Kildalton. This is one that I didn’t really need more than 50 ml of. For where it was priced, non chill-filtered and at least 46% abv would have been more appropriate, as well as some detailed technical information about its composition. Hopefully they are letting more of this lightly peated spirit age much longer. Let’s see how the 10 year compares:

The nose is surprising less expressive than the Blasda. The peat is there though (maybe with a pine-like quality). The aromas seem dense and compacted, like they’re waiting to open up and attack. It is medium bodied, with seemingly little to show right up front aside from a touch of sweetness. But the smoky intensity starts to build quickly. I wouldn’t call it oily, but there is a resinous, slightly bitter edge to the phenolic character. The peatiness expands as each layer builds on top of the last. Smoke and char, dry grass and wet leaves added to the fire. Its complexity is all very peat driven. The finish is long and evolving.

The character of Ardbeg may have changed since the 1970’s distillate (perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to sample it some day), but the modern incarnation is quite impressive in its own right. Where the lack of background flavors in the Blasda seemed to let the peat character stand out, with the 10 year it’s more like the peat has enough intensity to easily overshadow the other flavors that are certainly there.

Well, so much for writing more concise blog posts. At least I managed to put up four of them in a calendar month for the first time in a long time.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Bruichladdich, Laddie Classic vs. Sherry Classic

Laddie Classic: single malt Scotch, Islay, 46%, $69 (typical 750ml price, 200ml pictured)
Sherry Classic: single malt Scotch, Islay, 46%, $60 (typical 750ml price, 200ml pictured)

Just a few weeks more than three years ago I returned from my epic inaugural journey to Scotland. It’s high time that I crack the seals on the last of the many bottles that accompanied me home from that adventure.

One minor regret of my visit to Islay was that I didn’t take an official tour of Bruichladdich. Unfortunately the timing just didn’t work out for a tour there in between the morning tasting tour at Bunnahabhain and getting to Kilchoman in time to have lunch before the café closed and catching their last tour of the day. But we were able to stop by Bruichladdich and have a pleasant visit at the gift shop where a few tasting samples were provided. I also took a brief, self-guided walking tour of the grounds which gave me the opportunity to see the huge variety of casks they had waiting to be filled; from new charred oak to barrels from a few different American distilleries to casks bearing the hallowed names of Bordeaux’s finest producers.

Unbeknownst to all but a few people at that time, the owners of Bruichladdich were in the midst of serious negotiations for the sale of the distillery. The end of an era was fast approaching. This post will take a look at the history of Bruichladdich up to the summer of 2012 and in the not-too-distant future I’ll follow up with another post examining the changes that have occurred under the new ownership.

Bruichladdich was built on the western shore of Islay’s Loch Indaal in 1881, directly across the water from Bowmore, by a trio of brothers. The Harvey brothers were the third generation of a distilling family, but their father had passed away in1862 when they boys were aged 15, 14 and 5. Their inheritance included an interest in the family’s two Glasgow distilleries, Yoker and Dundas Hills, which was managed for them by two of their uncles.

The brothers decided that with a third distillery they would be able to break into the blending business and establish their own brands (Dundas Hills was a malt distillery and Yoker was primarily a grain distillery, but also produced some malt whisky). With the three brothers and two of their uncles as major investors, along with about a dozen minor investors, they were able to raise the capital to build Bruichladdich as a modern distillery using concrete and cavity-wall construction, both cutting-edge at the time. This was also Islay’s first purpose built distillery, all of the others on the island up to that point had grown out of agricultural operations and started off as barns and other farm buildings that were gradually expanded and added on to.

The arrangement to have Yoker and Dundas Hills (which were set up as separate companies) operate in concert with Bruichladdich and for there to be a blending and bottling business that would use the whisky of all three was only agreed upon verbally by the investors. Unfortunately, before the new distillery was even complete, there was a falling out between the family members, pitting two of the brothers against the third and one of the uncles. With no legally binding agreement in writing, the blending and bottling business never materialized, and the three distilleries were operated independently of each other. The Distiller’s Company Limited (the predecessor to Diageo) controlled the market and pricing for Islay single malt, which was all sold to blenders at the time. The new and struggling Bruichladdich couldn’t sell their whisky for a high enough price to be profitable was perpetually flirting with bankruptcy. When they tried to bottle their own whisky to boost profits, DCL ruthlessly threatened to make sure they got no further orders from blenders.

The distillery ceased operations in 1907, lacking the capital to continue. They were able to sell much of the whisky that was in the warehouses to a Glasgow broker for a reduced rate in 1913. That put them on better financial ground, but they weren’t able to resume distilling until after WWI, in 1919. Bruichladdich had a good run in the early 1920’s, but sales dropped off again in 1926 and production was stopped from 1929 through 1935. Finally, in 1937, the Harvey family was persuaded to sell the distillery.

Over the next three decades Bruichladdich changed hands several times, and was silent during WWII, from 1940 to 1945. When new owners, AB Grant, took over in 1960 they doubled capacity by switching from using the traditional floor maltings to buying commercially malted barley. This change coincided with Bruichladdich switching from heavily peated malt to unpeated malt. Some people like to speculate that Bruichladdich was never heavily peated and they look to the description of the distillery in Alfred Barnard’s 1886 book as evidence. He noted that the malt was dried only with peat in his description of every other Islay distillery at the time. But rather than stating that the malt was dried with coke (refined coal) as he did for other distilleries on the mainland, he simply neglected to mention how it was dried. A little research will quickly confirm that Bruichladdich was indeed heavily peated from 1881 to 1960 (or possibly 1961).

In 1968 the distillery was sold to Invergordon, who expanded production in 1975 by adding a second set of stills. After a management buyout from its parent company in 1988, Invergordon was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1990. Whyte & Mackay, which was bought by Jim Beam Brands in 1990, began a hostile takeover bid for Invergordon in 1991. They finally succeeded after two years, taking control of the company in October of 1993. Whyte & Mackay, already owning a handful of malt distilleries, viewed Bruichladdich as surplus and she was mothballed in December of 1993.

The seeds of Bruichladdich’s salvation had been planted years earlier. Mark Reynier, a London wine merchant, had long been enamored with the single malts of Bruichladdich, but received a rather chilly reception upon attempting to visit the distillery while it was closed in 1989. Being a tenacious sort, he resolved to buy the distillery and save it. His annual inquiries to the parent company were met with the same negative response year after year. But that changed in 2000; as Beam Brands was in the lead up to selling off Whyte & Mackay in a management buyout the next year, they opened up to the idea of selling Bruichladdich separately before that deal went down.

Reynier was able to amass 50 investors who pulled together £6.5 million, securing ownership of the defunct distillery on December 19, 2000. He built a solid team, recruiting Jim McEwan to run the distillery. McEwan had been with Bowmore for 38 years, having started there in 1963 as an apprentice cooper at the age of 15. Even though he was only two years from retirement and a pension, McEwan had actually waxed poetic about his dream to restart Bruichladdich back in 1997. He probably didn’t take long to decide to accept the job offer from Mark Reynier. Many of the former members of the production staff came back, and with their intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the distillery, she was back up and running on the 29th of May, 2001.

With the distillery having been silent for seven and a half years, that meant that supplies of Bruichladdich’s flagship 10 year old would start to dry up just two and a half years after the new owners took over and it wouldn’t be seen again until mid 2011. Reynier and his team would have to make the most of what was still resting in the warehouses when they bought the place if they were going to make it through the first ten years. In addition to the gap in distilling, not all production years were represented in the stocks that came with the place. They had whisky from 1965, 1966, 1968, 1970, 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1977, then nothing from 1978 through 1983. Much of the whisky they had from 1984 through 1993 had been entered into rather low quality casks as it had been destined for the blending hall. There was also two weeks worth of production (peated to 28 ppm) from 1998 that was carried out by the team from Jura distillery.

But the new Bruichladdich was full of energy and imagination. A steady stream of new releases and one-off bottlings brought them plenty of coverage on blogs and in magazine reviews, not to mention expanding their shelf presence in the retail setting. Their aquamarine tins and labels, inspired by the distillery’s view of Loch Indaal on a sunny day, were eye-catching. Mark Reynier used his wine industry connections to procure casks from some of France’s most reputable wine producers. They were used to rejuvenate the whisky that had been in those tired old hogsheads since the early 1990’s. Having the names of Bordeaux’s most prestigious regions on the label along with 16 year age statements was a huge selling point.

There were hits and there were misses. The Legacy series showcased the finest of the oldest stocks on hand. The Links series paid homage to Scotland’s love of golf. Of course there were also some younger whiskies, like Rocks and Waves, which were sold a bit before their time behind a smokescreen of marketing. Some criticized the distillery for putting out too many different bottlings and losing their identity in the process. They did tighten up the selection as they moved in on the 10 year mark, and focused more on the fact that they were using either Scottish barley or Islay barley exclusively and able to showcase the terroir of the distillery.

In spite of some tough times along the way, including three cash calls to their investors, the new Bruichladdich made it through the first decade and released their new flagship 10 year old in mid 2011. Upon visiting the distillery shop less than a year later, I was confronted by many of those special releases that had gotten them there.

I’ll be perfectly honest though, I chose the two that I did primarily because they were available in 200 ml bottles and it was going to be much easier to fit them in my luggage.

Laddie Classic:
This bottling seems to have been available for a stretch of about four years, roughly 2009 – 2013. The description on the distillery website only states that it is a multi-vintage vatting, aged exclusively in bourbon barrels. I came across a few reports online that it was a vatting whiskies in the 5-7 year old and 18-20 year old ranges. That would straddle the years of non-production, and it’s supported by the description on the tin: A union of spirits distilled over the last decades. It is labeled as Edition_01. There was never an Edition_02, but perhaps that was represented by the Classic Laddie, Scottish Barley, which followed.
The dark golden amber color is richer than I expected. On the nose it shows density and freshness at the same time. Slightly soapy floral notes and malty aromas show first, with tree fruit, heather, honey and nuttiness lurking in the background. It’s fairly full bodied on the palate and has good complexity. Clover honey and moderate floral notes are balanced by vanilla, oak and subtle citrus. Some nice spice notes come to the fore early on the finish, but a youthful aspect really shows through on the later finish, with young, green-malt notes lingering on the back of the tongue as everything else fades away. I don’t really like where this one goes at the very end, but overall it’s kind of grown on me through the course of a few successive tastings.

Sherry Classic:
Again, we have a non-age stated Bruichladdich that is described as multi-vintage, but this one has been finished in sherry casks after starting in bourbon barrels. It also seems to have appeared in 2009, and it too is no longer available. The distillery description mentions that its average age is 14 years, which would suggest that it’s a vatting of pre and post-closure whiskies. I came across one review stating that the finishing period was 18 months. Between the description on Bruichladdich’s website and the information on the label, I was able to learn that the sherry casks were a mix of Fino, Palo Cortado and Manzanilla casks which were sourced from Bodegas Fernando de Castilla, and had held their “antique” single-solera sherries.
The color is actually about the same as the Laddie Classic, maybe just a touch darker. The nose is even more expressive on this one; dense and chewy with layers of stewed and baked fruits building on top of the malty backdrop and accented by mulling spices and a hint of brine. It’s at least as full bodied as its cohort. On the palate it shows more depth, with an array of dark, dry sherry fruits added to the mix. Similar spice notes emerge as it moves into the finish. While the lingering sherry fruit seems to cover any youthful character, I’m also picking up some subtle tropical fruit at the end. It could show better integration, but it has more depth than the Laddie Classic while being absent of its immature ending.

When I think back to that day at the distillery shop, amongst the many bottles on display, one caught my eye. It was a 30-something year old Springbank from Murray McDavid that had been distilled in the late 1960’s. It was priced out of my reach at about £400 ($650), but I knew that was actually a very reasonable price. Springbank aficionados have an almost mythical regard for bottlings distilled in that decade, and releases from the distillery older than 18 years had become very rare (the retail price on 21 year Springbank had recently jumped from $200 to $600).

I knew there was some sort of tie between Bruichladdich and Murray McDavid but I couldn’t recall the details (Mark Reynier had actually founded the independent bottler back in 1996), so asked one of the girls who was working in the shop. She hesitated a bit, choosing her words carefully and giving kind of a vague answer. I don’t quite remember how she phrased it, but it was something along the lines of saying that there was a connection, but the situation was changing. While that statement seemed curious, I didn’t give it too much thought at the time.

Three months later, when it was officially announced that Remy Cointreau had acquired Bruichladdich, I thought “ah, she must have known about the impending sale and assumed that Mark Reynier would be keeping Murray McDavid” (the independent bottler business actually ended up being included in the sale). While researching this post however, I learned that while the deal was being negotiated, the management team had floated the cover story that they were in talks to sell Murray McDavid so they could focus more on the core business. That was a pretty brilliant move to keep a lid on things until they were ready to let the world know.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Glenmorangie, Lasanta vs. Quinta Ruban

Lasanta: single malt Scotch, Highlands, Sherry cask finish, 46%, $56
Quinta Ruban: single malt Scotch, Highlands, Port cask finish, 46%, $57

Before I wrote my last post, which covered Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or, I briefly considered comparing all three of the Extra Matured Glenmorangies together. But then I remembered that I’ve tasted them together before, and the Nectar D’Or clashed quite badly with the other two. I’ve experienced this phenomenon before, most notably with Crown Royal Cask No. 16 and Crown Royal Reserve. For the sake of giving them all a fair review, and in order to avoid torturing my palate, I decided to split the group into two posts.

In the Nectar D’Or review, I noted that when comparing it to Glenmorangie’s Original 10 year, its Sauternes cask finish had been “thoroughly transformative”. In retrospect this really shouldn’t have been too surprising. By design, Glenmorangie is made from a relatively light and delicate distillate. The shape of the stills is a big part of the reason for that.

As the liquid turns to vapor in the base of the still it is faced with an arduous journey before it reaches the condenser (or worm tub) where it is reverts back to its liquid state. Some of the heavier, less volatile components of the vapor don’t make it to that point, re-condensing along the way and falling back into the still’s pot. Still designs that encourage this effect will produce a lighter, gentler spirit.

What are those still characteristics that make it harder for the vapors to escape the pot? Tall and / or narrow necks, reflux bowls (a bulbous bulge at the base of the neck) and a lyne arm (the part of the still that connects the neck to the condenser) that is horizontal or angled upward. The stills at Glenmorangie are the tallest in Scotland, measuring 26’ 3” in total, with necks that are 16’ 10.25” tall. They also feature pronounced reflux bowls, necks that are quite narrow from that point up, and near horizontal lyne arms.

Starting with a relatively delicate distillate, it stands to reason that the influence that the casks contribute during aging should be more pronounced. Coincidentally, the biggest enhancements to the quality and consistency of single malt Scotch over the past 15 to 20 years have come through improved cask management. Glenmorangie has been leading the charge on this front, with a program that allows them to have precise control of the properties of the barrels that come to them after being used by the American whiskey industry.

Glenmorangie actually owns an area of forest in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, where they selectively harvest white oak trees from north facing slopes (thus receiving less sunlight which results in slow-growth trees with a tighter grain pattern). The staves cut from these trees are then air dried for two years before they are coopered into barrels which are heavily charred and lightly toasted. The barrels are then filled with American whiskey (some are used for Jack Daniel’s, others for an unnamed Bourbon). After seasoning for four years, the barrels are emptied and shipped off to Scotland to be filled with Glenmorangie distillate.

As I’ve discussed many times before, the decline in popularity of Sherry over the last 30 or 40 years has resulted in a very limited supply of quality Sherry casks being available to the Scotch industry. While a few holdouts still age their single malt exclusively in ex-Sherry oak, it is much more common for it to be used during a finishing period after an initial maturation in bourbon barrels. Over the last 10 to 20 years Port casks have also emerged as an alternative to Sherry casks. While a few examples of single malts aged solely in Port casks can be found, they are usually limited production special releases, and it’s much more common to see Port finished Scotches.

Since Glenmorangie Lasanta and Quinta Ruban employ these two finishes and keep all of the other variables constant, they are perfect for a comparison of the two styles.

The Lasanta is aged for 12 years, the last two of which are spent in a combination of Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez casks. Oloroso sherry ranges from dry to sweet, PX is a very sweet style made from late-harvested grapes that are dried in the sun after being picked. The Lasanta is golden amber in color. The nose is full and malty with complex dark berry fruit notes. The aromas carry a bit of sweetness, but none of the nutty oxidized notes that typify the drier styles of Sherry. It’s fairly rich and expressive on the palate. There’s a lot of complexity riding on the malty backdrop; stewed fruits, subtle grassiness, a hint of nuttiness and maybe even a bit of minerality. It shows a graceful evolution of flavor with cocoa powder and mulling spices coming to the fore as it smoothly transitions into the lengthy, warming and dry finish.

The Quinta Ruban is also aged for 12 years, the last two of which are spent in ruby Port pipes. Ruby port is the least expensive and most commonly produced style, which is noted for being fruit forward and dark in color. Pipes are long casks with heavily tapered ends. Their volume ranges from 418 to 630 liters, but 550 liters is the most common size. At first glance the Quinta Ruban appears to be similar in color to the Lasanta, but a few shades darker. Examining it with backlighting reveals a distinctive pinkish hue. The nose is a little more subtle here. Malty aromas still provide the backbone, but the fruit is less pronounced. I’m also getting some clay-like earthiness. It comes across with some weight on the palate, but is certainly less assertive than the Lasanta. As with the nose, the malty backdrop plays host to subtle fruit notes. It also shows a hint of slightly vegetal grassiness. A reverberating spiciness builds as it moves into the finish. The Quinta Ruban is dry from front to back and showcases a more elegant, though less expressive style than the Lasanta.

As with the Nectar D’Or, both of these finishes add quite a bit to the 10 year Original that they start off as.

While recently hosting a private Scotch class / tasting, I explained that most of the names of the single malts were actually anglicized derivations of Gaelic words which describe the grounds of the distilleries. My last minute addition of the translations for the whiskies we sampled ended up generating an unexpectedly enthusiastic level of interest. In light of that experience I’m going to start incorporating that information into my posts. Glenmorangie (it should rhyme with orange-ey if pronounced correctly) means “valley of tranquility”. Lasanta translates to “warmth and passion”. Quinta is actually a Portuguese word for “estate”, pertaining to the places where the grapes are grown. Ruban is Gaelic for “ruby”, referring to the color taken on by the whisky.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Glenmorangie, Nectar D'Or

stats: single malt Scotch, Highlands, 46%, $69

Over the last four years my blog posts have followed a trend of becoming longer, more in-depth and more research intensive. While I enjoy the process of thoroughly exploring a subject and the unexpected conclusions that sometimes result from it, I don’t like the fact that my posts have become somewhat few and far between. I’ve decided to make an effort to add some brief, simple posts to the mix in order to consistently post at least three or four times a month, if not more.

Today I’m going to take a look at Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or. There are quite a few bottlings available from Glenmorangie but the most widely available ones are the Original (their 10 year age-stated, flagship single malt) and three different wine cask finished versions of the Original. Actually, at Glenmorangie they prefer the term Extra Matured to cask finished.

Those three are the Nectar D’Or (Sauternes casks), the Quinta Ruban (Ruby Port pipes) and the Lasanta (Oloroso and PX Sherry casks). The Original is aged for 10 years in a mix of first and second fill bourbon barrels, and is bottle at 43% abv with chill filtering. The other three start off the same way, but after 10 years they are transferred to their respective wine casks for two more years of maturation. They are then bottled without chill filtration at 46% abv and with 12 year age statements. Interestingly, until two or three years ago these Extra Matured Glenmorangie bottlings were not age-stated. Any whisk(e)y gaining an age statement these days is a fairly rare occurrence.

Wine cask finishing has become quite popular in the single malt Scotch world over the last decade. This is quite understandable as distillers try to increase market share by expanding their ranges with more diverse offerings while bourbon barrels have proliferated as the most available and affordable maturation option. When wine cask finishing is employed, the most common former content of those casks is red wine (be it fortified or traditional). Perhaps finishing single malt Scotch in white wine casks is akin to playing with fire. My only experience that I can recall with such a beast, an independently bottled Springbank finished in Hermitage Blanc casks, was somewhat disappointing.

But Sauternes seems to be the exception to that rule. A quick Google search turned up numerous examples of Sauternes finished single malts: a non-age stated Tullibardine, 8 year olds from Hazelburn and the Isle of Arran, a 12 year and a 14 year from Glendronach, and 16 year olds from BenRiach and Bruichladdich. Most of those seem to fall into the typical six month to two year finishing time frame, but the Hazelburn spent a full three years in Sauternes casks.

The iconic sweet wine of Bordeaux is made from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes which have had their sugars concentrated after being partially raisined by the Botrytis cinerea fungus, also known as noble rot. These luscious wines are noted for their incredible balance and great complexity, and are characterized by notes of apricot, honey and peaches, along with a bit of nuttiness.

Surprisingly, the Nectar D’Or is almost identical in color to the Sherry cask finished Lasanta. They each have a golden amber hue, while the Original 10 year has a distinctly lighter pale-straw color. Sauternes is a wine that darkens considerably as it ages in the bottle over several decades. Unlike most white wines, it ferments in casks for up to a year and then sees another two to three years of aging in oak casks. At that point it is bottled, usually with a rich golden color. I’m still a little mystified by the fact that the Lasanta isn’t darker than the Nectar D’Or though.

My tasting notes for the Glenmorngie’s flagship Original can be found in this post comparing it to Glenmorangie Finealta. Fortunately, I still have some on hand to compare to the Nectar D’Or.

The nose is rich, but has a freshness that keeps it from seeming too heavy. It displays aromas of malt and raw honey, with a hint of sweet corn. On the palate it is full bodied and full flavored. Like Sauternes itself, this whisky shows a great deal of complexity and balance. The honeyed malt character is front and center, but the complex fruit notes that exemplify the house style are still evident. A bit of vanilla contributes even more depth. As it moves into the mid-palate, a subtle nuttiness and slightly astringent perfume-like quality help to keep everything in harmony. The intensity of the flavors gracefully fades as it smoothly transitions into the moderately long but delicate finish, which is highlighted by warming spice notes.

Going back to the Original, it is lighter and more ethereal. It also seems somewhat grassy in comparison; a trait that I hadn’t really noticed before. While I find each to be quite enjoyable, the Sauternes cask finish has proven to be thoroughly transformative. I suspect that the slightly higher proof and lack of chill filtration that the Nectar D’Or enjoys helps in that respect as well.