Monday, June 29, 2015

Bruichladdich, The Laddie Ten

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 10 years old, 46%, $60

In the spring of 2012 Remy Cointreau made an offer for the Bruichladdich distillery that its Board couldn’t refuse. Mark Reynier, the London wine merchant who had orchestrated the previous purchase of the distillery, was actually the only board member to vote against the deal. The group of investors he assembled late in 2000 had put up £6.5 million to save the distillery. It’s no surprise that eleven and a half years later the majority of the Board voted in favor of the £58 million offer from the French company. The only immediate change that the new owners made was to relieve Reynier of his duty as Managing Director, replacing him with his business partner Simon Coughlin who had been acting as Operations Director.

In a recent post I covered the history of Bruichladdich from 1881 up to the 2012 sale. Now I’m going to take a look at how things have changed since that point and at what might have been if Reynier had remained at the helm.

The sale of Bruichladdich to Remy was officially announced July 23rd, 2012. Other than the immediate departure of Mark Reynier nothing seemed to change right off the bat. Then, in February of 2013, the distillery announced that it would move to double production.

Finally, in September of 2013 we started to see some major changes in the Bruichladdich lineup. There seemed to be a shift towards more emphasis on Scottish barley and Islay barley bottlings (for all three ranges: unpeated Bruichladdich, heavily peated Port Charlotte and super heavily peated Octomore), all of which were non-age stated. Some of the other offerings, such as Rocks, went away permanently.

About a month before the official announcement of the distillery sale, Bruichladdich announced that starting in August 2012 it would expand into the Travel Retail market, something it had mostly avoided up to that point. This news went largely unnoticed, but clearly foreshadowed the sale to Remy, who had extensive experience with Travel Retail. When the bigger changes started to take place late in 2013, most of the remaining limited production Bruichladdich bottlings became Travel Retail exclusives. These included The Organic Scottish Barley, the vintage dated Bere Barley bottlings, the cask strength releases of Port Charlotte, and the Cask Evolution bottlings of Octomore. Looking at their website today, the only specialty bottling that seems to be available outside of Travel Retail is the 23 year old Bruichladdich Black Art 4, 1990.

But the most significant change and the one that really stoked the ire of a lot of Bruichladdich fans was the discontinuation of the flagship 10 year old. A big part of the problem was how the situation was handled. There was no official announcement; it just mysteriously disappeared from the website. Rumors started that it had been eliminated from the lineup, while others claimed that it was going on allocation with a price increase. By the spring of 2014 it was clear that The Laddie Ten would be a distillery-only bottling, if it was available at all. This was kind of a big deal. The release of the new 10 year old in 2011 was a huge milestone for the team that had saved Bruichladdich. It not only represented their survival and the fact that they were now thriving, it was seen as the bottling that now defined the house style. After years of so many wildly varying limited releases, some wondered if the distillery had lost its way; the new flagship bottling had been the answer to those concerns.

While many are bemoaning the changes that are happening under Remy ownership, some degree of change was inevitable even if the distillery had continued under the old regime. Bruichladdich’s lineup had already tightened with fewer one-off bottlings in the years leading up to the sale and that trend was likely to continue. The company’s terroir driven philosophy also seems to have stayed intact with the change of ownership. After convincing Islay farmers to grow malting barley in 2004 for the first time since World War 1, they now have at least 10 different farms participating. We’ve only seen releases from three of them so far, but with Islay Barley still looking like an important part of the core lineup I think we’ll see that bottling rotate through various farms and vintages.

In addition to Remy being well established in the Travel Retail network, they also have a massive worldwide distribution network and very deep pockets. Under its previous owners Bruichladdich certainly would have continued to grow and expand production, but at a much slower pace. Remy had the resources to quickly double production and the distribution infrastructure to get that whisky to market. But even with a range of mostly non-age stated bottlings, it’s still going to take about six years for the production increase to show up as a supply increase. The Laddie Ten bottling was clearly a victim of this situation.

Interestingly, Mark Reynier expressed his disdain for the constraints of age statements in a post-sale interview that was published in The New Yorker in early 2013. But at the same time I think he understood the importance of age statements from the consumer’s perspective and recognized what the flagship 10 year old represented for the Bruichladdich brand. It would not have been discontinued under the old ownership, but they also weren’t capable of growing quickly enough to necessitate such a move.

If the distillery had not been sold, the changes made to their lineup wouldn’t have been too different from what we have seen over the last three years, in my opinion. I do doubt, however, that any of the bottlings would have been relegated to Travel Retail exclusivity. A recent post on the Bruichladdich website talks about experiments started two years ago (a year after the sale), where malt from different regions of mainland Scotland had been separated into 100 ton batches that were distilled individually. It certainly seems that Bruichladdich is continuing on the same trajectory that was established by its previous owners.

Mark Reynier’s end at Bruichladdich was abrupt. He had a vision and an endgame that went through 2014. At that point he planned to potentially sell the distillery but hoped they could float shares on a secondary exchange to raise capital and provide liquidity to the original shareholders, or be in a position to provide dividends to those shareholders and stick it out as a true independent. We’ll never know what the future of Bruichladdich would have looked like under the latter two situations, but I don’t think the difference from what we see today would be as great as others seem to think.

It’s also hard to say what the longer term future will look like for Bruichladdich. I’d like to think that The Laddie Ten will eventually make a return. Perhaps stocks are even being laid down with a view to someday producing older age stated bottlings. What we see from Bruichladdich 10 to 20 years from now may very well depend on how strong demand is as the whisky made after the doubling of production comes to age.

The Laddie Ten:
The nose has a rich maltiness with many secondary aromas contributing to its beautiful complexity. Gentle floral and grassy notes are intertwined with a coastal contribution of pebbles and sea spray as well as a very subtle hint of peat smoke. On the palate the malty backdrop mingles nicely with the bourbon barrel influence, which adds vanilla and toasted oak to the mix. Delicate notes of beach grass and minerality add complexity. It gracefully moves into the finish where a touch of spice and barely noticeable whisper of peat smoke keep everything in balance. There is a bit of heat on the mid palate that takes a few sips to get acclimatized to, but it’s still quite lovely overall.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Laphroaig Dinner

My critique of Montreal’s whisky bars is a project that’s been on the back burner for longer than I care to admit. I’d occasionally travel north, drink a bunch of whisky, take notes and then fail to follow through. I finally got serious about this undertaking about six months ago and decided to visit each of the relevant establishments for one drink, in a single whirlwind tour, and finally put pen to paper. Well, things don’t always work out as planned and that one trip turned into three for a variety of reasons. With my research compiled the writing can commence, but first a little prelude.

About three years ago I was poking around online and came across an announcement for a Glenfarclas tasting at one of Montreal’s big three whisky bars. Being a big fan of the ‘farclas I should have jumped on that opportunity, but I hesitated and the event was sold out by the time I decided I should attend. While bellied up to said bar this winter, coincidentally sipping on a vintage Glenfarclas, I asked the bartender how to get on the mailing list for their tasting events. She hastily wrote the email address of the manager on my receipt and said a quick note to him would do the trick.

When the announcement for a Laphroaig dinner hit my inbox a few weeks ago I was curious but a little hesitant. Between my personal collection, a tasting at the distillery three years ago and the Laphroaig event I went to in NH last summer, I’ve already tasted through much of what the distillery has to offer. But this dinner was being hosted by the distillery manager. For someone like me, the opportunity to have a conversation with the man who knows better than anyone else how the whisky is made is priceless. Even if I had previously tasted everything poured that night, it would still be well worth the four hour round trip drive and overnight stay. Besides, I still had a few more places to visit to tie up the bigger research project. My hesitation lasted less than 24 hours.

After checking in to my hotel and working through the language barrier to figure out Montreal’s subway system, I arrived at the Burgundy Lion just a few minutes before the 6:00 start time. I was greeted by a well-made Laphroaig Quarter Cask Old Fashioned and told to refrain from drinking the four tasting samples that had been laid out before me until the appropriate time. Other drinks were of course available for purchase.

While this was a whisky dinner, I’d say that the four courses were accompaniments rather than pairings. Of course, it’s pretty tough to pair food with heavily peated single malts, especially four times in a row. But nothing clashed, and that’s all that really matters. As I suspected, each of the four offerings were Laphroaig variants that I was pretty familiar with: Triple Wood, 10 year, 2014 Cairdeas and 18 year. Much to my delight, they brought out one more bottle at the end; the 2009 Cairdeas. Where the first four were roughly 1 ounce pours, the last one was a single bottle split among 50 people, so probably a bit less than ½ an ounce per person.

Events like this aren’t really an ideal setting for taking detailed tasting notes and I’ve previously written pretty extensively about three of the first four tasted, so I’m going to focus more on the information I was able to glean through the evening before posting my thoughts on the 2009 Cairdeas.

I should note that John Campbell first started at Laphroaig in 1994 and also gained experience with brief stints at a handful of other distilleries. He was promoted to distillery manager in 2006 and is the first Ileach to hold that position since Laphroaig was established in 1815. John is a fairly humble and unassuming character who possesses the dry sense of humor that Islay is known for. Discussing the details of whisky production with him was an absolute pleasure and our conversations made me long for a return visit to Islay.

We started off with Laphroaig Triple Wood. One might assume that this is aged in a combination of bourbon barrels and a few different types of sherry casks (as Auchentoshan Three Wood is) or perhaps bourbon barrels, sherry casks and port pipes, since the label on the bottle only mentions that it is “triple matured for peat, oak and subtle sweetness”. But the packaging tube does mention ex-bourbon barrels, quarter casks and European oak.

As John described how this whisky is produced, he told us that it spends 5 to 11 years in first fill bourbon barrels before being transferred to quarter casks for 7 months (these are 125 liter casks made from cut down 200 liter bourbon barrels, being ¼ the size of a 500 liter butt), and finally spending another two years in Oloroso Sherry seasoned hogsheads. What struck me was that the first two thirds of the aging regiment sounded exactly the same as the production of Laphroaig Quarter Cask. When I asked John about this he did confirm that Triple Wood is essentially Quarter Cask with a further two year finishing period in sherry casks. From the standpoint of managing production levels this is a pretty brilliant strategy. Not only does the wide age range used and lack of an age statement give them some flexibility in how much Quarter Cask they can bottle at any given time, they can also shift inventory between Quarter Cask and Triple Wood close to when the whisky reaches maturity rather than hoping they get it right when the spirit is first entered into the casks.

Another interesting bit of information came up about Laphroaig’s traditional floor maltings. The barley that they malt in-house makes up 15% of the total that is used. I’ve been told (at the distillery I believe) that the local peat that is used to kiln their floor malted barley is composed primarily of lichens and mosses which grew in an environment heavy with sea spray, and this is part of what gives Laphroaig its strong iodine-like medicinal flavors. According to John, of the seven distilleries in Scotland that maintain traditional floor maltings, only Laphroaig cold smokes the drying malt, and that is part of what produces their unique range of flavors. Of course I needed to know more and asked if there was some special equipment or particular kiln design required for cold smoking. John told me that it was simply a matter of maintaining a lower temperature peat fire, which I assume makes the process more time intensive.

Next we moved on the 10 year. John mentioned that this is aged exclusively in first-fill Maker’s Mark barrels and accounts for 70% of Laphroaig’s case sales. At the tasting I went to last summer that figure was 75% and Quarter Cask represented 15%; I assume that some of the 10 year’s sales volume was diverted to Laphroaig Select, which was first introduced about a year ago. John also noted that the 10 year historically contained small amounts of slightly older whisky (I think he said 11 to 12 years old) to round out the flavor profile, but since production can barely match demand these days, pretty much every barrel that goes into the 10 year is aged only slightly more than 10 years.

This is where the technical information got really interesting for me. The conversation moved on to the topic of consistency and how important it is for a flagship whisky like Laphroaig 10 year. In order to keep the flavor profile from deviating, batches of 250 barrels are vatted together and given 3 to 4 days to mingle. Then 80% of it is bottled and 20% is left behind to mix with the next batch.

Someone in the group asked about the process of tasting all of the barrels that will go into a batch to ensure that they will combine into the desired flavor profile. Surprisingly, John informed us that this is a procedure that has largely been done away with. They’ve gotten to the point that they know what sort of different aging effects will happen in the various warehouses. Between good quality control of the barrels before they are filled, along with a few quality checks of the whisky in the early stages of aging, they are able to create the 10 year essentially from a formula of barrel locations from the different warehouses.

Next we moved on to the 2014 Cairdeas, which is aged for 8 years in bourbon barrels plus an additional 16 months in Amontillado Sherry casks, resulting in a Laphroaig that is especially peaty, spicy (clove and nutmeg), salty and dry, with a bit of fruit and nuttiness.

John mentioned the stills here, noting that the spirit stills are not all the same size and mixing the whisky from them builds complexity. I did a bit of follow up research and learned that the original set of stills was supplemented with two more in 1923 and a third pair was added in 1968/1969. The three wash stills have a capacity of 10,400 liters each and the three spirit stills each hold 4700 liters. A fourth spirit still with a capacity of 9400 liters was added in 1974.

I had recently read about the soon to be released 2015 Cairdeas, which is a whisky made solely from barley malted on Laphroaig’s traditional floor maltings. This is something I’m really excited about and getting my hands on a bottle is a top priority. I took the opportunity to ask John about this and if laying down 100% floor malted whisky was something they were doing annually. He told me that it was a project he had initiated just after becoming the distillery manager in February of 2006 (making it a little over 9 years old), but that it was a one time thing and they haven’t made more since. Then he wistfully declared that he really should push for more experiments like that.

The conversation perfectly segued into me asking if the distillate from the different sized spirit stills was always mixed together before going into barrels. He confirmed that fact and I suggested that it would be interesting to separate some of it and see how the resulting whiskies differed. With an inspired look in his eye, he agreed that it would be interesting (I’ll gladly take credit for this if we see “Big Still / Little Still” Cairdeas releases ten years from now).

By this point we had moved on to dessert and the elegant, well-rounded 18 year. Curious about the current goings on of Islay, I asked about the status of Gartbreck Farm, the proposed ninth distillery on Islay which was announced in September of 2013 and the start of which seems to have been in a perpetual state of delay. John said he believed they had just recently, finally, broken ground on the project. Then he started to talk about the other proposed new distillery which is planned to be located between Laphroaig and the village of Port Ellen. Apparently news of this potential tenth Islay distillery had only broken a week before, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that I was unaware of it.

With the event winding down, we were treated to the last whisky; 2009 Cairdeas. Laphroaig has been bottling special edition whiskies for the annual Feis Ile festival since 2003. In 2007 they made enough of the festival bottling to also offer it as an online exclusive to members of the Friends of Laphroaig. They decided to make this a tradition, and added the Cairdeas (Gaelic for “friendship”) title to all of the festival bottlings from 2008. Production levels of the Cairdeas releases were later increased further and they have been made more widely available since at least 2012.

2009 Cairdeas is a cask strength 12 year old, aged exclusively in first fill Maker’s Mark barrels and bottled at 57.5% abv. Dry, woody smoke is prominent on the nose. It is big but clean on the palate, showing minimal oak influence and unadulterated peat smoke. It’s dry and fiery, but able to maintain its composure. This is quintessential Laphroaig and really shows what the 10 year is holding back.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Famous Grouse vs. Black Grouse vs. Snow Grouse

Snow Grouse: blended grain Scotch, 40%, $25
Famous Grouse: blended Scotch, 40%, $22
Black Grouse: blended Scotch, 40%, $26

I generally lack any interest whatsoever in buying bottles of whisky when I’m under the duress of an acute hangover. Returning from an adventure in Montreal recently, I stopped at the Duty Free store for no reason other than to use the rest room before crossing the border. When confronted with shelves of whisky bottles though, some of which might not be available elsewhere, I can’t help but look.

While there were a few interesting oddities and tempting Travel Retail exclusives, I was actually enticed by something rather mundane; a trio of Famous Grouse miniatures. Included was their eponymous flagship offering as well as its more heavily peated variant and their blended grain whisky. For just $10 (the prices listed above are typical for 750 ml), how could I pass them up?

The Famous Grouse blend was introduced in 1896 by a long established Perth grocer who had been blending whisky since 1860. Originally called the Grouse Brand blend, it was renamed to the Famous Grouse in 1905. The company was sold to Highland Distillers in 1970 and by 1980 the Famous Grouse had become the best selling whisky in Scotland. Distribution outside of the UK started in the 1980’s, leading to further growth. Today the brand is owned by the Edrington Group, which also has five single malt distilleries in its portfolio (Macallan, Highland Park, Glenrothes, Glenturret and Tamdhu).

Looking at worldwide annual case sales for 2013, which is the last year info is available for, the Famous Grouse is the sixth best selling Scotch, at 3.3 million cases. It leads Dewar’s, which is at 3.0 million and follows J&B (3.8 mil), William Grant’s (4.7 mil), Chivas Regal (4.9 mil), Ballantine’s (5.9 mil) and Johnnie Walker (20.1 mil). Just to add some perspective, the best selling North American whiskey is Jack Daniel’s at 11.5 million cases, and the best selling single malts are Glenfiddich at 1.1 million and Glenlivet at 1.0 million. Remember, these are worldwide figures, and different brands have their strengths in different locations. If you’re thinking, “Ballantine’s? I don’t know a single person who drinks Ballantine’s!”, keep in mind that a lot of their sales growth could be in paces like Asia, South America, India, etc.

I’m going to start off with the Snow Grouse. This is a blended grain Scotch, meaning it is a mix of grain whiskies from more than one distillery. While this style, as well as single grain Scotch, is even rarer than blended malt Scotch, it is not completely unheard of. Scottish grain whisky is usually made from either corn or wheat and distilled in a column still to a very high alcohol level, often approaching the (less than) 94.8% abv limit that defines whisky in Scotland, as well as in the rest of the EU.

In spite of the light style that is produced by being highly distilled, there are some respectable single grain and blended grain Scotches out there. They have usually been aged slowly for a very long time in casks which were previously used quite heavily, taking away their ability to over oak the gentle spirit. That’s not what this is. The label advises to “serve from the freezer”, something which I refuse to do on principal. The colder a beverage is served, the more its flavors are masked. I’m guessing that this whisky is relatively young.

I wouldn’t call the aromas off-putting, but they are unusual. There are some pleasant grain notes, but it’s also a bit metallic and industrial. The aromatics seem oddly hollow at times. It is surprisingly full-bodied (I’ve read that it becomes downright viscous when fully chilled). Like the nose, I find the flavors on the palate to be a strange mix of good and bad. Some pleasant vanilla and spice driven oak notes stand out. Those are sharply contrasted by some chemical-like hints and unbalanced fruit (maybe banana). Warming spice notes on the finish are overshadowed by its youthful, immature character. I was actually expecting much worse based on some of the reviews I had scanned. Chilling it probably would be an improvement, but I’m of the school of thought that if you have to chill a spirit to make it palatable, you should probably just drink something else.

On to the flagship Famous Grouse:
The aromas are subtle and complex, a bit of earthiness, a whiff of peat and slightly sweet maltiness are all well-integrated. It’s fairly assertive on the palate (for a blend), with mild peat notes tying everything together nicely. It also shows good complexity, with the aromas from the nose reflecting on the palate. The finish is full and lengthy. Comparing it to some know quantities, I’d say that it lacks the elegance of Chivas Regal, but still stands head and shoulders above Dewar’s.

And finally, the more heavily peated Black Grouse:
The increased peat is obvious on the nose, but with more of a damp-leaves and clay-like earthiness quality. The aromatic profile is quite different than that of the Famous Grouse, but equally complex. A bit of malty sweetness shows up-front before the phenolic character comes to the fore. This is no Islay single malt, but the healthy dose of peat does grow and expand as it moves through the mid palate and into the early finish. The peat carries the finish quite a bit further here, though it does seem to go slightly out of balance at the very end, with a grassy undertone left to stand alone as the smoke fades. While quite drinkable on its own, this shouldn’t be overlooked by the progenitors of craft cocktails.