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.