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.

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