Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Tullibardine, Gordon & MacPhail 13 year

stats: single malt Scotch, Highlands, 46%, $70

My whisky purchases usually involve much planning and forethought, but every once in a while I do pick up a bottle on a whim. This is one such case. After having become enamored with the Edradour distillery while drinking the flagship 10 year old and researching their Morton’s Refrigerator, making my way there for a tour become a top priority for my next visit to Scotland, whenever that may be. The picturesque distillery is located near the geographic center of the country, roughly 60 mile north of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Of course if you’re planning to drive out to the center of Scotland just to visit a distillery, it’s only logical to visit a few others along the way. Looking at a map of the country, there are five distilleries running in somewhat of a north-south line, spread across 25 miles of the Central Highlands. Edradour is at the north end and Tullibardine is at the south end, with Blair Athol, Aberfeldy and Glenturret lying between them. Daydreaming of such an adventure kept these distillery names fresh in my mind, prompting me to pick up this 13 year old bottling of Tullibardine in spite of the fact that I knew very little about their whisky or where it was made.

That was a little over three years ago. While official distillery bottlings from Tullibardine did exist at the time, they were sort of hard to come by. I have, however, started seeing Tullibardine on store shelves with some frequency more recently. Let’s take a quick look at the brand’s history.

First, lest there be any confusion, there was a distillery named Tullibardine that operated from 1798 to 1837, which was also in the village of Blackford, but not in the same location as the current distillery. The modern Tullibardine distillery was constructed in buildings that had operated as a brewery dating back to the 12th century. There are records of King James IV of Scotland stopping here to purchase beer on the way to his coronation in 1488. That year is sometimes associated with the current operation even though work on the distillery began in 1947 and spirit first flowed in 1949.

That start date is actually pretty interesting. After a spate of distillery construction in the late 1800’s, primarily in Speyside, Scotland’s whisky industry entered an exceptionally long bust period. This was primarily caused by World War I, Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II. With a single exception in 1938, no malt distilleries were built in the country between 1900 and the post-World War II boom period. Tullibardine was the first of this expansion phase for the industry, but it was way ahead of its time. All of the other new distilleries constructed in that period came online between 1957 and 1975.

The original owner, William Delmé-Evans, sold the distillery to a Glasgow based whisky broker, Brodie Hepburn Limited, in 1953. That firm was taken over in 1971 by Invergordon Distillers Limited, who increased capacity by adding a second set of stills in 1973. In 1993 Invergordon was acquired by Whyte & Mackay, and by the end of 1994 they had closed Tullibardine. The distillery was finally purchased by a business consortium in 2003 and they had it up and running again by the end of the year.

While an official 10 year old bottling had been available in the 1980’s and 1990’s, most of the distillery’s output was sold to blenders during that period. The new owners switched to a series of vintage dated bottlings and non-age stated wine cask finished bottlings. The cask finished single malts started off with distillate from 1992 and 1993, but eventually they had to switch over to younger whisky made after the nine year period of non-production. This happened once the whisky made after 2003 was at least 5 years old, and there was a coinciding price reduction.

Finally, the Tullibardine was sold in 2011 to its current owner, Picard Vins & Spiritueux; an independent French company which also owns vineyards and four distilleries in France. In 2013 the entire range was relaunched with six new bottlings.

The example of Tullibardine from Gordon & MacPhail that I’m tasting tonight was distilled in 1993, bottled in 2007 and carries a 13 year age statement. Judging from the color I’m assuming that it was aged exclusively in former bourbon barrels.

The color is pale golden straw.
The nose is delicate and quite grassy, with a subtle hint of clay. The aromas seem mature and well integrated, but not particularly oaky.
There’s some weight on the palate; it has a respectable amount of body. Hay and fresh-cut grass are the most obvious notes on the palate. Cereal grain, nuttiness, honeysuckle and dry oak notes all surface to a lesser degree, rounding it out with good complexity.
Warming, exotic (perhaps middle-eastern?) spice notes come into play on the finish.
This is an interesting whisky; it has a Lowlandesque flavor profile, but with a density more characteristic of the Highlands.

Most of the official distillery bottlings currently available go in one of two directions; nearly twice the age of this bottling, or non-age stated (but said to be less than half as old) and with various wine cask finishes. I’d be curious to taste any of

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Ardbeg Perpetuum vs. 2015 Laphroaig Cairdeas

Perpetuum: single malt Scotch, Islay, 47.4%, $100
2015 Cairdeas: single malt Scotch, Islay, 51.5%, $75

A 200 year anniversary is a big deal, especially when you’re talking about the survival of a distillery on the rain battered, wind lashed shores of Islay. It’s even more impressive when one considers the challenges imposed on whisky producers by the geopolitical turmoil of the first half of the 20th century. The fact that Ardbeg and Laphroaig are both celebrating such a momentous occasion this year is quite noteworthy.

With the current state of the industry, no popular Scottish single malt distillery can really let a significant anniversary slip by without issuing a special bottling to commemorate the milestone. Such an event can certainly be capitalized upon by a distillery to help drive sales. More importantly though, devotees of the brand will be expecting the opportunity to experience a distinctive expression of the whisky they adore while toasting the affair.

Such a bottling should be special and somewhat unique, but it’s also important to keep its price in a range that won’t be off-putting to the average consumer. Along the same lines, a large enough quantity of said bottling needs to be produced so that it is readily available. Frustrated enthusiasts don’t make for a cheerful celebration. So, let’s see what Ardbeg and Laphroaig have come up with.

Both distilleries (as well as most of the others on the island) long ago started producing limited, annual Feis Ile bottlings for Islay’s music and whisky festival, which is held in May each year. These started off in very small quantities and could only be purchased at the distillery shops during or shortly after the festival. Eventually these bottlings from Laphroaig and Ardbeg grew in size and were also made available for online sales. In 2012, both distilleries further expanded production of their festival bottlings. They were still limited releases, but they could now be purchased from retailers around the world.

Rather than putting out two competing special editions for 2015, both Ardbeg and Laphroaig chose to make the festival bottling and the anniversary bottling one in the same. Both distilleries kept the pricing for these bottlings at the same levels as the festival bottlings that have come before them for the past three years.

Laphroaig also released two other limited bottlings this year. The first is a 21 year old which was billed as celebrating the 21st anniversary of the Friends of Laphroaig (the distillery’s official fan club). It was only available in 35cl bottles at £99, and could only be bought online, initially through a ballot system. The second is a 32 year old which was aged exclusively in Oloroso Sherry hogsheads. 5880 were produced and they are retailing for $1200.

As for the festival/bicentennial bottlings, Ardbeg and Laphroaig took pretty different approaches. Perpetuum is supposed to pay homage to the different styles of whisky that Ardbeg has made over the last two centuries and represent the distillery’s past, present and future. Unfortunately the official description of this whisky is long on vagaries and short on specifics. The most detail that they give only reveals that this is a mix of old and young Ardbeg and a mix of Sherry casks and Bourbon barrels. They also mention that a tiny amount of the oldest stocks left in the warehouses went into the vatting.

You may remember from one of my previous Ardbeg posts that the since the current owners took control of the distillery in 1997, they’ve had three styles of Ardbeg made during three distinct periods of production to work with. I’d like to think that Perpetuum is a vatting of whiskies from all three phases, but I haven’t seen anything specifically indicating that to be the case. I’ve also seen rumors that Perpetuum was overproduced and its quality was compromised in order to meet quantity targets (I intend to taste with an open mind nonetheless). I decided to look for some numbers and found that there were 6660 bottled of Ardbeg Auriverdes (2014 Feis Ile) made and 72,000 bottles of Perpetuum made, plus another 12,000 bottles of Perpetuum at a slightly higher proof that were only available at the distillery.

Laphroaig, on the other hand, has told us very specifically how the 2015 Cairdeas was made. This whisky was distilled in 2003 and was an early project of John Campbell, the current distillery manager. Most significantly it is made entirely from barley malted on Laphroaig’s traditional floor malting. The distillery normally uses a mix of 85% commercially produced malted barley and 15% which is malted in-house. The latter is distinctive because it is dried by burning peat hand harvested by distillery workers, and that peat is composed primarily of lichens and mosses that grew in an area heavy with sea spray. Also, Laphroaig uses a cold smoking process in the malt kiln, where they start with a low temperature fire which produces a lot of smoke but doesn’t serve to dry the barley until the temperature is eventually brought up. Even just 15% of the malt being treated this way is enough to give Laphroaig its signature iodine-like medicinal character.

This whisky was also produced only using the small stills at Laphroaig. A fourth spirit still which is twice the size of the other three spirit stills was added in 1974. Distillate from all four is usually blended together, but not in this case. Furthermore, the 2015 Cairdeas was aged in first-fill Bourbon barrels in Laphroaig’s No. 1 Warehouse, which sits right on the edge of the sea. This whisky is John’s interpretation of what Laphroaig from 200 years ago would have tasted like. Laphroaig did make 28,500 bottles of 2015 Cairdeas (or 30,000, I’ve seen both numbers), which was barely up from the 28,000 bottles of 2014 Cairdeas that were produced.

The nose shows pleasant peat notes, but they’re different than expected; somewhat restrained and a little one-dimensional. The peat smoke aromas have a dry, earthy character, and if there are any fruit notes, they are very subtle.
The palate starts off going in one direction, and then makes an abrupt turn. It has a lush, sweet, malty character right up front, but that suddenly gives way to iodine and somewhat abrasive smoke notes.
It then goes out of balance while moving into the finish, with burnt toast notes coming to dominate.
Overall, the whisky is poorly integrated and has transitions that are less than graceful. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a bad whisky, but it certainly isn’t worthy of the occasion it was earmarked to celebrate.

2015 Cairdeas:
The nose is defined by sharp peat notes, brine and iodine. A touch of vanilla adds depth. The lack of sherry fruit and maltiness makes it seem oddly lithe, in spite of the assertive aromas.
Exceptionally full bodied right up front, it follows with peat smoke that is dense but not sharp or biting. I was expecting a punch in the face, but got more of a giant bear hug; my palate gradually but forcefully enveloped. Laphroaig’s signature medicinal character is certainly present, but surprisingly doesn’t seem particularly amplified relative to their other bottlings.
Warming spice notes, mint and eucalyptus all come into play, mingling with a peaty campfire as it moves into the finish.
Depth and weight define this whisky, but it stays in balance and evolves gracefully.

I love the concept and truly enjoyed this whisky, but I’d like to see Laphroaig take this idea to the next level. Sure, using worm tubs and direct fired stills would be too big of a challenge logistically. But starting with a watered-down, lower original gravity wort to emulate the lower yielding barleys of yesteryear (as Springbank does) along with running an exceptionally long fermentation time wouldn’t be too hard to do for a limited edition whisky.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Old Overholt Rye, 3 year vs. 4 year

straight rye whiskey, 3 years old, 40%, $16 (2015 price)
straight rye whiskey, 4 years old, 40%, $16 (2011 price)

My last post looked at the recent revamping of the long-bottled Jim Beam Rye. This time around I’m going to look at Old Overholt, the other rye brand Beam has produced for many years.

The roots of the Old Overholt brand stretch all the way back to 1810. It was in that year that Abraham Overholt (1784-1870), a Mennonite of Swiss descent, took the family tradition of farm-distilling rye whisky and turned it into a commercial enterprise. He and his brother Christian Overholt (1786-1868) built their log cabin distillery in West Overton (in southwest PA) and began producing their Old Farm Pure Pennsylvania Rye brand. Abraham bought out his brother’s share of the farm two years later, and in 1814 a larger stone distillery with 10 times the capacity of the original was built.

Abraham’s two oldest sons, Henry Stauffer Overholt (1810-1870) and Jacob Stauffer Overholt (1814-1859), began working at the family distillery when they were quite young, and by 1850 they had both become full partners in the business. Demand for their whiskey was so great that in 1855 the family decided to establish a second distillery about 12 miles from the original, at Broad Ford; a site chosen for its river access. Jacob left the West Overton business to run the new enterprise and in 1856 took his cousin Henry O. Overholt (1813-1880) on as a partner. The whisky produced there was sold under the brand Old Monongahela Rye.

After Jacob’s death in 1859, his interest in the Broad Ford distillery was purchased by his father. The distillery was expanded in 1867, greatly increasing its capacity. In 1868 Henry O. Overholt sold his interest in the distillery to Abraham Overholt Tinstman, one of Abraham Overholt’s grandsons. After the deaths of Abraham Overholt and his son Henry in 1870, the company had a complex series of owners, most of whom were family members, but by 1881 the distillery at Broad Ford was owned by the famed industrialist Henry Clay Frick, another of Abraham’s grandsons. It was in the mid 1870’s that the distillery started to use the Old Overholt brand, in honor of Abraham Overholt and with his likeness on the label.

With Frick running the company, Old Overholt became the best selling rye brand in the country, and the entire plant at Broad Ford was reconstructed and enlarged between 1899 and 1905. Frick had sold a one-third interest in the distillery to his friend Andrew Mellon in 1887. As the executor of Henry Clay Frick’s estate, Mellon was able to take control of the distillery in upon Frick’s death in 1919.

The distillery at West Overton was closed at the onset of Prohibition and never reopened. But Andrew Mellon, as Secretary of the Treasury, was able to grant himself a medicinal whisky license which allowed the Broad Ford distillery to sell prescription whiskey and even occasionally produce more in spite of Prohibition. This asset made the company quite valuable during the ensuing period of consolidation in the industry. National Distillers, which formed in 1924, acquired all of the assets of Old Overholt in 1927.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, production resumed at the Broad Ford plant and Old Overholt once again became the best selling rye whiskey in the U.S. But Pennsylvania’s distilling heritage was on a downward spiral as Americans continued their previously established shift from rye to Bourbon, and eventually shifted away from whiskey in general.

National Distillers finally closed the Broad Ford plant for good in 1950 and moved production of Old Overholt to their nearby Large Distillery in West Elizabeth, PA. When National closed that distillery in 1958 they contracted the distilling of Old Overholt out to another Pennsylvania distillery in Schaefferstown, which went by the name Pennco at the time.

Somewhere between 1960 and 1980, National Distillers pulled out of Pennsylvania completely and moved production of Old Overholt Rye to their Old Grand Dad distillery in Forks of Elkhorn, KY. When Jim Beam acquired National Distillers in 1987, that distillery was closed and they switched Old Overholt over to the rye whiskey that they were already producing for Jim Beam Rye.

This was the low point of rye whiskey’s popularity and Beam probably only kept Old Overholt alive because there were still some pockets consumer demand left over from the brand’s heyday. There was no point in promoting Old Overholt, which had become a pretty mediocre product by that point, or trying to differentiate it from Beam Rye.

Fast forward to the current rye renaissance, and these two labels were suddenly fighting for the same segment (bottom shelf mixers) of the expanding rye market. As I mentioned up top, my last post examined the recent re-packaging of Jim Beam Rye and its boost from 80 proof to 90 proof. As a non-age stated straight rye it has to be at least four years old. At some point in 2013 a less noticeable but equally significant change was made to Old Overholt. The four year age statement, which was inconspicuously shown in small print on the corner of the label, was replaced with a three year age statement and made even less conspicuous by moving it to the back of the neck label.

Fortunately I have a mostly full bottle of Old Overholt that’s been in my collection for about 10 years, so I can do a little side by side.

Old Overholt, 3 year
The nose is kind of thin and basic. Some clay (maybe a hint of banana too) and gentle spice notes come through. There’s nothing offensive about it though.
There’s not much up front on the palate, but a burst of flavor soon pops up. The peanut-like “Beam funk” mixes with some Play-Doh notes and floral character.
As it moves into the finish, the rye flavors shift from being floral-based to spice-driven, while the other flavors linger on in the background.
Overall it seems pretty young and spirit-y.

Old Overholt, 4 year
The nose has similar aromas to the three year old, but with more oak, and more depth and intensity.
This one has more weight on the palate and seems better composed, with more continuity. The peanut-like note is much less obvious and there seems to be more tannic, oaky character balancing out the floral and spicy rye notes. The warming spice notes that characterize the finish aren’t too complex, but it winds down with more balance than the three year old does.

Comparing these two along with the two Beam ryes, it’s clear that the company has succeeded in creating more distinction between the two brands, both in terms of their flavor profiles and their packaging.

I wouldn’t rank either of these Old Overholts very high on a list of whiskeys to be sipped neat, but the four year old is better suited to such duty. The three year old is, however, perfectly capable of producing a respectable cocktail. It’s actually the mixing rye that we use where I work, so I’ll give a few examples of drinks that we use it in. One originated before Prohibition, and the other shortly after.

The Ward 8 has several origin stories, but the most likely one pegs its creation a bar in Boston in 1898.

2 ounces Old Overholt
1 ounce Grenadine
½ ounce lemon juice
Combine ingredients over ice in a mixing tin, shake for a five count, strain into an ice filled rocks glass, top with a splash of club soda and garnish with orange and lemon wedges and a cherry.
We use fresh squeezed lemon juice and house made Grenadine (equal parts by volume of fine white sugar and Pomegranate juice at room temperature, shaken vigorously until incorporated), which probably makes a big difference in the quality of the drink.

The Vieux Carré was invented by a New Orleans bartender in 1938. The name is French for “Old Square”, an alternate term for the city’s “French Quarter”.

1 ounce Old Overholt
1 ounce Courvoisier VS
¼ ounce Benedictine
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
Combine ingredients over ice in a mixing tin, stir gently for a 15 count, strain over a single large ice cube in a rocks glass and garnish with a lemon zest.
The original recipe calls for equal parts (3/4 ounce) rye, Cognac and sweet vermouth. After experimenting with a variety of sweet vermouths, none of which he was happy with, our head bartender tried the above recipe and was finally satisfied, so that’s how we make it.