Thursday, April 7, 2016

Whiskey Road Trip, Florida Scotch dinner part 1

I believe it is occasionally necessary to shake things up in life; break out of one’s routine and go in search of adventure. And from my perspective there is no more satisfying of an adventure than one which is whiskey-centric.

Having visited 14 distilleries in Scotland in the spring of 2012, it has long seemed a bit peculiar to me that I write as much as I do about whiskey and was yet to have visited any of the distilleries in my own country. This is even less excusable in light of the fact that I can reach the heartland of America’s distilling industry in a single day of driving; granted, an extremely long day of driving, but a single day nonetheless.

A road trip to Kentucky during the spring season was something I had been contemplating for some time, as this is when work is slow and it’s less costly to take time off. Then, when I was considering the invitation to host another Scotch dinner in Florida, I began to explore the option of visiting a friend or two on the way there. Since neither of my potential stops, or my start point and end point for that matter, was anywhere near a major airport hub, the necessary number of connecting flights would have been disconcerting at best. Add to that my general disdain for flying (the flying itself doesn’t bother me, but flight delays, lost luggage, cramped quarters and getting nickel & dimed by the airlines are all things I can do without), and driving to Florida was starting to sound like a viable option.

Looking at the map and pondering the return drive, a detour through central Kentucky on the way back to Vermont seemed like it wouldn’t really take me all that far out of my way. The plan for a grand whiskey adventure was suddenly coming together. My strategy coalesced around a two week vacation running from late January to early February. Of course taking a lengthy road trip through the northeast in the dead of winter is somewhat of a gamble. But I’ve lived in Vermont for all of my adult life; I’m certainly no stranger to driving in the snow (I actually relish the challenge to a certain extent) and I’m rolling on trustworthy snow tires, what could possibly go wrong?

Then, about five days before my intended departure, I started to hear rumors of a big storm potentially coming up the east coast. Of course, I never trust weather reports that far ahead. But as the days passed the storm grew in size and certainty; I was going to be heading straight into a major blizzard. Not one to be easily deterred, I monitored the forecasts ever more closely and thought through multiple travel strategies.

My original plan was to leave early on Saturday and I had set Friday aside for organizing, packing and tying up a few loose ends around the house. I’m confident in my ability to drive through damn near anything, but the capabilities of those on the road around me are beyond my control and that was cause for great concern. I needed to get out ahead of this thing as much as possible, get to my first destination and hunker down until the worst of the storm had passed, so I pushed up my departure time by 24 hours. Even though I was able to get out of working Thursday night, the change had put me under a time crunch and I only managed to get two hours of sleep before heading out at 0630 on Friday.

I altered my route to stay as far from New York City and Washington DC as possible and actually managed to get through eight hours of driving before I saw a flake of snow. As the road conditions slowly worsened, spun out cars, jackknifed tractor-trailers and even a flipped over electric utility truck failed to serve as deterrents. I pushed on at a decent rate of speed, passing every conceivable type of vehicle that should logically perform better in the snow than what I was driving. Well, except for a couple of State Police cars, I’ve learned the hard way what happens when you pass them on slippery roads. I finally arrived at my first stop in central Virginia; 12 hours after leaving home and just 30 minutes after the roads started getting really bad.

After 24 hours of heavy snow and high winds the storm had mostly passed, moving further north. It was time to dig out and get back on the road. They don’t deal well with snow down south, so the highway was fairly desolate in spite of being plowed. Travel condition gradually improved as I got further from the epicenter of the storm and I was actually able to make good time to my next stop in South Carolina. I spent a day and a half there catching up with an old friend before tackling the third leg of the journey to Florida. It was another ten and a half hours behind the wheel, but by the end of it I could finally roll down the windows and laugh about the fact that I was cruising around the Sunshine state on snow tires.

The first order of business was visiting with family on Sanibel Island for five days. There was plenty of time to comb the beach for interesting sea shells, but I had also brought a little box of 1-ounce and 2-ounce bottles of whisky samples poured from my collection at home. With this I was able to work through the Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist post during the rainy days.

Then, after a quick jaunt across the state to the east coast, it was time to focus on the big whisky dinner. With a proclivity for procrastination and being one who only works efficiently with a looming deadline, I had barely scratched the surface of my preparations before arriving in Palm Beach Gardens. Consequently, much of the 24 hours before the event was spent hunkered down in my hotel room; researching histories, laying out timelines, organizing talking points and editing a series of relevant images.

Inspired by my fascination with the bust and boom cycles of the industry, my original idea for this iteration of the whisky dinner was to taste two single malts from distilleries that were lost to the last downturn, and two from some of Scotland’s newest distilleries; products of the current upswing. Sourcing rare whiskies as a third party and in a state far from where I live can be incredibly challenging. This fact had already proven true thrice over as I had previously prepared for my presentations in Florida. No Scottish malt distilleries have been lost since the early 1990’s and at this point in time most of the whisky from them is either unreasonably expensive or quite hard to come by, if not both. I decided to go easy on myself this time around and have the theme focus solely on new distilleries; those opened since 1990.

Three of them would be easy; Arran (1995), Glengyle/Kilkerran (2004) and Kilchoman (2005) are all of reputable quality and readily available. Over the last 26 years, 20 new single malt distilleries have been established in Scotland. Such projects usually require investors with a long vision and plenty of confidence. With the current growth phase of the industry having been long sustained and surviving the Global Recession of 2008-2012, many financial backers have more recently jumped on the bandwagon, allowing 11 of those new distilleries to come online since the start of 2013. The distillate from these newest producers was all too young to even legally be called whisky at the time of the dinner.

That put me down to six potential candidates. Ailsa Bay (2007) and Roseisle (2010) are the new industrial giants owned by William Grant & Sons and Diageo, respectively. These distilleries were purpose built to supply large quantities of malt whisky to the blends owned by their corporate masters. Neither one is likely to be seen bottled as a single malt any time soon, if ever. Daftmill (2005) is a tiny farm-distillery that produces just 20,000 liters-per-annum. The stills have been running for more than 10 years, but the owners are yet to release any of their maturing stock. Abhainn Dearg (2009) is another small producer, also making 20,000 liters-per-annum. Some single malt has been released but it was quite young, fairly expensive, very limited and as far as I know none has been exported to the U.S. The last two options were Speyside (1990) and Kininvie (1990).

Construction of the Speyside distillery actually started in 1962, but the project was a labor of love that took 25 years to complete. Production began three years later, putting it within my timeframe criteria even though the initial work on the distillery dates back to the previous boom period. I had, however, seen some less-than-stellar reviews of its whisky so I decided to pass on this option.

That left me with Kininvie, a single malt distillery which is integrated into the Balvenie distillery and has been quietly pumping out large quantities of whisky since 1990 to support the blends owned by William Grant & Sons. Kininvie has only been bottled as single malt since 2013, and only as a 23 year old which is fairly expensive and quite limited. I knew that the chances of getting a bottle were slim, but I had a backup plan; Monkey Shoulder. This is a Blended Malt (a vatting of multiple single malts without a grain whisky component) which is a marriage of Kininvie, Balvenie and Glenfiddich. As I suspected, Monkey Shoulder was all that was available to represent Kininvie, but the club did get on the waiting list for the next release of the 23 year old Kininvie, so attendees of the dinner will likely have the opportunity to taste it at some point in the future.

I started off with an explanation of my chosen theme and a quick historical recap. The last boom period for Scotch whisky during the 1800’s happened in the 1870’s and 1880’s after Phylloxera devastated France’s wine and brandy industries. A series of financial crises toward the end of that century brought the good times to an end and Glen Elgin (1900) was the last new distillery that would be built in Scotland for quite some time.

World War I, Prohibition, The Great Depression and World War II all added up the make the first half of the 20th century a pretty tough time for the industry. Inverleven (1938), a malt distillery built within the Loch Lomond grain distillery, was the only new facility constructed during that period. Tullibardine (1949) was a sign of the industry’s coming good fortune, but it took many years of economic recovery before the post WW II boom period to really get going, with most of the related distillery construction happening between 1957 and 1975.

The late 70’s and most of the 80’s saw another sharp downturn. There were surely some economic issues at play, but the biggest factor was the consumers’ changing preferences. Things slowly turned around in the 1990’s, and the current boom period has accelerated almost uninterrupted for the last decade and a half. A quick breakdown of how many distilleries were established and how many were lost during each decade paints a pretty clear picture of these trends.

1950’s (+4)(-0)
1960’s (+13)(-0)
1970’s (+5)(-3)
1980’s (+0)(-18)
1990’s (+3)(-4)
2000’s (+5)(-0)
2010’s (+12)(-0)

Considering that we’re only half way through the last decade listed, I think it’s safe to say Scotland is in an unprecedented era of distillery construction. I also put together a chart in Excel which shows a timeline of the opening of new distilleries since 1990. You can see that the pace was starting to ramp up about 10 years ago, but the global financial crisis of 2007/2008 proved to be a bit of a speed bump. There are many examples of potential distillery projects from that time which never came to fruition due to a lack of funding. The chart really illustrates how things have taken off in the past few years, and there are also many more new distilleries in the construction or planning stages.

Some people consider Kininvie to be merely an extension of the Balvenie distillery. While the former is an integral part of the latter, one can easily make the argument that it qualifies as a distinct distillery. The malt mill is really the only piece of equipment that the two distilleries actually share. Kininvie has its own dedicated mash tun, which shares a space with Balvenie’s mash tun. Ten Douglas fir washbacks which are used exclusively for Kininvie are housed in two rooms in Balvenie’s buildings. The wash is then piped 200 meters to the separate still house. It may look unglamorous and utilitarian with its sheet metal siding, but only Kininvie is distilled there. The three wash stills and six spirit stills employed by Kininvie clearly differ in shape and size from the ones used to distill Balvenie.

In 1990 the industry was just beginning to transition out of unprosperous times and a few distilleries were yet to fall victim to challenges posed by the previous decade. It’s logical that Kininvie would be the first newly built distillery of this era; its purpose was to support existing brands of blended Scotch so there was no need to build a market for a new single malt, and investment in the project could be contained by utilizing a lot of the infrastructure that was already in place at Balvenie.

I put together a timeline of the various William Grant & Sons assets to put everything in perspective:

1887 – Glenfiddich built
1892 – Balvenie built
1898 – Grant’s brand of blended whisky launched
1963 – Girvan grain distillery built
1963 – Glenfiddich is the first brand to be marketed as a single malt world-wide
1966 – Ladyburn built (malt distillery within the Girvan grain distillery)
1973 – Balvenie first bottled as single malt
1976 – Ladyburn closed
1990 – Kininvie built
2005 – Monkey Shoulder introduced
2007 – Ailsa Bay built (malt distillery within the Girvan grain distillery)
2010 – Kininvie closed
2012 – Kininvie reopened
2013 – Ailsa Bay capacity doubled
2013 – Kininvie released as single malt

Some people assume that very little whisky is made at Kininvie because the releases of its single malt are so limited. This is not the case. What have traditionally been considered some of the smallest distilleries in Scotland (Edradour and Kilchoman) can make about 100,000 LPA (liters of alcohol per annum), though some of the newest generation are capable of only 20,000 LPA. All of the distilleries owned by William Grant & Sons are massive by comparison, with their capacities measured in MLPA (millions of liters per annum):

Glenfiddich – 13 MLPA
Ailsa Bay – 10 MLPA (originally 5 MLPA)
Balvenie – 7 MLPA
Kininvie – 4.8 MLPA

I don’t particularly care for Glenfiddich, at least in its mass-produced, flagship 12 year old incarnation, and I’m not really a fan of Balvenie’s house style unless it’s been tempered by a strong sherry or port cask influence. Knowing that Kininvie’s flavor profile is said to lie somewhere between that of Balvenie and Glenfiddich, my expectations were fairly low but I was pleasantly surprised upon tasting Monkey Shoulder for the first time.

This is the 43% ABV version that is found in the U.S., not the 40% ABV bottling found in most other markets.

The nose is somewhat light and bright. Tree fruit (apple and pear) aromatics meld nicely with malty undertones. There is a floral component, but it’s fairly subtle and restrained. Oaky notes add just a bit of weight.
On the palate it shows more body than depth of flavor up front. Delicate fruit and gentle maltiness are quickly joined by warming spice notes.
It becomes more floral / grassy as it moves into the finish, with the spice notes building and evolving.
Overall it is an approachable aperitif-style whisky. It’s not overtly complex and shows some youthfulness, especially as it moves into the finish, but these points aren’t too detrimental. I find the quality to be reasonable considering the bottle’s $30 price tag.

You might be wondering where the name Monkey Shoulder comes from. This is a point I forgot to mention during the dinner and only explained at the tail end of the event, with just a few stragglers left, when someone commented on the seemingly odd name. Monkey Shoulder is a colloquialism for a repetitive strain injury which was common to maltmen back when the malting process was performed at the distilleries on open floors and by no means other than manual labor. Endless hours of shoveling, turning and grubbing tons of malting barley would often leave the workers with one shoulder hanging lower than the other, hence the name. The injury has long vanished, but the name has been resurrected here as a tip-of-the-hat to the traditional floor malting that is still carried out at Balvenie for a small percentage of their barley.

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