Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Lagavulin, 200th Anniversary 8 year old

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 8 years old, 48%, $65

For some writers, criticizing Diageo is practically a sport; and the company seems to feed them plenty of ammunition (see the “controversies” section of their Wikipedia page if you don’t believe me). While I really don’t enjoy writing negative blog posts, if the situation warrants it I have no problem castigating Diageo, or anyone else for that matter. I definitely laid into them when I wrote about my experience touring the George Dickel distillery. On the other hand, I’m happy to sing their praises when they do the right thing.

With Lagavulin celebrating their 200th anniversary in 2016, I was curious to see what would be put on offer for her fans wanting to commemorate the special occasion. This was especially true in light of the fact that the distillery’s two closest neighbors marked their bicentennials the previous year and Laphroaig got it so right while Ardbeg got it so wrong. They did bottle a 51.7%, Sherry cask aged, 25 year old Lagavulin. But at $1200, that one was for the high-rollers. We of more modest income got a limited release 8 year old bottling.

I know, some are bemoaning a special release that’s at half the age of the flagship 16 year old and priced only modestly lower. So, why was I impressed? We’ve been presented with a bottling of Lagavulin that is bound to be quite different than the standard expression due to the big age differential. It’s also bottled at 48%, a healthy step up from the 43% of the 16 year old.

This whisky also needs no marketing fluff to distract from a lack of an age-statement, and regardless of its relative youth, a limited-edition special release at $65 is pretty reasonable by today’s standards. Anything older than 16 years would have been exorbitantly expensive (in the mid-$70’s, the 16 year old is already steeply priced for a brand’s main bottling, but it’s not really out of line relative to other producer’s offerings in the 16 to 18 year range).

Many respectable single malts were bottled as 8 year olds back in the 1970’s, but age statements generally crept up as sales dropped off in the 1980’s. As supplies have run thin over the last decade, age statements have largely disappeared rather than retreat. I’ve been a proponent of modestly priced 8 year olds since Gordon & MacPhail introduced such a series about five years ago.

Most importantly though, this 8 year old expression is a tip of the hat to Alfred Barnard, a spirits journalist who toured most of the whisky distilleries in the U.K. over the course of 1885-1886 and published his combined essays as The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom in 1887. While visiting Lagavulin his party tasted “some eight years old”, which he described as “exceptionally fine”.

I own a copy of Barnard’s book, and what was even more interesting to me was the sentence that followed his reference to the whisky he tasted – “The make is largely used for blending purposes, but it is also sold as a single Whisky; there are only a few of the Scotch Distillers that turn out spirit for use as single Whiskies, and that made at Lagavulin can claim to be one of the most prominent.”

Much to my relief, Diageo managed to invoke Barnard without any historical distortions. Let’s keep in mind though, this whisky was inspired by the 8 year old Lagavulin that Barnard praised, it’s not supposed to be a recreation of it. That would have been a fool’s errand; no samples of Lagavulin exist from anywhere near the Victorian era and we know from Barnard’s chronicles that back then the stills at Lagavulin were roughly half the size of the ones that are in use today. Additionally, it’s been more than 40 years since the distillery was modernized, leaving behind its floor maltings, worm tubs and direct-fired stills.

That being said, I did at least expect this bottling to free of artificial color and chill filtration, especially given its elevated alcohol level. But neither of those features was touted on the packaging.

Looking around online, I saw mixed reports as to whether or not this whisky has artificial coloring added. I could imagine them leaving off a “coloring free” statement, even if that was the case, because it might draw attention to the fact that Lagavulin’s flagship 16 year old is artificially colored. But then I started to see documentation of bottles shipped to Germany, where the labeling requirements are more stringent, bearing a declaration of added coloring.

Seeing how light the whisky looks in the glass, I’d say that if there is caramel coloring in the mix it’s an incredibly minor amount, as in just enough to make the color consistent across all of the bottling runs. Looking at the 16 year by comparison shows just how heavily colored that whisky probably is. I believe both expressions have a small Sherry cask component, so that shouldn’t be a factor in their differing color profiles.

I’ve also seen a lot of mixed opinions as to whether of not the 8 year old was chill filtered. Most of those opinions were based on speculation and conjecture. Finally, I came across a comment from someone who had heard Iain McArthur say at a distillery tasting that Diageo chill filters everything from Lagavulin, including the cask strength bottlings. Baby steps Diageo, baby steps.

First I tasted the 16 year old at 43% as a benchmark:

Color – Dark golden-amber.
Nose – The aromas are peaty and bold, with dry earth, dark fruit and coastal minerality.
Palate – It’s full-bodied, with complex, earthy fruit notes showing up-front. By the mid-palate a big wave of peaty intensity has risen up and overshadowed the initial character. Finally, dry spice notes come into play as it evolves further.
Finish – The peat smoke and dry spiciness go back and forth, vying for dominance as it meanders through the lengthy finish. Nuttiness and subtle fruit notes linger on to lend complexity.
Overall – Powerful and balanced; 16 years seems to be a very good place for this distillate.

Then it was on to the 8 year old at 48%:

Color – Lighter than pale straw, it almost looks like clear spirit when the glass is held up to a grey background.
Nose – Peat and minerality come through, but it’s more bright and floral, with some stone fruit showing.
Palate – Apple, peach and pear all show up-front, with the peat smoke becoming more dominant as it moves on. A minty floral character eventually emerges in the background
Finish – Dry spice notes come out to play and mingle with the peat smoke late in the game here as well, but minus the nutty, earthy character.
Overall – There’s a youthfulness to it. Not to the point of being detrimental, but just enough to bring back fond memories of tasting new-make spirit at Lagavulin when I toured the distillery. It may lack some of the refinement of the flagship offering, but it still shows quite well at half the age.

This may not be a ground-breaking expression, but it’s certainly interesting to see a different facet of Lagavulin, and I think that’s really the point of this bottling. Of course, drawing attention to the works of Alfred Barnard will always get a nod of approval from me as well.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What's on the shelf? - Macallan Double Cask 12 year

I travel between northern Vermont and Boston somewhat regularly, and when I do I usually stop at several liquor stores along the way. Sometimes I’m looking for a specific bottling, other times I’m just window shopping; keeping an eye out for new products, following pricing trends, making note of packaging changes, etc.

On one such recent outing I came across a new Macallan bottling; Double Cask 12 year old (clearly, I don’t pay much attention to official distillery press releases). So, what’s this new bottling all about and how does it fit in with their other offerings?

First, a brief history lesson. Although definitely not the case today, if you go back far enough in time, Sherry casks were dominant in Scotch whisky maturation. Their availability was limited during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930’s, forcing some Scotch producers to look elsewhere. When Spain transitioned from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970’s, unions insisted that Sherry be bottled in the country rather than exported in bulk in its oak casks as it had been previously, primarily to the United Kingdom. Finally, worldwide sales of Sherry have been on a steady annual decline since the early 1990’s.

The Bourbon industry has seen periods of strong growth following Prohibition and after World War II, and of course again with the latest whiskey boom. Bourbon producers used new oak barrels initially by tradition and best practice, and have continued to do so by law since 1935. Gradually, over the last century or so, Scotch whisky producers have shifted to primarily using ex-Bourbon barrels for maturation, with Sherry casks falling into the minority.

A few producers stuck exclusively (or at least mostly) with Sherry cask aging though, Macallan being one of them. But even Macallan was sort of secretly hedging their bets. They had quietly been putting distillate into Bourbon barrels since at least the mid 1970’s. If sales growth didn’t develop the way they hoped, all of that whisky aging in Bourbon barrels (which cost about 1/10 what  Sherry casks cost) would go into blends. In addition to Macallan, The Edrington Group also owns Cutty Sark and The Famous Grouse, so there would be a ready outlet for the extra whisky.

If sales did take off, The Macallan would have to introduce a second line of bottlings that incorporated the Bourbon barrel-aged whisky. That is exactly what happened in 2004. The new range, titled “Fine Oak”, featured a flagship 10 year old, but also included a 25 year old and a 30 year old, proving the distillery’s lengthy use of Bourbon barrels.

I need to go on a slight tangent about oak here. There are over 600 different species of oak, but the vast majority of casks used today are made from just four of them. Japanese Oak (Quercas crispula), also known as Mizunara, has been used for maturing Japanese whisky since the 1930’s. It produces some unique flavors, but its porous nature makes it prone to leakage. It’s fairly rare and is mostly just used for finishing whiskies these days. American Oak (Quercas alba) dominates the Bourbon industry. It is also used by the wine industry. European Oak will be one of two types; pendunculate (Quercas robur) or sessile (Quercas petraea). Both grow throughout central Europe with mostly overlapping distributions. Quercas alba is primarily used for Sherry, Port and Cognac. Quercas petraea is primarily used for wine.

You may see references to Spanish Oak, Iberian Oak (referring to the Iberian Peninsula, which includes Spain and Portugal) or French Oak, and possibly other European countries. These are all still Quercas robur or Quercas petraea, but with a more specific regional designation of where the trees were sourced from. The only one that really has any significant additional meaning is French Oak. That designation is only possible if the trees are harvested from certain managed forests with sustainable logging practices. The trees are all aged between 200 and 250 years and only the base sections of the trees are used to makes casks, resulting in a more consistent product.

It’s a little known fact is that most Sherry casks used by the Scotch industry are seasoned with fermenting grape must and/or young Sherry (usually Oloroso) for less than two years. The Sherry producers don’t want to use new oak and they now usually keep their casks until they reach the point of rotting. The Sherry from the new oak that they use, whether they will keep those casks for themselves or are seasoning them on behalf of the Scotch producers, will only be used for very low quality Sherry blends, distilled into bulk alcohol, or even just dumped down the drain.

What most people don’t realize is that the Sherry and Port industries use a lot of Quercas alba in addition to Quercas robur. This is also true of casks which are produced for the Scotch industry and seasoned by the Sherry bodegas. European Oak’s limited supply and higher cost (it’s a more labor intensive material to make casks out of than American Oak) likely play a big role in this reality. Most Scotch producers don’t mention the fact that some of their Sherry casks are made from American Oak. This is probably because American Oak has such a strong association with Bourbon barrels and they don’t want to confuse consumers, giving the false impression that they might not be using 100% Sherry cask maturation.

Oak casks used for wine, Sherry or Port, regardless of species, will be toasted, where Bourbon barrels are always charred. This means there is a further difference between Bourbon barrels and American Oak Sherry casks than just their former contents.

Back to The Macallan. They’ve had many different series of bottlings over the years, and they dropped their age-stated lineup in favor of a group of color-designated bottlings for much of the world not too long ago. But that switch hasn’t happened in the U.S. and those age-stated ranges are what I’m discussing here.

Their long running age-stated lineup has consisted of a 12 year old, 18 year old, 25 year old and 30 year old for a very long time. A cask strength bottling was discontinued a few years ago, but a 40 year old was recently added to the lineup. This was basically the flagship series and didn’t really need a name to differentiate it from anything else they offered. Then in 2004 the Fine Oak series came along. Its range of age statements quickly expanded to include 10, 12, 15, 17, 18, 21, 25 and 30 year olds. At some point after the Fine Oak series was introduced, the original series took up the Sherry Oak moniker. At least that’s how they’re now designated on the Macallan website; the phrase does not appear on the bottles.

Once the new Double Oak 12 year Macallan was on my radar I started digging to try to figure out exactly what differentiates these three series. The first thing that got my attention was the description printed on the Sherry Oak series labels; “Exclusively matured in selected Sherry Oak casks from Jerez Spain”. That statement doesn’t really tell us much; “Sherry Oak” doesn’t indicate the type of oak used, just that the casks were seasoned with Sherry. Also, Jerez is in the south of Spain, far from the northern forests where Spanish Oak grows. The location is clearly an indication of where the casks are seasoned rather than where the oak comes from.

On the other hand, the label of the Double Cask clearly describes the cask types used; “Matured exclusively in the perfect balance of Sherry seasoned American and European Oak casks”. A nearby Fine Oak bottling carried and equally detailed description; “The Macallan Fine Oak is triple cask matured…..European Oak casks seasoned with Sherry, American Oak casks seasoned with Sherry and American Oak casks seasoned with Bourbon…..”

That surprised me; I had purchased a bottle of 15 year Fine Oak when it was still a fairly new product and only remembered it being described as aged in a combination of Bourbon barrels and Sherry casks. I ran up to the attic and dug through several boxes of empty whisky bottles before I found what I was looking for. Sure enough, that label carried the following statement; “Carefully matured in a unique combination of Bourbon & Sherry Oak casks”.

After a good bit of looking at images of Fine Oak labels online, I came to the conclusion that the description’s change coincided with a redesign of the label. This happened across the range of ages at the same time, I think around 2008, indicating to me that they most likely had simply switched to a more accurate description rather than changing the whisky’s aging regime.

Considering the vague description on the Sherry Oak label and the fact that both the Fine Oak and the Double Cask bottlings used American Oak Sherry casks, more research was needed. After a good bit of digging, I had finally come across enough evidence to convince me that the Sherry Oak series had been partially aged in American Oak Sherry casks for a very long time, if not all along. So, if Sherry Oak Macallan and Double Oak Macallan both use American Oak Sherry casks and European Oak Sherry casks, what’s the difference between them? Proportions. The Sherry Oak bottlings are aged primarily in European Oak, while the Double Cask bottling is aged primarily in American Oak. All of it is of course Sherry seasoned; only the Fine Oak series sees time in Bourbon barrels.

Output at the Macallan distillery has grown dramatically since the early1970’s and it ranks near the top of the list of Scotland’s largest malt distilleries. In addition to quietly putting whisky into Bourbon barrels as an insurance policy for the future, I believe The Macallan grew its production to the point that their need for Sherry casks far outstripped their supply of European Oak. They’d been using American Oak to make some of their Sherry casks for a long time, but eventually they would have to make a much greater proportion of those Sherry casks from it.

As Macallan’s sales growth continued at a strong pace it would have become obvious at some point that a new series of bottlings would be necessary to utilize all of that whisky maturing in American Oak Sherry casks. Perhaps this would have been the inspiration for the new labeling on the Fine Oak series. Then they could dumb things down to “triple cask” and “double cask” symbols to help avoid consumer confusion. Of course they’d have to keep the Sherry Oak series labeling vague and continue to let people assume that it only used one type of cask. Besides, if they suddenly added clarity to the Sherry Oak description, they’d risk giving the false impression that they had changed the whisky. You can’t really do that with a successful product in an industry where consistency is king.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Kirkland 12 year Blended Scotch vs. Chivas Regal 12 year

I first tasted Costco’s Kirkland brand 12 year old blended Scotch about three years ago when a relative shared a bottle of it at a Christmas party. My first impression was quite good, but by the time I got around to looking for a bottle to buy for review it had become temporarily unavailable. I took the opportunity to write about Costco’s Kirkland Bourbon and Kirkland Canadian Whisky in the meantime though.

Fast forward a few years and I finally have my hands on a proper sample of the 12 year blend. I’m sure this is a whisky that a lot of people are curious about, so I wanted to do a side-by-side tasting with an equivalent (80 proof and a 12 year age statement) blended Scotch that many people would be familiar with. My first thought was Johnnie Walker Black Label. Then I started to consider the fact that I’m not particularly fond of Walker Black and I realized that it wouldn’t be a particularly fair comparison from the outset. Having a much more favorable opinion of Chivas Regal 12 year (I don’t often drink blends, but when I do Chivas is my go-to), it became the logical choice.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of making tasting notes, I’d like to explore the ins and outs of buying spirits at Costco. The membership-only, wholesale warehouse club began in 1983 and has grown to more thane 700 stores world-wide. Close to 500 of those stores are in the United States, covering 45 states and the District of Columbia. A map showing all of the U.S. and Canadian locations can be found here.

Of course, there is the issue of membership. You can’t shop at Costco unless you’re willing to pony up the $50 annual membership fee. While there are great savings to be had at Costco, for some people, especially those who live alone or don’t live anywhere near one of the stores, paying for a membership isn’t really cost effective.

However, there are a few ways to work around that. Non-members are allowed to patronize the stores if they are using a Costco gift card. Those gift cards can only be purchased by members though, so it might just be easier to have your friend with a membership purchase the whisky for you. Unless that friend lives far away, then it would make sense to have them buy the gift cards for you and mail them to you.

In certain states there is another exception. A dozen states have laws that don’t allow the retail sale of alcohol by members-only clubs. Any such stores that want to do so have to make the alcohol they sell available to the general public. According to a few different online sources, those states are:

New York

A similar federal law applies to pharmacies, so non-members can get prescription drugs from Costco in any U.S. store that has a pharmacy. The people who check for valid memberships at the entrance may not be aware of these laws, so you might have to ask for a manager before they’ll let you in, and possibly again at the register. And if you’re not member you won’t have a Costco credit card, so be prepared to pay cash if you’re not using gift cards.

Not all Costco stores are created equally, though. The liquor laws of the various states may preclude the stores from selling spirits, or even any alcohol at all. First, there are the liquor control states. There are currently 18 such states, where the distribution of liquor is a monopoly controlled by the state government. Washington State deregulated away from this type of system in 2012 after Costco spent millions of dollars lobbying for the change.

All of these states control spirits; a few also control beer and/or wine. You won’t find spirits in a Costco in any of these state (though you may find beer or wine) because the state’s monopoly on distribution defeats Costco’s business model of using its buying power to negotiate for lower prices on the wholesale level. Maryland is actually a mixed state, where there are certain “control counties” and the liquor business is privatized in the rest of the state. The other seventeen control states are:

New Hampshire
North Carolina
West Virginia

All of the Provinces and Territories of Canada operate similarly to U.S. liquor control states. As far as I can tell, only Alberta has reformed their regulations to the point that will allow Costco to sell liquor.

 There may be other exceptions as well. One example is Massachusetts. Until 2012 the state government there only allowed any individual business owner to have three licenses to sell alcohol. That limit changed to five, rose again to seven in 2016 and will top out at nine in 2020. Each town or city in the state still has a limit on the total number of licenses they can dispense based on their population. Costco has six stores in the state, but was originally limited to selling alcohol in just three of them. I’m not sure if they’ve added liquor sales to any of the other stores there since the limit on licenses increased though.

While Costco carries a pretty huge variety of products, they are usually limited to a small number of brands and few choices for a given brand. That’s the tradeoff for the great pricing they can offer with their bulk buying power. When I recently visited one of the stores in Massachusetts, they only had about half a dozen different single malt Scotches (not counting a few bottled under the Kirkland brand). But they were selling Macallan 12 year for $47; significantly less than the $60 to $66 range that I’ve been seeing it in lately.

I’m guessing that Costco tries to keep pricing consistent from store to store, but there’s likely to be some variation in spirits pricing as you move from state to state since the tax rates for alcohol vary widely among them. The price of the Kirkland 12 year blend in the store I visited was $38 for a 1.75 liter bottle. That store didn’t have Chivas Regal but I also visited a nearby BJ’s (another wholesale club store) that did have it, and it was going for $55 for 1.75 liters. Both stores had Macallan 12 year for the same price, so I think the Chivas price was comparable to what it would have been at Costco. The more typical price for a big bottle of Chivas 12 year is around $67.

Chivas Regal 12 year
Nose – Malty but dry, with floral undertones that lean toward the grassy end of the spectrum
Palate – It’s somewhat light bodied and starts off mild up front, but picks up steam quickly. There’s a nice balance of malt and oak, with gentle smokiness. Subtle floral notes add complexity.
Finish – It maintains good depth on the backend, with dry spice notes coming to the fore and carrying it to the end.
Overall – To my mind, this is the epitome of what a blended Scotch should be; approachable and balanced, but able to maintain good complexity and just enough depth of character.

Kirkland Blended 12 year
Nose – The aromas are malty here too, but with a more masculine edge. Notes of caramel, soft leather and a touch of vanilla round things out.
Palate – It’s more full bodied than the Chivas, with notable sweetness up front. The sweetness morphs after the entry, gaining a dark sherry fruit note. At the same time, there’s a bit of dry oak working to balance to the caramel-driven, malty core. If there’s any peat smoke here it’s all but undetectable.
Finish – The leathery, masculine theme carries through the finish as it gains some dry, spicy notes.
Overall – The Kirkland blend is a solid performer and a great value, but it doesn’t quite stand up to the grace and elegance of the Chivas Regal. That being said, they do have notably different flavor profiles, so personal preferences will certainly come into play here.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Buffalo Trace update - increasing capacity

When I toured the Buffalo Trace distillery back in February I had visited Four Roses earlier in the day and Maker’s Mark the day before. Both of those distilleries were in the midst of major expansion projects. Four Roses had announced their plans to add a second still as well as the rest of the equipment and infrastructure to go along with it six months earlier, doubling production at a cost of $55 million. At Maker’s Mark, their third still had just gone online three months prior and many new warehouses were under construction; the $67 million expansion would increase production by 50%.

Of course, I had to ask the Buffalo Trace tour guide if they were operating at the maximum capacity of their still and if there were any plans to expand. She told me the answer to the first question was yes and the answer to the second question was no. Well, it turns out that she was mostly right, but partly wrong. I’m not criticizing our guide, Shelly. She did an amazing job, and I’ve seen conflicting and even inaccurate information come directly from distillery managers and official press releases before.

She was right that there were no plans for expansion at that time, at least none that had been officially announced. That news broke in a press release dated May 19th. She was also right that the distillery was operating at maximum capacity. But the bottlenecks in production were in areas other than the still, so the still itself wasn’t operating at maximum capacity.

Buffalo Trace had already been ramping up production over the last six years. Whiskey supplies have been tight all around for several years, but Buffalo Trace seemed to hit a particularly rough patch with supply issues around 2014. Since most of their whiskey averages about six years of aging, I think it’s safe to assume that they cut production more than their competitors did in response to the 2008 financial crisis. Demand didn’t drop as expected and the chickens came home to roost six years later. They’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

Once they cranked production up as far as they could, warehouse space became an issue. Many of the warehouses on the distillery site had been converted to other uses when the industry cratered in the 1980’s. The eight warehouses that remained active (well, some may have been empty for a while, but they weren’t converted for other uses) were B, C, D, H, I, K, L, M and Q. They have a combined capacity of a little over 322,000 barrels.

In July of 2015, Buffalo Trace announced the opening of their new, high-tech, $20 million distribution center. This freed up three former warehouses, N, O and P, which were being used for finished goods storage. Four other warehouses, R, S, T and U, which had been sold off and converted to offices, were also recently reclaimed. Those seven warehouses each hold about 50,000 barrels, for a total capacity of 350,000 barrels. Three of those seven warehouses are already full and the other four won’t be far behind.

The big news in the May 19th press release was that Buffalo Trace was investing another $200 million to expand production. That investment will span seven years and include more equipment for cooking, fermenting and bottling, as well as new warehouses; basically everything except another still.

The warehouses will be built on 200 acres of farmland adjacent to the current distillery campus that was purchased a few years ago. There are plans for 30 more warehouses, with one being built every five months for the next 10 years. There was no mention of their size, but no one really builds small whiskey warehouses these days.

All of that begs the question, “How much capacity do they have with their current still?” Remember from my recent post about the Hard Hat Tour, their column still is one of the biggest in the industry at 84 inches. Figuring out capacity can be a little tricky because there are a few different ways to measure it. Also, some distillers will state their actual current capacity, while others will give a number that is the maximum their still is capable of, even though they don’t have the rest of the equipment to reach that number.

Proof-gallons are probably the most accurate way to state capacity. That is a gallon of distillate at 100 proof (50% alcohol). This standardizes the measurement since different distillers run with different levels of proof coming off the still. In Scotland the equivalent measure is LPA, or liters of pure alcohol. It’s the same thing but with metric volume and adjusted to 100% alcohol. One proof-gallon is roughly 2 LPA, if you want to compare. These are almost always measured on an annual basis.

Capacity can also be stated in barrels filled per day, week or year. This is a popular way to state it on tours because it’s easier for people who don’t work in the industry to relate to the numbers.

Another way to measure capacity is cases per year. This is standardized to 9 liter cases (12 bottles, 750 ml each). I don’t think this method is standardized around a particular bottling strength, e.g. 80 proof or 100 proof. This method is most often used to express the sales volume of a particular brand, but it is sometimes used as a measure of distillery capacity as well.

Poking around on Google, one can find many stories about the new distillery that Diageo is building in Kentucky to support their Bulleit brand. Most of them state the distillery will produce 1.8 million proof-gallons, or 750,000 cases. I’ve seen other sources that equate 1.5 million proof-gallons to 750,000 cases. Barrel production can be converted to proof-gallons if you know the size of the barrel (53 gallons is the Bourbon industry standard) and the barrel entry proof. But if a distiller tells you how many barrels they produce per day, you have to guess at how many days they are actually producing for each year.

In a 2007 interview, Mark Brown, the current president of Sazerac, said the Buffalo Trace distillery was capable of producing 6 million cases a year. That equates to somewhere between 12 million and 14.4 million proof-gallons, depending on which of the numbers in the paragraph above are used.

You could also look at barrels produced per day. That was stated at 800 on the tour. I’m assuming that they run five days a week and that they close down for eight weeks in the summer. That equals 220 production days per year, which gives 176,000 barrels per year. With 53 gallon barrels and spirit entered at 125 proof, you end up with 11.66 million proof-gallons.

It’s documented in the National Register of Historic Places registration form that Buffalo Trace’s annual production peaked at 200,000 barrels in 1973. The production equipment was the same then as it is now; but it’s well know that a lot of distillers used to enter their whiskey into the barrel at lower proofs than they do now. When the industry went through its rough times in the 70’s and 80’s, the accountants figured out that money could be saved with a higher entry proof. More water would be added at bottling, so you’d end up with the same amount of product but have to use fewer barrels to get there. Assuming that the barrel entry proof was 110 back then, 200,000 barrels still gives 11.66 million proof gallons.

So, how much capacity can Buffalo Trace add without bringing in a second still (or upgrading to an even bigger one)? It’s pretty hard to say. Maker’s Mark has three stills, each at 36 inches, but I couldn’t find any solid numbers for their capacity in proof-gallons. Four Roses is going from 4 million proof-gallons to 8 million per year by adding a second still, but I couldn’t find a figure for the diameter of the column still. The numbers that are out there for still diameter and annual proof-gallon capacity seem to be all over the place. I get the impression that some producers would rather add another still than run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The best equivalent I could find was Wild Turkey. They went through a massive expansion in 2011, growing from 5 million proof-gallons per year to 11 million. They put in a new column still, but it replaced the old one rather than accompanying it. Its diameter remained the same though, at 60 inches.

The cross sectional area of a column still equates to its production capacity. I’m assuming that the differences caused by the various internal still designs are negligible. The 60 inch still has a cross sectional area of 2826 square inches. For the 84 inch still at Buffalo Trace that number is 5539 square inches. If the 60 inch column is capable of 11 million proof gallons then the 84 inch one should be able to produce 21 million proof gallons.

It’s hard to say if Buffalo Trace will go that far, but we will be able to figure it out in the coming years based on what they add to their fermentation capacity. They have 12 fermenters now and can make about 12 million proof-gallons per year. If the new ones are the same size as the old ones (92,000 gallons), each additional one should give them another million proof-gallons of capacity.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

What's on the shelf? - Ardbeg 21 year

My blog posts this year have been few and far between (although lengthy and research intensive, in my defense) and that has come with a corresponding drop in page views. I’ve decided to shake things up a bit and start mixing in some shorter posts as well as more posts that don’t involve making tasting notes.

Part of this is going to be a series called “What’s on the shelf?” These posts will discuss whiskies that I’ve come across while perusing the retail shelves. The subjects will be bottlings that I thought were worthy of my commentary, but not worth prying my wallet open for.

First up is Ardbeg 21 year, which I spotted in a store in the suburbs south of Boston. Of course it was the only bottle on the shelf without a price tag. I assumed it was going to be more money than I was willing to part with, but I had to ask just to be sure. Yep, $500. My normal ceiling for single malts is $200, but it in reality I rarely go over $100. I suppose if something was incredibly special I might go as high as $400, but I haven’t come across one of those yet.

What’s special about this whisky is the period during which it was distilled. I’ve covered the various periods of production at Ardbeg in previous posts, so I’ll recap that info as briefly as possible here.

Ardbeg was mothballed in March of 1981 and produced nothing for the next eight years. Whisky made prior to the closure was a product of particularly long fermentation times, and much of it was from floor malted barley (the floor maltings were gradually phased out between 1975 and 1980). Ardbeg dug older peat from deep in the ground, which was further decayed and their kilns had no extraction fans, lending a unique character to their malt.

When Ardbeg reopened in mid-1989 the distillery went into a period of limited production, distilling just two months per year. This lasted until the next closure in mid-1996. Whisky from this time period still saw long fermentation times, but it was a time of neglected maintenance. Supposedly the still’s purifier was frequently not working properly during these years. The use of very old casks, frequently 4th or 5th fill was also common during this period.

When production resumed again in mid-1997, a different yeast strain was employed and fermentation times decreased significantly. The peat level was increased and fresh casks became the norm.

This 21 year Ardbeg bottling would have been distilled in 1994 or early 1995, a precarious time in Ardbeg’s history. Not much whisky was being produced then and a lot of it would have been bottled as the distillery’s flagship 10 year old from mid-2000 until mid-2008, when they transitioned over to stocks produced after the 1997 re-opening.

This is very likely a spectacular whisky. I have a bottle of Airigh Nam Beist which is a product of the same period (distilled 1990, bottled late in 2007) that I’m sipping on now and it’s delicious. Both are non-chill filtered and bottled at 46%. The more heavily used casks employed during this period are usually better suited to longer aging, which also bodes well for this bottling.

When I found the Airigh Nam Beist in 2012 it was a pretty rare item, and I paid just under $100 for it. At $200 I would have snapped up the 21 year in a heartbeat. At $300 I would have seriously considered it. But honestly, after getting burned spending $100 on the 200th anniversary Perpetuum, I’d think twice and look for some trustworthy reviews before pulling the trigger on any high-priced Ardbeg limited release. Speaking of Perpetuum, I’m surprised that Ardbeg didn’t release this last year as a 20 year old as part of their anniversary celebrations. In honor of the same occasion, Laphroaig gave us a fairly unique Cairdeas bottling priced at $75 for the masses as well as a 25 year and a 32 year for the high rollers.

We may still be in a period of high demand, but I think the market is getting a little over-saturated with limited release single malts in the $200-and-up price range. New Hampshire, a liquor control state, lists inventory by store online. I suppose they could have more of something in their warehouse, but the information they publish can still give you a good idea of how special releases are selling. A year after Laphroaig’s 200th anniversary, they’re still sitting on 18 bottles of the $1200 32 year old and 77 bottles of the $500 25 year old. They’re showing 30 bottles of Ardbeg 21, and that number hasn’t changed from when I first saw it a few weeks ago. It will be interesting to check in occasionally to see how long these linger.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Whiskey Road Trip, Buffalo Trace Tour

After completing the tour at Four Roses, I made my way back up to Frankfort for lunch before heading over to Buffalo Trace for an afternoon tour. There are actually five different tours offered at Buffalo Trace, but the primary one, called the Trace Tour, is the only one that doesn’t require a reservation. It’s offered seven days a week, every hour on the hour, and more frequently when necessary.

Keep in mind that Buffalo Trace is located on the edge of a densely developed portion of the state capital and that Lexington, which is ten times the size, is just 40 minutes away. The distillery is easy to find and get to, located off of a major four-lane road that links back to Interstate 64. That all translates to the potential for massive tourist influxes at Buffalo Trace. I believe a figure of 2000 people a day during the peak season was mentioned, and the distillery isn’t even part of the promotional Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

All of that being said, it’s understandable that the Trace Tour is somewhat simplified compared to the main tours given at other distilleries. While it does last an hour and includes a video and a tasting, it only brings visitors through a warehouse and a bottling hall and forgoes the other production areas. For those who are looking for something more in-depth, the Hard Hat Tour offers an extensive look at the parts of the facility that handle everything from grain delivery to distillation. The Hard Hat Tour is closer to what most other distilleries offer as their standard tour, but with a lot more detail.

I had originally made a reservation for the 10:30 Hard Hat Tour, about three weeks in advance. My plan was to precede it with the 9:00 Trace Tour, and then have lunch in Frankfort afterwards and head down to Four Roses for one of the afternoon tours. Then, about a week before my visit, I got a phone call from someone at Buffalo Trace who regretfully let me know that the tour I had reserved wasn’t going to be available that day (something about a special event and a lack of tour guides). She was very helpful though and switched me over to the 1:30 Hard Hat Tour that would still be running on the same day. That wasn’t too bad; I just ended up going to Four Roses in the morning and would still be able to catch the Trace Tour at 3:00 or 4:00.

The visitor’s entrance is a tree-lined drive from the main road (truck traffic uses two alternate entrances to the property). It’s about ¼-mile long and goes up and over a hill, giving the brief impression of a rural countryside setting before the distillery complex comes into view. It has a historical feel, though with quite an industrial look.

To the right of the drive there is ample parking, which is adjacent to Warehouse C. From there it’s just a short walk over to the visitor’s center.

I failed to notice the plaque on the building until after the tour, but at some point our guide did mention that it was originally one of the early warehouses on the site. As with Maker’s Mark, being here on a weekday in the dead of winter meant there were no crowds and only seven in our group (Hard Hat Tours are limited to 15). The tour does involve a lot of walking and much of it is outside, so be sure to dress for the cold if you’re there in the winter.

Touring distilleries in Scotland, I learned that the best people to be shown around by are the ones who have actually worked there in a production role. Our guide, Shelly, had been leading tours at Buffalo Trace for 10 years and she had worked on the bottling line at National Distiller’s Old Grand Dad plant back in the 1980’s. She had some great insight and was able to provide a perspective that is rare on typical distillery tours.

Along the way she talked about how much the tourists themselves have evolved over the last 10 years. Not only are there a lot more visitors these days, many of them are incredibly knowledgeable about the products, production methods and histories of the brands and distilleries. She noted how important it was for the guides to really know their stuff and also mentioned that she asks each group a few questions up front to get a feel for their level of knowledge and adjusts her topics of discussion accordingly.

At some point I mentioned the seasonal summer shutdowns, which currently last up to two months, and she recalled the entire industry basically shutting down for six months each year back in the doldrums of the mid-1980’s. I don’t recall the exact figures she used, but she also talked about the modernization of the bottling lines and how many more cases of whiskey could be bottled in a day by a much smaller workforce compared to when she had done the job about 30 years ago.

As our group gathered in the Visitor’s Center, Shelly asked if any of us had visited other distilleries in the area recently. When I said I had toured Four Roses that morning, another tour guide who was walking by smiled gleefully and gave me a thumbs-up. Shelly commented “oh, he loves Four Roses”. The fact the a Buffalo Trace employee felt comfortable expressing his adoration of a competing distillery in a room full of tourists really says a lot about the culture of the company.

The Buffalo Trace distillery has a long and storied history. Its official name was O.F.C from 1870 to 1904 and George T. Stagg from 1904 to 1999, when it was renamed as Buffalo Trace. The oldest building on the site dates back to 1790, industrial scale distilling began in 1858, and significant periods of expansions occurred after the Civil War, after Prohibition and after World War II. All of that would be way too much to talk about on a one hour tour, so Shelly chose to focus on the role Col Albert B. Blanton played in shaping the distillery into its modern configuration during the post-Prohibition period of reconstruction and expansion.

Blanton, who was raised on a farm adjacent to the distillery property, was hired on as an office boy in 1897. He worked his way up in the company and become president of the distillery in 1921. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the bourbon industry was anxious to restart. Schenley, the company that had owned the distillery since 1929, was a little slow out of the gate but had initiated a major rebuilding of the distillery by 1935.

Blanton was the driving force of this initiative. Shelly explained to us that it was his decision to keep the whole operation on one campus rather than building warehouses, bottling facilities and finished goods storage at remote locations. She also told us about his decision to rebuild the old stillhouse into the new power plant. Now with tremendous boiler capacity, the distillery was properly positioned for rapid growth. Next to come were the new buildings for mashing, fermenting and distilling.

As we walked from the visitor’s center back toward the production facilities we stopped to check out an interesting mural on the side of a cinderblock wall. It depicts the view down an aisle of a barrel rackhouse, but it is meant to be viewed at a steep angle (maybe 60 degrees from straight on) to give the proper perspective. Looking at the image while standing directly in front of it elongates everything from side to side.

Continuing on, we walked down a narrow alley between two buildings. Looking through the windows to my left I could see the mills, lathes and other tools of a fully equipped machine shop. At some point Shelly also mentioned the number of pipefitters, plumbers and electricians they have on staff at the distillery. The operation is clearly quite self-sufficient.

Once we had made our way out to the buildings that house all of the production equipment, we moved back indoors. The group of buildings, which lie just off the east bank of the Kentucky River, are all multi-level and interconnected. It’s a bit maze-like in there and one can easily get a little disoriented, losing perspective of where you are relative to where you’ve recently been.

Feeling like we’d entered the belly of the beast, we first got an up close view of the three mash cookers, each with a capacity of about 10,000 gallons. They look massive and are quite loud as they cook the corn under pressure and at 240 degrees.

Moving up one level onto the steel grate flooring over the cookers, we saw the mechanism that feeds the grain into the tops of those vessels.

Moving up yet another level we saw the travelling scale hopper that connects to the top of the flexible tube we had just seen below. The hopper fills with corn, weighing it out for the various recipes and can move across the floor to line up with each of the three cookers below.

Next to the hopper are the two “small grain” cookers. This is where we learned that the rye, wheat and malted barley are all cooked separately from the corn at Buffalo Trace, unlike at most other distilleries. One of the two vessels is used for malted barley only, and the other is used for either rye or wheat, depending on the recipe that is being used. The individual grains are fed in from a scale hopper and cooked at their respective appropriate temperatures, breaking down and dissolving starches. The small grains are then pumped from their cookers down to the larger cookers below and added to the corn, which has been cooled down by this point. Now the actual mashing takes place with the mixture held at 145 degrees, which activates the enzymes from the malted barley and converts the dissolved starches into fermentable sugars.

This is just a different way of doing the same thing as other distilleries. At Buffalo Trace the cooks happen simultaneously in separate vessels before the grains are brought together to mash, where the more common method is to cook them in stages in one vessel before mashing, as I described in my Four Roses post.

Right next to the “small grains” cookers was a yeast mash cooker which I believe was no longer in use, as Buffalo Trace no longer propagate their own yeast; they’ve contracted that out to another company and have used dried yeast for at least 20 years. The yeast mash cooker still has a dedicated scale hopper above it which used to supply a mix of malted barley and rye.

Next we went through an elevated walkway to get to the fermentation building. Like most things at Buffalo Trace, this too was massive in scale. Each of the 12 fermenters is 30 feet deep and can hold more than 90,000 gallons.

A few of them had covered tops with openings that we could look through, but most of them were open-top tanks.

A system of ducts ran to each fermenter, putting a small exhaust hood just above the liquid. This is necessary to remove the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast, which could otherwise result in the room having dangerously low levels of oxygen.

We were offered the opportunity to dip a finger into the fermenting liquid for a taste. But unlike on other tours, we were instructed by Shelly to taste a few of them as she directed us from a very recently filled tank to others that were progressively further along in the fermentation process. It was really interesting to taste the flavors evolve and become successively less sweet.

Shelly also pointed out the pools of corn oil that had separated out in some of the fermenters and was floating on the top. She recommended we avoid that when dipping a finger in, as it would taste pretty awful.

One of the fermenters was in the process of being filled, with liquid flowing in from two pipes. One was larger than the other and supplied mash from holding tanks which had been filled by the 10,000 gallon cookers that we saw when we first entered the production buildings. The smaller pipe was delivering spent mash from a previous distillation run. This is a byproduct of the column still distillation, and it’s what puts the sour in sour mash. The purpose of adding this liquid, which is also know as backset, is to lower the pH of the wort (unfermented beer), creating a more accommodating environment for the yeast. Almost all modern American whiskeys are made with the sour mash method but it is something that’s associated with certain brands more so than others, primarily because they feature it prominently on their labels.

Within the fermenting building is the smaller yeast room. This is where they used to send the yeast mash, which was used in yeast tubs to propagate the yeast into sufficient quantities for pitching into the fermenters. But as I mentioned above, Buffalo Trace switched over to dried yeast purchased from another company more than 20 years ago.

In 2008 the yeast room was converted into the Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. “OFC” Micro Distillery. The old mash tubs, which each hold about 2400 gallons, now serve as its fermenters.

A small but very versatile combination still was installed. This is where many of the Experimental Collection whiskeys and some of the E.H. Taylor Jr. whiskeys are now produced.

We exited into another enclosed walkway that connected over to the stillhouse by passing across the roof of the building that I had noted earlier as housing the machine shop. Entering on the 3rd floor, we were confronted with the mid section of the column still, which is absolutely massive. At 84 inches in diameter, it may be the biggest column still used to make whiskey in the U.S.

I should note that the column stills operated by these large producers are all roughly the same height, at about 4 stories. Capacity is determined by diameter; more height just allows you to distill to a higher proof. There’s an optimal distance for the spacing between the plates in a column still and the more plates you have the further you can refine the distillate. But if you’re making whiskey you don’t want to distill it too far, otherwise you’ll lose the character of the sprit. Shelly mentioned that Buffalo Trace goes to 110 proof with their column still and the proof off of the doubler ranges from 142 to 150, depending on what they’re making.

If the diameter of a column still is doubled, its cross-sectional area quadruples (remember from grade school, the area of a circle equals pi times the radius squared). This means that the single 84 inch column still at Buffalo Trace has nearly twice the capacity as the three 36 inch diameter stills at Maker’s Mark combined. Shelly also noted that production is currently at 800 barrels per day.

This level of the stillhouse is also where the condensers tailboxes are located. We had the opportunity to taste the white dog straight out of the tailbox, which is always a nice touch on a tour.

Next we stepped outside onto a steel grate walkway that runs along the edge of part of the stillhouse roof. The view back to the east over the distillery grounds was pretty amazing, overlooking many of the warehouses and various production buildings.

Looking down, in the foreground, we could view a few of the big outdoor tanks. The bigger one was actually the beer well, which holds 100,000 gallons and is filled by the liquid from the fermenters. This is the tank that feeds the column still. It seemed a little odd to have that outside and uncovered, but I guess a little rainwater wouldn’t make much difference with that volume of liquid.

The other two tanks, which were smaller, are filled with the “spent beer” (spent mash, backset, it goes by a lot of names) that comes out of the bottom of the column still. They’re a little hard to see because of the clouds of water vapor coming off of them on a cold winter day. One tank is used to supply the backset that is fed into the fermenters and mixed with the newly cooked mash. The content of the other tank is transferred to another building where it is dried and becomes animal feed.

Back inside we went down a few flights of stairs to the ground level of the stillhouse where we saw the doubler and the spirits tanks, as well as the heads & tails tanks. It was nice to see proof here that the doubler is used to separate out unwanted congeners, as I did at Four Roses.

Also on display were the many pumps that keep all things liquid in motion at Buffalo Trace.

Outside again, we made our way back to where we had started, passed the visitors center and entered the Albert B. Blanton Bottling Hall. This building originally served as a power plant, producing steam to heat some of the warehouses in the winter. It was expanded in the 1930’s and now it is where the single barrel whiskeys and some of the small batch whiskeys are bottled. The main bottling hall is a much bigger building located between the visitors center and the fermentation building.

Finally, we started to make our way over to Warehouse C. I hadn’t noticed which warehouse this was when parked in front of it and walked by it upon arriving. Realizing where we were going, I asked Sherry where the tornado damage had been. She stopped in her tracks, turned nearly 180 degrees and walked us around to the other side of the building to point out the newer brick work all along the upper floor of that wall.

The others on the tour had no idea what I was talking about and were baffled by our sudden change of course. Shelly had to fill them in with a brief explanation. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, please see my post regarding the Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon that resulted from that incident.

This traditional brick wall, wood floor rackhouse holds barrels three high on each of its six floors, with a total capacity of 24,000 barrels.

Inside we saw many of the experimental barrels, some of which had more information on their heads than others.

There were also barrels which were larger and smaller than the traditional 53 gallon ones. These had to sit in the aisles because they wouldn’t fit in the size-specific racks. The biggest was 132 gallons.

The tour ended with a tasting back at the visitors center. We were offered a choice of two out of four; Eagle Rare Bourbon, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Mash Bill #1 White Dog and Wheatley Vodka (named for current Master Distiller, Harlan Wheatley).

I went with the two bourbons, and Shelly explained that they are both made from the same recipe, Mash #1, which is the distillery’s low rye mash bill (they don’t disclose the exact recipes used at the distillery, but most sources estimate that Mash #1 has between 8% and 10% rye and Mash #2 has between 12% and 15% rye). Both of these bourbons are bottled at 90 proof, so the only difference really comes down to age and warehouse location. Buffalo Trace Bourbon carries no age statement, but is said to be at least 6 years old and its barrels come from the middle floors of warehouses C, I and K. Eagle Rare carries a 10 year age statement and comes from the lower floors of the same warehouses.

It’s tough to make tasting notes during a distillery tour, but I’ve had each of these bottlings sitting on the shelf at home for some time, so I can follow up now. I should note that these bottles are a few years old and the label of the Eagle Rare bottle has changed. It was previously bottled as a single barrel bourbon and essentially still is, thought it is no longer labeled as such. This was due to an increase in production which meant it had to be bottled on different equipment where they can’t guarantee that whiskey from the individual barrels won’t mix in the line from the tank to the bottling equipment.

Buffalo Trace Bourbon
nose – The more aromatic of the two, it shows caramel, vanilla fudge and a bit of leather.
palate – Well balanced with just enough sweetness. Caramel and candy corn play nicely with the dry oak notes.
finish – Dry, warm and lingering, but a little static in terms of flavor development.
overall – A straightforward and uncomplicated bourbon.

Eagle Rare Bourbon
nose – The aromas are somewhat similar, but with more of a dry, earthy character. Notes of a dusty earthen cellar floor come through.
palate – There’s a floral spice note (maybe teaberry) up front, accompanied by some subtle sweetness.
finish – A floral / fruit character shows early in the finish. That note fades as it becomes drier and more spice driven, with a clay-like note coming to prominence at the tail end.
overall – This one has a good bit more complexity overall, with the flavors showing a greater range as they evolve from start to finish.

At the end of the tour I mentioned that I was planning to stick around for one of the late afternoon Trace Tours. Shelly explained that after what she had covered (I think she extended our Hard Hat tour a bit since it was a relatively quiet day) I really wouldn’t get much more out Trace Tour. Instead, she suggested that I take a drive out of town and check out the sites of the former Old Taylor and Old Crow distilleries, both of which were being partially refurbished for upcoming distillery projects. She even gave me great directions to that area from my hotel on the other side of town. I’ll follow up with details of that visit in another post.

On the way out, I stopped to take a quick picture of Warehouse X. This is the experimental warehouse that was built in 2013. Some experimentation was going on at the distillery before it was purchases by Sazerac in 1992, but the new owners really ramped up that program. In 2007 there were 1600 experimental barrels aging in the warehouses. By 2015 that number was up to 4000.

The new warehouse holds 150 barrels and is split into 5 chambers. The center one has a gate at each end, leaving it exposed to the outdoor conditions. In the other four chambers light, temperature, humidity and air flow can all be individually controlled with a state-of-the-art HVAC system. This project was inspired by the success of the Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon, which came from barrels exposed to the elements for an entire summer while the warehouse was under repair.