Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Gordon & MacPhail Tasting

I don’t check my email all that frequently. Work related emails are few and far between and internet access is very limited when I am at work. Consequently, I didn’t see an email that came in at 3:00 in the afternoon a few weeks ago until 11:00 the next morning.

I’m on the mailing lists of several whisky bars, liquor stores, state liquor commissions and a few distilleries, so I often get emails promoting whisky events. These are never really close to home though; only the truly special ones will warrant the time and effort it would take for me to attend them.

I was still lying in bed and only half awake as I scanned through the above mentioned email. It was for a whisky tasting at Gordon’s Fine Wines in Waltham, MA (a suburb just west of Boston). When I got to the part of the message that showed the event lineup and saw a couple of 41 year old whiskies that had been distilled in the early 1970’s, my attention suddenly became undivided. Then I scrolled down further and saw the $200 price tag and quickly lost interest. Then I saw the next line noting that the price included a $200 gift card to the store.

Wait! So it’s a free tasting with rare, expensive whiskies and I just have to buy myself a $200 gift card to a liquor store with an incredible whisky selection? Being the skeptical sort that I am, I read over the email five or six more times to make sure there wasn’t some catch or caveat that I was missing. Next questions; when is this and do I have to take time off from work? It was on Friday evening the next week, and while not exactly convenient, I could slip down there between my Thursday night and Saturday night shifts. It was even close enough to my parents’ house that I could stay there and not have to spring for a hotel.

Of course, I knew an event like this would be limited in size and sell out quickly. If I was going to go, I’d have to get on the ball and sign up without hesitation. It turned out to be a 35 person event and when I reserved my spot just 22 hours after the email went out, there were only eight spaces left.

The main purpose of the tasting was to introduce Gordon’s customers to a new, single cask bottling of 21 year old Miltonduff that was done exclusively for the store by Gordon & MacPhail. Five other single malt offerings from the independent bottler would be tasted as well.

The additional bonus was that the event was hosted by Richard Urquhart, Gordon & MacPhail’s Export Director and part of the 4th generation of the family that owns the company. The business began in 1895 when it was established by James Gordon and John Alexander MacPhail as a family grocers, tea, wine and spirits merchant in Elgin. John Urquhart joined the company within its first year and was made a Senior Partner in 1915. By that point the Gordon & MacPhail brand name was well established and it didn’t make sense to amend it by adding Urquhart to the moniker. The same logic applied later when the Urquhart family eventually took full control of the business.

John developed Gordon & MacPhail’s whisky broking business and got them started bottling single malts under license for several distilleries. This soon led to the company having their own casks filled with new make spirit, which were left to age at the distilleries where the whisky was produced; this is the mainstay of the business today.

George Urquhart, John’s son, joined the business in 1933 and became a senior partner upon his father’s death in 1956. In the 1960’s Gorge launched a range of single malts from different distilleries under the “Connoisseur’s Choice” brand and offered them for sale in export markets, which included Italy, France, America and the Netherlands.

Four of George’s children joined the business between 1967 and 1981, and the fourth generation includes at least six of their collective offspring who are now part of the company. Getting to hear Richard’s insights into the history of Gordon & MacPhail and his family really made this a very special event. Richard started his talk, then paused and mentioned the look that he sees on everyone’s faces when he speaks too much before anyone has tasted any whisky.

He suggested we jump in with the first one right away. I’ll alternate between the topics that were discussed and the whiskies which we tasted. Keep in mind that the pours at this type of event are small, about ½ an ounce, and that it’s not the best environment for contemplating detailed tasting notes.

We started with a 10 year Miltonduff which was aged in refill sherry casks, bottled at 43% and selling for $56. It was fresh and elegant, with delicate malt notes, soft tree fruit and a hint of minerality. The overall style was clean and approachable, but it seemed to have minimal sherry influence.

We started off talking about casks types and filtration. Richard explained that it used to be common practice in Scotland to re-cooper Bourbon barrels (200 liters) and Sherry butts (500 liters) into hogsheads (250 liters). The barrels would be shipped as “knock downs” (disassembled) to save on transport costs. They would need to be re-coopered to weed out faulty staves so the labor cost was already accounted for. A full butt weighs around 1000 pounds, so making them smaller made them less difficult to manage. The hogshead was the happy medium size that both types of casks were often reassembled into.

Things are different today. Bourbon barrels are manufactured to a much higher level of quality and don’t need to be re-coopered before they are put into service in Scotland. It’s more cost effective to just ship them whole now. Spain banned the export of bulk Sherry back in the 1980’s; it is all bottled in the country now. The vast majority of the Sherry casks that come to Scotland these days were produced specifically for the whisky companies and seasoned with Sherry in Spain for a few years at most before being sent over to the distilleries.

All of the G&M whiskies bottled at 46% and above are non-chill filtered. Whiskies that the company bottles at 43% are filtered at 5° C (41° F), where the industry standard is much colder, as low as -4° C (25° F). This will keep the whisky from forming a haze in the bottle, but not if ice is added. The process is sort of a compromise that allows more flavor to be retained.

Next we moved on to the Gordon’s exclusive 21 year Miltonduff which was bottled at 53.8% and priced at $150 (I missed the details on the cask type). It had similar aromas to previously tasted 10 year old, but with more oak presence. The palate showed subtle tropical fruit notes, a grain-forward character and warming spice notes. This was the only whisky of the night that I added water to. That allowed the aromas to open up a little and brought out more floral notes. More fruit, vanilla and toasted oak notes came out on the palate.

The company’s business model has evolved over the years and while they do still have a retail store in Elgin, being an independent bottler of single malt Scotch whisky easily represents the largest part of their business today. That is all that they have bottled for at least a few decades, but Gordon & MacPhail did bottle other products in the past, including Sherry, wine, rum, vodka and even Coca-Cola for a short time during WWII.  They have been approached by whisky producers from other countries more recently, but declined the offers.

Gordon & MacPhail is also unique among independent bottlers in that they only lay down newly filled casks from the distilleries that they work with. All of the other bottlers buy most, if not all, of their whisky from brokers who sell casks that already have a good bit of age on them.

All of the casks that they use are first-fill or second-fill, and the Sherry casks they use are manufactured to their specification before being seasoned with the fortified wine in Spain. Richard noted that they use staves on these casks that are a little thicker than the industry standard. Since Gordon & MacPhail tend to age many of their whiskies for an extended period of time, the extra stave thickness gives the casks more longevity and slows down evaporation rates.

Tastings normally end with the most heavily peated whiskies, but we sampled those in the middle to save the rare and special offerings for the end. First up was the 10 year Caol Ila which was aged in first-fill Bourbon barrels, bottled at 46% and priced at $64. The nose showed unadulterated peat smoke with sea spray and coastal minerality. The palate was full of weighty, meaty peat smoke with a touch of mint and engaging spice notes. This is classic Caol Ila, where the peat character takes center stage with minimal distraction. Most, if not all of the official bottlings of Caol Ila are chill filtered, so it’s nice to have non-filtered options from independent bottlers.

Richard also emphasized the relationships that G&M has built with the many companies they have worked with over the decades and the importance of maintaining those relationships, even if they don’t currently do business together. He mentioned that the Sherry producer who seasons casks for them is the same one that they used to work with as a bottler back in the 1970’s.

While G&M does have a bonded warehouse in Elgin capable of holding up to 8000 casks, they prefer to have the whisky that they buy age in the warehouses of the distilleries where it was produced, as that contributes to the unique character of each whisky. I believe that they could legally use the names of the distilleries where the whisky is distilled on their labels without permission, but they choose to work out licensing agreements with the companies instead. I’m sure that goes a long way to ensure they are able to fill casks in the future and age them on site.

G&M have filled casks from 103 different distilleries over the years. They now fill casks from about 70 distilleries, but are still laying down more whisky than any time in the past. Caol Ila is one of their biggest filling partners, currently supplying about 100 casks per year.

Next we moved on the Caol Ila 2003 Sassicaia Finish. This Caol Ila was aged for a total of a few months less than 13 years. It started off in first-fill Bourbon barrels, where it spent roughly 10 years. It was then transferred to Sassicaia (red wine from Tuscany) casks for another 33 months. It was bottled at 45% and priced at $86. The dark, brooding peat smoke aromatics were layered with dark red berry fruit notes. On the palate it was meaty and smoky with notes of chocolate and mulled red fruits adding complexity. There was a bit of sweetness up front, but it turned more dry and tannic as it moved into the finish.

Richard also took a little time to talk to us about the company’s biggest development in the modern era; their purchase of the Benromach distillery in 1993. The distillery had been closed since 1983 and was in a state of disrepair. After five years of refurbishment it went back online in 1998. The ambition to own and operate a distillery of their own had actually gone back to the first generation of the Urquhart family that was involved with Gordon & MacPhail. John Urquhart had tried to buy the Strathisla distillery in 1950 after its owner was jailed for tax evasion and the court ordered an auction of his assets. Urquhart was outbid by Chivas Brothers, who paid £71,000 for the distillery. According to the story Richard was told as a child by his grandfather, George, they had been outbid by a mere £5 (he conceded that may have been an exaggeration, though).

After the Caol Ila samples we took a moment to drink some water, let our palates refresh and prepare to taste offerings from Gordon & MacPhail’s “Old & Rare” and “Speymalt” ranges.

First up was the 41 year Coleburn, which was distilled in 1972, aged in refill, remade American hogsheads, bottled at 46% and priced at $725. The aromas were fascinating, showing classic notes of the old school distilling methods, with an oily character and paraffin wax coming through. On the palate caramel and shoe polish showed over a subtle floral backdrop.

At this point the conversation drifted to the older bottlings released by Gordon & MacPhail. In 2015 they bottled a 75 year old Mortlach, which is the oldest single malt bottled by anyone to date. Richard talked about the connection to his great-grandfather, who he never met. This first-fill Sherry but was laid down by John Urquhart in November of 1939, and 75 years later the fourth generation of the family running the business took part in its bottling and release.

As questions came up about their older casks, Richard cryptically revealed that the oldest cask they have in their possession now dates to 1940. It will be interesting to see how long they let that one go before it is bottled. Talk of a 1950 Talisker that was bottled at 60 years of age brought up the topic of how whisky can morph as it ages. The phenols that contribute the smoky character break down over time, and that 60 year Talisker had no discernable peat smoke flavors. Then Richard mentioned the company’s “liquid library”; a collection of samples taken from many of their casks at various points through time. He was able to go back and taste the very same Talisker cask as it was with just 10 years of age, from a sample pulled in 1960. And of course it had the signature peat smoke that Talisker is well-known for.

Finally, we moved on to the 41 year Macallan, which was distilled in 1973, aged in European Oak first-fill Sherry casks, bottled at 43% and priced at $1260. The aromatics had layers of complexity, with saddle leather, raisins and dark, oxidized sherry fruit being the most obvious notes. On the palate there was a lovely evolution of flavors. It was big and masculine with dark, sinewy sherry fruits along with hints of unsweetened chocolate and coffee beans. Baking spice notes took the spotlight on the finish.

Someone questions the price difference between the last two, given that Coleburn is a silent distillery which hasn’t produced whisky since 1985 and is unlikely to ever again. Richard indicated that it mostly came down to the cost of the licensing agreements to use the distillery names.

We talked a little more about the company’s past and the fact that G&M continued to fill many casks during the 1930’s and 40’s when the industry was seeing some of its worst times. This probably seemed risky at the time, but it helped to ensure Gordon & MacPhail’s future success. Richard mentioned that back in those dark days Macallan had actually requested that G&M fill their casks ahead of schedule to give the distillery a much needed infusion of cash. Times have changed though, and Macallan has been unable to supply whisky to Gordon & MacPhail for some years. I believe Richard said 2006 was the last time that happened.

As I mentioned above, maintaining good relationships with their distilling partners, both past and present, is of great importance to the company. Gordon & MacPhail still hosts an annual dinner with representative of all of the distilleries in Scotland. Macallan is on the cusp of opening a new, much larger distillery; if the industry takes another downturn I’m sure the Urquharts will be ready to buy whisky from them again.

Overall, this was really a great tasting event. As for my opinions of the whiskies, I was a little indifferent toward the Miltonduffs. The 21 year was more interesting than the 10 year, but I think the subtleties of the house style might be lost on me. The Coleburn was intriguing, but I found it more appealing on the nose than on the palate. I have a feeling that Coleburn is a whisky I really wouldn’t care for at a much younger age, and that is probably down to my personal preferences. I really enjoyed the 10 year Caol Ila, but for me the two standouts were the Macallan and the Caol Ila Sassicaia Finish, even though they were very different from each other stylistically.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Nomad, Outland Whisky

stats: whisky, distilled and partially aged in Scotland, finished and bottled in Spain, 41.3%, $40

Back in the spring I had the opportunity to nick a sample out of a bottle of whisky that I’d never heard of before; Nomad, Outland Whisky. The information provided on the label was somewhat lacking in detail, but a little online research did shed some light on its background.

The label vaguely notes “A unique ageing process, beginning in Scotland and finishing in González Byass’ PX casks in Jerez……” While it is marked as a product of Spain, that’s a technicality; the vast majority of its production process did happen in Scotland.

The Nomad website gave more details, and related press releases filled in the gaps. This is actually a collaboration between González Byass and Richard Paterson. Byass is a prominent Sherry producer and many of his casks have made their way to Scotland for whisky maturation. Isle of Arran, Tobermory and Glenfarclas are just a few of the single malts that have employed his casks. Byass had already added gin and vodka to his portfolio of products, but this was his first foray into whisky.

Paterson is the well-known Master Blender who works for Whyte & Mackay. In addition to overseeing the Whyte & Mackay branded blend (which sells over 1 million cases a year, primarily in its home market), he also manages the bottlings of the company’s single malts; Dalmore, Fettercairn, Isle of Jura and Tamnavulin. Paterson’s most noteworthy project was the Shackleton blended malt. When 11 bottles of Mackinlay’s Scotch Whisky, which had been abandoned in Antarctica by explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1909, were recovered from their icy resting place in 2010 Paterson was tapped to extract a sample and create a replica whisky by blending together modern Scottish malts.

In the case of Nomad, Paterson has assembled a blend of 25 single malts (40% of the blend) and six grain whiskies (60% of the blend), sourced primarily from the Speyside region of Scotland. Those 31 whiskies range in age from 5 years to 8 years. After being vatted together, the blend is filled into Oloroso Sherry butts for another three years of aging in Scotland. It is then shipped to Spain, transferred to old Pedro Ximenez casks and aged for a minimum of 12 months in the hot, humid southern Spanish climate of San Fernando, in the cellars of the Byass bodega.

They claim to have experimented with the final finishing period in Pedro Ximenez, Oloroso and Fino Sherry casks, before settling on Pedro Ximenez casks as having the best result. Nomad debuted in key Asian markets in mid-2014 and made its way to Europe and the United States shortly thereafter.

You’ll note that this is not labeled as Scotch whiskey; it legally cannot be, as it was not matured exclusively in Scotland. Furthermore, this type of ageing scheme would not be possible with a single malt from Scotland, regardless of how it would be labeled; since 2012 it has been illegal to export single malt whiskey from Scotland unless it is bottled for retail sale.

Anyway, let’s see how it tastes:
The nose is an interesting dichotomy; delicate, fragrant tree fruit notes typical of Speyside malts are layered across the weightier, complex, dark berry fruit character from the heavy Sherry cask influence. The aromas are quite appealing.
It’s full bodied, with big, brash sherry fruit on the palate. The flavors show good range, with raisiny sweetness and slightly oxidized nuttiness. Things get a bit wonky from the mid-palate onward though, with a lack of integration and a bit too much heat.
But it does pull itself together on the finish as the flavor profile becomes more dry and earthy.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Old Pulteney, 12 year vs. 21 year

12 year – single malt Scotch, Highlands, 40%, $42
21 year – single malt Scotch, Highlands, 46%, non-chill filtered, $137

When I decided to write a post comparing Old Pulteney 12 year to Old Pulteney 17 year, I thought it would be a good idea to get the 21 year old in the mix too. It’s somewhat of a pricey bottle though, so I was trying to avoid buying one. I am, however, always looking for a reasonable excuse to visit some of my favorite whisky bars in Montreal. That was all I needed to head north one more time before the busy summer season got going at work.

I’ll pick up where my last post on this distillery left off, with a little more history. After being established in 1826, Pulteney operated continuously for more than 100 years and remained in the control of its founding family up until 1920. James Watson & Co. Ltd., the new owner, sold it on to John Dewar & Sons Ltd. in 1923. Just two years later it was sold to the Distiller’s Company Ltd.

With the Herring boom at its peak, there must have been some wild times in the port town; local authorities enacted a prohibition on alcohol, making Wick a dry town from May 1922. Diminished local demand combined with global factors detrimental to the whisky industry caused DCL to close the distillery in 1930.

The local prohibition came to an end in May of 1947 and four years later the distillery was purchased and resurrected by Robert Cumming, a lawyer from Banff. In 1955 he sold the distillery on to Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd. They renovated and modernized the operation in 1958-59, bringing an end to its use of traditional floor maltings (though worm tubs continue to be used to this day). This is likely also when the original pair of 9,092-liter spirit stills were replaced by the single 17,343-liter spirit still that is in use there today.

Pulteney was sold on to Allied Brewers in 1961. That company later changed names several times through a series of mergers and acquisitions. Finally, the distillery was purchased by its current owners, Inver House, in 1995. They released the official 12 year old bottling in 1997. The 17 year old was introduced in 2004, originally at 40% or 43% abv (depending in its intended export market), but the alcohol level was raised to 46% in 2006. The 21 year old was added to the core lineup in 2007 or 2008.

There have also been limited releases of older bottlings, including a 30 year old in 2009 and a 40 year old in 2012, as well as several non-age stated bottlings that were special editions or sold only in duty-free shops.

Looking to clarify some information about the cask types used to mature Old Pulteney’s core range, I came across their online shop which had different product descriptions than their main website. The pages on that site have links to the online shop, but shipping is only available to the UK, so I doubt very many people click on over for a look.

For the 12 year old the cask descriptions are identical; “Matured wholly in air-dried, hand selected ex-bourbon casks”.

For the 17 year old the main web site gives the rather vague description of “Aged in both American and Spanish oak casks”. But the online shop goes into more detail, noting that it “…..predominantly features ex-bourbon maturation, with the addition of spirit that has been wholly matured in Spanish wood ex-sherry casks, predominantly Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso”.

Unfortunately, for the 21 year old the two descriptions contain conflicting information. The main site notes that “…..with this expression we marry together Old Pulteney matured in ex-bourbon casks with spirit from ex-Oloroso sherry casks. We mostly use second fill American oak, plus some Spanish oak first fill. However, there is a higher proportion of ex-Oloroso sherry cask compared to the 17 Years Old”. But the online shop states that “As with the 17 year old, with this expression we marry together Old Pulteney matured in ex-bourbon wood with spirit from ex-sherry wood casks. The crucial difference, however, is that the ex-sherry wood in this case is made from American Oak (mostly Fino Sherries)”.

If I can get any official clarification from the company, I’ll post an update in the comments below.

So, I bellied up to the bar in Montreal and ordered a glass of Old Pulteney 12 year to calibrate my palate. On my first sip I immediately knew that something was off. After a brief instant of self-doubt, I took a closer look at the bottle and noticed that this was the 40% abv bottling rather than the 43% abv bottling that gets exported to the U.S.

I usually harp on the difference in flavor that can be realized when distillers stop chill filtering; a move that usually goes hand-in-hand with the alcohol level rising to 46% or more. I found it very interesting that a three point drop in the alcohol percentage with no change in filtration was so obvious to me, even when I hadn’t tasted the higher proof version for several months.

The 12 year old shows biscuity malt aromas with some subtle tree fruit and briny coastal notes.
Somewhat full bodied, the palate has a good balance of malt and oaky spice notes with a touch of sea spray.
It gets thin on the finish, falling a little flat after a respectable start.

The 21 year old is much darker, with a beautiful mahogany color.
The nose is somewhat restrained, without much volatility. But the aromas that are there are full of complexity, with mature oak-driven notes and briny minerality.
The palate is very oak-forward, but not out of balance. Long-soaked staves, shoe polish, maple and warming spice notes all come through.
The finish is long and evolving with a coastal character reminiscent of old fishing nets emerging. Everything is very well-integrated.
Overall it is well-composed, and while bold and assertive it doesn’t get unruly.

Back in November I came across a bottle of the 21 year old in MA for $130, which wasn’t much of an difference over the 17 year old. Knowing how much I enjoyed it after my sampling in Montreal, I was tempted but decided to wait until I was back in the area a few weeks later. When I returned to the same store, that bottle had a price tag of $175.

I questioned someone working there to see if it had been marked in error. He did a little checking and found that the price from the distributor had jumped dramatically with their latest delivery. He actually offered to sell me one for $150, noting that their cost was now $144. I appreciated their effort to keep a customer happy in the face of quickly rising prices, but I passed and drove a few miles down the road to a store where I had recently seen the 21 year at $137. Fortunately they still had a few bottles on the shelf.

These are both stores with pretty aggressive pricing, so most places will probably have it priced in the $180’s, if not a bit higher. Looking at prices online, I got the sense that the 17 year is jumping from around $110 up to the $130 neighborhood. I haven’t seen any indication of the 12 year’s price rising at this point. If you come across any of the 21 year Old Pulteney at the previous price, snap it up while you can.