MALT MANIACS #102
Serge's Simple Tasting Tips
Bourbon Country's Dynamite Dozen
Whisky in Wisconsin in 2007
Whiskyfest New York 2006
Lomond Stills & The Oil Enigma
Half A Dozen Dissonant Drams
Collecting in Belgium
Half A Dozen Annually Released Port Ellens
Malts in Monk's Cafe
Do The Scots Deserve Their Reputation?
Malt Maniacs #102 - March 1, 2007
A new month - a new issue of Malt Maniacs Magazine.
I actually had to wrap up this issue in a hurry because I've spent a lot of time on the brand new MaltMenu - a 'quadruple distilled' view on the Malt Maniacs Matrix, if you will. The MaltMenu only features the most widely available official bottlings (some 150 so far) and a 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down' advice. The improvement compared to the matrix is that the MaltMenu contains tasting notes as well.
Anyway, you can find out for yourself - how about MM#102?
While our previous issue had a subtle Japanese flavour, the focus shifts to North America now with reports on American whiskeys, events, tastings and developments. Meanwhile, we've recently learned of a new extreme in cask fondling (and shamelessly ripping off poor whisky lovers and especially collectors). Edrington has bottled half a cask of Highland Park as a 38yo and the rest a few days (!) afterwards as a 39yo to "give collectors a unique opportunity to purchase bottles of two different ages from the same cask."
Yeah, and all that at a friendly price of +/- 2,000 dollars a bottle.
So, that means that collectors will have through the nose twice.
To quote Michel van Meersbergen: 'Crafty Bastards!'
Meanwhile, we've said goodbye to 'dormant' maniac Alexander van der Veer. He hadn't submitted an E-pistle in two years and three Dutchmen on our international team was a bit much anyway. In his place we've welcomed Konstantin Grigoriadis from Greece. He hasn't written a lot of E-pistles yet but put a lot of work into the new 'Germaniacs' site and a brand new 'events' page for Malt Maniacs.
There you can find an overview of all the noteworthy whisky events around the world - like the festival in Limburg (Germany) that's coming up on April 21 and 22. It looks like around a dozen malt maniacs will be gathering in Europe, including malt maniacs from Taiwan and the USA. This could potentially become the biggest 'live' meeting of maniacs so far...
Johannes van den Heuvel
Editor Malt Madness / Malt Maniacs
Or: An approach & assessment process for whiskies: 19 simple tips
Whisky is a wonderful, multidimensional drink. As soon as you're having your first sip of any malt,
you may hear distant bagpipes, remember the friendly manager who showed you around last time
you visited the distillery, think about all your friends who like this particular 'brand' or make your
very own mental movie, involving stags, verdant glens, raging seas or wild kilted Highlanders,
whether male or female.
Yet, just like any quality food or drinks, whisky's mostly about aromas and flavours and assessing
a new expression from your favourite distillery can also be done in a more analytical – some will
say 'serious' – way. That's what the world calls "a tasting session", and usually, its main goal is
purely organoleptic. There are several sorts of tasting sessions, depending on your goals:
selecting whisky to vat or blend it, selecting whisky before you buy some, either as an individual
or as a retailer, judging a whisky for a competition, or simply getting to know a new expression
the best you can. That's the most common aim among private whisky enthusiasts but even then,
you can either aim at taking notes for your own, private use or for publishing on the web or
elsewhere. In that case, if other people will read your notes, you'd better do it "very seriously"!
But now's the trickiest part: how can we taste whisky "seriously" and not get bored?
Having fun is a key component of my own assessment for whiskies, actually, but after quite a few
years of whisky tasting I found out that you just cannot only have fun and evaluate your drams
properly. That's why I'm not always switched on tasting mode when I drink whisky.
I want to have lots of fun as well.
So, here's my first tip, maybe the most important:
Whenever you're in front of a new whisky, first decide whether you'll drink it just for fun and for your enjoyment, or to evaluate it seriously and maybe come up with a score (more on scores later). In the first case, you may well do just what you want, but when my aim is to screen and score one or several whiskies, I always try to do it in a proper manner – a manner that suits me, that is.
I'm not saying everybody should do the same.
Tip #1: I taste my whiskies alone.
Of course I absolutely love common tasting sessions, with lots of friends to share my enthusiasm with, but I often checked that the results can be very inconsistent. I can't help being influenced by other tasters' comments, I never manage to concentrate properly on my dram and it's always very hard not to let the discussions shift toward non-whisky related topics. Yet, I must admit some circles are very disciplined and in that case, it works. But then I think all tasters should evaluate their whiskies in silence and start to swap impressions only when they're done with their notes. "Friendship and musings" can – and should – happen indeed, but after the tasting session in itself. When the environment isn't quiet and studious, I usually just nose the whiskies and then pour my glasses into small sample bottles for later scoring. That also allows me to drive safely back to my home or to the hotel!
Tip #2: choosing the best moments.
I'm bad at evaluating my whiskies when I'm tired and for me, the best moment to taste whisky is between 10am and 4pm.
That means that I almost always taste my whiskies during the weekends because mind you, I usually have to work during the week.
I happen to drink whisky in the evening of course, often with friends. In that case, I switch to "fun mode" and don't bother with taking notes or giving scores.
Tip #3: checking nose and palate.
My nose and/or my palates aren't always in good shape, even between 10am and 4pm during the weekends. So, I'll usually have two or three benchmark malts on my shelves, that is to say malts that I know very well (Ardbeg 10yo, Macallan 12yo, Highland Park 18yo…) Whenever I'm planning a tasting session, I'm having quick sniffs and sips of one or two of them first and when their noses and/or palates aren't exactly what they should, I just cancel my session or switch to "fun mode".
Tip #4: nose and palate conditions.
I always try not to eat strong food before any session, and wait for one hour or so after a meal before I start my sessions in any case. I sometimes use palate calibrators that work well with me, like coffee or bitter chocolate. Sometimes I brush my teeth but only with water, no toothpaste (not even whisky-flavoured toothpaste).
Tip #5: glassware.
Several kinds of glasses work pretty well but what's most important I think is to use always the same glasses.
My favourites are the small blender's glasses distributed by Andrews Parke, that look like the Glencairns but are smaller.
They work very well even with a very small quantity of whisky and you can carry them everywhere in your pocket. Glasses should be cleaned up properly, again there are several methods but the key point is to check your glasses by nosing them before you fill them with your rare whisky. The glasses should be odourless. (Lawrence and Craig will publish their glassware tests in MM#103.)
Tip #6: environment.
I like to taste my whiskies always at the same place, in front of the computer on which I type down my notes. I try to avoid odours (flowers, food, perfume, strong tobacco) and anything that could distract me. I like to listen to music but only music that's not too "involving". I like for instance classical or jazz music but only if I know the pieces very well. A sudden fabulous sax solo can be a killer for my concentration.
Tip #7: building flights.
Deciding on what you'll taste is another key issue. Very varied flights are entertaining but they don't let the finer differences between two malts come out. I prefer to pair at least two whiskies that are – or should be – very similar because that'll stress most nuances. Usually, I choose from two to four whiskies from the same distillery, if possible with roughly the same ages or coming from the same kinds of casks. I always put the lowest strength at first place and the highest at last. Being able to pick such similar malts is only possible if you manage to build a huge sample and/or bottle library. That's long and pricey but it's really worth it I think.
Tip #8: length of the sessions.
I like to taste from six to ten whiskies in a row, divided into three to five flights.
Less doesn't work very well because I always need a little time to warm up and train both my nose and palate, or I'll use several benchmark malts to do that but that can be boring. Even if I'm doing all that seriously, I need to have fun! Tasting more than, let's say ten malts, on the other hand, is difficult as well because your nose and palate get tired and not that efficient anymore. You can taste a slightly larger number of whiskies actually but then it should be only low-strength versions (40 to 46%).
Tip #9: going back and forth.
Your nose and palate will change within your session, because they'll get used to alcohol and aromas and will just adjust their sensibilities with time. Often, a malt that was very powerful when you tasted it as your first dram will seem to be much lighter if you taste it after six or seven other whiskies. That's why I always pour all my whiskies within one flight into several glasses and nose and taste them several times, back and forth. For example, I'll nose #1, then #2, then #3. Then I'll taste #1, #2, #3, then I'll nose #3 again, then #2, then #1… And so on, as long as I seem to uncover new aromas and flavours.
Tip #10: giving time.
Many whiskies are long to develop. I once had a Springbank that kept going on for twelve hours!
That means that you should give each whisky at least half an hour, except if it's very simple.
The finer ones will usually need one full hour to tell you everything they have to say.
Tip #11: adding water.
Adding water works well with some malts – we call them the swimmers – and not at all with others.
I always try my whiskies neat but then I'll try them again with a few drops of water (I usually reduce them to roughly 45%, using a pipette), but only when I feel the whisky was too silent considering its pedigree, or when its ABV was above 55%. The best water I think is water that isn't too soft nor too hard. Chlorinated tap water should be avoided.
Tip #12: the colour.
The colour of a malt isn't usually related to its taste but will influence you a lot.
There's little you can do against that, except if you're using blue or black tasting glasses. I tend to think that the colour of a whisky is part of its characteristics and so it doesn't bother me to be influenced by it, just like the nose will influence your palate.
Tip #13: the nose.
The nose is a key component that beginners will usually overlook. I prefer to give short sniffs and will only nose deeply if a malt's rather inexpressive. Usually, I first try to get the different layers that will appear one after the other and note them down. It can be quite simple, like fruits, then resins, then oak. Then I'll try to be more precise and find which kinds of fruits and if they're dried, candied, fresh, overripe etc. It 's very important not to nose a high-strength malt too deeply because that will just annihilate your nostrils and then your session's over. Your nostrils may need several days to get back to their normal shape after such damages.
Tip #14: the palate.
I prefer to concentrate on the body and the mouth feel first, before I start to track down flavours. I'll take a very small sip and then take a little more of it when I feel it's not enough to express its whole dimension. Flavours usually come in layers just like aromas. I'll swallow very little of each whisky usually and spit out the rest, except if it's a whisky I like a lot. Yet, I'll usually need three to fours sips to come up with proper notes. The palate can take a long time to develop, just like the nose and it's usually not a good idea to take fifteen minutes to nose a whisky and then just thirty seconds in your mouth before you swallow it. Another interesting option if you don't want to drink too much whisky and just can't spit it out (can be ugly or distasteful in certain circumstances): micro-dramming. You take a small drop of it between your lips and sort of vaporize it into you mouth by sucking air. That's usually a bit noisy but it works well, except that you can't take notes about the mouth feel.
Tip #15: the finish.
That's what happens on your palate once you've swallowed your whisky. The longer the better, and usually only the key flavours will remain. Sometimes, new flavours will appear and I'd call that the malt's signature. It can happen that after the finish, some whiskies will leave an aftertaste that'll be rather different from the finish. That isn't good news usually, most aftertastes being bitter and/or soapy in that case. A good whisky should have a long and enjoyable finish but no remarkable aftertaste. Sometimes you'll also experience retro-olfaction, which is kind of a second nosing that'll come up from your throat to your nose after you swallowed your whisky.
Tip #16: scoring your whisky.
This is rather controversial matter… Some aficionados hate scores, some others will score even orange juice.
I do use scores myself, mostly because it's the best way to remember to which extend I once liked a whisky without having to read my notes. But a score is not a judgement, it's just a summing up of various feelings and likings.
Tip #17: using a proper scale.
Some will use a 5-star scale, some others will give points from 0 to 20, I like the traditional 100-scale best.
It's very handy to note differences between two malts that very similar, which a short scale can't do. Of course, a rating doesn't mean anything to another person when the latter doesn't know the scorer and his tastes. I usually rate malts between 50 and 99. Less than 50 is for other 'liquids', usually undrinkable ones. Between 51 and 74 means I don't like the malt too much. Between 75 and 85 it's enjoyable. 86 to 89 means very recommendable and 90+ means extremely good for my tastes. From 93 on it's stuff of legends, actually.
I usually favor complexity and typicality or its opposite, extravagance. I don't decompose my ratings into 3 or 4 'clusters' like some do (like 25 points for nose, palate, finish and general impression) because I like to be able to give extra-points when the nose or the palate is properly stunning, even if another aspect is more 'middle of the road'.
Tip #18: computerizing your notes.
The earlier you start to do it the better. I'd advise you to use a spreadsheet or database software so that you can sort your notes by ages, distilleries, ratings, styles, whatever. A PDA can be very useful if you happen to visit liquor shops quite often, especially if you already happened to taste hundreds of different whiskies.
Tip #19 and last: don't take all my tips too seriously.
They work for me but they may well not work for you. No fun? Too painful? Too complicated? No problems, drop the tips you don't feel like following and create your own guidelines and then stick with them.
Bonus tip: respect your family and friends.
Whisky can be a very time and energy consuming hobby.
Never forget that your wife or husband or friends may well not be as mad as you!
Doug Philips likes bourbon. He has 999 bottles in his collection and more on the way.
Doug also likes malt whisky – more than 800 bottles sit on his shelves.
And he knows a good single malt when he tastes one.
Marty Kari is no slouch in the single malt appreciation field either.
It was Marty who started the PLOWED annual Ardbeggeddon event (invitation only) in
Las Vegas - a tasting weekend at which Marty arrives with a truckload of top drams.
Yeah, he knows his whisky. But he knows his whiskey too, and this year he brought
more old bourbons to Vegas than we could ever taste. Yup, there's got to be something
more to this bourbon stuff than Jack Daniels and Knob Creek are letting on.
So what do Doug and Marty know that most malt aficionados don't?
That's what I set out to discover on 'B-Day' at Ardbeggeddon VIII, January 14, 2007.
Over the course of a morning Doug and Marty walked several of us through a dozen of
the best and not-so-best whiskeys from Bourbon country, showing us along the way
that these sweet and kind of woody wonders (that's rich, flavourful wood, not the bitter
old stuff we're used to in over-aged malt whisky) can be just as complex and singular
as anything coming out of Scotland.
Reading my notes, Doug was quick to point out something;
"I think most people who have tried today's bourbons and ryes would probably not understand your tasting notes, for the simple fact that bourbons like you write about are not found for them to taste." No, whiskeys like these haven't been on the shelves for years, as production has out-stripped craft. "Today's versions are generally sweet, vanilla caramel, with hints of light oak and barrel char in the background, says Doug. "Some spices might emerge if it has a high rye content mash bill, and then when you get into the wheated bourbons; they are totally sweet and as smooth as a baby's butt...stripped and watered of course." If this article inspires you, Doug recommends current versions of George T Stagg, William Larue Weller, Thomas Handy Rye, Booker's, Rittenhouse Bond, Sazerac Rye, Sazerac Rye 18yo, and Wild Turkey 101 as being world class. They may not be the ethereal gems from the 1960's '70's and '80's that Doug and Marty poured us lucky dogs, but for 2007 editions they're right up there.
Before diving in, my palate needed a little equilibration to really appreciate the whiskey.
So, as Doug and Marty got into their lineup ready I prepared my mouth with Platte Valley Straight Corn Whiskey 8yo (80.6 proof, McCormick Distilling Co., Btl. late 1960's). This whiskey came in a cute little ceramic brown jug. Perhaps I have heard too may moonshine stories, but I could instantly visualize some wizened old Appalachian American, gnarly finger twisted into the handle, chuggin' straight from the jug. I must admit I was expecting something a little more fiery, even though this whisky had spent 8 years in wood. It was sweet but also slightly sour.
Though not my cuppa I can understand why some folks are hooked on it.
The first nose had an acetone/chloroform effect – kind of sweet and kind of chemically – but nice, sweet chemicals. Then came ether and eventually what I had expected to smell first – vanilla.
Then a sourness, almost a sour dough smell, emerged - something I love in the kitchen but find a bit too mashy in whisky. Overall the nose was pretty simple.
The palate was sweet, bitter and artificial.
Quickly the acetone returned contributing to a nice warming mouth feel.
The whiskey was very sweet and warming and I could see how people could just sit there drawing all day on a jug or two. Then the rubbing alcohol kicked in; I didn't like that too much at all, especially when it ended with an alcohol burn.
As a corn whisky, Platte Valley was made from a mash with at least 80% corn and was aged in used or uncharred new barrels. Given the lack of woodiness and vanilla in this whisky, I'd guess it was from a
used cask. See, we've already learned something. They do re-cycle some whiskey barrels in the US. I'm no bourbon expert, but I'll try rating these whiskies, and on my malt scale this one comes in
at 60 points , with some generosity for my lack of experience.
Next up was Michter's 16yo 1974 Sour Mash Whiskey (125.0 proof Pennsylvania Whiskey).
Doug told us this was a rare and almost extinct nugget from the 1970's. Pennsylvania is the home of rye whiskey and this one gave me my first taste of that signature zesty spice rye is so famous for. While the nose of the Plattes had been simple, this one was tightly integrated so again revealed few distinct notes, but you could smell the age. Almost like a fine dark rum, it began with molasses, caramel, hints of vanilla, but then tertiary smells like leather, well-aged firewood (oak, not maple) and hints of cigar box. The palate was rich and complex with lots of molasses, quite spicy with rich sweet spices that just hinted of cloves and cinnamon. Again it was quite a bit like a dark, very old, Guyanan rum all backed up by that zesty rye spiciness. A fine whiskey by any count and one well worth any malt freak's efforts to taste and honestly appreciate. This is one of several that would likely score quite high in a blind malt tasting. I came away with a rating of 86 points.
For another slant on Michter's distillery, Marty poured A. H. Hirsch 20yo 1974 (45.8%, Hirsch Distillers, Pot stilled sour mash).
This apparently is from exactly the same batch as the Michter's we had just tried but spent an extra 4 years in the barrel and then was chill filtered, or "stripped" as Doug calls it, and diluted before bottling. American whiskey is like that. The name on the label doesn't necessarily tell you where it was distilled as they are sold by brand rather than by distillery. The nose of the Hirsch was quite different from the Michter's we had just tasted. To begin with, it was slightly closed then got hints of menthol, hints of dry grain, hints of tobacco, some citric notes, like sweet lemons, vanilla, then opened up into furniture polish and bees wax. The big surprise for me was how subdued the vanilla was in these whiskeys. So far I had not found even one with as much vanilla as a lot of malts have. There goes the theory that the bourbon draws the vanilla out of the cask leaving just traces behind for the Scotch that will follow. The palate of the Hirsch was a bit restrained, beginning on molasses, followed by a delightful zesty rye spiciness. A hint of wood tannins soon developed into a slight astringency as the whiskey displayed an array of woody notes. Overall, the stripping and diluting did not serve it well and neither did the extra years in wood.
It was nice whiskey, though a bit watery, but not what it's 16yo sister had been - 80 points.
Old Heaven Hill NAS Kentucky Straight Bourbon (86 proof, Heaven Hill Distiller's Inc. bottled c1982-84) was Marty's next offering. Frankly, it just stunk. An old bottle from the mid-1980's, it was instructive however, for it had exactly the same kind of "old bottle effect" that some Scotch malts from the same era have. Proof, in my nose and on my tongue, that bottle aging is a reality. I found this even more clearly, later on in some of the other older bottlings. It may have been more clear in the others because the nose of this whiskey was overpowered by a sulphury rubber smell that just never went away. I have found this same rubberiness in some really fine Ardbegs and Glenfarclases, but in those cases it always developed into gunpowder or something really desirable, Here, it just drowned out everything else. However, the palate compensated somewhat with lots of sweetness and loads and loads of vanilla. It was very simple though a lovely maple syrup note emerged along with the old bottle notes. Hints of wood tannins restrained a bucket load of sweet spices just before the whiskey became quite astringent. The palate rescued it somewhat, but I could only give this whiskey 66 points, and that may again have been a bit generous.
We bounced right back with the next one: Yellowstone 6yo Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (86 proof, Yellowstone Distillery Co, bottled c 1972) – a delightful old master that Marty opened for the occasion. The nose was loaded with sweet caramel along with hints of molasses and subdued vanilla notes. It was kind of simple, but very pleasing. The palate was sweet and spicy, a bit watery, and again there were hints of maple syrup, hints of mint and lots of spice. The tannins were soft and just barely pulled in the mouth, complementing slight hints of spicey woody notes. Not sandalwood, but like sandalwood. A really pleasant experience that I rated at 82 points .
And, to bring us to the halfway point, Old Taylor NAS Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (80 proof, Old Taylor Distillery Company, bottled mid-1980's). A straight bourbon is made from a mash of at least 51% corn and is aged a minimum of 3 years in new charred barrels. Old Taylor began with a kind of closed nose. This seems a bit typical. These whiskeys need a bit of time to open up so it pays to sample slowly. The nose had hints of Coca Cola, some musty/minty old bottle notes, hints of rubber then some vanilla, caramel and hints of the corn whisky I tasted in Platte Valley. Ahh, I'm beginning to see where the pieces come from. I'm also beginning to realize that the whacks of vanilla that characterize Jack Daniels are not typical of American sour mash whiskies. This whisky had lots of caramel and vanilla on the palate, but nothing like the vanilla pod of JD. There were hints of tannins, which were nicely balanced by a creamy mouth feel, and some nice spicy notes. Overall this was a pleasant and drinkable whisky, but a bit overly simple with no real striking character. Comfortable, but in my scoring system, now practiced on over 5 American whiskeys, it rated only 72 points .
I W Harper NAS Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky (100 proof IW Harper Distilling Company, Bottled in Bond, distilled c1981). "Bottled In Bond" is somewhat of a catch phrase for "Quality" in Bourbon, but as Doug explained, it really just means that the whiskey has spent at least four years in a government warehouse and was bottled at 100 proof. (That's US proof – the equivalent of 50% abv.) Quality, as Doug said, is quite another matter. Whatever the technicalities, I was now about to taste my first Bottled In Bond Bourbon and this one turned out to be a real stunner. The first nose was resinous, but new resin rather than the older resin found in some old malts. "Pine sap" Doug said, "pine wood," I wrote in my notes. But there was something soft and vegetal as well, like cooked vegetables then some hints of vanilla and hints of alcohol. The palate was very sweet with hints of tannins and lots of sweet spices. Licorice notes began to emerge but they soon dissolved in another long-lasting wave of rich, beautiful spices. These were sweet spices, but only vaguely similar to the Christmas spices found in malt whisky. Quite a beauty this IW Harper and well worth 87 points .
Beam's Black Label '101 Months' Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (45%, James B Beam Distilling Company, Clermont, bottled in early
1980's). Licorice jumped straight out of the Beam's bottle before we'd even poured a dram. This is not your Costco Jim Beam, but a rich
creamy and flavour-packed beauty from the early 1980's. A sweet licorice dominated the nose, and in that licorice there was all kinds of
licorice nuance; first sen sen, then sweet licorice, herbs of Provence, then anise and behind it all a dustiness. If the nose was creamy, the
palate was waxy then creamy and again there was a dustiness. It became very sweet and very spicy with loads of licorice, anise and a soft
underlying tannic texture almost like the structure of an old Burgundy. The tannins were just beautiful. This was a whiskey you could almost
deconstruct in your mouth, focusing on the spice first, then the licorice then the tannins and again that barely minty/mushroomy old bottle effect that Doug found reminded him of the air in a dunnage warehouse.
A very complex little beauty it was and I rated it at 89 points.
Old Forester 1965/1970 Kentucky Straight Bourbon (100 proof, Brown-Forman, Spring 1965/Spring 1970, Bottled in Bond). Some of the old-time distillers were said to be able to tell what season a whiskey was distilled just by smelling it. Tax Stamps on this Old Forester tell us it was distilled one spring and bottled five springs later making it a spring-spring" in anorak talk. Well these must have been mighty fine springs because this bottle managed to sum up all the whiskeys Marty and Doug had poured so far. The nose was disarmingly simple at first sniff then started with dark, bitter molasses that quickly sweetened up into a robust dark Cuban rum with evolving vanilla notes and hits of sweet spices. On the palate it was very sweet. There were hints of the glycerine-like alcohol sweetness that sometimes accompanies higher, but not too high, abvs (50% in this case). In the background were hints of menthol or eucalyptus and a certain mustiness, that old bottle note so familiar from single malts of another era. These were a lot more obvious than the same notes usually are in malt whisky. Again there was a nice tannic structure overlain with a creaminess, which managed to exist side by side. Sweet spices danced in and out – ahh hard to avoid the Bourbo-porn on this little wonder. This was the cream of the crop and worth every one of its 90 points.
Vintage Rye 23yo (47%, Vintage Rye Company, Handmade in Kentucky, bottled 2006).
The Vintage Rye Company is probably just a label. No one really seemed to know much about this current release. The nose was wonderfully woody with lots of vanilla in the background. Simple, but effective. I found the palate to be the hottest of all the whiskeys I had tasted so far and as the nose predicted, richly woody. Now I am getting to like more wood in whiskey, but this one you could have broken a tooth on. Still it was rich and very spicy with nice notes of vanilla pods.
Overall a fairly simple whiskey, but enjoyable enough to rate 83 points.
Red Hook Rye NAS Kentucky Straight Rye Whisky (67.6% LeNell's, Barrel #1).
Another current release, LeNell's Red Hook Rye is an accessible rye with a lot of wood and vanilla. In fact, the nose was almost entirely vanilla, though little hints of wood and spice did drift through from time to time. The palate was very spicy with a ginger ale zestiness and lots of heat. Though it was quite sweet it also had an odd bitterness. Perhaps I was imagining things but it almost reminded me of a sour German rye bread, and there was lots of wood influence throughout. These straight ryes are made from a mash of at least 51% rye and are not as complex as some of the bourbons but they are just so seducing. I rated the Red Hook Rye at 81 points.
And finally I ended with a very special rye whiskey, Willett Kentucky Rye 22yo (68.35%, 0B, Barrel # 618). Special, because this is Doug's own bottling, from a cask selected along with his 'study group' as the best of the best available on the independent market today. And quite a beauty it was. If malt whisky has peat monsters and sherry monsters then the Willett's is a vanilla monster, but not the raw, desperate-for -a-coke vanilla of Jack Daniel's but the rich, luxuriant perfume of jungle-grown orchids. Yes, hints of wood did shine through, and there was a spice-islands essence in the background, but these just accented the vanilla in the nose. On the palate it was hot and the zesty wood was right up front. Again though, the vanilla dominated with a medley of sweet spices inter-playing beneath. The wood was sweet and tasty rather than harsh and drying as it is so often in malt whisky. What a way to end a tasting. Malt Advocate scored this rye at 94 points, and even in my novice, malt-trained mouth it rated at least 84 points.
Quite a journey it was, through Appalachia, touching on corn whisky, bourbon and straight rye and with Marty and Doug to guide me we hit quite a few high points. Most malt whisky drinkers don't give American whiskey a second thought, and with many of the bottles currently on the shelves it's no wonder. If you know where to look though, there are some real thrillers out there and tasting them tells you something about malt whisky as well.
So what did I learn? Well, bourbon can be a bit woody, but it's a delicious, succulent, spicy, flavourful woodiness, rather than the drying,
astringent woodiness of over-aged malt whisky. Not all bourbon has the vanilla sweetness of some of today's most popular bottles and in
many it's a much more complex vanilla. Many malts show more vanilla than some bourbons do. Rye whisky can be just as spicy as the
spiciest malts. Though some are just as complex as malt whisky, bourbon's real attraction is that it is just so approachable.
The range of flavours in bourbons is just as broad as it is in malt whisky.
So next time someone offers you a bourbon, don't automatically turn your nose up.
If they know what they're doing, you could well be in for a surprise to satisfy any malt connoisseur.
Who knows, you may even become a convert.
Whisky in 2007 America: The Midwest (aka Wisconsin)
I started drinking whisky in 1978, beginning with a bottle of Pinch (a.k.a. Dimple Haig)
that reminded me of fireplace ashes. I was still kind of confused about single malt, vatted
malt, blended whisky, aged blended whisky and of course, non-distillery bottlings.
As Gordon and Macphail (G&M) were all we could find in Wisconsin back then, along
with the usual Glenfiddich, Glenlivet bottles, I started off trying various blends.
Ballantine's 12yo, rather than the 18yo, was great to drink straight (still is.)
Dewar's was kind of bitter and astringent, but White Horse suited my untrained
palette, being slightly sweeter and fuller bodied. Grants was a surprise, being mellow
and smooth, albeit not particularly memorable (until I discovered the 12 year old,
which had a wonderful woody character.)
Picture the vast changes in the 1980's.
Trips to the UK showed how many single malts were available, but very few were here in the midwest (Wisconsin). I wanted to get a taste of each distillery profile, so I began buying distillery bottles first, settling for G&M or Signatory when no single malt versions were otherwise available. What was really funny was, I didn't realize the sea change that was occurring in the industry right under my nose. Consolidation was the name of the game. What I discovered, however, was that consolidation actually meant: purchase, shut down, then sell the distillery and its contents. Many distilleries were closed permanently, so those are the ones I purchased bottles from first. Then the next big change happened - finishing whiskies in various types of used barrels.
Before 1990, tasters could actually have a decent chance of naming the distillery output in a blind tasting.
Once the onslaught, started by Glenmorangie, of various finishes were added to company portfolios, all bets were off.
As one writer put it, there was no way in hell anyone could tell whose whisky it was without reading the label. On the other hand, more finishes meant more tastes for more people, leading to a resurgence in single malt purchases. Whisky became a hot item, and with its sudden popularity came the typical price increase. This time, the increases really got out of hand. Single malts that used to be purchased for 20-30 dollars became 50-60 dollars. Esoteric, never before seen single malts (like Rosebank, Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Brora/Clynelish etc.) hit the retailers here, but at a typical $125-250 price tag. The race was on to see who could sell more single malts at higher prices. And of course, once the well-known American affinity for less-strongly flavored drinks (unless they were fruity and sweet) took over, it was vodka that undercut the whisky market, leaving a lot of terrific single malts languishing on the shelves of jump-on-the-whisky bandwagon retailers. In the late 1990's, you could have picked up some great single malt bargains - if you knew what you were looking at. And let me tell you, the astonishing number of entrepreneurs releasing various alleged whiskies was mind boggling. From no Clynelish in Milwaukee, in one week I found eight various bottlings, all by different "owners" (non distillery sellers.)
And trust me, most of them tasted like turpentine.
So here we are in 2007, and the prices have continued to skyrocket.
Auctions seem to be the alternative to winning the lottery, with prices boggling the mind, not to mention common sense.
And as with purchasing whiskies that were not aged or bottled by the actual distillery, what you see on the label doesn't necessarily mean you'll like what is inside the bottle. Which is not to say I am against entrepreneurs, just that whiskies are quite different, depending on storage, handling, growing seasons for the raw materials and, of course, profiles. It took me 20 years to figure out that a single malt is not from a single cask, but from a single distillery with a minimum age on the label. A ten year old Laphroaig, for example, could have some older Laphroaig mixed in to keep the typical distillery profile. G&M were a terrific example of consistent bottlings- whether I loved the whisky or not, I could count on getting a representative sample of the distillery, even if not the latest distillery kind of profile, from any bottling.
Take Ardbeg, which seemed to change from month to month as it languished in partial production under what was then Allied Distillers, later
Allied Domecq. The 1970's G&M Ardbegs seemed to have a hint of eucalyptus along with the typical briny, peat profile, but when I found a
distillery bottling, it turned out to be subdued, with a more Speyside-style body than a muscular Islay taste. Years later, I was told that new
make Ardbeg at that time was more like the G&M bottlings than the intermittent distillery ones.
Kind of a shock, eh?
Lately I've found myself less and less interested in the new bottles of really old whiskies coming on the American market.
I still prefer the 10 year old cask strength Laphroaig (so sue me!) to the 15 or even the 30 year old versions. Why? Because I drink whisky for the taste, and some tastes just really make my taste buds perk up. Which brings me to the really expensive single malts, like the Ardbeg Provenance. First off, let me say it is an amazing whisky. But is it worth $600? Not to me. I've found very similar profiles in Glenlivet (1969), Brora (1972), Clynelish (1976), all in the older release categories from the distillery owners. Honest, the same wonderful honey-like, smooth, aromatic, uplifting flavor of the Provenance is matched by, of all things, the Glenlivet 1969. Blindfolded, I would be hard pressed to tell them apart. And that is because they are both from "sugar" casks, aka absolutely amazing single barrels. The same thing happens in American whiskey industry, with various whiskeys from a single barrel standing apart from the rest of the distillery bottlings.
But are these sugar casks representative of the distillery profile?
Not to me. They are merely unbelievably delicious one-offs that are fun to try once.
For a whisky drinker, they are the equivalent of an aged French grand cru wine, but not something I would drink more than once every few years. The flavor profile just isn't there. And what I enjoy most about whiskies are their individual characters. Which is why I continue to be bored with all the really old releases, the incredibly high prices and the never-ending list of finishes. For me, if I want a whisky, I want something that will taste of the distillery that made it. I don't mean each bottle has to taste the same, time after time. The changes in Talisker cured me of that. To quote Jim Murray from 10 years ago, Talisker is a "mean, moody" drink. The old Talisker was strong, iodiney, smoky, peaty and made to be gulped, not savored (at least for my palate.) It was not my idea of a light, summer drink. Then about five years ago, the profile changed. It became drier, more balanced, with hints of smoke, peat, salt along with a firm, full bodied but refined mouth feel. In fact, it at first reminded me of a drier Lagavulin. In many ways, it is a far better-made whisky.
But it is still not that "mean, moody" whisky that no other whisky has been able to replace.
I guess with progress comes change.
And with change comes, well, changes...
Doug Fulkerstone, USA
Collecting in Belgium: Introduction – Upon the nature of whisky collecting
Ever since different items belonging to the same category of objects
exist, be it coins, stamps, pictures of football players, Champagne tops,
comics, smurfs, and indeed bottles of whisky, people have collected
them, with a passion and a determination unknown to non-collectors.
Having something that only very few people own, seems to be very
gratifying, although apparently this isn't the main motive. When I
asked the Belgian whiskycollectors that participated in this research
if they used to collect other things, apart from one, all of them confirmed
a former urge to gather stuff before they started accumulating bottles of
whisky. You're a collector first, what you're going to collect comes next.
But why do they collect?
What is the nature of collecting?
What is the psychology of the collector?
Many collectors would probably simply say, 'because it's fun' or the
more philosophical ones would state, influenced by what the great
painters answer to the question why they paint, 'because I have to'.
Freud, who else, flung open the door on the psychology of collecting, linking object fixation to the anal-retentive phase in childhood. In his view, collectors have great difficulties to 'let things go', a bit like a constipated child (but, hey Sigmund, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar). More modern psychoanalysts, like New Yorker Werner Muensterberger, locate the psychological basis of collecting in the child's use of a transitional object to relieve anxiety caused by separation from its mother. In other words, 'why do you collect?', 'because I miss my mummy.' A more down to earth approach comes from a Californian psychiatrist Graeme Hanson who sees collecting as 'a blend of acquisitiveness, intellectual curiosity, a desire to possess and organize tangible objects, the lure of immortality and a certain amount of showing off…'
Jung, the archetype-guy, would presumably state that collecting and completing sets have as their archetypal antecedents the hoarding
needed for survival by early humankind. I kind of like this idea of collecting as a sort of human superstructure raised upon the foundation of a
survival instinct. We collect because it's in our genes, not just from our fathers or our fathers' fathers, and not even our fathers' fathers'
fathers. It goes way back to the time we used to live in caves and we collected food and clothing for the hard winter to come.
There's definitely some truth in there, because all the Belgian collectors told me that eventually they would open the bottles in their collection, in due time… When the prehistoric winter is long and extremely hard, and supplies are petering out.
Continuing on this (phylo)genetic analogy, one could say that collecting all the bottles from one distillery refers to finding your own desired tree and trying to get all the different fruits it grows. I wonder if the Belgian collectors of Ardbeg (Geert Bero), Bruichladdich (Guy Dexters) or Glenfiddich (Bart 'T Jampens) can relate to that? Luc Timmermans idea of collecting is to take just the special vintage berries from his Glenfarclas-bush and what to think of that other Maltmaniac, Bert Bruyneel, who used to collect Ardbeg, but because the tree was growing less appealing goodies turned to the less popular but very fine field of Benriachs. Others, like Stephan Put, don't bet on one horse, but collect Old Pulteney as well as Ben Nevis. Mind you, they all like a good piece of fruit coming from any tree or plant (or distillery) as long as it's exceptionally marvellous.
A kind of maverick amongst the collectors is Marc Segers, known to many a whiskylover as the man behind the shop Whiskycorner.
He's doing two different collections, but none linked to one distillery. On the one hand he collects one bottle per vintage starting, up to now, from 1936 on, and on the other hand he tries to obtain from each distillery active past 1945 the oldest official bottle with an ABV as high as possible. Well, impossible to use my analogy on this little bugger…
Does all this make the whiskycollector asocial, a person who forms relations with objects rather than human beings, straying around their
own tree? I don't think so. This hobby, because in essence that's still what it is, allows interaction with kindred spirits, sharing the passion,
averse from social class, gender or age. But this doesn't mean that collectors don't have a screw loose.
The things they do for a bottle of whisky!
Stephan Put once drove to Germany, close to the Czech Republic boarder to collect 3 bottles of Old Pulteney, because the shop owner wouldn't send them to Belgium. After half an hour he left the shop and drove back to his home town, a 17 hour whiskyshopping trip. Luc Timmermans flew to Pisa and back in one day for an exceptional bottle of Glenfarclas. But the price for the most crazy collecting behaviour goes to Geert Bero. Not only did he book the chunnel, then drove to Canterburry to get a single cask Ardbeg for Oddbins and travelled back the same day, or did he cue up for tree hours at seven in the morning in front of a whiskyshop in Stockholm, minus 5 degrees Celsius, to get one of the 36 bottles in the shop, single cask for Sweden… The most crazy story is Geert flying from Brussels Airport to Heathrow to buy six Arbeg Provenances USA and flying back with the next flight, not even leaving the tax-free zone. When I buy whisky, I take my car and drive at the most one hour, Geert Bero takes a plane. No wonder we teasingly call him Mr. Banana Fruitcake.
The drawback to this is of course that the industry has noticed this crazy behaviour and is now bringing bottles to the market that were never intended to consume but only to collect. And that is a shame, as every collector will agree.
Quite recently I was fortunate enough to attend a tasting
where the six to date annual releases of Port Ellen was
tasted. This was arranged as another "online tasting"
by the Swedish whisky forum (www.whiskyforum.se).
We simply gathered in an online chat room and wrote away while sipping the drams. Funnier than it perhaps sounds.
In the ADHD section (the second E-pistle in issue #17, to be precise) you can read some more about the phenonemon if you're interested. We were about 15 to 20 people this time and to put it short, had a great time.
I had sampled some of these candidates before but
never properly "analyzed" them and never put them
alongside each other. This proved to be a somewhat
challenging task as they required a lot of time and
careful addition of water to arrive at their full potential.
But once there, ah what a lineup of drams.
Not the most easy-going of malts in other words, at
least not if I can have my say... Rumours are saying that
at least another four releases are due to be bottled
annually in the forthcoming years. In the next epistle
experiences from (at least) a full dozen other Port Ellens
from Douglas Laing, The Golden Cask, Signatory,
Bladnoch (!) and Dun Bheagan will be discussed.
Anyway, back to today's agenda. A considerably tasty
and interesting experience, my observations follow.
Port Ellen 22yo 1979/2001 1st Annual Release (56.2%, OB, 6000 Bts.)
First impression is toffee, butterscotch and a little nougat, followed by clear coastal influences (seaweed and idodine – a little medicinal). It is also fruity with tangerines. Leathery, buttery and "old" tones are also there, very complex beast this. Tastewise the coastal and medicinal tones dominate more than the fruit (oranges in this case). Peat also. Rather uncut and tough which is something of the trademark of Port Ellen, most say. It ends quite peppery on the tongue. Lovely, although the nose beats the taste for me. Lands at 90 points.
Port Ellen 24yo 1978/2002 2nd Annual Release (59.35%, OB, 12000 Bts.)
Dryish, almost like tinder. Coastal and peaty. Strong and a little herbal? Slight laid-back fruityness but the toughness dominates.
Tastewise it's a little burned and with very dry smoke. Medicinal and peaty, mainly in the after taste. Longish and even a little coffee at the end. A very clean and nice malt. The nose lowers the score a little but this one lands at 91 points.
Port Ellen 24yo 1979/2003 3rd Annual Release (57.3%, OB, 9000 Bts.)
Chocolate, vanilla and laid back smoke at first. Then it opens up with a delicate fruityness which makes it soo round and elegant. Mighty vanilla, toffee, some licorice?, almost a little winey. Utterly splendid nose. Hugely oily dram this. Pure smoke and wood influenced spices, leathery and feels a little sherry influenced. Not the longest taste but pure pleasure. One of the most supreme noses I've ever had and with a taste that almost match, makes this a 93 points malt.
Port Ellen 25yo 1978/2004 4th Annual Release (56.2%, OB, 5100 Bts.)
Smoke at first, then some fruit (oranges and the like). Iodine and a little licorice – tar pastilles - not the sweetest one around. Strong.
Very very spicy (white pepper). Smoke and fruit. Dry smoke that is. A little peatier in the after taste and some tobacco also. Long taste, turns slightly sour with the dry peat at the very end. Quite tough and very enjoyable, probably quite "Port Ellenish" in it's style, 91 points.
Port Ellen 25yo 1979/2005 5th Annual Release (57.4%, OB, 5280 Bts.)
Big smoke but balanced by a little sweetness makes this one not quite as dry as some of the others. Saturated vanilla tones, peppery spicyness and a little toffeeish after a while in the open. Taste wise it's more sweet, rounder but yet quite salty and the peat arrives late in the taste. Spicy, beautiful and clean. 93 points.
Port Ellen 27yo 1978/2006 6th Annual Release (54.2%, OB, 4560 Bts.)
Weird. Iodine and dryish fruits alongside each other. Very fresh and pure malt this one. But leather at the same time and loads of peat, probably the peatiest of the bunch. The iodine is clearly on the palate too, with peat and smoke making this one quite medicinal. Some hints of dried fruits at the very end, oily. 91 points.
I must confess that I did not quite expect these high scores and consistent quality before the tasting. But we gave the whiskies loads of time
and they dearly needed it. They were in the open air for well over two hours and changed constantly. To enjoy these fully one really should
grant them the time (and splashes of water) needed. All of them undoubtedly world class bottlings. So my personal favorite was the fifth and third release, although all the others were just fractions away, very impressive.
The other tasters at the event ranked them in the following order:
Release 2 – 91.2 pts
Release 3 – 89.6 pts
Release 6 – 86.4 pts
Release 5 – 85.4 pts
Release 1 – 84.8 pts
Release 4 – 83.4 pts
Quite a lot more conservative scores than mine there. Some even scored a few of these around 70 points.
One reason may have been that most didn't take the time needed, at least that's my theory.
Or, they just don't have the same tastes as me! However unlikely that may sound ;).
In the next epistle I'll write about another dozen bottlings of Port Ellens. Stay tuned...
Monk's Café in Philadelphia is probably more well-known
as one of the best bars for Belgian (and Belgian-style)
beers in the United States.
However, it's also a regular stop on Malt Advocate
Magazine publisher John Hansell's schedule of whisky
tastings in the US. The other night, John poured a
series of Signatory single-cask cask-strength malts
that he'll be reviewing in the next issue of the
magazine. Some were from silent stills, while
others were experiments (some of which were
likely never intended to leave the laboratory as
single malts... with good reason).
However, even the evening's worst whiskies had a
lesson to teach. Some distillers have told me that they
can tweak their stills to produce whiskies that clearly
come from another region of Scotland, such as a peaty,
smoky Islay-style malt in the middle of Speyside.
While I don't doubt that they can...
A couple of the whiskies on this menu are clear
reasons why they shouldn't.
THE SILENT STILLS (in order of tasting):
Rosebank 15yo 1990/XXXX (56.6%, Signatory, Cask #1509)
Nose: floral with hints of straw, violets, and rye bread with honey
Taste: Spicy and peppery with a taste of black tea leading to a lingering, spicy finish.
A touch of water brought the floral notes back into the taste and smoothed the pepperiness out.
Score: 86 points - This is different from "normal" Rosebanks... The cask strength gives it a real punch.
Dallas Dhu 26yo 1979/XXXX (57.1%, Signatory, Cask #1391)
Nose: Malty with heavy vanilla and barley notes, along with spices, especially cinnamon and nutmeg.
Taste: Woody and spicy at full strength, but water brings out grassy notes and a touch of herbs (can't tell which, but it reminds me of my wife's herb garden). Very thick and chewy… and quite impressive. Finish: smoky and long...curls up the back of the throat...
Score: 85 points - This was my second-favorite of the night... right behind...
Brora 24yo 1981/XXXX (60.1%, Signatory, Cask #06/656)
Nose: Light and clean, with a touch of sea breeze and olives.
Taste: Brisk and sharp, kicking the back of the throat, then settling down with oak notes showing through.
Finish: Very smoky, slightly peaty, and long.
Score: 93 points - Very simply, this is one of the best whiskies I've ever tasted!
EXPERIMENTS WITH LOMOND STILLS:
Glencraig 30yo 1975/XXXX (54.4%, Signatory, Cask #7938, Distilled at Glenburgie)
Nose: Simple, with strong notes of tobacco and leather and a hint of lavender and maltiness underneath.
Taste: Woody and caramel-like (natural...no caramel coloring added).
Finish: Not much...nothing stands out.
Score: 77 points - This one spent too much time in the cask...and didn't have much left to recommend it.
Mosstowie 27yo 1979/XXXX (54.1%, Signatory, Cask #12759, Distilled at Miltonduff)
Nose: Warm, spicy and sweet with a touch of figs.
Taste: Very thin, but had hints of Heath Bar and butterscotch, along with honey and the requisite vanilla taste.
Finish: Slightly fruity, but very thin and short
Score: 80 points - An average score for an average whisky.
Craigduff 33yo 1973/XXXX (47.5%, Signatory, no cask # available, Distilled at Strathisla distillery)
Strathisla is one of my favorite single malts, but here the distillers decided to use peated water instead of their usual water source.
They also aged it in a sherry cask, changing the character completely… and not for the better.
Nose: Sherry, wood, and not much else.
Taste: Slight peatiness from the water used in distilling, but the sherry overwhelms most other flavors...slightly nutty
Finish: More sherry ( I suspect this sat in the back of the rackhouse for a few years and was forgotten…
Score: 78 points - Could have bought several bottles of Macallan 12 instead. (Might have been better at a younger age.)
GlenIsla 29yo 1971/XXXX (50%, Signatory, Cask #19600, Distilled at Glenkeith distillery)
Glenkeith has never been a very strong single malt…much better for blending.
In this case, the distillery tinkered with the formula to try and produce a smoky, peaty Islay-style malt in the middle of Speyside.
Nose: Smoky, but nothing else shows through.
Taste: More smoke...sherry, and unfortunately, the basic Glenkeith malt just didn't hold up in this experiment.
Finish: More smoke.
Score: 81 points - I suspect this particular cask was never meant to see the light of day as a single malt.
It was an interesting experiment, and I'm glad to have had the chance to try it.
I may have been a little hard on some of these whiskies, but Signatory deserves credit for giving us a chance to try them.
None of them will ever be available again once these casks are gone, but they do provide us with important history lessons.
Now, if I just had a time machine and could go back to smack some sense into the people who closed down Brora, Rosebank & Dallas Dhu.
Legend has it that the Scots as a nation are "mean" and what exactly is meant by this – that the average
Scot is tight fisted, stingy, counts every penny before turning it over, has long arms and short pockets or what?
Because I have met many individuals to whom none of these characteristics apply, people who are generous
to a fault and who most certainly do not fit the description of a MacScrooge. But the reputation persists and
to explore whether or not it is deserved I am going to examine the way Scotland markets its distilleries
compared to the way South Africa markets its wineries. Now South Africa doesn't have distilleries (well, only
one and not open for visitors) and Scotland doesn't have wineries (?) so we are talking about each country's
premier locally produced beverage and of course only comparing the facilities that are open to visitors.
The wine producing areas in South Africa are principly the West coast centered on the Orange and Olifants
rivers and the southern Cape Province in Stellenbosch and surrounding areas and because there are in excess
of 300 wineries individually producing many varieties they are all well aware of the competition that exists and
each one does their utmost to promote and market their own products. At any single winery you visit there is one thing that is certain – you will be offered a taste of as many of their range of wines you care to try, the only question will be whether you have to pay or not. Some of the more commercial and well known estates in tourist areas charge for a tasting which is usually deductible from a purchase but there are many where the tasting is free and does not depend on you doing a tour of the winery.
The most memorable tasting I ever had was at van Loveren in the Robertson / Bonnievale area where we sat outside at a table in a beautiful garden. The wine list was brought and I was asked to mark the wines I wanted to
taste. I marked 6 (out of a choice of 30+!) and waited for what I thought would be a tray with small glasses containing a little of each wine. What arrived was the waitress carrying 2 glasses and 6 bottles of wine which she
put on the table and told us to "carry on, enjoy yourselves and take your time." And it cost nothing.
Do you know how much of their wine I have bought since?!
In 2004 I did a "distillery tour" where we had only 5 days to see as much as we could starting at Laphroaig where we did the full tour to see how a distillery functions. We then had to see all the remaining distilleries on Islay as we were leaving the following day so full tours were out of the question. And so the rest of the tour went on in the same vein visiting 15 distilleries in all.
And now comes the strange part. If you do not do the full tour at a distillery it is extremely difficult to get the Scots to part with a tasting dram even if you offer to pay for it. On Islay, of the six distilleries where we did not do the tour, two allowed us to taste, two would not and two we did not ask. On the mainland Blair Athol let me taste because I could prove I was a member of the Bells Fraternity in South Africa (their's is a main ingredient in Bells whisky) and Glenmorangie allowed me to buy a dram for a pound! ( I chose to taste their new Burgundy Wood Finish which had not reached SA yet). The others would not budge and gave excuses mainly that either it was against the licensing laws or they were just not allowed to offer. I pointed out if they visited any winery here in SA they would never be refused a tasting, at worse they might have to pay for it and the reply was usually a polite shrug. At Royal Lochnagar there were four glasses out but these were for nosing not tasting! (A good idea and the only time I ever saw it.)
Eventually I met Iain Henderson to whom I had a personal introduction from Hamish Scott at whose B&B we had stayed in on Islay, one afternoon at Edradour when we arrived just before closing time. He admitted all these excuses were nonsense, that it was just individual policy and we had a friendly discussion during which I explained I could not do a full tour every time, could not buy a bottle at every distillery and the whole point of tasting was if you happened to really like the product you might then buy it at a later stage but by not allowing a taste there was no chance of a choice. After all this when I even offered to pay for a dram he refused, citing company policy as the excuse – not even one from his own private stock for two South Africans who had come a long way to see his distillery! But lets not be too harsh, maybe he had to get home early that afternoon. But it was still frustrating especially when there is no apparent logical reason.
In conclusion I do not understand why a distillery would go to the trouble of building a visitors centre, encourage people to come and then tell them they cannot try the product unless they spend two hours doing the full tour. Let people make up their own mind and for those who don't have the time let them pay for it if necessary, the distillery can't loose. But to deny consumers the opportunity to try your product is marketing madness and I think the Scots need to take a leaf out of the South African wineries book on marketing and customer relations. In any event I will be returning to Speyside in March 2007 and will be interested to see if attitudes have changed.
And the answer to the question – well, I have my own opinion but I have laid out the two scenarios.
I will leave you, fellow whisky lovers, to decide on the answer for yourselves...
Oh, one more thing. If the lady running the shop at Bruichladdich had been in every distillery we visited I would not be writing this e-pistle. She was by far the most attentive friendly and service orientated person I met on my entire trip and needless to say offered us a free tasting despite not having done "the full tour"!
Joe Barry, South Africa
- A Glassware Test by Lawrence Graham, Canada
- A Glassware Test by Craig Daniels, Australia
- An Interview with Andy Watts by Joe Barry, South Africa
That's it for now - Please visit the (new) archive or the old 'ADHD' version of Malt Maniacs for more E-pistles.
Whiskyfest New York took place on Monday November 6th, 2006 at the Marriot Marquis hotel.
It is always a great event, but unfortunately, I started to feel a bit drowsy at my desk by early
afternoon. NOT a good thing to happen right before consuming many drams, and a trip to the
vending machine for a sugar-and caffeine boost didn't help that much.
Despite taking precautions such as making sure I ate plenty of food and avoiding high octane
drams, the alcohol got to me early. I have notes for a few drams I don't remember sampling,
and a few other single malts registered absolutely nothing. So while the number of drams I can
confidently report on probably isn't as high as in past years, I still managed to come away with a
reasonable productive evening. The highlight was getting to meet Ulf Buxrud in person, and going
home with an autographed copy of his Rare Malts book. The book is spectacular, with meticulous
attention to detail, and worthy of prime real estate on any coffee table. (This is no book review ;-)
Without any further delay, here is my dram report of those that I got a reasonable impression of:
BenRiach 12yo (46%, OB)
BenRiach 16yo (46%, OB)
BenRiach 10yo Curiositas (46%, OB)
BenRiach 21yo Authenticus (46%, OB)
This was the first time I got around to trying the new BenRiach releases. The 12 year old is all bourbon cask, and the older versions also include first fill and refill sherry casks. I liked the 12, it was a pleasant lighter dram, with some pear notes. The Curiositas worked well too, with the peat not overwhelming the basic character. In the $50-60 range, they are not huge bargains, but decent values, as prices have risen a bit recently with the weak dollar and high energy costs. I wasn't getting much of a read on the older versions, except that the Authenticus is mellower than the Curiositas. It is pricey though, in the low three figure range.
Compass Box NAS 'Oak Cross' (43%, OB)
Compass Box NAS 'Flaming Heart' (48.9%, OB)
The big news is the Oak Cross, which replaces the ill-fated Spice Tree. This time, some of the malts are finished in barrels of American oak staves, with French oak ends for additional spiciness. The malts are middle of the road Speysides, no peat or sherry, and the results is quite pleasant. Best of all, it goes for $40, so a good choice for general purpose dramming. When I mentioned to John Glaser that the Eleuthra is still my favorite CBW, he brought out a bottle of the Flaming Heart, sold only in Europe and a few other markets. Similar to the Eleuthra, but the non-peated malts, Clynelisha and Longmorn, also have spent some time in French oak. Even though there is twice as much Caol Ila as in the Eleuthra (40% vs 20%), the Flaming Heart, is a bit mellower. Too bad the Flaming Heart is not imported into the US, it would make a nice companion to the Eleuthra in my cabinet.
Glenfiddich 21yo (40%, OB)
At long last, the politically incorrect (in the US) rum cask finished bottling makes its appearance over here.
However, it seems to be mostly a gimmick. The rum influence is quite apparent, but I prefer the 15 year old Solera Reserve, which I think is a real sleeper. Worse yet is the $120 price tag, I can think of many things I would rather have for that much money.
Macallan 15yo 1991 (46%, Hart Brothers for Park Avenue Liquors, Rum cask)
Springbank 12yo (46%, Hart Brothers for Park Avenue Liquors, Port wood finished)
These are both Park Avenue Liquors exclusive bottlings. The Springbank is medium gold in color, so the port cask must have been a refill. Indeed, it tastes pretty much like what would be expected from a 12 year old Springbank. The price is $85, not too bad, except that the 12 year old Bourbon wood expression costs about the same, and is bottled at cask strength.
The Macallan actually was very similar to the Springer, but costs a whopping $115.
Longrow 10yo (46%, OB)
Longrow 14yo (46%, OB)
Hazleburn 8yo (46%, OB)
This was on of the tables I visited later in the evening, so I wasn't going for any subtleties. The 1995 Longrow is similar to the previous releases, and the 14 year old was definitely more laid back. Sorry if that's the best I could come up with, promise to do better the next time. About all I could tell about the triple distilled Hazleburn is that is indeed a lighter, smoother dram.
Macallan 16yo 1989 (43%, Mackillops Choice)
Glenlivet 27yo 1979 (43%, Mackillops Choice)
Caol Ila 1979 (43%, Mackillops Choice)
The Mackillops Choice line offers good values, and this year was no exception.
While they are all bottled at 43%, there are plenty of times that it is nice to have a dram without having to worry about the effects of higher proof. The Macallan is bourbon casked, and shows the distillery character without the sherry influence. In the $60 range, a far better choice for SMS lovers without fat wallets, that the Hart Brothers version described above. The Glenlivet was about you'd expect, and the Caol Ila still had plenty of punch left on the other side of twenty years (I neglected to write down the age, and couldn't find this bottle on the internet).
Bunnanabain 28yo 1977 (48.1%, Scott's Selection)
And now the best for last. Scott's Selection has always had a dozen or so bottlings from their extensive range, but this year there were just two, the very nice Glen Elgin 1980 24yo that I tried last year, and the Bunny. In the past, I have never really locked in with Bunnahabain malts, but this time it was a different story. There was a nice maltiness, and the whisky has really stood up well over 28 years. The going price is around $150, obviously not cheap, but very competitive for anything this age. If you've got friends who go for Chivas Regal Royal Salute, offer them a dram of this :-)
Charity table samples:
A recent feature of Whiskyfest is the charity table. It consists of high end bottles donated by the distilleries and importers, and also by John Hansel himself. The cost is $20 per dram, except for the Dalmore 50 year Old, and Johnnie Walker Blue Anniversary, which were $60 (too rich for my wallet). These were also brought home, for obvious reasons.
Bowmore 37yo 1968 (43.4%, OB) - donated by the importer
This was very close to the hart Brothers Bowmore of similar age that I sampled in California last summer. Lots of fruit, and very little peat, but a really good example of very old whisky. I can't say that any single bottle of whisky is $1000, but this is as 'worth it' as any.
I would put down $200 however, for the Hart Brother bottle.
Springbank 21yo 1980 (54.1%, OB) - from John Hansel's private collection
A single sherry cask Springer, with a bit less complexity than the standard 21 year old,.
But pretty much ANY 21 year old Springbank is a fine dram.
Samples of note that I took home:
Ardbeg 16yo 'Airigh Naim Beist' (46%, OB, aka 'The Beast')
At long last, an older Ardbeg distilled after the distillery reopened. While I certainly enjoy the 10 year old, it seems that it is more of a 'stealth monster', with the iodine at the leading edge, and the peat a bit behind. With the extra years under its belt, the Beist is a much better balanced dram, with the proper weight and clear family resemblance to the older expressions from the seventies. There is only one catch, LMVH obviously knows that they have a good thing on their hands, as the price tag is around $110.
Bruichladdich 14yo 'Turnberry Links' (46%, OB)
This is the fourth in the Links series. I seem to remember the previous three all being 14 year old refill sherry cask expressions (the links, bad pun, on the distillery web site are broken), but the Turnberry is from a bourbon cask, with both sherry and port cask finishing. While I am generally not a fan of creative finishing, it seems to work nicely here. with some extra frutiness compared to the Augusta Links that I have at home. One observation here, Bruichladdich obviously has to manage the maturing stock that existed when the distillery was acquired by Murray McDavid. As such, there are obviously going to be gaps in the product line. This is probably the reason for all of the finishing they are doing, and if a particular expression appeals to you, better pick it up right away, since there may not be something similar available down the road.
Glenmorangie 15yo (43%, OB)
This is another one of those malts that I have managed too overlook thru the years, so I made sure that I got a decent size sample.
As it turns out, the 15 does a nice job of splitting the difference between the 10 and 18. It preserves the spicy tang on the 10, and also shows a softer side from the 18. At around $60, a decent value in today's marketplace, with the 18 in the $100 range nowadays.
Old Forester Birthday 2006 (48%, Bourbon)
This is last year's edition, with an extra year of aging. The spiciness from the rye is restrained a bit, but there is still plenty of kick.
If you like this style of bourbon, it's a good value at under $40.
George T. Stagg (70.3%, Bourbon)
This was a VERY small sample, but my impression is that this latest release has some floral notes, replacing the tobacco and leather of the last version that I tried.
George Dickel Barrel Select - the case of the clueless reps
George Dickel is the 'other Tennessee Whiskey'.
For the uninitiated (to the bourbon world), Tennessee whiskey differs from bourbon in that it is charcoal filtered prior to being poured into the barrel. The best known, and only other brand of Tennessee whiskey is Jack Daniels, of course. George Dickel uses activated charcoal for a mellower profile, and the current line has three expressions. These are Old Number 8, Superior Number 12, and Barrel Select, which strangely, contain whiskey that is 8 -10, 10-12 and twelve years old respectively. #8 is currently restricted in most markets, due to gaps in production in the nineties. The cover story the the Q4 2006 Malt Advocate is a feature about the distillery. While this may not be of the greatest interest to the Malt Maniacs readership, I am mentioning it as a prelude to what I am labeling a 'disastrous demo'.
The George Dickel table was only pouring the #12 and Barrel Select.
By the time I wandered over, I couldn't quite remember if the Barrel Select was the top or bottom of the line. But the two very nice ladies (who were NOT bimbos) staffing the table couldn't tell me either. They didn't even seem to be aware that there was a third version, or anything much else about the bottles they were pouring. There were copies of The Malt Advocate on the table, but it didn't seem terribly polite to go pawing thru them, and it may have been embarrassing to the women once I did find out where exactly the barrel Select was in the product line. So I asked for a dram of whatever I was standing close to, and let it go at that.
Now for the moral of the lesson.
I understand that the distillery manager will not be available to attend every single whisk(e)y event in the world. In these days of corporate ownership, the person with that title may actually manage several distilleries, or have many other responsibilities, and can't get away that easily. But certainly the importer or distributes should be able to find someone appropriate. These women were probably from the hotel's conference staff pool. It would have been a good idea to have paid them for an extra hour to read the feature article about the distillery ahead of time. It's happened to me a few times before at Whiskyfest that the person I asked a question to had to defer the question to someone more knowledgeable, but here, these wasn't any such person around. BTW, I picked up a bottle of the Barrel Select since it is under $40. George Dickel is likely to appeal to SMS drinkers looking to branch out, with a lighter profile than it's famous state-mate.
The Dewars 'experience room' - fun with blending
Dewars had a suite of sorts, and I wandered in just in time to participate in a blending seminar, run by brand ambassador Karen Fullerton (a
poker game was also going on). The idea was to replicate the Dewars 12 year old blend. we were told that the 12 year old is made up of 75
% grain whisky, and malts from Speyside, Highlands, Islands, Lowlands, and Islay, all of which were provided. The distilleries were not
identified. I ended up with only about 20% grain, and way too much Speyside and Islay. Then we were given a hip flask to take our creations home in. Postscript. A couple of weeks later, I decided to fix up my personal blend. The first thing to do was to locate some of the missing
components from my open stock. The grain whisky was easy, I used Compass Box Hedonism. There is some older (around 20 years) whisky in the
hedonism, but that should only help, right? Then I spied the Linlithgow 28yo 1975 (45%, Blackadder Raw Cask), This really should have been
bottled quite a few years earlier, as it tastes like a generic Highland, with just a touch of Lowland left a the back of the palate. Perfect, then. After
playing around a bit, I came pretty close to my recollection of the Dewars 12. But that just confirmed something I kinda already knew. The 12 is a
pleasant blend, certainly on a par with or better than with entry level malts such as Speyburn, Deanston, or even the Dalmore 12 or youngest Glen
Garrioch. But move up to a Glenmorangie 10, Macallan or Highland Park 12 and it's no contest. Still, it is good to keep up with the decent blends,
because there will be many a time an SMS lover will find him/erself somewhere (most likely someones house) where there might be one decent blend among a number of bottles of truly vile stuff.
Glenfarclas seminar with George Grant
This was the one seminar I attended.
It was very loose with audience participation encouraged, and there no geeky whisky making topics on the agenda. I actually managed to take legible notes, so here is a pretty good summary of what was going on; The distillery started to pay taxes in 1836. No idea when it was actually built. There is a picture dating from 1791. 32 employees are employed at the distillery, 106 at the bottling plant. Glenfarclas is family owned AND run. Glenfiddich and Springbank are either, but not both. Glenmorangie 'sold out' for 300M-500M GBP. Surely Glenfarclas would NEVER be tempted by that kind on money :)
George claims to have the best job in the world. He gets to sleep late, drink whisky, and talk about it. I can't argue with that logic.
His American wife complains about all the stuff she can't get in the UK, so he spent $1700 at Toys/Babys R Us earlier that day. Has been in the US for 3 weeks. Went down to Kentucky (presumably to visit cask suppliers). Went to the Kentucky-Georgia football game, and was the only person in the stadium wearing a Georgia cap, which he was proudly wearing (G is for George, Grant, Glenfaclas).
It probably helped that Kentucky won the game...
At that point we sampled the 12 year old, and then the 50 year old was poured from cask sample bottles. We were NOT supposed to wash
out the glass after finishing the 12, in order to have the 'Glenfarclas taste' in the glass and our mouths. I took home my sample of the 50, in
order to appreciate it while not being already under the influence. The 12 yo is export only, and the best GF, then comes the 50yo. I'm not 100% sure about that. A bottle of 50yo would be worth $6-10,000 if they ever bottled it. There was then a brief discussion comparing the
respective aging processes of whisky and women. I'll leave out the details. Glenfarclas does not finish, a not-to-be-named competitor will
finish in a herring cask. The Angels take 6-7% each year. GF can produce 3 million liters per year, Glenmorangie churns out 10 million.
Sherry casks cost $1000, bourbon casks $50. Bourbon casks are only used for younger bottlings.
Several whisky books state that Lomond stills
produce a much oilier whisky than traditional stills.
A few quotes as examples:
"… variant of the pot still, which makes it
possible to produce stronger, oilier whiskies."
"… producing a comparatively heavy and oily whisky."
" … thus giving a heavier oilier result."
OK, you might say, what's the problem with that?
Well, if you consider what the underlying idea was
for designing Lomond stills, it is a bit strange: Lomond
stills were designed to allow the distillation of a wider
variety of whiskies in the same still, not to produce
an oilier spirit.
The Lomond still was developed in 1955 by Alistair
Cunningham, a chemical engineer with Hiram Walker,
in cooperation with Arthur Warren, the company's draftsman. Their brief was to find a way to increase the variety in the company's whiskies to meet demand from blenders.
After experimenting with mashing time, fermentation parameters and the length of the spirit run, the solution proposed by Cunningham was to change the shape and working of the still. On top of a pot, this new still type had a short column with straight sides. Inside the column were three plates which could be turned from horizontal to vertical to allow variation in the amount of reflux. The plates could also be water -cooled or left dry, which allowed for more control of the reflux. In addition to the plates, the angle of the lyne arm could also be changes from pointing up to pointing down. Again, this allowed for even more control of the reflux and therefore of how 'heavy' the whisky would be. Incidentally, my attempts to get a diagram of the inside of a Lomond still all met with 'this is confidential information' replies.
Made in Govan, the first half-size Lomond still was installed at Hiram Walker's Dumbarton complex in 1956.
It was soon replaced with a full-size still when the half-size model was taken to Glenburgie and subsequently to Scapa.
At the Dumbarton complex, the Lomond still was used as a spirit still in tandem with Inverleven's wash still. The whisky running of the
Lomond still was simply called 'Lomond'. The rectifier plates were later removed because Lomond was too different from Inverleven.
Several other distilleries owned by Hiram Walker were fitted with Lomond stills.
At Glenburgie distillery, a pair of full-size Lomond stills was installed in 1958. The whisky from these stills was named 'Glencraig' after Willie Craig, the company's production director. Miltonduff distillery got a pair of Lomond stills in 1964. The whisky from this set of stills was called 'Mosstowie'. By 1981, production of Glencraig and Mosstowie had ceased because of two reasons. First of all, the experiment didn't work as well as expected in the long run. Over time, the plates became covered in residue, which was difficult to clean. Also, there was more demand for Glenburgie and Miltonduff, so space and resources were needed for expansion in that direction. The Glencraig stills were removed and the Mosstowie stills were cannibalized for building a new set of traditional stills. The Lomond still at Inverleven was mothballed in 1985.
The only place where a Lomond still is still working today is on Orkney.
Scapa's wash still (on the left in the picture above) is a Lomond still, although the rectifier plates have been removed and a purifier has been added to the side of the still. The original Lomond still at Scapa is said to have been installed with rebuilding work in 1959; the present Lomond still seems to date from 1971, but solid confirmation of these details appeared hard to get.
People can wax lyrically about the beauty of traditional pot stills, but Lomond stills have never inspired much poetry.
Tom Morton, in his book Spirit of Adventure, describes them as "indisputedly ugly": "oversized upside-down dustbin made of copper, or the expanded head of Dorothy's Tin Man". Although Lomond stills surely were not designed to produce an oilier spirit, the idea seems to be pretty well established in at least parts of the current whisky literature. So are whiskies from Lomond stills really more oily? The only way to test this properly would be to have a single batch of wash split in two, one half distilled in Lomond stills, the other half in traditional stills, mature the spirit in the same type of casks, for the same length of time, in the same place, and then compare them in a side-by-side tasting. That's impossible to achieve with available bottlings, so the next best thing is to conduct a number of comparative tastings and see whether some sort of consensus emerges.
Lomond single malt is only bottled twice, in 1992, by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. These bottles have long sold out, so I was not able to compare Lomond with Inverleven myself. Nor was I able to get my hands on notes of a comparative tasting of Inverleven and Lomond. Still, given how rare a whisky Lomond is, it is interesting to have a look at the SMWS's official tasting notes for distillery number 98:
Lomond 20yo 1972 (58.3%, cask 98.1)
Pale gold in colour, from a plain oak cask. A sharp, light nose which does not alter noticeably with water. Neither peat nor sherry on the nose, though a slight fruitiness, as of peaches. Sweet to start, it is salt to finish, with lots of tannin, from the oak.
Lomond 19yo 1973 (60.6%, cask 98.2)
Slightly darker in colour than its predecessor, but with the same sharp nose. This one, however, dulcifies with water to yield camphor and a bit of Hessian from the bungcloth. There is a taste of sharp fruit: dried apricots or pears and a very dry, lingering aftertaste. A clean, uncomplicated whisky. Someone said not a headache in a gallon, but members are advised not to take this on trust.
Not a single mention of the word 'oil' …..
Of course people differ in how they experience taste, but the supposedly 'oily' character of Lomond still whiskies is not so much a matter of taste, but more of mouthfeel, of body, and therefore less likely to vary between people. The Belgian whisky club Slainté recently organised a tasting where, in two trios, they compared Lomond still whiskies with their sister whiskies from traditional pot stills. The first trio consisted of a 16yo Glenburgie bottled by Cadenhead, a 13yo Glenburgie bottled by Gordon & MacPhail and a 20yo Glencraig bottled by Cadenhead's; all three whiskies were bottled at cask strength. Here's a summary of their notes on palate and finish:
Glenburgie 16yo 1985 (Cadenhead's) - aggressive, smoky, spicy, almond-vanilla-caramel, sweet fruity
Glenburgie 13yo 1990 (Gordon & MacPhail) - soft, round, oily, dark chocolate, raisins, fruit cake, sherry, smoky
Glencraig 20yo 1981 (Cadenhead's) -fruity, sweet, vanilla, nuts, peaty, buttery
The second trio was made up by two 12yo bottlings of Miltonduff (one recent, one from the 1980s; both at 40-43%) and a 29yo Mosstowie bottled by Cadenhead's (at cask strength). Again, some of their notes on palate and finish:
Miltonduff 12yo (recent bottling) - light smoke, malty, wet grass
Miltonduff 12yo (1980s bottling) - fatty, hints of peat or smoke, tropical fruit, spicy, malty, vanilla
Mosstowie 29yo 1970 (Cadenhead) - fruit, vanilla, buttery, smoky, bitter, warm and mouthcoating, dark chocolate, coffee
So the only whisky which actually got an 'oily' note was Glenburgie, one from a traditional still.
The older Miltonduff (again not from Lomond stills) got a 'fatty' note and the Mosstowie 'buttery'.
Not really a strong case for Lomond still whiskies being clearly oilier!
I decided to do another test myself, this time a blind one.
I asked Irma, my girlfriend, to pour for me two sets of three whiskies, in my absence of course. Each set contained, like in the Slainté tasting, whiskies both from Lomond stills and from traditional stills. All I knew was which whiskies were in each set, but not in which of the three numbered glasses they were. The first set contained one Glenburgie and two Glencraig bottlings, so I had to pick out the Glenburgie. Concentrating really on mouthfeel and body, sample (2) was the lightest and cleanest whereas sample (3) was clearly more mouth-coating and, yes, you could call it more oily, than the other two. I decided that (2) was the Glenburgie and it turned out I was right: sample (1) was Glencraig 1970 (Gordon & MacPhail), sample (2) Glenburgie 8 y.o. and sample (3) Glencraig 1981 – 21 y.o. (Cadenhead). Of course, being cask strength, this last sample was diluted down to around 40% for the test. The second set had two Miltonduff bottlings and one Mosstowie bottling and this time I had to distinguish the Mosstowie from the other two. Sample (1) was clearly the lightest, sample (2) was fat and chewy and sample (3) intermediate between (1) and (2). Based on this, sample (2) had to be the Mosstowie. Wrong this time: sample (1) was Miltonduff 10 y.o., sample (2) Miltonduff 1978 – 21 y.o. (Signatory) and sample (3) Mosstowie 1979 (Gordon & MacPhail). Again, sample (2), being cask strength, was diluted down.
In all, this blind test gave an ambiguous result and there is a much stronger link of perceived oiliness with age rather than with still type. So if Lomond still whiskies are not necessarily more oily than whiskies from traditional pot stills, how did the 'Lomond oil dogma' become established in whisky literature? My feeling is that, exactly because Lomond still whiskies are basically meant to be variable, some whisky writers just happened to taste a particularly oily Glencraig or Mosstowie bottling. Or perhaps, simply because Glencraig and Mosstowie are often bottled at higher ages than Glenburgie and Miltonduff, they appear to be more oily on average. From those specific tasting notes the general association 'Lomond = oily' was born and started having a life of its own.
Only goes to show, yet again, that you should only trust your own palate!
You may wonder why I haven't talked at all about Loch Lomond and their malt whiskies.
After all, aren't they using Lomond stills as well? Well, there are several reasons why I focused in this e-pistle on the classical Lomond stills and the malts that were distilled in them. First of all, this e-pistle was specifically looking at the matter of whether or not malts from Lomond stills are oilier than malts from 'normal' pot stills. Loch Lomond's have never been regarded as especially oily the way Glencraig and Mosstowie have been. Second, Loch Lomond uses a pretty complicated set-up of stills and although these stills indeed contain rectifier plates, they are much more sophisticated than the classical Lomond stills. So I regard them not as Lomond stills as such, although they are of course related to some degree. And finally, I am planning to write an e-pistle solely focusing on Loch Lomond's malts.
Watch this space!
(Published earlier on 'Celtic Malts'. Thanks to Arthur Motley and the SMWS for information and permission to reproduce their tasting notes; to John Hansell (Malt Advocate) for assistance; and to Paul Dejong and Slainté for making the notes on their comparative tasting available.)
After the Diabolical Drams series I think it's only fair to come up with
something more 'mundane' as a small series of Ardbeg's from the 1960's
and 1970's. You know, the times Louis Vuitton was concentrating on
leather gadgets, Moët on making champange and Hennesey on making
cognac. Glenmorangie only used ex-sherry or ex-bourbon casks and
almost no-one ever heard of 'The 16 Men From Tain'. The days Ardbeg
took its peat from the Kildaton field, floor malting was everyday practices,
kilning a charming mess.
There's still some debate going on why the early 1970's Ardbeg can be
very subtle with almost no peat/smoke at all while others are extremely
peat/smoky. Some have it the workers couldn't care less about the
kilning process, especially after a good night of dramming, some have
it no selection between the hairy peat (giving smoke) and the deep peat
(giving heat) excisted. others have it it's all down to the blender's
specification. I, for myself, am in a cross-over between the last two
possibilities thinking the first explanation makes a great story serving
a supposed Scottish attitude more than it does any good for whisky.
Anyway, Ardbeg from the 1960's & 1970's are infamous for inconsistency
when it comes to the use of peat. Some subtle and fruity a.k.a. Kildalton
Style, some extremely smoky and tarry and some, you guessed it, somewhere in between.
I've been lucky for being able to receive some samples, instead of having to buy whole bottles from Ardbeg's 'Tricky Period'.
Some originally very peated, although age is not very kind to phenols and some originally plain fruity although oak has left some heavy marks. If you thinks the two styles will grow towards each other, you're wrong. I found the below tasted samples quite dissonant in style... IF you are about to smash a few hundreds on an old Ardbeg, try to find out what style it has because otherwise you might be in for a MAJOR disappointment! For now: have fun!
 Ardbeg 1978/1990 (40%, G&M for Meragali)
Colour: PAle amber. Nose: A slighty medicinal and diffuse impression, some orange lemonade, hints on nutmeg and mace.
Develops some lime skin, a tarry back ground, bandages, roasted hazelnuts, hints on mango, fudge and smoked sausages.
Towards the end there's old wax, dried leather, waxed oeanges. With time some oak comes in. Palate: A tad too light. Very mild curry sauce, dired curry leaves, faint notes on iodine, slightly medicinal. Hints on nutmeg, leather, dark malts, some licorice, bay leaves. Finish: Some aspirine, nutmeg, leather, waxed malts and roasted almonds. Fades away with notes on beer. Needs some time to open up. It has enough on offer but lacks any power or shoulders, it would make a perfect opening dram on a Islay tasting.
 Ardbeg 32yo 1967/1999 (43.1%, DL OMC, D. 03/'67, Btl. 11/'99, 120 Bts.)
Colour: Hazel, red hues. Nose: Very nice and inviting nose. Resin, turpentine, waxed leather, subtle notes on dry 'sherry oak', ferns, ultra subtle undercurrant of sweet styled peat and humus. After a while it gets sweeter and more cognac like and develops subtle notes on nutmeg, linseed oil. After a while notes on pistachio's and roasted almonds emerge and fudge. Palate: Fairly light and no match for the nose at first. Faint notes on sherry oak, a distant note on rubber in the back ground, some peppery malts. A big sip brings out a very subtle note on peat, roasted almonds. It gets more bitter after every sip adding uo to a much needed body. Finish: Movinig to subtle notes on walnuts now, some malts and notes on beer. Well... I'm a tad dissapointed in this one. The nose is okay, could have used some more depth and power, the weakness is on the palate. Very timid and almost sereen of style. Still it offers a very fine and very subtle dram.
 Ardbeg 32yo 1967/1999 (47.5%, DL OMC, D. 03/'67, Btl. 11/'99, 185 Bts.)
Colour: Dark olive with mahogany hues. Nose: Quite special nose. Exhaust fumes, diesel oil and bearing grease. Notes on boiled egg yokes, rubber emerging but stays at sane levels. Very special, one of the most 'industrial' noses I've ever encountered. Desinfectant liquid. Behind that there's some chocolate and hazelnut cream. Eventually some notes on old fashioned card board. Palate: To be honest, I wasn't too excited to have a sip of it... but it showed itself quite nicely. Medium bodied, hefty notes on licorice, some sherry oak, bearing grease, olive oil, pepper. The oak gets a bit dry and sharp. There seems to be an element of fresh spirit in it... quite strange. Finish: Focusses on licorice, some eucalyptus oil, walnut skins. After a minute or so some returning exaust fumes. One of the more difficult drams I had. It's completely over the top but not over-sherried. It's quite disgusting yet intruiging at the same time and certainly extremely interesting. I can imagine someone giving this 45 points just as easliy as someone giving this 90 points...
 Ardbeg 32yo 1967/2000 (49%, DL OMC, D. 03/'67, Btl. 01/'00, 309 Bts.)
Colour: Hazel. Nose: Waxy, some resin and turpentine. Behind that hints of rubber, coriander seeds, cooked chicorice. After a while some black pepper, ferns and damp humus. A few drops of water brings out some notes on canvas, hints on gun powder, candied lemon peel. Traces of peat are to come later. At the end some hints on bergamot oil. Palate: Leathery malts, pine resin, white pepper. The body appears to be thin and somwhat shallow. Some linseed oil and as the nose, some corander seeds and bergamot oil. Finish: Goes to beer, gun powder, metallic malts. Fades away with notes on green oak. Well... another, perhaps overly subtle Ardbeg. As the 43.1% version it has a very nice nose showing age and all the good stuff that comes with it but it failes somehow on the palate. It needs quite some time to opene up a bit and never seems to 'give' itself completely. What first appeared to be an austere styled dram turned to be a slightly weak, on the edge of being harsh malt. Not that it's not enjoyable... no way! Let's keep it of a case of expectations not delivered...
 Ardbeg 26yo 1974/2001 (50%, DL OMC, D. 09/'74, Btl. 02/'01, 252 Bts.)
Colour: Golden, bright yellow hues. Nose: Very expressive almost to the point of being harsh. Medicinal, clay mask, make up cream, rubber, sulphur, humus. Very waxy and lemonny. After a while notes on custard, lemon grass, some pine resin, dried moss. Has lots of development. Water brings out subtle notes on charcoal, pecian pie. Chammomille and some subtle notes on coriander. Palate: As the nose, quite some clemon skin, bitter malts, subtle notes on sulphur, peppery oak, make up cream, clay mask. Gets a dark mouth feel. Water makes the whole more medicinal and notes of nutmeg, mace and ferns emerge. Coriander seed as well. After a while some notes on Shweppes. A bit weird mouth feel. Seems to be a bit carbonised. Finish: A tad dark oak, peppery malts, some notes on Guinness, caramelised chiciroce, almonds. This one needs to be tamed a bit. It's not the everyday wild and rough styled Islay, far from it, but it does need tender, love and care before it shows its complexity.
 Ardbeg 27yo 1973/2000 (50%, DL OMC, D. 03/'73, Btl. 10/'00, 240 Bts.)
Colour: Amber. Nose: The nose is quite punchy. Resinous oak, hints on rubber, wax, some peat and somke in the back ground. Quite metallic, warm copper, pertinax, white pepper, some lime skin. Develops notes on guava, sourish coffee, ferns, subtle notes on chamomile. Added water brings out notes on grapefruit. After a while it gets really waxy while the smoke gets a tad sulphurous. Lots of development here! Palate: Wonderful peaty now. Great balance between the peat and the spirit. Roasted malts, some tar, oily vanilla, pine resin, hints on dried moss, humus, charcoal. Added water brings out a wonderful spicyness. Cinnamon, some Caraïbian pepper corns, grounded cloves and some nutmeg. Also notes on lime skin and grapefruit. As the nose, lots of development. Finish: A tad bitter now but not too. Walnuts, slightly citrussy peat, bandages, some black pepper and hints on iodine. Fades away with strong notes on chloride. Great Ardbeg, nothing more and nothing less!
And that's all - off to Groningen, then France...
Michel van Meersbergen