April 13, 2009
- Ever since the early beginning of Malt Maniacs
I've tried to get a 'proper' E-zine going on this website. The E-zine
in my mind was mirrored after actual 'paper' magazines with items
like book reviews, interviews, etc. Only recently a new insight has
dawned on me: thanks to the ongoing development of the world
wide web (and especially web 2.0 stuff like Facebook and Twitter
there is little need to keep thinking inside the box.
One of the first liberating changes: we said good-bye to a fixed
publication date for our amateur whisky E-zine in the future.
So, from now on we'll publish a fresh issue when it's done...
We'll announce a fresh issue via the mailinglist, on Twitter
and via the Malt Maniacs & Friends group on Facebook.
Johannes van den Heuvel
Editor Malt Madness / Malt Maniacs
2009-08; For Sake's Sake (Michel van Meersbergen)
The word is out. A hipster Dutch marketing company stated Sake to be the hit of 2009.
The coolest of all that's hip – the anticipated replacement of the already three summer
seasons lasting Proseco, which in my view is in most cases more sickening than the before
hit: the rosé wines we saw throughout the before years. Should persons be concerned about
quality and taste – the ones with focus on what's in the glass instead of being focused on
matching the colours of the wine and new sunglasses – as history tells us hypes and drop
of quality or adjustments in taste to please the majority of consumers are always close of
being hand-in-hand. Perhaps not. The Japanese seem to have a perfect understanding of
what's traditional and what's not. That understanding might be a very important lesson to
be learned by the Scots.
Sooo, Sake you say… Rice wine right?
Not really. For the sake of understanding it's better to call it a rice beer – without the hops
that is. Not very unlike the mash used to distil spirit from. Further on we shall find out the
destination 'rice beer' is completely wrong and establish Sake as an unique artisan product
that can only be designated as: Sake… To put things in perspective lets have a little piece
of history first. The origins of Sake are subject of debate but general agreement has it the
first sake was brewed short after the introduction of wet rice cultivation in Japan, around
the year 300 B.C. Predecessors of sake, the bare origins, go back even further to China in
4.000 B.C. yet the Japanese were the first to develop a method to mass produce the rice
concoction we know as Sake these days.
Back then producing Sake was a communal activity were villagers would chew rice and nuts and spit the mixture in a tub.
Next, clean water was poured on the mixture and it was left to ferment for an amount of time. This technique and the resulting liquid, called 'Kuchikami no Sake' or 'Chewing the Mouth Sake' was an important part in Shinto ceremonies and even in our modern times the ceremonial and social aspects of drinking Sake carries loud echoes from the past.
Take a large bowl...
To brew sake one needs rice, water, koji and yeast. Although producing Sake seems to look like a walk in the park it is in fact a highly refined process with endless variations – the scary part is the fact all these variations are well traceable on the palate – so the brewer must have a perfect clue what style of Sake has got to be brewed, this is where his experience comes in. Lets have a step by step look at the mentioned ingredients.
In general 9 types of rice are used in today's industry.
Here is where the flavour profile begins as each type of rice brings its own distinctive flavour.
(Besides these main types of rice, local varieties are used but quite rare. Mentioning them would fall outside the purpose of this epistle.)
With over 80% water to be found in a bottle of Sake it's
understandable water plays a very, very important role. Even more
so in the brewing process where the amount of water used exceeds
30 times the weight of the rice. Why is it so important? Lets start
with the obvious, smell and taste. Take a sniff and sip of water from
any tap in a major city and one will understand that ordinary tap
water just won't do another job than destroying the subtle taste
and nose of Sake. It has to be pristine and pure – but not too pure!
Already in the 1700's the Sake few breweries were extremely in
demand, all of them in the Hyogo prefecture. It has always been
said it's because of the water that the Sake coming from this region
had, and still has, an outstanding quality. Before chemical analysis
this was a given fact and when chemical analysis reached the
desired level it was a proven fact. It led to a differentiation of types
of water: Kosui (hard water), Nansui (soft water), Tsuyoi mizu
(strong water) and Yowai mizu (weak water).
As with rice, these types of water have direct influences on how
a Sake is brewed and so have an indirect influence on taste.
One might think any well or spring water might be in the types of
water mentioned so the question remains: what makes water
good to brew with? Back to analysis.
Good water has:
a. a lack of iron, as it affects the colour of the Sake and becomes quite noticeable when Sake undergoes it short ageing.
b. a lack of manganese as it affects, under influence of ultraviolet light – as in direct sun light – the colour of Sake in a matter of hours.
c. a reasonable amount of potassium, magnesium and phosphoric acid. These compounds are of vital importance to enzymes and yeast of which more later.
Especially point c. makes a water 'strong' or 'weak'. This refers to the way the fermentation is influenced by the water. In general 'hard' water is 'strong' water but remember that any of the types of water is a designator for quality. It all depends how the brewer interacts with the water and other ingredients. Having said that, some breweries use tap water, or even sea water that is altered to the likes of the brewer and despite loosing a lot of the romantic feel, one can produce a very good Sake with this 'technical' water.
Back to the olden days where the rise was chewed together with nuts before fermentation could start. The concept of adding enzymes was
yet to be discovered, still it was precisely what the people did by chewing the rice. Koji took over that disgusting practice. Let's have a look
what Koji is. In essence it's a mould. The mould is of a special kind called 'Koji' or 'Aspergillus Oryzae' and is cultivated on the rice grain. It's
job is to create enzymes that break the starch in rice into sugars and we know to well what yeast can do with sugars… The big difference
between brewing beer (or mash) and Sake is most evident here. As barley generate enzymes by itself thru the malting process, rice has no
chance of doing so (We return to this matter later). The enzymes have got to come from a different source. Here is where Koji come into town.
When small batches of rice is steamed and sprinkled with Koji spores the mould developing on the rice will generate different kinds of
enzymes of which some create glucose which will turn into alcohol eventually by yeast and some will create sugars that cannot be fermented but will have influence on mouth feel and flavour.
It's clear Koji plays a major part in brewing Sake: no Koji means no Sake. No wonder lots of attention goes into producing Koji and every brewery will have its own slightly different way of coming up with Koji that is unique compared to another brewery. Here we have another ingredient that in the hands of a craftsman will bring a distinct flavour to Sake.
The importance of yeast is well understood. Besides breaking up sugars into much desired alcohol, yeast brings flavour and character as well. Compared to the whisky industry, where the choice of a yeast strain seems only to relate to the amount of alcohol it can turn from the sugars, Sake is the garden of Eden for all that is yeasty. Already in 1900 the Central Brewers Union began archiving yeast strains from exceptional batches of Sake coming from large breweries and made them available to small(er) breweries. Besides the strains made available most of the breweries will have local strains (one brewery is rumoured to have over 1.000 different strains isolated) and some go as far by collecting natural strains of yeast from holy places – making for exceptional ceremonial Sakes that un doubtfully come at a price… Below an overview of the 15 most common yeast strains provided by the Central Brewery Union:
#1 No longer used – acidity too strong
#2 No longer used – acidity too strong
#3 No longer used – acidity too strong
#4 No longer used – acidity too strong
#5 No longer used – acidity too strong
#6 No longer used – acidity too strong
#7 Masumi. The most common used yeast giving a strong fermentation and a mellow nose.
#8 No longer used – acidity too strong
#9 Koro. Used in higher class Sakes giving good fermentation and a strong nose.
#10 Tohoku Moromi. Subtle grainy flavours with low acidity.
#11 No longer used – acidity too strong
#12 No longer used – acidity too strong
#13 No longer used – acidity too strong
#14 No official name but commonly known as Kanazawa Kobo and giving a fruity nose a low acidity.
#15 Akita Moromi (also know as AK-1) giving lots of refined character but is a bit difficult to handle as it's sensitive to temperature.
Foamless versions or 'Awa Nashi' are available of #6, #7, #9 and #10 and are given the numbers #601, #701, #901 and #1001.
Foamless yeast have come in practice since it reduces heavily on labour costs – less cleaning of remnants of the foam and brings one third more capacity in the fermentation tanks. That space is otherwise reserved for the foam.
...and a large wooden spoon
Now that we know a bit about the ingredients, let's have a look at the way they are put together; a look in the Kura (Brewery) and the brewing process itself. As written, it starts with proper sake rice.
- The first step is milling or polishing
. Here a certain amount of the outside of the rice grain is removed.
This is done to prevent a far to pronounced rice flavour in the end product. The polishing also is the main step in designating
the grade of Sake that will end up in the bottle. (more about the grades of Sake later on). For a decent grade of Sake about
30% of the rive grain is removed, for the highest grade a minimum of 50% of the grain has to be removed, some top notch
Sake goes to even 35% remaining of the original grain. Lots of care is taken about the level of polishing as removing too
much can bring an enormous lost of flavour and character. Everything depends on the designated profile.
- Next is washing and soaking the polished rice. The remnants of the polished rise, called Nuka, is washed away.
The removing of this powder has quite some impact on the behaviour of the rice grain later in the brewing process, as
Nuka affects the absorption abilities of the rice grain. This should be extremely consistent and even, Nuka prevents that.
Sometimes Nuka is used to brew the absolute low level Sake, which I doubt is fit for consumption. After the Nuka is removes
the rice is soaked, again a precise operation as each type of rice has a different optimum for the next step; steaming. Also
the level of polishing is of great importance. High level polishing will end in ultra fast absorption of water. Where sometimes
12 hours of soaking will bring the optimum, in the last case it can be as little as a single minute.
- Now the rice is steamed . This is done in steaming vats (Koshiki) where steam comes from the bottom of the vat and works
its way trough the rice. This technique brings a harder outside of the rice grain as well as a soft centre. When the rice is
proper steamed the batch from the vat is dived. A part will be used to receive Koji, the other part goes straight to a
- Koji Making. We could already read Koji generates enzymes that are needed to turn starch into sugars. Cooled steamed rice is sprinkled with Koji mould and taken to special climate rooms. Here it stays for 36 to 45 hours where it's under constant surveillance. When it's ready it will be used immediately in thefermentation process.
- Yeast starter. The plain steamed rice and finished Koji is mixed together with water and yeast.
This mixture is left to ferment for about two weeks.
- Mashing. The yeast starter is moves to a large tank where more rice, more Koji and water is added in three stages over a four day period. Over that period the volume of the original starter doubles and is left to further fermentation for about 18 to 32 days where the process followed closely for any needed adjustments to bring out the qualities needed.
- Pressing. When the mash, now called Moromi, is ready it needs to be pressed. With the pressing less and unfermented solids are removed. This can be done by machine yet the old way of putting the Moromi in canvas bag which are squeezed by weight (drip-pressed) or hand is highly praised.
- Filtration. The pressed Moromi, already called Sake is left for a few days where more solids settle out and run through a charcoal filter.
Here flavour and colour can also be adjusted. Every brewery has its own degree of filtering depending of house style or profile wanted.
- Pasteurisation. The filtered sake is now pasteurised once by streaming it into a pipe that is immersed in hot water.
This process will kill any bacteria and deactivate enzymes that could otherwise affect flavour and colour once the sake is bottled.
- Ageing. After pasteurisation the Sake is left to age for about six months. This is done in large tanks, sometimes in large glass vessels but
the ageing is important to round out the flavour. Just before bottling, where the Sake holds about 20% alcohol it's watered down to about 16
% and batches are vatted to ensure consistency. Also a second pasteurisation could take place.
All Sake is equal but some are more equal...
Let's make things more complex. The endless variations of ingredients and brewing is certainly not the last stop.
Sake exists in various grades. These grades are not discriminating about quality per se but tell us a lot about certain factors in the brewing process. Having said that, the highest grade is usually of the highest quality, yet a lower grade might bring the same drinking experience or enjoyment, so don't get carried away by the grades!
Sake knows three main grades which fall apart in two main divisions: With or without added alcohol.
'What? Added alcohol??' I can hear you say. Well yes. Just after World War 2 when rice was in very short supply breweries were allowed to add some pure rice alcohol to sake to boost up the ABV. The results of this practise were very encouraging so the practise remains to this very day. This style makes for wonderful fragrant Sake, a more lighter style that would suit springtime and summer evenings very, very well. In my opinion adding alcohol – integrity counts here! – is of no negative influence to quality! Let's have a look at the grades starting with the premium levels with no added alcohol ranging down to up.
Jumai is made only with rice, water, Koji mould and yeast. The rice must be polished to at least 70% of the original grain.
A subclass of Junmai, called Tokubetsu Junmai, is made with a higher quality rice with a higher level of polishing.
- Junmain Ginjo-shu
Here the machineries step aside for more traditional methods and tools. The rice must be polished to at least 60% of the original grain and fermentation happens a colder temperatures for a longer period of time which results in Sake that is generally lighter, fruitier and more refined than a Sake from the Junmai grade.
- Junmai Daiginjo-shu
Considered a subclass of Junmai Ginjo. Sakes from this class are the crown jewels of the breweries. Using the best ingredients available and very labour intensive methods. The rice must be polished to at least 50% of the original grain. Usually these Sakes are light, complex and have a nose to die for.
The premium level grades with added alcohol ranging down to up.
Honjozo is made only with rice, water, Koji mould, yeast and a small amount of pure distilled alcohol (Brewers Alcohol). The rice must be polished to at least 70% of the original grain. These Sakes are mild and very easy to drink. A subclass of Junmai, called Tokubetsu Honjozo, is made with a higher quality rice with a higher level of polishing.
The same quality as Jumai Ginjo. These Sakes are perhaps more aromatic compared to the 'without' versions in the same grade.
- Junmai Daiginjo-shu
The same quality as Junmai Daiginjo. The best a brewery can produce.
One should keep in mind that these grades are arbitrary. The levels of rice polishing are the minimal level so a brewery might produce a Junmai with rice that has a polishing level of 50% - making it a possible Junmai Daiginjo – but won't grade it as such. There are many reasons for doing so, it's down to brewery policy. To stir things up some more there are more grades and types. Lowest grade is called Futsuu-shu. This is Sake that will not meet minimal requirements to get into the Junmai or Honjozo grade. It is safe to say that with Futsuu-shu grade Sake we're well into blended country when sake is compared to whisky. Taking this compartion a bit further, some blends are quite well drinkable and will at least bring enjoyment. The same goes for Sake from the Futsuu-shu grade. Besides the three premium grades and the bulk grade of Futsuu some other types of Sake are available (these types can be in any of the above grades):
This sake is cloudy or milky in appearance. It's not fully pressed to keep some unfermented rice particles.
This generally makes for a sweet and creamy texture but sometimes it can be chunky and chewy.
- Yamahai-shikomi & Kimoto
Two types with variations in the brewing process. The yeast starter is made differently in the way that yeast is allowed to be more 'violent' and some bacteria is allowed to be present. This make for a Sake that is said to be 'gamier and wilder'.
As we could read, the majority as Sake is pasteurised twice; after aging and just before bottling. Nama-sake is a type of Sake that pasteurised once or not at all. It brings a more fresh and zingy note to Sake. There are three sub-types:
1. Nama zume: Sake that is pasteurised after aging.
2. Nama chozo: Sake that is pasteurised just before bottling.
3. Hon nama: Sake that is not pasteurised at all.
- Koshu Sake
Koshu Sake is aged Sake. The Sake is kept in large glass containers for a period of time. This can be from one to sometimes ten years.
Sake that age has an almost dark brown colour. Adding to complexity but loosing much of the freshness, Sake of this type comes at a price; only the highest grades of Sake will be used
The fiddly bits, stoneware or glassware?
The general perception of drinking Sake is this:
warmed from a small stoneware cup and when
it's really fancy a small wooden container with
a pinch of salt on the edge. This is about the
same as drinking Single Malt Whisky from large
tumblers with ice cubes and soda water added.
Only the lower grades of Sake are drunk warmed,
although some Junmai grades as well – let's
forget about those as they are scarcely seen.
The main reason to warm it is to get rid of any
sharp components in the Sake, not unlike drinking
blended whiskies with added ice to get rid of
certain off-notes or an overly grainy character.
The wooden container is also used for the lowest
of low, where the wood itself acts as a mask for
the off-notes. The reason for the pinch of salt on
the edge should be clear by now. By no means I
would force people to drink their Sake otherwise
but I do question the quality of Sake that has to
be drunk that way. There's nothing wrong with
warmed Sake we see normally in the restaurants.
The Futsuu-shu grade is made for enjoyment and
warming it will take round out the sometimes
excessive added alcohol. The small stoneware
cups can have a lovely appearance and may add
to the exotic feel in a Japanese restaurant. As
long as no-one pours his own cup, this should
always be done by someone else, one shows a
basic knowledge of Japanese etiquette.
Premium grade Sake is best served cooled and from a wine glass. The degree of cooling varies. Some are at the top around 50C, some at
100C while some others just below room temperature. It's a matter of trail and error. Best to take a bottle and have a glass straight from the
fridge and try it several times over a period of a hour or so. At a stage you will feel the Sake comes together and showing all facets it has –
this will be the right temperature. A medium large wine glass will bring out all nuances in nose, mouth feel and taste. The Austrian glass
company Riedel has two designated Sake glasses: 'Daiginjo' from the 'Vinum' series and the stemless '414/22' from the 'O' series. I compared
both glasses with several other glasses (also from Riedel) and I have to say, they work very well. A small investment in decent and dedicated really pays off.
Looking back and forth
I hope you remind one of the opening lines of this e-pistle; where quantity is in demand, quality might suffer. With Sake about to boom big
time in Europe, does Sake have a future? Here is where Japanese tradition jumps onto the band wagon. As one can understand easily, with
all the variable ingredients and possible profiles coming from them is isn't too hard for breweries to catch up with demand. For a year or two
demand for a lighter style of Sake arose, most breweries responded to that question. And doing this without affection their more traditional
product. The same goes for label and bottle design. In my opinion it is here where the Japanese Breweries shine: one brewery can carry
various brands in various grades. Each the result of their own unique ingredients and brewing techniques and covering much of the spectrum
from cheap to very expensive. Try to compare this with lots of beer breweries and you know what I mean. In a way I'm thinking if this way of
managing a product might be something the Scots should look into. The 'upgrading' of many SMW's, with a renewed costumer in mind -
demanding 'classy' bottle design, ditto labels, a more neutral taste etc. etc. – all resulting in much more serious upgrades on the financial side
. I doubt if the general 'young and concerning' costumer is more sensitive to tradition or to a well crafted campaign that is tailored to their
(supposed) likings. In a way a traditional product doesn't have to be positioned in a traditional surrounding per sé.
Recommended reading and Kampai!
Looking for more information? Please turn to the website of John Gauntler (www.sakeworld.com) Everything Sake is mentioned on his site like the Sake meter (an e-pistle on itself), well written and larded with tips and tricks, as well as a good buying guide: what brands to have or to avoid. Better still, sign up for his newsletter! For the Dutch readers the site of Mr. Sake Europe and Beyond, Simon Hofstra, is worth a visit – he boosts a very nice collection (wholesale only) but is always willing to provide addresses where to get the nectar. The site of the Japan Prestige Sake Association (www.meimonshu.jp/modules/xfsection/article.php?articleid=1335) although in Japanese will help you identifying some labels and brewery names.
Michel van Meersbergen, Holland
There's Cirque du Soleil, Blue Man Group, Zumanity, and
David Copperfield, but for one weekend in January, the most
exclusive ticket in Las Vegas is to a private whisky weekend
The PLOWED Society's annual gathering of the clan, the
tenth Ardbeggeddon, was held January 15 to 19, 2009, and
one of the highlights was a head to head tasting of 13
different batches of Ardbeg 10yo. How fitting. We all talk idly
about batch variation but what better way to test it than to
get a bunch of peat freaks around an Ardbeg-laden table
and have a go at them?
Ardbeggeddon began when a bunch of internet chat buddies
decided to bring their best bottles together for some heavy
dramming. The A1 drams were spectacular and friendly
competition has kept it that way ever since. Each year around
December the whisky chat rooms are abuzz as people who've
heard of the event begin to hint for invitations, because
admission is by invitation only.
But, if you have to ask, as they say …
It's not that Ardbeggeddon is secret – anybody who's been
around the malt whisky web for a couple of years has heard
of it – it's more private, and attendance is limited to the
number of beds in the chosen venue. And as the years have
gone by, Ardbeggeddon has become as much about friends
as whisky. It's a tight little group with its own lore and lingo.
There's S'tan, a PLOWED Ringleader, loveable as a teddy bear and generous to a fault with his drams.
S'tan goes for flavour, not label, and has some ripping ancient old bourbons and Canadian whiskies in his truckload of contributions. He also has a shrine. Loco, of the Local Barley earned his moniker inventing the oft-honoured PLOWED tradition of lipping the local barley. But then another PLOWED tradition is not to honour all the traditions. The aptly-named Dr. Entropy maintains the PLOWED website and grants occasional dispensations to wayward Ringleaders who let business get in the way of dramming. You see once you have attended Ardbeggeddon you are expected to show up at every one thereafter or pay the price. And on the final night of A10, long after some had already gone to bed, the fabled FOAF appeared with a box of bottles that quite simply, was staggeringly good.
But an excellent though common malt also got plenty of attention from the finely-tuned PLOWED palates as well. Among whisky fanatics, and particularly those with a completion bent, there is a certain element who look for every minute distinction among bottlings in order to taste one of each. So last year when Jim Murray, published notes in his Whiskey Bible about an Ardbeg Uigaedail that was so different from others' knowledge of Uigaedail, many believed it must be a batch anomaly. This led, in turn, to a world-wide search for various Ardbeg batches, using the little code at the bottom of the bottle to differentiate one batch from another. The batch code on the bottle Jim Murray reviewed was L7 325 XXXX 4ML.
Ardbeg's Davinia Small acknowledged that batch variation is absolutely normal, and confirmed a little code breaking by some
semi-professional hackers, including at least one PhD, that led to the conclusion that L7 means the whisky was bottled in 2007, just as L1 means 2001, L2 2002 and so on. Armed with this information a call went out to PLOWED Ringleaders to bring their Ardbeg 10yos to A10 for comparison, and a list of bottling codes was assembled to avoid duplicates. But why Ardbeg 10 and not Uigeadail? Well A10 gives a broader sample, being in its tenth consecutive year of bottling since re-opening. While the average consumer who buys one or two bottles a year may never notice batch variation, the finely-honed palates of PLOWED all agree which A10s are the good ones and which ones are even better.
But for a blow-by-blow description and explanation of the really startling results we turn to Euan McPhee, the guy who planned and organized what is probably the most unequivocal test of batch variation ever reported. And believe me, at least among batches of Ardbeg 10yo, variation is huge.
Davin: Euan, we're here at Ardbeggeddon, a virtual whisky shrine with unimaginable malts on the table and you're drinking Ardbeg 10. Are ya daft, man?
Euan: Well at first glance, that's a reasonable question.
We have 300-400 whiskies here and many of them are legends
including some that are rare and nearly unobtainable. However,
good availability and reasonable price are not black marks against
a whisky and as all of us here have a tremendous appreciation for
Ardbeg, the OB Ardbeg 10 year old is an excellent benchmark.
And we are celebrating the 10th gathering of the PLOWED Clan,
so we sought to bring many Ardbegs to the table. Over the years,
many of the PLOWED Ringleaders have noted variations in Ardbeg
10. This is certainly my experience. When Ardbeg 10 first appeared
on the market, I liked it, but didn't love it. I was comparing it to the
other Ardbegs I had previously tasted like the Provenance, the
Gordon and McPhail 1974 vintage 22 year old, and some of the
first Douglas Laing OMC releases – which are all stunning, of course.
But it's taken me a long time to realize that you need to take each
whisky on its own merits. So in subsequent years, as I bought a
fresh bottle of Ardbeg 10 every year or two, my appreciation for
this expression grew.
I thought this was my palate until few years ago when I purchased a bottle of Ellenstown Cask Strength 10 year old that is reputed cask strength Ardbeg.. So to see for myself, I opened the Ellenstown along with two fresh bottles of Ardbeg 10. The Ellenstown tasted very much what I would expect from a higher proof Ardbeg 10 – but what was shocking was how different the two bottles of OB Ardbeg 10 were from each other. I knew they were different bottlings because they had different packaging inserts, so I examined the bottles more carefully and observed that they had different bottling codes as well. I could roughly date them relative to one another because one package had an insert advertising the Ardbeg 17 while the other package insert advertised the Uigedail, indicating that this was a more recent bottle. This was the beginning of my bottle code interest.
Davin: So are you ready for Ardbeg 10?
Euan: I've been sipping Ardbeg since about 7:30 AM, so I'd say I am warmed up.
Davin: Goodness! Are you in any shape to taste another flight of Ardbeg 10s? We have 13 bottles of Ardbeg 10 on the table!
Euan: Yes, I've taken a 2 hour break and have enjoyed a hearty lunch. I'm ready for more Ardbeg! Let's do the 10s. I think we will be pleasantly surprised at how many nuances we find. We have bottles here dating from the launch of the Ardbeg 10 back in 2000 all the way to the most recent bottle available here in the US purchased about 4 days ago.
Davin: But Euan we all know how hard the master distillers and master blenders work to make sure all the batches taste the same. Isn't it just a waste of good whisky to open a dozen Ardbeg 10's at one sitting?
Euan: That's the story we almost always hear from the distillers, particularly from marketing people. We've all heard the line about how "our whisky has not changed a bit since it was made hidden in the glen by smugglers, assisted by fairies". But anytime I hear that, I know they're pulling the bunny fur on my sporran. Single malt whisky is made in batches and as hard as distillers and master blenders apply their considerable skills towards attempts to make a "brand" taste the same batch after batch, they vary. The Ardbeg folks will tell you this themselves. And the sources of variation are numerous, so instead of pretending they all taste the same, let's explore and enjoy their diversity.
Davin: Have you had much luck finding out from distillery representatives about such variation?
Euan: No. But for most whiskies including Ardbeg 10, there are ways to tell different batches or at least roughly when they were bottled.
Davin: OK, but how do you tell one from another?
Euan: Well I mentioned differences in packaging, and that is a rough hint. But in the case of Ardbeg, and for that matter almost all distillery releases of Ardbeg (and Glenmorangie and Glen Moray), you can determine this by looking at the bottling code which is either printed or etched at the base of bottle, most often towards the back of the bottle. Dr. Entropy refers to this as the Decoder Ring. It's quite simple. Flip over a bottle of Ardbeg 10, tip it against the light, and you will see something that reads like this: LW XXX YY:ZZ 4ML. Let's pick up a bottle and look. This one says L7 143 8:58 4ML. This is how we interpret this code: for bottles after 2001, the L is "small" and W means the year, so L5 means that this was bottled in 2005. XXX is the day of that year that this was bottled, YY:ZZ indicates a time stamp, YY the hour in 00-23 increments, and ZZ the minute in 00-59 increments. 4ML simply indicates the specific production line at the bottling plant, and this holds for both 700 ml and 750 ml bottles. In turn, old style Glenmorangie bottles are marked 3ML at the end of the bottle code while all of the new style bottles that I have seen recently are 6ML. So L7 143 8:58 4ML indicates that this is an Ardbeg bottled on the 143rd day of 2007, which was May 23rd, a Wednesday, at 8:58 in the morning.
Davin: Interesting! How well does this hold up?
Euan: So far, it has held up very well. All OB Ardbeg bottles I've examined so far with a bottle code follow these rules, and I've looked at well over a hundred now. For those bottles that were filled in 2000 or before, the "L" is larger and is always ink printed. The transition between ink printing (which is harder to read) and glass etching occurred between 2003 and 2004. Curiously, there are bottles with ink printed bottle codes that occur after the glass-etched coded bottles, which probably reflects an equipment transition. The only OB bottles I have found that do not have bottle codes are single cask bottles such as the Feis Ile drams, which were probably bottled by hand at the distillery. PLOWED Ringleaders are not the only ones following these codes. In particular, there is a very useful discussion about this on Gordon Homer's Spirit of Islay website.
Davin: So this is all fascinating and fun Euan and it sounds good in the armchair, but have you actually found any differences?
Euan: Well let's cue the opening chords of "Thus Spake Zarathustra" and pop these Ardbeg 10s in order and give them a whirl. Let's start with two bottles; these two are in boxes labeled "Introducing the Ardbeg". I'll give you my impressions as we go along: Ardbeg 10 "Introducing the Ardbeg 10" bottle code L0 039 09:09 4ML (ink label). Nose is peaty, ashy white smoky notes that smell like a freshly extinguished campfire, not much of the citron-citrus notes that I have grown to expect from Ardbeg 10. The mouth feel is decidedly oily and full. Points for the clarity and forceful presentation of peat, but lacks the extra dimensionality of most Ardbeg 10s I've tasted. Ardbeg 10 "Introducing the Ardbeg 10" bottle code L0 178 11:17 4ML (ink label). Nose has the same smoky ashy white smoke notes as the previous bottling, and relative lack of strong citrus notes, but lacks the full oily mouth feel and is overall, thinner. Not as big a whisky as the previous expression. Overall, these bottles are good representatives of what I remember about the first Ardbeg 10 bottles I tasted in 2000 and 2001. While they have similar nose and taste characteristics but they are quite different in terms of "clean" versus "oily" mouth feel. Let's try this L3. Ardbeg 10 bottle code L3 343 14:28 4ML. Now this is more like what I expect from an Ardbeg 10! The nose has a wonderful balance of peaty smoke intertwining with citrus, and a chalky note I associate with a very specific smell of freshly poured Portland cement mixed with crushed seashells – a very pronounced and well-developed maritime note. The palate is very well integrated, and peat has many other elements to play off of. Long warm finish. I would buy this again without a moment of hesitation and I like this enough to pour some more.
Davin: Crikey Euan! Portland cement? Maybe I better try that one myself. Where do you get Portland cement from?
Euan: My grandfather did small construction jobs and one of the things he used to do was mix sand and seashells with the cement to add material. So we would go to the beach and scoop up some sand full of shells, then crush the shells with a mallet and mix it with the fresh cement. And this has a very distinctive smell that I had not thought about for decades until I recalled it while tasting Ardbegs.
Davin: Do you think this is unusual to have such a personal association with a whisky flavor based on a long ago memory?
Euan: Oh no, I think this is very common. The neural circuits that process olfactory information in our brains have similar organization and evolutionary origin to our memory circuits and these circuits are tightly interwoven. But I'll take Ardbeg 10 over Proust's Madeleine any day. Next up, an L4; Ardbeg 10 bottle code L4 020 13:17 4ML. The nose on this one is curiously diminished relative to the others. The same with the palate, it has many of the elements of the previous batches but altogether, a bit flat. Remember the amplifier in Spinal Tab which all the knobs went to 11? Well all the knobs for this batch of Ardbeg 10 only go to 7 or 8. This is a rather disappointing batch compared with the one we tasted previously. But I would still rather drink this than most other 10 year olds from other distilleries. Now coming up is one that I know and love, you must taste this one! Ardbeg 10 bottle code L5 237 05:36 4ML. One nosing says "this batch rocks!" Nose balances an interplay of tar and creosote with citron-lime citrus and other tropical fruit sweet and sour notes, and then more tar, a hint of chalk and oak. This is beautifully balanced. On the palate, a big voluptuous and elegant mouth feel is followed by citrus and fruit on the fore palate that subsides into a great big kick of tarry peat and a long finish that just hangs there. Absolutely lovely. (Euan left some in the glass and re-tasted it an hour later and malty sweet notes emerged, overall still fat and round mouth feel with smoky citrus.)
Davin: Amazing! so can we generalize from this that all L5s are excellent?
Euan: Let's see. Ardbeg 10 bottle code L5 110 17:50 4ML. The Beauty of L5 237 is followed by this Beast. Unfortunately, this is another fair-to -middling batch. So can you just remember "L5" while looking for dusty Ardbeg 10s? Apparently not. Not one to buy unless you have to feed your OCD-driven need to have all of these bottling – and there is something to be said for that. Ardbeg 10 bottle code L5 290 22:42 4ML. The nose reveals another facet found in some Ardbegs, the nose is big and piney and quite spirity. It still has the familiar elements of creosote, citrus, and a hint of chalk, but also an element on the nose that I associate with disinfectant or a swimming pool – and I mean that in a positive way. This piney disinfectant note is very reminiscent of various cask strength 1979 Spirit of Scotland bottles that were released between 2005 and 2006. The palate reveals a deeper base malty note and consistent with the spirity nose it is not as round on the palate as the L5 237, but does share that creosote -citrus-dominant mid-palate that is followed by a curiously distinct second peat-lime fruit burst. Long finish on this one with a echoes of sweetness and citrus. Quite a lot going on for this one, but does not quite hang together as well as L5 237. Now moving along to a pair bottled in 2006... Ardbeg 10 bottle code L6 242 16:50 4ML. Some of the previous bottles tasted hinted at malts that blended 10 year old and older whiskies. Not this one. It has a nice sharp bite on the forepalate and the dominant note is a rich cereal maltiness that dovetails with the peat – and fewer citrus notes for this one, but well balanced. Ardbeg 10 bottle code L6 314 10:29 4ML. Another one dominated by the interplay of gristy cereal maltiness and peat, but also has a big hit of citrus on the palate and that Portland cement with crushed sea shells thing. And now things get even more interesting with the L7s. Jim Murray gave an astonishingly high score to Ardbeg 10 in his 2008 Whisky Bible. Now we PLOWED Ringleaders read the Bible and this certainly caught our attention – I think it is likely that Mr. Murray's notes are for an L7 Ardbeg 10 – but not any L7! Ardbeg 10 bottle code L7 143 8:58 4ML (purchased on the US East Coast). The nose has the familiar tar and citrus notes but this is a very refined whisky. Similarly, the palate is more restrained, but so beautifully balanced and complex with great structure from the oak, I can't help but think that this has some mid-teens older whisky in it. It has a very different mouth feel than some of the others that are more brash and spirity. If you find, this, do not hesitate, buy! A much lauded (and FOAFed) PLOWED Classic since we tasted it last summer. Ardbeg 10 bottle code L7 143 9:06 4ML (purchased on the US West Coast). Another L7 143! A single day Ardbeg 10 head-to-head. Now this is PLOWED whisky obsession revealed. And yes, tastes just like L7 143 8:58 – although it should as it was bottled a mere 8 minutes later. This raises the interesting question as to whether there are different batches bottled on the same day. Make note to test this! What I would really like to try are two bottles from the same day, but separated by many hours. (According to Ardbeg's Davinia Small about once a month a new batch of about 42,000 bottles of Ardbeg 10 is bottled but never more than one batch is bottled on any given day or in any given bottling run.) Ardbeg 10 bottle code L7 221 05:57 4ML. This is good but much less complex than the previous two tasted. And it was bottled 10 years and just enough days after Glenmorangie resumed production at Ardbeg in 1997 (June 25, 1997), that this might be entirely composed of post-Allied spirit. It has a nice fat smoky note in the middle – a little dip in quality. This bottle is still worth seeking out, though. Ardbeg 10 L7 295 12:12 4ML. The nose on L7 295 is extremely bright and aggressive. I tasted another bottle of this last October with Peter Silver, MM and PLOWED Ringleader, and we agreed that this is a special bottle. This one is a real bruiser – if you are looking for a knock-down fistfight with your Ardbeg, this one is for you. The palate is big and raw with very strong tarry peat smoke notes and brash citrus. The oak extract is very dominant here. It doesn't have the elegance of some the others, but while it lacks the sophistication of L7 143, it certainly gains points for youthful exuberance. I like it. Is this future of Ardbeg 10 via the use of fresher American Oak casks? Maybe not. Reports from the PLOWED Ringleader network suggest that L7 323 and L7 324 are not nearly as good as L7 295, based on head-to-head comparisons. This little gem of an L7 295 merits a high score.
Davin: So I'm convinced now, and this may be the explanation:
When Glenmorangie took over the closed Ardbeg distillery on June 25, 1997 there were considerable stocks of maturing whisky in the warehouses, more from some years than from others. Their first move was to re-release the standard 10yo Ardbeg, but they had to rely on existing stocks to keep the label in the shops. As this whisky was distilled to someone else's plans, no doubt there were gaps in production leading to an assortment of casks of varying ages being dumped into the whisky sold as Ardbeg 10. This means quite a bit of older whisky was likely mixed in until the new owners had build up a reliable supply of ten year old Ardbeg. Batch variation, always present to some degree, would have been accentuated by the need to rely on old stock until a proper inventory of new whisky was built up. As Euan has shown us, there really is considerable variation among batches and some real gems are to be found among the standard Ardbeg 10s.
Euan has given us an excellent illustration of batch differences using a malt he and the PLOWED know very well.
Although our scores were virtually identical for each of the bottles scored, Johannes asked that I include my scores, rather than Euan's to make sure we publish only certified Malt Maniac scores here. So here they are, ranging from an excellent 84 to 3 awesome 91s. Euan's favourite, by a hair, was L5 237 and that was also the fave of PLOWED Ringleader "84". I loved it also along with L7 143 which Euan scored just half a point lower than I did.
Ardbegs 10yo (46%, 0B)
L0 039 09:09 4ML 86 points
L0 178 11:17 4ML 88 points
L3 343 14:28 4ML 90 points
L4 020 13:17 4ML 87 points
L5 237 05:36 4ML 91 points
L5 110 17:50 4ML 84 points
L5 290 22:42 4ML 89 points
L6 242 16:50 4ML 87 points
L6 314 10:29 4ML 88 points
L7 143 8:58 4ML 91 points
L7 143 9:06 4ML 91 points
L7 221 05:57 4ML 89 points
L7 295 12:12 4ML 88 points
The HTHTHTH . . . over, Euan paused briefly then went on to taste another 50 Ardbegs that day. Such is the lot of the PLOWED.
Euan McPhee and Davin de Kergommeaux
It was a cool October day, and I had the first flight of six whisky samples in front of me to start judging for the
2008 Malt Maniacs Awards. The first four samples were average, with scores of 75 to 81. Then, I opened
sample number 106. My tasting notes described it as "Sour and lemony with a puckering mouth-feel and a
sharp, biting aftertaste. Hard to sip and harder to swallow! Nasty!" I scored the sample at 58 points, and
went on to complete my ratings of the other 192 samples. As I went on, I noticed more sour citrus-like flavors
that didn't seem to be quite right in about 25% of the samples, and scored them accordingly. Finally, I
completed the last sample with less than an hour before the deadline, reviewed my scores, and sent my
score sheet off to Johannes in Amsterdam. We talked about an hour later, and (unfortunately) Skype made
his words all too clear... "You must have really hated the Highland Park 12!"
Keep in mind now, the Highland Park 12 is one of my favorites. I've recommended it to many whisky
newcomers as an excellent dram to start with, and I've never hidden my feelings about it. So, I replied:
"No... I love the Highland Park 12... Why?" Johannes replied: "Well, you scored it at 58 points..."
I opened my spreadsheet with tasting notes and compared the sample number from the final scores that Johannes had just e-mailed me...
and there it was... Highland Park 12-year-old with my 58 points next to it. I remembered the sample well and told Johannes there was no
way that could have been Highland Park 12. It was too sour and lemony - the sample must have been tainted...
Ummm - did anyone else notice a problem with it?
No one else did…and we also found that my scores on about 25% of the samples were significantly lower than those of the other judges. Those were the same samples that I'd noticed the citrus flavors in. Johannes agreed to discuss the problem with the rest of the awards committee, and I went to my whisky collection, which I had largely ignored while judging 6 to 12 samples a night for the last several weeks. I pulled out a bottle of Highland Park 12 and poured a small dram.
I won't repeat the words I used…but the same nasty sour taste was there in my own bottle!
This is how I learned about "taste perversion." I've been accused of perverted taste before, but never "taste perversion." The next morning, I was leaving for work and took one of the prescription medications my doctor had prescribed for me a couple of months earlier. I won't go into the details, but I had been taking this pill each morning and noticed the slightly sour taste... and this morning, I made the connection.
Again…I won't repeat the words I used... but called my doctor to make an appointment for a couple of days later (he had a boat payment due, so I didn't have to wait long)…and went to the web to look up the medicine in question. Under "side effects," there it was; "Some patients reported taste perversion while taking (X) during research studies."
After a few more unrepeatable words I sent an e-mail to Johannes outlining what I had found out, and we agreed to discard my entire set of scores for the competition. Later that week, I explained the situation to my doctor, and he took me off the prescription. It took about three weeks, but my sense of taste finally returned to normal and the Highland Park 12 that tasted bitter and sour a few weeks earlier now had its classic notes back!
Now, what can you learn from my experience?
It's important to note that I did not use a "control dram" before sampling the competition entries. If I had, I would have caught the problem at the start and not wasted my time and that of the other Maniacs…as well as the readers and whisky producers that were counting on me for a fair and accurate appraisal. Second, I didn't look at the documentation that came with the prescription, which noted the "taste perversion" issue as a side effect. It's something I now do whenever I start taking a new medication, and I recommend you do the same – especially since some medications can have a bad reaction to alcohol. I also can't emphasize enough how important it is to talk with your physician before stopping a prescription medication, since that can create complications as well if not managed properly.
Johannes - Before Serge initiated our very own Facebook Group we used to conduct our discussions about whisky via e-mail.
To tell you the truth, we still do - but I just don't have the time to translate all of them into intelligible articles for our E-zine.
Nevertheless, I sometimes stumble across some old discussions that are simply too good not to share with our esteemed readers...
Here's an interesting little debate about the possible relation between sherry and sulphur from a few years ago I discovered recently;
Luc - Peaty, Grainy, Grassy, Fruity, Floral, Feints, Woody, Sweet, Stale, Sulphury, Cheesy, Oily. I always had trouble with the "Sulphury" part of this Whisky Flavour wheel......is Sulphury even supposed to be there in the first place....isn't sulphury an off-note?
Davin - No, not always. Not in old sherried whiskies for example. I give extra points for gunpowder. Checking the matrix for that PLOWED Port Ellen, the team seems to be divided into two camps and no one is left in the middle. Very interesting.
Johannes - Whoah! No, I would not necessarily describe sulphur (or any other fragrance) as an 'off note', Luc.
The beauty of single malt whisky (and especially single cask bottlings) is that every expression is unique. Each glass offers a combination of dozens of different aroma's. I might perceive some of those aroma's as more pleasant than others, but I love the fact that each dram is unique. I might for example not enjoy the aroma of 'wet dog' or 'cardboard' in itself, but I love finding it in a whisky. I feel that you can only really speak about 'off notes' in stuff like blends, Coca Cola or the 'cuisine' of MacDonalds. In those cases there is a certain way it SHOULD taste. Shouldn't we try to celebrate originality and individuality in single malts?
Charlie - Luc, You are potentially starting another thread, and opening a discussion which I have never had a final answer to: 'Why are the whiskies from European casks often sulphury'? First, I am astonished you have never come across any sulphur, struck matches, matchbox -striker, even cordite notes in 'sherried' whiskies - not even in some Glenfarclases (or should that be Glenfarclae?) The question is where does it come from. Two answers are commonly supplied:
1) The original spirit was 'sulphury' (like Glenkinchie, surprisingly, or Mortlach), owing to the lack of copper contact during distillation (copper extracts sulphur), and this is not extracted by the butt - which, remember, is toasted not charred (char removes sulphur compounds, which is why you don't find many (any?) sulphury whiskies from American oak casks).
2) The butt has been fumigated with a sulphur candle prior to having been emptied of sherry or wine, and some sulphur compounds have adhered to the walls of the cask, or even some drops of sulphur remained in the cask.
What do you think, guys? No chemist I have spoken to has been able to say for certain what causes sulphury notes, except that they are not uncommin in new-make spirit, and are often lost during the early stages of maturation - especially in an American oak cask.
Luc - Hi Charlie, Oh yes, I have come across quite some sulphury sherried whiskies.....like in lots of sherried PE's and more in sherry version in my opinion then in Bourbon matured PE's....and less in older sherried whiskies (especially 50's and 60's....)... I would definetely like to find out what caused it....
Serge - Charlie, I can't really think of anything to add to this short and brilliant summary (lots of things I didn't know), except this small typo: I believe sulphur is burnt after the casks have been emptied rather than prior. They use different systems and yes, one can leave drops on the bottom of the cask (the 'candles').
Basically, the problem, again, is that a winemaker who'll re-use such casks will rinse them properly, because he's not interested at all in what was in the cask before (quite the contrary) whilst the whiskymaker may be interested in what the casks did contain, and hence might do anything to 'keep it' (i.e. just nothing!). That's particularly true if you think 'finishing'.
Some wines may get 'sulphurised' (to prevent oxidation) before they go into the casks as well but I'm not that sure whether that's done before or after cask filling – Olivier will tell us. That's why we can now all read 'contains sulfites' on our labels. I think this sulphur is then undetectable in the whisky (it's not even detectable in the wines, or rarely).
Lawrence - Charlie, that is an excellent answer, I have experienced a few bottles with sulphur in the last few months and have know about the candles etc but had not realized about its absence in American casks.
Mark - I , too, join the MMchoir of thanks to Charlie for his well stated sulfur bit.
Sulfur pops its head up fairly regularly in my dramming. Anyone dramming with me has heard me say "ew! squished bug!", or "spent solid rocket motor", and "freshly fired ammo casing". These all must be sulfurous in origin. The one which I like the most, even to the point of buying more bottles of it just to get the high again, is the spent solid rocket motor. That stuff rocks!!!
Btw, I thought Serge and Olivier's Marc Gewurtz new make exhibited some sulfur.
Johannes - Whoa!!! Squashed bug? That reminds me of another weird descriptor I sometimes find: ant acid.
Very distinctive - you can often smell an ant hill from quite a distance on a good nose day.
Davin - Yes that's Formic Acid.
Michel - Ever since I had a anti-biotics treatment last year I'm very sensitive to sulphur.
I got three types of sulphur in my notes...
1) Sulphur as off-note is IMHO So2 (rotten eggs in worst case)
2) Sulphur as acceptable off-note: rubber (Port Ellen, anyone?)
3) Sulphur as 'added' note (S). 'Clean' sulphur acts as very refined white pepper, leaving an ultra narrow burn on my tounge.
Funny thing is, that what I consider a clean version of sulphur, it seems to give an otherwise lean malt the feeling of being 'bodied' and 'shouldered'.
Thomas - Michel wrote: "Rubbery sulphur as with rubber bands..."
Interesting. I get these 'rubberband' aromas a lot, too, and usually I don't like them.
But I would have described them as feinty or even estery (because of the 'chemical' character) rather than sulphury.
Serge - Very right, Michel. I always feel the need to add 'in a nice way' when I detect sulphury notes that I like, and 'too sulphury' when it's not the case. I believe there's two kinds of sulphur to be found:
* Sulphur because there was actually lots of sulphur in the cask (especially ex sweet wine casks)
* Sulphur because it's one of the malt's markers (yes, Port Ellen)
On the nose, maybe we can get:
* Burnt sulphur, yes often like H2S (rather than SO2?) - I don't like that.
Probably from poorly managed casks (not properly rinsed).
* Plain sulphur – I admit I don't quite get it in fact, I have to work on that.
* Rubbery sulphur as with new tyres – I like that
* Rubbery sulphur as with rubber bands – sometimes it's OK, sometimes I feel it's a flaw.
And again, I agree it can give quite some structure to a malt that would otherwise be too sweetish.
Luc - Oh yes, very right indeed Serge....
But I don't agree that Port Ellen has this marker in its profile.....
The Port Ellen 22yo 1978/2000 (60,5%, Rare Malts Selection) does not have any sulphury notes if you ask me, nor has the Port Ellen 24yo 1978/2002 (57,9%, DL Platinum for 10th Anniversary Bottling The Whisky Shop, 602 b.) or for that matter the Port Ellen 1982/2005 (55,7%, M&H Cask Selection, Bourbon Cask, 240 b.)...... and many many others for that fact.
But these are full of sulphur and with some of these I have a lot of difficulties.....
Port Ellen 22yo 1982/2004 (61.1%, Douglas Laing for PLOWED, sherry cask #748, 264 bottles) was loaded with sulphury notes, the rubbery kind, the burnt tyres, but I ask myself whether this is still bearable...... Port Ellen 23yo 1979/2003 (46%, Wilson & Morgan, butt #6769) had quite some sulphury notes too.....questionable.... My first impression is that it comes in PE sherry casks....so for me this is not a PE profile marker but rather a result from the cask.... Same with Highland Park..... Some are loaded with sulphur, although HP does not have that in its profile.....so, still for me subject to discussion whether this is an "off" or an on-note for that matter.....
I admit that in the past these notes did not bother me that much.... I even scored malts high having loads of burnt tyres, sulphury notes....like the PE Plowed....but now these same notes disturb me more and more...resulting in a much lower scores for these malts, since I don't like them anymore.....
Even yesterday evening, I tasted the Macallan 14yo 1990/2005 (46%, Whisky-Doris, Sherry cask).
Here the results: Nose: Malty grainy start, cereals, quite some hay and grass with a sweet mineral touch, quite some vanilla wood, butter and candy sweet, some fainted woodsmoke even, a little crême brulée, nice and delicate (22). Taste : Bold and coating start, starts malty sweet buttery but then bang, bah, sulphury notes take over, all rubery now, this ruins my palate (19). Finish : Oh no, those bittery notes, rubbery sulphury notes stick now, feinty too....(18).
B/C : Nose was promising........(17) Total points : 76/100 (perhaps even too much.....)
A few days ago I retried the Highland Park 26yo 1977/2003 (52.1%, OB, Cask 4258, Scottish field merchant's cask), which I had 2 years ago for the first time in the Craig hotel.....and yes, this time I dedected for the first time some rubbery/sulphury notes.....drawing my immediate attention.....my tendance is to lower the score (which I had at 92) for this.....or I'm getting too much focussed on these notes now that they are troubling my mindset.....I don't know....but it is a fact and it happens with a lot of whisky-enthousiasts......we should invite Carsten Ehrlich (from Mara) with whom I had a lot of interesting discussions on this matter too.......
Same with the recent released Ledaig 32yo 1972/2005 (48,9%, Alambic Classique Collection, Oloroso Sherry butt #8721, 396 b.), some love and adore this one for its rubbery undertone....but quite some enthousiasts.....hate this one for those aspects too.......I had the sulphury notes the first tasting right away.....but they did not trouble me that much .... but again the more you drink it, the more they start disturbing you.....and the lesser points I would give to this malt..... Interesting subject, which is amongst whisky-enthousiast nowaydays a topic that is being discussed heavily, especially during tasting sessions and festivals....... But again....MHO
Thomas - Indeed that Laphroaig from the 2005 MM Awards had some sulphury notes too... The reason why a good friend of mine also blind
detected these as off-notes......... I still consider this Laphroaig as a stellar malt, but the more you try it, you get tendancy to detect these
notes more and more pronounced....." Finally, another voice of reason. Oh, it's from the Scapa master.
Never mind... ;-) As for sulphur, I agree with Michel and Luc. Very often I find these notes in sherry casks.
Michel - I think PE, sherry casks and sulphur is spot on, Luc!!!! As far as I know PE was handed 2nd choice casks from Lagavullin.
No doubt most of those were poluted with some sulphur from cleaning with candles. Personally I like vattings between bourbon and sherry from PE. Altough there's a romatic side to that. Standing by the PE warehouses, wind comming from Port Ellen Bay. It can be a smelly experience (dead algea and rotting seeweed) Everytime I have a 'sulphury' PE I'm at that spot on Islay...
Anyway, personally I think it's the poor choice of casks that gives PE its personality...
Davin - Well, there are a lot of big PE fans out there - just check the Matrix/Monitor - so if poor choice of casks is the secret to the PE personality let's hope everyone else starts choosing poor casks.
Johannes - Erm... I don't want to nitpick here, but I think we should distinguish between two things here...
First, there is the 'quality' of the cask itself - and I guess you could measure 'quality' in a few different ways.
And then there's the SELECTION of casks available to the people at the distillery - measured in quantity and/or quality... But maybe that's a topic for another discussion... Erm, sorry - carry on...
Michel - A poor cask in this case is something different from a BAD cask... ;-)
Anyway, personally I think it's the poor choice of casks that gives PE its personality...
Davin - So we can say a poor cask produces a rich whisky. Tryin' to get out of the ghetto I suppose. ;-)
Michel - No we can't!
Only thing that's for sure, is that a great cask will turn even poor spirit into something good!! :-)
We all know the standard Lagavulin had no need for huge amounts of great casks, distilling for just three of four (?) days a week. That means a turned down cask by Lagavulin could mean a very agreeable cask somewhere else. From what I've read people at PE were quite frustrated by the fact they had to work with the left-overs from Lagavulin.
Now let me rephrase for my own sake:
'Anyway, personally I think it's the '''''''poor choice'''''' of casks that gives PE its personality...'
Hey, that really helped...
Klaus - Serge, Michel, when I had a glimpse at a heavy duty chemical article about aromas I noticed that a lot of compounds (which are
normally not connected wih sulfur aroma) have sulfur atoms, e.g. grapefruit, blackcurrant,...
I associate sulfur in malts with:
- organics (shit, H2S)
- and rubber
Michel - Yes, especially blackcurrants/cherries...
The Longmorn 1972 Serge mentioned on WF had a lot of those. Altough Serge hardly mentions them to my surprise. Govert (owns that bottle, the lucky B.) and I had the feeling we were tasting Crème de Cassis or atrisan Krieken Beer at 60% ABV. (A descriptor close to the 'gunpowder' that Davin mentioned earlier: clay mask - you know, the ones we know our wives are putting on when the bathroom is closed for an hour or so. Serge calls it 'wet chalk'...)
It is however difficult for me to write down such intense fruity aroma's as something as 'earthy' as sulphur.
The signal just takes another path in my brain... It tastes like fruit, my hand writes down accordingly... One exception is Port wood. Smells allright, tastes awfull. My stomach really protests as does my oesophagus (ahem) It gives the same 'sensation' as some sulphury malts do on my tounge... You'll understand why I find port Wood on the jumpy, sulphury side of the spectrum... ;-)
Charlie, would you say a distillery can make a sulphurous run, on demand, to create a spirit that can give some body to another bulk spirit. What I mean, i.e. Speyburn appears quite sulphury, but it's the clean stuff. Acting like a subtle pepper. Speyburn lacks taste but it does have some sort of body which stands out (to my taste). I can imagine a spirit like that can give some muscles to a blend which has to be completely smokeless or easy going if you will... There's a thin line between clean sulphur and 'white pepper', I often pair them in my notes. My feel is that 'white pepper' comes from the oak, being a second or third refill (non juveniled) cask. Lots of the Dewar Rattray and Cadenhead casks appear to be very jumpy and nervous and judging from the colour they must have come from that kind of cask.
Chalie - Michel, Yes, up to a point. By running the stills hot and fast, and running warmer water in the condensers - in other words by reducing the copper uptake in the spirit. But it would be difficult to achieve greater 'weight' where the stills are designed to produce a lot of reflux (Glenmorangie's tall still, for example). Lochnagar is a good example - small stills, worm tubs, wants to make a heavy spirit, but for some reason Diageo demands that the make is 'grassy' (i.e. light and estery). To achieve this, they run hot and fast and allow the water in the worms to warm.
Speyburn has worms, which will lend body (less copper contact). I know what you mean by 'white pepper'. I am not sure whether this is related to sulphur, and like you, I think it may have something to do with maturation.
On the other hand 'chilli pepper' (as in Talisker) is present in the new make.
Luc - BUT BUT Michel, I don't agree with your earlier statement that a sherry cask gives sulphur, they often do........ only the bad ones do, no ? Or is it the combination of a peaty malt on a sherry cask.... no I don't think so......the Ardbeg 1976/1999 Manager's choice (56%, OB, 497 bottles, Sherry Cask n° 2391) or for that matter the Ardbeg 1976/2002 Feis Isle 2002 (53,1%, OB, 494 bottles, Cask n° 2390) don't have them...... and lots of other examples for that matter........
Michel - Hold your horses my dear Luc :-))
I've never said sulphur is tied to sherry casks persé...
No way, the two Ardnbeg's you quote are beauties, without any doubt some of the Great Ardbeg's.
In the case of the Laphroaig 31 sherry cask that won at the awards, I would say it came from the cask...
I agree it's the kind of taste that becomes boring after a while. I have the same problem with peat these days... Ermm... Don't shoot guys!!! I never feel sorry for only having a few ml's from a screamer of a malt. Even if they notch a deserved 93pts... Also, once I got a good feeling for a marker I tend to focus how well in blends with other components, or the way it stands out, or the other way arround, carries the rest of the aroma/taste, harmony and balance in short... Perhaps we've reached parallel stages in our quest?
Luc - Michel....no shooting here....me too, I have a tendancy even to dislike those young peated beasts.......
Who likes to drink a dram of a VY Ardbeg every evening, not a real enjoyment.....no wonder most people like Speysiders the most and this is the most active region still.....but a fully matured Islay malt that removes these sharp beasty, peaty edges.....can be absolutely adorable..... I could drink a whole day an Ardbeg 1976/1999 Manager's choice (56%, OB, 497 bottles, Cask n° 2391) or a Longmorn 27yo 1969 (43%, Prestonfield, Cask 4252, 296 b.) or a Longmorn 25yo "Centenary edition" (45%, OB, bottled 1994).......but enjoying a Ardbeg 6yo 1998/2004 'Very Young' (58.3%, OB, committee approved) every day... No way......
Michel - My great concern here is that we nail down single cask bottlings as a solid 'expression' of a distillery's marker. I just refuse to do so... Let me put it this way... The sulphur in Port Ellen is what makes PE errmm PE!! ;-) A sulphurless PE is in its best a very good to beautifull medium peated Kildalton whisky.
Serge - Gentlemen, I don't want to sound patronising but I feel you're reaching a well-known conclusion: seek variety!
Anybody can get fed-up with the nicest things in life, should he have too much of them. It's just the same with caviar, white truffles and God knows what else... (no, not that) That's why, with Olivier, we changed the way we organize our little tasting sessions. We used to do thing like 'nine Ardbegs from the 70's' and that became very boring (I couldn't have any other Ardbeg for weeks after that, even the grandest). Now we 'work' with very different pairs or triplets and it's much more fun.
As for PE and sulphur - let's rather say indeed 'sulphury' rather than 'sulphur' (like in smoked vs smoke) but I agree it's closer to tar, tarmac, tyres... I find 'sulphury' smells in tarmac, as kind of a sub-aroma, hence find it in many Port Ellens, not just sherried ones. These 'sulphury' aromas are not the same as in 'sulphur from the cask' and that's why I feel the need to divide 'sulphur' into several categories. I guess it's just a matter of definition. Yeah, same, MHO (trying to manage my blatant hedonism...)
Luc - Oh yes, Serge I fully agree we should be carefull with the notes and description of these aroma's.....but lots of people nowadays look for that in the description, if they see, sulphury, rubbery....they don't even buy the bottle anymore (and this is very true.......) Another example ......the Highland Park 16yo 1989/2005 (57,3%, OB for Belgium, Sherry Cask 4386) was released last year and everybody loved it, the rubbery compounds were detected and everybody loved it........then.....then..... but a few weeks ago Paul De Jong hosted an offnote tasting session (yeah no fun, agree, drinking bad whiskies, but very academic) and guess what...........they all found this one PRETTY BAD !!! Due to sulphur... ...bad sherry cask.......I scored it the first time I tasted it only 68 points and for that the organiser of the festival hates me.....but now.....lots of people dislike it....
Davin - Luc, that just proves most people will believe whatever you tell them. They like it when they think everyone else does, then they hate it when they think everyone else does. A good reason for blind tasting without a theme.
Serge - Yeah, Davin, Luc is a genuine trendsetter in Belgium.
He could tell the boys bubblegum in whisky is the thing, they'll all start buying Old Rosdhu... ;-)
Davin - Yeah, Serge, but not necessarily a bad thing.
We all have to start somewhere, but we hope to eventually learn enough to develop our own taste. My biggest breakthrough was losing my inferiority complex over not being able to enjoy Macallan as much as Michael Jackson seemed to.
Johannes - indeed, Davin & Serge - and this might be a suitable occasion to wrap up this discussion.
I agree that a lot of people just lack the strength of character to make up their own minds about stuff like fashion, art or whisky.
Far too many people tend to prefer adopting the 'safe' majority opinion over making up their own mind. If enough people keep repeating that sulphur is an 'off note', the malt masses that prefer others to do their thinking for them will likely adopt that opinion.
Me - I have to admit I do often enjoy the smell of gunpowder, matchbooks or even rotten egg in my malts...
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(This article on the potential effects of global warming appeared earlier as a two part series in Whisky Magazine)
PART 1 - A POTENTIAL SCENARIO FOR WHISKY PRODUCTION BY THE END OF THE CENTURY
The world is heating up. Carbon levels in the atmosphere are now higher than at any time
in the last 650,000 years. The 20th century was the warmest in the last millennium and the
1990s was the warmest decade for the previous 100 years. In the UK, we have been
witnessing the warmest weather since records began in 1660.
How then does this global phenomenon affect the UK, Scotland and the whisky industry?
The picture of the UK in 2080 painted by the UKCIP02 report shows a country which has
got progressively warmer with annual temperatures between 2.5˚C and 4˚C warmer than
today, with northern Scotland warming the least and the southeast of England rising the
most. The difference between seasons is more dramatic than it is today. Summers have
become increasingly hot [England & Wales by up to 4.5˚C, Scotland by between 3˚- 3.5˚C]
Although this has resulted in a fall in annual precipitation by up to 10% across the country,
winters have got wetter [+ 20% in England and eastern Scotland] and rain is falling in more
intense bursts. Snowfalls have been reduced to below 70% of today's levels, in Scotland
they have fallen by 66%. In addition, coastal waters have warmed and the sea level has
risen by 30cm. This, coupled with more storms has increased incidences of flooding.
Though the effects are at their most extreme in the south-east of England, Scotland has
not escaped. The east coast will also see the most significant rise in summer temperatures.
Though the west coast will remain the wettest part of the country, the highest percentage
increase will be seen in the east which could result in more winter flooding and, in a worst
case scenario, a shift in river courses and increased coastal erosion.
Dr Toby Sherwin is reader in physical oceanography at the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban.
"The UK's precipitation is set by the Atlantic, but it is very difficult to predict how storm tracks will pass over the Atlantic. There is an assumption that a warmer sea will result in greater evaporation, thereby putting more water in the atmosphere -- particularly around the equator -- which in turn will result in more precipitation. "It is more difficult to predict the impact of higher sea temperatures and rising sea levels. There has been a rise of 1˚C in the temperature of the Scottish coastal waters over a decade, (a big increase) which we think is because of a change in the patterns of circulation in the Atlantic. In addition sea levels are rising."
Although a rise of 30cm has been predicted for the UK by 2080, Scotland has its own peculiarities which need to be taken into account, as Dr Jim Hansom of Glasgow University's Department of Geographical and Earth Science explains. "The level of sea level rise in Scotland is dependent on what happened to the country during the last two ice ages . Draw a circle with Rannoch Moor at its centre and its outer limit passing through the Mull of Galloway, Edinburgh, Speyside, the Dornoch Firth, then through Skye, Islay and back to Galloway. The centre was where the ice was thickest and here the land is still rising. The outer limits is where the ice was at its thinnest and as a result there is less uplift. By the time you reach Northern Ireland any uplift has been replaced by subsidence. Although the relative sea level rise may be less in some places because of this, in simple terms, the sea is rising and the islands are sinking. It's a double whammy."
Although a rise of a few centimeters hardly seems the stuff of nightmares, the bigger picture is worrying. "You have to remember is that any sea level rise will be exacerbated by storm surges," Hansom adds, "and if the ocean is warming there is a chance that storms will become more severe." There is a further scenario which involves the Greenland ice sheet melting which would not only raise sea levels but put more fresh water into the Arctic ocean which could result in the shutting down of the North Atlantic Drift "This is what caused glaciers to form in Loch Lomond during the last Ice Age," said Hansom, "and the evidence is when it happened it happened quickly. If it happens this could means that the UK gets colder rather than warmer, making the temperature closer to Russia or Labrador, with sea ice forming in winter." Though a slowing of the NAD has been factored into the UKCIP02 scenarios it is however thought unlikely that it will close down totally.
Climate change will impact on every industry, but whisky is an interesting case dependent as it is on agriculture, water and weather.
One result of warmer summers is that the thermal growing season is estimated to be extended to 60 days in Scotland. Dr Mike Rivington is researcher in Land-Use Systems Modelling at Aberdeen's Macaulay Institute. He and his colleagues have run a computer simulation to assess what may happen to barley cultivation in Scotland : "It is one of those things that, potentially, climate change could be beneficial to some aspects of Scottish agriculture. The indications are that barley will be OK," he says. "That said, the model doesn't take into account pests and pathogens or the wider effects of warming, so on one hand while potential yield could be as good as today or even better, climate change itself may still have a serious impact." The heavy winter rains predicted for Scotland's main barley growing areas could affect winter grown crops while the increase in intense rainfall will also have an impact.
The industry has always adopted a belt and braces policy for barley and will also therefore need to take into account the more dramatic
changes in climate predicted for East Anglia which, it is predicted, will be more severely affected by summer droughts and rising temperature.
Rivington didn't feel that flooding would affect the main barley growing areas and believed that the change in climate could bring currently marginal hill areas into production. What they grow however will have changed. His research leads him to conclude that the whisky industry will need to develop new strains of barley to cope with the change in climatic conditions -- and that farmers will have to adjust in order to farm them. "Growing successful malting barley is down to the skill of the farmers themselves in regard to the timing and application of fertilisers and it may take some skill to adjust how best to do it with the new varieties which could be needed."
The industry of course is also dependent on buying cereals from around the world for grain production. Quite what the future holds for this trade, Rivington felt, was harder to forecast. "Trying to predict the global grain production is very difficult. Some will benefit, and others will lose out. There are attendant issues such a global population increase, the effects of climate change and governments determining where food resources are best directed. It could be that a country such as Argentina has to ask itself whether it is justifiable to send grain to Europe when it might be needed for food at home."
Any discussion with a distiller in recent years will eventually have touched on how water supplies have become increasingly problematic. Springs have been drying up in summer, burns and lochs have been lower -- partly the result of less winter snowfall as well as drier summer conditions. "The fact that less snow is predicted will result in the April thaws which traditionally have brought rivers into full spate being less prevalent," says Sherwin. "Even if winter precipitation is heavier, the summer warming will have its own knock-on effect. River temperatures in summer will definitely be warmer because the atmosphere will be warmer, and the river levels will also be lower. This may also be the case in spring."
This has its own impact on whisky production. Not only will less water be available, but higher river temperatures may mean that distilleries are effectively forbidden from using the water in the first place. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency [SEPA] sets strict upper limits on the temperature of water which is allowed to be returned to a watercourse after being used in a distillery. Increasingly, distilleries in Speyside are finding that the temperature of the water which they are taking from the river is already higher than this level, meaning that they cannot use it. Climate change seems likely to exacerbate this problem.
The temperature of condensing water is also vital in the creation of specific flavour characters. (A heavy distillate character for example needs high volumes of very cold water). It is conceivable that distilleries which are heavily dependent on this may struggle in the future. One way around both problems could be to install water cooling plants, but that would use energy. Spirit character could also be affected by any change in relative humidity as this will have an impact on maturation. Although figures suggest Scotland will be less affected by a rise in humidity than south east England should the maturation model begin to resemble that of Cognac then there will be an impact on mature spirit character.
A further issue revolves around the rise in sea levels.
As we have seen the rise will not be the same across Scotland
and though even a 30cm rise may seem insignificant, this figure
does not does not take into account increased wave height
(already noted in the past few years), the higher incidence of
storms and greater risk of storm surge [the result of low
atmospheric pressure + strong winds; or a storm coinciding
with high tide].
UKCIP02 warns that by 2050 the current 100 year high-water
mark will be reached every 20 to 40 years depending on the
location. This will put the 'soft coast' [dunes, machair, estuaries]
at risk from flooding, increased coastal erosion and estuary
realignment. "We expect to see a mean sea level rise and
stronger winter winds, therefore there will be a higher incidence
of storms," says Dr Toby Sherwin. "Distilleries should be worried
about the highest tide levels which they can cope with, because
these incidents will become more frequent and the sea will be
above the level predicted."
So who is most at risk? "Everyone on the coast, to a greater
or lesser extent," says Dr Jim Hansom. "Though there are not
many distilleries built at sea level there is the issue of erosion.
Bunnahabhain on a gravelly beach will have more of a problem
than a distillery built on rock. If there are more storms there will
be more coastal erosion and also a buildup of silt and sediment
in inlets and estuaries -- Lochindaal for example -- which could
silt up." (Quite how Islay would get its oil if this happens is
"This build-up of silt could cause flooding problems for distilleries close to estuaries -- Bladnoch for example," he continues. "Everything on
Islay will be affected in some way. In fact, any coastal distillery will see an impact to some extent. "Speyside won't be affected by a sea level
rise directly unless you have a bonded warehouse or a distillery at the 0.5m level, but any area close to sea level and on any of the flood
plains of the rivers will see a higher incidence of flooding as the rivers will back up because of the higher sea level and increased storms."
On this reading, the floods which affect low-lying distilleries such as Glen Moray will become a normal occurrence, while any building on flood plains or low-lying coastal areas (which would include maltings, warehousing and distilleries) could be affected.
All of the above are predictions and though scientists are now increasingly expert at analysing data, as Mike Rivington says: "there remain so many unknowns. There could be forces at work which we still do not understand. On one hand you have to be optimistic that we are doing something, but I still get the jitters!"
Global warming affects every aspect of out lives. Even if drastic action was taken now, it would not reverse the process.
Yet action is needed. Next, we will examine what the industry is doing about finding solutions to the potential impacts outlined here as well as reducing its own carbon footprint.
PART 2 - HOW THE INDUSTRY IS MEETING THE CHALLENGE
The whisky industry will be directly affected by the consequences of climate change. Shifting weather patterns, drought, sea level rise, sea temperature change, coastal erosion, flood plain damage, increased incidence of flooding, all will have an impact on industry infrastructure as well as on the raw materials needed to produce the spirit. The science behind climate change is now accepted and becoming increasingly, depressingly, precise. What though, in practical terms, is being done to try and reduce the effects of this inevitable change and is it enough?
Whisky-making is energy-intensive. Malting, kilning, mashing, distillation, effluent disposal, all require high amounts of energy. Transportation and packaging adds to the overall environmental impact. Like all UK industries, distillers are required to meet Government targets for reducing energy efficiency levels by 2010. Campbell Evans is director of Government and Consumer Affairs at the SWA. "The climate change agreement has set specific targets for energy usage per litre of alcohol produced. These are currently being bettered and the level is now 13.5% lower than it was in 1999, despite an upping of production. In addition, carbon emissions have also been reduced by 10%. In going forward, the SWA, through its energy committee, is looking at the potential impacts of climate change. It is an ambitious timescale, but the important fact is that we are being proactive." In many ways, the Scotch whisky industry has a head start. Heat exchangers within distilleries are hardly new innovations, waste heat is recycled wherever possible both in the distillery and, as anyone who has luxuriated in Bowmore's swimming pool can attest, in the wider community. In Wick, for example, Old Pulteney is generating electricity for neighbouring houses.
NEW BUILD NEW WAY
As established distilleries find further ways in which to reduce
energy, the new builds which are either underway or in the
planning stages are under increasing scrutiny to demonstrate
their green credentials.
"The environmental impact of the new distillery is being taken
extremely seriously, and we are looking at all options to reuse
energy and recycle water," says Michael Alexander at Diageo,
when asked about plans for the firm's mega-plant at Roseisle.
"Our aspiration is to create a distillery that will deploy the latest
technology and green practices to have a neutral impact."
"It is our intention to minimize the environmental impact of the
new distillery as far as possible in terms of water and fossil fuel
usage and discharges to the environment. In fact, we have set
an ambitious target of making the distillery water and fossil fuel
neutral. We hope to achieve this by utilising technologies that are
relatively new to the distilling industry, such as biomass boilers to
raise steam from the spent grains, and waste water treatment by
anaerobic digestion and membrane filtration. Having a maltings
close to the distillery will also allow us to maximise opportunities
for waste heat recovery."
Duncan Taylor's new plant in Huntly is aiming to be fuelled by wood chips, an option also considered by Bruichladdich for its Port Charlotte distillery. "We looked at wood chips as an option, but it was too much trouble," says Mark Reynier at the Islay distiller. "It would have been disruptive, there wasn't enough 40 year wood, it was too dirty, it required a huge storage capacity, there would have been too many lorries needed – and there wasn't enough steam pressure/generation. It was the tail wagging the dog." Bruichladdich has instead began to investigate biogas, the anaerobic digestion of organic matter (draff, pot ale, etc). "The determining question will be the size of the thing, the space available, the aesthetics and the operational practicality as much as the environmental angle," says Reynier. "These things sound really good on paper."
One solution to the issue can be seen at Deanston. "The distillery once housed the largest waterwheels in Europe and is self-sufficient in generating its own electricity, with the power source now coming from water powered turbines," explains Katherine Crisp at Burn Stewart. "In true Scottish tradition, any electricity not used in the distillation of whisky is sold back to the national grid."
New builds are not alone however. Grain distilling, the heaviest user of energy, is also receiving greater focus. Investment at the Chivas -owned Strathclyde grain plant includes the installation of a MVR (mechanical vapour recompression) plant, which captures energy from recovered steam. As a result of this and other improvements made between 2004 and 2006, the firm claims that there has been a drop of 10 % in energy usage per litre of alcohol produced and the same fall in CO2 emission levels. North British has beaten its specific energy target for 2006/7 by 25% and claims to be ahead of its target for 2009/10. The distillery has also succeeded in reducing levels of carbon dioxide, ethanol vapour and total organic carbon (a measure of the contamination in effluent) over the last three years.
Diageo is spending £39million expanding its Cameronbridge site and the firm is undertaking a joint feasibility study with Dalkia [energy management consultants] into the development of an anaerobic digestion plant at the distillery. "This potential project is in its early feasibility stage," says Alexander. "If it goes ahead, it is estimated that it will reduce our BOD [Biochemical Oxygen Demand] load by 90% at the site and would be one of the largest in Europe. We are looking to complete the feasibility in the first quarter of next year. In addition, we're examining technologies that will minimise our water usage at the site and are similarly committed to maximising re-use of demolition waste on site."
Though not as dramatic, many malt distilleries are making small but but significant
changes. "Our priorities are first and foremost quality, and secondary, ensuring that
the distillery runs as efficiently as possible," says Robert Ransom at Glenfarclas.
"Traditional Scottish prudence is very much at the heart of the distilling process with
the sale of by-products to reduce waste, and employing second hand casks. This
tradition is alive at Glenfarclas with more modern examples including the employment
of heat exchangers, a waste heat boiler and hot water evaporator, all to cut our fuel
bill, but also to the benefit of the environment."
Chivas Bros. claims that the complete reconstruction of Glenburgie has made it one
of the most energy/CO2-efficient distilleries in the industry. Interestingly however,
as a result of the water table falling Glenburgie like Longmorn, has had to sink a
deeper bore hole in order to access its water source, a further indication of climate
change. A series of heat recovery projects at Allt a Bhainne, Glenallachie, The
Glenlivet, Glentauchers, Longmorn and Strathisla Distilleries are intended to deliver
energy/CO2 reductions. The most dramatic change, the firm claims, has come at
Glendronach where the switch from coal to oil has resulted in a 50% reduction in
energy levels and the same fall in carbon emissions.
Elsewhere, more efficient boilers are being installed to help reduce emissions.
Burn Stewart has done so at Tobermory and Bunnahabhain, while Bruichladdich
has replaced its two old ones with a more efficient single one, resulted in a 29%
reduction in oil usage. Distillery manager Duncan MacGillivray has also designed a
heat exchange system which uses the heat of the pot ale to pre-heat the stills.
Efficiencies have also been made in packaging.
The Edrington Group has set up an energy task force which looks at a strategy to reduce energy use at its Glasgow HQ and bottling plant. "Over the last 4 years as a result of these energy saving initiatives, the company has achieved a net gain saving of energy of more than 1.17 million kWh, which equates to 225 tonnes of CO2," says Stan Marshall, Edrington's director of operational excellence. A programme of 'reduce, reuse and recycle' at its Glasgow bottling facility has resulted in a 60% cut in wastage in five years - an annual saving of £400,000. In addition, 79% of Edrington's waste is recycled and the company is working with suppliers to return re-usable packaging to them, resulting in savings on transport costs and emissions. Gordon & MacPhail, too, is recycling all of its paper and cardboard.
Although hardly the sexiest part of whisky production, effluent treatment and disposal also has an environmental impact and is therefore under ever-tighter guidelines. Copper levels in water discharged into rivers, for example, have very tight limits. One possible solution to improve effluent treatment is to create a reed bed to help generate an oxygen-rich environment supporting a range of micro-organisms that thrive on the nutrients present in the effluent, an option has been taken by Diageo at its Dufftown and Blair Athol distilleries. At Dufftown, the reed bed is used to 'polish' the bioplant effluent, reducing the amount of dissolved copper prior to discharge into the River Dullan. It also has the added benefit of reducing the organic and suspended solids load of the effluent stream. At Blair Athol the reed bed is used to break down the bioplant sludge and eliminates the need for it to be sprayed onto agricultural land. Likewise, Macallan has chosen "environmentally -friendly technology" to reduce the amount of copper in its discharge into the River Spey to a fifth of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency's (SEPA) consented limits.
All of this is laudable and there is compelling evidence that the industry is doing something, yet there remains a nagging feeling that it isn't being done for the sake of the environment, but for that of efficiency and cost cutting. Robert Ransom: "I am not going to claim that we are a leader in the field of making the whisky industry greener. However we will always consider new practices that help to make the distillery more efficient, and thus there would be a secondary benefit for the environment." Given the overwhelming evidence about global warming, surely this thinking should be reversed? The environment should come first. It is the 'efficiency' (ie savings) which should be the secondary benefit. Indeed, it could be argued that helping to slow climate change will inevitably see an increase in underlying costs.
Underpinning many of the comments was this feeling that commercial advantage was a more powerful motivating factor than any sense of shared environmental responsibility. "I am not convinced of the global warming/climate change/Al Gore-esque arguments, or the scientific research-induced hysteria that is being exploited by the government," says Mark Reynier. "Climate change' and 'carbon footprint' are in my view excuses. My motivation is not to save the planet, but implementing systems that will use less energy and will save money, as well as the planet. Distilleries are pretty efficient for economic reasons first and foremost and if energy savings can be made by recycling waste streams then that will be done anyhow."
This argument underpins one of the main conflicts between the business community, the Government and scientists. Business is not predisposed to being bossed around by legislators -- the feeling is intensified when scientists begin making their demands. Knowing what needs to be done and what the political and business communities are willing to do are very different things and politicians remain in thrall to the demands of a business community whose prime motivation is to safeguard its profits.
There was one comment from a distiller which pointed to this mindset. In the middle of outlining his firm's achievements, he began to discuss, "the contribution of carbon dioxide emissions to potential global climate change," (my italics). Though this might seem like splitting hairs, the use of the word 'potential' carries within it the underlying state of denial in which most of us live. It is happening. As the author of 'The End of Nature', Bill McKibben, writes: "Permafrost is melting. Get it?" Climate change is real. Accepting this and making it the priority -- even conceivably over profits -- may be a tough business decision, but it is one which will be inevitable.
"SPREADING THE WORD & THE COST OF THE DRAM"
As the world economy shrinks and personal spendable cash across the world's communities gets smaller, depending on your personal
circumstances of course, it becomes increasingly more important to find quality malts to purchase and to know which malts that you might
choose to avoid. The worst malt experience I have had is purchasing a shiny new bottle of something I had never tried because of an
impulse (equals "not researched"), getting it home and having that first dram only to find that I made an awful mistake. While I concede that
this does not occur very often (in fact only twice – but both still remain over half in full in vault), it is nonetheless disheartening. So in order to
not make my purchase a total waste, I offer these dubious bottles to my friends who also know something of whisky.
While they too find less enjoyment than normal in the bottles, they nonetheless thank me for the experience.
One premise I have held for many years is that 'life is too short for bad [fill in the blank].'
However, I have recently found flaws in the rational surrounding this premise. I have discovered in
my tastings that I must experience the great to know what great is. Likewise, I must also experience
the ….. less-than-great (to be kind) to know what great is. To this end, I no longer discriminate with
my tastings regardless of my research and my pre-conceived notions of what a malt should or should
not be. For many moons, I avoided the peatier whiskies because I could not find enjoyment in them.
Only after my palate had been adequately "trained" could I return to what I found somewhat
repulsive and find that not only did I enjoy the peaty flavors, but in fact I have become what might
be termed a "peat-head." But then again, as Maniacs much smarter and experienced then I have
said, 'who isn't these days?' Thanks, Serge!
There are two basic assumptions in development of a palate that can discern what you enjoy from
what you do not. First, it assumes that you must taste the bad. Second, you must taste the really
good. But who wants to spend say forty Dollars, Euros, Pounds or a currency equivalent on what
you do not enjoy….and then have to look at that bottle every time you open your cabinet? And who
can spend hundreds of dollars per bottle to get the really good stuff? Sure, there are plenty of
people who still have a good deal of disposable income and they will still buy their good stuff, but
for the vast majority of people these days, money is tight.
Whisky clubs offer a fine method of spreading the cost amongst several individuals and present a keen opportunity to expand one's tastings portfolio and refine one's palate. The trouble is, so few of these clubs exist in the public forum. Most are completely private or semi-public with attendance limitations. Tastings occur at festivals and sponsored events and these certainly are worth the effort to travel to if you are able. But what about the daily dram or the monthly gathering that offers camaraderie as well as whisky enjoyment? Odds are if you have not found a club to join already, you are probably going to have to take matters into your own hands and create one yourself!
For the record, Malt Maniacs is not a club. Nor are many of the societies that exist online.
There are several groups that offer membership and benefits including the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) in its various chapters, but these are hardly clubs. Fortunately for me, a couple of the more vocal and higher-profile (so to speak) clubs are here in the Southern California area. The Los Angeles Scotch Club and the Los Angeles Whisk(e)y Society (LAWS for short) are excellent examples of local clubs accomplishing exactly what they set out to do. They created a group of members that enjoy the camaraderie and really enjoy their whisk(e)y. The LA Scotch Club (www.lascotchclub.com/home) is a semi-public club (meaning open to anyone but still private and non-profit). The members and guests meet monthly to taste new bottles, discuss whisky and life, and to enjoy together the joys of a new experience. Meetings are often held in public places, bars or restaurants and the tastings are informal. Usually, three new bottles are opened and three prior bottles return from the previous meeting or meetings. Attendance usually consists of ten to twenty persons, many of which are quite knowledgeable. While there is no actual attendance limit, more than twenty persons would put a strain on the bottles to last for more than just the singular event. I do not believe that this club maintains any sort of whisky vault or reserves except for those bottles that were not finished at the prior meeting. Those usually show up at the next meeting and get kicked after the new bottles are presented and the educational discussion is finished. At that point, the members can freely sample from the bottles at their own leisure. Attendance is open to anyone who wishes to participate and the fees are quite reasonable ($20-25 for non-members; $10 for members). Actual membership is offered after an individual has attended at least three meetings and is invited to join. My own personal experience with the LA Scotch Club has been nothing but positive. The founder and Malt Master, Andy Smith, is knowledgeable and friendly and always willing to share a good dram (or bad) with a fellow enthusiast. Andy is also a member of the LA Whisk(e)y Society (LAWS).
Two excellent examples at the last meeting:
Stronachie 31yo (1976/2007 AD Ratray 52.5%); Apple pie & cinnamon spice with a balanced sweetness that was the talk of the meeting.
Dufftown - Glenlivet 16yo (1979/1996 "Sherrywood" Cadenheads 57.8%) Smoke and oak mixed with sweets and spices.
LAWS is a different animal altogether. The club is very private with few members presenting public profiles. Most are known on their website www.lawhiskeysociety.com by their initials only and others only by first name. Several members are higher-profile Hollywood film industry executives and would be known to most who are familiar with popular movies over the past decade or so. They seek privacy for obvious reasons and at their request they will not be named. However it should be noted, LAWS has a large database of whisk(e)y (the (e) is their club symbol and moniker – they relish in the idea that the world spells whisky without the "e" with the exception of the Irish and the Americans – but that is the subject of many an Epistle on this site and others – they spell it either way for no particular reason and at the whim of the writer) on their site and they have ratings for over 700 whiskies (Scotch, Irish, Canadian, American, Japanese, etc.).
LAWS meetings are much more formal, are always held at the home of the founder, and are held in the home-bar/game room/home theater where the bar contains well over a hundred bottles of club reserves. Many of these bottles would make the most discriminating enthusiast drool with anticipation. Membership is very private and only a specific invitation from a member will gain entrance. I was fortunate enough to garner an invitation through my research for this article. The members were kind enough to accommodate my attendance at a recent meeting and I was allowed to participate as an alternate. As I said, meetings are much more formal and include a dress-code. Tastings are blind and around 5-7 bottles are served for tasting notes and the presenter for the evening (the Primary Gentleman) offers knowledge and information about the whisky or the theme in general. Some form of competition often accompanies the blind tasting (hints to match the bottles to, etc.). I must say that I found this blind tasting with the competition format most enjoyable.
During the formal period, the participants are seated around a table and the bar and discuss various subjects but mostly the whisk(e)y.
Many are good friends but some are new-comers. Most have decent to excellent knowledge of whisk(e)y while others are rather new to the subject. I found that the topics of discussion ranged from where to purchase whisk(e)y, to how the Lakers (NBA) were doing, to film industry issues, to why most distilleries no longer have a true maltings floor anymore. On the night of my attendance, the theme was Dufftown (the town, not the distillery) and seven bottles (this appears to be the realistic limit for a tasting in which one would swallow – after seven drams, we all began to lose some form of ability to do something) were offered for blind tastings. They ranged in value from $40 to $250 per bottle. Attendance fees per meeting vary based upon the theme and the budget set by the Primary Gentleman. This night the budget was $65 per member ($10 extra for Alternates – those who are not yet members). Attendance is limited to 14-16 persons and is priority based. While I cannot be certain of the actual numbers of members and alternates, it appeared as though there were roughly 45 total possible participants of which 15 were in attendance that night. Once the formal tasting is over, participants are free to sample from the reserves, and as I mentioned, there are some fine bottles on the shelves (such as the Macallan 18 year 1979 Gran Reserva; Lagavulin 21 year; Brora 25 year 1981 by Signatory to name just a few). Needless to say, I tasted my share of bottles that night – thanks guys! Hope to see you again soon.
Two excellent examples at the last meeting:
Pittyvaich 28yo (1979/2007 Duncan & Taylor 52.7%) Double Mint gum, tea leaves, chocolaty oak and vanilla.
Mortlach 17 year (1989 Signatory 56.9%) Fresh baked pretzels, truffles, sautéed mushrooms, nuts and solid oaky goodness.
All of this discussion leads us to club formation. The LA Scotch Club and the LAWS club are fine organizations and I was honored to be invited to both. The only problem I have with either club is the travel. I am from Orange County which is approximately 35 miles South of Los Angeles proper. The clubs meet in either Los Angeles proper or West Hollywood Hills and both are a considerable distance from my home. The Los Angeles area does not have a solid mass transit system that runs into the night. Therefore, I either have to limit my intake (yeah, right) or inconvenience a designated driver for several hours (thanks Honey – you're the best!). So if I want this sort of experience on a regular basis, I have to earn a whole bunch of wife/family credits or I have to take matters into my own hands (or a combination of both – which is much more likely for me!).
Private club formation is not that difficult to accomplish. It only takes a few friends with a passion for whisky and the willingness to spend some time and effort putting things together. You too can do the same thing if your goal to spread the cost of your whisky across several persons in order to experience much more variety than just what you have in your cabinet or what is available at your local bar for bar prices.
First, I will assume that you would like to form a club and that you have determined that it is legal to do so in your home area (not always the case!). Next, choose a format that best suits your life-style and your goals. The two examples above are contrasting but should give you some ideas for the club guidelines. I will say, if you intend to have a vault full of quality reserves, you should definitely limit your openness to members and not just to the public. This will prevent those who have not invested in the reserves from plundering them when their only goal is to drink, not taste and enjoy. The club should have some policies and/or rules for the members and their friends to follow. Everyone should know what they are getting into. Some cash will be needed from time to time for things other than bottles (cleaning, glassware, snacks, etc.) so plan on having a petty cash stash and be sure to work in replacement funds. Ask the people you know to join you. Ask them to let their friends know. Gather a group and try things out. Eventually, everybody will find what they are comfortable with and what works best. DO NOT ALLOW DRINKING & DRIVING. Consider a breathalyzer www.breathalyzer.net for anyone who might be driving themselves and do not let anyone get behind the wheel if the thought is they might not be safe to do so! Taxis, trains, buses are usually available (Los Angeles being a notable exception).
The goal is to have fun, drink responsibly, and spread the word of whisky to those who might be less maniacal. It also is an advantage to be able to spread the cost of good bottle across several persons. Everyone benefits and all can enjoy the good stuff and experience the... less than great... without having the drink the entire bottle themselves. Everyone's currency goes further and enhances their enjoyment.
The Streah Malt Tasters Annual Exceptional Single Malt Tasting – a Gourmet's Delight (an E-Pistle from Down-under; April 2009)
You don't have to really love seafood to get the best out of
the Streah Malt Tasters annual pilgrimage to Robe in March
each year, but it sure helps. It's an annual celebration of things
malty, vinous, gamey and of course the exquisite local bounty of
the sea that locals call crayfish but is really a lobster (southern
rock lobster (jasus edwardii) and snapper (chrysophrys auratus).
Robe is a beautiful little fishing port and resort town on the
Limestone Coast three and a half hour's drive south east from
Adelaide. It's a genuinely lovely spot, being protected from the
Great Southern Ocean, by a spit of coast that sticks out due
west and allows for a sheltered harbour on the leeward/
northern side. Of course when the wind blows from the west
and not the south, the harbour and the foreshore cop a beating,
but there is a marina for all the boaties and fishermen that is
protected by a breakwater and channel from the open sea.
Robe was an important port in the early days of European settlement as it provided safe harbour for sailing ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope and picking up the Roaring Forties making for Melbourne, but needing to hold up before braving the shallow and turbulent Bass Strait. Robe is also, fortunately for history and architecture buffs, pretty well preserved with lots of buildings from the 1850's surviving until today which is pretty rare in the State of South Australia where the built environment only stretches back to 1836.
One of those early buildings, the lovely and historic Caledonian Inn built in 1859 by Peter McQueen (and where more aptly named could one possibly hold a scotch malt whisky dinner) also reflects that much of the State's early settlers were from the UK and Scotland in particular, the Scots being both great seafarers and looking for emigration opportunities resulting from the clearances. You're more likely to run into people with first names like Dougal and Fergus in this part of Australia than just about anywhere else.
Lunch was at Victoria Cottage, another relic of the 19th Century, but nicely renovated with a lovely rear deck with canopy and barbeque. The lobster and snapper were served in a couple of ways. The lobster is traditionally cooked by boiling in large coppers and then served cold, usually with freshly ground black pepper and lemon juice and sometimes with white vinegar and mayonnaise. The hosts added a chili, garlic and thai fish sauce variation to add a little bit of spice and it worked well with both versions. I'd never had fresh crayfish barbequed before and it has a totally different texture – much more like crab or fish such as flathead. Also the barbeque imparts a smoky character that adds another dimension. The snapper was served in both the traditional baked version (whole gutted fish [about 2kgs], stuffed with fresh herbs and sliced lemon and garnished with rings of lemon, wrapped in alfoil and baked in an oven) and grilled fillets on the BBQ. Both versions were delicious and were ample evidence of why Snapper is a prized eating fish in Australia.
The Menu of Single Malt Whiskies
While the food was great, the real reason that most of us were there were the whiskies. So, here's my notes and comments on the five single malts...
Glenglassaugh 1986/2006 (40%, MacPhail's Collection) - 85 points
Pale white wine in colour, shy and subdued nose to start with a little spun sugar
and toffee syrup, then opens up with vanilla pod, a hint of solvent, cream, linen,
pureed fruit (nashi pears) and baked apple pie, fresh pear juice, sweet pastry
dough and laundry powder (Lux flaxes). Freshly laundered linen; sweet, creamy
and freshly fruity. Palate is slightly warm and continuing with the fresh fruit
theme, whipped cream, some plaster and chalk with more fresh pears and
creme fraiche. Finish is warming and creamy, smooth and slightly short, with
some bitter metal.
Comments: Probably a mix of refill sherry and first fill bourbon wood, polished, gentle and balanced with a little hint of Speyside metal and a tad short - a poire william like malt. Pretty classy and nicely balanced but a tad on the bland side. Eminently drinkable; would work as either aperitif or digestif; I'd love to pair it with traditional baked apple pie or nashi pears and creme fraiche. It reminded me most of the Family Silver, but with a little more impact and interest.
Glenlivet 25yo 1973/1998 (57.2%, Signatory, Sherry, C#3307, 570 Bts.) - 87 points
Dark tawny autumn leaf brown colour with amber highlights, big oloroso up front, classic old style European oak sherry nose, (raisins, brandy pudding, brandy soaked plums and fruitcake). With a little water, more sponge cake (Dundee cake), milk chocolate, baked bananas, sterile bandages, mustard plaster, bitter cress. Undiluted palate is dominated by alcohol along with medicinal bandages with a hint of old fireplaces and cold ashes along with fruitcake and sour cherries. With water, the plum pudding, metal, wood bitters and chocolate emerge. Finish is bitey and slightly medicinal (iodine) long and warming, initially sweet then dry with powdered cocoa and some wood bitters.
Comments: Nose is excellent with and without water but the palate really needs water; big and impressive whisky, but maybe a little too aggressive on the palate to score higher.
Glenrothes 6yo 2000/2006 (56.5%, Adelphi, C#2413, 317 Bts.) - 74 points
Port red colour, with tawny brown highlights. Apart from an alcohol bite, the nose has blue vein cheese, sour cherries, toffee, Caramac confectionery and with a little water reveals balsamic, red wine vinegar and cranberry jam. It gets less pleasant with a strange perfume: overtones of slightly off mead or fermented honey gone stale. There's also a slight disconnect between the wood and the malt that gets more obvious over time as the sour cherries and the sweaty honey start to disengage.
Comments: I found sulphur in this one and then I checked my records and found that I had tasted this exact bottling before and found more obvious sulphur then causing me to score it lower. I didn't notice the sulphur as much this time, but it was still there. Adelphi admits these bottlings were controversial and I can guess why.
Strathisla 30yo (43%, Gordon & MacPhail, white label, +/-2008) - 83 points
Mahogany red in colour with autumn brown highlights. Nose has lots of mint (spearmint, mint toffee) and pyrethrum over polished oak, dried leaves, aerobically composted dry forest floor, fruitcake, berry jam & cream, mint leaves and cream; lovely and sophisticated. Palate has cherries, sour plums, brandied fruit, toffee, sterile bandages and wood bitters (angostura). Finish has sour fruit, bitters and over-extracted oak. The bitterness hangs around.
Comments: Excellent nose which raised expectations that this would be special and yet the overall package was diminished and slightly spoiled by over-extracted oak especially in the finish. The tannins got a little too insistent. There shouldn't be abiding (even if faint) bitterness in a thirty year old malt.
Glen Grant 1959-1960/1986 (40%, Gordon & MacPhail, Andrew and Fergie) - 92 points
Colour is a limpid amber/mahogany. The exceptionally clean nose has Muscat macerated fruit, pine needles, sandalwood, pineapple, meringue and cognac like citrus notes. Palate is smooth, fruity and reminiscent of orange liqueur. The finish has orange bitters and orange zest; long, pleasantly warming and syrupy, but never cloying.
Comments: Beautifully balanced and integrated - close to a great cognac but better (sorry Serge). The wood compliments and supports the malt but never takes over. This is the fifth time I've tasted this whisky since 1992 and I've never scored it less than 90. It was the standout malt in this company.
I've been to four of the Streah's Robe bashes, having only missed one in 2005, when we'd organized the MWSoA's gold medal round of whisky judging on the same weekend. Based on the four that I've attended I wouldn't miss it for quids.
Craig Daniels, Australia