Archive for January, 2008

Friday’s Pick: Compass Box Canto Cask 46

Friday, January 11th, 2008

Compass Box, Canto Cask 46, 53.2%, $65
Aged in new French Oak cask heads with a long toasting. Deliciously creamy, sweet toasty profile, with coconut cream, toasted marshmallow, toffee pudding and honeyed vanilla. Gentle spice notes (especially clove) and hints of fruit dance on the palate. Very soothing. (Bottled for Park Avenue Liquor)

Advanced Malt Advocate magazine rating: 91

Inside scoop: Sazerac Rye 18 year old

Thursday, January 10th, 2008

Have you noticed how all the old rye whiskeys on the market keep getting older? (Rittenhouse Rye 21 is now a 23 year old,  Willett Rye 21 is now a 23 year old, etc.)

Except for one, that is.

Sazerac Rye 18 never even became a 21 year old, let alone 23. For the past two years, while everyone else’s rye became two years older, Sazerac Rye stayed 18 years old. How? The whiskey’s owner, Buffalo Trace Distillery, transferred the whiskey into stainless steel tanks two years ago.

Your initial reaction to this might be a negative one. Aging whiskey in stainless steel tanks? That’s not very romantic, is it? Almost deceiving, perhaps.

But, I think this was a very smart move on their part. Sazerac Rye 18 year old is a classic whiskey. It has been ever since it was released several years ago. The 2005 release was Malt Advocate magazine’s “American Whiskey of the Year”. Why take the risk of aging it for another year (or two) and have the wood begin to dominate the flavor profile? (Which I feel is the case with both Rittenhouse Rye 23 and Vintage Rye 23, by the way.)

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. My friends at Buffalo Trace were nice enough to tell me their little secret back in 2005. I kept my mouth shut and didn’t tell anybody. But I decided to not review the 2006 release when it came out. Ditto the 2007. After all, it’s just the same whiskey, which I already reviewed in 2005.

Or is it?

I went to Buffalo Trace a month ago to talk with the guys there about a different topic (to be published in the next issue of Malt Advocate, by the way). We were having dinner at the reception center and, sure enough, there were a couple different vintages of Sazerac Rye 18 on the bar. With my assumption that the past three vintages came from stainless steel, I wondered if my logic was correct–that the whiskeys from all three vintages were identical. They had all three vintages (2005-2007), so we lined them up and tasted them.

Immediately it was clear that 2006 was different than the other two. Noticeably different. But for the wrong reason. Turns out that the bottle was corked! (When was the last time that happened?) And it was the only bottle they had. So much for our little experiment that night.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So, after returning back home, I asked the distillery if they would kind enough to send me samples of all three vintages, which they did. So, I nosed and tasted each one.

Surprisingly, each one was different. Subtle, but different. The 2005 seems very clean, polished, crisp, somewhat creamy and elegant (and my choice of the three). The 2006, and particularly the 2007 are beefier, a bit more rustic, with sort of leathery/resin character to it. Still lovely whiskeys, just different.

How could this be, I wondered? In theory, the whiskey shouldn’t change it taste at all. All three samples should taste the same. Could it be that whiskey ages in stainless steel? Highly doubtful. But could it change? Apparently so.

I’m not aware of many examples of whiskey being aged in stainless steel. But, one I am aware of is the Hirsch bourbon bottlings (16 year old and 20 year old) that were distilled at the old Michter’s distillery in Pennsylvania. These stocks were wisely transferred to stainless steel to keep them from getting too old.

How do I know this?  I discovered this when I was touring, ironically, the Buffalo Trace distillery (then called Ancient Age) about a decade or so ago. I saw these two stainless steel tanks and inquired as to what was in them. Hirsch whiskey!

Getting back to the Sazerac Rye, I then asked Mark Brown, President and CEO of Buffalo Trace, how his rye whiskey aging in stainless steel could change from one year to the next. Did they come from the same tanks? From the same batch of barrels? He said he would investigate. This morning, he gave me his response, and I will share it with you:

John, we have done some more thorough research into your question. Thankfully, some of the explanation is easy.
The 2005 whiskey came from a different set of barrels than the 2006 and 2007 releases. [We] have confirmed that first whiskey taken from the tank was the 2006 release. My apologies for the confusion.
Now to the question 2006 and 2007 releases being different. Initially, we placed the rye in a single 13,500 gallon tank, and then bottled out the 2006 release.  The 2007 release was bottled from the same tank, roughly 12 months later.  The tank is considered large by us, with a good sized surface area, which would likely cause a couple of things to happen:
–    Higher evaporation rates
–    Higher tank turnover due to convection, resulting in more exposure to the air
Most recently, we have moved the whiskey into 3 x 2,100 gallon tanks (not full), so it should be interesting to see, what, if any further changes occur. Hope this helps clear up the mystery.

Wow, is all this stuff really cool or what? It appears that the change in flavor may be due to oxidation in the tanks, but who knows? When the 2008 vintage comes out later in 2008, I can tell you one thing for sure. I’m not going to assume anything! I’m looking forward to trying it–and comparing it to the 2006 and 2007 releases.

I wonder, though, how many other whiskey (and whisky) companies are aging their whiskey in stainless steel tanks and just not telling us? Many thanks to Buffalo Trace for letting me share this very interesting information with you.

Is it the beginning of the end of reciprocation?

Tuesday, January 8th, 2008

It’s a well known fact that the Scotch whisky industry reciprocates with each other. Companies with blended whiskies (which is just about everyone) need certain whiskies from their competition to formulate their blends, so they buy or trade for them with money or stocks of their own whisky which their competitors need for their blends.

Buying whisky from your competition? No one wants to buy whiskies from their competition if they don’t have to. And they would certainly want to keep the whisky they make for their own blends, rather than supplying their competition.  Especially now, when supplies are tight and demand is up. 

You can bet that, as these companies crank up production and look at their estimates for the next few decades, they will want to factor in enough production to cover what they need for their blends too. But, they will have to do more than just crank up production. They will need to devote a certain portion of their production to creating experimental whiskies that will mimic the whiskies that they currently don’t make and must procure from their competition.

Of course, it’s not like this sort of thing hasn’t been done before. Seagram experimented with making smoky whiskies (i.e. Glenisle) from their non-smoky Speyside distilleries decades ago because they didn’t have any Islay whiskies in their portfolio. United Distillers (now Diageo) cranked up the peating level for Brora back a few decades ago to take some pressure off of Lagavulin.

When Burn Stewart took over Bunnahabhain (and the Black Bottle blend) just this past decade, they started dedicating a certain portion of their production to making smoky whisky–which Bunnahabhain normally isn’t! They need smoky whisky for the Black Bottle blend and the more smoky whisky they make “in house”, the less they have to buy from their competitors. Indeed, they have already released a bottle of smoky Bunnahabhain for a recent Islay Whisky Festival (Feis Ile), and I now see smoky Bunnahabhain whiskies available through the independent bottlers.

The desire to not reciprocate bodes well for us, the whisky enthusiast.  It forces whisky companies to experiment, and hopefully some of these experimentations will eventually show up in a bottle in one form or another.

And here’s a little secret for you: when it comes to experimentation driven by a lack of reciprocation, the Japanese have the Scots beaten hands down!

The Japanese whisky industry, while only a little more than 80 years old, doesn’t reciprocate. This has forced each whisky company, like Suntory, to experiment right from the beginning. Let me tell you, I can only think of one Scotch distillery (Bruichladdich) and one bourbon distillery (Buffalo Trace) that comes close to what Suntory has been doing for a very long time.

Don’t believe me? Just spend a day or two with Suntory at their research lab, and visit their two distilleries, Yamazaki and Hakushu. You will be very impressed.

I don’t know how all this will play out over the next few decades. This will largely be a “behind the scenes” sort of thing. After all, Burn Stewart isn’t going to be sending out press releases telling everyone that they cut back Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg by 15% in their Black Bottle blend and replaced it with a peated Bunnahabhain. We will just have to wait and see if the personality of blended whiskies (like Dewar’s, Chivas, J&B, etc.) change in flavor or complexity over the next few decades.

If it means that we’ll be enjoying some new, exciting and “untraditional” malt whiskies in the future (brought on by a lack of reciprocation), then I’m willing to take that risk.

News clip blunder #1 for 2008

Sunday, January 6th, 2008

If you’ve been following my blog last year, you’ll know I gave several examples where writers for newspapers or magazines (some of them highly regarded) wrote articles on whisky that contained blatant errors. It was clear that they didn’t know what they were writing about.

We all make mistakes and I’m willing to allow some latitude, but errors of this magnitude shouldn’t happen. It is bad for the producer and the consumer. It’s worse than not writing anything at all.

Well, this year, I’m going to keep track, and it didn’t take too long to find one. News clip #1 for 2008 comes from the January 2008 issue of Go magazine. It’s entitled, of all things, “Whisk(e)y 101”.

I knew there was going to be trouble when the author poses the question “But what’s the difference between scotch and whiskey.”

She later notes that “scotch is made from malted barley, which explains why it is also called malt whiskey.”

So much for blended scotch.

She then moves on to Irish whiskey, explaining that “Irish single malts are typically made from a combination of malted and unmalted barley.”

It’s so important for writers to educate consumers about pure pot still whiskey, and statements like just makes things worse.

But, here’s my favorite line:

“Bushmills Irish whiskey and Glenfiddich Scotch whisky both credit the local water near their distilleries as the source of their distinctive flavors.”

So, that’s how they do it…

I could go and list other examples from this article, but I think you get the point. I will do what I have done with the other misleading articles last year. I’ll let the publication know of the mistakes. Hopefully, this will help to minimize future blunders.

We all need to police people writing on whisky and make sure they help our cause, not hurt it. If you see an article that is misleading, point it out to me. Let’s do our best to spread the word and correct these mistakes.

Friday’s Pick: Wild Turkey American Spirit

Friday, January 4th, 2008

Wild Turkey American Spirit, 15 year old, 50%, $90
A clean, well-rounded bourbon packed with flavor. Deep amber, with tinges of gold. Rich, silky aromas, with thickly textured, seamless flavors on the palate. Incredibly smooth, too, with interwoven notes of toffee, molasses, creamy vanilla, and candy corn. Underlying lush fruit, cinnamon, and fresh mint—especially on the finish—round everything out. Some of the previous “extra matured” Wild Turkey whiskeys have occasionally shown their age on the finish, being a little heavy on the oak. Not this one. Nicely done.

Advanced Malt Advocate Magazine Rating: 94

What’s in store for 2008?

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

Welcome to 2008 everyone. The whisky industry is booming. Distilleries are working at full capacity. New distilleries and new warehouses are being built.

But guess what? None of this is going to help us (the consumer) in 2008. All this will be great in a decade or two, but demand out-stripping supply in the short term is going to make it rough for us in several ways.

  • Prices will continue to rise much faster than inflation. You think whiskies are expensive? Just wait.
  • Some expressions will be phased out due to lack of stock. Expect to see a continuation of the trend of new expressions lacking age statements, allowing the distiller more latitude in cask selection.
  • Independent bottlers will continue to struggle accessing stocks of quality whisky. My advice here: try before you buy to make sure you know what you’re getting.

There is a silver lining in this whisky cloud. As companies adjust their portfolios to supply us whisky driven by the strained stocks they have, they will introduce new expressions over the next several years to replace existing ones for which they can’t fulfill the demand. This should be exciting.

(A more detailed discussion of this topic appears in the upcoming 1st Quarter 2008 issue of Malt Advocate magazine)