Archive for July, 2013

The downside to single cask bottlings

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

John HansellScotch distillers do it. Bourbon distillers do it. For many independent bottlers, it’s their livelihood: bottling whisky one barrel at a time.

This is generally thought to be a good thing by most whisky consumers. After all, those generic “bottom shelf brands” are bottlings of many barrels mingled together, not one barrel at a time. They lack individuality, distinction. And some of the best whiskies I’ve ever tasted have been single cask bottlings.

So, what’s the problem then, you ask? Well, let me use the analogy of a choir and a soloist. If you’re a great singer and you’re in a choir, you certainly will help make the choir sound better, but you’ll be lost in the crowd and not fully appreciated. You’re better off singing solo, so everyone can hear and appreciate your talents.

But what if you’re not a great singer and you sing solo? Everyone hears you. Your faults are fully exposed. You have no place to hide, no other voices to compensate for your weaknesses. And let’s face it: very few of us are great singers.

The same goes for whisky. Sure, I’ve had some amazing single cask bottlings of whiskies, and I am so glad they were able to “sing solo.” But for every amazing bottling I’ve tried, there’s probably ten I’ve tasted that would have been better “mingled” with other barrels before being bottled, to help hide their flaws or compensate for their weaknesses.

Sure, buying from a reputable producer (or independent bottler) increases the odds that you will be satisfied with your purchase, but each cask of whisky is unique in it’s flavor profile. That’s what makes them so much fun to try, but that’s also where the risk lies. It’s a two-edged sword.

Additionally, I find that the whiskies from many distilleries taste better when the bottling consists of a mix of both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, not just one or the other. (Not always–I still love Glenmorangie aged exclusively in bourbon oak, for example.)

I was recently sent review samples of single casks from an independent bottler. One was distilled at Tobermory and aged in a sherry cask; the other was distilled at Longmorn and aged in a refill bourbon casks. The sherry dominated the Tobermory whisky, and the Longmorn, because of its extensive aging, was dry on the palate and could have used some sherry sweetness and fruitiness to balance the flavor profile. These are just two examples to explain my point, but it happens all the time.

Bottom line: buying a bottle of single cask whisky is exciting, but it’s also risky. If you can, “try before you buy” so you know what you’re getting. If you can’t try it first, stick with producers and bottlers you trust.

Million Pound Whisky

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

Gavin SmithGavin Smith reports on the new “Paterson Collection;” a dozen unique bottles of The Dalmore for an asking price of £987,500.

Paterson Collection group bottle shotIt had to come at some point: the “million pound whisky.” And here it is. To be fair, The Paterson Collection of a dozen unique bottles of The Dalmore is actually on sale for £987,500, rather than a straight million pounds. However, that’s just because top London retailer Harrods decided it didn’t want this collaboration to be all about price, and instead hoped that people would focus on the rarity of the actual product and the sheer excellence of its presentation.

Nice idea, but it seems unlikely many headlines will be generated that don’t include the phrase “million pound whisky.”

This venture by The Dalmore’s parent company Whyte & Mackay, is the work of master blender Richard Paterson, and may be seen as the culmination of The Richard holding bottleDalmore’s campaign to offer ultra-exclusive expressions, as exemplified in last year’s 21-bottle Constellation Collection, the first of which sold for £158,000.

The Paterson Collection is certain to increase the entrenchment between whisky drinkers and whisky collectors. It will undoubtedly attract criticism in some quarters along the lines that the whole project is divorced from the reality of the mainstream marketplace, and is effectively the equivalent of a motor manufacturer unveiling a futuristic concept car to gain publicity and a halo effect for its more down-to-earth offerings aimed at mere mortals.

Nonetheless, Harrods is confident its one-off Paterson Collection will sell and sell soon, though whether the purchaser sits down with a group of friends to drink their way through the twelve bottles remains to be seen. Richard Paterson is a passionate advocate of the view that whisky, especially very old and rare whisky, is there to be drunk, not form part of a hedge fund portfolio, but this collection seems destined to remain unopened, due to its value and unique nature.

So just what is the potential buyer getting for his or her money, and what will he or she be missing out on by not drinking it?

In order to create the collection, Paterson has plundered the darkest corners of Dalmore’s warehouses. The oldest whisky to be included in the series dates from 1926, while the youngest was distilled in 1995. Each decade from the 1920s to the 1990s is represented within the Collection, and every expression is named after one of Paterson’s Scotch whisky heroes. These are not single cask bottlings, however, but “assemblages” from several casks, which in many cases have then undergone secondary maturation in different types of cask prior to bottling.

Richard and Paterson Collection cabinetAccording to Paterson, “I personally have invested a huge amount of time ensuring that each of these twelve expressions represent the very best of the incredibly rare and valuable stocks that we nurture up at the distillery in Alness.”

Glencairn Crystal has designed lead crystal decanters for the collection, which is housed in a wooden cabinet made by Gavin Robertson. Paterson himself has spent an estimated 1,000 hours or more crafting the contents of an 800-page handwritten, calfskin “ledger,” detailing aspects of Dalmore’s heritage, his own career, characteristically flamboyant tasting notes for the whiskies, and the story of how The Paterson Collection came into being.

The excellence of the whiskies themselves is not in doubt, and neither is the lavish yet discreet manner of their presentation. But can they really be worth £1 million? If someone buys them, then the answer presumably is yes!

What’s up at Deanston?

Friday, July 19th, 2013

Ian Buxton talks to Burn Stewart’s master blender Ian MacMillan about the new moves at Deanston.

To be honest, it’s not a distillery we hear very much about.

To be blunt, that’s for the very good reason that—until quite recently—there wasn’t that much to talk about. Though the original buildings date back to 1785 (when it was a cotton mill, powered by the River Teith) it was only converted to a distillery in 1965. The whisky was, well, nothing to write home about.

It’s been in the Burn Stewart portfolio since 1990, when they bought it from Invergordon. Production was restarted the following year. For most of its life under the previous management, it was churning out quantities of humdrum malt, all destined for blends, generally at no great age. For a while that carried on as Burn Stewart built their Scottish Leader brand, and the consequence of that was that any single malts that were released were a little less than exciting. Poor old Deanston hardly excited anyone.

Ian Macmillan fall 2012 LRBut, behind the scenes, things were slowly changing. Burn Stewart’s master blender Ian MacMillan—a traditional, “came up the hard way” whisky man if ever I met one—was quietly taking Deanston back to its roots and making a Perthshire style of whisky.

Now this isn’t something you hear about very much, but Perthshire was once a major distilling center. Where today there are just 6 distilleries, go back to the 19th Century and over 140 separate operations flourished in the “Big County,” as it’s known. The Perthshire style was distinct: slightly sweet, fruity, and full of heather honey notes. The Dewar brothers built their first distillery there and today Aberfeldy is probably the last prominent exponent of this style. You’ll find it at the heart of the Dewar’s blends—softer, more rounded and slightly sweeter than many—and in their signature Aberfeldy single malt.

So, without copying Aberfeldy (what would be the point?), Ian determined to bring some history back into Deanston. Despite the growth of Scottish Leader, he persuaded his marketing and sales colleagues to hold back some of this spirit until it was fully mature and, at last, showing what the distillery can really do.

I rate it one of the most improved whiskies I’ve drunk in recent years. But even that hadn’t prepared me for the range of special releases that Ian showed at a recent tasting and which are now exclusively available to visitors to the distillery. (In passing, I’ll mention that around $1 million has been spent on visitor facilities, which are just celebrating their first birthday. If you can make the trip, you’ll be glad that you did.)

After trying the sweet, fresh, waxy new make we tasted the 15 year old Toasted Oak expression—690 bottles from eight different bourbon barrels, an experiment with four different levels of char and toast, all vatted to finish in four hogsheads. At 56.0% ABV, non-chill filtered and naturally colored, it exploded in the mouth to reveal exceptionally rich and dark flavors reminiscent of single estate rum.

This was followed by the Spanish Oak expression (57.4% ABV, 11 year old) which had aged in very old oloroso sherry casks before being finished in a Spanish oak cask used for Gonzalez Byass’ La Panto brandy. This massive whisky, totally unexpected for Deanston, held layers of burnt sugar; ripe fruits; nuts; caramel and dark fruit cake flavors that kept arriving in wave after wave of intense taste explosions. Bad news: there was only a single butt and the stock is going fast.

However, do not despair. Coming soon is the Virgin Oak expression which may enjoy wider availability. A vatting of 6, 8, and 10 year old Deanston is finished for just a few weeks in brand new American oak from Kentucky, and tantalizes with a spicy hit, followed by that underlying Perthshire sweetness that’s fast becoming a distillery signature.

Now Deanston and Burn Stewart have new owners. Having been packaged off by the Trinidadian Government, where the parent CL Financial group ended up in 2008, Burn Stewart is now owned by Distell of South Africa, who recently paid £160 million (around $240 million) for the distillery and its two sisters, Tobermory and Bunnahabhain. Distell are known for their South African brandies and their Three Ships brand of SA whiskies.

Though the two companies have known each other for some years—they have a joint venture in Africa—this is a significant structural move. So what does the future hold?

Everyone I spoke to was positive, both on and off the record. The company’s head of marketing, John Alden, spoke of new opportunities in new markets and the potential for Burn Stewart to grow now that it has strong and stable financial backing.

If anything, Ian MacMillan was even more positive. He welcomed the changes and the fact that control now lies with distilling people rather than financiers. I mentioned, in a good way, that he was a traditionalist. “It’s the people who make whisky what it is,” he insisted, “not computers, and their personal idiosyncrasies are reflected in its personality and character. It’s made to drink.”

He’s been making whisky you want to drink for some years now. Only today is it emerging into the light. I urge you to try some of the ‘new’ Deanston. It’s a major step up for this hitherto largely anonymous distillery, but if you try some you’ll realize why you’ll soon be hearing more about it.


R.I.P. Elmer T. Lee

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

ETL signed bottlesThe bourbon industry lost a great man today: Elmer T. Lee. I first met Elmer back in 1997, when he gave me a personal tour of the (then) Ancient Age distillery. He was very knowledgeable, kind, funny, and humble. I saw him many times after that–often at WhiskyFest or at the distillery–and it was always an honor to be in his presence.

I thought Mark Brown’s (President of Buffalo Trace distillery) note today captured my feelings nicely. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I’ve decided to post Mark’s note below.

Incidentally, the last time I was with Elmer was at his 90th Birthday party at the distillery in 2009, which was a great time. Both the first time I met him and last time I met him, he signed a bottle of his namesake’s bourbon for me. (Shown in the picture.) One of these is getting opened tonight, as I toast to a man who meant so much to so many people–especially me.


 July 16, 2013

Dear Friends,

It is with a very heavy heart that I share with you that our beloved Master Distiller Emeritus Elmer T. Lee, 93, passed away July 16, 2013 after a short illness.

In the world of making really fine whiskey the role of Master Distiller is pivotal, but Elmer’s meaning to those he met, came to know, and worked with closely extended far beyond that of a Master Distiller. Elmer defined, in the simplest terms, what it means to be a great American – hard working, self-made, courageous, honest, kind, humble, and humorous.

Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee, of Buffalo Trace  photographed on Tuesday  May 14, 2013  in Frankfort, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | StaffElmer was born in 1919 on a tobacco farm near Peaks Mill in Franklin County, Ky. He graduated from Frankfort County High School in 1936 and worked for Jarman Shoe Company until December 1941. He then served with the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II as a radar bombardier on a B-29. After flying missions against Japan through 1945, Elmer was honorably discharged in January 1946. He returned home and studied engineering at the University of Kentucky, where he graduated with honors in 1949.

In September 1949 Elmer began working in the engineering department of the George T. Stagg Distillery in Frankfort. In 1966, Elmer was promoted to plant superintendent, responsible for all plant operations and reporting to the plant manager. 1n 1969, he became plant manager.

But it was in 1984 that Elmer’s contribution to the bourbon industry gained him the most notoriety, when he introduced Blanton’s, the world’s first Single Barrel Bourbon.  Elmer retired in 1985 but continued to serve as an ambassador for Buffalo Trace, and in 1986 he was honored with his very own single barrel bourbon, Elmer T. Lee. Of course, for those of us who knew Elmer, he never really retired. Every Tuesday we could see Elmer making his rounds at the Distillery in his trademark cap, signing bottles, posters, and other memorabilia at the Gift Shop, visiting his friends in Blanton’s Bottling Hall, and tasting bourbons (for quality control purposes!) in the lab.

Elmer was always ready to offer advice, and was a wealth of information that many of us relied on, myself included. Harlen Wheatley would inquire with Elmer when stuck on a mechanical problem, and any historical questions about the Distillery always went to Elmer, who, with his razor sharp memory, could invariably answer.  To all of us, Elmer was a friend, a mentor, and a trusted advisor.

Elmer was known through the bourbon industry for his expertise and knowledge about bourbon whiskey and he received numerous awards and recognition, including induction into the Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2001, the Lifetime Achievement Award from Whisky Advocate in 2002, and the Lifetime Achievement Award and Hall of Fame induction from Whisky Magazine in 2012.

We have lost a wonderful friend today, and he will be missed terribly.

Services for Elmer T. Lee are pending and will be announced shortly.


Mark Brown

Angel’s Envy Distillery Breaks Ground

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Whisky Advocate contributor Fred Minnick reports on the new Angel’s Envy distillery.

Angel's Envy Three HendersonsLouisville Distilling Company, the maker’s of Angel’s Envy, is turning a former hobo hangout into a $12 million distillery in downtown Louisville. Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, Louisville mayor Greg Fischer, spirits executives, and dozens of reporters attended the Angel’s Envy distillery groundbreaking on July 9 at the former Vermont American building, which had been vacant since 1986.

“Four years ago, we started looking for a distillery and kicked every piece of dirt in area,” said Wes Henderson, the company’s chief operating officer.

In May, broke the news about a downtown location with social media rumors circling around the Vermont building, a stone’s throw away from the city’s minor league baseball park, Slugger Field. “This was the worst-kept secret in the history of urban development,” Fischer said.

The planned opening is December 2014, and there’s a lot of work to do. When Angel’s Envy selected the building, public officials kicked out 30 homeless people, who, along with gang members, had shattered glass, cracked floors, busted brick walls, and marked their territory with spray cans. In the future stillroom, artists from the “Hole in the Wall Gang” and the “Living Dead” gang painted wolf’s heads and hypnotizing owls. On the second floor, where future fermenters will stand, gorgeous city and Ohio river views are marred by tacky markings.

Despite a few soft floors with holes, and busted brick façades, the foundation is in good shape. Nonetheless, standing water and yellow caution tape make the future distillery appear more like a CSI scene.

But the architects, Joseph & Joseph, are accustomed with distillery fixer-uppers. Since 1908, the firm has built dozens of distilleries, including Four Roses, Stitzel-Weller, and Brown-Forman facilities. Joseph & Joseph is also turning downtown Louisville’s Fort Nelson building into the Michter’s distillery.

The building actually carries a historical significance to the brand. Master distiller Lincoln Henderson’s father built equipment for the Vermont building; Lincoln remembers hanging out at the building as a kid. Now the legendary Henderson, a member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame and former Brown-Forman master distiller, works alongside his son, Wes, and grandson, Kyle, to create one of the fastest-growing spirits in the U.S. market.

The new distillery will eventually have the capacity to create roughly 31 barrels of whiskey a day from a column still made by the Louisville-based Vendome Copper & Brass Works.

Since launching its first product in 2010, Angel’s Envy has become a lightning rod of sorts in the bourbon industry. The first non-extension bourbon product line finished in port casks made Angel’s Envy a “love it or hate it” whiskey. Purists denied its bourbon ties…while fans quickly bought up as much as they could.

One fan of Angel’s Envy is the Kentucky governor. Thanks to the Kentucky Economic Finance Authority, Angel’s Envy is eligible for $800,000 in state tax incentives and another $72,000 through the Kentucky Enterprise Initiative Act.

“This is another great development for our international industry of bourbon,” Beshear said. “Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon. And quite frankly, the other 5 percent is counterfeit.”

Louisville was once the American whiskey Wall Street. Hundreds of rectifiers and distillers were headquartered along Main Street, an area known as Whiskey Row. Today, developers are calling the area Bourbon Row and are trying to resurrect a forgotten piece of American history.

In the past year, Michter’s, Evan Williams and the Peerless Distillery have broken ground on Main Street distilleries. I’m also aware of another very famous bourbon name working on a Main Street distillery location, while Louisville’s Stitzel-Weller distillery may be the most highly anticipated distillery reopening in history.

Of all these, Wes Henderson believes Angel’s Envy “will bring bourbon back to Whiskey Row.”

Why are you buying whisky?

Monday, July 8th, 2013

What triggered me to write this? The onslaught of whisky collections that I see people posting up on Facebook. I’ve never seen so many unopened bottles of Pappy Van Winkle, A. H. Hirsch, Ardbeg, Brora, and Port Ellen. People speak of putting whisky in their “bunker” like there’s another World War or Prohibition imminent. It’s amazing what happens when you combine passion with disposable income.

I should know. I confess that I was guilty of “Whisky OCD” myself once, but I’ve been reformed. Instead of buying whiskies and stashing them away somewhere in my house, I’m opening up my whiskies, drinking them, and sharing them with like-minded friends.

What changed my attitude on whisky? Two things. It began when I was perusing a coffee table book about an Italian whisky collector, and it included pictures of his whisky collection. Many of the bottles lost so much volume do to evaporation, the quality of the whiskies were obviously compromised. Instead of being impressed with his collection, it made me sad to see so many bottles wasted, all for the sake of amassing this enormous whisky collection.

The second thing that changed my relationship with whisky was when a very prominent whisky collector and enthusiast passed away. He died before he could even enjoy and share the 1,000 plus whiskies he had accumulated. Instead, his wife put them up for auction!

It was at that moment I decided that I’m not letting any of my whiskies go to waste. The first thing I did was stop buying whisky. The second thing I did was go through my bottles and see which ones looked like they were beginning to evaporate due to imperfect corks or metal enclosures and immediately put them on my “whiskies to drink next” list, so I could enjoy them before they go bad.

The third thing I did, which brings me back to the title of this post, is take a look at the whiskies I had  and ask myself why I bought them in the first place. It was usually for one of three reasons: it was rare, great tasting, or it had sentimental value to me.

I took all the whiskies I purchased because they were rare and immediately started opening them and using them in the many whisky tastings I was hosting at the time. I figured this might be the only opportunity these people will have to taste them. Some of you reading this might have been to one of these tastings. They weren’t necessarily great-tasting whiskies, but they were rare. I also sold some at auction because the prices people are paying for rare whiskies these days, whether they taste good or not, is ridiculous.

Then I looked at my remaining whiskies (the ones that taste great or are special to me for sentimental reasons) and mapped out a plan on what to do with them.  Some I’m sharing or giving away as gifts, some I’m saving for special occasions, and some I’m opening up for no particular reason at all–the whisky becomes the special occasion. My goal for these whiskies is to make sure they are enjoyed and consumed–preferably while I’m still alive!

Why am I taking the time to tell you about this? It’s not to talk about how many whiskies I have (or had) or what brands of whiskies I have. In fact, I intentionally did not mention quantities or brands, because that’s not the point of my post. I’m hoping you will take a step back and ask yourself why you’re buying whisky (especially if you’re buying and hoarding them like some of the pictures I’m seeing on Facebook). Is it for the right reasons, and what are those reasons?