Our second installment of whisky book reviews for the holidays, this one from Jonny McCormick, who appropriately notes on sending it in, “I could murder a drink!”
by Malcolm Archibald
Published by Black & White Publishing, 279 pages
As our thoughts turn to the holidays, your relatives may be looking for an interesting gift for the whisky expert in the family. Rather than a whisky tome, this is a true crime book set in the Highlands and Islands during the Victorian era and imbued with a flavor of whisky.
The Whisky Wars relate to illicit distillation in the 19th century, as the early distillers played cat and mouse with the gaugers. The Glenlivet area was notoriously rife with distillers at the time. It could seem like there was a still in every bothy, the practice fuelled by the imposition of higher duties. The revenue men chased the peat reek, attempting to intercept the whisky smugglers while they were on the move to market. Violent assaults were fought with cudgel and cutlass on lonely tracks through the glens. A musket battle erupted in the Cabrach, near Dufftown, during one attempt to root out hidden stills and copper cooling coils. The excisemen called in military reinforcements and soon redcoats were posted at isolated garrisons in bleak glens.
The commonly repeated tale of Gillespie the Gauger is included: his descent documented from swashbuckling government man to a grisly end, convicted of corruption. Legitimate distillers were on the take too: consider the cunning and ingenuity of the unscrupulous distillery manager in Pitlochry who stole maturing whisky by siphoning it from the cask through a drilled hole in the warehouse wall, to store it in secret casks buried underground.
The author has published other Scottish crime books on Glasgow and Dundee. This is neither a whisky book, nor a comprehensive academic study; instead it’s a compelling clutch of vignettes ranging across the century. The chapters romp through a series of adventurous tales, populated by a bawdy cast of 19th century Highland miscreants up to their necks in banknote forgeries, sheep stealing, embezzlement, poaching, robbery, and bloody murder. Communities unite to defend their way of life from harsh, indifferent landlords. There is little moralizing. Judges mete out punishments from transportation to Australia to hangings, public whipping, and long imprisonment with hard labor for the more savage crimes.
Even in the non-Whisky Wars part of the book, whisky stories are never far away. A distractible hotel thief is arrested when he drops his guard to help himself to some free whisky; a man is murdered in Crieff, losing his watch and a half mutchkin of whisky (an old Scots unit of measurement); an illicit distiller from Argyll is threatened with the public humiliation of being placed in the juggs (a padlocked iron collar) in his local church.
The period covered in the text is categorically 19th century. That makes the choice of a 20th century cover photo of distillery workers at Macallan sitting atop casks stamped 1917 both curious and slightly anachronistic. It’s a terrific shot, though; hirsute men in collarless shirts and young lads in baker boy caps sit rank and file with women in white aprons gripping malt shovels. Collectively, there are more production staff in this century old photograph than any modern distillery will likely have on shift today.
My only other minor criticism is the book’s internal images. These feature contemporary photographs of modern locations mentioned in the stories but I felt they added little context. The majority are underexposed like they’ve been shot at 4 p.m. on a dark winter’s day.
So lock the doors and shut out the night. Turn down the lights and pour yourself some courage. Delve into the criminal underbelly of the Scottish Highlands and Islands: the geography and terrain will be familiar to those who have trodden the whisky trail or studied the labels of their single malts. Just don’t have nightmares.
(If you are looking for a book dealing solely with smuggling and illicit distillation, there are several excellent whisky books in existence, of course. Try The Secret Still by Gavin D Smith (2002), Tales of Whisky and Smuggling by Stewart McHardy (1991) or Illicit Scotch by S.W. Sillett (1965).)
There is good news for lovers of Mortlach the distinctive, near-triple distilled Speyside single malt, renowned for its meaty full flavor, with the announcement by Diageo of four new expressions. And, I fear, bad.
Due to be available mid-2014 in global markets, the range comprises Rare Old (43.4%, no age statement); Special Strength (49%, no age statement, non-chill filtered, Travel Retail exclusive); 18 Years Old and 25 Years Old (both 43.4%). Packaging details and prices have yet to be finalized, but I understand that the ‘new’ Mortlach will be positioned as a luxury brand, with the entry level Rare Old priced alongside Johnnie Walker Platinum, and other expressions higher still.
So the good news is tempered with a wealth warning, and the further disappointing
news that stocks of the current 16 Years Old Flora & Fauna expression will not be replaced; it has effectively been withdrawn. If this is a favorite, better lay in a bottle or two!
The move has been three years in the planning and follows the welcome announcement that production of Mortlach is to double beginning November 2015, with the opening of a new, purpose-built facility that replicates in every detail the current distillery, a process that a Diageo spokesman described as “idiosyncratic, not state of the art.” Investment in the new plant exceeds £30 million ($48.5 million).
Diageo’s Dr. Nicholas Morgan, head of whisky outreach, described the move as the company’s most significant in single malt in the past decade, claiming that the new Mortlach brand will “define luxury for single malt [and] become the next great luxury brand.” Though specific competitors were not identified, this suggests that Diageo have category leaders Glenlivet and Macallan very much in their sights.
Based on a limited tasting of the new expressions, the distinctive meaty, sulfur-influenced taste of Mortlach, with heavy sherry notes, has been evolved to a more elegant and refined style, without compromising the signature power and weight beloved of fans.
These are complex, multi-layered whiskies with a considerable depth of flavor. While the beefy note has been muted (think roast pork and BBQ juices), the fruit and spice impact has been dialed up through a different balance of casks. Rare Old and Special Strength illustrate this in fascinating detail, being basically the same cask mix but presented at different strengths to draw out varying facets of spirit character. At 25 Years Old, Mortlach offers a dense, layered and extraordinarily rich taste that demands contemplation.
While lamenting the loss of the Flora & Fauna expressions, Mortlach drinkers will find much to enjoy in the new range, which will be available more readily, albeit at higher prices. Further details of the range will be announced in February next year with the products in market from the early summer.
We know the holidays are coming…er, are here, and we’re sorry this is a bit late for Hanukkah, but we wanted to get you some advice on whisky books. Here’s the first set, from Fred Minnick; more to come.
When my literary agent and I were shopping Whiskey Women, the most common rejection we received was, “Whiskey is a niche audience and doesn’t interest the masses.” That’s why many whiskey writers have been forced to self publish and American whiskey enthusiasts have had to rely on dated texts—mainstream American publishers never took whiskey books seriously.
My, oh, my, times are changing. Publishers are bringing new books to light that are good for the future of whiskey. This holiday season whiskey books are on many gift lists, and there are two new ones I highly recommend for the American whiskey fan in your life.
American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to The Nation’s Favorite Spirit by Clay Risen, an editor for the New York Times, is the first true whiskey guide dedicated to only American whiskey. Other whiskey guides have explored rye and bourbon whiskey, but they also covered Scotch, Irish and Japanese whiskies. Risen sticks to American distillations.
Risen delicately walks readers into whiskey’s past, present and future without getting on too much of soapbox. But, he sends a few jabs to distillers and bottlers, revealing where products are actually distilled and questioning odd product marketing.
With the “Old Whiskey River” brand Risen informs us Willie Nelson commissioned the whiskey, but adds a parenthetical “whatever that means.” For Bulleit bourbon, Risen uncovers the worst kept secret in modern whiskey history: the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, makes Bulleit Bourbon.
Risen’s words are meant for whiskey lovers, as he dissects every brand’s hi story and scores products on an NR (not recommended) to four-star scale. He conveniently left out flavored whiskeys and gave NRs to mostly craft whiskeys, including four Hudson whiskeys. Risen’s palate certainly skews to older bourbon, granting four stars to Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old, Michter’s 20 year old, and Jefferson’s 18 year old bourbons.
American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye is an American whiskey treasure worthy of four stars in Risen’s scoring format. One downside to this book is Risen likely made Pappy Van Winkle even more desired. When describing Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old, Risen says, “bourbon doesn’t get better.” Retailers didn’t need that!
With the growth of the Bourbon Trail and the whiskey’s mainstream media coverage, Kentucky’s bourbon experience looks to join California’s Napa Valley as a spot for adult beverage travel. But unlike Napa, Bourbon Country has lacked a truly informative guide to help folks navigate the commonwealth’s distilleries. Until now.
Kentucky Bourbon Country: The Essential Travel Guide by Susan Reigler, with photographs by Pam Spaulding, leapfrogs Internet travel sites and gives a comprehensive travel guide that digs deep into each Kentucky region.
Reigler gives a terroir look to Kentucky bourbon, breaking the book into the commonwealth’s major bourbon regions: Louisville, Frankfort and Midway, Lexington, Lawrenceburg, and Bardstown. In each section, Reigler offers the area’s bourbon history, from a brief mention of the Henry Clay distillery in the Lexington area to Frenchman Leopold Labrot’s shareholding status with the Frankfort/Midway region’s Labrot & Graham distillery, now the Woodford Reserve distillery.
As a Kentuckian, I’m thrilled with how Reigler explores not only bourbon, but takes you inside several relatively unknown destinations, such as Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Lawrenceburg, a hidden gem in this state that’s often overlooked by travel writers; the Perryville Battlefield, a Civil War park where 7,500 were killed or wounded; and along the beautiful horse farms and race tracks that complement Kentucky’s bourbon heritage.
Reigler also gives cogent driving advice that GPS programmers should listen to and great boarding recommendations. Beyond the detail of most travel guides, Kentucky Bourbon Country was most certainly written by a Kentuckian.
Both Reigler’s and Risen’s books show great promise for the whiskey book world. Just remember to read responsibly and with fine bourbon in hand.
We’re all Tweeting, expressing ourselves in 140 characters or less. This occasional series asks whisky luminaries to express themselves in the format, but all in one place. Here’s Jason Craig, Global Brand Controller for Cutty Sark. (We gave him the spaces in his answers for free, so they may go a bit over 140…)
What’s the view from your office window?
The River Tay on one side and a large tree covered hill on the other side; the sun is low and the colors are gorgeous.
Not bad; better than a car park, unless you’re fibbing. You take guitar lessons. Frustrated rock star?
Might not take that long. You like listening to music and audio books. Compatible with all your travel but running a youth soccer team and going to movies aren’t.
Long haul = movies and work. Driving a car = audio books. Air travel means showing up for football matches in a suit sometimes; lots of abuse, i.e. “check Mourinho out!”
So cruel! You’re a sociable guy: good choice for a brand created for making cocktails. Lots of nights in bars necessary?
Cocktail bars, late nights, interesting drinks and people: all for understanding the consumer and the trade. Sometimes wish my family or friends were there though.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles! Cutty Sark has great history. Good to see a brand promoted for mixing and cocktails. Do you have a favorite?
I think that classics are classics for a reason. I love an Old Fashioned. Got to be made the old school 6 minute way though…if I have the patience.
Old school way? Tell us more.
Not using gum syrup: taking the sugar, crushing it and letting it dissolve in the glass. Love the theater and anticipation of it. Bartenders don’t get enough credit!
Agreed. Some great cocktails on Cutty’s website, classics and new. Where did all the recipes come from?
We have a lot of pals associated with Cutty, the brilliant Maxxium Mixxit team – Wayne, David, Amanda, plus Gary “Godfather” Regan in the states who makes good soup too!
Cutty in soup might be nice! I’d like to try some of these myself but don’t know what size of measure a “shot” is. Any idea?
The only thing that goes in soup is a spoon or fresh bread… A shot is 25ml in grown-up countries or the 2 fingers approach in less formal places…I much prefer the latter.
Great – we’ll all try that size. Does Cutty’s usage message for mixing mean younger drinkers than average? Does that depend on market?
Most brands’ target audience age is 25+. Cutty drinkers, men and women, are already that age. Our approach aims to keep it that way! Blow away the Scotch whisky cobwebs.
I endorse that, wanted to see it for ages. A lot happening on Cutty in recent years. New pack, age extensions, Storm, Tam O’Shanter, Prohibition. Biggest challenge?
Our brand is young and cool, offers so much, loved by millions and the quality is exceptional. Biggest challenge is not taking it too seriously.
Certainly an old brand but a cool image. Some fun promotions too. The giant crate? Please tell more. Was it only London?
Cutty Cargo. Giant wooden crate, London, 380 writers, consumers, influencers – 9 acts, great food, brilliant drinks – the best emerging talent from London – NYC next.
Terrific. And Speed Rack for women bartenders. Open to misinterpretation?! Or intentional wordplay? It’s a nice idea.
I think they are brilliant. Speed Rack is a cute play on words, they raise money for breast cancer and are up front about it. We love them.
Seems the older whiskies = dumpier bottles. Tam O’Shanter pack very different from main blend, as is the whisky. What were you seeking to achieve there?
Start with the story behind the name. Dumpy allowed the etched illustration to wrap round the bottle, liquid and pack awards enhance the whole brand. Maleficent dram.
Assume you mean the Cutty Sark reference in the poem. But where did the liquid take the brand? I bet [master blender] Kirsteen Campbell had fun.
Yes the name comes up in the poem. Kirsteen, please blend 25yo Macallan, Highland Park and Glenrothes and several others…the result proved we are “A” league whisky.
Indeed they did. Cutty Sark is back in the UK after some years’ absence. Why now?
Blended scotch growing, cocktails are growing, Cutty Sark is a perfect base for mixed drinks and classy cocktails: we asked, they said yes! Long overdue – sorry UK.
Seems reasonable. Cutty Sark Prohibition is about to reach US shores. Any big launch plans? And going forward?
Prohibition is landing (legally now) in the US and many other markets too. Launching in our Cargo Crate in NYC early 2014. Might be some fedoras and passwords needed!
Maybe follow up with Gangster’s Moll and St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Seriously, any other expressions coming?
Oh hell yeah, we have around 6 killer ideas all being tested just now. Our “Spirit of Adventure” means that we can play at the edges of the category. Watch this space.
Will do. On a different tack (but marketing and personally relevant too), social media: friend or foe?
Definitely friend, gotta play there, gotta speak to our consumers, gotta embrace their world, not make them embrace ours. I love technology which keeps you in touch.
You travel a lot. If not living in God’s own whisky country where would you be? Why?
I love cities and mountains/lakes but need technology. Love Japan: they combine all that, have great food and ancient history. Be like “Lost in Translation” though.
And they drank whisky in that movie! Your desert island dram? Doesn’t have to be a brand you’ve worked on!
Ouch! Hard question. Which of your kids do you love more? Highland Park 18yo. Loved it before I worked on it and still do. Orcadian Nectar….and it is in Cutty 18yo too!
And we’re done. You’re a star – thank you. Any few last words you’d like to add?
Just that our mission is to ensure Scotch whisky is for everyone and to blow up so many of the rules and regulations.
Buffalo Trace is well-known as an innovator. They’ve won awards for it, they’ve seen plenty of ink (and pixels) for it, and they even sell the results of this innovation as their Experimental Collection; selected barrels from a reported 1,500+ variations aging in various warehouses. Distillery president Mark Brown has likened the multi-decade experimental project to a car company’s Formula 1 racing program: technical innovation to improve the general process and product.
But up until now, the experiments have focused on recipe (different grains and proportions), barrel (type of oak, size, seasoning, entry proof, and the whole Single Oak project), and things that are easily changed one or two or five barrels at a time. The E.H. Taylor microdistillery is able to feed that kind of experimentation with very small batches of different distillate. But now things move into a new arena with the christening of Warehouse X, a building expressly designed to test the effects of environment on aging. (Buffalo Trace has always designated their warehouses with single letters; the sequencing of “X” for this experimental warehouse was happily fortuitous.)
The idea for Warehouse X started years ago, literally with a sketch on the back of a napkin, a conversation between Mark Brown and former warehouse manager Ronnie Eddins. “If it hadn’t been for Ronnie Eddins,” Brown said in tribute, “there wouldn’t have been the energy for the Experimental Collection. I was intrigued by his ideas for warehouse experimentation. All the research on aging has been done to get rid of it. What about getting more out of it? Why not a glass roof, bigger windows, or smaller ones?”
But warehouses aren’t cheap, not even small experimental warehouses, so the idea slumbered for years, until a tornado tore off the back of Warehouse C in 2006. For six months, until repairs could be made, the barrels aged in the open; no wall, no roof. The whiskey was eventually bottled as E.H. Taylor “Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon.” It was, as Brown admits, a bit of a stunt, some fun.
“But the whiskey was great!” he hooted. “The whole debate on warehouse experimentation resurfaced.” Master distiller Harlen Wheatley got a $250,000 budget to design and build a small warehouse with four different bays and a “patio.”
It turned out to cost more like a million dollars when everything was said and done. One bay will age whiskey in total darkness, one will cycle in temperature (on varying schedules), one will be subject to changes in humidity (“Humidity’s a mystery,” Brown said), and the fourth will be affected by changes in airflow. The patio will try to replicate the effects of the tornado; open-air aging.
Brown thinks sunlight on the barrels may be the key, though the thought worries him, in a humorous way. “We’ll look like a bunch of chimpanzees if all we needed to age the perfect bourbon was a field full of barrels and a guard tower,” he said with a grin…a wry grin.
Of course, the question is…”the key” to what? When Buffalo Trace embarked on this project some years ago (officially; Ronnie Eddins had been running it off the books for years!), there was talk of the “holy grail,” the “perfect bourbon.” Like bourbon, we’re all older, more mature, and more mellow now (and maybe a bit woody, too), and talk of the “perfect bourbon” makes us edgy. Who’s to say what is the perfect bourbon?
Indeed, Brown agreed, and easily acknowledged that different people have clearly different ideas about it. The purpose of the experimental program is to learn what will create different character in bourbons so that the process can be more readily controlled and optimized for flavor, and sometimes very different flavor. After we’d seen the warehouse, we sat down to taste whiskeys that had been aged in Mongolian oak (incredibly smooth and fruity at only 5 years old, but at about $1,000 a barrel, don’t expect a lot of it), four and six grain bourbons, and a shockingly different — peppery, sweet mint, explosively spicy — 1 year old whiskey that Brown and Wheatley mostly grinned about without saying much, other than that it was “bourbon.”
It was clear that this project is not about changing Buffalo Trace, or Elmer T. Lee, or the Antique Collection. “We’ve thought a lot about the project on a technical level,” Brown said. “We didn’t think about retailing it.” However, he did say that there are some Experimental Collection projects that will go commercial, and allowed that the portfolio had room for “one more brand.”
Brown also emphasized that while innovation looked to the future, the distillery’s recent recognition as a National Historical Landmark (there were new banners up all over the grounds) looks to the past. The process of approval brought out even more about the site’s history, which goes back over 200 years (older than most Scotch whisky distilleries).
“This is a crusade for us,” he said. “We feel we have a custodial role; we have to get this distillery intact to the next generation.” Despite some low points, Buffalo Trace has survived, and as we walked around the distillery, it’s clear that it is thriving, stronger than ever. There are plans for expansion, something I never would have guessed would be needed when I first toured here in the 1990s.
But innovation, like the Experimental Collection and Warehouse X, begets success, especially when linked to the independence that’s characterized Buffalo Trace. Don’t expect the desire to investigate the art of bourbon manufacture and aging to change here any time soon.
My article, “LDI: The Mystery Distillery,” was published in the Winter 2011 issue of Whisky Advocate. It was a hard story to write because no one involved with the former Seagram-owned plant in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, would talk about it. Not a word, on the record or off.
A few facts about the place were known, but by 2011 it wasn’t even possible to determine exactly who owned it. Available public records simply showed the owner as Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana, LLC.
Between when the story was written and when it went to press, LDI was sold. In the nick of time, we were able to update the piece to report the sale. “In late October,” we wrote, “MGP Ingredients Inc., a major food grade ethanol (i.e., vodka) producer, announced that it is buying LDI for $15 million.”
What we did not know then was that the new ownership would be as open as the previous had been secretive. We recently spoke with Dave Dykstra, MGP vice president for sales and marketing; and Don Coffey, vice president for research and development, about the company’s plans for the Indiana plant.
Dykstra began by explaining the facility’s historical footprint as the maker of Seagram’s Gin (now owned by Pernod-Ricard) and Seagram’s Seven Crown American Blended Whiskey (now owned by Diageo). Both brands are in the value segment and though large, both have been moribund recently. Now they are growing again.
In addition to that business, MGP believes there is a need for a bulk producer that won’t compete with brand companies, globally. This applies to their whole product mix: vodka, gin, and whiskey.
“We see a huge need for it,” says Dykstra. “Most companies like dealing with us because we’re not their competitor.” They have grown the business in the 18 months since they bought it, picking up many new customers.
Although MGP is best known as a grain neutral spirits producer, the Lawrenceburg acquisition marks their return to the whiskey business. McCormick, a historic distillery in Weston, Missouri, was owned by MGP from the 1950s until 1999. MGP also made whiskey at its distillery in Pekin, Illinois, until 1993.
With its new whiskey program, MGP is aiming for 50% to 60% of its whiskey business to come from contract distilling (in which the customer buys the whiskey when it is distilled and pays an annual fee for maturation), with the rest coming from bulk or ‘spot’ sales (in which the customer buys and takes immediate delivery of aged whiskey).
“Our focus is on the European and Asian markets for growth,” says Dykstra. “And we’re focusing on the private label business.”
One early change they made was expanding their whiskey offerings. They now make five bourbon recipes, three rye recipes, and one each for corn, wheat, and malt. No other major American distillery makes that many different recipes…and they are working on more.
Coffey explained that, with so many different mash bills in play, they have decided to use one yeast for all whiskey products.
“We’re freezing that as a variable,” says Coffey. But when it comes to maturation, variety is once again the rule. “We used seven different barrels for the new mash bills,” says Coffey, “different toasts and chars, to create different sub-species of bourbon and other whiskeys.” The idea is that producers will be able to buy distinctive whiskeys from MGP, whiskeys that are uniquely their own.
“We have eight novel bourbons going now, with four more cued up,” says Coffey. “The standard is the 21% rye recipe, but we will offer a variety of small grains: oats, quinoa, whatever the customer wants. We’ll study how the small grain changes the bourbon’s character, as compared to the standard.”
Since mixtures of one or more straight bourbons are still considered straight bourbon, not a blend, the possibilities are endless.
MGP intends to be most innovative and consistent supplier of distilled spirits.
“What customers value from us are consistency and reliability, the ability to replicate success,” says Coffey. ”We want to be the customer’s research and development team.” It is their intention to supply liquid, not packaged products, as they have no bottling facility. It was sold separately to Proximo Spirits. Many of MGP’s customers are bottler-rectifiers and they don’t want to compete with their customers.
Going forward, they expect to upgrade many of the distillery’s systems and will expand capacity as needed. They’ve sold most of the aged inventory made under the former owners but the warehouses are filling up again.
As a large, fulltime, non-brand producer that values creativity and innovation, MGP of Indiana adds a welcome new dimension to the American whiskey landscape.
Here it is: a sneak preview of Whisky Advocate‘s winter 2013 issue’s Buying Guide. Revealed here are the top 10 rated whiskies. We begin the list with #10 and conclude with the #1 highest-rated whisky of the issue.
#10: Forty Creek Heart of Gold, 43%, C$70
Each fall, whisky lovers in Canada and Texas anticipate John Hall’s new limited edition whisky. This year’s sits squarely in the golden heart of classic Canadian rye. Tingling gingery pepper is bathed in ultra-creamy butterscotch, woody maple syrup, black tea, and barley sugar. Prune juice and ripe dark fruits dissolve into dried apricots and zesty hints of citrus. Then floral rye notes turn dusty, with gentle wisps of willow smoke. Complex, full-bodied, and slowly evolving, so let it breathe.—Davin de Kergommeaux
Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 93
#9: Thomas H. Handy Sazerac, 64.2%, $70
The youthful, testosterone-laden member of the Antique Collection family. Bold and spicy with cinnamon and clove, but softened and balanced by thick toffee, vanilla, and honeyed orchard fruit. Lush and mouth-coating. An exercise in extremes: bold, muscular spice, along with soothing sweeter notes. While its older sibling, Sazerac 18 year old, expresses a classic “older rye” low-risk profile, Handy pushes the envelope in many directions.—John Hansell
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93
#8: Eagle Rare 17 year old (bottled Spring 2013), 45%, $70
Often overlooked in this portfolio because it isn’t barrel proof. The last few years of this bourbon have been wonderful. This year is no exception, with a bit more spice. Notes of nutty toffee, caramel, creamy vanilla, and pot still rum, with interwoven hints of oak resin, dried spice, tobacco, and honeyed fruit. Hint of barrel char and anise for intrigue. Delicious! (And actually 19 years old, even though it bears the traditional 17 year age statement.)—John Hansell
Surprisingly reserved on the oak spice; it tastes like a bourbon half its age. Soothing in nature, with layers of sweetness (honey, vanilla cream, caramel, nougat), lively complex fruit (coconut, pineapple, ripe peach, honeydew melon), and gentle cinnamon. Soft, creamy finish. A whiskey that has aged very gracefully. Delicious! (This is a single barrel; every barrel is unique.)—John Hansell
#6: Sazerac 18 year old (bottled Fall 2013), 45%, $70
Still lively for 18 years old, with no hint of interfering oak. The age has softened the rye spice, making it an easy entry into the premium rye category. The balance here is beautiful, with rounded spice (mint, cinnamon, licorice root) on a bed of soft vanilla and caramel. Gently, dry finish. Very sophisticated for a rye. It remains my benchmark for extra-matured rye whiskeys, which are becoming exceedingly scarce.—John Hansell
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95
#5: William Larue Weller, 68.1%, $70
The traditionally gentle demeanor of this wheated bourbon is jazzed up with some lovely complex spice (mostly coming from the oak). Sweet notes of maple syrup, silky caramel, blackberry jam, and blueberry are peppered with notes of allspice spiked with cinnamon and vanilla. Soft leather on the finish. Great balance. A lovely whiskey!—John Hansell
Less alcohol than past Staggs, even at 128.2° proof. This whiskey has always been one of the best in the portfolio, and its reputation is intact. Sweeter and fuller in body than recent releases, and not as masculine, making it easier to drink. (Don’t worry; it’s still a big Stagg, but with a smaller “rack.”) Vanilla taffy, nougat, dates, polished oak, roasted nuts, leather, and tobacco: it’s all there.—John Hansell
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95
#3: Yoichi 1988 single cask, 62%, €185
Though aged in virgin American oak, it’s distillery character that’s in charge here; a fully expressive Yoichi. Rich, mysterious, layered, mixing rich fruit compote with scented coastal smoke (ozone, tar, soot) alongside masses of vetiver and cigar humidor. The palate is oily and immense, with fluxing layers of sweet fruit, oily peat, salt, and ink; camphor, flax seed, and in among the smoke, apple mint. Long, insanely complex, and jaw-droppingly good. This will go down as a classic.—Dave Broom
#2: Redbreast 21 year old, 46%, $180
Wow! After the wonderful 12 year old cask strength, Redbreast does it again. This is a different beast altogether, but it is a stunner. This is Roger Waters doing The Wall: over the top, unsubtle, and totally entertaining. There’s lots going on: fermenting apples, juicy oils, spice, and dark cherry and berry fruits zip and fizz over the palate, the wood influence is sublime. I’m comfortably numb.—Dominic Roskrow
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96
A marriage of 13 and 18 year old bourbons. A mature yet very elegant whiskey, with a silky texture and so easy to embrace with a splash of water. Balanced notes of honeyed vanilla, soft caramel, a basket of complex orchard fruit, blackberry, papaya, and a dusting of cocoa and nutmeg; smooth finish. Sophisticated, stylish, with well-defined flavors. A classic!—John Hansell
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 97
Whiskey prices keep climbing, and none of us are happy about it. It’s a simple matter of economics: supply vs. demand. The entire world has discovered the joy of whiskey and there isn’t enough to go around.
But if we can set aside the price issue for a moment and look at the quality of the product on the market, it’s quite apparent to me that 2013 will go down as a great year for premium and super-premium bourbon, and other American whiskeys, like rye and Tennessee. Let’s take a look at what’s been released this year.
The premium whiskeys we expect to be great every year are great again this year
Then there’s the new Parker’s Heritage Collection “Promise of Hope” bottling. While the Antique Collection might get all the attention, Parker’s new release is just great, honest, no frills bourbon that I could drink every day and never tire of it.
On top of this, we have another stunning Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch for 2013. After we gave the 2012 Limited Edition Whisky Advocate’s “American Whiskey of the Year” honors, I thought that there was no way Jim Rutledge and the team at Four Roses could ever match that one. But they did with the 2013 Small Batch release! And the Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Single Barrel offering is no slouch either.
Even the “hit and miss” annual releases are great this year
2013 saw two different Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection releases, six bottles in total—four different wheated bourbons that experimented with barrel entry proof and two 15 year old bourbons that varied the barrel stave seasoning times. All four wheated bourbons, while tasting quite different, were very good to excellent. The 15 year old bourbon with the extended 13 month stave drying time blew me away with enriched sweet, creamy notes that balanced the dried oak spice that comes with 15 years of aging, without the harsh tannins often found in bourbon that old.
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon release for 2013 was the best in many years. And my Elijah Craig 21 year old Single Barrel rocked! (Mine was from Barrel No. 42 if you’re keeping track. I did taste whiskey from other barrels and they were still good, but not quite of the stature of No. 42.)
George Dickel gets into the act too!
After wishing for years that George Dickel would put out some great super-premium Tennessee whiskeys, they finally did. I was thrilled to see them introduce to retailers the new single cask “hand selected barrel” offerings at both 9 and 14 years of age—and higher proof! I particularly enjoyed the 9 year old samples I tasted. There’s so much untapped potential there at Dickel. Let’s start tapping it.
The new stuff is also exciting
Angel’s Envy Rye was like a breath of fresh air, combining rye spice with the rummy notes gained from being finished off in rum barrels. Beam came out with a new Distiller’s Masterpiece finished in PX casks and two new “Signature Craft” releases; one a standard 12 year old, the other finished with Spanish brandy. Wild Turkey Forgiven married bourbon with rye whiskeys. Okay, so maybe some of this new stuff isn’t of the caliber of the other whiskeys I mentioned above, but it was the icing on the cake of a really great year.
Sure, there’s still some ho-hum whiskeys
The Stagg Jr. I reviewed was a bit harsh and aggressive on the finish, and I could take or leave the two new Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Limited Edition Malt releases. Still, these were the exceptions to what otherwise was an outstanding year for premium and super-premium American whiskey.
All this, and not one mention of Pappy…
It’s been a good year for Canada’s Okanagan Spirits. To begin with, a break on the standard retail mark-up in the provincially-owned liquor stores for distillers using locally-grown ingredients – which this fruit belt operation does exclusively – was rather unexpectedly announced in the early spring by the government of the company’s home province of British Columbia. Then came word from the World Spirits Competition in Klagenfurt, Austria, where Okanagan Spirits was awarded not only World Class Distillery certification, but also the titles of Distillery of the Year 2013 and Spirit of the Year 2013, the latter for their Blackcurrant Liqueur.
Now a six-year project has finally come to completion with the arrival of Laird of Fintry Single Malt Whisky, distilled from 100% British Columbia-grown barley and aged in French and American oak. Although no doubt better known for their fruit-based eaux de vie and Taboo Absinthe, the Laird of Fintry is in many ways a landmark release for Okanagan Spirits, representing in production and aging almost a full two-thirds of the distillery’s existence.
“At the time, we weren’t sure we could even make a whisky, so it was more of an experiment than anything else,” explains Rodney Goodchild, marketing and operations director for Okanagan Spirits. “We had a brewery make the wash for us and were able to distill just a single barrel out of it. Then, as time went on, we kept tasting it and tasting it until at about eighteen months we realized that it was evolving into something quite nice.”
The whisky is titled with the nickname given to an early 20th century settler, James Cameron Dun Waters, who named what is now the Fintry Estate provincial park for his Scottish hometown. The distillery has been producing about a dozen barrels of whisky per year, says Goodchild. So while that initial run has resulted in rather meagre release – leading to a lottery-style sale that had 1,527 people vying for an opportunity to buy the a mere 210 bottles of the whisky – there will be more available next year and in the years to come. One key to Okanagan generating more whisky for sale will definitely be a change in what can only in the loosest of terms be called “warehousing.”
“The distillery has no real warehouse,” says Goodchild, noting that the only other significantly aged product is an 18 month old apple brandy, “So we’re currently storing the barrels in the retail area. The problem is, with the changes in temperature and the dryness of our winters, we estimate that we’re losing about 12% of the spirit per year.” Okanagan Spirits aims to reduce that overly generous angel’s share with the construction of a glass walled barrel room adjacent to their current retail space and tasting bar.
As for the whisky itself, its nose is possessed of a surprising maturity for a spirit so relatively young, with aromas of plum, cooked pear, and stewed and spiced raisins accompanying the expected notes of vanilla and toffee. On the palate, however, its youthfulness shines, with ample but integrated oakiness and effusive, sweet notes of both fresh and baked pear, apple and yellow plum, caramel and baking spice, all leading to a still fruity, vanilla-accented finish.
Although it is obviously a grain-based spirit, the Laird of Fintry seems to channel the character of many of its stablemates in the Okanagan Spirits portfolio, specifically the fruit eaux de vie for which the distillery is becoming quite famous. As an operation committed to the use of local ingredients, that is not at all a bad thing.
True, in this batch and at this age, the whisky is not likely to excite anyone approaching it in search of Speyside or Highland complexities, or even the simpler charms of a pot-distilled Irish whiskey. But in terms of speaking to its terroir in the one of the largest fruit-growing regions in Canada, it can only be considered a success, and a harbinger of greater things to come from western Canada’s original and arguably greatest and most successful craft distillery.
Energetic bidding by some enthusiastic collectors saw just 55 lots of rare whiskies raise over $400,000 at an auction in London’s Apothecaries Hall on October 17. Records were repeatedly broken as generous bidding drew applause from an audience of senior whisky executives, top retailers, collectors, and a few writers (who were applauding more than bidding, such were the prices).
The event was organized by the Worshipful Company of Distillers in aid of four drinks trade and related charities. Founded in 1638 as a trade guild for distillers in the City of London, today the Worshipful Company embraces all sectors of the UK’s distilling industry and devotes much of its work to charitable giving. The auction, the first of its kind, was the vision of this year’s Master of the Company, Brian Morrison—formerly of Morrison Bowmore and today chairman of the Scottish Liqueur Center—who donated many of the lots from his private stocks.
All the lots had been donated and auctioneering services were provided pro bono by Christie’s. Thus the hammer price reflects the actual price paid by the buyer and 100% of the proceeds will be received by the charities.
Notable successes on the evening were:
- The Dalmore 1964 One of One, created specifically for the Auction, which sold for £28,000. This is the most expensive Dalmore ever sold at live auction and the second most expensive bottle of whisky auctioned in 2013.
- The Hazelwood set comprising bottlings released by William Grant & Sons to celebrate Janet Sheed Robert’s 90th, 100th, 105th and 110th birthdays sold for £31,000.
- The Johnnie Walker Director’s Blend Series, donated by Diageo and comprising the entire set of six unavailable bottlings sold for £23,000.
- The most expensive Glenury-Royal ever auctioned at £2,600.
- The most expensive bottle of Bladnoch ever auctioned at £1,100
Among the bidders were U.S. collector Mahesh Patel; leading UK retailer and collector Sukhinder Singh of The Whisky Exchange; and, bidding enthusiastically and successfully by telephone, representatives of UK specialist chain The Whisky Shop. Also present was Diageo’s recent CEO Paul Walsh, who acquired a rare vintage bottle of Mortlach single malt dating from the 1920s or 30s for a relatively modest £3,000.
Cheapest lot of the evening was a group of 3 bottles from various retirement dinners for Allied Distillers’ Directors which made £190. Elsewhere a charity premium was evident with bidders clearly in a generous mood—as an example, a Kilchoman Inaugural Release which might elsewhere fetch £90-120 was knocked down at £200. Many of the lots exceeded their estimates, often by a substantial margin.
But the main drama of the evening came with the final lot. Donated by Morrison Bowmore, this was a completely unique Bowmore 1964 (48 year old, 41.2% abv) created specifically for the auction. Packaged in a silver-mounted, hand-blown bottle and individually crafted Scottish oak cabinet, this was estimated to reach £30,000. In the event, furious bidding pushed the price to £50,000 (where it paused to accept a round of applause) but was finally knocked down for the record price of £61,000. It will find a new home in Mahesh Patel’s growing collection of fine and rare whiskies. It was a busy evening for Patel who, by my count, acquired twelve lots including the three top-priced items, spending close to $250,000 during the evening.
According to the auctioneers, the Bowmore 1964 was 2013’s most expensive bottle of whisky, the second most expensive ever sold at live auction in history, and the most expensive Bowmore ever sold at live auction.
Both the Morrison Bowmore executives present (who snapped up some lesser lots for their corporate archives) and Brian Morrison for the Worshipful Company of Distillers were naturally in buoyant mood afterwards. Morrison himself was at pains to acknowledge the generosity of both donors and bidders.
“As a Livery Company, charity is at the heart of what we are about,” he told me afterwards. “This evening was a long held ambition of ours and I can honestly say I am humbled by the response of our industry, both in terms of donations and the bidding. Last night will live long in the memory of The Worshipful Company of Distillers.”
Does this evening represent a high point in whisky auction prices? While my own views on “investment” in whisky have been well aired on this site (and have not changed), the key elements here are the charity factor; the prestige associations of the evening and the unique nature of many of the lots. There is perhaps little to be learned from this glittering event, other than the pleasant conclusion that the licensed trade in general and the whisky industry and its followers in particular can be notably generous when the occasion arises. And that is something we can all celebrate.