Who knows whether Shinjiro Torii, when he opened his Torii Shoten store in 1899 in Osaka, envisaged his family firm becoming the world’s third-largest drinks group? Or that, in pioneering whisky distilling in Japan and creating a style that was recognizably Japanese and not a scotch copy, he would excite the world’s palates; that the values he laid out would have lasted for over a century.
A few years ago I met with his grandson, Shingo Torii, Suntory’s vice-president and master blender. Then, among other things, we discussed the philosophy which, he felt, helped define Suntory. “It has been about creating and developing a positive tradition, and it is this tradition, or what you could even call ‘inheritance,’ which should be understood by everyone within the company. It is important that it is handed down.”
As other drinks firms increasingly seem attracted to short-term fixes, these embedded values have given a consistency to the firm’s long-term vision for whisky. Neither does “consistency” mean “conservative.” You don’t spend $16 billion buying a competitor if you are that. After all, one of Shinjiro Torii’s first principles was “Yatte Minahare!” [Go For It!]
Suntory has always been based around innovation. This is the firm that transformed the stagnant domestic Japanese whisky through the HiBall revolution, while its research into whisky production at Yamazaki leaves other distillers scratching their heads in disbelief.
I remember asking Torii-san whether a family company was in a better position to take this approach. “I see family management as simply a form of style, he replied. “However, it is also true that this style has enabled Suntory to pursue its dream for a significant period of time and makes the moral values which lie at the heart of the business a top priority in the firm’s values.”
Seen in that light, the acquisition of Beam is the most visible manifestation of a very long-term strategy. What has resulted is the creation of the only firm that plays in every one of the world’s key whisk(e)y styles. Beam’s stake in bourbon, yes, but also blended scotch and single malt whisky, particularly peated. Beam Suntory is the biggest single player in Japanese whisky, but also owns Canadian Club and the world’s rye whisky specialist, Alberta Distillers; and then there’s Cooley, from Ireland. It is an astounding—and deep—portfolio.
It will be interesting to see how these Suntory principles are absorbed within American business culture and how the new management handles this range. “We have a deep conviction for making product,” said Torii-san. “In addition, [it is about] having a long-term plan, in terms of half a century or even a century, and being able to maintain a sense of humility.”
Humility is not a word you hear in whisky often—it is one which should be heard more often in business—but if these Suntory values are maintained, then a measured, long-term approach to building these brands can only benefit the category and consumers. Beam Suntory should not merely be a bourbon firm with some interesting stuff in its second tier.
It took $16 billion to break the duopoly of Diageo and Pernod-Ricard, but there’s a new kid in town, a new seat at the table. Who else could be our Distiller of the Year? Whisky’s pieces have been fundamentally rearranged. Things will never be the same. —Dave Broom
That’s our final Whisky Advocate Award announcement for 2014. We’ll see you in the comments section!
We have two Lifetime Achievement Awards this year, for two men who have made their careers in the Scotch whisky industry. Colin Scott has served as the master blender for the prestigious Chivas Regal and Royal Salute lines of blended whisky; Duncan McGillivray has wrestled with the Victorian-era machinery of Bruichladdich and brought it to heel. We salute their achievements and dedication.
Colin Scott, Chivas Brothers
Chivas Brothers’ master blender Colin Scott has spent 41 years working in the Scotch whisky industry, having been brought up next to Highland Park distillery on Orkney. Both his father and grandfather worked for Robertson & Baxter Ltd. (the historical core of today’s Edrington Group), so it was perhaps inevitable that he followed them into the trade, starting out as a trainee manager for The Glenlivet Distillers Ltd. in 1973.
Early experience was gained in the firm’s Leith bottling plant, before a move to its Newbridge bottling site after Leith’s closure. Having embraced package quality and spirit quality operations, he joined the blending team at Paisley, near Glasgow, learning the art of blending from the legendary Jimmy Lang.
In 1989 he took on the role of master blender, initially focusing on Chivas Regal 12 year old and Royal Salute 21 year old, but also growing the two brand ‘families’ over time. In 1997 he introduced Chivas Regal 18 year old, now global leader in its category, then the 25 year old expression in 2007. Meanwhile, the Royal Salute portfolio was expanded to include 38 year old Stone of Destiny, Tribute to Honour, 62 Gun Salute, 100 Casks Selection, and Diamond Tribute.
During his career Colin has worked for just three companies. Glenlivet Distillers was acquired by Seagram Ltd. in 1978, and Seagram in turn was bought out by Pernod Ricard and Diageo in 2001, at which point Pernod Ricard took control of the Chivas Brothers portfolio.
In addition to his practical blending role, Colin has also emerged as a highly engaging and effective ambassador for the Chivas blends, traveling the world to demonstrate and discuss their virtues.
In recognition of his contribution to the Scotch whisky industry, Colin was appointed a Master of the Quaich in 2008, a decade after being inducted as a Keeper of the Quaich, Scotland’s most prestigious whisky society. —Gavin D Smith
Duncan McGillivray, Bruichladdich
If there’s anything Duncan McGillivray is known for, it’s his commitment to the Scotch whisky industry. Since he started in 1974 until his retirement in 2014, Duncan has served in a variety of roles at Bruichladdich distillery, from lorry driver to brewer to—most recently—general manager. His tenure, in fact, surpasses that of any of the distillery’s various owners.
McGillivray, a prolific Gaelic speaker who grew up on a farm five miles from the distillery, is also known for his innate ability to put even the most antiquated machinery back into working order. An engineer by training, he was originally hired to be a stillman at Bruichladdich, but his technical wizardry proved useful beyond the stillroom and he became the resident engineer, repairman, and all-around Mr. Fix-It.
The distillery was shuttered in 1994, but in 2000, an English wine merchant planning to rejuvenate the place recruited then-Bowmore distiller Jim McEwan to reawaken the distillery. McEwan hand-selected Duncan to return and get the facility up and running. Duncan did that and then some. Many at the company are quick to credit his resourcefulness and skills as fundamental to Bruichladdich’s renaissance. He improvised solutions to repair and upgrade the facility’s original Victorian-era equipment, and he did it all on a shoestring budget. If a boiler broke down, everyone knew to call Duncan. If a new piece of equipment arrived and needed to be integrated into the system, call on Duncan. You could say he spearheaded the effort that turned the quaint plant with creaky machinery into a distillery with popular and cult appeal that turns out 2.5 million liters of spirit annually.
Duncan has been as critical to setting the friendly, informal mood at Bruichladdich as he was in overseeing spirit production, famously stopping to chat with tourists. Ask any Islay citizen about him and people are quick to praise him as a convivial, industrious, clever, modest friend, neighbor, and citizen who regularly throws down what he’s doing if you need his help. —Liza Weisstuch
Join us tomorrow for the final award announcement: Distiller of the Year.
Rosebank 1992 21 year old (Diageo Special Releases 2014), 55.3%, $500
The late Michael Jackson described the demise of Rosebank as “…a grievous loss,” and it remains one of the most mourned of silent distilleries, almost in the same league as Brora and Port Ellen.
There have been some very good independent bottlings of the triple-distilled Rosebank in recent times, but arguably the best expressions have been Diageo’s 2011 and 2014 Special Releases ‘house’ bottling of Rosebank, both offered at 21 years of age. The 2014 Special Release was distilled during 1992, just a few months before the distillery closed, never to resume production.
It has been matured exclusively in refill American oak casks, while some of the component whiskies in the 2011 release were matured in a combination of refill American oak and European oak casks. The result is a slightly sweeter and more textured 2014 expression, with orchard fruits gaining greater prominence, while both enjoy a pleasing degree of complexity.
Pricing will inevitably be seen as an issue with this expression, but Diageo appears to have decided that with such an active ‘secondary’ market for the Special Releases they will attempt to cut out the middleman, as it were, and the proof of the pricing will be in the selling. However, the speed at which the 4,530 bottles move off the shelves may not be Diageo’s foremost priority with this series, which serves more as a cask strength single malt showcase for its distillery portfolio.
As the Lowland single malt category is seeing a welcome revival with the development of Kingsbarns and Eden Mill in Fife and Annandale in Dumfries-shire, while several other Lowland distillery projects are under consideration or awaiting planning approval, it is to be hoped that in the not too distant future we will see new pretenders fighting the likes of Rosebank for the Lowland crown. —Gavin Smith
Whisky Advocate’s 21st Annual Lifetime Achievement Award will be announced tomorrow.
Arran The Devil’s Punchbowl III The Fiendish Finale, 53.4%, $130
John Grant of Glenfarclas distillery once told me that in his opinion no really top-quality single malt whisky had been produced in any Scottish distillery built since the Victorian era. Scanning the list of 20th century distilleries, he may have a point, but if one gives the lie to Grant’s premise, then it is surely Isle of Arran.
Established in 1993, Arran has matured as a whisky-making operation as the years have passed, from the slightly panicky, scattergun approach of many cask finishes to the calm, assured, and beautifully made 16 and 17 year old single malts, with an 18 year old not too far from release.
The availability of stocks of maturing spirit in a diverse range of cask types and with a relatively wide age spectrum has allowed master distiller James MacTaggart to offer a number of well-received limited editions, marketed at affordable prices, without age statements.
‘NAS’ whisky at its best can be very good, just as it can sometimes be decidedly mediocre, particularly when the principal purpose is to eke out diminishing aged stocks. However, given a free rein in the Arran warehouses, MacTaggart has proved with his trilogy of Devil’s Punchbowl releases that he has a real mastery over their assemblage.
The third and final expression in Arran’s Devil’s Punchbowl series has been matured in eight oloroso sherry butts, five bourbon barrels, and eight French oak barriques, all of undisclosed vintages. The sherry wood-matured component has gifted this ultimate dram backbone and resonance, with dried fruits and chocolate notes, while bourbon barrels have added a soft vanilla sweetness, and the French barriques provided spicy oak.
Whisky from each cask type at just the right age and in just the right proportion has resulted in a complex and harmonious yet individualistic whole, showcasing Arran at its very best. —Gavin Smith
The Lowlands and Campbeltown Single Malt Whisky of the Year will be revealed tomorrow.
Signatory (distilled at Laphroaig) 1998, 60.8%, £100
Another toughie. The best have been small batches this year: Lagavulin’s Feis Ile bottling, Bruichladdich’s Bere Barley, and the coming of age of Port Charlotte. The winner however was that rarity, Laphroaig in sherry.
I know that the official line is that Laphroaig is best suited to American oak casks; they give the whisky a sweet element to balance its tarry, seaweedy depths. They work, no doubt about it, but you know there’s just something about this big bruiser of a single malt that works when given longer-term maturation in sherry wood.
Here you had the dark fruits of the cask melding with the distillery’s creosoted depths, while the medicinal iodine-like element, which was very much to the fore, found an ideal partner in the resinous richness of the wood. The smoke was fully integrated, running alongside all of this complexity, adding aromatic and textural layers to the whole package. And, perhaps most surprising of all a sweet fruitiness ran in the middle. It was also one of those whiskies with a character I’m getting obsessive about; the effect of long, controlled oxidation. Air is the forgotten element in whisky aging. Complex and compelling.
It is also evidence, if it were needed, of the continuing consistent excellence of the casks being bottled by Signatory. Independent bottlers are, for some reason, being slightly overlooked. Seek them out and snap up the best bottlings. Yes, this was limited and has undoubtedly gone by the time you read this (you were given fair warning!), but seek out great whisky bars and see if they have one squirrelled away. And yes, let it be said that this is the standard that the new official 15 year old should be aiming at. —Dave Broom
Be sure to join us tomorrow; we’ll announce our Highlands and Islands Single Malt Whisky of the Year.
Craigellachie 17 Year Old, 46%, £83
This was tough, almost impossible in fact. There was a stellar tranche of Glenfarclas Family Casks whose 1987 Cask #3829, was the best overall Speysider in terms of liquid for me. For sheer consistency, look no further than Glenfarclas. It was pushed hard by an amazing Cragganmore bottled for Friends of the Classic Malts. Then how could you ignore the remarkable revamp of Mortlach, which showed the layered complexity that lies in this distillery’s make, and that there is more to the beast of Dufftown than heavy sherry?
But for me they were shaded by the quartet of Craigellachie releases. Obviously, the quality is there. No one will be disappointed by these. The packaging is a thing of quirky beauty. All are bottled at 46% with no chill-filtering and no caramel. But Craigellachie gets the nod for what it says. This is one of those rare beasts, a statement whisky. Let’s face it, none of us had really tried Craigellachie. The odd single cask maybe, but these were never more than snapshots, often with a weird Instagram filter on top.
The Craig is defiantly old-fashioned. It’s proud to say the new make is deliberately sulfury. The 17 year old is fleshy, with heavy florals, a hint of pineapple, and a little of the vetiver which grows in time. Complex, in other words. It sticks to the palate and forces you to appreciate its complexities. It is uncompromisingly itself, so that you have to appreciate it on its terms. The liquid showed us that rare thing in single malt: something completely new. Yes, it is left-field, it is brave, it is bold, but it is also delicious…and you don’t need a second mortgage to buy a bottle. —Dave Broom
The Islay Single Malt of the Year will be revealed tomorrow.
The Last Drop 50 year old, 50.9%, $4,000
The story is compelling. In 1972, a batch of more than seventy malts and twelve grain whiskies were blended together and left to marry in sherry oak casks. Their intended destiny was to become an agreeable 12 year old blended Scotch whisky. Each of the constituent mature whiskies had been distilled between the 1940s and 1960. These days, we lament the loss of many of the distilleries where those historical liquids originated.
The sherry casks were disgorged for bottling and the contents consumed through the 1970s, around the dance floors of noisy clubs and across smoky public bars in provincial hotels. However, in the darkness of a warehouse at Auchentoshan distillery, three casks were overlooked, forgotten about for nearly four decades. By good fortune, they were uncovered by the gentlemen of The Last Drop Distillers Limited. They were astounded by the flavors and smoothness produced after this lengthy, inadvertent sherry maturation. Naturally, they set about acquiring the casks, subsequently releasing just 1,347 bottles. Back in 2008, The Last Drop 1960 was one of this magazine’s top ten whiskies of the year.
Guilefully (cognizant of the company name), they tactically reserved a quarter of the volume and risked re-casking it for further maturation in small, fresh sherry casks. After four years of careful observation, the youngest liquid in the blend had comfortably surpassed 50 years old. It was time to taste the results.
When I wrote my original review, I found a nose of maple syrup, roasted spices, pomegranate, cilantro, and mushrooms soaked with beefsteak juices. The luxurious mouthfeel oozed with malt, molasses, and sherry concluding with a dry, resinous finish. The amazement experienced in the texture and mouthfeel by those discerning drinkers who have developed their palates is something to behold. Be under no illusion: this is epic whisky.
While this blend was carefully selected for this award purely for its outstanding experiential qualities, there are only 388 bottles and the price tag cannot be ignored. Sure, it costs twice as much as The Last Drop 1960, but it is much scarcer: for every two bottles of 50 year old, there were seven bottles of 1960 released. Put it in context with the prices charged for some 50 year old single malt whiskies released in 2014, and this 50 year old blend of malts comes in at under one sixth of the price or less. Trust me, within the oeuvre of blended Scotch whisky, The Last Drop 50 year old is truly one of the greats. —Jonny McCormick
Join us tomorrow for the Speyside Single Malt of the Year announcement.
Broger Burn Out, 42%, €48
The World Whisky of the Year award has previously been bestowed upon whiskies from Asia (Yamazaki in 2007, Kavalan in 2013) and the Indian subcontinent (Amrut in 2010, and 2011), but only once to a European whisky (Millstone in 2012).
However, this year’s recipient is Broger Burn Out, a rather special Austrian single malt whisky. Brothers Bruno and Eugen Broger head up the family business, which has become a leading light of the Austrian Whisky Association. Their distillery is based in Klaus, Vorarlberg, in the far western tip of Austria, nestling close to the border with Germany, Lichtenstein, and Switzerland. Whisky production began there in 2008, though there was no shortage of technical experience, as earlier generations of the family had been distilling fruit brandies and other spirits for many years. Although their orderly range consists of just five whiskies, they bring a creative and enthusiastic approach to quality and innovation. For example, their Broger Medium Smoked whisky uses barley kilned over beechwood, like a Rauchbier. Further diversification of flavor comes from maturing whiskies in a variety of casks, from sherry, port, and Madeira to French Limousin oak and Château d’Yquem casks.
For Burn Out, they knew exactly what they wanted and imported heavily peated Scottish malt to create a burly, bruising, peaty style of whisky. Mr. Barley Farmer, your boys took a hell of a peating! Warm asphalt, rubber boots, iodine, and storm-lashed seaweed on the nose will enrapture devotees of the robust Islay style. Yet secretly, underneath that rugged, challenging exterior, it’s a big softy. Warm and tender sweetness pricked with roasted orange and plain chocolate, it treads lightly on the tongue, yet sustains a harmonious balance through to its flickering, sooty ending. It’s a magnificent creation and a worthy winner that deserves much wider recognition. —Jonny McCormick
Be sure to check back tomorrow. The Blended/Blended Malt Whisky of the Year will be announced.
There’s been a bit of discussion in the comments sections of the Awards posts (and in other social media) that makes it apparent that our Awards process may be misunderstood by a few of you, so I’d like to clarify. While we do review whiskies all year long, and give them points—ratings—the awards don’t necessarily go to the highest-rated whisky for a given category. There’s a bit more to it than that. This holds true, not just for my American Whiskey of the Year pick, but for all the award selections.
We noted this in our December 3rd awards announcement: “As always, these awards are not simply assigned to the whiskies that get the highest ratings in our reviews. The winners might be the highest-rated, or they might instead be the most significant, or the most important, or represent a new direction for a category or niche. The awards process is not, in short, a mere numbers-based formula. It is recognition of a combination of excellence, innovation, tradition, and…simply great-tasting whisky.”
For example, my American Whiskey of the Year pick, the Sazerac 18 year old, wasn’t my highest-rated American whiskey in 2014. There were other whiskeys I gave higher ratings.
The reason I chose the Sazerac 18 yr. involved the other factors. For example, the way that Buffalo Trace had the wisdom to “preserve” a classic whiskey in its prime by transferring it to stainless steel tanks, rather than let it age further (and likely deteriorate) in oak barrels, deserves recognition. It’s something that consumers have been benefiting from for many years now, and it’s a key reason why I picked this whiskey. That’s the “tie breaker” I mention in my awards write-up. (And I use the phrase “tie breaker” in a figurative sense.)
I hope this helps everyone understand how we chose our awards. It’s not just about picking our highest-rated whiskies for the year; we could do that with a simple sort of the ratings database. It’s about identifying the landmark whiskies for a year, the ones that made a difference, or signaled a change…or in this case, a welcome and important non-change.
Ichiro’s Malt The Joker (Distilled At Hanyu), 57.7%, £220
At the time of writing, everyone is asking me about Japanese whisky, which is fantastic. Is it really good, Dave? Yes, I respond. I’ve been saying that for close on 20 years and am happy to continue to do so. When you consider that Japanese distillers have been perfecting their craft for over 90 years, it would be more surprising if they weren’t making award-winning, world-class whisky. It’s good to see people getting the message.
This year’s choice is a tinged with sadness, because it marks the end of an era in Japanese whisky. The Joker is the last of Ichiro Akuto’s Card Series, his 54-strong release program of whisky from his family’s defunct Hanyu distillery, which was demolished in 2000. Each bottling was named after a playing card (there are two Jokers; the other is a single cask with a black-and-white label, so rare that I don’t know anyone who has even seen it, bar tried it).
Some of the Cards were magnificent, some didn’t rock my boat, but all were never less than interesting to taste and discuss. Hanyu made a bold whisky that was out of step with Japan’s palate at the time, but one that, with bitter irony, is the style which the world now wants. The Joker (color label), is a vatting of Hanyus from 1985 to 2000, and is one last flaring act of defiance. Highly complex, rich, and distinctly resinous, it manages to hit a balance between weightiness, finesse, and intensity. As with any Japanese whisky, the aromas are heightened, exotic, and more intense, in this case taking you to old-fashioned cobbler’s shops, tack rooms, incense-filled temples, wet ink blocks, and sumac. The palate mixes dense cooked black fruits, balanced tannin, and leather. It ain’t shy.
Hanyu, like Karuizawa, is no more. What Japan needs now is more distilleries. More in fact like Ichiro’s new distillery, Chichibu, which goes from strength to strength and whose holistic vision gives a model of what a local distillery could be. As one era ends, another begins. —Dave Broom
Check back tomorrow for the World Whisky of the Year announcement.