This year we honor three icons of the whisky world: Willie Cochrane, Eddie MacAffer, and Richard Paterson.
The Isle of Jura’s remote and sparsely populated landscape may not be for everyone, but it’s a seductively beautiful place to spend your working life. When Willie Cochrane first came to Craighouse, he thought he would stick it out for a year. Thirty-nine years later, after overseeing the production of tens of millions of liters of Jura spirit, he decided to call it a day. Although born in the great city of Glasgow, I’m certain his prominent position at the distillery grants Willie status as a bona fide Diurach (the Gaelic term for the people of Jura).
As distillery manager for the past eleven years, Willie has worked as mash tun operator, stillman, and brewer since first stepping foot on the island in 1977, equipped with little more than a background in mechanics. There is a restless energy to him. If you popped your head in the office door during his tenure as distillery manager, you would likely find him doing business on his feet, directing his team dressed in all-weather gear. He is a sleeves-rolled-up kind of guy, the first to get stuck into the workings of the distillery if a fault was threatening production.
There’s a fascinating moment in time captured in Richard Paterson’s autobiography showing the Jura staff in 1994: on the left stands brewer Willie Cochrane, on the right, a grinning Willie Tait, then distillery manager, and standing to attention in his blue overalls is a sandy-haired Graham Logan. Twenty-two years later, Willie Cochrane would be handing the distillery manager reigns over to Logan, and the company would release a special bottling of Jura 22 year old to mark Willie’s retirement.
Jura, and its legions of honorary Diurachs, will miss Willie’s welcoming smile, infectious enthusiasm, and stamina. With this award, we’ll raise a toast and have one for the road for Willie.—Jonny McCormick
Bowmore born and bred, Eddie MacAffer always emanated the relaxed, unflappable air of a man who knew that everything around him at Bowmore Distillery was under control. With his retirement in 2016, Eddie celebrated a distinguished 50-year career: a year marked by memorable highlights, such as the Golden Jubilee dinner held in his honor at Fèis Ìle and the crowning glory of the release of Black Bowmore 50 year old.
After leaving the merchant navy, Eddie was granted his first position at Bowmore under manager James MacColl in 1966. He has worked at Islay’s oldest distillery ever since—first in warehousing, next as maltman, brewer, and then distiller. The call came to promote him to distillery manager in 2008, and his elevation to master distiller followed in 2013. As distillery manager, he followed in the footsteps of Ian ‘Percy’ MacPherson, Islay Campbell, Jim McEwan, Joe Hughes, Harry Cockburn, and Alastair Ross. A man of equanimity and self-assurance, Eddie’s modesty about his life’s outstanding achievements is firmly grounded in the pride he takes in a job well done.
Year by year, a wealth of knowledge and expertise is being entrusted to a new breed of young Islay distillery managers as the next generation takes control. Bowmore weathered the hard times during the 80s that were experienced by all the Islay distilleries, and the spirit of the place was transformed over the next 30 years. Now, Bowmore is not just another Islay distillery; it’s a state of mind. The indomitable MacAffer has been a steadfast presence throughout it all.—Jonny McCormick
In 2016, Richard Paterson celebrated 50 years in the Scotch whisky industry, having first entered the business in 1966 with the Glasgow-based firm of A. Gillies & Company. Whisky is in Richard’s blood, as his grandfather founded the blending, bottling, and brokerage business of W.R. Paterson Ltd. back in 1933, and his father Gus carried on the family firm thereafter. It was at the tender age of 8 that Richard and his twin brother Russell were first taken by their father to his Stockwell Bond and introduced to the aromas and flavors of whisky.
After spending four years learning his trade with Gillies and developing his skills as a blender, Richard joined Whyte & Mackay Distillers in 1970, going on to become Scotland’s youngest master blender at the age of 26. He has subsequently spent the rest of his career with Whyte & Mackay, though the company has experienced many changes of ownership during those 46 years.
As well as curating and expanding Whyte & Mackay’s blended scotch portfolio, Richard has been closely associated with the distiller’s single malts, and in particular with the transformation of Dalmore from a solid and dependable Highland whisky into one that can vie with Macallan to command record auction prices for rare and limited editions.
It would be wrong, however, to concentrate solely on Richard’s career achievements, as it is also his unquenchable passion and desire to contribute to all aspects of the world of Scotch whisky that make him such a worthy recipient of this award.
Richard is one of Scotch whisky’s great evangelists, forever touring the globe to make his now legendarily high-energy presentations that help spread the word about the virtues of Scotland’s national drink. The perpetually immaculate Richard Paterson is generous with his time, generous with his knowledge, and generous with his drams. Richard, may your energy and enthusiasm never flag!—Gavin D Smith
Tomorrow we will announce the recipient of the last of our award categories: Distiller of the Year.
Ailsa Bay, 48.9%, £55
Given the plethora of recently opened and planned distilleries within the Lowland area of single malt Scotch whisky production, there should be many contenders for this award in a few years. For now, however, most new releases from the region are independent bottlings of old favorites and innovation has been at a premium. So it was a great pleasure to see William Grant & Sons do something truly radical when it came to the first bottling from their Ailsa Bay Distillery at Girvan, in Ayrshire.
The Grant’s team threw the rulebook of what a Lowland malt should be like out of the window and created a peated, multi-cask matured whisky that really sets a benchmark for future releases.
The Ailsa Bay Distillery produces a variety of whisky styles, including batches of peated spirit. The phenolic level (expressed in parts per million, or ppm) is analyzed just before bottling. This inaugural release is recorded at 21 ppm.
The new make Ailsa Bay spirit is initially filled into Hudson Baby bourbon casks sourced from the Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery in New York. It spends 6 to 9 months in Hudson’s 24-100 liter casks before being transferred into virgin oak, first-fill, and refill American oak casks for several years to mature further. The whisky that is ultimately bottled carries no age statement but benefits significantly in terms of delineation of flavor and richness of texture from being presented at a strength of 48.9% ABV and in non-chill filtered form.
This sweet, smoky whisky is not ‘Lowland’ as we have come to know it, but it is an excellent addition to the region’s single malt offering. William Grant & Sons has proven once again that a long-established, family-controlled company can give anyone a run for their money when it comes to thinking outside the box, while producing a quality product with real integrity.—Gavin D Smith
The recipients of Whisky Advocate’s 23rd Annual Lifetime Achievement Award will be announced tomorrow. Stay tuned!
Brora 38 year old (Diageo Special Releases 2016), 48.6%, $2,200
There is something rather ironic about the fact that Diageo’s Clynelish site in Sutherland is best known to aficionados for a whisky produced only during the period of 1969 to 1983. That whisky is, of course, Brora, one of the brightest stars in the firmament that is Diageo’s annual Special Releases program.
The distillery was founded in 1819 as Clynelish, and traded as such until the construction of a ‘new’ Clynelish alongside the old two-pot operation during 1967-68. At that point the Clynelish name was transformed to the shiny, modern version, and ‘old’ Clynelish was briefly mothballed before being resurrected in 1969 as Brora.
Brora was tasked with producing a relatively heavily peated style of spirit for blending purposes, and it is this that has become so highly prized in recent years. The 2016 Special Release of 38 year old Brora was the fifteenth, and the oldest house bottling to be released. It was matured in a mix of refill American oak hogsheads and refill European oak butts.
It possesses all the balance, variety, and complexity along with the robust, old-fashioned coastal, oily, smoky virtues that make Brora such a consistently high scorer, but there is a greater emphasis on ashy peat than in last year’s equally excellent bottling.
‘Lost’ distilleries such as Brora tend to attract a sense of mystique and romanticism simply because they are no longer active and, in many cases, have disappeared beneath shopping malls and housing developments. Brora, however, remains intact with its old, riveted pair of stills in situ, and visitors to Clynelish may get a peek into the stillhouse, if they ask nicely! Mystique and romanticism apart, Brora stands up to any scrutiny as a fantastic whisky.—Gavin D Smith
Visit us tomorrow for the announcement of the recipient of Whisky Advocate’s 23rd Annual Lowlands/Campbeltown Single Malt of the Year Award.
Lagavulin 25 year old, 50.9%, $1,200
Lagavulin Distillery celebrates its bicentenary in 2016 and as part of the celebrations, two new, limited-edition expressions were released, pitched at opposite ends of the age spectrum. First came a highly regarded 8 year old, though for some this seemed slightly too youthful to do this big, complex whisky full justice. Not for nothing is the Classic Malts expression so widely beloved bottled as a 16 year old, though the fifteen cask strength Special Release bottlings at 12 years of age have been uniformly impressive, too. Later in 2016 the age balance was redressed with the launch of a cask strength 25 year old variant, fully matured in sherry casks.
Most Islays thrive over time in well-chosen sherry casks, and Lagavulin is a prime example. This particular release was the first 25 year old from the distillery since 2002, and it honors the 21 distillery managers to have run Lagavulin through its history. All are named on the packaging, including present incumbent Georgie Crawford, who is a native of Islay (an Ileach) and highly popular holder of the office.
The 16 year old is an excellent whisky, and the price differential between it and the 25 year old will be a significant factor for most potential purchasers, but the 25 year old is fascinating in its complexity, both on the nose and palate. Aromas of new leather, tropical fruits, brittle toffee, and brine are backed by spicy peat smoke, while smoky sherry notes develop in time. It is at its best neat, with the strength being no deterrent. The palate is rich and confident, with sweet peat, brine, muted sherry, figs, gentle spices, tangerines, and lemons. The finish is lengthy, with a barbecue note, malt, and lots of gentle smoke. An extremely fine Lagavulin.—Gavin D Smith
Whisky Advocate’s 23rd Annual Highland Single Malt Whisky of the Year Award will be announced tomorrow.
Glenrothes Vintage Reserve, 40%, $55
Glenrothes Vintage Reserve is a fine advertisement for the fact that when no age statement (NAS) whiskies are created with integrity, they can be extremely good indeed. It is also a fine advertisement for affordability. Vintage Reserve replaces the previous Glenrothes Select Reserve bottling, created by now retired ‘malt master’ John Ramsay. Glenrothes had become notable for its policy of releasing vintages from individual years, rather than whiskies with age statements, but Select Reserve took them into NAS territory for the first time in 2005.
Whereas the distillers were less than keen to reveal aspects of the recipe of that expression, either in terms of ages of component spirit or their percentages, its replacement Vintage Reserve brings a new openness. It was developed by Ramsay’s successor, Gordon Motion, and according to brand owners Berry Bros. & Rudd, “Vintage Reserve is the expression that best epitomizes the Glenrothes Vintage Single Malt philosophy. It contains ten different vintages from the following years: 1989, 1992, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 married together in wood.”
The 1989 whisky is said to bring mellow oak and dried fruits to the overall composition, while 1998 whisky accounts for more than 25 percent of the total makeup and gives soft, mature, sweet vanilla notes. The youngest whisky—from 2007—adds lemon citrus character. The overall effect is a beautifully harmonious, complex dram in classic Speyside style.
Purists may prefer individual vintage year bottlings—and 1995, 1998, and 2001 expressions are currently available in the U.S.—but the price of Vintage Reserve makes it an attractive alternative and allows the imbiber to appreciate all the varying facets of this single malt from a range of years in one idiosyncratic, dumpy bottle.—Gavin D Smith
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s announcement of Whisky Advocate’s 23rd Annual Islay Single Malt of the Year Award recipient.
William Grant & Sons Rare Cask Reserves Ghosted Reserve 21 year old, 42.8%, $140
This entrancing blend from lost Lowland distilleries has been a labor of love for master blender Brian Kinsman. A marriage of single malt whisky from Ladyburn and Inverleven with grain whisky from Dumbarton; a kindred spirit to the Ghosted Reserve 26 year old blended malt. It is fascinating to see a major producer using their private stocks to tackle the challenge of a closed distillery blend, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this is an unrepeatable exercise.
The distilleries may have gone, the remaining stocks dwindling fast, but these places left an indelible mark on the 20th century history of the Scotch whisky industry. Decades before Ailsa Bay Distillery existed, Ladyburn operated for nine years within the Girvan grain distillery until 1975. Dumbarton grain distillery closed in 2002, and during its years of operation housed a Lomond still (a 1950s hybrid pot and column still invention), and the Inverleven malt distillery, which closed in 1991. Bruichladdich Distillery salvaged the Inverleven and Lomond stills, christened the Lomond ‘Ugly Betty,’ and put her to good use making the Botanist gin, while the Inverleven stills eventually found a new life at Waterford Distillery.
Ghosted Reserve 21 year old is phantasmagorical whisky, packaged identically to its older cousin yet served up for a third of the price. This shows off the blender’s prowess by elevating the impact of the final liquid far beyond the merits of the individual components. On the nose there’s a purity and fragility, with aromas of marshmallow, meringue, honey, and rose petals. A delicacy to the structure brings banana, caramel, spun sugar, and orange peel. The oak spices build slowly, making the lips throb from the inside. It atrophies reluctantly, leaving tangy peels and lengthy sweetness anchored by spicy base notes. Kinsman drops the mic and leaves the room.—Jonny McCormick
Join us tomorrow for the announcement of Whisky Advocate’s 23rd Annual Speyside Single Malt of the Year Award.
Amrut Spectrum, 50%, £100
One cask. Five woods. Isn’t it amazing that nobody ever perfected it before? Amrut deserves much greater recognition for their successful experiments in whisky making: they have previously mixed malted barley from Scotland and India (Amrut Fusion), matured whisky on more than one continent (Amrut Herald and Amrut Two Continents), and dazzled us with numerous finishing projects, such as Amrut Kadhambam. Last year’s Amrut Naarangi showed great promise for further innovation, by pretreating the finishing oloroso cask with wine and orange peel. Amrut Spectrum is a true original, the result of secondary maturation in bespoke chimeric casks assembled from staves of five different woods.
The idea sprung from the inventive mind of Ashok Chokalingam, Amrut’s senior general manager for international operations. Just imagining the fantastic concept of conveying a whisky with five flavors from American oak, French oak, Spanish oak, oloroso, and Pedro Ximénez wood in a single vessel feels like the whisky equivalent of Willy Wonka finally mastering the marvelous recipe for his three-course chewing gum meal.
A smart concept that took five years in development, but did it make good whisky? You bet. The beguiling chocolate and coffee aromas mingle with new oak, wood spices, fresh walnuts, treacle, and mango peel. A velvety palate of lush red fruits, Gianduja chocolate, coffee, nut oils, and oak tannins develops, leaving dry spices and ground coffee on the finish. The initial 1,000 bottles for Europe and other international markets sold out in a heartbeat, but can be found at auction. In addition, Amrut has instructed their coopers to build more Spectrum casks, and a larger second release of Amrut Spectrum will be coming to the U.S. in 2017.—Jonny McCormick
Join us tomorrow for the announcement of Whisky Advocate’s 23rd Annual Blended/Blended Malt Whisky of the Year Award.
Yoichi Single Malt, 45%, $80
For the optimists out there, rejoice! U.S. liquor stores are stocking a greater variety of Japanese whiskies produced by a greater number of distillers than for many years. For the pessimists out there, disaster! We still get to grumble about the profusion of whiskies with young or no age statements to our hearts’ content, carp on about steep prices charged by producers relatively new to making whisky, and wallow in our reminiscences about tasting legendary Japanese whiskies. But wait; the global whisky community’s longing for quality Japanese whisky is not an entirely unrequited desire. The latter half of this decade may prove to be leaner years for Japanese whisky drinkers compared to the decade before, but the situation has provided a stimulus to spirits producers across Japan. New distilleries are being erected, and whiskies are being released by companies better known as brewers or sake and shōchū makers. Meanwhile, the major companies are trying to balance demand, expectations, quality, and creativity. Blenders love the freedom to work on a characterful whisky from their inventory, unencumbered by a minimum age.
Nikka Whisky’s Yoichi Single Malt is a new expression and a rare breed as the only surviving Yoichi in the U.S. market. This year’s award recipient typifies the classic maritime and peaty elements of the Hokkaido distillery. A compelling nose of black earthy peat, smoldering fires, a turned-out pocket of briny seashells, whole lime, lemon twist, sugared orange, ground ginger, and licorice. Silky smooth on the tongue, with light, fruity sweetness developing into tangy Spangles, kiwi, and lime juice. The smoky peat is the weft woven through the fruit structure’s warp. Menthol, peat, and leather go the distance. This Japanese whisky is delicious, elegant, and affordable; perfectly pitched for cogitative drinking by those loyal to the Japanese single malt scene.—Jonny McCormick
Visit us tomorrow for Whisky Advocate’s 23rd Annual World Whisky of the Year announcement.
Redbreast Lustau Edition, 46%, $69
Aaah, the luxury of choice. Irish whiskey drinkers are blessed that shelves are brimming with a much wider selection than just a decade ago. It’s not that long since new Irish whiskey releases were too infrequent to run an Irish whiskey section of the Buying Guide in every issue of this magazine. Now they are so numerous that we have to be selective about what goes into print. It’s a good problem to have.
The first thing you need to know about this whiskey is that it doesn’t carry an age statement; however, Irish Distillers has been perfectly transparent in explaining that the liquid is between 9 and 12 years old. It was matured in American and European oak, then finished for up to a year in an oloroso sherry cask made at A. Páez Tonelería in Jerez for the sherry house of Lustau. In price, it sits between the Redbreast 12 year old and 12 year old Cask Strength editions.
Redbreast last won this award three years ago, and a sherry finish to an existing sherry-influenced whiskey may not sound revolutionary to everyone, but it’s the exceptional flavor profile created by master blender Billy Leighton that has won the day. There’s something special about the oloroso influence on the single pot still style that works beautifully here. The sherry sculpts the whiskey, giving it definition and producing a clean, refined elegance. The nose is intensely fragrant, bursting with fat dates and squidgy prunes, red apple and Battenburg cake. It’s fruity, yet delectably bone dry with oak, walnut, and spices. In the mouth, there are red berry fruits, apples, and marzipan, and the whiskey delivers a creamy yet oily consistency with a clean, sweet oloroso finish.—Jonny McCormick
Check back tomorrow for Whisky Advocate’s 23rd Annual Japanese Whisky of the Year Award announcement.
Crown Royal Cornerstone Blend, 40.3%, $60
A wealth of great new Canadian whiskies in 2016 made it difficult to select just one winner. The sublimely complex Gooderham & Worts, a bourbonesque 14 year old from J.P. Wiser’s called Last Barrels, and Ninety, a creamy, spicy 20 year old all-corn whisky from Highwood Distillers, were strong contenders. When all was said and done, Crown Royal Cornerstone Blend emerged as this year’s Canadian whisky champion. The first release in a new series called the Noble Collection, Cornerstone Blend happened by chance, and if you don’t taste it soon you likely never will.
Cornerstone Blend has its origins in Crown Royal Deluxe, a combination of 50 whiskies from two different spirit streams. The first, made from corn, is distilled to a high ABV to remove many grain and yeast-derived flavors. It’s a lighter spirit that will develop all its whiskiness in the barrel. This is called base whisky. The second stream, called flavoring whisky, is distilled to a lower proof to retain the flavors of the grain and yeast.
Once all the different base whiskies have matured, blenders mingle them together in massive blending tanks. Mature flavoring whiskies are mingled separately. These sub-blends are then loaded into different railway tanker cars, only to be brought together at a bottling plant in Amherstburg, Ontario.
A few years ago, when they were making a batch of Crown Royal Deluxe, workers at the Gimli distillery accidentally blended in an extra tanker car of flavoring whisky. Rather than leave an expensive railcar out of service, they transferred this whisky back into barrels to await future needs. In the barrel, new crisp oaky notes, rye spices, soaring florals, and hints of chocolate developed, and so Cornerstone Blend was born. It’s a whisky that will never be repeated, and it’s a dilly.—Davin de Kergommeaux
Check back tomorrow for Whisky Advocate’s 23rd Annual Irish Whiskey of the Year Award announcement.