Archive for the ‘Scotch whisky’ Category

Scotch Missed: a review

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Author - Caroline DewarThis fourth edition of Scotch Missed: The Original Guide to the Lost Distilleries of Scotland has an encouraging start, in that even the introduction is a good read. So many books are killed off by a dull intro. But the intro makes it clear that this is not just the history of whisky distilleries, but industrial, economic, and social histories too.

Townsend states plainly that he won’t describe the whisky making process in detail; but he does show how it was written about in Victorian times, quoting the florid prose of a 19th century commentator. Indeed, there isn’t much difference now, just fewer people, greater efficiency, and better ingredient research — and computers.

Scotch Missed coverThe narrative of the book is that many distilleries which started up in the 19th and 20th centuries closed as the conditions of the times simply couldn’t bear the numbers in operation. But there is a lot more on the journey. There was some natural wastage due to poor management or product not suited to consumer tastes, and there were other reasons: increased taxes, wars, reduced pub opening hours, temperance movements, and closures of local industries which affected a distillery’s operation. One such was Campbeltown where the exhaustion of the local colliery meant no more cheap fuel.

The author points out much the same happened in the 1980’s and draws parallel with the hi-tech industries which rose and plummeted. Some distilleries which closed around the 1980’s never returned to production. The recession from 2007/08 onwards didn’t have the same effect but, like the 19th century, with new distilleries appearing like mushrooms, it will be interesting to see what happens if we such face problems again.

The Victorian times were awash with great developments, we are reminded: the railways, industrial use of steam, mass production of glass bottles, Coffey stills for grain whisky distillation. And we can’t forget the import – unwitting? – into France of the phylloxera louse. Whoever was responsible for that is owed a great debt by the Scotch whisky industry.

Beyond the introduction, the first few chapters look back at how things were, the move from farm distilling into larger concerns and the move into the Golden Age of the 19th century, then decline from just before World War I to the end of Prohibition in the U.S., and the peaks and troughs that have since followed, with a note of hope for the future with newly built and planned distilleries.

Some distilleries, we discover, were razed to the ground, their foundations now buried under housing developments or yet another supermarket. Some were redeveloped into housing or offices. The most poignant moments, for me, were learning of parts of old distilleries like Gerston II, still standing in the countryside like sentinel doorways to a ghostly past.

The story is told with sympathy and an eye for the difficulties of those who owned and worked in them but also with some subtle flashes of humor. The picture drawn by the tale of Banff distillery catching fire after being strafed by German fighter planes, and the resultant drunken local wildlife is one you won’t forget.

The writing does not follow modern day whisky regions but smaller geographical units covering The North; Speyside and the North East; The East Coast and Tayside; Central and Lothian; Fife; Edinburgh; The South and Borders; Glasgow; Strathclyde and the West of Scotland; West Highlands, Islands and Islay, then Campbeltown, in that order. Campbeltown suffered particularly badly. It was an area of over 30 distilleries which now has only 3. The list given for that region is so much longer than the others and all the worse for being one of the smallest areas.

The format is charming, concise pen sketches of brave beginnings and, often, sad, sudden ends or slow decline, not to mention the “musical chairs” ownership as premises transferred from company to company over the years. Each sketch is as fact-packed as possible but never leaden in style and tone. At the end is a useful index and helpful maps to plot the places you have been reading about. The illustrations too are well chosen, a mix of photographs, drawings, cartoons and advertising posters. It’s worth some time just to sit and flick through the pictures.

Behind these stern Victorian exteriors were hope, passion, inventiveness, social conscience (for some) but also perhaps greed and maybe even betrayal. Who knows? Some distillery closures are, quite simply, a mystery with not enough information available, leaving you wanting to know more.

Near the start the author invites us to sit down, dram in hand to relive the dramas of distilling days past and I cannot think of a more enticing invitation as we move into autumn. This is a book you can read in order in one go, from start to end – very tempting – or simply dip in, region by region. He says at one point that further information would require an encyclopaedic length. If he ever decides to write that, I’ll look forward to it.

 

Scotch Missed, from The Angels’ Share (Neil Wilson Publishing), is available in the U.S. at $29.99 from Interlink Books; it is also on Amazon.

 

Record-breaking Karuizawa at Auction

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Jonny McCormickKaruizawa has earned the title of the most expensive 700 ml bottle of whisky ever auctioned. Bonhams, Hong Kong set the record with a hammer price of HK$750,000 ($96,774) for the Karuizawa 1960 52 year old ‘The Cockerel’ 51.8%, on August 28th 2015. The record hammer price represents an appreciation of greater than 500% over the original retail price of £12,500.

Japan took the honor from a single malt Scotch whisky. Bowmore held the 700 ml record for 680 days following the charity sale of the Bowmore 1964 48 Years Old. Christie’s sold that one-off Bowmore for £61,000 in October 2013 at the Distiller’s Charity Auction in London, organized by the Worshipful Company of Distillers. Importantly, Macallan is recognized as holding the Guinness World Record for the most expensive bottle of whisky ever sold: the HK$4 million six liter “Imperiale” of Macallan M in a Lalique decanter.

The stunningly high-priced bottling.

The stunningly high-priced bottling.

Only 41 bottles of the Karuizawa 1960 were released when it was bottled in 2013. The packaging of this edition is a masterpiece of quiet understatement: the wasabi paper labels were handmade by Norito Hasegawa and beautifully embellished by master calligrapher Soji Nishimoto. Part of the original sherry hogshead cask #5627 was incorporated into each ensemble, and every bottle is uniquely identified by the netsuke figurine that hangs around its neck.

The Bonhams auction, titled “Japanese Whisky Featuring Hanyu Ichiro’s Full Card Series,” is likely to be recognized as the highest-grossing whisky auction of all time. The total hammer price spend that evening exceeded HK$13 million ($1.68 million), of which 83% ($1.4 million) was spent on Japanese whisky, 16% ($262,000) on Scotch whisky and 1% ($17,000) on American whisky. Several brands commanded a significant share of the total: Karuizawa (48%, $807,000), Hanyu (28%, $478,000), and The Macallan (6%, $95,000), although The Dalmore Eos was the most expensive single malt Scotch whisky sold. Pappy Van Winkle was the major U.S. whiskey presence, taking 1% ($15,000).

The headline sale of 54 bottles of the Hanyu Card Series for HK$3.1 million is the second highest lot price ever paid for whisky in Hong Kong, after The Macallan M. The complete series by Ichiro Akuto was notoriously difficult for individuals to collect, with the probability that there are only a couple of full sets in existence. The chance to purchase these 54 bottles as a readymade collection may never be repeated. Clearly, a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Hammer prices for the top ten lots at this record-breaking sale:

  1. Lot 196 Hanyu Full Card Series (54 bottles)             $400,000
  2. Lot 139 Karuizawa 1960 52 year old                           $96,774
  3. Lot 82 Karuizawa 1960 33 year old                            $41,290
  4. Lot 273 The Dalmore Eos 1951 59 year old               $30,967
  5. Lot 80 Karuizawa 45 year old (2 bottles)                  $28,837
  6. Lot 227 The Balvenie Cask 191 50 year old               $25,806
  7. Lot 133 Karuizawa Sumo set (3 bottles)                    $19,354
  8. Lot 145 Springbank Millennium Set (6 bottles)      $18,709
  9. Lot 109 Karuizawa Cocktail Series (4 bottles)         $16,774
  10. Lot 124 The Macallan Select Reserve 1946              $16,774

 

Jonny McCormick’s article “Whisky Trinity” about the phenomenal rise of Karuizawa, The Macallan, and Pappy Van Winkle at auction is in the September 30th issue of Wine Spectator magazine.

Whisky Advocate’s Fall 2015 Issue’s 10 Highest-Rated Whiskies

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

WT Master's Keep Bottle x

The Fall 2015 issue of Whisky Advocate magazine will be hitting the newsstand in early September. Here’s a sneak preview of the issue’s Buying Guide reviews; the 10 highest-rated whiskies of the issue.

 

#10 – Wild Turkey Master’s Keep, 43.4%, $150

A very pricy (for Wild Turkey) 17 year old whiskey honoring master distiller Jimmy Russell. Nose is hot for the proof, with oak, dried barrel drool, warm dried corn, tobacco barn, and teaberry. Entry is not hot; rather, a thread of sweet syrup spreads out into thoroughly integrated corn and oak. Finish slides into drier oak. A fascinating journey through bourbon flavors, this is both lighter and more complex than expected. I still prefer younger Wild Turkey, but…—Lew Bryson

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91

#Nikka Coffey Grain 750ml_300 x9 – Nikka Coffey Grain, 45%, $65

Sweet, with subtle, crisp, nutty oak, then comes fudge, ripe banana, and peach. The overall effect is like eating vanilla ice cream with toffee fudge and hazelnut sprinkles. The structure is thick and physical, the palate sweet and quite fat, with light hints of raspberry, fruit salad. A jag of acidity freshens the delivery on the finish. With water there’s more toffee, and it becomes slightly more yielding, with less oak. For me the gold standard of grain.—Dave BroomCompass Box Hedonism Quindecimus x

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

#8 – Compass Box Hedonism Quindecimus, 46%, $200

How time flies! This eloquent blended grain marks CBWC’s 15th anniversary and the combination of these aged grains is idiosyncratic of whisky auteur John Glaser’s distinctive taste. Rich honey, apricot stone, crisp spices, vanilla custard, gentle oak char, and tropical fruits promise a real reward. Succulently juicy, with melon, apple, and caramel, subtly paced, with chocolate and dark fruit infiltrating. Slowly the sweetness depletes to black pepper and spiced roast meats. Defer swallowing for as long as possible. (5,689 bottles)—Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

Canadian-Rockies-21yr-46percent x#7 – Canadian Rockies 21 year old (batch 2), 46%, C$69

When Thomas Chen introduced Canadian Rockies in Taiwan, he chose Highwood Distillers in High River, Alberta, to supply a delicate yet fragrant, fruit-laden whisky that would please the Taiwanese palate. Now launching in Canada, Chen upped the bottling strength to 46% to boost the flavor. The complex, exotic fruit salad and faint lilac-like flowers that characterized the original remain, along with blistering white pepper, sweet oak caramels, and crisp, clean barrel notes on a luxurious, creamy palate. (Canada only) —Davin de KergommeauxBT French Oak Barrel Head Aged only x

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

#6 – Buffalo Trace French Oak Barrel Head Aged, 45%, $47/375 ml

Nicely round flavor profile, with complex notes of creamy vanilla, subtle tropical fruit, mocha, fennel seed, and light tobacco. Lingering cinnamon spice and cocoa on the finish. An extremely drinkable whiskey that entertains throughout. —John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

Bernheim-Original-7-year-old-Straight-Wheat x#5 – Bernheim Original 7 year old Straight Wheat, 45%, $35

This select bottling of Bernheim Original comes from Warehouse Y on the 4th floor, and is non-chill filtered. Without the filtering, the nose is notably more expressive and becomes a real showcase for wheat grain, oak spice, caramel, and citrus. On the palate, this whiskey maintains a firm balance between soft and strong, with supple wheat grain entwined with caramel, oak, and cinnamon spice. A long, flavorful finish caps off a well-curated selection of an excellent whiskey. (Julio’s Liquors only)Geoffrey KleinmanBARRELL Whiskey Batch 0001 x

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

#4 – Barrell Whiskey Batch 001, 61.25%, $59

7 year old whiskey (an unspecified “corn, rye, and malted barley” mashbill “distilled in Indiana”) aged in used barrels. Maple syrup, well-browned popovers, and Canada mint lozenges in a boozy-hot nose. Richly sweet on the palate: pastry dough, hints of anise, buttery and slightly-burnt cornbread, syrupy dark fruits: complex, rich, delicious. Water brings out more of the dough and tames the heat. Delicious, unique, intriguing. Sourced whiskey.—Lew Bryson

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

Pigs-in-Plaster x#3 – The Scotch Malt Whisky Society Pigs in Plaster 14 year old (#4.1980, 59.1%, $140

This single cask, distilled at Highland Park, is an excellent example of why distilleries sell off certain casks. On the nose it’s Highland Park’s signature sherry and peat, but on the palate it’s a beast. Monster peat smoke surfs on a lush layer of berry and malt. This builds to a peak with smoke, salt, and oak spice, bolstered by the high proof. A smoky, dry finish rounds off a monster whisky, different from Highland Park’s style, but very interesting. (Julio’s Liquors only)Geoffrey KleinmanEWSB 2005

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#2 – Evan Williams Single Barrel 2005 Vintage (barrel #292), 43.3%, $29

Complex fruit (clementine, pineapple, golden raisin) balanced nicely with honey, vanilla custard, and dusty corn, along with a sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg. An extremely versatile whiskey with its medium weight, easy to embrace personality, and subtle charms. Perennially one of the best values in whiskey.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#1 – The Exclusive Malts 13 year old 2002 (cask #20021), 52.2%, $ 135

The Exclusive Malts 13 year old 2002 Irish Whiskey xThis 13 year old malt from central Ireland is an uncommon foray into the Irish whiskey space for the Exclusive Malts Collection. Pure malt is the focus of the nose which supports that malt with tart green apple. On the palate this whiskey is a stunning mix of lush, sweet honey, salt, malt, green apple, and ginger spice. The balance and integration are nothing short of perfect. A long malty finish caps off one of the best Irish whiskeys I’ve had. (U.S. only)Geoffrey Kleinman

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96

Johnnie Walker Rye Cask: some new wood for Mister Walker

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

author-lew-brysonDiageo’s Johnnie Walker line will see the debut of a new series of limited bottlings, the Johnnie Walker Select Casks, different wood-finished whiskies (the number of releases is unknown at this time). The first will be a Rye Cask Finish, released in September in U.S. markets. Diageo North America marketing director for Scotch whisky Brian Cox was quoted about the new series in Shanken News Daily, saying, “We’re considering Select Casks as an annual limited edition.”

The whisky grew out of Johnnie Walker master blender Jim Beveridge’s ongoing experimentation with the Johnnie Walker blends. The Rye Cask Finish is aged for 10 years in first-fill American oak, giving it a familiar vanilla smoothness, then finished for a month in rye casks to add a spicy note. “It’s fair to say the blend is generally more Speyside than our western island and coastal malts, with Cardhu remaining the heart,” Cox said.
JW Rye Cask

It is bottled at 46% ABV, a higher proof than the other marques in the Johnnie Walker portfolio, in order to provide a more distinctive character when used in cocktails. The Select Cask series is chill-filtered, “in order to maintain Johnnie Walker’s classic texture and mouth-feel.”

“We have a team of 13 blenders experimenting with different whiskies,” Cox said. “Some experiments, like Double Black, turn out to be very much in the house style and available in enough quantity that we can make them permanent parts of the portfolio. Some are more finite by nature, involving research to learn more about different flavor profiles, aging techniques, and so on. Rye Cask Finish is one of the latter.”

The bottle will sell for a suggested retail price of $45. As single malt prices (and bourbon and rye prices) continue to climb, it’s good to see some interesting new products coming into the market at a price that encourages experimenting. It’s also interesting to see that the slowly growing availability of used rye barrels isn’t going unnoticed by Scotch whisky makers.

The Blenders’ Gathering

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

Jonny McCormickJonny McCormick reports from “An Evening with the Blenders” at the Scotch Whisky Experience, Edinburgh.

Seated before us, high above Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, was what can only be described as a smoothness of master blenders.* We were spending an entertaining evening in the company of these men and women, little knowing it would be the final time for one of them. But before all that, let me take you back to the start of the evening.

As we sipped our cocktails, a man slipped unnoticed through the crowd at the Scotch Whisky Experience, armed with a microphone. It was John Ramsay, Edrington’s former malt master for Glenrothes. Following Ramsay’s welcome, he revealed his esteemed panel of fellow blenders standing on the balcony above us to spontaneous applause from the one hundred assembled guests. And well they might, for we were in the presence of living legends.

David Stewart, pouring a dram

David Stewart, pouring a dram

Upstairs, each blender manned a table and personally filled your glass, affording attendees unprecedented access to ask the blenders any whisky question they liked. David Stewart, the Balvenie malt master for William Grant & Sons, was the first face I saw on entering the bar. He was pouring Balvenie Doublewood 17 year old after a third day of judging more than 100 whiskies. Opposite him, a smiling Billy Leighton, master blender for Irish Distillers, had two open bottles of Crested Ten to pour. It’s a hidden gem of an Irish blend, with a higher pot still content and higher proportion of sherry casks than regular Jameson and I was glad to be reacquainted with it.

There was Angela D’Orazio from Mackmyra, who had brought some new expressions including Mackmyra Sommartid (meaning summertime). As the canapés from the Amber restaurant circulated under my nose, I made my way through to see Gordon Motion, the man who assumed the mantle of master blender for Edrington after John Ramsay’s retirement. Gordon had a busy evening as he was dispensing drams from the Art Deco bottles of Cutty Sark 33 year old and many guests found that one taste was simply not enough.

Richard Paterson in Diageo's glittering whisky cave

A rare picture of Richard Paterson in short sleeves

Next, I entered the brightly lit chamber that holds more than 3,500 bottles of the Diageo Claive Vidiz collection, one of Whisky Advocate’s Seven Wonders of the Scotch Whisky World. Richard Paterson was holding court, educating attendees on how to nose and taste Dalmore 15 year old. At least I think it was Richard Paterson…the nose and moustache looked right, but where was the knotted silk necktie? Where were the gold cufflinks? I was unaccustomed to seeing Richard so casually attired in a black polo shirt. What would his tailor think?

Back to back with Richard was Caroline Martin of Diageo, her bottles of Haig Club glowing in the light. Working tirelessly in the adjacent tasting room were both Shinju Fukuyo, chief blender for Beam Suntory, and Tadashi Sakuma, chief blender for Nikka (a former panelist at WhiskyFest New York), sending guests between the Yamazaki 18 year old and the Nikka 12 year old, despite their companies’ great historic rivalry.

After the session concluded, we trooped upstairs to the conference room that has been recently refurbished at a cost of $750,000. One by one, the blenders stood up to regale us with humorous anecdotes from their years in the industry. John Ramsay treated us to some uproarious tales from when he worked at Strathclyde distillery in the 1960s including a former colleague’s attempt to beat the excise man by slyly swallowing a significant quantity of siphoned grain neutral alcohol (ABV 96%), and a hilarious (though unprintable) tale about the time John was persuaded to take part in a police identity parade on his way home from his shift.

The smoothness: D'Orazio, Leighton, Motion, Ramsay, Martin, Paterson, Stewart, Fukuyo, Sakuma (back to front)

The smoothness: D’Orazio, Leighton, Motion, Ramsay, Martin, Paterson, Stewart, Fukuyo, Sakuma (back to front)

Gordon Motion, who worked as Ramsay’s assistant for many years, recalled the time both men were presented with a bale of Glenrothes tartan. John followed the advice of his boss and had his tartan fashioned into a stylish sports coat but that wasn’t really Gordon’s style: he confessed (to much laughter) that instead, he had re-covered his dining room chairs in the fabric. With a knowing wink, Gordon presented John with a gift to thank him for serving his final year as ISC chairman: a footstool (‘time to put your feet up’), made from wood taken from the washbacks at Highland Park and covered in the aforementioned Glenrothes tartan.

Richard Paterson took to the mike to lead the room in a tasting of Jura Turas Mara, the audience trying to second guess his trademark weather reports whenever he brought up a historical date. Despite stern warnings from Susan Morrison, the venue’s Director, who has overseen the transformation of this building into a top tourist attraction, Paterson still cleansed his glass in his inimitable style, flicking a dram across the pristine bespoke carpet (and several unsuspecting guests). Susan scowled from the back of the room while the audience whooped and cheered for more.

Despite the jocularity, the audience Q&A still tackled some serious issues; challenging the master blenders on non-age statement whiskies and their prices, the preservation of the historic Kennetpans distillery site, the role of computers in the blending lab, and the disappearance of Johnnie Walker Green Label from many markets. (A hat tip to Martin, who wound up fielding most of the tough questions.)

What else did we learn? The blenders have enormous respect for one another and relish their rare get-togethers. As they are all at the top of their professional game, there are no egos and no company rivalries. Blenders across the board feel subordinate to the marketing departments, which clearly creates a degree of friction. Master blenders like, nay, prefer the creative freedom of non-aged statement whiskies because they can use the casks they desire with the flavors they seek, rather than be restricted to the portion of the inventory that’s passed an arbitrary number of years. Intriguingly, Shinju Fukuyo responded affirmatively to my question inquiring if Suntory had ever conducted maturation experiments filling Scotch whisky into mizunara (Japanese oak) casks and a product may not be too far away. I would love to try that some day, for sure.

With Ramsay retiring from his chairmanship, it is clear that this particular panel of blenders will never convene again, which made this congenial evening very special indeed. As the guests filed out into the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, the blenders could finally unwind. Out the corner of my eye, I spotted Richard Paterson relax and slip into something a little more formal, pulling on a smartly tailored jacket complete with patterned pocket square. Ah, that’s better!

 

*I don’t believe there is a recognized collective noun for master blenders, so I simply made one up. Alternative suggestions are welcome in the comments below.

Jim McEwan Retires

Friday, April 24th, 2015

Author - Dave BroomThe term ‘legend’ is one which is bandied around rather too freely these days. There are, however, a few figures who richly deserve that accolade. Jim McEwan is one. After 52 years in whisky, he has announced that he will be retiring. It seems a strange term to see, as “retiring” is hardly the term anyone would ever use to describe Jim. Countless whisky lovers the world over have been educated and entertained with his stories, peppered with the surreal absurdity of Scottish west coast humor, stories which grew longer and more hilarious with each retelling.

His whisky life started on August 1st, 1963 when he was taken on as an apprentice cooper at Bowmore. After working in every other area of the distillery, he ended up as cellar-master, and then trainee blender. In 1986, he was made the distillery’s manager.

It was in this role that I first met him…on the back of an inflatable banana. You see, surreal. It was the start of a cherished friendship. Spending any time with Jim gets you immediately swept up in his enthusiasm and passion for whisky, ideas and schemes pouring from him. Within the space of a few hours he had arranged for me to work night shift for a week at Bowmore, with the days spent driving around the island with him, meeting distillers and the people who made the island the place it is. It as the start of my whisky education, because he drilled into me the lesson that people make whisky.

In time, he became ambassador for Bowmore, but more importantly (and perhaps not always to the delights of his bosses), an ambassador for Islay. He knew that whisky is about community, something which is even more important on an island. It has always been more than just ‘whisky’ or ‘product’ to him.

Jim-McEwan-_X2A2797It was a philosophy which he then applied when he became master distiller at Bruichladdich on its reopening in 2001. Bruichladdich was a chance to put his dreams into place: experimenting with different peating levels, getting barley grown again on Islay, looking at casks, designing a still and making gin, bringing employment to the island.

He may have been the public face of the Laddie, but in conversation he would always deflect the attention to the team. He was having fun, asking questions, creating a new community. He was hard-headed, but he was right. Behind the fun at the tastings was genuine passion for whisky, its history, its flavors, its inextricable links to Islay.

Once, when filming at Bruichladdich, I asked him to tell us about the mill. Now, the thing about filming is the need to be succinct. Jim started to talk. 20 minutes later, in an uninterrupted stream, he had taken us from the history of Bruichladdich, to biodynamics, organic farming, terroir, through the family history of the island’s farmers, then into Celtic mythology and the Vikings. He paused for a second. “Now,” he said. “The mill…” We all fell about laughing. It was the most difficult editing job the team ever had. Eventually they just let it run. It was Jim, after all.

The next generation is ready to take over. Time to nip across the burn to the house next door and his always supportive wife Barbara, his daughters and the grandchildren.

Dave Broom and Jim McEwan give the Highland Toast at WhiskyFest NY 2013 (photo credit: Sharon Sturgis)

Dave Broom and Jim McEwan give the Highland Toast at WhiskyFest NY 2013
(photo credit: Sharon Sturgis)

“The distillery is in great shape,” he told me. “I’ve done as much as I can here. We’re making great whisky and the whole team are fantastic: Allan Logan, Adam Hannett, Duncan MacGillivray, the Budgie, John Rennie…there’s 80 folk working here now. It’s a good feeling.

“It’s been a fantastic journey but now it’s time for the family. It’s time to see my grandchildren grow up. I want to see them become wee Ileachs. I realized when they left the last time that I didn’t want there to be another summer when I wouldn’t see them because I was working.”

There is a sense of an era now over, but I hope, like Frank Sinatra, he’ll never fully disappear. We wish him well.

Thanks Jim, it’s been a blast.

Whisky Advocate’s Spring 2015 Issue’s Top 10 Whiskies Reviewed

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Whisky Advocate’s Spring issue’s Buying Guide is brimming with reviews; 114 of them to be exact. We’re going to give you a sneak preview by revealing the 10 highest-rated whiskies right here, right now. We start with #10 and conclude with #1.

#10: Tomintoul Reserve 37 year old, 43%, $600

Not what you’d expect from a malt at this age. Instead of oak dominating the nose, it’s citrus in focus, with orange marmalade, candied orange, and even orange blossom. On the palate this whisky is light and delicate, leading with the citrus notes from the nose. This symphony of orange is followed with toffee, ginger, oak, and rancio in a combination that’s well balanced and integrated. Unique for its age, a definite treat for those who prefer lighter and more delicate whiskies. (U.S. only, 600 bottles)–Geoffrey Kleinman

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

Orphan Barrel_Lost Prophet Bottle Shot_Lo Res#9: Lost Prophet 22 year old, 45%, $120

The fourth release (and best so far) in Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series. This bourbon was distilled at what was then called the George T. Stagg distillery (now Buffalo Trace) and spent the last several years maturing at Stitzel-Weller. It’s nicely balanced and not over-oaked, with spice (clove, cinnamon), oak resin, and leather, along with sweet notes (honeyed fruit, soft vanilla, coconut custard) and a nice creamy texture. Better than most 20-plus year old bourbons on the market.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92GF_25_Lockup

#8: Glenfiddich Rare Oak 25 year old, 43%, £250

A classic mature ‘Fiddich nose, that mix of chocolate, sweet fruits, and funkiness. Dried apples, a little currant, but also a pure thread of sweetness. In time, a little fresh mushroom. Complex. Soft on the tongue, so you need to concentrate on what’s happening. Later becomes minty, with supple tannins and a little artichoke on the finish. Water needs to be handled carefully to bring out green herbal notes. I’d probably keep water on the side. Excellent. (Travel Retail only)—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

#7: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 year old wheated bourbon from floor #9, 45%, $47/375ml

Darker, more intense and mysterious in personality when compared to its two siblings. Notes of barrel char, roasted nuts, polished oak, and tobacco, peppered with dried spice. Fortunately, sweet notes of toffee, maple syrup, and caramel stand up to the dry notes and provide balance.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

Blue_Hanger_11th_700ml_bottle#6: Blue Hanger 11th Limited Release, 45.6%, £90

It’s the intensity of flavor that just grabbed me by the lapels and spun me round. It harbors intense tangelo juiciness; that unparalleled concentration of deep citrus skillfully mingled with dark vanilla, dried apricots, and gentle smoke. This goes the distance, delivering wave after delicious wave: peach juice, mandarin, pineapple cubes, and lemon zest. A firm, unctuous finish shows a little charred wood and dark sugar cloaked in fine smoke. Tongue pleasing and very special indeed.—Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92JPWisers_RedLetter_3D (3)

#5: Wiser’s Red Letter 2014 Release Virgin Oak Finish, 45%, C$100

Pencil shavings, then vanilla, caramel, barley sugar, and bitter candied orange peel. Mild white pepper persists in a spicy fusion, from which a subtle but energizing pithiness teases out delicate smatterings of cloves, ginger, and allspice. The fruitiness of canned peaches, apricots, and sour green apples adds dimension and balance. Complex and so tightly integrated that rich as it is, individual flavors are little more than nuances. Finish is long and gingery with refreshing citrus pith. (Canada only)—Davin de Kergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#4: Redemption Barrel Proof Rye 10 year old, 55.1%, $180

Redemption delivers a 10 year old, barrel proof rye (sourced from MGP); the bottled whiskey is mingled from only six barrels. Nose of hot, bitter rye spice and caramel with oak. Great whambam! feel of sweet whiskey followed immediately by oily, spicy rye, which then controls the flavor and finish without dominating. Not over-oaked, and barrel proof  7yo- no backgroundthese older MGP barrels are finally showing what 95% rye can do. At 6 years, it could be a high-rye bourbon; this simply shouts rye. Fascination.—Lew Bryson

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#3: Redemption Barrel Proof Rye (Batch #1), 61%, $80

Redemption repeats their barrel-proof MGP-sourced 95% rye, now at 7 years old. Has a year significantly changed last year’s 90-point outing? Oak is more subdued and the pepper floats on sweet, light caramel. It is still quite nice at full-bore, no water needed. Sweet vanilla and bitter rye oil blend surprisingly well; this is hitting the bells, and it’s better integrated. Big, swaggering, and sporting big-barrel maturity. Can go toe-to-toe with almost any rye out there.—Lew Bryson

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#2: Lot No. 40, 43%, $40PRUSA - Images - Lot 40 and Pot Still

Corby’s latest Lot 40, this one undated, comes from the same distillation batch as the 2012 release, but with a couple of extra years in wood. The familiar flavors are all there: dustiness, sour rye, hard wet slate, floral notes, exotic fruits, sweet spices, and biting white pepper. Over these, time has sprinkled licorice root, dried dates, oatmeal porridge, vanilla, hints of bike tires, and mango peels. Flavors remain fully integrated with faint tannins underscoring a long sour-rye finish.—Davin de Kergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94

BT Wheated Bourbon Warehouse Floor #5#1: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 year old wheated bourbon from floor #5, 45%, $47/375ml

Nicely balanced flavors, and complex. Spices dance on the palate (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg), balanced by underlying caramel and butterscotch, and subtle honeyed orchard fruit. Lingering, well-rounded finish. A fabulous wheated bourbon!—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94

Latest DISCUS Numbers Confirm Whiskey Growth Still Strong

Friday, February 6th, 2015

Author - Liza Weisstuch

Partisanship nearly defines America today. But on Tuesday morning, the Distilled Spirits Council of the US offered some information that all parties can applaud: the American whiskey can claim a banner year. Again. The total whiskey category was flat for years, then in 2011 it picked up steam and it hasn’t shown signs of flagging.

This year’s industry review, which the trade organization presents each February, revealed that the total supplier sales in the US were worth $23.1 billion. With American whiskey, it’s the same happy story: the category is booming and it’s the high-end and super premium brands that are driving the growth. Supplier sales of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey across price segments grew 7.4% over 2013 to approximately 19.4 million cases, a jump of 1.3 million cases. That increase accounts for a massive chunk of the 4.4 million cases by which the overall industry grew in 2014.

The revenue growth for American whiskey tells its own story. Last year, supplier sales rose 9.6% to $2.7 billion, up $230 million over 2013. Breaking it down by price segment proves DISCUS’s oft-repeated dogma: premiumization, which is shorthand for “people aren’t drinking more, they’re drinking better,” drives the industry. Revenue on value products ($12 or less at retail) grew a mere 5.5%, about $181 million on 3.1 million cases. Revenue on high-end ($18-$30 per bottle) products, were up 8.1% to $1.6 billion (yes, billion). But the truly jaw-dropping growth quotient comes in the realm of the super-premium brands ($30+/bottle). These sales leaped 19.2% to $325 million.
Combined whiskey sales growth is accelerating (numbers include imported and flavored whiskeys; CAGR = Compound Annual Growth Rate)

Whiskey category growth accelerates (totals include flavored and imported whiskeys; CAGR = Compound Annual Growth Rate)

Whiskey category growth accelerates (totals include flavored and imported whiskeys; CAGR = Compound Annual Growth Rate)

Flavored whiskey was a factor in the surge. Sales of an increasing selection of flavored American whiskey products grew by 140,000 cases. But a more significant is the thriving export market. Christine LoCascio, DISCUS senior vice president for international trade, apologized for being repetitive year after year as she reported more record-shattering stats: the $1.12 billion revenue that bourbon and Tennessee whiskey bring home to producers accounts for 70% of the $1.56 billion spirit exports market.

The top export markets are Canada—which, with $212.6 million of sales, marked a colossal growth of 111% over the past ten years—and the UK ($177.6 million). Germany and Australia pretty much tie with their spending of $136.7 million and $131.2 million, respectively. Then there’s the bureaucratic activity (or mumbo-jumbo, depending on your appetite for granular examination of international relations.) Trade agreements in recent years have reduced or eliminated tariffs in countries like Korea and Australia, which open up more export opportunities.

All this American whiskey talk, however, didn’t drown out the news about Scotch.

“When you listen to single malt Scotch drinkers talk, it’s almost like they’re having a religious experience,” said David Ozgo, DISCUS chief economist. He proceeded to explain that, as with bourbon, high-end and super premium brands are propelling the whole category. While revenues from “premium” single malts (the least expensive brands), fell by 13.4%, high-end and super premium rose by 6.8% and 6.3%. respectively. This came as little surprise just days after the Scotch Whisky Association announced that the Scotch industry is worth more than £5 billion in the UK, which outpaces two of the UK’s giant industries: computers, and iron and steel.

A small but increasing role is played by America’s boutique brands. In 2010, there were 109 independent distilleries operating; today there are more than 700. With sales of about 3.5 million cases last year, these producers account for 1.7% share of the spirits market’s volume. Ozgo noted that estimated supplier revenues was between $400 and $450 million, a sum he calculated based on data from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which indicates taxes paid.

The information presented at the briefing skirted the ongoing debate around the increasingly contentious terms “craft” and “handcrafted,” which have generated class action lawsuits against false claims. DISCUS uses the term “small distillers,” which it defines as the 712 producers turning out less than 50,000 cases (the average in that group being an astonishingly small 3,000 cases). The data, however, also takes into account seventeen distilleries that produce an average of 80,000 cases.

When, after the presentation, this reporter asked about the “handcrafted” debate, Frank Coleman, DISCUS senior vice president of public affairs, noted, “Let them fight about it. Some of the finest craft products in the world are made by large companies. [Glenmorangie master distiller] Bill Lumsden is making handcrafted whisky.” It is a distinction almost unique to whisky that makes the category even more intriguing.

 

21st Annual Whisky Advocate Award: Lifetime Achievement

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

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.

Colin Scott ChivasEarly 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.

Duncan (center) pictured with Bruichladdich distillery employees

Distillery workers gave a barrelhead momento to Duncan in honor of his retirement.

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.

21st Annual Whisky Advocate Award: Lowlands and Campbeltown Single Malt Whisky of the Year

Monday, December 15th, 2014

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 Rosebank 21YO Bottle & Box2014 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.