Archive for the ‘Writers’ Category

Jack Daniel’s Big, To Get a Lot Bigger

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Liza WeisstuchBrown-Forman announced a major expansion of the Jack Daniel distillery. Here are the details provided by Liza Weisstuch.

You can buy a lot of drinks for a lot of people with $100 million. With the number of people drinking Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey around the planet growing exponentially, Jack Daniel is footing a bill of over $100 million to make sure there’s enough to go around.

Cabin2On August 22, Brown-Forman Corporation, the parent company of Jack Daniel, announced the addition of barrel warehouses, stills, and other infrastructure to accommodate increased production of the historic brand. The current facility in Lynchburg, Tennessee stands next to a storied cave, its water source. It’s the same site where Mister Jack founded his distillery, a year after the Civil War ended. After Prohibition, that original facility was rejuvenated, and over the years, more column stills, fermenters, and cookers as whiskey production grew. But with global demand for the product skyrocketing, now is the time for a grand scale construction. The company will break ground in the fall and the build-out is expected to take two years. The new facility will be near the current one.

For 21 straight years, the brand has seen volume growth. The United States remains the single largest market, but it’s the international sales that have really given the numbers a supernova-caliber boost. Since 2004, sales of global cases have increased from about 7.7 million to almost 11 million last year. The whiskey is sold in 160 countries and the international sales make up just over half of the overall numbers.

“When you add that all together, if we don’t have the expansion, there will literally be supply issues,” said John Hayes, senior vice president, managing directorfor Jack Daniel. But that supply is not just going into bottles for Jack Daniel’s iconic Old No. 7. New products have been flowing into the market faster than you can say “Bar-B-Que Caboose Café.”S1596C20_R0_Btle34.2

Tennessee Honey, which launched in the United States in 2011, clocked in at 770,000 cases in 2012. The premium expressions Gentleman Jack and Single Barrel have seen double-digit growth for each of the past two years. Speaking of premium, the brand unveiled Sinatra Select, a product created under licensing agreement with Old Blue Eyes’s family, in January. Bottles fetch upwards of $150 in global travel retailers.

Perhaps building on the success of Tennessee Honey, which plays into the flavored spirit boom, Winter Jack, a low-proof spiced-punch-like product, was created for and launched in the German market in 2011. Hayes, who calls it a “crazy idea” and was “surprised by the success,” says it’s being tested in several American markets right now, and there are plans to roll it out to twenty-some states for the holidays.

Innovation has become a hallmark of the brand, and the new distillery facility offers a way for the company to maintain the velocity of creative output while holding strong to its roots.

“We’re thoughtful about how we expand the brand,” said Hayes. “The facility knows how to make Jack Daniel’s. The more we throw new things at them, the more difficult it can be to keep up with distiller operations. The new distillery can help,” said Hayes, who also noted there’s a rye currently aging. “It’s not as easy to make that in the current operation.”

The international market, however, is clamoring for more American whiskey these days.

“Clearly we’re in a global whiskey renaissance, so this is just the American manifestation of that extraordinary growth,” said Frank Coleman, senior vice president of public affairs for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade organization. “A lot of work has gone into the globalization of whiskey. Jack Daniel’s and other great American whiskeys found a home on a global stage.”

U.S. distilled spirits exports have increased significantly over the past decade due, in part, to the lowering of tariff and non-tariff barriers in many foreign markets. That’s only bolstered the growth of American whiskey exports to emerging markets like Russia, India, Vietnam, and Brazil. For last five years, more than half of the American whiskey consumption on earth was outside American borders.

“Things American are very popular everywhere you go around the world. Jack Daniel’s plays well into interests of foreign consumers, in that they’re interested in heritage,” said Coleman. “In some country, they may not like our foreign policy, but they like our products.”

John Walker Odyssey Rocks (but gently)

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Johnnie McCormickJonny McCormick climbed aboard John Walker’s boat and had some whisky. Here’s his log entry.

3 McCormick_John Walker Voyager in Port of Leith 3Captain Mark Lumley safely berthed The John Walker & Sons Voyager at the Port of Leith in Edinburgh, completing its Grand Tour of Europe. The luxury ocean-going yacht has been refitted as a floating Johnnie Walker House for this epic journey, which began last year with a 15 stop tour of the Asia-Pacific region. It has been exquisitely designed to tell the story of Johnnie Walker and the dynasty of master blenders that followed in his wake. Tom Jones, Johnnie Walker’s global ambassador, has been aboard for the duration of the journey. He estimates that he has personally conducted tastings for more than 14,000 drinkers on board and he’s not finished yet.

The focus of the endeavor is to launch the John Walker & Sons Odyssey, originally envisaged as a luxury whisky for the Asian market but one that has exceeded Diageo’s expectations around Europe too. Can it repeat that success in America too, I wonder? Arguably, the Voyager is acting as a flagship not just for Johnnie Walker but for Scotch whisky as a whole. As it docks at each global destination, this glamorous spectacle helps attract new people towards trying whisky, something we should all support as whisky drinkers. Once they’ve found their way in, we know they will be just fine exploring wherever their palate takes them.8 McCormick_John Walker & Sons Odyssey

Not everyone spotted the subtle shift in emphasis when the Johnnie Walker Blue Label King George V edition was repackaged as John Walker & Sons King George V. Now Odyssey weighs anchor in the open sea between KGV and The John Walker and there were hints of more whiskies to follow. The bottle has that perpetual rocking motion of the Johnnie Walker Swing bottle but with a gentler amplitude due to its higher center of gravity. Oh, and before you ask, it’s $1,000 a bottle.

Intriguingly, it’s a triple malt, the first blended malt whisky to be created in the JW range since Green Label became extinct in most markets. Not to mention a technical challenge for master blender Jim Beveridge. “I’m a blender, I value grain enormously, and I had to think very strongly when asked to make this a blended malt,” he admitted. Blended malt whiskies are a relatively uncharted territory, though whiskies by Compass Box, Wemyss Malts, Monkey Shoulder, Big Peat by Douglas Laing, and the MacKinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt (Shackleton’s whisky) have done much to change perceptions.

To be clear, as a triple malt, the volume of Odyssey is greater than three single casks. The particular volume of each release dictates the parcels of stock available to the blender. Feasibly, that could include different vintages and ages of stock. “If it’s a relatively low volume, I can go to a part of the stock that is really special. The flavor for Odyssey had to match that John Walker style, so I can choose to create a blend around those ideas.”

Jim Beveridge

Jim Beveridge

While the precise distilleries remain part of the mystique, Beveridge alludes cryptically, “The distillery character would be typical of a Speyside style which will work well with the Highland style, both of which do well with European oak. The rich, dry fruit is the European oak, the fresher autumnal, berry fruits; that’s from the distillery. That’s how it comes together.”

He will be faced with the challenge of achieving the same taste profile for future editions. Shrewdly, this doesn’t commit him to only using stock from the same three distilleries. “We’ve got over eight million casks to choose from,” he noted, “and there are very few that could be used to make this particular blend. It is old, but age isn’t a defining character. No age statement gives me the freedom to choose casks when they’re right.”

At present, there is not a 750 ml version for the United States but that is expected to follow if plans materialize for the yacht to undertake its third tour in the Caribbean and southern ports of the United States.

Let me pose some questions, as this opens up a new frontier. I’ve never seen a major release of a quality blended malt positioned for the luxury market quite like this, nor backed by this kind of leading-edge campaign. Moreover, it looks to have been strikingly successful to date. Will the bow wave effect of this ultra-premium offering challenge your attitude to the values associated with blended malt whiskies? What is your experience with other blended malt whiskies and the flavors they achieve? On your own whisky journey, is this your direction of travel? This could be the vanguard of Scotch whisky. Can blenders produce a synergistic experience superior to the component single malts without the grain? The floor is open…

5 Things You Don’t Know about MGPI, America’s most misunderstood distillery

Friday, August 9th, 2013

Fred MinnickFred Minnick gives you a Whisky Advocate exclusive look behind the scenes at the MGPI/LDI/Seagram’s distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

When I requested an interview with MGP Ingredients master distiller Greg Metze, I imagined I’d be turned down to view this secretive Lawrenceburg, Indiana, distillery.

Imagine my surprise when the MGPI publicist granted my request. The full story will appear in the Spring Issue of Whisky Advocate and reveal all. In the meantime, here are five factoids to pique your palate about MGPI, formerly Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI), formerly Pernod Ricard, formerly Seagram’s, formerly Rossville Union Distillery.

5. Distillery Disclosure: Customer’s Choice. MGPI says its contracts do not require anonymity clauses. Keeping the distillery a secret is the customer’s preference, says Dr. Don Coffey, MGPI’s VP of research and development. “We have a lot of customers who say, ‘Please don’t talk about us.’ And some put [Lawrenceburg, Ind.] right on the label,” Coffey says. “If somebody puts it on the label, that’s fair game. But, we’ve been asked by a lot of customers to not disclose; it’s just safer for us not to.” Plant manager Jim Vinoski says this non-disclosure strategy is a part of the company’s business model. “We are not marketers,” Vinoski says. “That’s their world.”MGPI Distillery 2

4. Sticking to History. Established in 1847 as the Rossville Union Distillery, Joseph E. Seagram and Sons Inc. purchased the facility in 1933. When Seagram’s folded in 2000, Diageo and Pernod Ricard split the beverage division, with Pernod taking the Lawrenceburg facility. Pernod sold to CL Financial in 2007 to form LDI. When publicly traded MGPI purchased the LDI group in 2011, MGPI made a strategic decision to fondly remember its Seagram’s and LDI history. “That’s our heritage,” Vinoski says. Blogs, magazines and social media still refer to it as LDI. Many publicly traded companies would use trademark lawyers to correct such errors. But, Vinoski says: “Call us Seagram’s or LDI. It doesn’t bother us.”

3. The first LDI customer was…Templeton Rye Whiskey or High West. Both came in came in around the same time, Metze says. (According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau label approval records, Iowa-based Templeton received label approval two months before Utah-based High West in 2007.)

MGPI Distillery 192. Only 2012 stocks are left. As soon as LDI created a website, suitors came for the whiskey. From 2007 to 2011, dozens, maybe hundreds, of new whiskey brands appeared on the market using LDI-produced whiskey. There were so many that nobody really knows how many brands the company supplies without looking at a computer. Thus, with the popularity of its rye whiskey and bourbon, MGPI’s oldest available rye or bourbon whiskey is 2012. Everything else is under contract.

1. LDI almost started its own brands.  “CL Financial bought the distillery with the intention of launching their own brands,” Metze says. “We were developing some bourbon brands.” CL also purchased the Old Medley distillery (in Owensboro, Ky.) in 2007, so there were high hopes for the CL’s Angostura portfolio to add its own bourbon brands. But CL Financial collapsed in January 2009 amidst the global financial crisis and those bourbon dreams were gone. What would liquor shelves look like today if CL Financial had remained solvent?

Photos by Fred Minnick

Million Pound Whisky

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s up at Deanston?

Friday, July 19th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Part Two: Lost in Alberta. And Windsor.

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

Lew BrysonDavin, David, and Lew get into the nuts and bolts of Canadian whisky, as described by Lew.

After our day at Black Velvet, we left Lethbridge the next morning, headed north toward Calgary, and stopped along the way at the Highwood Distillery in High River, Alberta. These guys do things their own way: they don’t have a mill. Only distillery I’ve ever been to that doesn’t have a mill! They put the whole grain—wheat is what they’re currently running—in a big pressure cooker, step it up through three temperature/pressure stays, and then, at 120 psi, they open the valve and the wheat blows into a vessel where it slams into a bell-shaped metal plate. Any starches that haven’t already burst from the pressure blow open at that point! They’ve been doing it that way since they opened in 1974. They use a column still, and a pot still for rectification, doing a series of redistillations.

The guys at Highwood confirmed what we’d been starting to suspect: barrels are used, re-used, and re-used some more in Canada. “We like to get as much use out of a barrel as we can,” we were told. “A barrel is spent when it starts to leak.” There must have been some leakers in there, because Highwood’s warehouse was the most alcohol-filled I’ve ever been in; my eyes were burning! When we were treated to a sample from a 33 year old cask (which was lovely, sweet, and gentle enough to hold on the tongue, even at 79%, which is just crazy), the whisky reek in the air was so strong that I couldn’t discern a difference between the air in the glass and the air outside the glass! We had to open a door. By the time we got to the lab to taste whiskies, we were all a bit jolly from just breathing…

We tasted White Owl, Highwood’s carbon-filtered 5 year old white whisky (and their best-selling product). It was sweet, fruity, touched with vanilla, and a flip of a bitter finish; definitely not vodka, despite its appearance. We tasted several more whiskies, some—like the 20 year old Ninety (named for the proof)—quite good indeed, and then wrapped up with a bottle Dave and I had noticed: The Volstead Project. It was a 5 month old barreled Manhattan, and it was quite tasty; putting a handful of cracked ice in it made it even better. But…we begged to be dropped off at a restaurant for lunch; we were woozy! We ate a big lunch, and walked about a mile back to the distillery, and felt much better. Back to Calgary, and we’d leave early in the morning for a day of travel that ended in Windsor. (We’ve since learned that Highwood had 2 feet of water running through it on 6/20 due to flash floods; best of luck to them, hope they’re okay and didn’t lose much stock.)CC-Heritage-Centre-June-14,-2013

Windsor was a pretty nice little town, all things considered—being a mile from Detroit these days can be unnerving—and after a great dinner at a place called the City Grill and a couple beers in some downtown pubs, we got some rest before the final day of distillery visits: Canadian Club and the Hiram Walker distillery.

If you’ve never been to Windsor—or Walkerville, as it was originally called, when it was Hiram Walker’s company town—you’ve never seen the Canadian Club Brand Center. Hiram Walker—the Hiram Walker, the man—built it in 1891 to celebrate the success of the global whisky brand he’d built. It’s modeled on the Pandolfini palace in Florence, and frankly, it’s stunning. Hiram may have been a grocer from Massachusetts, but he had or developed excellent taste, and the art and architecture in the building is beautiful. The offices look over the Detroit River, over to where Hiram lived (he never became a Canadian citizen, and commuted home every day by way of a tunnel and a cart pulled by his beloved donkey, Hector). We had time for a quick sample; I picked the CC 20 year old, and found it delicious, with a firmly oaky nose, but gracefully youthful notes of grass, mint, and pepper.

Canadian Club is made under contract at the Hiram Walker distillery. The distillery also makes the Corby brands, including Wiser’s, Pike Creek, and Lot No. 40. We got our tour from Dr. Don Livermore, the master blender, who is very savvy, and very keen to experiment with places Canadian whisky hadn’t yet gone. He talked several times about “keeping the pipeline full of innovation,” staying ahead of the demands of marketing.IMG_0281

This was where we came face-to-face with the tail-end of Canadian whisky, the waste, the DDG: distiller’s dried grains. Due to their use of enzymes and scarily clean fermentation, Canadian distillers get an almost complete use of sugars in fermentation, and as a result the material coming out of their dryhouse is almost all protein. Unlike the burnt chicken feather smell of most dryhouses, the Walker dryhouse smelled like toasted cereal, almost good enough to eat. When something’s wrong with fermentation, Dr. Don said, you’ll smell it here, and you’ll know. This high-protein product is a profit item for them; “It’s not a by-product,” he said, “it’s a co-product.”

Hiram Walker is huge. They use 218,000 liter (57,000 gallon) fermenters that use 60 metric tonnes of corn in every batch, and they have 39 of them. The fermenters are cooled by huge amounts of water piped in directly from the Detroit River: brute force cooling. Their column still is the size of a Titan missile and puts out spirit at 240 gallons a minute. It is the largest beverage alcohol plant in North America. It reminds you that while we may not think much about Canadian whisky—and that’s likely to change—one hell of a lot of it gets bought in a year.IMAG0738

We tasted 40 samples, everything from straight-up new make base whisky pulled off at 94.8% and their Polar Vodka, done at 96%— they were surprisingly different—to all the different flavoring variants of corn, rye, barley, malt, and wheat, run off the beer still in single pass or second-distilled in their pot still (referred to in-house as “Star” and “Star Special” variants) at various ages, spirit aged in used oak and new wood, and in used wood with red oak stave inserts…Dr. Don is an experimenting fool! “They’re all tools in the box for a master blender,” he said.

We tasted finished whiskies, too; the full Wiser’s range, Pike Creek, Lot No. 40, and a new J.P.Wiser that’s intended for the U.S., blended with more rye, and whiskies aged in new wood, bourbon barrels, and used Canadian whisky barrels. It was spicy, sweet, bold, and had some vinous notes to it. Then he pulled out a surprise. Davin had mentioned a 15 year old whisky from the defunct Gooderham & Worts distillery as a “dram before you die;” Dr. Don had the stock from the distillery and the formula, and he made up a small batch. We tasted it, and Davin was right; an exceptional whisky indeed.

A barrel of Dr. Don's Ph.D. whisky that we all signed.

A barrel of Dr. Don’s Ph.D. whisky that we all signed.

You’d think it was downhill from there, but we drove out to the Wiser’s warehouses (beside the real Pike Creek, and sampled Dr. Don’s Ph.D. project, three small runs of whisky done in new oak. It was roaringly bold, and we were loath to toss them, but there were others to try… We were off the clock, and having fun, but still noticed that they had begun barcoding barrels and tracking use and flavor. Wood management is coming to Canada.

After a fine Italian dinner on Windsor’s Via Italia, and a couple more drinks in a street fair on a fine moonlit night…our trip was finally done. We’d learned a lot about Canadian whisky, its history, and its homeland. There’s a lot to be said for learning, that’s for sure.

Part One: Lost in Alberta

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

Lew BrysonDavin De Kergommeaux, Dave Broom and Lew Bryson hit the prairies in search of real Canadian whisky. Lew brings you along for the ride.

Our Canadian whisky reviewer, Davin de Kergommeaux, contacted Dave Broom and I a couple months ago about a trip to visit Canadian whisky distilleries, sponsored by the Association of Canadian Distillers. We were eager to learn more about the Canadian whisky tradition—especially after reading Davin’s excellent book, Canadian Whisky—so the second week of June saw the three of us, and the Association’s president, Jan Westcott, converging on Calgary.

I landed first…and realized Davin and I had made no plans on how to meet. My emergency plan worked: sitting in an armchair beside the baggage carousels till Davin walked by. We picked up the rental car and drove to our motel in downtown Calgary, where we ran into a colorful demonstration against the government. The Ethiopian government. Didn’t make sense to me, either, but Davin waded right into it—they politely held the door for him, it is Canada—we dropped our luggage in the rooms, and headed to a well-recommended spot, Beer Revolution, to meet friends of mine for pints and pizza. Or at least, I did, and Davin headed back to the airport to get Dave. They got lost on the way back; it was a precursor.

The next morning we met up with Jan, who was going to lead us to Alberta Distillers Ltd., our first stop. We saw some nice neighborhoods, the Bow River, one really nice neighborhood under construction — we were lost. After some quick discussion, we were off again, and found the place, off in an industrial area, surrounded by magpies. We learned about enzyme creation and the difficulties of 100% rye distillation, and tasted Alberta Premium 25 year old and 30 year old, two wonderful limited release whiskies that are vanished from the shelves, and Dark Horse, a 45% NAS kicker that was just stuffed with flavor, a very lively whisky indeed. (More to come on Canadian distilling in an upcoming issue of the magazine; we’re just having some fun here).

Tom Riehs and Lew Bryson

Tom Riehs and Lew Bryson

After lunch, we headed south across the prairie, the Rockies in the distance to our right, rye fields all around us. We stopped at one, Tom Riehs’s farm—I’d asked Davin to see a rye field, and he delivered!—and Tom was good enough to take us out to see the field, stand in it, see what rye looks like and how it grows. He told us that it was just young at this point, up to our knees, but when it was ready for harvest, it would be almost head-high. He also told us that fewer farmers are growing rye—a variety of reasons; his son’s probably not going to grow rye when he takes over because he doesn’t want to raise cattle, and pasturing them in the rye is part of the process—which doesn’t bode well for whisky.

Back in the car, and as we approached the turnoff for Lethbridge at Fort MacLeod, Jan said he had to stop to stretch his legs, and started going on about a great hamburger he’d had in the bus depot in Fort MacLeod. He went looking for it. We didn’t find it—it had closed about five years earlier, and to be honest, it looked like a lot of the rest of the town was waiting to join it—but we did stop and tour the recreation of Fort MacLeod, home of the North West Mounted Patrol, which would become the Royal Canadian Mounted Police: the Mounties. It was a great tour, with Mountie memorabilia, photos, and a gift shop…where Jan found that one of the women who worked there used to be a waitress at the bus depot. He was overjoyed.

We drove on to Lethbridge, and I took over the directions: we rolled straight to our motel, where we discovered a tiki-type bar in their central courtyard, which was full of tikisemi-tropical plants, water, a piano, and cast-iron alligators. We had to have a drink! I got a rummy-pineapple concoction (with umbrella; Dave insisted on getting a picture: “For evidence.”), Davin had a beer, and Dave got a daiquiri (Waitress with permanent smile: “What flavor would you like?” Dave, wary: “Daiquiri flavor.”). After a long walk for a nice dinner (and a continuing enjoyment of Calgary-brewed Big Rock Traditional ale), we called it a night.

We set out across town for Black Velvet the next morning. After our misadventures with directions, I was prepared with a mapped-out route to the distillery. It was great, until we hit a roadblock and detour on the main road that dumped us onto the road out of town, in the wrong direction. We were cursed! Davin found a quick route back through a nature preserve, and we took side streets to Black Velvet.

They really rolled out the red carpet—all the distillers did—and opened every door, answered every question, even the sticky ones. For instance, why do they feed the heads of the distillation process back into the fermenters? The compounds in the heads induce the shutdown of certain metabolic paths in the yeast, which keeps them focused on alcohol production; they’re getting 14-15% ABV in fermentation. We then had a thorough tasting session that included the GNS used for blending, the rye and corn “flavoring whiskies,” Black Velvet, and Black Velvet Reserve (all cut to 20%).

Then we got to taste the Danfield’s 10 and 21 Year Old, at which Jan protested in mock fury: “No, they can’t taste them, and they can’t have them outside of Canada!” We’d already discovered that Canada does indeed keep “the good stuff,” and we were intrigued. The Danfield’s whiskies intensified that, full of fresh-sawn oak and cedar notes, vanilla, and sweet warm cereal, delicious without the cloying sweetness of some younger, export Canadians. We wanted them, and Jan wasn’t letting go!

Tins of alcohol at Fort Whoop-Up.

Tins of alcohol at Fort Whoop-Up.

We had overstayed in our curiosity, and the rest of the day would be a rush. We grabbed a quick but delicious lunch at a local taphouse, then went to Fort Whoop-Up, an old “whisky fort” where sharp traders swapped diluted grain alcohol-based “whisky” to the natives for furs; it was another thing the Mounties were formed to monitor.

Then we zoomed across the prairie to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a site where native peoples without effective weapons had craftily stampeded buffalo over a cliff for food and materiel for millennia; the last such hunt took place only 120 years ago. Our guide, Edwin, was a Blackfoot, and even though we got there just before closing, took us up to the cliff site, showed us the herbs the hunters used to disguise their scent, and—really—beat a drum and sang a Blackfoot song for us. It was a fierce moment, and a great experience, with a tremendous view of the vast Alberta prairies.

The next day we would see a third Alberta distillery, then head east…to Windsor.

Glen Keith Arises

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

Ian BuxtonIan Buxton goes to the “official” Glen Keith re-opening.

Another Friday and I’m back on Speyside. Another distillery must be re-opening.

And so it proves. This time, it’s the eponymous Glen Keith (that means it’s located in the town of Keith, after which it takes its name – please excuse, I’m just showing off the thesaurus function on this computer). Mothballed in 1999 it’s been comprehensively overhauled, renewed and enlarged by owners Chivas Brothers (part of the giant Pernod Ricard group) and can now produce some 6 million lpa of new make annually.

Of course, it’s already going full blast. What are we to make of this?

 

I’ve been working in and around the Scotch whisky industry for more than 25 years (sometimes it feels longer; sometimes it seems to have passed in a moment) and I really have never seen anything like the present day. Nor has any other industry veteran that I talk to: “Let’s hope it carries on for another five years,” said one old hand I chatted to at the opening, no doubt with a keen eye on his pension.

Front Entrance

If you’ll forgive a short reminiscence, I entered the Scotch whisky industry to work for a major company convinced that scotch had had its day and that white spirits were the future. While the cash still rolled in my job was to work on a diversification team. We bought a preserves (jam and marmalade; “jellies” for the U.S. reader) business and a biscuit (“cookies”) company. What a disaster!

Eventually both were sold, as they realized that they had overreacted, and the good times rolled round again. But nothing like today.

Frankly, most of the companies will tell you—off the record, of course, and well away from their spinmeisters—that they can’t believe their luck. For the first time in living memory (well, almost), everything has fallen just right for Scotch whisky, as emerging market after emerging market gets ever more affluent and develops an apparently insatiable demand for Scotch whisky. The fly in the ointment, of course, is that the new consumer appears to like things better the more expensive they are, and the industry is happy to oblige. That’s bad luck if you happen to have developed your scotch habit ten years or more ago, as Dave Broom pointed out in the last issue of Whisky Advocate.

But enough of my ramblings. You want to know about Glen Keith.

Well, it’s all about blends and emerging markets. Established in 1959 and opened in 1960, the distillery last worked in 1999 and required some major modifications to meet today’s health and safety standards. A curiosity is that for the first ten years or so of its operating life it operated a triple distillation process, highly unusually for Speyside. That, however, was in decline by 1970 and Washbacksdropped entirely by the early 1980s. My question as to whether or not any triple-distilled stock remains from that period was politely glossed over. In all probability, the nice young PR person didn’t know (probably didn’t realize why I was interested!). Interestingly, a column still also ran here during the 1970s, but again, this has long since been retired.

In those early days there was a substantial malting operation here, complete with Saladin boxes. All that has been swept away in the expansion, which has added 6 new washbacks to increase the distillery’s capacity from 3.5 million to 6 million lpa. No increase was required to the three pairs of stills, but a brand new mashtun with a faster four-hour cycle has allowed output to be expanded. All the building at the rear of Expansion at rear of buildingthe distillery covered in white harling is new.

Chivas were at pains to stress the distillery’s environmental credentials, pointing out their new thermo-compressors, which recycle hot water with a heat recovery system that CEO Christian Porta noted, “makes Glen Keith an environmentally-friendly, responsible investment [that is] 15% more efficient than any other in the group.”

Historically, the distillery’s output went into Passport and 100 Pipers. That will continue, but with Chivas Regal and Ballantine’s crying out for stock, it isn’t too great an imaginative leap to work out where at least Process Controlsome will end up.

There are no visitor facilities, and for the foreseeable future all the output will be required for blending, though 800 bottles have been released in the Cask Strength Edition series (available only from the group’s visitor centers). This is a 54.9% 17 year old drawn from American oak and exhibiting typical vanilla and crème caramel notes, with flavors of pears, licorice, and citrus.

Open! Christian Porta (left, CEO, Chivas Brothers) & Richard Lochead (right, Scotland's Minister for Whisky).The opening ceremony was performed jointly by Christian Porta (left) and Richard Lochhead (right), Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment (or “Minister for Whisky,” as he termed himself), who said, “This is a vote of confidence in the future. A special day for Keith; for Speyside; for the local economy and for Chivas Brothers.”

Around $11 million was spent on the redevelopment; part of Chivas Brothers’ planned $63 million expansion of Scotch whisky production. So far as I could see…they have no plans to get into the cookie business.

Talisker: Home By the Sea

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Jonny McCormickTalisker has unveiled a new million pound upgrade to its distillery visitor facilities. Jonny McCormick traveled to the Isle of Skye to take a look.

There are precious few signs that spring has arrived on Skye.  The fabric of the mountainside is a muted patchwork of exhausted greensand intense purples from the quiescent winter grass and last summer’s heather. A severe storm is grinding itself out on the Hebrides, with dense, savage rainclouds enveloping the summits of the Cuillins on the Minginish peninsula. Rain and snowmelt have swollen the many burns and streams which cascade down steep slopes into the lochs; the unpredictable routes of the brilliant white torrents reminiscent of the legs running down your whisky glass. I approach Talisker distillery after a five hour coast-to-coast drive, the car whipped by rain every single minute of the journey. Talisker: give me shelter from the storm.

Talisker DFW in better weather 2012

Talisker welcomed 60,000 visitors last year, the highest footfall of any Diageo-owned distillery in Scotland. This is a growing brand that continues to receive attention with smart updated packaging, premium limited editions, and new no-age-statement line extensions including Talisker Storm and the new Talisker Port Ruighe.  These are soon to be joined by Talisker Dark Storm, a new Travel Retail expression matured in heavily charred casks.

Talisker waves in the reception areaNo wonder the parent company has invested seriously in how the distillery in Carbost presents itself to the world. It’s styled by the tagline “Made By The Sea,” and as I enter, they are not kidding around. Carved waves surge out of the floorboards, lapping at information stations that encapsulate materials central to whisky making here: copper for the stills, the wood of the wormtubs, and the curious U-bend in the lyne arms with the skinny re-entrant pipe that loops condensed spirit back down into Talisker’s wash stills. Hand in hand are the rugged elements representing the strong winds driving the waves onto the rocks in Loch Harport, yachting sails, and rigging marking the maritime positioning fitting the distillery’s exposed setting.Talisker Wash Still #2 with U bend lyne arm

The stories are rich from the distillery’s origins in 1830 with Hugh MacAskill who orchestrated the Clearances on Skye, the dependency on old Clyde puffers to bring in raw materials and take away casks to the mainland, and the night of the major stillhouse fire in 1960. The new ground floor reception area is a triumph of contemporary design and a breath of fresh (salty) air compared with the former upstairs lounge area where expectant visitors used to sip a dram in the past, while tour numbers grew to a critical mass. The new space has come at the expense of part of the sea-facing Duty Free Warehouse #4, but the tour still offers a view into this working warehouse where the oldest casks on site are maturing (currently two casks filled in 1979).

Talisker offer a basic tour at £7 (around $10-11) and an in-depth tasting tour for Talisker slogans£25 ($38) that takes around two hours and includes a tasting of five different expressions plus an opportunity to try Talisker new make. This year, they are introducing something new with a ‘tasting without a tour’ session for repeat visitors and whisky enthusiasts who have seen it all before and just want to get their nose into the new products. The new tasting room has a colorful border of jumbled texts and fonts like a wood type block, each singing out a distinctive flavor descriptor; honeycombs, smoky bacon, wooden fish boxes….

This room will host the tasting tours and visiting media representatives like today, when a party of French journalists are attending a press launch for Talisker Port Ruighe. The space where the tours conclude is my favorite part of the redesign; a versatile room that can be partitioned by a blue swing panel covered in slogans of the key messages. The areas are bounded by vertical wooden planks, each laser cut with the names and flavors of a different expression of Talisker single malt whisky.

It’s the clever little touches that impress, such as the mirrors beside the narrow dunnage warehouse windows to increase the natural light and the sail ropes that hoist the vertical planks upwards like storm covers hiding cannon muzzles on a man-of-war. When the visitor season hits full swing later this summer, the tour guides will be conducting 30-35 tours per day with tour groups coming into this area for tastings every 15 minutes.

Talisker exterior in better weather 2012 2LRI’ve been visiting Skye since I was a boy and it still takes me a second to remember to use the Skye bridge and not pull off the road at Kyle of Lochalsh down to wait for the roll-on-roll-off ferry to make the short crossing to Kyleakin. Despite today’s cataclysmic downpour, I can reassure you that the Isle of Skye looks glorious in the summertime if you are planning a trip. The impressive new million pound facilities at Talisker Distillery will handsomely reward your efforts for making the journey. This display will leave you with a deeper understanding of the necessary characteristics embodied in the spirit of the Islanders: resilient, inventive, humorous, tough, self-sufficient, waterproof, patient, lucky.

Photographs by Jonny McCormick

Scotland: a Quick Trip

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

Whisky Advocate’s managing editor, Lew Bryson, reports on his recent trip to Scotland.

I was invited to join a press trip to Highland Park distillery recently. I accepted, and added on two days of my own to visit other distilleries in the Highlands. The trip was last week, and after a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the cask ale bars of Edinburgh, we flew up to Kirkwall on Orkney on a brisk Monday morning, dropped our bags at the Lynnfield Hotel, and went to the distillery. We stood in the courtyard, smelling the peat burning in the maltings, looking at tubs filled with tiny daffodils, and feeling the sleet fall lightly on our heads and shoulders. That’s Orkney for you.

Highland Park does floor malting of about 20% of its malt, and smokes it all with Orkney peat to between 35 and 50 ppm of phenols. IMG_0098The local peat is unique, and densely layered with heather. We went out to the peat cuttings the following day, and could see heather roots right down to the 5,000 year level. The other 80% of the malt is unpeated and is bought in. The 80/20 blend is the same in all mashing, and yields the familiarly gentle peat character of Highland Park, with a phenol level of about 2 ppm in the spirit.

Highland Park’s whisky is all aged in oloroso sherry-seasoned casks; some made from American oak, some from Spanish oak (about 50/50), but all sherry (which made for an amusing “Ah HA!” moment when we spotted a small number of port pipes; they were experimental, and may never make it to a bottling). They vary the ratios of American/ Spanish and first-fill/refill to get different character for the different bottlings. The 30 Year Old, for instance, has no first-fill casks; the 25 Year Old is 50% first-fill casks.

It was broadly hinted to us that the Edrington Group would like to reserve as much Highland Park as possible for single malt bottling (they’ve already cut back on the amount of barrels being released to independent bottlers). With the same kind of demand driving things at The Macallan, you wonder what the future is for Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark.

IMAG0616After a fascinating second day getting the Orkney experience—standing stones, cliffs, more sleet, a Neolithic chamber tomb, the peat bogs, Scapa Flow, and fish and chips in a harborside pub—we left Kirkwall Wednesday morning, and I rented a car to drive to Speyside. My first stop was The Macallan, where my guide, Ian Duncan, told me that they’re now running 24/7 every day of the year, except for three weeks of maintenance in July. Yes, every day of the year, even Christmas and New Year’s, which is how they’re putting out 9.2 million liters a year (even given their “curiously small stills”).

The visitor center has an excellent display on wood, which shows the structure of oak, explaining how oak is watertight, but also, very slowly, breathes. The oak they’re largely looking at, of course, is Spanish and American oak used in sherry casks, which now cost The Macallan about £650 each, compared to £500 only two years ago. Do yourself a favor: drink more sherry!

Unfortunately, since I was traveling solo, I wasn’t able to taste anything, so I pushed on to The Glenlivet, where I was met by international brand ambassador Ian Logan. It was a bit late in the afternoon, so we had the place largely to ourselves, and we paused for a moment in the new distillation hall, a soaring place with a grand view across the valley. The stills are oil-fired, but natural gas is coming: I’d been held up by the construction along the way. The new stills are in addition to the old ones and give the distillery a capacity of 10.5 million liters a year, trying to keep up with a booming demand that had increased sales of Glenlivet from 2,500 cases a year in the 1970s to 250,000 cases in 2001, and an amazing 825,000 cases in 2012.

I asked Ian about the still geometry; why are the stills at Glenlivet shaped the way they are? He called over brewer Richard Clark, who cocked his head and said, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it. But really, that’s what it is. Whatever the reason they were built the way they were, keep doing it the same way, because that’s how your spirit is.”

That led us into a discussion of quality vs. consistency. The distillation here is highly consistent because of automation. That’s not necessarily higher quality every time, Ian noted, but it makes for a regularly higher level overall, and it’s always the same. Automation may make a smaller workforce possible—there are ten people making the whisky here—but it’s still the people who make the whisky, he said.

Then we had a chat about limits. The last downturn in the industry was in the 1980s, Ian said, but Chivas kept making whisky, and Glenlivet is set for older whiskies because of that. “It will turn down again,” he said. “It always does. Everything does. Everything is cyclical.” There are other limits on growth; everyone I talked to on this trip had water on their mind, a limiting factor even here in rainy Scotland as production expands in response to demand.

I drove on up past Inverness, and spent the night at The Anderson in Fortrose, owned by an old acquaintance from Philly, Jim IMG_0160Anderson (and he has a great whisky bar). It was a short drive to Tain the next morning, where Annette MacKenzie took me around a quiet Glenmorangie that was slowly coming back to life after annual maintenance. They did a total refurbishment three years ago, and are looking at 6 million liters production this year.

It was quiet at the distillery, but things were stirring. Malt was being delivered, and steam was slowly being turned back on. “Good to hear the noise!” Annette called to the stillman. Then she told me that because the sounds of the steam and the bubbles and the gushes of the stillhouse are so important, and the stillman leans to listen to every little nuance, “You can’t sneak up on a stillman.”

I drove back southeast, backtracking to The Dalmore, where Shauna Jennens took me around. We saw the two sets of stills—the “little rascals” and the “big bastards”—with the odd flat tops of the wash stills and the unique cooling water jackets of the spirit stills.

“It’s an unbalanced distilling system,” explained stillman Mark Hallas. “The spirit’s different coming off the different stills, but over 24 hours it balances. It’s all manually controlled, they call it ‘dynamic distillation.’” He grinned. “Automate it all you want, the most important part is the meat in the machine.” He grinned again, and tapped the side of his head.

The meat in the machine at Dalmore that everyone knows best is Richard Paterson’s nose, of course, and though he wasn’t there that morning, his presence was palpable: in videos, in pictures, and in the complicated blending that’s done with six different casks and finishes for the single malts. Even a simple nose like mine noticed that the smell in these dunnage warehouses, right beside the Cromarty Firth, is unique: malt, wood, stemmy grape, and salt.

And here I did finally give in and have a small drink of Matusalem oloroso sherry; “good stuff,” as Shauna pronounced it, and it was rich, fruity, and delicious. We followed it with a bare quarter-ounce of King Alexander III, and the relation was clear. It was a very good moment, looking out the window, across the sun-beaten firth, ready to push on.

IMG_0171Push on I did, with one more stop before heading back to the Edinburgh airport to fly home. I drove east to Elgin, and then up the Spey to Rothes, where I met Fiona Toovey for a tour of Forsyths, the still manufacturers. Once kitted out with reflective vest and steel-toed shoes, we walked the yard, full of coppersmiths banging away with hammers of differing sizes, saw the large pits for the mechanical hammers, and the shop where Forsyths rides out the cyclical whisky industry with work on specialized steel welding and shaping for the gas and oil drilling industry.

They were gearing up for the summer maintenance period here as well. A warehouse was filling with new and refurbished stills and condensers, and a small army of fitters would swarm on them to get them into quiet distilleries during the short summer break. Things are good at Forsyths, and only getting better as more major distillery expansions are announced.

That was the end of my trip, but for the intensely scenic drive down to Edinburgh (and a quick stop to take a few pictures at Tullibardine for my sister). The Scotch whisky industry is successful and expanding, and looking challenges straight in the eye. Where will the water come from to make the whisky? Where will the wood come from for sherry aging? Where will the money come from to build more warehouses than current sales need (but future sales depend on)? Time will tell. For now, all is well in the glens and on the islands.