Archive for the ‘Fridays’ Category

Whisky Investing…the last time around

Friday, September 19th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonMy father died four years ago, and I have to say; he was a bit of a pack rat. More than a bit, really. It took us all day to clean out the garage (which hadn’t held a car since the Johnson administration); honestly, why did a man who rarely worked on his own car need five grease guns?

My mother’s been working her way through all the papers and letters he saved, and she found this one, and thought I’d find it interesting. Once I’d had a look, and chuckled, I thought you might find it interesting as well:

 

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It was sent, by air mail (a 4p stamp at the time), to my father’s RD1 address, in April, 1973. To the best of my knowledge, my father never drank an ounce of Scotch whisky in his life, and in 1973, his life savings amounted to his teacher’s pension (which was out of his reach) and about $1,000 in a savings and loan account that we would spend two months later on a family vacation we’d been planning for ten years. We were hardly investors, and certainly not Scotch lovers…yet Strathmore not only found us, but sent a hand-addressed letter to us.

In less than ten years, Scotland would be awash in whisky (which in 15 more years would become the bounty of under-priced mature whisky that some of us swam in, joyfully, for a happy, golden time).

We are being encouraged to “invest” in Scotch whisky again. I feel like I should check my mailbox. And keep a hand on my wallet.

The Vote For Scottish Independence

Friday, September 5th, 2014

Author - Ian BuxtonIan Buxton has some thoughts about the upcoming vote on Scottish independence. Not surprisingly, they center on its effects on Scotch whisky. Be honest; that’s exactly the way many people who read this blog evaluate it!

At last! At last, the Scotch whisky industry has woken up to the potential dangers of a ‘yes’ vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum (you can explore the issues, facts, opinions, and polls on a BBC site here).

In summary, on September 18th, voters in Scotland will give a YES/NO answer to a simple question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’

The question is a momentous one, involving the break-up of the 300 year old United Kingdom and turning Scotland and England into foreign countries. The debate has run on for nearly two years, with no final and satisfactory answers to questions such as ‘what currency will Scotland use, and on what basis?’, ‘will an independent Scotland be part of the European Union?’ and ‘how will all this be paid for?’

photo: http://photoeverywhere.co.uk/

The expectation is that if Scotland breaks away it will follow a more left-wing political and social agenda than has previously been the case for the United Kingdom as a whole. The nationalist case is that Scotland, a country rich in natural assets, can well afford to stand on its own. The North Sea oil fields are frequently mentioned as a major source of income, though as the No campaign loudly responds, eventually the oil will run out. No one knows exactly when, but that the wells will finally run dry isn’t in dispute.

That leaves whisky as one of the few remaining national assets that can’t easily get up and leave (a large part of the significant Scottish financial community could well decamp to the City of London). The fact that Scotch whisky has to be made and matured in Scotland means that it will inevitably be a long-term tax target for any future government of an independent Scotland.

The political arguments are good: the industry uses Scotland’s water but currently pays relatively little tax in Scotland itself and, while it creates employment, the high-value management jobs tend to be out of the country. Much of the economic benefit of Scotch whisky flows not to the people of Scotland, but to anonymous global multinational corporations. A tax on water extraction would be easy to measure and very hard to avoid. Why shouldn’t they pay their share?

It’s a seductive argument. What’s more, as well as a water tax, one could easily anticipate a ‘storage tax’ on every barrel slowly maturing in a Scottish warehouse (similar to Kentucky’s ad valorem tax on aging bourbon; you could expect many more NAS whiskies if that ever came in!). The current political administration of the Scottish National Party, who run the present Scottish administration, are also deeply committed to higher taxes on alcohol on grounds of health and social policy, so the price of a dram or a bottle could shoot up after a Yes vote.

You might have thought then that the Scotch whisky industry would have been lobbying hard against the independence vote and stressing the benefits of the union. But until very recently we’ve heard little; the corporate line has been “it’s for the people of Scotland to decide.”

At last, however, they have started to fight. First to break cover was former Scotch Whisky Association chief Gavin Hewitt, who has set out a clear personal position in mainstream and social media. He’s no enthusiast for an independent Scotland. “Scotland would lose influence in the world and the clout that a big country has with [EU headquarters in] Brussels; lose access to a superb network of UK embassies and trade support, and I am concerned about the consequences [of a 'yes' vote] for whisky. If it ain’t broke,” he argues “then don’t fix it.”

But Gavin is just one man. That’s not the case with William Grant & Sons’ donation of hard cash to the Better Together campaign and other pro-Union groups. Earlier this year they gave £185,000 (more than $300,000) and have been vocal in support of the status quo.

Now they’ve been joined by a number of distillers who were part of a joint letter to The Scotsman newspaper signed by 120 leading Scottish businesses which argued the case for the continued union with England. It included some impressive names such as the chief executives of the Edrington Group (Famous Grouse, Macallan, Highland Park), Inver House, Burn Stewart, and William Grant & Sons, as well as smaller concerns such as Tomatin, Adelphi, Ian Macleod Distillers (Glengoyne), and so on.

Well done, I say… and where are Diageo, Pernod Ricard, and Bacardi? This issue is simply too important to let go by default. It’s my opinion that the companies are making a mistake: they should have a view and they should express it, quickly and clearly. Their employees and customers deserve no less. This is too important a subject: Scotch whisky does not belong to Scotland alone, and the drinkers of England and Wales, let alone the wider world, want to hear the distillers’ voice: loud and clear.

Scottish Independence, if it comes, may well be good for whisky’s image, yet also, as I have suggested, push up prices. Whisky drinkers may welcome a greater strength of national identity and the proud confidence of a newly-formed nation, but will those drinkers be willing to pay more to toast an independent Scotland?

That’s the key question that no one can answer. But one thing is sure: if Scotland votes to go it alone, there will be no way back and nothing will be same ever again for the nation’s most famous export.

On September 19th we will know for sure.

photo: http://photoeverywhere.co.uk/

Georgie Bell of Diageo – In 140 Or Less

Friday, August 15th, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarAnother in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers from Georgie Bell, Diageo’s luxury brand ambassador (Mortlach’s her main focus). Georgie’s boundless enthusiasm ran us close to the wire on some answers, but we managed. 

 

Where are you based and what’s the view from your office window (if you have one)?

The center of Edinburgh; I have been for the last 8 years. The sun is streaming through the window (a rarity for August) and I have a cup of Vietnamese coffee to hand.

Sounds good: explain Vietnamese coffee, please. And the view from the window?

Picked up some incredible coffee from a Saigon market: very strong, extremely aromatic. View: cobbled streets, old town houses in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town.

Georgie B 3And I’m sitting with some bottled water. Won’t ask a lady her age but you are youthful. Background: what brought you into whisky?

Cocktail industry! Worked in Edinburgh bars for 5 years. Found I had a particular interest in whisky. When I graduated from university I thought, why not give it a go!

Good woman. Career path to here?

Firstly the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (similar to the other Diageo Georgie!): worked with them for 3 years as a bartender, then their global brand ambassador.

And then?

Fueled my ‘geeky’ interest by gaining IBD* diploma in distilling. Then joined Diageo in January 2014 as luxury malts ambassador, looking after rebirth of Mortlach.

Quite intensive. Congrats on the IBD diploma, that’s commitment. It’s been less than a year on Mortlach. Enjoying it so far? 

7 months, still standing! It’s been fascinating working on the launch of a whisky – no 2 days are the same – and everyone in the company and out has been very supportive.

Georgie B1Well, I’ve enjoyed our tasting meetings. What does the job largely involve day to day?

Very varied. Working with markets on launch plans; both at a distance and in market (off to China soon). There’s more…

Okay then: fire away.

Spending time with the whisky creation team, in archives researching the distillery history, special Mortlach tastings & dinners. It’s a lot of fun! I’m very lucky.

You have my dream job. What are your most and least favorite aspects of it?

Least…I’m not a huge fan of hotel laundry services (I prefer to wash my own intimate apparel!), everything else is fantastic.

Such as…?

Love traveling, new cultures, seeing overseas friends, breaking stereotypes, introducing people not only to Mortlach but whisky as accessible & versatile spirit.

You’re so right on accessible/versatile.  The “new” Mortlachs taste great. Any quick insight into how those 4 were arrived at to offer to consumers?

To show distillery character at its best: highlighting unique 2.81 distillation process. All 4 so individual and decadent but a common strain of flavor throughout.

And those characteristics and common flavor strain are….?

A distinct umami note (savoriness), rich, ‘thick’ in body and viscosity and muscular with an underlying succulent fruitiness.

The distillation system there is quite complex, on paper at least. Is it easier if you can get to see it?  Mortlach Ambassador Georgie Bell

I think it’s easier if someone explains it to you. I spent 4 days working there and it wasn’t until the final hour that I actually ‘got’ it; it’s quite something!

Does that system make it more expensive to produce? If so, how? Nothing wrong with expensive; just trying to understand.

Not at all! Just a different pattern of distillation from other places. Distilled it this way since 1896. We’re replicating the 2.81 process in the new stillhouse.

Will look forward to hearing more. Scotch generally: some lovely but expensive packaging for older or special ones. Going too far and overshadowing the whisky?

No, it’s giving the whisky the attention/care deserved. Think how pretty you feel in an extra special dress or coat. Whiskies ‘dressed’ as such are extremely special.

Good answer and, as a marketeer, I agree. In that case do you think industry pricing for such things is about right or do you not get much time to notice?

I try to focus on the whole category so if you take account of other factors (18+ years in cask is taking a gamble), the prices reflect the whisky’s rarity and specialness.

True: not everyone gets the high costs behind the long maturation process. You’re enviably slender and one interest is sport. Anything in particular?

Thank you, but beg to differ! Running (a half marathon soon, a great way to explore a new city); general gym work. Spin classes & bikram yoga: exercise keeps me leveled.

That’s not exercise, that’s full-on training.  Is this because you also love food?

I do love food and also spend a lot of my life traveling. Being in shape helps combat any stress of traveling and keeps my energy levels high for presentations etc.

Any particular dish or style of cuisine?

Anything and everything! I love spicy Asian food. I tend to try and stay away from anything too rich though.

I understand you bake. Do you have competitions with Georgie Crawford at Lagavulin?!

I would love that! Although I’m sure she’d win: my attempts recently haven’t been too successful. ‘Freestyling’ a baking recipe isn’t advised…

Okay, maybe we have a bake-off challenge here. The Great Scottish Bake-Off!
You also love travel,  just as well. Favorite country for a) work and b) leisure? Why?

What is leisure?! I’m joking – I’m a beach baby at heart so anywhere sunny – I also love to dive.

And for work?

The U.S. (specifically DC & NYC – lots of friends there); Sweden (incredible quality of living); Canada; Singapore – I haven’t yet been to a country I haven’t enjoyed.

What’s your desert island dram? You’re allowed to appreciate the work of competitors – others in this series have. Only one, mind!

Drams match memories. Had an incredible BenRiach 1988 after Victoria Whisky Festival; Mortlach 25; Monkey Shoulder; anything from Clynelish: I can’t just pick one!

It’s compulsory – one only, please!

Mortlach 25 – decadent, beautiful – for a luxurious desert island retreat!

And we’re done. Thank you.

 

* Institute of Brewing & Distilling

John Campbell of Laphroaig – In 140 Or Less

Friday, June 13th, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarAnother in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers from Laphroaig distillery manager John Campbell. (This was a special one for me, as the brand’s former marketing manager from some years ago.)  

What’s the view from your office window?
I have a great view, looking out over Laphroaig bay and it’s a beautiful day today on Islay.

Lucky you. We know you can get all 4 seasons in one day! Did you always want to be a distiller?
Yes, we can have variable weather, and nope:  I wanted to be a mechanical engineer first!!

Really! What was your career path to becoming Laphroaig’s manager?
Well, I started off on that path when I was 16 but it was too soon, became a lobster fisherman on Islay, then a distiller.

So did you ever expect to be Laphroaig’s manager, then?
No, not a chance.  I started off stenciling the numbers on the barrels, but have just kept sticking my hand up as time passed.

A serial volunteer, then.  Islay distillery managers seem to be more involved with consumers/visitors than the mainland ones? Would you say that’s right? If so, why?  
I am not sure, we probably are and it’s because we have much more charisma.  Oh, and we are nosy!

John Campbell and his son Murray.

John Campbell and his son Murray.

 

Very honest! You seem a very quiet person. Do you enjoy all the public facing part?
Ileachs [Islay natives] are very open too…I am quiet and understated, just like Laphroaig….but I enjoy meeting people and having fun. Who doesn’t?

True. Under Beam there were more new expressions of Laphroaig. Will this continue under Beam Suntory?
Not sure if the strategy will change under new ownership, we will be integrating shortly, then we will know.

Of which expressions, from your tenure as manager, are you most proud? Do you get involved much in the creation process?
Yes, sometimes involved.. so Triple Wood, PX or An Cuan Mor are the best. Had to choose all 3!!

What have been trade and consumer reactions to Laphroaig Select and An Cuan Mor (I prefer the latter)?
We generally get positive reviews. These 2 are for different types of consumers. Select is for novices, not purists.  An Cuan Mor gives fantastic European oak effects.

And it goes well with food too. Friends of Laphroaig now has over 600,000 members and is quite an online community too. Are you aiming for world domination here?!
Yeah, whisky does work well with food. FOL has given us world domination in peaty whiskies, yes… Ha ha – you guessed!!

I was just thinking you might take over and run the world from Islay. What about John Campbell off duty. I hear you play golf – much time for that?
Islay is the center of the universe, right? I used to play a lot of golf, not so much now…run a little and muck about with my kids.

The running: just for fitness or marathons?
Just fitness right now, but I will see where it goes, never know… if my knees last.

I’ve just spent a week walking round Paris; no knees left. I’ve noted family and travel as other interests. What do you like to do as a family?
Well, I like to take my boys and do fun stuff, so live sport is always good, football, rugby, American football, and generally just have wee adventures.

Sounds magic. I have little nieces but they live overseas so we don’t see them often to do stuff. Favorite place to travel for a) work and b) leisure?
So, fave place I have been to for work is hard! I like the U.S. a lot and I will say Seattle and for leisure I love Portugal – food and weather are great.

I liked Seattle too. Lovely relaxed feel to the place. Where will the next Laphroaig Live online broadcast come from (if there is to be one)?
There is and I am not sure if I can say yet. It will be in Sweden tho!!! Whoops ☺

The frozen north! Any plans yet for the distillery’s bicentenary in 2015 or are those a secret?
Not secret, just not fully completed yet, but we’ll have stuff throughout the year to celebrate with.

So we’ll look forward to hearing more before 2015 and for next year’s Islay Whisky Fest. Social media – friend or foe?
Social media is instant, so can be both… but mainly positive I feel.

Lastly, what would be your ideal desert island dram? It can either be one of your own or from somewhere else.
Bit boring and maybe predictable with desert island dram, but it has to be 10 year old Laphroaig. It has a depth of flavor that you get in only 3 or 4 other single malts.

A First Glimpse of the new Ardnamurchan Distillery

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

There is an undulating, skinny ribbon of asphalt running along the north shore of Loch Sunart. It’s barely wide enough for one vehicle, let alone two, but it stretches all the way out tJonny McCormicko the most westerly point in mainland Great Britain. In this stunning locale, distilling is set to commence at the brand new Ardnamurchan Distillery in Glenbeg, Lochaber. The independent bottlers Adelphi Distilling Ltd will finally see their dream realized and join the rank of those who can proudly call themselves distillers. This is no farm distillery by any stretch of the imagination. Underneath the twin pagodas, the Ardnamurchan Distillery will have the capacity to make 500,000 liters of alcohol per year.

Graeme Bowie

Distillery manager Graeme Bowie gave me a tour of the site. He was assistant manager at Balblair Distillery for six years, and has progressed his way to distillery manager from distillery operator following six years at Balmenach and sixteen years at Glen Grant. As you might imagine, he is relishing the job at hand.

The distillery will produce peated and unpeated Ardnamurchan whisky in equal quantities, although at the outset, Graeme predicts it could be eight years until the company considers the whisky to be ready for release. Boldly, there will be no gin or other distractions produced for short-term cash. They are straightforward whisky men; nothing more, nothing less. Meanwhile, there will be a visitors center with a bar and tasting area where you will be able to find Adelphi’s latest independent cask strength bottlings.

The company is named after the Adelphi distillery, a Lowland distillery that operated on the south side of the River Clyde in Glasgow from 1826 until 1907, drawing its water from Loch Katrine. In its day, it had two mash tuns, up to twelve washbacks, and two stillhouses containing a Coffey still and four pot stills. In addition, the 19th century Adelphi distillery boasted its own cooperage and maltings (though the bulk of the malt came from Port Dundas). When Alfred Barnard paid a visit in the 1880s, Archibald Walker & Co, then Adelphi’s proprietors, owned Limerick Distillery, Ireland and the Vauxhall Distillery in Liverpool, England. The Adelphi name was revived in 1993 by Archibald Walker’s great grandson.

Like other newly opened distilleries, Ardnamurchan will have a private cask ownership scheme whereby whisky enthusiasts and clubs can order a cask of peated or unpeated spirit filled into either a bourbon barrel or sherry butt. Final prices are being confirmed, but they are expected to be approximately £1,750 for the bourbon barrel and £5,000 for the sherry butt, so it should prove popular.

Inside the biomass burner

Graeme pointed out their four 15,000 ton grain silos, which will receive the barley deliveries. With different malt specifications, supplies will come from Bairds Malt, and from malting on site. Production will begin with milling in the compact Alan Ruddock AR2000 four roller mill, the same model as you will find at Wolfburn distillery. Adelphi have installed a two-ton, copper-topped, semi-lauter mashtun with a manhole and double hatch. Power will come from the Swiss-built, one megawatt Schmid biomass wood chip burner, whose fiery hunger will be fueled by the local forestry companies. The yawning hatch to the deep pit of the chip store in the yard is motor-driven and opens effortlessly at the touch of button, like the malevolent plaything of a Bond villain. The burner can take up to an hour to get up to its running temperature of 800°C, but then it will reliably produce steam bountifully. This is conveyed to the space age looking Steam Accumulator.

Ardnamurchan’s pagodas

Each heating tank holds 9,000 liters of water in preparation for mashing. The first water will be 6,500 liters at 65°C, followed by a second water of 4,000 liters which will slosh in at 82°C. The 6,500 liters of the third water will gush in at 90°C. Production will start modestly at one or two mashes per week, but in time, production will be ramped up to six days a week.

Unique to Scotland, the fermentation will be carried out in four oak washbacks resized from ex-cognac vats by the J. Dias cooperage in Paramos, Portugal, plus three Forsyth-built, stainless steel washbacks complete with switchers. Anchor dried yeast will be used (10 kg for every 10,000 liters). The fermentation times are planned to be reassuringly long to build flavor, envisaged to be 55 hours for the short runs, then 88-90 hours for long runs over the weekend.

The pair of virgin copper stills look magnificent. Built by the experienced coppersmiths of Forsyths, they sit resplendent behind picture windows. The wash still holds 10,000 liters and has a silhouette reminiscent of those at Highland Park. Meanwhile, the spirit still has a body contoured like the Glen Grant stills, and has a capacity of 6,000 liters. Everything is controlled by hand, so you will find no automation here. The vapors will funnel down a Lyne arm sloping away at 15° into two shell and tube condensers tucked away at the back, before the spirit is pumped into the spirit receiver warehouse vat.

McCormick Ardnamurchan distillery stillThe first delivery of American oak barrels has already arrived from Jack Daniel. Ardnamurchan’s traditional dunnage warehouse will bear casks three racks high, but it is eerily empty at the moment. The steel frame of the warehouse is covered with Kingspan; insulated, metallic panels to help keep a cool, damp interior temperature for maturation. Eventually, the warehouse will hold 6,500 casks over two floors but it will take six years to fill up before they need to build another one.

The warehouse footprint has been physically hewn out of the solid rock of the hillside, some 12 meters deep. The excavated rock has been utilized to lay a rough road up to the distillery’s water source. Before I depart, Graeme zooms me a mile up the bumpy track in an all terrain vehicle to show me the source of the production water from the Glenmore River.

As the inaugural distillation is still a few weeks away, the only undertaking I’m denied today is a taste of the new make Ardnamurchan spirit. However, that intrigue gives me the perfect excuse to return.

A Whirlwind Canadian Whisky Tour

Friday, May 16th, 2014

Author - Davin de Kergommeaux

Davin de Kergommeaux is a tireless chronicler of Canadian whisky, and one of his best attributes is that he very much wants to share the good news. Here he takes Whisky Advocate writers Dave Broom and David Wondrich along on a tour of some big Canadian distilleries: Crown Royal (Gimli and Valleyfield) and Canadian Mist.

I meet Dave Broom at the baggage carousel at Winnipeg airport. Dave’s flown in from England for a first-hand look at Canadian whisky, beginning at Crown Royal’s distillery in Gimli, Manitoba, 55 miles north of here on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

It may well be May, but the ice lies thick on the lake. That’s fitting. In the late 19th century, Icelanders fleeing volcanoes and other woes settled here. The very name Gimli is Icelandic for “Haven From Hellfire,” and this haven feels like the coldest place on earth to make whisky.

Gimli distillery: the core

Gimli distillery: the core

Jan Westcott from the industry group Spirits Canada joins us as we head to the plant where twelve massive columns produce 90,000 liters of five different distillates daily. Local Manitoba corn is used for continuous base whisky, producing a light, sweet, and nutty flavor with a floral essence. It comes off the still at 94.6% ABV and turns crisp, woody, and spicy after 8 years in barrel.

A second, batch base whisky contributes Crown’s signature creaminess. Batch base starts with the same all-corn mash as continuous base and is distilled to the same ABV, but in a column and kettle still. Low wines boil in a large sideways pot, which slowly feeds vapors up a tall 54-inch diameter column where heads and tails are discarded. Already creamy as new make, with hints of juicy fruit and butterscotch, 8 years in wood adds cedar, grapefruit pith, and nutty elements. With skillful additions of flavoring whisky, these bases become seven expressions of Crown Royal.

Rye flavoring comes from a mash of 95% rye and 5% barley malt, and corn flavoring from a mash of 65% corn/30% rye/5% malt. Both are distilled in a beer still to 64% ABV.

The pièce de résistance is the Coffey rye. Distilled to a low ABV, it transforms into stunning rye whisky after 11 years in wood. Remarkably, it’s made from the same mash bill as the corn (yes, corn) flavoring, but distilled in an improvised Coffey-style still transported from Seagram’s shuttered Waterloo distillery. Each of the three flavoring whiskies is fermented using proprietary yeasts grown on-site. Corn and rye flavoring mature in 80% new wood barrels and 20% one-time bourbon dumpers, Coffey rye matures in new wood.

Davin Oakenshield and Dave Skullsplitter

Davin Oakenshield and Dave Skullsplitter

Dropping by the Icelandic Museum we sample Icelandic hard fish, washed down with Brennivin – Black Death. Then, Toronto, 1,400 miles to the east where we meet David Wondrich and drive north to Brown-Forman’s Canadian Mist distillery in Collingwood.

 

Collingwood

Distillery manager David Dobbin guards the secret mash recipes carefully, but clearly there are several. The base is made from local corn and barley malt, the flavoring from corn, barley malt, and Ontario rye, all fermented using proprietary liquid yeast. Canadian Mist and Collingwood whiskies are distilled in a single beer still and two columns inside a tiny stillhouse.

Canadian Mist: Tom Hartle, Gay Arsenault, and David Dobbin

Canadian Mist: Tom Hartle, Gay Arsenault, and David Dobbin

Production at Canadian Mist is increasing, evidenced by rows of new barrels in a warren of twelve cinder block warehouses under a common roof. Forklifts thread pallets of newly filled barrels down long narrow rows. Others transport mature whisky for dumping. This involves drilling holes in the heads then vacuuming out the whisky, four barrels at a time. In winter the warehouses are heated to 50° F for continuous maturation. Once blended, Collingwood is shipped to Woodford Reserve for bottling, while Canadian Mist is bottled in Louisville, by Brown-Forman.

In the lab we sample Canadian Mist. “Highly improved,” declares Wondrich. Next: Collingwood. Suddenly, quality control manager Don Jaques pulls out a bottle of cask-strength Collingwood 21 year old rye. Dobbin’s eyes widen. “Where’d you get that?” he asks.

“I kept a few extra retains,” Jaques grins, as glasses are thrust forward faster than any last-call tippler at a whisky show. Rich, spicy, and smooth, with hints of ginger, cinnamon, and chocolate, you wish they’d bottled this one-batch-only 100% rye-grain whisky at more than 40%.

Davids Broom and Wondrich on Lake Huron, the water source for Canadian Mist

Davids Broom and Wondrich on Lake Huron, the water source for Canadian Mist

That evening, Wondrich introduces us to Normie’s, a recently renovated, brightly lit dive whose owner, Janet, overhears our discussion of libations. “Last time I drank tequila I ended up in handcuffs, and not for a good reason,” she confesses. Wiser’s it is, we decide. Next morning it’s Montreal, 400 miles east.

 

 

Valleyfield

Barrel pyramids at Valleyfield

Barrel pyramids at Valleyfield

Distillery manager Martin Laberge greets us at Valleyfield, Diageo’s other Canadian distillery, outside Montreal. Each day, 200 employees turn 260 metric tons of corn into the annual equivalent of 28 million liters of pure alcohol. In classically Québecois-French style, this distillery is a long narrow strip of 22 buildings stretching back from the road.

Valleyfield makes base whiskies only, importing flavoring whiskies from Gimli for the Diageo blends made on site, including V.O., Five Star, and Crown Royal Maple. They also bottle the low-volume Crown Royal blends, such as XR.

Eight thousand kilos of local corn make up a mash and it takes eight mashes to fill one of the twelve fermenters. Two proprietary yeasts take 55 hours to convert the corn into alcohol. Batch base whisky is distilled in a beer still and then a kettle and column still. Continuous base travels through four columns: a beer still, aldehyde column, rectifier, and fusel oil column.

Huge, nine-story warehouses hold a million barrels of maturing Valleyfield whisky, on racks, pallets, or offset rows of barrels piled in pyramids.

Sampling is the best part of any tour and master blender Andrew MacKay offers five versions of Crown Royal. Based in Valleyfield, he is also responsible for the Gimli blends. Creamy texture defines Crown Royal, though each whisky exhibits its own flavor spectrum. My favorite? The one-batch-only Monarch 75th Anniversary, containing the most Coffey rye ever in Crown Royal. “You would expect that if you put more flavoring in you’d get more flavor but it kind of smudges together,” MacKay explains. Base whiskies open up these flavors. This is regal whisky, rich in butterscotch and pine-cedar complemented by chocolate fudge and rich spices.

Our Canadian whisky whirlwind ends on this high note and then we follow Andrew MacKay to Montreal’s Trudeau airport. Broom is New York bound for a book launch, Wondrich to Nashville to judge cocktails, Westcott home for family time. And me? Ottawa and this blog. Ahh, the whisky life!

George Grant of Glenfarclas – in 140 or Less

Friday, May 9th, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarAnother in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers from the Glenfarclas brand ambassador. George Grant is the sixth generation of the owning family to work at Glenfarclas.

Here we go: what’s the view from your office window?

Glenfarclas No.1 Duty Free Warehouse door, in our beautiful red.

Sounds cheerful! What’s happening at Glenfarclas this spring?

At this rate, we will be doing a rain dance. Winter never happened at Glenfarclas.

Soggy for the visitors, then. But good for the distillation. You’re in a family business. How old were you when you started?

Joined the payroll in 1997 at 21. But I was working for Muntons Malt, Inver House, and Fine Vintage Far East Ltd in Hong Kong. I started at Glenfarclas in 2000 aged 23.

That answers my next two questions! You travel a lot. How many weeks each year are you away?

I would say I am away 6-7 months a year, it works out about 15/16 days a month. Some months are obviously worse than others.

GSGsndSGHard. How does family life fit in round that?

Grab it as you can. I have 2 girls and off to Crieff Hydro at weekend. Still all the usual activities to squeeze in: swimming, tai kwan do, tennis, Brownies, ice skating…

Lovely. I know they’re still little. Is either of them interested in distilling yet?

Luckily not yet: 2 and 7 years old. 7 yo knows what Daddy does: “Makes whisky.” One of her first words was “Glenfarclas.”

Chip off the old block. In future will Glenfarclas be owned/managed by women? As some were in 19th and early 20th century?

Will have to wait and see. Wouldn’t be the first time. Granny Grant used to run this place.

And other women ran/founded others, not to mention champagne houses. What are your key markets for Glenfarclas?

All markets are key! Just at different times. Our current markets UK, U.S., Canada, Taiwan, Russia, Oz, and powerhouse Germany.

Quite a spread; no wonder you travel so much  and so far. On website, you say your favourite is 21 YO. Does that ever waver?

Yes, when we put the website up it was the 21, now my tipple is the 15 YO or 40 YO. Liking my whisky more at 46% nowadays.

Our palates do change and new expressions do come up. What about the Family Casks? I have one from my birth year. They seem to go well.

They continue to go from strength to strength. Currently 1954 to 1999, 52 and 53 gone. We are currently doing 28 new family casks for years we’re currently out of.

Do you mean in terms of bottled stock?

Yes, out of bottled stock currently with 28 years. Will be back in end of summer.

We’ll look forward to hearing more then. Do you acquire your sherry casks from only one source? Can you say where? (Don’t just say Jerez!)

Our casks currently come from Jose y Miguel Martin. We have used the same family owned bodega since 1990. All oloroso sherry. Prior to that bought where we could.

Your washbacks are steel, not wood. How long ago did you change over? And why? 

Dates get hazy. Switched to stainless steel 42-45 years ago, for consistency. We get the same result every time from steel. Wooden ones have more variables and risks.

Point taken. A number of distilleries are being expanded. Any plans that way?

We are quite a large production plant. We can produce 3.5 million lpa. Last year we were around 3.3m.

So no expansion, then.

No plans for physical increase. We still sell to blenders. Simply reducing what we sell to them increases what we make for ourselves.

Yet, you’re perceived as a small and beautiful operation. You were visitor center pioneers and offer great tours. How is the new 5 Decades one shaping up?

People sometimes get a shock ref. capacity when they visit. We also do a 7 decade tour now. The customers get a dram per decade from 1950’s – 2010’s. Quite mind boggling.

I’m in for that one! What are your ambitions for Glenfarclas?

Continued growth, maybe not at the speed we have seen in the last 5 years. Developed in new markets. To get every whisky drinker to know the name Glenfarclas.

You celebrated the 175th birthday in 2011. Plans already in hand for 200th?

Yes, date in the diary and an access ramp for the warehouse so I can roll in my father!

Hope he appreciates that!

2015 also special for us – 150 years since my great, great great-grandfather bought the company for £511.19s. Will just be a quiet celebration!

4Z9F9553Well, that was a bargain! Changing tack, you shoot game birds in season. Do you cook them yourself too?

Of course. We sponsor the game menu with Shooting Times so lots of great recipes there. The slower you cook them, more tender they are. Can’t beat an Aga to cook them on.

I’ll just turn my normal ovens right down. After family life, lots of work and travel, plus shooting, any time for anything else?

Not a lot currently. Looking forward to my youngest being out of nappies then envisage we travel a little more as a family. Have 2 Labradors that also take up a lot of time.

Dog walking and little girls must be compatible. Social media: fan or foe?

Mmm, fan, I think. Don’t think I use it for all it’s worth but certainly do have some fun with it. We are now 10,000+ on Twitter and 8,000+ on Facebook. Both @glenfarclas.

It can take up time. And what’s your desert island dram? Doesn’t have to be one of your own…

First distillery I ever worked at was Knockdhu so An Cnoc 21 YO has a special place. My McDonalds Whisky is JW black label (can get it everywhere).

And from your own: is it the 15 or 40?

Every day 15, once a week special 40 YO.

TV and Image and Visitor Centers — Oh My!

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Author - Fred MinnickIn 2011, I was shadowing Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell at the Kentucky Derby Festival. Is there anybody more interesting to shadow? Adoring fans walked up to the legend, one after another, and he signed all their bottles, caps, posters and an occasional T-shirt.

Claire and Wade Pascoe from Melbourne, Australia had planned their honeymoon around this moment, to meet Russell and share a whiskey. I asked them why in all the places in the world, they chose the Kentucky Bourbon Festival for their honeymoon. “It’s a dream come true,” Claire said, hugging Jimmy. Some people love the Rolling Stones; the Pascoes wanted to meet Jimmy Russell, bourbon’s orneriest gentleman rock star.

Maker's Mark's new artwork.

Maker’s Mark’s new artwork.

A few booths over, I witnessed a man lift his shirt showing off his sagging skin and a faded Four Roses tattoo. I’ve seen Jim Beam tattoos and witnessed Maker’s Mark fans call former CEO Bill Samuels “Jesus Christ,” and a woman on an airplane nearly accost a fellow passenger for adding Coke to Woodford Reserve.

Bourbon fans are a special breed. I know, because I am one. But are we fans because of what’s inside the bottle, or is it the image the bourbon portrays?

In the coming years, I believe we’ll learn if marketing dictates what we drink or if it’s the sweet nectar enticing those heavy pours. The past five years has seen an incredible growth in visitor centers, TV commercials and branding campaigns. According to industry statistics, bourbon sales have also increased 20 percent over this period. So the hype is paying off, and the investments continue.

Master distiller Chris Morris toasts the revamped Woodford Reserve visitor center.

Master distiller Chris Morris toasts the revamped Woodford Reserve visitor center.

Every major brand has built new visitor’s centers or refurbished old ones. Maker’s Mark is getting swanky with art in tasting rooms and rickhouses, Wild Turkey invested more than $100 million in their new one, and Woodford Reserve is unearthing its surroundings to recover lost Pepper family artifacts. And in case you missed my article on the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in the latest issue of Whisky Advocate, I kind of liked it. Every major distillery receives more than 100,000 visitors a year and it’s only going to increase with these shiny new facilities.

The latest spend has been on the television. Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve, Jim Beam’s Devil’s Cut, and Evan Williams have all aired television commercials in the past year. Katar Media data suggests bourbon brands accounted for $52.5 million in advertising in 2013, a 6.3 percent increase compared to 2012. No data is available for 2014, and brands are mum on what they’re spending to reach people watching ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Walking Dead,’ but I’m estimating we’ll see double-digit percentage increases. Jim Beam didn’t hire celebrity Mila Kunis to not let her face shine in primetime!

But these investments—even Kunis—are all a gamble. Most of the whiskey coming off the still today will not be on liquor shelves until somewhere between 2018 and 2022. By then, the millennials may have moved onto tequila, rosé, or Mastika (a resin liquor.)

Buildings fade. Commercials are lost in the multitude of media. And consumers are just fickle. These marketing investments to reach new customers concern me because of the moves made on the production side.

Wild Turkey's new visitor center

Wild Turkey’s new visitor center

We continue to see the growth in flavored whiskey, the dropping of age statements and the lowering of proofs, illustrating that distilleries care more about the short-term gains than maintaining a lasting bourbon standard.

The future of bourbon’s taste does not rest upon the marketing director’s shoulders or the visitor center architect’s; it belongs to the production managers, warehouse crews, distillers and engineers who smell grains, turn knobs and valves, and check barrels. Are these people getting the same budgets to improve the whiskey as the marketers are to improve its image?

Make good whiskey, and you can air all the TV commercials you want. Of course, the price will increase, but we’ll pay for the whiskey. We always do.

Make good commercials and produce inferior whiskey, and you’ll see a gradual decline of enthusiasts who brought bourbon to the current dance. Oh sure, bourbon may still be profitable because you’re telling people how great it is, but those who know sweated barrels from a honey barrel will just sit around the campfire talking about bourbon’s good old days.

Marketing is extremely important to bourbon’s growth. Let’s just hope we’re not sacrificing production dollars for TV time.

Burning Down the Rumor Mill

Friday, April 18th, 2014

By Fred Minnick

Author - Fred MinnickCovering bourbon is a lot like covering sports. In my brief time as a sports reporter, I dealt with rumors and dishonest coaches who specialized in saying nothing. Well, bourbon fans love a good rumor, and distillers can be skillful spin doctors, hiding in supposed confidentiality clauses, and overselling history vs. what’s in the bottle. But as a writer, I can’t deal in rumors. I have to take the distillers at their word until they’re proven wrong.

With that said, the Internet, especially social media, loves a good bourbon rumor. I’ve examined some of the prevalent rumors found on barstools, forums, and social media; let’s have a look at the facts behind them.

2013FourRoses125AnniSmallBatchBourbonFour Roses – Out of the Honey Barrels?

By now, you know that Four Roses’ 2012 and 2013 Limited Edition Small Batches have dominated the awards circuit. But there’s been a nasty rumor floating about that the older bourbon in these small batches will soon be gone. What does master distiller Jim Rutledge have to say about that?

“It is true the exceptional lot of 18 year old OBSV recipe that has been used in some of our recent Limited Releases has been exhausted,” Rutledge says. “However, because of the unique single story rack warehouses used by Four Roses distillery, we do not have special, or limited, warehouse locations in which ‘honey’ barrels are found. Exceptional distillation lots are found in all 20 warehouses, and even without the referenced honey barrels I anticipate the 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch will be another excellent bourbon.”

Very_Old_Barton_KSBW_6_Year_80prf_750ml_GlassVery Old Barton—Where’s the Age Statement?

For those who love the price:quality ratio of “value bourbons,” 6 year old Very Old Barton was one of our last hidden treasures. The age statement has disappeared from the bottle. What gives?

“The 80 proof VOB lost the age statement years ago. For the 86, 90, and 100 proof, many bourbon distillers are moving away from age-declared products because delivering a consistent taste profile is more important than the age statement,” says Kris Comstock, bourbon marketing director for Sazerac, which owns a slew of bourbon brands. “In the case of VOB, sometimes that means 6 years old, sometimes 7, sometimes 5. With no age statement, VOB can better avoid product shortages. Sitting around waiting for a barrel to turn 6 years old when the bourbon tastes fine at 5 years and 10 months is silly. Consumers have told us over and over that a consistent taste is more important than an age statement and certainly more important than them running out of supplies. That being said, VOB will continue to be 6 year old whiskey for the foreseeable future; the same great bourbon.” 

Is it Pappy? (Or is it Weller?)

You could start a media company (and keep it busy!) just by covering the rumors on Pappy Van Winkle. One of the more popular Pappy rumors is that Weller bourbons are now being used for Pappy, because they have the same wheated grain bills. That’s not true, Comstock says. “Each brand has its own sales forecast out until 2047 and its own reserved inventory,” he says. “Weller and Van Winkle share the same wheated recipe, but the barrels are aged in different warehouse locations and for different periods of time.”

Speaking of Weller…is the 12 year old Being Discontinued?

Buffalo Trace President and CEO Mark Brown told me Weller 12 is not going anywhere. But there’s no denying that it is hard to find these days. If you want to find it for 2014, here’s a hint: It will be released in August or September.

AncAge10yrBrbnWhisk750mlHow About Ancient Ancient Age?

Ancient Ancient Age—the beloved ‘Triple A’—is another value bourbon that you just can’t find anymore. Does it have a future? “We have no plans to discontinue AAA 10 Star, as demand is strong,” Comstock says. “Unfortunately, demand for AAA 10 Year has dwindled to the point where it is no longer commercially practical to bottle.” Okay, who stopped drinking it?

Old Grand-Dad 114: Put Out to Pasture?

You can probably find someone who’ll tell you that Old Grand-Dad 114 is on the way out, too, but that’s just a rumor. The folks that own Old Grand-Dad, Jim Beam, tell me the OGD 114 is doing exceptionally well and is staying put for the foreseeable future. In fact, the 114 is up 30% (dollar value) in the last year.

Elijah_Craig_12Elijah Craig 12 year old – Is The Age Statement Being Dropped?

With age statements dropping like flies, anything with an age statement is subject to this rumor. Heaven Hill spokesperson Larry Kass says Elijah Craig 12 year old is not losing its bright red numerals. “I’m not sure where this comes from (maybe the fact that for space reasons we had to move the 12 year old mention to the back label of the Barrel Proof?), but one of the reasons EC 12 is on hiatus from our full barrel program is to keep stocks for the regular case goods,” Kass says.

Heaven Hill Green Label—Going Away?

Is Heaven Hill Green Label on its way out? This rumor hasn’t even hit the social media circuit yet; I picked it up sitting on a barstool. Kass says Heaven Hill Green Label is not being discontinued and contiues in most markets as a no age statement 80 proof whiskey, and in a couple markets as a no age statement 90 proofer. But the national Heaven Hill Green Label will become the no age statement 80 proof, while the Kentucky market will continue to enjoy the 6 year old Heaven Hill Green Label at 90 proof.

Elijah Craig Barrel Strength – Please Tell Us It’s Coming Back!

Last year, the Elijah Craig Barrel Strength swept America’s bourbon-loving palates at incredible value. Some thought it was too good to be true. Rest assured, bourbon lovers, Elijah Craig Barrel Strength will return. In fact, a February release of a 132.4 proof quietly hit shelves. Another release arrives May 1, but proof is not yet determined. The suggested price is $45.

Very Special Old FitzgeraldOld Fitzgerald line – What is the future?

With Larceny essentially becoming the focal point for Heaven Hill’s wheated bourbon, will the distillery be completely discontinuing or trying to sell its other wheated bourbon, Old Fitzgerald? “No, we will keep selling Old Fitz Prime 80 proof, Old Fitz Bottled-in-Bond and Very Special Old Fitz 12 year old in current markets,” Kass says. “We are eliminating the Old Fitz 1849 SKU, but that was a very small number of cases.”

Maker’s Mark – A New Product

Wait, what? Maker’s Mark is coming out with something new? (Talk about burying the lede!) This rumor started back before the Suntory deal, but Maker’s Mark has kept quiet on the whiskey. Maker’s Mark officials have alluded to the fact a new product is on its way, but have yet to divulge more than that. Perhaps a single barrel? A higher proof older version of Maker’s Mark? That’s just all speculation, of course; let’s start our own rumors.

The Rush of Flavor

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonStick with me; this is going to be about whiskey, but first we need to make a detour. I’ve done some writing about vodka and FMBs — what’s an FMB? It’s like an RTD. RTD? Well, it’s an alcopop. You know: like Smirnoff Ice. An FMB is a “flavored malt beverage,” which is basically beer with all the beer flavor stripped out and replaced with a variety of fruit flavors. (“RTD” means “ready to drink,” which seems redundant to me, but then, I’m not a marketer.) Anyway, the vodka category is dominated by the talk and advertising of flavors (though unflavored vodka is still the dominant seller), and FMBs are, obviously, all about flavors.

To look at a backbar these days, you’d think that flavored vodkas were a brilliant move. They take up a lot of real estate, they’re available in a broad assortment of different flavors, from fruits to confections to spices to the simply bizarre, like tobacco, and meat, and “fresh cut grass.” The FMBs had a similar rush of flavors, and still maintain growth in the market with that strategy, albeit at a large cost of promotions.

But look back a bit to the beginning. There were flavored vodkas going back to the 1950s; often colored, and flavored with a heavy hand. They were cheap booze, usually for kids or novelty cocktails. (We’re overlooking the original flavored vodka — gin — deliberately, of course.) It was a similar situation with FMBs: beer with cherry flavor, a horrible citrus concoction called Hop’n’Gator, and again, the weird, like Cool Colt, a menthol-flavored malt liquor, and the gin-flavored StingRay.

It always starts small...

It always starts small…

Each category was changed by a singular product. Flavored vodka changed in the late 1980s when Absolut put out Peppar, followed quickly by Citron. Suddenly flavored vodka had solidity, it had subtlety, and it was supported by an ad campaign that won awards for its simplicity and artistic nature; people framed these ads. Other vodka brands quickly added similar flavors; some, like Three Olives, were focused on flavors.

FMBs had flash in the pan success with Two Dogs, Zima, and DNA (which was essentially an alcoholic club soda), but the breakout product was Smirnoff Ice, a citrus-flavored cloudy white beverage, followed by Mike’s Hard Lemonade. They were huge successes, and spawned imitators.

But a funny thing happened; people got bored. Whether it was the drinkers, or the marketers, or the squirrely guys down in the flavor labs driving it, the flavor introductions accelerated. Vodka brands became literal rainbows of flavors (and colored labels), and new ones popped out every month: cherry, raspberry, lime, pear, peach…and then whipped cream, Swedish fish, “Dude,” tobacco, and, no kidding, Electricity!! The FMBs went through the same frenzy, albeit mostly limited to fruit flavors; the latest from Seagram’s Escapes is “Grape Fizz.”

There was howling from the neo-prohibitionists that flavored booze was on the market only to attract underaged drinkers (I honestly believe that’s not true, but…Grape Fizz? You gotta wonder), there was a ton of money spent on advertising, and round and round things went. The categories are big, but they’re a churning mess, and there are only a few flavor brands that retain any consistent traction in the market.

So what, right? Let them do their foolishness, we drink whiskey!

Yeah. You know where I’m going now. Flavored whiskey. Or, thanks to Dewar’s jumping off the high board (followed by J&B Urban Honey), flavored whisky. Sorry, flavored “spirit drink,” though the front label of Dewar’s Highlander Honey says, “Dewar’s Scotch whisky infused with natural flavors; filtered through oak cask wood.” Which, I would argue, is actually a more honest description of what’s inside than “spirit drink.”

But I’m not here to make fun of the labeling hoops the SWA sets up for companies to jump through. I’m here to wring my hands about the possibility of whiskey/whisky sliding down that disgustingly slippery flavor slope that vodka is whooshing down now. Because it starts with honey, and cherry, and cinnamon, then it’s maple, and tea, and barbecue, and mango, and actual heather…and the next thing you know, we’re coating our young whiskeys in dipping sauces and sucking them down raw, still wriggling as they slide down our throats, and they’ll never get to be fully mature and beautifully naked.

Think I’m exaggerating? Does anyone else remember Vijay Mallya at the 2008 World Whiskies Conference (back when people still cared what he thought about whisky), suggesting that for Scotch whisky to attract more young drinkers it needed “a spectrum of flavors”? Yeah, well…turns out that not everyone was repulsed by that. The folks in the stillhouse, the warehouses, and the tasting rooms figured “that’s crazy talk,” made faces, and went back to making the real item, sure. But in the offices? The suits looked at the vodka market, and proceeded to think the unthinkable: Hey guys? That crazy stuff Vijay said? Why not?

They made it happen, and flavored the whiskey. Some of them sold like mad, to the point where almost half of last year’s whiskey category growth in the U.S. market was from flavored whiskey. Beam’s rolling out new flavors, Jack Daniel’s is rolling out new flavors, Canadian Mist is in on it, and who knows where it will stop? Or if it will?

I’ll admit my complicity: I didn’t hate Red Stag, I used a bottle of it to make faux Manhattans. I didn’t even hate the Highlander (maybe because I thought, there can be only one! Whoops, I was wrong). All I can say in my defense is that I had no idea how successful they’d be.

That’s the real issue. It’s not that they exist, it’s that they’ve picked up a sizable number of drinkers. We’ve all seen what that did to Irish whiskey: proliferation of brands, expansion of production facilities, more more more. Money chases success. Flavored whiskey is exploding; and so, money chases success.

There will be more flavored whiskeys. To make them, barrels will be emptied that would have otherwise stayed in the warehouses and become our 15 year old whiskeys and whiskies. Sure, the big distillers are expanding production capacity, but flavored whiskey was not part of the expansion equation, and I hear there’s maybe a barrel shortage. They’ll make the money while they can! It’s not that we’re drinking our young; someone else is drinking our young, and they don’t care about the consequences. Whee! Cinnamon shots! I’m drinking whiskey!

The worst thing? There’s not really anything you and I can do about it. Don’t drink it? Don’t be absurd, you’re already not drinking it! Do you think the people who are drinking it — by the bottle! — read reviews of it? Do you think the companies are going to be able to resist the profits? Do you think the brands will survive becoming a rainbow of flavors? I don’t think whiskey will become the punchline vodka is, but it’s going to have an effect. Paint and dress a Cabinet secretary like a clown for a year, and no one’s going to take them as seriously again.

What to do, what to do? I don’t know…like I said, I’m wringing my hands here. Appeals to decency aren’t going to work when we’re talking hundreds of thousands of cases of sales. But man…I hope they make enough for us. I’d like to be able to afford 18 year old whiskey in 2030. Unflavored 18 year old.