Archive for the ‘Guest Blogger’ Category

From the Land of Fire and Ice

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

author-eric-strandIf you want to know what makes a whiskey a bourbon, you can look it up. Scotch? Look it up. Canadian? Look that up.

What about Icelandic whisky? Well, if you’re Egill and Hali Thorkelsson, two brothers from Iceland, you have to make it up. Being the first producer of whisky in Iceland gives them the crare opportunity to define a whole new category of national whisky. Founded in 2009, the Eimverk Distillery has set out to do just that.

Being first offers many advantages, but it also brings with it some specific challenges. Iceland has no malting facilities, no proven yeast strains, no native mash bills. While understandably tight-lipped about their yeast sourcing, they are eager to talk about their mash bill. One of their main goals was to produce a traditional-ingredient spirit, and they use 100% Icelandic-grown barley. A hardy, dense grain, the cold climate concentrates the nutrients and flavors into a smaller package than warmer climate varieties. Another major challenge is that Iceland is, according to Egill, a vodka and schnapps nation. Reykjavik, Iceland’s largest city and capitol, has just one whisky bar.

Hali and Egill Thorkelsson

Hali and Egill Thorkelsson

A tour of the distillery shows that this is definitely a labor of love. From the repurposed milk chillers to the custom-made still (named Elizabeth, after their grandmother), the whole operation takes place in a space the size of a large garage. They store their barrels off-site in the Icelandic countryside. They currently run at about 30,000 liters per year with the capacity to double that. Every third week the process is shifted to make a batch of gin, again using only locally grown ingredients. When asked how they learned to make whisky, they both laugh, “YouTube!”

They do, however, have years of experience home brewing their own beer, and just as importantly, they have the Icelandic spirit of adventure. It is appropriate that their single malt expression will bear the name of one of the island’s first explorers, Hrafna-Flóki (Floki of the Ravens); Flóki to his friends.

Elizabeth

Elizabeth

At this point, it might be tempting to wonder about their ability to be a serious entrant into the whisky marketplace. It might be instructive to note that their gin, Vor (Icelandic for spring), recently won “Double Gold” at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition this year. It’s more tempting to think they may be on to something, Iceland being perhaps the best place for such a micro-distillery. “How many micros in the US can have a bottle in every store in the nation?” Egill asks.

Careful not to rely too much on the instructive merits of YouTube, their niece, Eva, is finalizing professional training in Scotland. Formal training can only get you so far, however. The rest comes from a lot of trial and error, or as Egill calls it, “playing.” Experimenting with over 160 recipes, the process was to “taste a lot of whisky, get a lot of opinions, and make a lot of mistakes.”

So sometime in 2017, the first bottle of Icelandic single malt whisky, “Flóki,” will hit the shelves. Their standard expression will be a 3 year old aged in bourbon barrels that is “not complex, with a few key ingredients to make it very drinkable.” It will also be organic and eco-friendly. All their power is geothermal, and the only pesticide used is a little thing they like to call “winter.”

Sara at the Dillon Whiskey Bar with a cask of Floki

Sara at the Dillon Whiskey Bar with a cask of Flóki

But what about the defining of a unique, Icelandic expression? “I like smoked,” Egill admits, and Iceland has plenty of native peat. He notes that traditional Icelandic methods of smoking usually are, er…dung-related. This might be one area where he’s willing to deviate from traditional practices, but he rules nothing out. The normally straightforward master distiller becomes ambiguous when pressed for more details, but hints that something might be bottled before the single malt is introduced.

For the curious, adventurous, or just plain impatient world traveler, you can try some slighty-aged Flóki (1-12 months in virgin oak, medium plus char) from their pre-release 4.5 liter mini-casks at Dillon Whiskey Bar in Reykjavik.

Gin Meets Whisky (in a barrel)

Monday, January 27th, 2014

We welcome Geoff Kleinman, editor of the DrinkSpirits website, as a guest blogger on the subject of aged gin…which can be tantalizingly close to whisky.

Author_Geoff KleinmanAged Gin isn’t a new spirit category, but it’s a category that has been getting an increasing amount of attention. Craft distillers have embraced aged gin as another vehicle for creative expression and as an aged product that can be sold during the long waiting game that’s required for aged whisky. The problem with the category is that, at times, it tends to blur the lines between gin and whiskey, with one product, Pow-Wow Botanical Rye, completely obliterating the lines.

“Early American gin (up through the 1860s) was made in the flavored-whiskey style, and it was often barrel aged. Later, once (neutral-spirit based) English styles took root, that, too, was often aged, but much more lightly,” explains David Wondrich, spirits historian and author of Imbibe!.

One of the first contemporary entries in the aged gin space came from Ransom Spirits, in Sheridan, Oregon. With Ransom’s Old Tom Gin, distiller Tad Seestedt helped resurrect a “lost” style of gin and in the process helped kick off a new wave of the aged gin category. “The idea was initially to replicate the short amount of time that the gin would have historically spent in barrel during transport over land or sea to its final destination. We also realized afterwards that the barrel aging had an obviously pleasant effect on the gin,” says Tad Seestedt.

agedginRansom’s Old Tom Gin soon became a darling of the craft spirit world, and it opened the door for more craft spirit companies to follow in the aged gin space. “One of the most challenging aspects of “craft distilling” is that the big boys make outstanding products – aging gin allows me a chance to not only be creative but create products that the big boys fhave to play catch up, like with Beefeater’s Burroughs Reserve,” says Paul Hletko, founder and master distiller of FEW Spirits.

Many craft distillers don’t have the ability to truly rectify spirits and scoff at using neutral grain spirits for their products. The result can be a malty botanical spirit with similar characteristics to a young whiskey. “The primary difference, besides the addition of the botanicals to the spirit, is the distillation proof of the base spirit. As you know, whiskey is distilled to a much lower proof off the still, so there are fusels and other congeners in the whiskey distillate that aren’t there in the base of the gin distillate,” remarks John Little, head distiller of Smooth Ambler Spirits.

Seeing this intersection between aged gin and aged whiskey, Amir Peay, CEO and founder at Georgetown Trading Co., created Pow-Wow Botanical Rye. “We took a fine, mature whiskey and then infused it with whole botanicals over an extended period of time. My idea of a good whiskey is one that is complex and balanced, and I wanted to see if we could take a great whiskey and add new layers of botanical complexity that worked in concert with the existing flavors.”

The dividing line between a botanical flavored whiskey and an aged gin may be murky, but it’s there. “Aged London dry style gin, or any gin that’s based on neutral spirits, is not aged whiskey, it’s aged vodka. If you make your gin with an unrectified grain spirit that’s been distilled to a relatively low proof, as the Dutch do with their moutwijn, then it’s a flavored whiskey,” explains David Wondrich.

While aged gin is predominantly seen among craft distillers, this year Pernod Ricard got into the space with their limited Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve “Barrel Finished Gin.”

“Aged or rested gin opens up another drinking occasion for gin. Most people wouldn’t think to sit and enjoy a glass of neat gin with a cheese plate after dinner, but with Burrough’s Reserve on the market now we can,” says Nick van Tiel, Pernod Ricard’s English gins brand ambassador.

Whether or not whiskey drinkers will embrace the aged gin category remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a category that deserves exploration. Paul Hletko best sums it up: “It is a wide open place, and much of what we do is education on what ‘brown gin’ is and why it’s brown.  But the opportunity to be creative is worth it.”

Whisky Books for the Holidays, Part 1

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

We know the holidays are coming…er, are here, and we’re sorry this is a bit late for Hanukkah, but we wanted to get you some advice on whisky books. Here’s the first set, from Fred Minnick; more to come.Fred Minnick

When my literary agent and I were shopping Whiskey Women, the most common rejection we received was, “Whiskey is a niche audience and doesn’t interest the masses.” That’s why many whiskey writers have been forced to self publish and American whiskey enthusiasts have had to rely on dated texts—mainstream American publishers never took whiskey books seriously.

My, oh, my, times are changing. Publishers are bringing new books to light that are good for the future of whiskey. This holiday season whiskey books are on many gift lists, and there are two new ones I highly recommend for the American whiskey fan in your life.

American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye by Clay RisenAWBRCover

American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to The Nation’s Favorite Spirit by Clay Risen, an editor for the New York Times, is the first true whiskey guide dedicated to only American whiskey. Other whiskey guides have explored rye and bourbon whiskey, but they also covered Scotch, Irish and Japanese whiskies. Risen sticks to American distillations.

Risen delicately walks readers into whiskey’s past, present and future without getting on too much of soapbox. But, he sends a few jabs to distillers and bottlers, revealing where products are actually distilled and questioning odd product marketing.

With the “Old Whiskey River” brand Risen informs us Willie Nelson commissioned the whiskey, but adds a parenthetical “whatever that means.” For Bulleit bourbon, Risen uncovers the worst kept secret in modern whiskey history: the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, makes Bulleit Bourbon.

Risen’s words are meant for whiskey lovers, as he dissects every brand’s hi  story and scores products on an NR (not recommended) to four-star scale. He conveniently left out flavored whiskeys and gave NRs to mostly craft whiskeys, including four Hudson whiskeys. Risen’s palate certainly skews to older bourbon, granting four stars to Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old, Michter’s 20 year old, and Jefferson’s 18 year old bourbons.

American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye is an American whiskey treasure worthy of four stars in Risen’s scoring format. One downside to this book is Risen likely made Pappy Van Winkle even more desired. When describing Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old, Risen says, “bourbon doesn’t get better.” Retailers didn’t need that!

 

Kentucky Bourbon Country by Susan ReiglerReigler, BOURBON Cover 300dip

With the growth of the Bourbon Trail and the whiskey’s mainstream media coverage, Kentucky’s bourbon experience looks to join California’s Napa Valley as a spot for adult beverage travel. But unlike Napa, Bourbon Country has lacked a truly informative guide to help folks navigate the commonwealth’s distilleries. Until now.

Kentucky Bourbon Country: The Essential Travel Guide by Susan Reigler, with photographs by Pam Spaulding, leapfrogs Internet travel sites and gives a comprehensive travel guide that digs deep into each Kentucky region.

Reigler gives a terroir look to Kentucky bourbon, breaking the book into the commonwealth’s major bourbon regions: Louisville, Frankfort and Midway, Lexington, Lawrenceburg, and Bardstown. In each section, Reigler offers the area’s bourbon history, from a brief mention of the Henry Clay distillery in the Lexington area to Frenchman Leopold Labrot’s shareholding status with the Frankfort/Midway region’s Labrot & Graham distillery, now the Woodford Reserve distillery.

As a Kentuckian, I’m thrilled with how Reigler explores not only bourbon, but takes you inside several relatively unknown destinations, such as Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Lawrenceburg, a hidden gem in this state that’s often overlooked by travel writers; the Perryville Battlefield, a Civil War park where 7,500 were killed or wounded; and along the beautiful horse farms and race tracks that complement Kentucky’s bourbon heritage.

Reigler also gives cogent driving advice that GPS programmers should listen to and great boarding recommendations. Beyond the detail of most travel guides, Kentucky Bourbon Country was most certainly written by a Kentuckian.

Both Reigler’s and Risen’s books show great promise for the whiskey book world. Just remember to read responsibly and with fine bourbon in hand.

The Laird of Fintry has Landed

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

author-beaumontIt’s been a good year for Canada’s Okanagan Spirits. To begin with, a break on the standard retail mark-up in the provincially-owned liquor stores for distillers using locally-grown ingredients – which this fruit belt operation does exclusively – was rather unexpectedly announced in the early spring by the government of the company’s home province of British Columbia.  Then came word from the World Spirits Competition in Klagenfurt, Austria, where Okanagan Spirits was awarded not only World Class Distillery certification, but also the titles of Distillery of the Year 2013 and Spirit of the Year 2013, the latter for their Blackcurrant Liqueur.

Now a six-year project has finally come to completion with the arrival of Laird of Fintry Single Malt Whisky, distilled from 100% British Columbia-grown barley and aged in French and American oak. Although no doubt better known for their fruit-based eaux de vie lof.bottleshotand Taboo Absinthe, the Laird of Fintry is in many ways a landmark release for Okanagan Spirits, representing in production and aging almost a full two-thirds of the distillery’s existence.

“At the time, we weren’t sure we could even make a whisky, so it was more of an experiment than anything else,” explains Rodney Goodchild, marketing and operations director for Okanagan Spirits. “We had a brewery make the wash for us and were able to distill just a single barrel out of it. Then, as time went on, we kept tasting it and tasting it until at about eighteen months we realized that it was evolving into something quite nice.”

The whisky is titled with the nickname given to an early 20th century settler, James Cameron Dun Waters, who named what is now the Fintry Estate provincial park for his Scottish hometown. The distillery has been producing about a dozen barrels of whisky per year, says Goodchild. So while that initial run has resulted in rather meagre release – leading to a lottery-style sale that had 1,527 people vying for an opportunity to buy the a mere 210 bottles of the whisky – there will be more available next year and in the years to come. One key to Okanagan generating more whisky for sale will definitely be a change in what can only in the loosest of terms be called “warehousing.”

“The distillery has no real warehouse,” says Goodchild, noting that the only other significantly aged product is an 18 month old apple brandy, “So we’re currently storing the barrels in the retail area. The problem is, with the changes in temperature and the dryness of our winters, we estimate that we’re losing about 12% of the spirit per year.” Okanagan Spirits aims to reduce that overly generous angel’s share with the construction of a glass walled barrel room adjacent to their current retail space and tasting bar.

OKS-1223

Distiller Peter von Hahn

As for the whisky itself, its nose is possessed of a surprising maturity for a spirit so relatively young, with aromas of plum, cooked pear, and stewed and spiced raisins accompanying the expected notes of vanilla and toffee. On the palate, however, its youthfulness shines, with ample but integrated oakiness and effusive, sweet notes of both fresh and baked pear, apple and yellow plum, caramel and baking spice, all leading to a still fruity, vanilla-accented finish.

Although it is obviously a grain-based spirit, the Laird of Fintry seems to channel the character of many of its stablemates in the Okanagan Spirits portfolio, specifically the fruit eaux de vie for which the distillery is becoming quite famous. As an operation committed to the use of local ingredients, that is not at all a bad thing.

True, in this batch and at this age, the whisky is not likely to excite anyone approaching it in search of Speyside or Highland complexities, or even the simpler charms of a pot-distilled Irish whiskey. But in terms of speaking to its terroir in the one of the largest fruit-growing regions in Canada, it can only be considered a success, and a harbinger of greater things to come from western Canada’s original and arguably greatest and most successful craft distillery.

London Whisky Auction Nets $405,000 For Charities

Friday, October 25th, 2013

Ian Buxton Energetic bidding by some enthusiastic collectors saw just 55 lots of rare whiskies raise over $400,000 at an auction in London’s Apothecaries Hall on October 17. Records were repeatedly broken as generous bidding drew applause from an audience of senior whisky executives, top retailers, collectors, and a few writers (who were applauding more than bidding, such were the prices).

The event was organized by the Worshipful Company of Distillers in aid of four drinks trade and related charities. Founded in 1638 as a trade guild for distillers in the City of London, today the Worshipful Company embraces all sectors of the UK’s distilling industry and devotes much of its work to charitable giving. The auction, the first of its kind, was the vision of this year’s Master of the Company, Brian Morrison—formerly of Morrison Bowmore and today chairman of the Scottish Liqueur Center—who donated many of the lots from his private stocks.

All the lots had been donated and auctioneering services were provided pro bono by Christie’s. Thus the hammer price reflects the actual price paid by the buyer and 100% of the proceeds will be received by the charities.

Notable successes on the evening were:

  • The Dalmore 1964 One of One, created specifically for the Auction, which sold for £28,000. This is the most expensive Dalmore ever sold at live auction and the second most expensive bottle of whisky auctioned in 2013.
  • The Hazelwood set comprising bottlings released by William Grant & Sons to celebrate Janet Sheed Robert’s 90th, 100th, 105th and 110th birthdays sold for £31,000.
  • The Johnnie Walker Director’s Blend Series, donated by Diageo and comprising the entire set of six unavailable bottlings sold for £23,000.
  • The most expensive Glenury-Royal ever auctioned at £2,600.
  • The most expensive bottle of Bladnoch ever auctioned at £1,100
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Bowmore 1964

 

Among the bidders were U.S. collector Mahesh Patel; leading UK retailer and collector Sukhinder Singh of The Whisky Exchange; and, bidding enthusiastically and successfully by telephone, representatives of UK specialist chain The Whisky Shop. Also present was Diageo’s recent CEO Paul Walsh, who acquired a rare vintage bottle of Mortlach single malt dating from the 1920s or 30s for a relatively modest £3,000.

Cheapest lot of the evening was a group of 3 bottles from various retirement dinners for Allied Distillers’ Directors which made £190. Elsewhere a charity premium was evident with bidders clearly in a generous mood—as an example, a Kilchoman Inaugural Release which might elsewhere fetch £90-120 was knocked down at £200. Many of the lots exceeded their estimates, often by a substantial margin.

But the main drama of the evening came with the final lot. Donated by Morrison Bowmore, this was a completely unique Bowmore 1964 (48 year old, 41.2% abv) created specifically for the auction. Packaged in a silver-mounted, hand-blown bottle and individually crafted Scottish oak cabinet, this was estimated to reach £30,000. In the event, furious bidding pushed the price to £50,000 (where it paused to accept a round of applause) but was finally knocked down for the record price of £61,000. It will find a new home in Mahesh Patel’s growing collection of fine and rare whiskies. It was a busy evening for Patel who, by my count, acquired twelve lots including the three top-priced items, spending close to $250,000 during the evening.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Brian Morrison

According to the auctioneers, the Bowmore 1964 was 2013’s most expensive bottle of whisky, the second most expensive ever sold at live auction in history, and the most expensive Bowmore ever sold at live auction.

Both the Morrison Bowmore executives present (who snapped up some lesser lots for their corporate archives) and Brian Morrison for the Worshipful Company of Distillers were naturally in buoyant mood afterwards. Morrison himself was at pains to acknowledge the generosity of both donors and bidders.

“As a Livery Company, charity is at the heart of what we are about,” he told me afterwards. “This evening was a long held ambition of ours and I can honestly say I am humbled by the response of our industry, both in terms of donations and the bidding. Last night will live long in the memory of The Worshipful Company of Distillers.”

Does this evening represent a high point in whisky auction prices? While my own views on “investment” in whisky have been well aired on this site (and have not changed), the key elements here are the charity factor; the prestige associations of the evening and the unique nature of many of the lots. There is perhaps little to be learned from this glittering event, other than the pleasant conclusion that the licensed trade in general and the whisky industry and its followers in particular can be notably generous when the occasion arises. And that is something we can all celebrate.

And now…Kininvie!

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

Dave Broom William Grant & Sons are doing a fair impersonation of the London bus syndrome; you know, nothing for ages, then five come along at once. Following the recent new Glenfiddich Soleras, Balvenie’s latest Tun 1401, and Girvan Patent Still comes potentially the firm’s most exciting release yet, the first official bottling of Kininvie, called Batch Number One. At 23 years of age it is made up of whiskies distilled when the distillery was established in 1990.

Kininvie can lay claim to be one of the most obscure in Scotland. Built in order to ease pressure on Glenfiddich and supply whisky for Grants’ blends (and in more recent times, for Monkey Shoulder), it has never been bottled under its own name.

IMG_1910These important responsibilities could justify why this has happened, but 20 years is a long time for malt lovers to wait. Was it always the intention to hold fire for so long? “I’ve been here for 17 years,” says Brian Kinsman, Grant’s master blender, who has masterminded the release. “Every year we’ve had a discussion about Kininvie, so I don’t think you can say that there was any pre-determined plan.

“One thing in our favor is that we do tend to keep stuff, and the mentality for as long as I’ve been here is to keep hold of it and wait until the right moment. It’s here.”

The Kininvie stillhouse sits between Glenfiddich and Balvenie, and stylistically the whisky is a midpoint between its two sisters. It has its own dedicated 10,000 liter mashtun in the Balvenie mash house (though it doesn’t use any of that distillery’s floor-malted barley) and its own tun room as well, with three new washbacks (out of six in total) being installed at the time of writing.

The stillhouse, often rather cruelly dismissed as no more than a shed, contains nine stills in three sets; one wash to two spirit, the spirit stills being roughly similar to Glenfiddich in shape and size, the wash stills being tall and onion shaped. The cut point is high, thereby avoiding getting heaviness from such small stills.

Aging takes place in a variety of woods: first fill bourbon (predominantly for Monkey Shoulder), refill, and some sherry.

When you compare its new make to Balvenie, Kininvie is on the floral side of the spectrum (think geraniums), lighter and sweeter with less thickness on the tongue, lower vanillin and cereal, but a more lifted, estery fruitiness, and a long silkiness on the palate.Image 2

It is this mix of flowers and fruits which predominate in Batch Number One. Bright gold, the nose immediately offers up fruit blossom, wild flower meadow, sugared plums, and an old-fashioned sweet shop. Water brings out grass and pineapple. The oak is very restrained, allowing the palate to build in sweetness with supple weight, star fruit, white peach, and light citrus on the finish. It’s very Grants, in that there are hidden depths if you take the time to look, yet is substantially different from its siblings.

The downside for malt whisky completists is that Batch Number One will only be on sale in Taiwan, itself a clear indication of how the malt category has evolved since the day that Janet Sheed Roberts opened the distillery. Then, the category was in its infancy, only just breaking out of being the preserve of a few connoisseurs. Taiwan was chosen because it is now a mature — and very modern — malt market.

The name — and Kinsman’s revealing of the depth in stock — suggests that this might be the start of a regular series of Kininvie bottlings. “We could do that,” he says, “but if we do, it will be more of a slow drip.”

Kininvie Batch Number One 23 years old, 42.6%, retails at TW$4,500 (US$153) for a 350 ml bottle, or two for TW$8,000 (US$272).

It’s Not Like That!

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

Ian BuxtonIan Buxton has a bit of a shout about the persistent idea that Scotch whisky marketing is all tartan and bagpipes.

I’m beginning to wonder if my fellow scribes haven’t watched too many episodes of Mad Men. It pains me to say it, but some of them appear stuck in the 1960s as far as whisky marketing is concerned.

Now I know I’m a grumpy, middle-aged (at best), white male and that automatically disqualifies me from having an opinion about anything, but I’ve got to get this off my chest, because the same tired old clichés keep appearing. It’s lazy writing and it’s neither right nor fair. This is the myth that will not die. Watch out: you’ll see it again and again.

bagpiperWhisky ads evoke “scenes brimming with tartan and sheep dogs, the chilly Scottish hills” according to one recent article. And here it is again: “the iconic image of an old man sipping neat whisky, preferably in a tartan kilt by the fireside, somewhere in the Highlands, has been used time and again by whisky brands.”

But really? When was that, then? We haven’t seen the old boy by his cozy hearth for at least 30 years! As for tartan, I flicked through the current issues of three different whisky magazines to see what I could find. Not a scrap of the stuff in sight. No kilts. No plaids. And what’s more, no old men either, no bagpipes, and only a distant glimpse of what might have been a fireside.

Perhaps it’s all to be found online and on our TV screens. So I took a look. Johnnie Walker’s film The Man Who Walked Round the World seemed a good place to start. It begins with a misty glen and a kilted piper. Maybe it’s all true then? Except that he lasts about 30 seconds, whereupon in strides a cross-looking Robert Carlyle, who snaps “Hey, piper! Shut it!” And that’s the last we see of him.

Now given that Johnnie Walker is the best-selling and most heavily advertised Scotch whisky in the world you’d imagine they’d be as guilty as anyone of living off the tartan-clad clichés that seem to obsess my colleagues. Not if their stunning TV commercials are any guide; work such as Android, Leap of Faith and Take the First Step (check them out on YouTube) are incredible pieces of film-making, far removed from the land of hills and glens. Not to mention F1 sponsorship and their stylish luxury yacht Voyager.

Maybe it’s lesser brands? William Lawson’s is a blended Scotch doing well in Europe and making huge gains in Russia’s burgeoning whisky market. Their TV work has plenty of kilts and strong, silent men. But again, check it out. It’s an unusual take on a kilt that has Sharon Stone giggling, that’s all I’ll say. And by all accounts, the New Zealand rugby authorities weren’t impressed with Lawson’s Haka commercial.

Fact is, Scotch whisky marketing moved on from tartan, bagpipes, and heather and weather years and years ago. Brands like Cutty Sark take pleasure in exploding that image, literally blowing up a cozy study, complete with decanters, leather armchair, and fireplace before going on to host parties in London’s trendy Brick Lane with a hip crowd of edgy artists, DJs, and burlesque stars.

Scotch isn’t conquering new markets, engaging with new audiences, and defining itself as the spirit of the age by living off past glories. So let’s let go of the clichés. Scotch isn’t for old men.

Except for me, obviously.

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.

 

Angel’s Envy Distillery Breaks Ground

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Whisky Advocate contributor Fred Minnick reports on the new Angel’s Envy distillery.

Angel's Envy Three HendersonsLouisville Distilling Company, the maker’s of Angel’s Envy, is turning a former hobo hangout into a $12 million distillery in downtown Louisville. Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, Louisville mayor Greg Fischer, spirits executives, and dozens of reporters attended the Angel’s Envy distillery groundbreaking on July 9 at the former Vermont American building, which had been vacant since 1986.

“Four years ago, we started looking for a distillery and kicked every piece of dirt in area,” said Wes Henderson, the company’s chief operating officer.

In May, InsiderLouisville.com broke the news about a downtown location with social media rumors circling around the Vermont building, a stone’s throw away from the city’s minor league baseball park, Slugger Field. “This was the worst-kept secret in the history of urban development,” Fischer said.

The planned opening is December 2014, and there’s a lot of work to do. When Angel’s Envy selected the building, public officials kicked out 30 homeless people, who, along with gang members, had shattered glass, cracked floors, busted brick walls, and marked their territory with spray cans. In the future stillroom, artists from the “Hole in the Wall Gang” and the “Living Dead” gang painted wolf’s heads and hypnotizing owls. On the second floor, where future fermenters will stand, gorgeous city and Ohio river views are marred by tacky markings.

Despite a few soft floors with holes, and busted brick façades, the foundation is in good shape. Nonetheless, standing water and yellow caution tape make the future distillery appear more like a CSI scene.

But the architects, Joseph & Joseph, are accustomed with distillery fixer-uppers. Since 1908, the firm has built dozens of distilleries, including Four Roses, Stitzel-Weller, and Brown-Forman facilities. Joseph & Joseph is also turning downtown Louisville’s Fort Nelson building into the Michter’s distillery.

The building actually carries a historical significance to the brand. Master distiller Lincoln Henderson’s father built equipment for the Vermont building; Lincoln remembers hanging out at the building as a kid. Now the legendary Henderson, a member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame and former Brown-Forman master distiller, works alongside his son, Wes, and grandson, Kyle, to create one of the fastest-growing spirits in the U.S. market.

The new distillery will eventually have the capacity to create roughly 31 barrels of whiskey a day from a column still made by the Louisville-based Vendome Copper & Brass Works.

Since launching its first product in 2010, Angel’s Envy has become a lightning rod of sorts in the bourbon industry. The first non-extension bourbon product line finished in port casks made Angel’s Envy a “love it or hate it” whiskey. Purists denied its bourbon ties…while fans quickly bought up as much as they could.

One fan of Angel’s Envy is the Kentucky governor. Thanks to the Kentucky Economic Finance Authority, Angel’s Envy is eligible for $800,000 in state tax incentives and another $72,000 through the Kentucky Enterprise Initiative Act.

“This is another great development for our international industry of bourbon,” Beshear said. “Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon. And quite frankly, the other 5 percent is counterfeit.”

Louisville was once the American whiskey Wall Street. Hundreds of rectifiers and distillers were headquartered along Main Street, an area known as Whiskey Row. Today, developers are calling the area Bourbon Row and are trying to resurrect a forgotten piece of American history.

In the past year, Michter’s, Evan Williams and the Peerless Distillery have broken ground on Main Street distilleries. I’m also aware of another very famous bourbon name working on a Main Street distillery location, while Louisville’s Stitzel-Weller distillery may be the most highly anticipated distillery reopening in history.

Of all these, Wes Henderson believes Angel’s Envy “will bring bourbon back to Whiskey Row.”

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.