Archive for the ‘Scotch whisky’ Category

Dewar’s Master Blender on “The Last Great Malts Collection”

Friday, November 7th, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarOn receiving the press release on the new “Last Great Malts Collection” from Dewar’s, I had as many questions as there are malts in the range. I thought it might be helpful to get some views from Stephanie Macleod, Dewar’s master blender, who chooses the casks and creates the samples which led to this launch.

First, though, it seemed sensible to get examples of some of them to taste before our talk. Don’t panic; I’m not going to belabor you with all my tasting notes. Some small samples of the Craigellachies (all except the 19 year old) and the 12, 21 and 25 year old Aultmores were supplied to give me a feel of what was on offer. Most of the Aberfeldy bottlings I largely know already from previous work done with this company. The Royal Brackla and The Deveron are not yet released.

Craigellachie is described by some as “meaty,” though Dave Broom does tell us it gets fruitier with age. I’m glad I saw that comment after tasting, as fruit was what struck me, most specifically on the 17 year old, which was my favorite from there. Oh, those mango skins!

Aultmore 12The Aultmore was a little harder to pin down, but they were all amazingly fresh tasting, even the older ones. One word I had noted for the 12 year old was ethereal, which also turned out be a word Stephanie had used for the same age. A delightful nose of Muscadet wine also appeared along with the woodland scents which came through on all three ages.

So in talking to Stephanie I wondered, why now? She reminded that they updated the branding of the Dewar’s range so it was a good moment to put these out on the back of that exercise. But why so many at one time? Stephanie laughed and asked if I’d been bugging her office, then went on to explain that they want to showcase as much as possible about each distillery as a range and make a statement of how great they are.

It seemed to me that the Dewar’s business had been quite quiet for years; then we get Highlander Honey and now these. What stirred things up? Seems that when global category director John Burke came on board, not enough was being done with single malts. They decided to be brave and put a number of them out there. One view is that maybe not all of them will ‘stick’ with consumers but clear favorites may emerge.

Marketing had been thinking about this for a while but the exercise to get the final ages chosen was quite an intense and concentrated time. Samples were tasted with the marketing team and out in markets. Stephanie also had to look at the inventory available, as all of these are vitally important to certain blends, most notably Aberfeldy for Dewar’s, and each age has to represent the key characteristics of its birthplace.

Stephanie Macleod - Dewar's Master Blender

Stephanie Macleod – Dewar’s Master Blender

The two youngest samples I had were quite pale; Stephanie confirmed that no natural coloring is being added. She was a little nervous about it, worrying that this might put off consumers or affect their perceptions of nose and taste, but they decided to go for the purity aspect. Both Craigellachie and Aultmore are non-chill filtered and bottled at 46% abv.

What does each distillery bring to the party? Royal Brackla is one of only two distilleries to have “royal” in its name, so it will be saved for very special bottlings. Stephanie describes it as “summer in a glass,” fruity, floral, and perfumed. It’s been finished in sherry wood to add color and spice and live up to its royal connection.

Aultmore epitomizes lightness and elegance, though the 25 year old has a slightly different profile with a lot of sherry influence. Aberfeldy, already known as a single malt, has been included with an extended range and to show off the Dewar’s house style. As it’s such an integral part of the Dewar’s blends it is a touchstone, an elder statesman, to give us all a familiar note (as well as a damn good dram). The 30 year old finished in Marsala casks for six months was tasted frequently during that time to make sure the Marsala did not dominate. I think I’d have wanted to taste it often too!

Similarly with The Deveron: it features strongly in some blends. In France it has been a popular 10 and 15 year old Glen Deveron single malt. It has also been known by the distillery name of Macduff for bottlings by independent companies. Here they want to show off its representation of the place where it hails from, as the River Deveron meets the North Sea. I asked whether there was any maritime influence, but Stephanie thinks not as there’s no salt note in it. She mused as to why, if whisky can get salt notes with no actual sodium, then why would the food industry not be hammering our doors down to find a safer alternative? Good question!

Craigellachie 13In Stephanie’s opinion, Craigellachie could be the “Marmite” brand here. You’ll either love it or not. It’s robust and old-fashioned in that they still use worm tubs in the distillation process. This is where the meaty element comes in. I found one expression quite mushroomy. She tells us it needs a long time in cask where it soaks up the wood goodness to acquire the fruity notes. The barley for this one is dried using oil firing, which is where the sulfury note comes from. So any sherry wood with Craigellachie needs care as that would add too much and become a “sulfur fest” as Stephanie puts it.

Why are we waiting till 2015 for the Royal Brackla and The Deveron? Was it packaging or not trying to do everything at once? Stephanie says there are elements to do with packaging as this is an ambitious program, but it is also a sensible idea to embed the first few and learn some things.

She tells that the packaging of each one embodies a sense of the place and character of the whisky within. One of the important parts of the whisky and pack creation was to talk to the distillery people, collecting stories from them and finding out what they like to see in their own distillery drams. “It’s exciting for us here and the distillery guys. They’re thrilled.”

Ewen Mackintosh — In 140 Or Less

Friday, October 31st, 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. Ewen Mackintosh is the new managing director (CEO) of Gordon & MacPhail, the renowned independent whisky bottler based in Elgin on Speyside and owned by the Urquhart family. Ewen will be the first non-Urquhart for four generations to be running the company. 

 

What’s the view from your office window?

Today: beautiful blue skies and Boroughbriggs Football Stadium – home to Elgin City FC.

No need to buy match tickets then. What’s it like living on Speyside?

It’s a great part of Scotland – sandy beaches in one direction, mountains in the other and peppered with golf courses and distilleries.

Paradise for many. You’re going from Chief Operating Officer to Managing Director. Please explain the differences, task-wise.

No, I remain as COO for the business. However I do take on more Executive responsibilities, such as Export Trade.

20614_G&M_001_-_smlSo it’s basically the same but more. You’re the first non-Urquhart family member in charge for 4 generations. Any nervousness?

Nervous, no. Excited, yes. However, it will be business as usual, no point changing a winning formula.

True! Sounds like a nice place to work. You went there straight from university. Was whisky already in the blood and what rôle did you start in?

Niblick Bar in St Andrews must take some credit for introducing me to malts as a student.Actually started with G&M as a student during summer holidays.

But first post-university role?

First permanent role was implementing Quality Management Systems.

And on from there, obviously. G&M sales/turnover/profits all well up this last year. Some of the big guys seeing some brand/country downturns. What’s your secret?

We have products to suit all wallets/purses — from our entry level 8YO malts, up to the 70YO, and of course Benromach continues to grow.

Malts are so popular so is it easier or harder to get casks fillings from other producers these days for your own bottlings? Or just more expensive?

We have good, long standing relationships. Filling our own casks ensures highest quality. Important to us that we complement official bottlings, not compete.

You’ve done that well for a long time. You must be thrilled with the success of Benromach. How was that achieved?

Our desire was to re-create a traditional Speyside style from the 1950s and 1960s — this character has proved very popular.

Indeed it has. 100º Proof is new. Organic, Peat Smoke, Heritage and more. Are you allowed to tell us what’s next?

We’re still catching our breath after introducing all the new packaging, however there are some wood finishes on the horizon.

On the G&M side: Connoisseur’s Choice, Generations etc. — about a dozen ranges. How do you choose what stock goes where?

A very good question and one difficult to explain in Twitter length! For example, some labels are historical…

Maybefor a longer interview another time but please go on…

Certain labels are agreed with particular distillers, others are for styles (cask strength and wood finishes). Generations is right at the top for the oldest.

I hear you like sport. Care to elaborate? Player or spectator?

Much more enjoyment playing than watching. Unfortunately my rugby days are behind me and so golf is the passion.

More of a spectator myself. Told other interests are travel, food & drink and socialising. Does that mean you’re a party animal?

No — definitely quality not quantity. Enjoy visiting new places, trying new things. Inevitably when people find you’re in the whisky business, socialising follows!

Gordon_&_MacPhail_Directors_250413_0162_-_smlA lot of us would agree with that last bit. Do you like to pair whisky with food or is that a step too far?

Certain things work for me, cheese and chocolate pair well with whisky. It’s all about personal tastes, I never see whisky replacing wine at the dinner table.

Nor I, despite my whisky industry background. Still like it though. Travel — most of it for the job? When travelling — books or music?

For holidays, definitely a book. For work travel, mainly music. Unfortunately the emails never stop, so these generally replace the book.

Sounds familiar! Future ambitions for the company?

Benromach – keep telling our story, introduce new people to it. G&M – many “independent bottlers” out there. Want to ensure people understand what makes us different.

Unfulfilled ambitions for yourself — what’s on the bucket list?

Personally, the list is quite long, however right at the top is getting my golf handicap down to single figures.

All sounds achievable. Nothing scary there!
Lastly, what’s your desert island dram? Doesn’t have to be one of your own…

The golf handicap is quite scary! I’ll take my golf clubs and a few bottles of Linkwood with me to the desert island.

Jackie Thomson — In 140 Or Less

Friday, September 26th, 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 Jackie Thomson, manager of Ardbeg’s visitor center and the Old Kiln Café. Known for her deep commitment and passion for her role and brand, Jackie tells us a bit about herself and the business there…. but she won’t say what her invention is.

What’s the view from your office window?
Glorious blue sky and puffy clouds and the pagoda from the West Maltings. Delightful.

Where are you from originally?
Originally Glasgow but moved to the Highlands when small. Consider Inverness my home and have great affection for this part of the world.

Jackie Thomson 2I hear of an exotic work past. Your career path and intentions before arriving at Ardbeg?
Was a wanderer. Burning desire for journalism, but missed university entry date so changed direction. Never totally career focused, but lots of life experiences!

Such as?
Oh, the Middle East, radio stations…

What were you doing in the Middle East and how did that come about?
Intrigued by kibbutz living; went with a friend. Backpacked, erected greenhouses in Gaza, dived in the Red Sea. Fascinating times; when ignorance really was bliss.

Radio stations: are you Islay’s best/only DJ?
No. Worked at Moray Firth Radio in Inverness; sold advertising space but read the Highland League results too. Big footie fan then. But Islay FM has a ring to it. [Highland League is a soccer league]

 Ardbeg did “quirky” as a brand and website long before others. Are you all flattered by others following suit?
Love all the connotations which quirky captures — cool, smart, witty, intelligent — sum up Ardbeg. Not flattered, but proud.

You personally, the manager, and the whisky have all won awards. How much do they mean?
The awards are always for the team: quietly chuffed to bits. A dinner in London: even better!

You run the best distillery café EVER and I wish I could get there more than once a year. How do you keep standards up?
By keeping things simple, fresh, and making sure the service is just a little better than it could be. We pride ourselves on making good whisky-drinking food!

The team puts all into Ardbeg Day at the Islay Whisky Fest. Where does all the creativity come from?
From all of us via lots of juicy meetings. We love being able to have fun with the festival. We are on the last day so much of the serious stuff has been done.

How many members does the Ardbeg Committee have now? Plans for growth/running the world?
Over 100,000 members all over the world. Ardbeg is many things, but essentially a wonderful dram and we will continue to fill people with Ardbeg’s spirit.

Shortie

Shortie

Presumably literally and figuratively. How did you acquire Shortie and to whom does the lovely wee dog belong?
By default:  he lived near the distillery and spent much of his time outside the visitor center sniffing, licking, and greeting visitors!

Not many places where you get licked by the staff! How are reservations going for Ardbeg’s luxury cottage?
Great this year. Has taken a while for word to spread, but feedback is hugely positive. I would love to live in Seaview Cottage.

So would I; in middle of house improvements here. What are your interests outside work?
A spot of over indulgence — eating, drinking, fishing, walking, reading, inventing — nothing in moderation.

You probably never need to leave Islay then. Fishing: are you skilled and does your catch make it to the café?
Definitely need to leave sometimes. I get stir crazy! Our wee boat, Catch 22, has seen some action. I am very adept with a spinner, but keep my catch for our dinner table!

Cooking: assume you don’t do it all for the café? Any particular thing or style?
Certainly not; we have great chefs doing culinary gymnastics in the cafe. I love a small glass of wine and creating.

Reading…being on Islay with no bookstores, are you a Kindle girl?
Very recently converted, but love the smell of a good book. Classics on Kindle, contemporary fiction on paper, works for me!

Jackie Thomson, Ardbeg Visitor Center ManagerWhere do you find time for all this and being Chair of South Islay Development group? [South Islay Development runs community projects and is raising some of the money toward the setup of a new community center for Port Ellen.]
Sometimes I swim and occasionally I sink. Time is a luxury but I really thrive on being busy. Have tried to slow down, but it doesn’t work for me.

And being a chairperson?
I don’t know if I am a good chairperson, but I really enjoy being one and the challenges it brings. We quietly try to make things happen.

When will we be able to buy Ardbeg Kildalton online and how much has it raised so far? [Kildalton, created by Dr. Bill Lumsden to aid the project, is currently available at the distillery only.]
No total yet. Plans for it to be available online later this year. Proud to be part of this project to raise funds to set up a community hub to benefit all in Port Ellen.

Is there anything you enjoy that Islay can’t offer? Do you crave retail therapy?
Not for clothes or shoes, but for food choice and big supermarkets! Love to go to Europe and wander the huge hypermarkets.

Seems reasonable. You’ve been at Ardbeg a while now. Of what are you most proud?
It has been a great privilege to watch a brand grow and flourish. Working alongside the team — past and present — who care deeply about the distillery.

Any unfulfilled ambitions for a) Ardbeg Visitor Centre (growing your own cafe produce?) and b) yourself?
To have the Old Kiln Café stand alone as a great eating place. To write a book; see my invention make me millions; watch my boys grow into confident, peaceful young men.

What would be your desert island dram? Only one, mind, and it doesn’t have to be an Ardbeg!
Foraging for food, would be incongruous but delightful to procure elegant, sophisticated Ardbeg Lord of the Isles. Could read the historical insert whilst sipping!

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:

 

IMG_20140919_114839762_HDR

 

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 New Diageo Special Releases

Monday, September 15th, 2014

Author - Ian BuxtonOnce again it’s time for the annual Special Releases series from Diageo – everyone’s pantomime villain that the collectors love to hate (while secretly rushing to buy the bottles).

This year, Whisky Advocate was granted a sneak advance tasting. All eleven of the whiskies will be available in the U.S., albeit in limited quantities, so I have listed them all in the table together (see below) with the essential information on age, pricing (in UK Pounds; no U.S. pricing available as yet), % ABV, and the number of bottles to be released. (Incidentally, if you’re perplexed on the apparently odd numbers, you’ll find they all divide neatly by 6, thus indicating the total number of 6-bottle cases that will be shipped.)

What do we observe from the list? The usual favorites are there: Port Ellen, Rosebank, Brora, Caol Ila, and Lagavulin all make an appearance. But there are one or two surprises, including a first ever Special Releases’ bottling of Strathmill, and a venerable Singleton of Glendullan, at 38 years old the grand-daddy of this group.

The pricing, as we’ve come to expect, doesn’t offer any bargains nor, I suspect, make it likely that anyone will make a toss-the-cork session with these bottles, no matter how good their friends. Diageo have long-since understood the reality of the secondary market and determined that they, not speculators, will profit from the demand to own these treasures. One might recoil in mock horror at some of the prices but it’s hard to blame Diageo for this trend. Having said that, the Unpeated Caol Ila (£75) and the 12 years old Lagavulin (£80) are both accessible and attainable to all but the most impecunious of enthusiasts. These, thank goodness, are whiskies for drinking.

6 bottle range

As the market for this style dictates all the bottles save one carry an age declaration. The odd man out is the Clynelish Select Reserve. Though I understand the youngest spirit in the vatting to be 16 years old, this whisky is a complex, rich and mature blend created by Diageo’s Dr. Jim Beveridge and, for me, one of the stand-out drams of the collection. It’s a great testament to the argument, increasingly advanced by the distilling industry, that skilled blending counts for more than age on its own. While there are certainly some older whiskies in here, the result is a beguiling, waxy, mouth-coating set of sensations that mix Clynelish’s signature ozone and brine notes with fresh and dried fruits, smoke, fudge, and menthol. This is a whisky that keeps on giving – at £500 a bottle you might expect something sensational and this does deliver.

Brora bottle&boxIt’s far from the most expensive, however. Both the Brora and the Port Ellen releases will break the bank for most of us, requiring £1,200 for the Brora and £2,200 for the 14th Release from the closed and now legendary Islay distillery. But, putting price to one side as we must, those lucky enough to acquire a bottle of either are in for something of a treat: fans of these celebrated distilleries will find much to enjoy. Both need a modest amount of water to fully reveal themselves (but go carefully, as only a few drops are required); both are packed with subtle and complex smoke notes; both need time and some care; both finish long, with pepper and spice (an unexpected ginger edge in the Port Ellen stands out) and the damp, smoldering embers of a wood fire on a beach with salt on the wind call to mind their ancestral homes.

There’s poetry too to be found in the offering from Rosebank; this a bittersweet elegy for another lost distillery. Diageo’s Maureen Robinson perplexed us with her initial comment that the nose carried the scent of “fresh air”, but likened it to the crisp, clean aroma of freshly laundered cotton sheets (a 1,000 thread count sateen if I’m any judge of bed linen). This I thought was the aperitif whisky of the session, a vibrant, zesty palate-teaser that zinged into action from the very first sip. It was young, yet knowing; fresh, yet deep; sweet on the nose, yet by turns clean and drying.

From all parts of Scotland they have come and I surely must mention the Speysiders in the company: The Singleton of Glendullan; Cragganmore; a meaty, big-bodied, blustering Benrinnes that threatened to steal the show (and repelled in equal measure some of the panel) and the debutant Strathmill, initially coy and enigmatic but full of mesmerizing charm – a wallflower that would soon waltz elegantly past a line of eager suitors.

But the finish! Almost all these whiskies left me struggling for descriptors that capture their complexity, charm, and character. Too literal a description scarcely does them justice; too poetic and the reader will be baffled and think the taster bewitched…

So let me finish with the two Special Releases that will be most widely seen, enjoyed and drunk: the 15 years old unpeated Caol Ila and Lagavulin, bottled at what is for this distillery at least an unusual 12 years of age. The result of this policy of the preferment of youth is that there will be plenty to go around, at prices that permit enjoyment without the rueful contemplation of one’s credit card statement.

The freshness and vibrancy of eager youth was evident in both. A hint of smoke could be detected in the Caol Ila, which was soft, generous and giving and packed with vanilla, where the Lagavulin was all pulled pork BBQ with smoky bacon topping and a peat sauce. But then rich fruit notes emerged from the misty smoke, an autumnal note crept forward and a tentative, delicate, fugitive sweetness offered up its still, small voice.

If you are sufficiently fortunate to come into possession of one of these whiskies – any one of them – then do not hoard them; do not place them on some remote, unattainable pedestal; do not venerate them, but share them freely (yet with appropriate discretion). Induct some neophyte into whisky’s riches or exchange a dram with another privileged connoisseur.

‘Special’ these releases may be, but I implore you to set them free. It is noble work, and you will be the better for it!

DISTILLERY AGE AT BOTTLING YEAR DISTILLED UK RRSP % ABV NUMBER OF BOTTLES
THE SINGLETON OF GLENDULLAN 38 1975 £750 59.8% 3,756
CAOL ILA – UNPEATED 15 1998 £75 60.39% 10,668
CAOL ILA 30 1983 £425 55.1% 7,638
CLYNELISH SELECT RESERVE 1999 £500 54.9% 2,964
CRAGGANMORE 25 1988 £299 51.4% 3,372
LAGAVULIN 12 2002 £80 54.4% 31,428
PORT ELLEN 35 1978 £2,200 56.5% 2,964
ROSEBANK 21 1992 £300 55.3% 4,530
BENRINNES 21 1992 £240 56.9% 2,892
BRORA 35 1978 £1,200 48.6% 2,964
STRATHMILL 25 1988 £275 52.4% 2,700

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

Nomad: sherry maker González Byass ventures into whisky

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Alia AkkamThe other night I was sitting at a bar, a hushed, handsome space awash in wood and leather, tucked behind an unmarked door upstairs from a more raucous joint dominated by a flat screen blaring the World Cup and gals in too-tight dresses. I could have been in a speakeasy-style lair anywhere in the world, except I was in Taipei, at Alchemy, in the slick Xinyi district. It is here that I watched a large group of dolled-up friends, tipsy from a wedding, keep the party going by passing around a bottle of the Macallan and greedily sipping it like water.

Soft and sweet, the Macallan, I learned a few days prior, is the single malt of choice among Taiwanese imbibers. Instead of feeling fierce pride for the lovely whiskies being turned out at Kavalan, a little over an hour away from Taipei, many locals are skeptical of single malts from their homeland.

imageIt is precisely this status-conscious demographic González Byass is targeting with its brand new whisky, Nomad. The Spanish wine producer, best known for its range of sherries, has decided to amp up its spirits collection—most notably marked by the London No. 1 Gin—with Nomad, a whisky crafted by Whyte & Mackay’s zany Richard Paterson.

Like any Scotch whisky, this cross-cultural creation is distilled, blended, and aged in Scotland. But then, in a romantic twist, it’s shipped off to balmy Spain, where it’s finished in Pedro Ximénez casks. For the debut of Nomad, González Byass first set its sights on Taipei, the world’s sixth-largest single malt market. The Taiwanese, I am told, have the power to turn their drink-swilling neighbors in Hong Kong and China onto new products and habits, making them an even more captivating audience.

For Nomad’s grand launch, González Byass brought writers from around the world—luckily including myself—to Taipei to taste the much-buzzed whisky, discover what makes it stand out from the bombardment of new releases on retail shelves, and give them a feel for Taiwanese nightlife in between dumpling runs.

Via Skype, Paterson, donning a suit in the middle of the night, UK time, walked curious attendees through the particulars of Nomad. For example, he told us he melded 25 single malt and six grain whiskies that are 5 to 8 years old for this blend, then aged it in oloroso casks for a year. Once shipped off to Spain, the whisky did time in the Pedro Ximénez barrels for up to another year. Although most bottles of booze boast 40 or 43% ABV, Paterson determined Nomad’s should be 41.3%.

I was almost scared to taste it. After all this anticipation, imagine what a letdown it would be to fly across the globe for a swig of something hot and one-dimensional. But it did not disappoint. Paterson kept emphasizing its heady raisin and marzipan notes, and the pastry buff in me was delighted each rich sip conjured a loaf of warm Christmastime Stollen and brown sugar-packed sticky toffee pudding.

He also encouraged us to resist the urge to plunk ice cubes into our glasses, and drink Nomad neat. This will not be a problem because it’s an approachable whisky, something I would have no qualms about opening on a Tuesday night while in yoga pants. At around $45, it’s not something you need to save for a white tablecloth feast, but guests will most certainly relish it when you bring it over for a potluck. They may even strike a conversation over how closely the flat, flask-like bottle resembles Knob Creek’s.

Perhaps the most interesting element of Nomad’s arrival is that it has given González Byass the opportunity to carve out a new category of whisky called Outland. The name exemplifies wanderlust and adventure, and it’s interesting to think of the future cross-cultural collaborations that will undoubtedly ensue. More whiskies making their way to Spain is inevitable— González Byass may have the audacity to take Scotland-meets-Spain whisky to a new level, but Paterson is no stranger to such international tinkering; he did this before with Sheep Dip—yet is Irish whiskey aged in Kentucky a possibility? Or maybe Japanese whisky will get sent off to Canada?

Lest bartenders be excluded from all of this intrigue surrounding Nomad, the González Byass folks asked local barkeeps to show off how they weave the whisky into clever concoctions. One of them even found Fireball a fine complement. With Paterson’s words warning us to drink it in as pure a state as possible, I only wanted to try it in an Old-Fashioned. Surely Nomad will make a splash on Taipei’s burgeoning craft bar scene—and New York’s when it hopefully hits the States in the fall. Dessert notes coupled with a European fairytale of a narrative might just get Taipei bar-goers to look beyond their beloved Macallan.

Five new releases — no, make that six!

Friday, July 11th, 2014

Author - Ian BuxtonTruly the whisky gods have smiled on me. Great are their blessings, as I bring you tidings of five (yes, five: read it and weep) interesting new releases that I have tasted recently on your behalf. To be even-handed, I’ll mention them in alphabetical order.

First up, then, is the Balvenie Single Cask 15 Years Old expression, the second in Balvenie’s Single Cask line. Drawn from a sherry butt, cask number 16293 (not that any of us would know the difference, but it lends corroborative detail to the label), this full-flavored 47.8% dram drew me in with its rich, warming color, and then engaged my palate with an explosion of spices and sweet dark fruits (think candied pineapple and chocolate coated raisins) that lingered gently for minutes afterwards.

With a mere 650 bottles available worldwide, and a comparatively modest $99.99 price point, I don’t expect supplies will last long, but a further Single Barrel release, drawn from a refill American oak barrel and aged 25 years, will complete the range at the end of 2014. These Single Cask releases are another sublime illustration of the hand of a master; in this case, Balvenie’s malt master David Stewart. Grab one while you have the chance.

Glenfiddich ExcellenceStraight on to another from the William Grant & Sons’ stable, this time Glenfiddich Excellence, a 26 year old from the world’s best-selling single malt brand that, a trifle worryingly, they described as a “luxury expression” (worryingly, because that’s generally bad news for wallets). All too often, such language from the PR folks speaks more to ritzy packaging than the quality of the liquid.

This is the first time Glenfiddich have released a whisky wholly and exclusively matured in bourbon casks. It struck me as a curiously subtle whisky, strangely pale for its age, and one that will slowly seduce you with its evolving complexity rather than make an immediately dramatic entrance. It’s none the worse for that, but I imagine buyers will need to take some time to fully get to know and explore its undoubted depths. (43%, around $600).

GG Wine Cask MaturedMy third selection is from a distillery as obscure as Glenfiddich is well-known: Glen Garioch. Part of the Morrison Bowmore stable, it tends to be over-shadowed by its more famous Islay cousin. I rather fancy that if it was in Speyside it would enjoy greater fame and appreciation but, as it is, somewhat tucked away in rural Aberdeenshire with no near-neighbors, it languishes in obscurity as a result, with much of the output historically going into blends.

That’s a shame, but perhaps this latest release will win it a few fans. This is the Glen Garioch 1998 Wine Cask Matured which (the hint’s in the name) has spent the last 15 years aging in the finest ‘tonneaux de vin rouge’ (that’s red wine casks to you and me) from an anonymous Bordeaux chateau; annoyingly, they couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me which one. Never mind; while plenty remains of the distillery’s fruity and spicy Highland character, the casks have added loads more intriguing flavors: berries, chocolate, ginger, and coconut to name just a few that rolled over my palate. Bottled at 48% abv, the 5,400 bottles available will be shared between the UK, the U.S., and, fittingly, France. Look for them this Fall at around $170.

Next up is the only blended whisky of the five, but a notable one. This is John Walker & Sons Private Collection, the first in a series of limited releases from this Diageo behemoth. While the Johnnie Walker brand is huge, the folks behind it have also cleverly managed to introduce some variety with the Private Collection and, if this new release is anything to go by, there’s every chance they will even please single malt mavens. This is an exquisite blend specially prepared to highlight different facets of the brand’s character: master blender Dr. Jim Beveridge has showcased the smoky Highland and Island single malts in the blend, but introduced a delightful sweet note into the bargain.

Just 8,888 bottles will be available worldwide, and while that number might suggest Diageo have their sights set firmly to Far Eastern markets, their spokesman assured me that the U.S. will be their most important market. This isn’t a cheap whisky by any stretch of the imagination—expect a retail price of $750+—but unusually for products with this premium position, the packaging is relatively restrained, letting the whisky do the talking. As, in my view, it should.

Beveridge drew on some rare experimental casks for the blend and gave the whiskies a long marrying period to integrate their complex flavors. No age has been declared, as is the current fashion, but there are some very mature whiskies to be found in the blend, which will never be reproduced, so scarce are the constituents.

And, finally, back to William Grant & Sons (haven’t they been busy?) for a very rare and special release of their little-known Kininvie single malt, from a distillery opened in July 1990 essentially to supply the blenders. If you’ve ever visited their distilling complex at Dufftown, Kininvie is housed in the anonymous building behind the Balvenie tun room. If you didn’t know it was there, you probably wouldn’t have noticed it, and the guides don’t generally point it out.

They are offering two expressions, at 17 and 23 years old respectively, both with an identical cask mix (80% hogsheads and 20% American oak sherry; both at 42.6% abv). The younger whisky is reserved for travel retail, but the older version will appear in whisky specialist shops in domestic markets. With very limited quantities released and a price point of over $300 for a bottle equivalent (sold only in half bottle sizes), Kininvie is never going to be an everyday drinking whisky.

No doubt single malt enthusiasts will welcome the overdue arrival of this rarity, though, and will be interested to try what Kevin Abrook, Grants’ global whisky specialist for innovation, described to me as a hitherto “hidden secret jewel.” I found lots of vanilla sweetness, floral, citrus, and cut grass notes in my dram, finishing with a suggestion of fragrant sweet lemon mint.

STOP PRESS: As I file this report, Highland Park have sent me their new Dark Origins release. The whisky gods really are working overtime.

Mossburn And Mathieson: a different distillery startup story

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Author - Gavin SmithAnother day, and another Scotch distillery project appears. No doubt funding will come from an issue of founders’ bonds or future cask sales, and a diverse group of private investors, while early income will be predicated on sales of gin and new-make spirit. You get the picture.

So we look at the case of Mossburn Distillers Ltd. with a slightly seen-it-all-before eye. We chat with chief executive Neil Mathieson, who outlines two distillery projects, one on the Isle of Skye and another near Jedburgh, in the Scottish Borders. Talk turns to likely expenditure; and Mathieson mentions that the Borders plans involve spending between £35 and £40 million ($60 to $68 million), and that no external funding will be required.

Did he say £35 to £40 million? More or less what it cost Diageo to build its largest and most state-of-the-art distillery to date at Roseisle? Yes, he did.

Clearly we need to know more about the man and his plans. Mathieson was born in Scotland into a family with over 100 years of involvement with Scotch whisky. Moving to London, he trained as a chef, also getting involved in law, accountancy, and hotel management. He then opened a restaurant with his chef wife.

For the past 30 years he has been running Eaux de Vie, which he set up in 1984, growing it into the UK’s leading independent importer of spirits. Eaux de Vie now in the hands of Marussia Beverages BV, which ultimately belongs to the privately owned Swedish investment company Haydn Holding AB. Marussia operates vineyards in Europe and a brandy distillery in Eastern Europe, while additionally working with Caribbean rum producers.

Neil Mathieson points out that, “We started looking at having our own involvement in whisky distilling in Scotland five years ago, so we’re not jumping on a bandwagon.” In order to further these distilling ambitions, Mossburn Distillers Ltd. has been set up to create and operate the two new distilleries.

Proposed designs

Proposed designs

“At Torabhaig on the southeast coast of Skye, more than £5 million ($8 million) will be spent building a new malt distillery in a listed farm steading,” notes Mathieson. “The aim is to produce half a million liters of spirit, using traditional pot stills made for us by Forsyths. The restoration of the buildings has commenced and the first distillates will be produced in 2016. We expect that the flavor profile will be confirmed over the next year as we work on the still shape and height, malt sourcing, and wood program.”

By coincidence, distilling guru and former Diageo production director Alan Rutherford already had an existing interest in both the Jedburgh and Skye distillery projects. He was involved with the Torabhaig distillery venture before Mossburn came along, when all permissions were in place ready for work to commence. At an earlier stage Rutherford had identified the Jedburgh site as an ideal location for whisky-making in the Borders. Joining forces with the Mossburn team as technical director, it was decided that both ventures should go ahead.

“At Mossburn, our aim is to produce up to 2.5 million liters of malt and grain spirit per year,” says Neil Mathieson. “The design of the distillery buildings is currently subject to gaining planning permission, although work has begun on the other buildings at the site we own, based around the former Jedforest Hotel. We hope to start on the production buildings next year with distillation commencing in 2017. As with Torabhaig, we have yet to confirm the flavor profiles for production.

“It’s going to be a unique, statement building, which will incorporate a malt plant, a grain plant and a ‘hybrid’ plant; three distilleries under one roof, in effect. Ultimately, there will also be maturation facilities, a bottling hall and 1,000 square meters of hospitality space. We aim to have the largest whisky shop in Scotland and conference space for a spirits academy. If all goes to plan, we are talking about a 2015 build, while in 2016 the equipment will be put in place, and during 2017 the distillery and visitor center will open.”

Given that both distillery ventures are being “internally” funded by a clearly cash-rich enterprise, there are fewer pressures to obtain short-term returns for Mossburn Distillers Ltd than in the case of other fledgling whisky distillers. “We are working on a 25-year fully-funded business plan, just as we would for our other vineyard and distillery enterprises,” explains Mathieson.

Torabhaig plans

Torabhaig plans

“There will be no founders’ casks or sales of new-make spirit. We will market single malt, single grain, and blends, and the aim will be to build brands and create international sales prospects. The first limited release bottlings will probably be of five year old whisky before a standard ten or twelve is chosen. This will depend on the flavor profile the team decides on, and the development over the first five years.”

Some observers of the Scotch whisky scene foresee problems when all of the emergent ‘craft’ distilling operations begin fighting for their slice of the market. After all, each is likely to be offering consumers pretty much the same product, namely three of four year old, ‘limited edition’ bottlings from a predictable variety of casks, all with price tags of $120 and upward.

It appears that Mossburn is in the position to avoid such a situation, but what does Mathieson suggest for others embarking on their whisky-making dream? “I would advise them to concentrate on the costs of grain, wood, and cask storage over their aging plan, rather than the initial outlay on distilling equipment, and not to consider unrealistic retail prices or expect them to continue increasing,” he says. “Also, forget the U.S., as our distribution and retail models are different. Perhaps if we all took the initial expected financial requirement, doubled it, and then doubled it again, we would all be securely funded for the future!”