Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

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.

The Spirit of Speyside

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Joel Harrison of CaskStrength.net reports for us on his recent trip to the Spirit of Speyside whisky festival.

Film has Sundance. Rock music has Glastonbury. Single malt Scotch whisky? Depending on your palate, it has two important festivals of celebration, both held during May. Towards the end of the month, peat-heads and fans of smoke are drawn like the angels to Islay’s warehouses where, under the banner of “Fèis Ile: the Festival of Music and Malt,” each of the island’s eight distilleries (plus Jura) host their own open day, turning the isle into something akin to a whisky theme park for a week.

SONY DSCHowever, peat is not for everyone and, with Islay being limited in capacity for both transport and accommodation, those whisky advocates whose palates are more focused on heather and honey have a more than suitable alternative: The Spirit of Speyside Festival.

As the global appetite for scotch increases, so the Spirit of Speyside festival has started to grow, offering a wide range of tastings, tours, dinners, walks, shows, quizzes, and other creative events which highlight not just the global popularity of Speyside whiskies, but also their increasingly relaxed, entertaining and inclusive attitude.

Boasting an enormous number of distilleries, Speyside is the beating heart of Scotch whisky production; be it stand alone single malts or those which play the vital role as key components in blends. This makes organizing a festival across so many potential sites, with so many different brands, flavors, and focuses a tricky task, so I headed out to the region to see how it works.

On arrival, one just has to open up the specially produced newspaper for the festival to see a mindboggling double page spread of events. All of which are excellently supported by a comprehensive festival bus service costing just £25 for a ticket, which will last you the duration of the five days and allows unlimited travel between participant distilleries and other key destinations.

The festival’s opening is marked by a gala dinner on the Thursday evening, hosted each year by a different single malt distillery. 2013 saw the baton passed from The Macallan to The Glenlivet, who staged their fantastic feast in a converted warehouse where the 300 guests were treated to speeches, musical entertainment, and a charity auction of rare and collectable bottles from across the region.

From there in, planning becomes simply a matter of choice. From bespoke tours and tastings, such as “The Ultimate Mortlach Experience” which includes a rare bottle from the distillery created only for the festival, at £150, through to “Fill Your Own Octave Cask” at Glenglassaugh, for just £10, there is something for everyone to do.  On the Saturday alone, I counted over 50 available events, some with regular time slots across the day. Price-wise, some of the events are free, but the majority weigh in at under £20 per person.

From the myriad of tastings on offer at the festival, my pick of the bunch (and my word, what a big bunch there is to choose from) was a tasting at Aberlour distillery. Billed as “Casks from the Past,” just four whiskies, with a combined age of over 150 years, were on show.

As it turned out, the first three drams were all extra special Aberlours: the first was a limited edition 12 year old, at 56.8% from a first SONY DSCfill oloroso sherry cask. A real monster, this bottling is sadly only available locally (the first few cases were offered to the residents of Aberlour village, who had to turn up with proof of address to enable them to make the purchase). I say sadly as it was a real winner of a dram. It was followed by two cask samples, drawn for use in the tasting only: one at 26 years of age (60.2% ABV) and one from 1978 (55% ABV). The curveball final dram came courtesy of the closed distillery, Inverleven. Distilled in 1973 and bottled at 48.85% ABV, this Lowland single malt was made using their ‘Ugly Betty’ Lomond still which now sits on the aforementioned Isle of Islay, making The Botanist gin at Bruichladdich distillery.

As the festival rolled on, one of the most pleasing aspects was not just trying a variety of different expressions from across the region, but hearing voices and accents from across the world from all those who had made the effort to attend.

Carrying everything from the 200-only limited edition festival bottling from Glenfiddich, through to the first release under new ownership from Tamdhu distillery, who chose the festival to officially re-open the distillery, the valiant effort from the whisky lovers seemed to throw the gauntlet down to the angels and the 2% per-year share of Speyside Scotch which they take away. I guarantee you, this year’s record number of visitors took home a lot more liquid than that, both in bottles and in their bellies. If you’re planning a trip to Speyside, try and make it during festival time. You won’t be disappointed.

Scotland: a Quick Trip

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you seen the History Channel show on Whiskey?

Friday, September 30th, 2011

A couple years ago, the History Channel featured a one-hour show titled “Whiskey.” It is part of their popular series called Modern Marvels. They’ve run the show again several times since then. I mentioned it here before for two reasons:

  • It’s a very entertaining and informative show that I think will appeal to both the novice and seasoned whisky enthusiast.
  • I’m interviewed several times during the show. (Let that be a warning to you…)

If you still haven’t had a chance to see it, or if you would like to watch it again, you can now catch it on Hulu. I’m including the link here. They excluded most of the commercials (thankfully), so the show is only about 45 minutes.

Check it out.  One bit of advice: having a whisky in your hand while watching it only enhances the pleasure!

Please join me for a drink in San Francisco

Monday, October 4th, 2010

I’ll be in San Francisco later this week for WhiskyFest. The Fest is on Friday. As host, I’m always very busy at WhiskyFest. If you do get the chance to meet me, I usually don’t have much time to chat.

So, I thought it would be cool if we could have a drink together outside of WhiskyFest, when I’m not working. if you’re going to be in town the night before, please join me for a drink at Elixir. I’ll be there from 5:00-6:30pm, before I take the Malt Advocate team out to dinner.

I hope to see you then. Slainte!

My new policy on company-sponsored press trips

Friday, May 21st, 2010

I have made the decision to no longer accept “expenses paid” press trip invites by individual whisky companies. If there’s a distillery I want to visit, I’ll pay for the trip myself.

I actually started this policy effective January 1st of this year (I have turned down several invites already to Kentucky and to Scotland), but I haven’t told anyone about it publicly until now.

I think it goes without saying, if a whisky company invites a journalist on an all expense paid press trip to their distillery, they’re hoping the journalist will write about them. In the past, they way I dealt with this was that I would only accept an invite from a company if I truly felt there was something noteworthy to write about. And I always made it clear that I wasn’t promising editorial exposure in exchange for the free trip.

I decided at the beginning of the year to take this one step further and eliminate any gray area. This is my “coming out” blog post.

In actuality, I haven’t accepted any press trip invitations “across the pond” (which are the expensive ones) for almost two years. My only trips last year were to nearby Kentucky for special occasions.

I think that I might be the first professional whisky writer to take this position, so maybe I am setting some sort of precedence here? I don’t know, and it’s not important.

What is important is that paying my own way will ensure that I only visit distilleries where there is a legitimate reason for doing so for Malt Advocate–and with no expectations by the whisky companies.

Great little video of Islay’s scenic beauty (and Bowmore whisky)

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

It’s actually prepared by Morrison Bowmore Distillers to promore Bowmore whisky, but most of the video consists of beautiful aerial shots of Islay. (The Bowmore Distillery shots are pretty cool too.)  Have a look here.

It makes me want to hop on a plane and fly to Islay. (Not to mention pour myself a dram or two.)

Guest Blogger: Willie Tait from Isle of Jura

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

As I promised in my previous email, here’s the debut of our guest blogger: Willie Tait. He’s not sharing too many secrets with us (just yet), but he was nice enough to let us know what he’s up to, tell us about a new Jura Collection, and how you can win one.

Next up: John Glaser from Compass Box Whiskies.

Here’s Willie:

willietait1Hi all

John has asked me to contribute my thoughts to his ever growing blog.

So after much thought, and a few glasses of my favourite whisky Jura, I am now ready to venture in to the strange and wonderful world of blogging!

Scotland, like the rest of the world, is going through a wee recession. I use the word wee, the way I would say a wee dram. But in true Scots fashion, we are doing our best to ignore it and continue to enjoy life and of course our whisky.

I am sitting writing this “blog thing” whilst trapped in the house by the snow which is wonderful to look at, but less wonderful to live with when trying to get from A to B (wherever that may be).

But the snow and forced entrapment is providing wonderful inspiration for me as I try and emulate the success of our country’s most famous wordsmiths, that of Robert Burns.

Here in Scotland we are celebrating 250 years of his life with a massive year long party called the Homecoming. It’s basically an open invitation for all to come to our beautiful country and enjoy the best hospitality and events in the world. Visit www.homecomingscotland.com  for full details.

Rabbie (as he is known to close personal friends like me!) and his words are as appropriate today as they were all those years ago. “I’m truly sorry man’s dominion, Has broken Nature’s social union” could be a rally call for the green movement and is more than just a message to a mouse written more than 200 years ago!
 
Talking about works and readings, a great new book [Goodness Nose] is just out written by Whyte and Mackay’s very own Master Blender Richard Paterson. The book gives the reader a wonderful insight into the world of whisky, and also details his own colourful and entertaining life. More importantly he says nice things about me in the book – that’s worth a read all on its own.

I am pleased to say that Jura Single Malt continues to delight scotch whisky drinkers around the world And it is wonderful for me to see new Jura expressions being released. However, what is also very important to me, being a distiller, is that Jura retains its true identity. More and more brands are turning out so many new expressions that there is a growing chance that they may loose there identity.  Please be assured that any new expression of my beloved Jura will continue with its rich heritage, building on the success of our core products – the 10yr, 16yr old and of course Superstition.
 
At the Islay whisky festival – or as I prefer to call it, the Jura whisky festival – we always bring out a very special whisky to mark the occasion. Last year we crafted the Jura Elements which proved to be another great Jura success.

This year we will be launching a new Jura collection which promises to be majestic and take the brand to new heights. I am giving you the exclusive chance to win the entire collection worth approx US$500. All you have to do is guess the name given to the new collection. I have given you a wee clue in this blog, and go to www.isleofjura.com for further inspiration.

So, after you have given some thought as to what the new collection might be called, post your guess in the comment section below. I’ll be checking this blog posting and the comments. (I might even comment myself!) I will announce the winner at the end of May this year. If more than one person guesses the name of the collection, I’ll pick a name out of a hat. I also have two signed copies of Richard’s book for the two runners up.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Malt Advocate for my 2008 lifetime achievement award. Although warmly received, it’s a pity we are always too old when we receive such awards to truly enjoy and make the most of the actual awards ceremony! But I am also pleased that I am the youngest person ever to receive this award, and I am still alive to blog about the privilege (my wee joke).

Aye Willie

PS Thank you to John for the invitation to acquaint myself with your readers and share my simple but I hope entertaining thoughts.

Okay everyone. Anyone have a clue what the Isle of Jura distillery would call their new collection? If you have an idea, post it below. Willie will be lurking.

Hi all

Scotland whisky bar website established

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

Some (not all) of Scotland’s specialty whisky bars have joined forces to create a website that showcases the bars. It includes their location and has links to the individual bar’s website. The website also promises to post news items about the bars and list any upcoming events.

The website (www.whiskytrailbars.com) has the potential of being a good resource during your next visit to Scotland. You might want to bookmark it. 

So, how are you shipping your whisky purchases into the U.S.?

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

Okay, here’s an issue many of us have to deal with, and that includes me. So many whiskies are not imported to the U.S. You want to buy a whisky from a retailer somewhere overseas, you have a friend who wants to ship you whisky, or (in my case) a whisky company wants to send you review samples. But if you ship through the proper channels it gets flagged at the Newark Airport (or wherever) and they won’t send it to you unless you have an importer license, pay them lots of money, give up your first born child, etc.

I’m not advocating breaking any laws, but I know some of you have found ways to have your whisky shipped to you faster and with less red tape. You comments are anonymous, so does anyone want to offer some advice to those of us less enlightened?

(I’m not referring to shipping whisky with you when you are traveling but rather having whisky shipped to you from overseas.)