Archive for the ‘Writers’ Category

21st Annual Whisky Advocate Award: Distiller of the Year

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Beam Suntory

Who knows whether Shinjiro Torii, when he opened his Torii Shoten store in 1899 in Osaka, envisaged his family firm becoming the world’s third-largest drinks group? Or that, in pioneering whisky distilling in Japan and creating a style that was recognizably Japanese and not a scotch copy, he would excite the world’s palates; that the values he laid out would have lasted for over a century.

A few years ago I met with his grandson, Shingo Torii, Suntory’s vice-president and master blender. Then, among other things, we discussed the philosophy which, he felt, helped define Suntory. “It has been about creating and developing a positive tradition, and it is this tradition, or what you could even call ‘inheritance,’ which should be understood by everyone within the company. It is important that it is handed down.”

As other drinks firms increasingly seem attracted to short-term fixes, these embedded values have given a consistency to the firm’s long-term vision for whisky. Neither does “consistency” mean “conservative.” You don’t spend $16 billion buying a competitor if you are that. After all, one of Shinjiro Torii’s first principles was “Yatte Minahare!” [Go For It!]

Suntory has always been based around innovation. This is the firm that transformed the stagnant domestic Japanese whisky through the HiBall revolution, while its research into whisky production at Yamazaki leaves other distillers scratching their heads in disbelief.

I remember asking Torii-san whether a family company was in a better position to take this approach. “I see family management as simply a form of style, he replied. “However, it is also true that this style has enabled Suntory to pursue its dream for a significant period of time and makes the moral values which lie at the heart of the business a top priority in the firm’s values.”

Seen in that light, the acquisition of Beam is the most visible manifestation of a very long-term strategy. What has resulted is the creation of the only firm that plays in ASH - for mediaevery one of the world’s key whisk(e)y styles. Beam’s stake in bourbon, yes, but also blended scotch and single malt whisky, particularly peated. Beam Suntory is the biggest single player in Japanese whisky, but also owns Canadian Club and the world’s rye whisky specialist, Alberta Distillers; and then there’s Cooley, from Ireland. It is an astounding—and deep—portfolio.

It will be interesting to see how these Suntory principles are absorbed within American business culture and how the new management handles this range. “We have a deep conviction for making product,” said Torii-san. “In addition, [it is about] having a long-term plan, in terms of half a century or even a century, and being able to maintain a sense of humility.”

Humility is not a word you hear in whisky often—it is one which should be heard more often in business—but if these Suntory values are maintained, then a measured, long-term approach to building these brands can only benefit the category and consumers. Beam Suntory should not merely be a bourbon firm with some interesting stuff in its second tier.

It took $16 billion to break the duopoly of Diageo and Pernod-Ricard, but there’s a new kid in town, a new seat at the table. Who else could be our Distiller of the Year? Whisky’s pieces have been fundamentally rearranged. Things will never be the same. —Dave Broom

That’s our final Whisky Advocate Award announcement for 2014. We’ll see you in the comments section!

21st Annual Whisky Advocate Award: Lifetime Achievement

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

We have two Lifetime Achievement Awards this year, for two men who have made their careers in the Scotch whisky industry. Colin Scott has served as the master blender for the prestigious Chivas Regal and Royal Salute lines of blended whisky; Duncan McGillivray has wrestled with the Victorian-era machinery of Bruichladdich and brought it to heel. We salute their achievements and dedication.

Colin Scott, Chivas Brothers

Chivas Brothers’ master blender Colin Scott has spent 41 years working in the Scotch whisky industry, having been brought up next to Highland Park distillery on Orkney.  Both his father and grandfather worked for Robertson & Baxter Ltd. (the historical core of today’s Edrington Group), so it was perhaps inevitable that he followed them into the trade, starting out as a trainee manager for The Glenlivet Distillers Ltd. in 1973.

Colin Scott ChivasEarly experience was gained in the firm’s Leith bottling plant, before a move to its Newbridge bottling site after Leith’s closure. Having embraced package quality and spirit quality operations, he joined the blending team at Paisley, near Glasgow, learning the art of blending from the legendary Jimmy Lang.

In 1989 he took on the role of master blender, initially focusing on Chivas Regal 12 year old and Royal Salute 21 year old, but also growing the two brand ‘families’ over time. In 1997 he introduced Chivas Regal 18 year old, now global leader in its category, then the 25 year old expression in 2007. Meanwhile, the Royal Salute portfolio was expanded to include 38 year old Stone of Destiny, Tribute to Honour, 62 Gun Salute, 100 Casks Selection, and Diamond Tribute.

During his career Colin has worked for just three companies. Glenlivet Distillers was acquired by Seagram Ltd. in 1978, and Seagram in turn was bought out by Pernod Ricard and Diageo in 2001, at which point Pernod Ricard took control of the Chivas Brothers portfolio.

In addition to his practical blending role, Colin has also emerged as a highly engaging and effective ambassador for the Chivas blends, traveling the world to demonstrate and discuss their virtues.

In recognition of his contribution to the Scotch whisky industry, Colin was appointed a Master of the Quaich in 2008, a decade after being inducted as a Keeper of the Quaich, Scotland’s most prestigious whisky society. —Gavin D Smith

Duncan McGillivray, Bruichladdich

If there’s anything Duncan McGillivray is known for, it’s his commitment to the Scotch whisky industry. Since he started in 1974 until his retirement in 2014, Duncan has served in a variety of roles at Bruichladdich distillery, from lorry driver to brewer to—most recently—general manager. His tenure, in fact, surpasses that of any of the distillery’s various owners.

Duncan (center) pictured with Bruichladdich distillery employees

Distillery workers gave a barrelhead momento to Duncan in honor of his retirement.

McGillivray, a prolific Gaelic speaker who grew up on a farm five miles from the distillery, is also known for his innate ability to put even the most antiquated machinery back into working order. An engineer by training, he was originally hired to be a stillman at Bruichladdich, but his technical wizardry proved useful beyond the stillroom and he became the resident engineer, repairman, and all-around Mr. Fix-It.

The distillery was shuttered in 1994, but in 2000, an English wine merchant planning to rejuvenate the place recruited then-Bowmore distiller Jim McEwan to reawaken the distillery. McEwan hand-selected Duncan to return and get the facility up and running. Duncan did that and then some. Many at the company are quick to credit his resourcefulness and skills as fundamental to Bruichladdich’s renaissance. He improvised solutions to repair and upgrade the facility’s original Victorian-era equipment, and he did it all on a shoestring budget. If a boiler broke down, everyone knew to call Duncan. If a new piece of equipment arrived and needed to be integrated into the system, call on Duncan. You could say he spearheaded the effort that turned the quaint plant with creaky machinery into a distillery with popular and cult appeal that turns out 2.5 million liters of spirit annually.

Duncan has been as critical to setting the friendly, informal mood at Bruichladdich as he was in overseeing spirit production, famously stopping to chat with tourists. Ask any Islay citizen about him and people are quick to praise him as a convivial, industrious, clever, modest friend, neighbor, and citizen who regularly throws down what he’s doing if you need his help.  —Liza Weisstuch

Join us tomorrow for the final award announcement: Distiller of the Year.

21st Annual Whisky Advocate Award: Lowlands and Campbeltown Single Malt Whisky of the Year

Monday, December 15th, 2014

Rosebank 1992 21 year old (Diageo Special Releases 2014), 55.3%, $500

The late Michael Jackson described the demise of Rosebank as “…a grievous loss,” and it remains one of the most mourned of silent distilleries, almost in the same league as Brora and Port Ellen.

There have been some very good independent bottlings of the triple-distilled Rosebank in recent times, but arguably the best  expressions have been Diageo’s 2011 and 2014 Special Releases ‘house’ bottling of Rosebank, both offered at 21 years of age. The Rosebank 21YO Bottle & Box2014 Special Release was distilled during 1992, just a few months before the distillery closed, never to resume production.

It has been matured exclusively in refill American oak casks, while some of the component whiskies in the 2011 release were matured in a combination of refill American oak and European oak casks. The result is a slightly sweeter and more textured 2014 expression, with orchard fruits gaining greater prominence, while both enjoy a pleasing degree of complexity.

Pricing will inevitably be seen as an issue with this expression, but Diageo appears to have decided that with such an active ‘secondary’ market for the Special Releases they will attempt to cut out the middleman, as it were, and the proof of the pricing will be in the selling. However, the speed at which the 4,530 bottles move off the shelves may not be Diageo’s foremost priority with this series, which serves more as a cask strength single malt showcase for its distillery portfolio.

As the Lowland single malt category is seeing a welcome revival with the development of Kingsbarns and Eden Mill in Fife and Annandale in Dumfries-shire, while several other Lowland distillery projects are under consideration or awaiting planning approval, it is to be hoped that in the not too distant future we will see new pretenders fighting the likes of Rosebank for the Lowland crown. —Gavin Smith

Whisky Advocate’s 21st Annual Lifetime Achievement Award will be announced tomorrow.

21st Annual Whisky Advocate Award: Highlands and Islands Single Malt Whisky of the Year

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

Arran The Devil’s Punchbowl III The Fiendish Finale, 53.4%, $130

John Grant of Glenfarclas distillery once told me that in his opinion no really top-quality single malt whisky had been produced in any Scottish distillery built since the Victorian era. Scanning the list of 20th century distilleries, he may have a point, but if one gives the lie to Grant’s premise, then it is surely Isle of Arran.Arran Devils PunchBowl 3 - Bottle & Box

Established in 1993, Arran has matured as a whisky-making operation as the years have passed, from the slightly panicky, scattergun approach of many cask finishes to the calm, assured, and beautifully made 16 and 17 year old single malts, with an 18 year old not too far from release.

The availability of stocks of maturing spirit in a diverse range of cask types and with a relatively wide age spectrum has allowed master distiller James MacTaggart to offer a number of well-received limited editions, marketed at affordable prices, without age statements.

‘NAS’ whisky at its best can be very good, just as it can sometimes be decidedly mediocre, particularly when the principal purpose is to eke out diminishing aged stocks. However, given a free rein in the Arran warehouses, MacTaggart has proved with his trilogy of Devil’s Punchbowl releases that he has a real mastery over their assemblage.

The third and final expression in Arran’s Devil’s Punchbowl series has been matured in eight oloroso sherry butts, five bourbon barrels, and eight French oak barriques, all of undisclosed vintages. The sherry wood-matured component has gifted this ultimate dram backbone and resonance, with dried fruits and chocolate notes, while bourbon barrels have added a soft vanilla sweetness, and the French barriques provided spicy oak.

Whisky from each cask type at just the right age and in just the right proportion has resulted in a complex and harmonious yet individualistic whole, showcasing Arran at its very best. —Gavin Smith

The Lowlands and Campbeltown Single Malt Whisky of the Year will be revealed tomorrow.

21st Annual Whisky Advocate Awards: Islay Single Malt of the Year

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

Signatory (distilled at Laphroaig) 1998, 60.8%, £100

Another toughie. The best have been small batches this year: Lagavulin’s Feis Ile bottling, Bruichladdich’s Bere Barley, and the coming of age of Port Charlotte. The winner however was that rarity, Laphroaig in sherry.

Signatory 1998 distilled at LaphroaigI know that the official line is that Laphroaig is best suited to American oak casks; they give the whisky a sweet element to balance its tarry, seaweedy depths. They work, no doubt about it, but you know there’s just something about this big bruiser of a single malt that works when given longer-term maturation in sherry wood.

Here you had the dark fruits of the cask melding with the distillery’s creosoted depths, while the medicinal iodine-like element, which was very much to the fore, found an ideal partner in the resinous richness of the wood. The smoke was fully integrated, running alongside all of this complexity, adding aromatic and textural layers to the whole package. And, perhaps most surprising of all a sweet fruitiness ran in the middle. It was also one of those whiskies with a character I’m getting obsessive about; the effect of long, controlled oxidation. Air is the forgotten element in whisky aging. Complex and compelling.

It is also evidence, if it were needed, of the continuing consistent excellence of the casks being bottled by Signatory. Independent bottlers are, for some reason, being slightly overlooked. Seek them out and snap up the best bottlings. Yes, this was limited and has undoubtedly gone by the time you read this (you were given fair warning!), but seek out great whisky bars and see if they have one squirrelled away. And yes, let it be said that this is the standard that the new official 15 year old should be aiming at. —Dave Broom

Be sure to join us tomorrow; we’ll announce our Highlands and Islands Single Malt Whisky of the Year.

21st Annual Whisky Advocate Awards: Speyside Single Malt Whisky of the Year

Friday, December 12th, 2014

Craigellachie 17 Year Old, 46%, £83

This was tough, almost impossible in fact. There was a stellar tranche of Glenfarclas Family Casks whose 1987 Cask #3829, was the best overall Speysider in terms of liquid for me. For sheer consistency, look no further than Glenfarclas. It was pushed hard by an amazing Cragganmore bottled for Friends of the Classic Malts. Then Craigellachie Press Packhow could you ignore the remarkable revamp of Mortlach, which showed the layered complexity that lies in this distillery’s make, and that there is more to the beast of Dufftown than heavy sherry?

But for me they were shaded by the quartet of Craigellachie releases. Obviously, the quality is there. No one will be disappointed by these. The packaging is a thing of quirky beauty. All are bottled at 46% with no chill-filtering and no caramel. But Craigellachie gets the nod for what it says. This is one of those rare beasts, a statement whisky. Let’s face it, none of us had really tried Craigellachie. The odd single cask maybe, but these were never more than snapshots, often with a weird Instagram filter on top.

The Craig is defiantly old-fashioned. It’s proud to say the new make is deliberately sulfury. The 17 year old is fleshy, with heavy florals, a hint of pineapple, and a little of the vetiver which grows in time. Complex, in other words. It sticks to the palate and forces you to appreciate its complexities. It is uncompromisingly itself, so that you have to appreciate it on its terms. The liquid showed us that rare thing in single malt: something completely new. Yes, it is left-field, it is brave, it is bold, but it is also delicious…and you don’t need a second mortgage to buy a bottle. —Dave Broom

The Islay Single Malt of the Year will be revealed tomorrow.

21st Annual Whisky Advocate Award: Japanese Whisky of the Year

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

Ichiro’s Malt The Joker (Distilled At Hanyu), 57.7%, £220

At the time of writing, everyone is asking me about Japanese whisky, which is fantastic. Is it really good, Dave? Yes, I respond. I’ve been saying that for close on 20 The Joker Colouryears and am happy to continue to do so. When you consider that Japanese distillers have been perfecting their craft for over 90 years, it would be more surprising if they weren’t making award-winning, world-class whisky. It’s good to see people getting the message.

This year’s choice is a tinged with sadness, because it marks the end of an era in Japanese whisky. The Joker is the last of Ichiro Akuto’s Card Series, his 54-strong release program of whisky from his family’s defunct Hanyu distillery, which was demolished in 2000. Each bottling was named after a playing card (there are two Jokers; the other is a single cask with a black-and-white label, so rare that I don’t know anyone who has even seen it, bar tried it).

Some of the Cards were magnificent, some didn’t rock my boat, but all were never less than interesting to taste and discuss. Hanyu made a bold whisky that was out of step with Japan’s palate at the time, but one that, with bitter irony, is the style which the world now wants. The Joker (color label), is a vatting of Hanyus from 1985 to 2000, and is one last flaring act of defiance. Highly complex, rich, and distinctly resinous, it manages to hit a balance between weightiness, finesse, and intensity. As with any Japanese whisky, the aromas are heightened, exotic, and more intense, in this case taking you to old-fashioned cobbler’s shops, tack rooms, incense-filled temples, wet ink blocks, and sumac. The palate mixes dense cooked black fruits, balanced tannin, and leather. It ain’t shy.

Hanyu, like Karuizawa, is no more. What Japan needs now is more distilleries. More in fact like Ichiro’s new distillery, Chichibu, which goes from strength to strength and whose holistic vision gives a model of what a local distillery could be. As one era ends, another begins. —Dave Broom

Check back tomorrow for the World Whisky of the Year announcement.

21st Annual Whisky Advocate Award: Irish Whiskey of the Year

Monday, December 8th, 2014

Midleton Very Rare 2014, 40%, $125

In living memory, Ireland’s whiskey industry has never been healthier. Irish Distillers has been reaping rewards for their consistent investment this century but they are not alone. The realization of the huge potential for Irish whiskey has led to a flurry of new distillery projects in the north and south. Over the next five to ten years, we can anticipate an abundance of provocative new whiskeys.

Thirty years ago, the very first Midleton Very Rare expression was released on an unsuspecting world. Over the decades that followed, the popularity of this whiskey has grown steadily; well received, but never fashionable. It was the one that earned quiet respect rather than runaway success, never winning the ‘must-have’ status of flagship pure pot still whiskeys such as Redbreast (a four-time winner of this category). It’s time to put that right this year.

This was master distiller Brian Nation’s first full year in charge since taking over the reins from Barry Crockett, now master distiller emeritus. This Midleton Very Rare 2014 is the first bottle from Irish Distillers to be inscribed solely with Brian’s signature. His state of the nation address, if you like. This whiskey has real personality, a distinct step-up from the innate sappiness of the 2013 release.  We love this for its heavy, oily, vanilla-dominated nose through to the sweet, crème caramel and cinnamon flavors that saturate the taste buds. The triumphant arrival of this rewarding, well-constructed, moreish Irish whiskey heralds the beginning of an inspiring new chapter at Midleton. There is much to look forward to. —Jonny McCormick

Tomorrow we will be announcing the Japanese Whisky of the Year.

21st Annual Whisky Advocate Award: Canadian Whisky of the Year

Sunday, December 7th, 2014

Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye, 40%, $27

The race for Canadian Whisky of 2014 was tight. Crown Royal Monarch was first out of the gate; probably the most flavorful Crown Royal ever. Scoring 96 points in the Canadian Club RyeBuying Guide, Monarch tied the record set in 2010, when Forty Creek Confederation Oak became our top-scoring Canadian whisky ever. A perpetual favorite, Forty Creek followed with another solid contender this year: its 2014 Evolution. Then Highwood Distillers returned from a disastrous flood in 2013 with an even more flavorful, post-flood version of the already spectacular Ninety 20 year old. But everything changed on October 2 when Canadian Club released this year’s winner.

Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye is a glorious all-rye whisky and more than just another line extension. This whisky arrived with a rye-filled bang, loud enough to shake up the industry. For the first time in over a century, a mainstream brand has bottled an all rye-grain Canadian whisky. Finally, whisky lovers have been heard. With its robust, fruity spiciness, and limber balancing act befitting a chainsaw juggler, Canadian Club 100% Rye declares that when Canadian whisky is writ larger and louder, it remains Canadian whisky.

In the 150 years since Hiram Walker began distilling whisky in Windsor, Ontario, Canadian Club has been a blend of corn, barley, and rye whiskies. Now owned by Beam Suntory, the Canadian Club brand continues this tradition in Windsor. However, Beam Suntory also owns the Calgary-based Alberta Distillers, renowned for its all rye-grain whisky. This is where the Canadian Club blenders sourced their CC 100% Rye. Fear not this move to another distillery; Canadian Club’s dried dark fruit signature remains. When you own the distillery you get to choose the barrels you really want. —Davin de Kergommeaux

Join us tomorrow for the announcement of the Irish Whiskey of the Year.

21st Annual Whisky Advocate Award: American Whiskey of the Year

Saturday, December 6th, 2014

Sazerac Rye 18 year old, 45%, $80

There were many great American whiskeys released this year, including Booker’s 25th Anniversary release, Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch, and George T. Stagg. However, the winner this year is Sazerac Rye 18 year old.BTAC 2014 Sazerac 18

It’s not just because it’s a classic—I rated it a 95—but it’s also because of its consistently high quality, year after year. That, to me, is this year’s “tie-breaker.” Limited edition whiskeys change from year to year. Since Sazerac Rye 18 year old was first introduced in 2000, its quality has mostly been stellar and unwavering.

Part of its consistent quality is the fact that, for many years now, the whiskey released is essentially the same. About a decade ago, the management at Buffalo Trace realized there was a gap in production between the 18 year old rye they had in stock and younger rye that would eventually become 18 years old. The demand for ultra-aged rye whiskeys caught distillers by surprise.

Rather than do what other distillers did, which was to continue aging their rye and selling it at older ages to the point where the whiskeys were past their prime and over-oaked, Buffalo Trace wisely transferred theirs to stainless steel tanks, releasing a limited amount of it annually until fresh stocks of 18 year old come of age in 2016.

Some whiskey elitists have viewed the tanking as a negative, seeking out the pre-tanked bottlings on the secondary market. However, the whiskeys are nearly identical in quality and flavor profile, and Buffalo Trace should be congratulated for preserving a great whiskey while still in its prime, rather than selling it at an older age, higher price, and lower quality.

Why is this whiskey so great? It’s fully matured but still maintains its vibrancy. It’s complex too, brimming with allspice, clove, mint, and cinnamon. The spice notes are balanced by soft vanilla, soothing caramel, and candied summer fruits. It’s impeccably balanced and a pure joy to drink! —John Hansell

Check back tomorrow. We’ll be announcing the Canadian Whisky of the Year.