Posts Tagged ‘Ian Buxton’

Finnish whisky (not a whisky finish)

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Author - Ian BuxtonOne of the very great pleasures associated with this ‘job’ of mine is finding new whiskies—good ones—in some very unexpected places, made by interesting and engaging people. But I would never have expected to find an exciting new distillery in a small provincial town in the east of Finland. As it turned out, “new” was a misnomer because the fine folk at Teerenpeli have been making their whisky since 2003. Only now they are ready to share it with us.

With a logo that looks suspiciously like a grouse, production that they freely admit was inspired by Highland Park, stills built by Forsyths, and the plant commissioned with the help of William Meikle (formerly manager at Glen Ord) you might expect to find Teerenpeli in a Scottish glen somewhere.

But no, it’s in the basement of a restaurant on the main street of Lahti, a quiet city of around 100,000 some 60 miles north-east of Helsinki. A pleasant train ride of about an hour will get you there from Finland’s capital, and it’s well worth making the trip.

Owner Anssi Pyysing began by brewing beer in a micro-brewery in 1995 but has long been interested in whisky. First he imported casks of it from Scotland, which were finished in Finland and then bottled. Demand and interest grew and in 2002 he took the first steps to creating the distillery, one of the very first micro plants constructed by Forsyths of Rothes.

052038_MG_4672On a trip to Scotland he had met William Meikle, who encouraged him to believe that distilling was not only possible but could be done well. By 2003, Teerenpeli was in production. But they didn’t tell anyone except a few locals, and the very small quantities of whisky they sold and bottled were in effect test products, only available in Pyysing’s restaurants and a bar he owns in Lahti. So, outside of a very small group, no one knew.

The plant is relatively straightforward. A mash tun of 350 kilos capacity feeds a single pair of stills with the wash still holding 1,500 liters and the spirit still a modest 900 liters per charge. At full capacity, Teerenpeli could theoretically produce around 15,000 liters of spirit annually. Fortunately for the distillery, Lahti is a major center for malting and from the start the distillery has used locally-sourced Finnish malt, currently peated to a modest 7 ppm of phenols.

Early output was modest and, as befits a patient and painstaking self-made man, Pyysing was in no hurry to release the spirit before he was entirely happy that it was ready. After all, as he says, though they “needed something warming in the winter” his goal was to produce a whisky that was “inspired by Highland Park but with a taste of its own: truly Finnish whisky.”

2013 saw the release of Kaski, a 6 year old expression which has been exclusively matured in specially-coopered small sherry casks. There are also plans to experiment with some more heavily peated malt to achieve smokier notes in the whisky. Limited quantities of a delicious 8 year old are also available.

I’m told that Teerenpeli means “flirtation” or “dalliance” in English. Well, there is nothing flirtatious about this whisky: it is serious, well-made, and an inspiration to other craft distillers.063070_MG_4517

In fact, significant expansion is now underway. Pyysing’s brewery business continues to prosper and the brewery is being enlarged. That will make available space to install a new still room within the brewing complex, increasing spirit production tenfold to around 150,000 liters annually. The original distillery in the restaurant will continue to produce and the new stills at the brewery will be modeled as exact copies of the originals. The order for equipment has been placed and, before long, the stills will start to take shape at Forsyths.

The expansion means that Teerenpeli will start to look at expanding its international marketing efforts over the new few years, looking for distributors in Russia, a number of European markets, and possibly the U.S. A U.S. launch might even begin in Upper Michigan, where a good number of inhabitants can trace Finnish ancestry; plans remain to be decided. It will always be a premium, niche product but, because of Pyysing’s patience and long-term view, I feel sure that the quality will be maintained.

Highland Park may have been the inspiration but this pioneering Nordic spirit is rapidly making its own way and, once better known, seems set fair to occupy a distinguished place in world distilling. Enthusiasts will have to make room for another distilling country, but one which can hold its head up in distinguished company.

Good News – and Bad – for Mortlach lovers

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

There is good news for lovers of Mortlach the distinctive, near-triple distilled Speyside single malt, renowned for its meaty full flavor, with the announcement by Diageo of four new expressions. And, I fear, bad.Ian Buxton

Due to be available mid-2014 in global markets, the range comprises Rare Old (43.4%, no age statement); Special Strength (49%, no age statement, non-chill filtered, Travel Retail exclusive); 18 Years Old and 25 Years Old (both 43.4%). Packaging details and prices have yet to be finalized, but I understand that the ‘new’ Mortlach will be positioned as a luxury brand, with the entry level Rare Old priced alongside Johnnie Walker Platinum, and other expressions higher still.

So the good news is tempered with a wealth warning, and the further disappointing

news that stocks of the current 16 Years Old Flora & Fauna expression will not be replaced; it has effectively been withdrawn. If this is a favorite, better lay in a bottle or two!

Current stillhouse

Current stillhouse

The move has been three years in the planning and follows the welcome announcement that production of Mortlach is to double beginning November 2015, with the opening of a new, purpose-built facility that replicates in every detail the current distillery, a process that a Diageo spokesman described as “idiosyncratic, not state of the art.”  Investment in the new plant exceeds £30 million ($48.5 million).

Diageo’s Dr. Nicholas Morgan, head of whisky outreach, described the move as the company’s most significant in single malt in the past decade, claiming that the new Mortlach brand will “define luxury for single malt [and] become the next great luxury brand.” Though specific competitors were not identified, this suggests that Diageo have category leaders Glenlivet and Macallan very much in their sights.

Based on a limited tasting of the new expressions, the distinctive meaty, sulfur-influenced taste of Mortlach, with heavy sherry notes, has been evolved to a more elegant and refined style, without compromising the signature power and weight beloved of fans.

Site manager Steve McGingle

Site manager Steve McGingle

These are complex, multi-layered whiskies with a considerable depth of flavor. While the beefy note has been muted (think roast pork and BBQ juices), the fruit and spice impact has been dialed up through a different balance of casks. Rare Old and Special Strength illustrate this in fascinating detail, being basically the same cask mix but presented at different strengths to draw out varying facets of spirit character. At 25 Years Old, Mortlach offers a dense, layered and extraordinarily rich taste that demands contemplation.

While lamenting the loss of the Flora & Fauna expressions, Mortlach drinkers will find much to enjoy in the new range, which will be available more readily, albeit at higher prices. Further details of the range will be announced in February next year with the products in market from the early summer.

London Whisky Auction Nets $405,000 For Charities

Friday, October 25th, 2013

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

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

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

Notable successes on the evening were:

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

The Bowmore 1964

 

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

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

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Brian Morrison

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

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

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

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

It’s Not Like That!

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except for me, obviously.

What’s up at Deanston?

Friday, July 19th, 2013

Ian Buxton talks to Burn Stewart’s master blender Ian MacMillan about the new moves at Deanston.

To be honest, it’s not a distillery we hear very much about.

To be blunt, that’s for the very good reason that—until quite recently—there wasn’t that much to talk about. Though the original buildings date back to 1785 (when it was a cotton mill, powered by the River Teith) it was only converted to a distillery in 1965. The whisky was, well, nothing to write home about.

It’s been in the Burn Stewart portfolio since 1990, when they bought it from Invergordon. Production was restarted the following year. For most of its life under the previous management, it was churning out quantities of humdrum malt, all destined for blends, generally at no great age. For a while that carried on as Burn Stewart built their Scottish Leader brand, and the consequence of that was that any single malts that were released were a little less than exciting. Poor old Deanston hardly excited anyone.

Ian Macmillan fall 2012 LRBut, behind the scenes, things were slowly changing. Burn Stewart’s master blender Ian MacMillan—a traditional, “came up the hard way” whisky man if ever I met one—was quietly taking Deanston back to its roots and making a Perthshire style of whisky.

Now this isn’t something you hear about very much, but Perthshire was once a major distilling center. Where today there are just 6 distilleries, go back to the 19th Century and over 140 separate operations flourished in the “Big County,” as it’s known. The Perthshire style was distinct: slightly sweet, fruity, and full of heather honey notes. The Dewar brothers built their first distillery there and today Aberfeldy is probably the last prominent exponent of this style. You’ll find it at the heart of the Dewar’s blends—softer, more rounded and slightly sweeter than many—and in their signature Aberfeldy single malt.

So, without copying Aberfeldy (what would be the point?), Ian determined to bring some history back into Deanston. Despite the growth of Scottish Leader, he persuaded his marketing and sales colleagues to hold back some of this spirit until it was fully mature and, at last, showing what the distillery can really do.

I rate it one of the most improved whiskies I’ve drunk in recent years. But even that hadn’t prepared me for the range of special releases that Ian showed at a recent tasting and which are now exclusively available to visitors to the distillery. (In passing, I’ll mention that around $1 million has been spent on visitor facilities, which are just celebrating their first birthday. If you can make the trip, you’ll be glad that you did.)

After trying the sweet, fresh, waxy new make we tasted the 15 year old Toasted Oak expression—690 bottles from eight different bourbon barrels, an experiment with four different levels of char and toast, all vatted to finish in four hogsheads. At 56.0% ABV, non-chill filtered and naturally colored, it exploded in the mouth to reveal exceptionally rich and dark flavors reminiscent of single estate rum.

This was followed by the Spanish Oak expression (57.4% ABV, 11 year old) which had aged in very old oloroso sherry casks before being finished in a Spanish oak cask used for Gonzalez Byass’ La Panto brandy. This massive whisky, totally unexpected for Deanston, held layers of burnt sugar; ripe fruits; nuts; caramel and dark fruit cake flavors that kept arriving in wave after wave of intense taste explosions. Bad news: there was only a single butt and the stock is going fast.

However, do not despair. Coming soon is the Virgin Oak expression which may enjoy wider availability. A vatting of 6, 8, and 10 year old Deanston is finished for just a few weeks in brand new American oak from Kentucky, and tantalizes with a spicy hit, followed by that underlying Perthshire sweetness that’s fast becoming a distillery signature.

Now Deanston and Burn Stewart have new owners. Having been packaged off by the Trinidadian Government, where the parent CL Financial group ended up in 2008, Burn Stewart is now owned by Distell of South Africa, who recently paid £160 million (around $240 million) for the distillery and its two sisters, Tobermory and Bunnahabhain. Distell are known for their South African brandies and their Three Ships brand of SA whiskies.

Though the two companies have known each other for some years—they have a joint venture in Africa—this is a significant structural move. So what does the future hold?

Everyone I spoke to was positive, both on and off the record. The company’s head of marketing, John Alden, spoke of new opportunities in new markets and the potential for Burn Stewart to grow now that it has strong and stable financial backing.

If anything, Ian MacMillan was even more positive. He welcomed the changes and the fact that control now lies with distilling people rather than financiers. I mentioned, in a good way, that he was a traditionalist. “It’s the people who make whisky what it is,” he insisted, “not computers, and their personal idiosyncrasies are reflected in its personality and character. It’s made to drink.”

He’s been making whisky you want to drink for some years now. Only today is it emerging into the light. I urge you to try some of the ‘new’ Deanston. It’s a major step up for this hitherto largely anonymous distillery, but if you try some you’ll realize why you’ll soon be hearing more about it.

 

Glen Keith Arises

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

Ian BuxtonIan Buxton goes to the “official” Glen Keith re-opening.

Another Friday and I’m back on Speyside. Another distillery must be re-opening.

And so it proves. This time, it’s the eponymous Glen Keith (that means it’s located in the town of Keith, after which it takes its name – please excuse, I’m just showing off the thesaurus function on this computer). Mothballed in 1999 it’s been comprehensively overhauled, renewed and enlarged by owners Chivas Brothers (part of the giant Pernod Ricard group) and can now produce some 6 million lpa of new make annually.

Of course, it’s already going full blast. What are we to make of this?

 

I’ve been working in and around the Scotch whisky industry for more than 25 years (sometimes it feels longer; sometimes it seems to have passed in a moment) and I really have never seen anything like the present day. Nor has any other industry veteran that I talk to: “Let’s hope it carries on for another five years,” said one old hand I chatted to at the opening, no doubt with a keen eye on his pension.

Front Entrance

If you’ll forgive a short reminiscence, I entered the Scotch whisky industry to work for a major company convinced that scotch had had its day and that white spirits were the future. While the cash still rolled in my job was to work on a diversification team. We bought a preserves (jam and marmalade; “jellies” for the U.S. reader) business and a biscuit (“cookies”) company. What a disaster!

Eventually both were sold, as they realized that they had overreacted, and the good times rolled round again. But nothing like today.

Frankly, most of the companies will tell you—off the record, of course, and well away from their spinmeisters—that they can’t believe their luck. For the first time in living memory (well, almost), everything has fallen just right for Scotch whisky, as emerging market after emerging market gets ever more affluent and develops an apparently insatiable demand for Scotch whisky. The fly in the ointment, of course, is that the new consumer appears to like things better the more expensive they are, and the industry is happy to oblige. That’s bad luck if you happen to have developed your scotch habit ten years or more ago, as Dave Broom pointed out in the last issue of Whisky Advocate.

But enough of my ramblings. You want to know about Glen Keith.

Well, it’s all about blends and emerging markets. Established in 1959 and opened in 1960, the distillery last worked in 1999 and required some major modifications to meet today’s health and safety standards. A curiosity is that for the first ten years or so of its operating life it operated a triple distillation process, highly unusually for Speyside. That, however, was in decline by 1970 and Washbacksdropped entirely by the early 1980s. My question as to whether or not any triple-distilled stock remains from that period was politely glossed over. In all probability, the nice young PR person didn’t know (probably didn’t realize why I was interested!). Interestingly, a column still also ran here during the 1970s, but again, this has long since been retired.

In those early days there was a substantial malting operation here, complete with Saladin boxes. All that has been swept away in the expansion, which has added 6 new washbacks to increase the distillery’s capacity from 3.5 million to 6 million lpa. No increase was required to the three pairs of stills, but a brand new mashtun with a faster four-hour cycle has allowed output to be expanded. All the building at the rear of Expansion at rear of buildingthe distillery covered in white harling is new.

Chivas were at pains to stress the distillery’s environmental credentials, pointing out their new thermo-compressors, which recycle hot water with a heat recovery system that CEO Christian Porta noted, “makes Glen Keith an environmentally-friendly, responsible investment [that is] 15% more efficient than any other in the group.”

Historically, the distillery’s output went into Passport and 100 Pipers. That will continue, but with Chivas Regal and Ballantine’s crying out for stock, it isn’t too great an imaginative leap to work out where at least Process Controlsome will end up.

There are no visitor facilities, and for the foreseeable future all the output will be required for blending, though 800 bottles have been released in the Cask Strength Edition series (available only from the group’s visitor centers). This is a 54.9% 17 year old drawn from American oak and exhibiting typical vanilla and crème caramel notes, with flavors of pears, licorice, and citrus.

Open! Christian Porta (left, CEO, Chivas Brothers) & Richard Lochead (right, Scotland's Minister for Whisky).The opening ceremony was performed jointly by Christian Porta (left) and Richard Lochhead (right), Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment (or “Minister for Whisky,” as he termed himself), who said, “This is a vote of confidence in the future. A special day for Keith; for Speyside; for the local economy and for Chivas Brothers.”

Around $11 million was spent on the redevelopment; part of Chivas Brothers’ planned $63 million expansion of Scotch whisky production. So far as I could see…they have no plans to get into the cookie business.

Tamdhu opens its doors (for one day only!)

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Ian Buxton, Whisky Advocate contributor, takes a look at Tamdhu: the past, the present, and a re-opening.

Tamdhu. It’s not a name that comes easily to mind, or trips off the lips of even a hard-core malt enthusiast. Which is a shame because this classic Speyside distillery, located close to the River Spey, near-neighbor to Knockando (and, not so very far away, Cardhu and The Macallan), probably deserves to be better known. But its luck is changing.

We haven’t heard very much about it in recent years, apart from the bad news of its closure.  That’s because this Speyside malt was, for the most part, operated by its previous owners Highland Distillers to provide fillings for their blends and to exchange in the market for other whisky they needed. Then they decided that their priorities had changed and decided to mothball it.

That was in April 2010.  To my knowledge, several potential buyers expressed an interest in taking it on.  But, one by one, they dropped out: the distillery was too large for one group to operate cost-effectively and the old dark grains plant represented a problem; another would-be buyer got close to the finishing line but couldn’t quite raise the finance.tamdhu-distillery

Then, to some raised eyebrows, it was smoothly acquired in June 2011 by Ian Macleod Distillers, an independent, family-owned firm of distillers, blenders, and bottlers until then best-known for reviving the Glengoyne distillery and for their Isle of Skye blend.  Macleod had, of course, previously purchased Glengoyne from Highland Distillers, so perhaps the purchase wasn’t quite as surprising as it seemed at the time.

However, successful though they had been with Glengoyne, Tamdhu represented quite a step up in scale. Glengoyne makes around 1 million liters of spirit annually; a fully-operational Tamdhu can produce around 4 times that, making it a very different challenge. What is more, the brand had less previous exposure than Glengoyne, giving them less of a foundation to build on.

But Macleod’s blended business is in good shape and, with pressure all round on stocks, it made commercial sense for them to secure a second source of supply to ensure their continued independence.  In January 2012, Tamdhu was quietly brushed up; eight full-time employees taken on and the distillery made ready to go back into production. The plant has been quietly gathering speed since then.  But there was a lot to do: 14,500 maturing casks to evaluate; new packaging to design; distributors to appoint and brief and a relaunch to plan.

That will finally get underway at the forthcoming Speyside Whisky Festival when Tamdhu will open its doors (for one day only; there is no visitor center yet, though given Glengoyne’s success in that field it can only be a matter of time).  That’s on Saturday, May 4 (noon to 4 p.m.), when a Victorian-themed “Whisky Fete” will take visitors through the history from 1897 to the present day.

So what will you see and do? For the technically minded, Tamdhu has a twelve-ton semi-lauter mash tun, nine Oregon pine washbacks, three pairs of stills, and those 14,500 casks maturing in five warehouses. The tours will be led by the distillery workers themselves (no work experience students here) and, best of all, visitors will be given a rare opportunity to experience one-off tastings of some single casks, handpicked for the occasion.

There is, of course, a special Limited Edition whisky of which only 1,000 bottles will be released worldwide (price TBD).  Festival visitors will be the first to taste and have the chance to buy.

With continued growth and increased numbers of international visitors, the Speyside Festival event will certainly sell out.  But, if you’re not lucky enough to snag a ticket, don’t despair; Tamdhu will shortly be available in world markets, giving malt enthusiasts a long-lost chance to add this grand old lady of Speyside to their drinks cabinet.

Once Ian Macleod Distillers get this project behind them, we can only look forward to the next distillery they decide to bring back to life…

Flavor Comes to Scotch Whisky

Monday, March 25th, 2013

Ian Buxton reports on the addition of flavors to Scotch whisky.

We’ve seen a raft of what I’m going to call ‘flavored whiskies’ in the past year. From Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey to Jim Beam’s Red Stag, a couple of Seagram’s Seven Crown products to Crown Royal Maple Finish to—crossing the Atlantic—Bushmills Honey, this category seems to have come out of nowhere. But consumers are lapping it up.

As Dr Nicholas Morgan’s Diageo’s Head of Whisky Outreach told me, it’s worked. Crown Royal Maple Finish has been “astonishingly successful” he says. So why has no-one done something of the kind with Scotch Whisky?

Dewars-highlander-honey[1]Well, in part, they have. We’ve seen Orangerie from Compass Box (described as a “whisky infusion”) and Sheep Dip’s rather more challenging Amoroso Oloroso. But, speaking plainly, they appeal only to a few hard-core enthusiasts and whisky geeks. How could it be otherwise: their volumes will always be tiny and their prices high.

But when a major brand such as Dewar’s comes along with something we should sit up and pay attention. Except that, strangely in my view, the launch last week of Dewar’s Highlander Honey was greeted (on Twitter at least) by a wave of indifference among whisky bloggers and commentators.

They’re missing something if you ask me. But before I explain what that is, what is Dewar’s Highlander Honey? It’s described as “Dewar’s Scotch Whisky infused with Scottish Heather Honey filtered through Oak Cask Wood”* and to make sure I don’t fall foul of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) I want to clarify that legally it’s NOT Scotch whisky.

In Europe, Dewar’s Highlander Honey is a “spirit drink” and in the U.S. there is a category of product called “flavored whiskey,” and there are fairly strict labeling rules about how such products must be labeled so that it is clear that they are flavored. For example, it is required that “the name of the predominant flavor shall appear as part of the designation,” i.e., it can’t just be called “whiskey.”

But, in the words of the old saying, “if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck.” If you were to glance at a bottle of Highlander Honey alongside regular Dewar’s White Label you could easily be confused: same bottle, same typeface, same Royal Warrant, and same two-part label.

Dewar’s themselves are clear. “When you look at what’s happening in Bourbon and the overall flavor trends in the U.S., we figured it was time to create an offering that is still truly scotch, but gives those who play with flavor trends an option to play within scotch,” said Arvind Krishnan, vice president, brand managing director for Dewar’s.

To avoid any confusion their PR statement is unambiguous in describing the product as an infusion of “hand-selected Scottish honey into the original DEWAR’S WHITE LABEL® blend.”

So are we all clear? This is definitely NOT Scotch whisky! Yet it’s already raising hackles with the SWA, who have stated, “We do have concerns that the labeling and promotion of Dewar’s Highlander Honey could distinguish the product more clearly from Scotch whisky.”

No doubt that will all be sorted out in due course. So why do I think this is significant? Quite simply, because call it “spirit drink,” “flavored whiskey,” or whatever you will, this is the first time in any major market that a significant brand of any scale has taken Scotch whisky, added a non-traditional ingredient, and marketed it in a way that makes it abundantly clear what’s in the bottle. While respecting the regulations, naturally.

Now it seems to me that this opens a door that hitherto has been kept firmly jammed shut. If Dewar’s Highlander Honey is a success, the commercial pressure on other brands to enter this market will be enormous. For now, major players have avoided this route; how long they will continue to exercise such restraint remains to be seen.

For purists this may be sacrilege. For others it may be an exciting innovation that opens Scotch whisky to new drinkers. Just where would YOU stand on a flavored whiskey based on your favorite Scotch?

 *Before you ask, I have no idea how you filter any liquid through wood. I am planning to ask Dewar’s master blender Stephanie MacLeod exactly that very soon!

The Dalmore Constellation Collection: the sky’s the limit

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Whisky Advocate contributor Ian Buxton attends the launch of the new Dalmore Constellation line, and then ponders.

I recently attended the launch of Dalmore’s new Constellation Collection. The venue for these events is generally carefully chosen: the distiller (or more likely the PR agency) managing the launch needs a location that reflects what they are trying to say about the brand concerned.

So, when the invitation directed me to a security check prior to proceeding to Heathrow’s Royal Suite, more commonly the haunt of Britain’s Royal Family and other heads of state, the message was clear. This was to be about privilege, luxury, and exclusivity.

And so it proved. The Dalmore Constellation Collection comprises 21 different whiskies of varying ages designed to showcase different aspects of the North Highland distillery’s character through various finishes.  Their ages range from around 20 years (a 1992 Vintage) to a venerable 1964 Vintage.

Many have been the subject of intensive finishing.  Take the 1966 Vintage, for example. It started life in an American White Oak Bourbon Cask; was transferred in 2002 to a ‘Matusalem’ oloroso sherry butt and then in 2008 to a ‘Distillery Run’ bourbon barrel.

Sounds fascinating, and the four whiskies I tasted were more than acceptable. But, before you get too excited, here’s the bad news. Prices start at around $3,200 for the entry level 1992 (yes, $3,200 for a 20 year old whisky) and rise to approximately $32,000 (not a typo) for the 1964. So you probably won’t be buying any, but Dalmore say they expect to ship 20,000 bottles over the next five years.

All of which raises a fair few interesting questions.

I found myself wondering how long this trend to extremely high pricing can continue. Who is buying this whisky and what are they doing with it?And how many times can you move spirit from one cask to another without distorting the original character? Why would you do this anyway?

I’ve suggested before in these pages that this level of pricing has an inflationary effect on all whiskies as envious rivals reach upwards to match it. So, though I enjoyed tasting the Constellation Collection, I left the Royal Suite reminded of the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Which is presumably not what the PR agency had in mind.

You now know Ian’s thoughts on the proliferation of new, very very expensive whiskies (The Dalmore Constellation, Glenmorangie Pride, Diamond Jubilee by John Walker & Sons, etc.). How do you feel about it?

Review: The Angel’s Share (The movie, that is)

Friday, May 25th, 2012

Today, Whisky Advocate contributor Ian Buxton joins us with a review of The Angel’s Share. The film will open in the UK on June 1st. (To view the trailer, click on the link below.)

Veteran left-wing British film maker Ken Loach is known for his uncompromising approach and the gritty reality of working lives presented in his movies. So it’s no surprise that the opening scenes of his latest offering, The Angel’s Share, feature a court appearance by the main character; some less than appealing images of Glasgow’s decaying housing projects and an unhealthy dose of casual violence, not to mention liberal and fluent use of the F-word. We might expect whisky to be presented in a wholly negative context, responsible for all kinds of societal ills.

Instead whisky is here the surprising agent of the redemption of Robbie, a Glasgow tearaway with a criminal record, but determined to better himself and find a new life for his pregnant girlfriend, Leonie. Sentenced to a period of community service he discovers whisky through his ‘angel’ of a supervisor, Harry, only to find he has a nose of unusual sensitivity and discrimination. Learning of the forthcoming auction of a genuine cask of Maltmill (in the auction scene it sells for more than $1.5 million, as indeed such a treasure might in reality) he contrives to acquire some bottles — unlabelled, of course. Selling one to the devious agent of a shadowy and unscrupulous collector (are there such people?) secures him a job at a distillery and funds a fresh start for Robbie and his new family.

Whisky fans will be delighted to see their favorite tipple center and front, with tourist board scenes shot at Glengoyne, Deanston, and Balblair, not to mention a convincing performance by Charlie Maclean as the ‘whisky expert’ — though largely all he does is play himself!

Viewed in the context of Loach’s previous work, The Angel’s Share may appear flawed and morally suspect (Robbie embarks on further crime to escape his life of crime), but most movie-goers will accept it at face value as a feel-good cross between a rom-com and a heist caper and leave the theatre smiling.

Like a pleasant, well-made blend, The Angel’s Share pleases in an undemanding way. It lifts the spirits without challenging the intellect and can safely be shared with even your vodka-drinking friends!