Whisky, Age and Ad Campaigns

Numbers are helpful things when it comes to rating things. Over the years I’ve moved away from the idea of giving things that I talk and write about review scores, trying to give enough of a mix of fact an opinion (hopefully obviously delineated) to allow the reader to make up their own mind. While you can say a few definite things about pretty much anything you might want to review (music, games, food and drink in my case) in general you’re going to end up hovering around in the murky pool of personal opinion. However, people like being able to put a number on something to know how good it is in an absolute fashion, no matter how inappropriate that may be.

One of the way that people judge whisky is by its age. Now at first that seems quite sensible but, as the press release I just got sent by Chivas brothers points out, not everyone actually knows what a whisky’s age actually means. By the current regulations for most whiskies in the world (including at least Scottish, American, Irish and Indian whisk(e)y and probably most others) the age statement on the bottle has to list the minimum age of the whiskies that are used to make it. So in a blend like Teachers, which is specifically marked as 8 years old, you can be certain that no whisky that has gone into the bottle is less than 8 years old even if you can’t tell much more than that. When you get to the world of premium whiskies people take a lot more notice of the number on the bottle.

Single malt whisky just means that all the whisky in the bottle is made from malted barley at one distillery. Any whisky that isn’t a single cask, and it’s very rare for a single cask whisky not to be marketed as such, can come from any number of different barrels of varying ages, blended together to produce a consistent product. The consistency is the important bit, as every cask will taste a bit different due to differences in the wood, location in the warehouse, temperature variation during maturation, wind direction, number of times knocked by a fork-lift going round the corner, phase of the moon and pretty much anything else. This inconsistency leads to the thriving market in single cask whisky bottlings as well making the role of master blender something more than a button pushing job. In order to maintain a constant output of consistently flavoured product the blender needs to not only understand how to mix the various different whiskies together to make something that tastes nice, but also tastes the same as the last batch of thousands of bottles. This involves painstaking management of casks, constant tweaking of the recipe on a batch by batch basis and forethought when it comes to laying down spirit to mature to ensure that there is enough of the correct flavour components to make the whisky that’s needed. It’s an impressive job and one that people pay tribute to every day without realising it when they open a new bottle of whisky and it tastes the same, or at least pretty much the same, as the last one of the same type.

So, what am I wiffling on about? The key point of Chivas Brothers’ new campaign is that the age of whisky is important, which I agree with, and that older whisky is better, which I don’t. To be totally accurate they said this:

One of the greatest influences on the flavour of whisky comes from maturation. Much of the complexity of Scotch whisky comes mainly from its time in oak casks in Scotland; with outstanding spirit and excellent wood management, it follows that the longer the maturation period, the more complex the whisky.

Which is pretty much what I said if you equate complexity with quality, which I don’t necessarily agree with.

In the end all an age statement gives you is an indication of what has been done to the whisky. Something marked as a 5 year old might be made up of a splash of younger whisky and a body of a dodgy 40 year old that got lost at the back of the warehouse until its alcoholic percentage had dropped below 40%, meaning that it couldn’t be sold as whisky on its own any more – a dash of young strong whisky and you’ve got something that can go to market; a 30 year old can consist entirely of some 4th fill barrels that have imparted little but overly woody notes to a dodgy batch of spirit; a 5 year old can have sat in very active wood in the corner of the warehouse with the most constant temperature, maturing extra quickly and producing a fantastic whisky (one of my favourite whiskies of all time was a 5 year old single cask Arran that has more complexity than many whiskies 2 or 3 times its age) – you just don’t know.

Over the years the distilleries have generally settled on the convention that the older the whisky the better it is. This is understandable when you realise that every extra year in the barrel means that more spirit evaporates, another year of ‘rent’ needs to be paid for the storage and another year without realising the capital tied up in the whisky has gone by. This all adds up making older whisky more expensive no matter how good it is – as we all know though, expense doesn’t necessarily equal quality.

In general the distilleries try to ensure that their more expensive bottlings are better quality, but in recent times there has been a move towards putting out both younger whiskies and those without age statements. From Macallan’s Whisky Makers editions to Compass Box’s blends, from Chivas Brothers’ own Aberlour A’bunadh to Laphroaig’s Quarter Cask, more and more producers are leaving behind age statements in favour of producing whisky with certain characteristics and flavours that they hope will appeal to consumers. It strikes me as strangely opportune that just as this fashion is starting to catch on with other distillers Chivas Brothers, who claim to have 85% of the market share of whisky aged of 21 years, decide to come out with a campaign to start placing more importance on the age statement again. I was starting to like Pernod Ricard, the Chivas owners – Phil Huckle, the Chivas brand ambassador, seems like a nice chap and their whisky is generally pretty good (with the A’bunadh especially being very good indeed [in my opinion]), but I don’t like this latest move.

As ever with whisky you can’t tell all that much from the outside of the bottle. You can sometimes see the distiller, sometimes see the age, sometimes even see what sort of barrels it has been in (although with the regulations on what denotes a ‘cask finish’ being quite lax my idea of merely pouring whisky through a funnel made from an old sherry barrel into a holding tank may well count as a legal finish) but you can’t be certain what the whisky will taste like until it’s in a glass in front of your face. Just as we were moving to a more mature feeling market of whisky description, with age just being another factor in describing the process by which it was made, this feels like a regressive move from a big player in the market with enough marketing clout to push things back by years.

Whisky Tasting Chez Moi #1

Being someone who likes to talk I’m jealous of those lucky folks who get paid to wander around and talk about whisky. So, in an effort to get at least part of that I invited an exclusive posse of people around to my flat to have a bit of a whisky tasting. The intention was to try a few things that were in someway different to the norm and to span as much of the whisky spectrum as I could with 4 or 5 bottles.

Compass Box Hedonism, Benromach Organic, Kilchoman New Spirit, Benriach Curiositas, Yamazaki Sherry Cask

So, here are my notes on what to say about each one, as well some audience reactions:

Compass Box Hedonism: There are number of different legal classifications of whisky, which due to recent lobbying by the SWA changed at the end of 2009. The three main types are:

  • Single Malt Whisky – malt whisky from one distillery. It will be most probably be a mix of various different batches (to get a consistent flavour and style for each line of whisky), but all of the whisky comes from the same distillery.
  • Blended Malt Whisky (formerly known as vatted malt) – changed November 2009, a move not entirely popular amongst many whisky makers. This is a blend of malt whiskies, which can come from any distillery. It is, however, only made up of malt whisky.
  • Blended Whisky – whisky that is made of malt and grain whiskies from any producer.

This is a fourth type – a vatted grain (maybe now a blended grain…who knows?). While grain whisky is usually used as a bulking agent for blends, produced quite cheaply in a continuous rather than batch distillation process, there are some producers who take a more malt-like approach to its creation and there are companies who try and do interesting things with it – Compass Box are part of the latter group and buy whiskies from the former. Run by John Glaser (who corrected me last time I wrote about them), they produce interesting blended whiskies that are in a totally different league to the Bells and Teachers of this world. This has some flavours in common with a bourbon, coming from grain as it does, but definitely has a different style.

From the audience: It seemed to go down fairly well. It’s the lightest of the whiskies I was presenting, hence its position at the front of the line-up, and even the less keen whisky drinkers appreciated it.

Benromach Organic: The distillery reopened in 1996, after years of closure. Rather than the more regular ‘mothballing’ of the site, where they leave everything in place, Benromach was pretty much stripped of all its equipment and had to be almost rebuilt. Their regular whisky is lightly peated (slightly more than the Speyside norm of 0-5ppm of phenols at about 8-12) to try and capture the flavour of speyside whiskies when peat was a more common fuel for drying malt, but the Organic is different. It’s the first Soil Association certified organic whisky and as part of this process everything involved in the making needs to be organic, from malt to barrels. Whisky barrels are normally used before the whisky gets to them – sherry and bourbon are the two main spirits that go in beforehand, and they take on a lot of the woody flavour from the barrel, allowing whiskies to mature without extracting quite as much of those flavours. However, In order to keep with the organic certification the Benromach Organic uses new american oak barrels that have never seen another drop of booze. This whisky is also entirely unpeated, which is fairly normal on Speyside, although their stocks of the regular Organic are running out due to their switching of production to a peated version. I’m not a fan of the new “Special Edition Organic”, so I’m pleased that after a short while they switched back to the unpeated version, so while there will be a gap in availability it will be returning in the future.

From the audience: this one started off less popular, with the woodiness not well received. However, with a drop of water the flavour changes a lot, with creamy vanilla appearing, and it grew in popularity.

Kilchoman New Spirit: One of the problems with whisky production is the time it takes between making your whisky and making money from it. This is especially difficult for brand new distilleries as they have no older stock to keep themselves afloat with until they can start selling their wares. Kilchoman opened in 2005, the first new distillery on Islay in 124 years, and was setup to be slightly different. Their barley is grown on the attached farm, they are one of the last 6 distilleries who have their own maltings and they bottle on-site. In order to keep cash coming in they sold cask, case and bottle futures for their first production runs, keeping them going until they hit the 3 year mark at which their maturing spirit legally became whisky and could be sold as such. The first release was in 2009 and has been received quite well, although their upcoming 5 year is something I’m keeping an eye out for. Another way that they raised money was to sell samples of their maturing whisky – their New Spirit. This bottle doesn’t have a maturation time on it, but the otherwise identical one I bought at the same time claimed that it had been in wood for 1 week…

From the audience: I didn’t pour everyone a shot of this – a very young, heavily peated 63.5% spirit is not something that you generally knock back much of – instead pouring a small slug into a large wine glass so that everyone could get at least a smell. Almost everyone tried it in the end, with the reactions being what you’d expect for something that I generally describe as tasting like cattle feed and death. That said, I do quite like the flavour and there were a couple of nods that it wasn’t all that bad, even it was burny and eye watering.

BenRiach Curiositas: I’d not heard of the distillery until recently (and I now have a box of miniatures of their aged expressions to try) but heard of the Curiositas through Anna’s twitter stream when her friend Jon got a bottle and rather enjoyed it. The distillery is another that has changed hands a lot, recently being picked up by the independent Benriach Distillery Company (who recently picked up their second distillery – Glendronach) in 2004. It had a sad beginning, opening in 1892 and then mothballed in 1900 when the bottom fell out of the whisky market. It reopened in 1965 under Glenlivet, sold to Seagrams in 1978 and then dropped to a 3 days per week production in 2001, before the more recent purcahse. This is one is different because it’s a peated Speyside whisky. As I mentioned earlier Speyside whiskies are normally peated lightly to not at all, coming in at about 0-5ppm, with Islay whiskies like Laphroaig and Ardbeg being much more famed for their peaty smokiness (with barley peated to about 40ppm and 54ppm respectively). The Curiositas is peated to 55ppm – which is about as peaty as you get for a widely available whisky. They also have a younger version (3-5 years?) of their peated spirit, Birnie Moss, which I found at Whisky Live – it’s mainly sold into the French and Spanish markets, where there is a strangely high demand for young, unmellowed, peaty whisky.

From the audience: As expected this one was the least popular, although the speyside sweetness coming through the smoke brought it up the popularity scale quite a lot. The progression from raw spirit to matured whisky worked quite well though, with the mellowing process really showing (although choosing something as powerfully flavoured as the Kilchoman probably helped there).

Yamazaki Sherry Cask: The whisky that I ran from Blackfriars to Soho to buy the day before the tasting; one that I tried in Milroy’s at Christmas and rather liked. The difference with this one is that it’s Japanese, which isn’t really all that unusual as there are 90 years of history backing up their produce, and very heavily sherried, which is slightly more so. Whisky production in Japan was started by Shinjiro Torii, a pharmaceutical importer, who founded the company that became Suntory and started bringing foreign booze into Japan. He hired Masataka Taketsuru, who had trained at Hazelburn in Scotland (a name now used by the Springbank distillery to brand their triple distilled, unpeated Campbelltown whisky, as the original distillery has closed), to start distilling at the Yamazaki distillery and Japanese whisky was born. Taketsuru left Suntory in the 1930s, travelled around Japan looking for a spot that felt like Scotland and built a distillery in Yoichi on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, starting Nikka, the other famed Japanese distiller. The mix of whiskies that goes into a single malt will often contain at least some spirit matured in sherry casks and other whiskies will be matured for a length of time after they have been married together in a cask which has held sherry or another drink to ‘finish’. However, you don’t get many bottlings which have sat exclusively in a sherry cask for as long as this – a very dark reddy brown whisky, it almost looks like flat Coke and is a bit thicker and stickier than your average dram.

From the audience: Far and away the favourite of the night (which is one of the reasons why I did my cross-central-London run the day before to make sure I got some before Milroy’s closed). It’s sweet and rich, with fruitcake and dates. It’s quite unlike the ‘regular’ whisky flavour that people expect, although with enough hiding behind the dried fruit to remind you that you’re not drinking port. I’ve tried an even more heavily sherried Yamazaki at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, but that almost felt like a fortified dessert wine than a whisky – this is an excellent winter dram, and unfortunately one that seems to be becoming scarce as stocks start to sell out.

Anyways, my choices seemed to work and lasagna was fed to the assembled throng. On top of my selections there were also some pressies and temporary donations brought along, with Nikki‘s sloe gin, and Alan and Ruth‘s chocolate vodka, blackcurrant vodka, homebrew beer and bottle of Marble Chocolate Marble all sitting on the side waiting for me to do some tasting and writing about them. Alan also brought along his bottle of Glenallachie single cask 18yr old, also matured exclusively in sherry casks, to compare to the Yamazaki – it compared very well, coming in as the second favourite of the night on flavour and favourite for price – £35 from the web or in person at the Strathisla distillery, home of the Chivas Brothers experience…

I suspect this may happen again, especially as Nikki and Ruth now seem to be whisky converts. I must use my powers for good…

Alan and Anna have also done write-ups on their blogs and I think I need to give a general thanks to all of my victims for letting me talk at them for an afternoon: Anna, Alan, Ruth, Paul, Nikki and Michael.

Compass Box Hedonism
Blended scottish grain whisky
43%, component whiskies 14-29 years old
£45 from Waitrose

Benromach Organic
Unpeated Organic speyside whisky
No age statement, 5-6 years
43%. Limited stock available

Kilchoman New Spirit
Islay new spirit, 1 week old
43.5%. Occasionally available in whisky specialists (I got mine from Cadenhead’s in Edinburgh)

Benriach Curiositas
Peated speyside single malt whisky
40%, 10 years old. Peated to ~45ppm.
Available from whisky specialists (I got mine from The Whisky Shop)

Yamazaki Sherry Cask
Very sherried Japanese single malt whisky
48%, 10-12 years old
Limited availability – worldwide release of 16,000 bottles (I got mine from Milroy’s)