Feb 252015
 

Bruichladdich The Laddie Twenty TwoIMG_6349

46% abv

Score:  89/100

 

Here’s another older Laddie. This time a little more naked than many of Bruichladdich’s previously offered mature expressions.

In 2012 the distillery launched a revitalized age-stated range consisting of the Laddie Ten (composed entirely of stocks produced by the current team!), the Laddie Sixteen (from distillate produced under the former owners) and the Laddie Twenty Two (also made by the forebears). I remember reading that this was to be the distillery’s core offerings going forward. There were immediate questions, of course, primarily regarding how a core range could be built around finite mature stocks, when there was a substantial gap in production between the old owners and the new. But…we drank and were happy for a while.

Sadly, not long following, the news leaked that this trifecta was being pulled from the range due to supply issues. No surprise (well, the removal of the Laddie Ten was a surprise), but infinitely disappointing nevertheless. Was this all a matter of Bruichladdich’s having underestimated demand or was this trio merely the ‘next-man-up’ iteration of the Laddie DNA, and an affirmation that previous mutterings about this being the core range were nonsense? I dunno. Either way, if you didn’t stock up at the time, chances are good that you’re most likely out of luck now.

While this 22 year old raises all sorts of questions about the distillery’s mature stock, concepts of core range and plans for future mature releases, it shows what Bruichladdich can be (and should aspire to!) when just left alone to mellow in a clean oak barrel. Nice whisky, this, very nice.

The Laddie Twenty Two is what I dream Bruichladdich will be once again in a few years. Mature, soft, unpeated (or at least only mildly so) and as sweet and tasty as salt water taffy. Here’s hoping production grows to where it outstrips demand for a while and some of this malt is left to mellow for a couple decades.

If you can find a shop with any of the remaining bottles, don’t hesitate to pull the trigger. Highly recommended.

Nose:  Quite soft.  Lemon meringue and banana cream pie.  Herbal with some pepper and ginger.  Very soft fruits in the vein of faint peach and melon.  Vanilla ice cream.  Soft grains and sugar cookies.  Slightly briny.  Soft and impressive.

Palate:  Like toothpicks soaked in lemon juice.  Soft dessert notes.  Candied ginger.  A touch of orange and more herbal notes…almost Sauvignon Blanc-ish.  A little more fruit, but not sure what exactly.  A little wine-ish at the back end, but not overpowering.

Thoughts:  Great (and far too drinkable) example of older Bruichladdich.

 

- Reviewed by:  Curt

- Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 7:21 am
Feb 242015
 

Bruichladdich 18 y.o.028

46% abv

88/100

 

Here’s one from the ‘long gone and sorely missed’ category.  Not just because it’s obsolete (which it is) or because it’s really good (it is that too), but because it was from the era when Bruichladdich was operating with seeming impunity; untouchable in their blitzkrieg of never-ending new releases.  Old, young, finished, natural, peated, unpeated, multi-casked, you-name-it.  They did it all.  This slew of releases pissed some off (read: collectors and completists), but delighted others (like yours truly).  Nowadays Bruichladdich is still a bit of a maverick, but there’s no denying it…times have changed.

The whisky we’re looking at here was not born under the tenure of the current Laddie team, but was distilled in the very late 80s or early 90s, prior to the distillery’s closure and subsequent reopening in 2001.  From then on, its adoptive ‘parents’ had different ideas for raising this one to maturity than did its birth ‘parents’ and did an about face with regard to bringing it into its teen years.  Let me explain…

When the ownership/management team of Reynier/Coughlin/McEwan and the gang of 30 or so other new owners took over the distillery in 2000 there were apparently some concerns about cask quality of the existing stock.  Master Distiller Jim McEwan (hopefully no further introduction needed by this point) worked his way through the warehouses and came to the conclusion that some of the whisky was indeed maturing away in substandard barrels.  The story goes that much of the distillery’s existing stock was subsequently re-racked into higher quality barrels.  Many of these whiskies found their way into former wine vessels, courtesy of Reynier’s connections in the wine trade from his former life in said industry.  I mention this here as I can only assume that this was some of that re-racked spirit.

It’s this latter notion that plays a fairly large part in what constitutes the profile of this 18 year old Bruichladdich.  A quirky malt with a very multi-faceted personality.  The wine influence is substantial, but in all fairness somehow never seems to really get to the point of ‘in-your-face’ upfrontery.  Instead, it sweetens things up a bit and brings some of the darker notes to the fore in what was most likely a fairly mild whisky to begin with.  I’d be willing to bet this spirit was formerly mellowing in a rather inactive second or third fill bourbon barrel.  Much speculation on my part here, but it’s sort of rational deductive reasoning and based on some relative knowledge of what was happening at Bruichladdich through the past couple of decades.

I think I might have liked this one a tick more if the wine influence was dialed down a bit (i.e. a shorter finishing period).  As it stands, this is still a good – almost great – whisky, and I’m one of those who is just glad to have been around through the glory years of Islay’s renegade distillery prior to the Remy buyout.  We may never see that sort of freedom and ‘fuck you’ salvo in the industry again.

Nose:  Slightly floral.  Sugary.  Poached pear, a touch of stewed peach and then deeper plummy notes.  Honey and sweet wine.  A salty, flinty and savoury backbone.  Mince pie.  Just a touxh of salt licorice.

Palate:  A hefty chunk of wine influence here, I’d think.  Immediately tannic and redolent of yeast and grape.  Fairly deep threads of spice and tangy fruit notes.  Plenty of wood singing too.  Not the best of finishes, but the arrival is almost entirely high notes.

Thoughts:  This is an evening dram.  Rich and bold.  Not perfectly balanced, but its quirkiness more than makes up for it.

 

- Reviewed by:  Curt

- Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 10:39 am
Feb 242015
 

BenRiach 1977 Dark Rum Finish (Cask #1892) 102

49.2% abv

Score:  91/100

 

A vanity project whisky in some senses, and one I concede a personal bias to right up front.  This cask was chosen by one of my best mates, J Wheelock, for our local market here in Alberta (and beyond maybe…?).  Having made my concessions, I’ll now admit that I don’t feel the least bit guilty for scoring this one highly or touting it as a great dram.  It comes down to knowing that J has a great nose and palate, and that the malt itself lives up to all I’m looking for in the glass.  Those that know J (most of Canada) will likely concede that first point right up front too.

Alright.  Having established that, let’s dig into what makes this 35 year old BenRiach single cask release so special.

It’s not often you find whisky that has slept away a good chunk of its life in a former rum barrel.  Those few I have found that have done so have been sort of Franken-whiskies in some senses.  Not necessarily monsters, but not a real approximation of a cohesive dram either.  I went into this one expecting something similar, but with slightly more trepidation, as this is a 35 year old whisky we’re talking about.  And one from a personal favorite distillery.  Older BenRiach is stunning with simple bourbon barrel maturation, but rum?  Lowered expectations.

Happy to report that all cynicism was for naught.  This is a bloody good dram, and incredibly well integrated for such disparate spirits.  I’m not much of a rum guy, but these two flavours dance together here like long time partners, in lock step and with true grace.  The rum influence is real and it’s actually rather exciting.  Not overpowering; just bringing dark sugared notes to a sweet old malt.  As hinted at above, whiskies like this generally scare me, but this is the stuff of sweet dreams, not nightmares.  I’ve been fortunate enough to bang away at two bottles of this gem, but desperately need another to shelve for future days.

This dark rum barrel-matured BenRiach cask yielded a mere 220 bottles, so chances to grab one are very limited at this point.

Nose:  Deep, dark and complex.  Gorgeous light fruits in heavy, heavy syrup.  Marzipan.  Brown sugar.  Dusty grain and pressed flowers.  Rather spicy with a fleeting savoury note.  Toasted coconut.  Baked apple with caramelized sugars and spice.  Plenty of those ‘old whisky nuances’.  I LOVE this nose.  More and more, in fact, the longer I spend with it.

Palate:  Toasted oak top note meets dark caramel and old spices.  Strong oily vanilla notes.  A mishmash of dark fruits and dried tropical fruits.  Tastes very mature, without being over the top.  A fine balancing act that dries a little towards the back end.

Thoughts:  Softens the longer its left in the glass, and makes for a very meditative dram.

 

- Reviewed by:  Curt

- Photo:  Curt

 

 Posted by at 8:03 am
Feb 102015
 

Mortlach 1995 (Duncan Taylor “The Octave”)019

55.4% abv

Score:  87/100

 

Here’s another release from Duncan Taylor’s ‘The Octave’ series.  This range consists of whiskies given a short secondary maturation (aka finishing) in small ex-sherry casks known as Octaves.  The finish time is short due to the intensity of spirit / wood interaction in these small barrels.  Anything longer than the prescribed three months would most likely lead to over-oaking.

We recently checked out a surprisingly good Deanston from the Octaves line-up; now let’s see how this method of maturation works on a more robust spirit such as Mortlach.

This is an 18 year old whisky from 1995.  It’s heavy…it’s meaty…it’s dense…and it’s sherry-rich.  In short: it’s all things Mortlach has generally been renowned for throughout the ages.  The distillery’s fingerprint is crystal clear in this malt.  That, even if for no other reason, is enough to put me squarely behind this one.  It doesn’t hurt that the whisky is quite decent too.  Not stellar, but absolutely enjoyable and multi-layered enough to please those looking for more depth in their dram.

Confession time now.  I’m not gonna lie: I’m fighting a tendency to score this one higher simply due to my rebellion against the current direction official Mortlach bottlings have taken.  Indies are the way to go with this distillery.  Historically, they always have been.  It’s a no-brainer that in the age of slap-in-the-face premiumisation on the part of Diageo that we’ll continue to reach for independent Mortlach bottlings over the branded stuff.  Better value, to be sure, but also an inherent responsibility to dig our heels in and reject the philosophy of arbitrary price-fixing.  If you are in the dark as to Diageo’s modus operandi regarding handling of this distillery, let me help you out by sharing a fellow cynic’s POV here.

Nose:  Yes! This is Mortlach, as I’d expect it to be. Pie crust.  Orange marmalade, cinnamon and ginger.  Peppery meaty note. Fruit leather. Makes me think of the Ardbeg Auriverdes if you could somehow leech all the peat out of that beast (odd, right?). Almost a eucalyptus note playing off a BBQ savoury note.

Palate: Savoury and spicy arrival. Raspberry jam, candied ginger, licorice. Slightly salty playdough note and yes…still meaty here. Thick and gooey. Resonates with dark, dark fruity notes and a very heavy spice profile. And…a touch too much wood.

Thoughts: Nice to be in familiar Mortlach territory, even if this is not the most spectacular example. To be fair, though…it is a kickass dram and the price tag isn’t that bad (substantially under $200.)

* Sample provided by Kensington Wine Market’s Andrew Ferguson.

 

- Reviewed by:  Curt

- Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 1:28 pm
Feb 092015
 

Deanston 1994 (Duncan Taylor “The Octave”)011

54.7% abv

Score:  88/100

 

There really isn’t a lot of Deanston available out there. Now, that isn’t necessarily a reflection of the spirit’s quality, I should note. Sometimes the malt has simply been predestined for other purposes, such as production for use as blend fodder. I’m not 100% certain that this is the case with Deanston, but you’d have to think that would be a reasonable assumption given what a meager core line-up we get from this Highland distillery.

The Burn Stewart family boasts two blends in its portfolio. One is the famous (or more recently, infamous) Black Bottle, a whisky once composed entirely of malts produced on the isle of Islay. In recent years, however, I believe there has been some integration of mainland malts into the smoky blend (please do correct me if you know otherwise). This leads me to believe that it is quite possible some of Deanston’s approximately 3 million litre annual output finds its way into this iconic blend nowadays. A more likely destination for the bulk of Deanston’s distillate, however, would be Burn Stewart’s other major blend – Scottish Leader. But that is neither here nor there in relation to our purposes here. Just a bit of context. Instead, let’s have a chat about a Deanston single malt from independent bottler Duncan Taylor.

These Duncan Taylor ‘Octave’ series releases are built on the concept of already mature malts that get pulled from their barrels in order to spend their last few months napping in ex-sherry octaves. An octave being 1/8th of a sherry butt. This abbreviated finishing period in such a small cask means lots of wood contact and, presumably, plenty of quick barrel-leeching. What a brand is ultimately seeking when it engages in this finishing process is to ‘sex up’ the malt a bit just before bottling.

The Deanstons I’ve tried to date have been very innocuous spirit, so it stands to reason that these whiskies would take influence well from a flash fry in a wee sherry cask. Such is the case here. The clean, mellow, vanilla-ed oakiness of the naked Deanston meets the fruity sherried influence like rich vanilla ice cream with strawberries on top. Sweet and creamy. One of the better examples of finishing I’ve ever come across, to be honest. Not perfect, but the best I’ve yet encountered from this distillery.

Nose:  Slightly jammy. A touch of mincemeat. Heavy sherry and black pepper. Spicy, leathery and vegetal. Soft jam-filled thumbprint cookies. Little bit of orange. Green ju-jube candy, but light and fresh, not cloying. Very clean oak. Slightly yeasty.

Palate:  Arrives juicy and with quite an oily mouthcoating flair. A real fireworks show of spiced fruits. Dried mango and dates. Big woody notes, but they’re rich in vanillins and complementary to the fruits. Dries to pith and rind.

Thoughts:  Great nose here, and a palate that is highly complimentary. So much more than I expected from this distillery. Nice sherry cask this ended up in.

* Sample provided by Kensington Wine Market’s Andrew Ferguson.

 

- Reviewed by:  Curt

- Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 2:51 pm
Feb 052015
 

Awwwwright!  We’re back.

I’ve been fighting off a cold for the last couple of weeks that just didn’t want to let go.  I never got really sick, but I know my senses were a little too compromised to do any sort of reliable whisky reviews (though I’m happy to report that it didn’t stop me from drinking a glass or three along the way!).

In mulling over what to possibly post in the interim, I hunted through my backlog of partially written reviews and noticed that many of them were tasting notes for no age statement whiskies.  Obviously these are a no-no for ATW right now, so…what I was left with were some pretty slim pickings, most of which were still reliant on my re-tasting them first in order to fully flesh out tasting notes.  So what did that leave me to publish for whisky reviews?  Well…quite frankly, SFA.  Oh well.  Instead, the last couple weeks have been about meese (moose? mooses?) and mudslinging.  We stirred up the shit a little, but that’s all behind us now.

Errrrrrrr…………what?

Hahaha.  Yeah, right.  There’s a lot more to say, good and bad, about the worldhood of the world of late (or at least the malty microcosm anyway).  We’ll get there, though.

In the meantime…let’s taste some malts!  Any distilleries you want to see reviews from in the coming days?

 

– Curt

 Posted by at 2:44 pm
Feb 032015
 

Whisky & Moose – The Untold Story, Tasting Panel Spotlight, Vignette #Deux, Le Bullwinkle J. Moose

***** WARNING VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED *****

May contain segments that metrosexual drinkers or Industry shills find offensive. Intended for a malt audience only.

 

In Spotlight ………….Bullwinkle J. Moose, AKA Moose Knuckles, was a sixties animal heartthrob who rose to stardom in “The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show”. This juvenile moose star was grazing high when he had a run-in with his rum swigging, flying squirrel partner over an actress named Natasha. This falling out, combined with the discovery that his folks had hoofed him out of the majority of his trust fund, followed by the accidental release of a mating tape, aided in his addiction to eating cannabis by the bale. Ill-equipped to act with sufficient tact forced this once majestic moose into a downward rush.

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Bullwinkle, however, did manage to play a few small parts in some low budget adult animation movies. He played the oldest child in the short lived TV sitcom “Family Pains” starring Gary Busey as a calm, stay at home dad, dealing with a blended two / four legged family.  He also appeared in one episode of the new reality show called “Wildlife Scared Dead”, hosted by the former, off his rocker, Teddy Nugent. For a while, Bullwinkle performed with the mechanical stuffed tribute band “Chuck E. Cheese and The Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat”, that is, until the incident.

Living in a fish eye lens, caught in the camera’s eye, in May 2006 Bullwinkle married longtime girlfriend Kourtney Love.  Sadly, she filed for divorce a day later, citing animal cruelty. She arranged with wildlife officers to have him corralled, an order he violated twice and was impounded.

Rock bottom finally occurred when in 2008, Bullwinkle was sentenced to three years’ probation. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested at home for possession of pot, during which he threw a bong out the window of his 36th floor apartment resulting in additional charges of tampering with evidence and reckless endangerment to humans.

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After a long stint in an animal shelter, Bullwinkle reached out to Bobby Barker the famous Animal Rights Activist and Abused Model Advocate, who directed him to the Wee Moose Sanctuary & Hunting Lodge, a subsidiary of DHARMA, which is located in the shadow of the Alberta Rockies

Now back on his hoofs, and producing more than 200 Louis Vuitton wallets a day, Bullwinkle has agreed to a Tweet-style interview with Maltmonster, in 280 words.  That’s 100 % more of an interview than The Bourbon Advocate Magazine.

Q- What’s the view from your office window?

–  Chicken Wire and Moose shit.

Q- Where are you from originally?

– Frostbite Falls, Minnesota

Q- Do you have any formal education / training?

– I have a Mooster’s Degree from Wossamotta U and studied method acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute with the likes of Roberto De Niro.

Q- What would be your desert island dram?

–  I tell you it wouldn’t be grain whisky. I would have to go with a single malt from Glenfiddich. I just think that any distillery with a big rack on their label can’t be all bad, and oh ya, Fettercairn has that unicorn thing, that kind of turns me on to.

Q- Biggest Mistake?

–  Letting that no talent squirrel share the limelight with me.

Q- Hobbies?

–  Squirrel hunting.

Q- Biggest problem in whisky today?

– The Finish is starting to become tiresome, I mean really what next, a quadruple wood  finished Dalmore,  twelve months in a cedar hot tub , nine months in a used oak half cask flower pot, six months in a treated spruce shipping crate and finally three months in an pine framed waterbed owned by dirty hippies. I can hear Dalmore now……………. “Yes we charge more, but we only use the highest quality used oak half cask flower pots”.

– Trying to figure out who’s who in the zoo. Another disturbing trend is overnight self-proclaimed experts that blog & tweet, posing as consumers and are nothing more than shills for the Industry.

– Brand premiumisation, or posers herpes is infecting the industry. First Macallan, Dalmore and Glenmorangie now Mortlach, rumor has it Edradour is next.

Q – What do you like about whisky right now?

– I like the fact that consumers are challenging producers over the NAS, whether through boycotting, selective purchasing or posing questions to brand ambassadors.

Q – Favorite excerpt?

–  “And the men who hold high places must be the ones who start”

Q- Do you know the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything?

–  Yes, yes I do, it’s …………………………

Sorry end of interview at 280 words.

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Please stayed tuned for the next instalment of the Tasting Panel Spotlight, Vignette #Trois, A Moose named Hope, who was the former Edmonton Oilers team mascot. Hope talks about the winey glory years and dark years after being thrown under the team bus, leaving the team Hopeless.

The Wee Moose Sanctuary & Hunting Lodge, a subsidiary of DHARMA, again thank you for your support and ask if you could please be on the lookout for are missing Moose comrade, RT, last seen being man/women handled by two cultist, who call themselves the Founders. These Founders lead a cult whisky following called the Canadian sect of the SMWS and have been known to recruit new members through the use of strong alcohol and chanting.

 

Your humble drudge & shepherd,

Maltmonster

 Posted by at 9:07 pm
Jan 262015
 

“I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” – Tom Waits

 

Sorry for the long time between posts, friends. I’m still fighting through the last of a cold that just doesn’t seem to want to let go. Whisky reviews are, of course, out of the question, and lest I become known as the squeaky wheel or the malcontent (too late), I figured it was best to shy away from the next of my planned ‘sure-to-be-controversial’ topics of discussion until we lob up a few softballs first. Those more ‘discussion-inducing’ posts will come, but let’s space ‘em out a little bit, aye? There just seems to be too much industry apologism of late to not address these things, but…all in good time, as they say.

So…Instead of stirring it up again so soon, let’s share some thoughts about something else that is probably fairly relatable to any of you who are currently with me on this pilgrimage from whisky neophyte to enlightened sage (or credible bullshitter, at least). Something that has more to do with feelings than arguments over fact or opinion. Before you start thinking I’m getting all sappy and stuff, let’s just dive in. Nothing too controversial here; just a little bit of sentimentality and rose-coloured nostalgia.

I recall years back, when I started to fall head over heels for the single malts, the wonder of going out hunting for a new whiskies to buy. Trying to find something to impress both my senses and my friends with whom I’d be sharing.  Every bottle was bought with the intention of being opened that evening. There was no thought to putting aside for future days. Every experience was a shared one, because the bottles were typically cracked beneath the warmth of heat lamps on my deck with a few friends and some good music. I’m sure many of you can relate to this, but man…those first ever sips of Laphroaig or a’bunadh or Octomore were nothing less than a revelation. A deliverance. (No…no inbred banjo pluckin’ or…ummm…’manlove’ implied.)

A couple months back, a good friend of mine – still in the early days of his own malt-ucation – drew the perfect analogy to those early days of whisky experimentation. He said he now goes into whisky shops reading labels and ogling the tins and bottling strengths with the same excitement as he once had in music stores while flipping through album covers.

I’m a music junkie. I’m 36 years old. That’s old enough to have been through vinyl, cassettes and CDs. I know exactly what he’s talking about. I remember buying KISS ‘Destroyer’ on big beautiful wax at about the age of 7 just because of that artwork!

After a while we all move further along the path from our knowledge basis of ‘sweet fuck all’ to a place from where it’s pretty certain we’re making informed buying decisions. Seems like the right direction, obviously. So why do I seem like I’m down on this state of educated grace? I’m not. Trust me.

I’m extremely grateful for all that I have now and all that I’ve been able to try along the way. Would I change anything if I could go back? Nah…not likely. I think every experience in life contributes to the here and now. I’m just at a point of looking back, though, and saying ‘man…I miss them good old days’.

I’ve been rather blessed with a perfect storm of things that have brought me to where I am on my whisky road. Good friends who were happy to come along for the ride and have been great traveling partners ever since; a hometown that is a hotbed for single malt enthusiasm; friends and industry folk with much more experience to guide, educate and illuminate the path ahead; an educational background in critical thinking, writing and relatable beverage industry experience; and probably most importantly…a very understanding wife.

I’ve put in a lot of hours and effort in order to have tasted what I have, but I don’t kid myself…I stand on the shoulders of giants. And hopefully I have adequately thanked them all at some point along the way. I’ve also learned that in a strange way, the most appropriate way you can thank them is to pay it forward to others. Counterintuitive, I know, but that’s the way it works for us whisky enthusiasts. But having said all of that… it occurred to me that all of the glorious whiskies I’ve tried over the years have been bought at the expense of simple innocent excitement. A ‘Sophie’s Choice’ that I never knew I was making, if you will. I drink great whisky quite regularly, but I am excited about it far less frequently than I used to be. No less grateful for it, just less ‘over the top’ excitement.

Going forward from here, I do plan on changing the way I approach whisky. I want that thrill back in the game. And I think there may just be a way to recapture some of that ‘kid at Christmas’ anticipation and ‘not knowing-ness’. I talked about this very subject with another mate of mine just a few days back. The one way you never really know what you’re gonna get – and can still find that surprise almost every time – is in the independent bottlings. Especially from some of the more obscure distilleries and bottlers. Chances are good that these malts will also tick off most, if not all, of my personal whisky preferences: cask strength, age-stated, non-filtered, etc. This also leans more to the ‘drinker, not collector’ approach, which I like as well.

And if you’re curious…no. Nothing much will change here on ATW (though you may or may not see a few more indie reviews tossed into the mix). My personal buying will likely morph a little bit, and that’s about it. Not gonna lie…the prospect is sort of exciting. Some things change when you grow up. But there are ways of recapturing at least some of the magic.

No matter how rare, old, expensive or exclusive the malts you’ve been blessed to try, I imagine this sentiment of reflection is rather universal after a few years of doing what we do. Do any of you ever feel the same? Ever wish you could step back and experience that naïve thrill of the hunt all over again? Do you remember a few years back going to whisky shops and scanning the labels when everything was foreign and exciting? When you had no clue what to expect out of the bottle, but had to take a flyer based on what the sales guy said or by the appeal of the packaging?

If you have no clue what I’m speaking of, I envy you and raise a glass to your own journey.  Actually…either way, I raise a glass to you.

And by the way…I hate KISS.

 

- Curt

 Posted by at 3:30 pm
Jan 152015
 

Let’s go way back in time…

Long before the abstract concept of currency came into play, mankind had to determine standards for exchanging goods and services. Our collective past has shown us that we as a species used to be much more diversified in terms of our skillsets. We had to know how to fulfill our basic needs and, further, how to maintain them indefinitely. As a simple example, does not every man out there have a dad that seems to know just a little more than he does about home maintenance? Fixing a car? Raising a family without a handbook or the internet at his disposal?

In those early days we also learned that there was strength and security in numbers. Civilizations came together. Skills became much more specialized. Division of labour took on new dimensions. Not everyone had to be able to make bread…or forge tools…or work stone…what-have-you. Instead, man was wise enough to realize that he could rely on his brother (or sister) to provide something that he himself was not quite as adept at making or doing. So long as he had something to offer his brother (or sister) in return, that is. This became a quid pro quo system (or a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” scenario). Brilliant. Initially, at least. Until societies expanded to the point where it simply wasn’t feasible to have the ‘specialists’ swapping favors all the time, or until your neighbour had something you desperately needed, but perhaps had nothing to offer in return.

So what came next? Why, the advent of the monetary system, of course. Value ascribed to tangible commodities (precious resources initially, then to coins and paper in a more abstract promissory capacity). This allowed for a rather faceless economic system to develop. You no longer had to rely on the trust and reputation of your mates to do business. Instead you could trade a hard value to a perfect stranger in order to enact a transaction. It all sounds a little cold when worded as such, but so be it.

Granted, this is all very simplified, and occasionally anthropologically contested, but that’s sort of the gist of it.

Now, why do I bring up trust and the handover of value from one to another here? It’s simple, really.

Like it or not, we whisky geeks have built a relationship with our brands, our distillers, our ambassadors and our spirit sellers. On the consumer side we’ve done our due diligence by buying the products, attending the events and sharing the good word via social media (and otherwise). We’ve done so to date because we were able to work off a long-developed understanding of value. We knew it took substantial initial investment and a huge outlay of cash on the part of the distilleries in order to first create the product. We knew there was overhead and other expenses such as labour, utilities, facility maintenance, leases or mortgages, shareholders, tariffs, etc. We knew there was a not inconsiderable delayed return on investment due to the necessary maturation times of the spirit, and inherent warehousing costs. We also knew that beyond all of this there were bottling, labeling, transport, marketing and other such expenses. Fair enough.

Our willingness to lay out our hard-earned money for a fine bottle of Scotch, produced by working men and women in one of the most beautiful places on earth, was based on an acceptance that Scotch whisky exemplified class, elegance, tradition, history, time and beauty. We could pick up a bottle and contemplate in awe that the spirit in our hands had taken 18 years to make. 18! Amazing. We could marvel that the world was a much different place when the whisky we held was distilled and left to sleep the seasons away on a dirt floor somewhere in the rolling hills or along the rocky coasts of Scotland. And because we knew what had gone into that bottle, we were ok with paying what the sticker on the shelf asked of us.

We’ve now moved forward a few steps down the road from those times. The prices that are staring us in the face from those shelves have doubled or even trebled in the past few years. We’ve watched the fluctuation in markets that have relationships with the whisky industry (grains, fuels, currencies, etc) and acknowledged that ‘yeah…I can see how this would have an effect on the distillers trying to make a go of it.’ I think we could all reasonably expect some sort of an incremental creep in pricing strategies. A fair increase, of course, and one that was relative to related markets. Again…we could always look back at that big ‘18’ on the bottle and think ‘yeah…I can support that kind of investment’.

But now…in our day…a new trend has emerged. Not a new concept, mind you. But a new trend towards the brands slowly (or not so slowly in some cases) stripping away those reliable numbers on the bottle that had previously confirmed for us that the distilleries were just as invested in our purchases as we were. Yes, of course, some non-age-stated whiskies have always been around. And blended whiskies, of course, have rarely trumpeted their age (unless they wanted to be sold as premium spirits). But we’re not just seeing a few non-age-stated whiskies anymore. We’re seeing a tidal wave of brands that have moved in this direction as a means of protecting their valuable mature stocks, while continuing to generate cashflow via the turnover of spirit that historically the brands would have seen as too young to be released as it is. So how is this being mitigated? How are they managing to sell us these younger whiskies and still make them drinkable (and not only drinkable, but in some cases very good)? Through clever vatting on the part of their blenders (and then, of course, a healthy splash of marketing wherewithal).

Many young barrels are being married with a couple of older barrels – which add a little complexity and knock off some of the younger, more spirity edges – then the whisky is sold under a clever name, rather than a number. That age statement which used to be such a key marketing tool for the brands in times of plenty is now a liability due to the requirement that any number on the bottle reflects the youngest whisky therein, and not the oldest.

Just so this is all abundantly clear: we are now buying younger whiskies at prices inflated to ratios that are unsupported by the relative increase in respective costs…and with no justification on the part of the producers. The most prevalent defense is their insistence that our palate decide and not our intellect. And while that is my paraphrasing, the sentiment is just as insulting when spun by the brand ‘faces’ and ‘voices’.

So what has effectively happened now – whether the industry will admit it or not – is an imbalance in the relationship we had spent so much time cultivating. That once understood covenant between producer and consumer. That understanding that allowed us to symbiotically partner up, assuming we were both mutually gaining. As we all know, a relationship of this sort is based on trust. Sadly that trust has been eroded. The scales have tipped, and the consumer is unquestionably the loser.

Ahhhh…so now we’re back to trust, as we were in the opening paragraphs above. As you can see, we’ve come full circle. Now let’s get to the rub…

The brands won’t trust us to buy their whisky if they put a low age statement on the bottle. They don’t trust us to think for ourselves and make wise decisions with our money. They think we will assume a whisky with a low number on the bottle is inferior to their shelf-neighbour’s age-stated whisky and that we’ll maybe reach for that one instead (and what is wrong with that, even if so? Is that not the free hand of the market at work?).

Interestingly enough, while they are cynical and untrusting of our consumer prowess, they insist that this information we’re clamouring for is irrelevant and that we should simply trust them to make the decisions as to what is best for us. They are the experts after all. I mean, really, what could some blogger or writer – who has only tasted a couple thousand whiskies across all ages and styles – possibly know about this stuff, right? We are left to feel like we’re coming across as the annoying squeaky wheel, the to-be-dismissed angsty teen or the bad apple spoiling the bunch. ‘The whisky will still be good’, they say. ‘Don’t worry about what it costs you to buy it, versus what it costs us to produce it’, they don’t say (but it is, of course, implicit).  Ummm…no.  It simply doesn’t work that way in the real world.  Not in any of the transactions or purchases I make, anyway.

Ironically, those missing numbers do make a dramatic reappearance when they want to sell their ultra-premium rare and old malts for astronomical sums. Because let’s face it: who will buy a bottle for $2,500 if they have no idea what their $2,500 is actually buying?

Trust is a two way street. But right now, we’re on a one lane highway and going the wrong direction.  And where do we go from here?  I honestly don’t know, but I’m sort of tired of not getting a peek at the map.

 

- Curt

 Posted by at 1:01 pm
Jan 142015
 

Distillery In Focus:  Port Ellen

043Every now and again here on All Things Whisky, we wax a little poetic on the mystique of Port Ellen.  If the post or review is something that finds its way to Twitter, it’s bound to get retweeted many a time.  If not, it tends to be picked up at some point down the line and linked to by some German or Danish forum.  There’s a lot of love for this distillery irrespective of the fact that it’s not produced a drop in well over 30 years.  And if anything, that adoration is only increasing as the years wear on.

The early 1980s were a rough time for the whisky industry.  Scotch had been thrust face first into the limelight in the 1970s as the ‘it’ drink and soaring demand led to many distilleries cranking open the taps and producing more spirit than the markets could reasonably support.  As we see time and again, man never seems to learn the harder lessons of economics.

With hundreds and hundreds of thousands of barrels resting in warehouses all over Scotland, and a declining consumer base, the “eyes bigger than the belly” approach of the industry began to take its toll on the bottom lines of the producers’ ledgers.  There was simply no need to continue making whisky on such a scale.  Many distilleries slowed down and finally stopped flowing altogether.  DCL (The Distiller’s Company Limited) – owners of Port Ellen – shuttered 11 distilleries in 1983, with others following suit all the way through the early 1990s.  If memory serves, there were around two dozen distilleries that locked up shop in 1983 alone.

It was in May of ’83, amid this rash of distillery closures, that Port Ellen was deemed surplus to requirements; it’s peaty pungency being used primarily at this time to add a smoky elegance to DCL’s blends such as Johnnie Walker.  Also in the expansive pages of the DCL portfolio in 1983 were Lagavulin and Caol Ila.  The former was well established already as a single malt with reputation.  The latter was a far greater producer than the wee Port Ellen distillery, which managed an annual output of only about 800,000 litres.  Additionally, from what I can gather, it seems that Port Ellen was recognized at the time as somewhat of an inferior whisky, with a feinty edge to it.  With the markets being what they were, the writing was on the wall for Port Ellen.  Caol Ila’s peat prowess became the go-to for the smoky components of any blend bill.

After nearly 160 years of operation – albeit sporadic and marred by fits and stops in production – the gates were pulled closed on Port Ellen for the last time.  But let’s step back a bit and take a quick peek over our shoulder at the road that brought us to this juncture.  This will be a brief history (and I mean very brief), as this subject has been covered elsewhere by others, and I’m simply trying to provide a little bit of context.

In 1825, along the shores of Loch Leodamais in the wee fishing village of Port Ellen, the Port Ellen distillery was founded by one A.K. MacKay and Co.  His initial investment of effort may have been impressive, but perhaps his management skills left something to be desired, as bankruptcy proceedings followed shortly thereafter.  According to the inimitable resource, Malt Madness, the distillery ‘changed hands a few times’ in the 11 years between its founding and the 1836 acquisition by 22 year old distilling entrepreneur John Ramsay.  Ownership then remained in the Ramsay family until 1920, when the distillery was bought by the Port Ellen Distillery Company.  This tenure was to be short lived, however, and came to an end in 1927, when the distillery was acquired by DCL (the forerunner to what is today drinks giant, ‘Diablo’…err…I mean ‘Diageo’).  Within two years of acquisition DCL mothballed Port Ellen and the distillery sat in silence for four long decades.  Whisky production would not resume on site until 1967.

Knowing as we do that the distillery was once again mothballed – this time permanently – in 1983, tells us that there were really only about 16 years worth of production between 1967 and 1983 from which all of the contemporary stocks of Port Ellen have been pulled.  This small window, and low peek distillery capacity, speaks volumes to the possible remaining stores of Port Ellen resting in situ in all of Scotland’s warehouses.  What is especially disheartening is turning our thoughts towards just how many barrels probably ended up lost to blending.

It is a sad fact, as I noted briefly above, that the whisky made at the Port Ellen distillery was widely known as a rather weak example of Islay malt.  It was not particularly prized for its underlying character – apparently noted as thin and somewhat feinty (careless cuts in the spirit run, perhaps?) – but it’s smoky resonance was still in demand for blenders looking to add a little complexity to their concoctions.  Sounds a far cry from what we know of the distillery’s reputation in this ongoing whisky renaissance, I’d suggest.

So if Port Ellen was generally recognized as an inferior whisky, able to be done away with and surplus to requirements, why then does it consistently score highly in ratings and reviews and continue to attract collectors and connoisseurs by the scores?  The answers are multifold, adding to the complexity of understanding the inherent worth of the whisky in the bottle.

052First…nearly all of the Port Ellen you’re likely to encounter is mature beyond the age most malts see the inside of a bottle.  In reality, this is simply another way of saying that we just don’t see young Port Ellen.  It doesn’t really exist.  The single malt initiative didn’t really take flight until Glenfiddich’s push in the 1970s.  Considering Port Ellen’s less-than-household-name status and reputation as being a blender’s whisky, it’s not surprising that there are so few surviving examples of young Port Ellen.  Even the exceedingly rare Port Ellen from decades ago that may have borne a low teens age statement on the bottle was likely to have some older casks vatted into it, as that is what was done in those bygone days.  Otherwise, most Port Ellen that you’ll find rated and reviewed nowadays will boast an age statement of mid to high 20s and, more contemporarily now, into the 30s.

Does this lead credence to the ‘older is better’ argument?  Yes, in a way.  Quite simply, oak does amazing things to whisky as the two interact with one another.  Give them enough time together and something special is almost always going to happen.  It should certainly be noted, though, there have definitely been duds in the independent Port Ellen releases out there (read: bad barrels).

So, is it fair to generalize that Port Ellen is an incredibly whisky, when the data set consists primarily of malts that have exceeded the two or three decade mark?  Let’s just say that nearly any distillery would most likely boost their average ratings a few notches if all they released were hyper mature malts.  Young whisky has bigger peaks and valleys.  Old whisky has rolling hills.  Which is more pleasant to drive, do you think?  Much Port Ellen is special because of its advanced maturity.  So, yeah…maybe older does equate to better.  Not as a rule, but on the average.

Second…Port Ellen has become the ultimate collectable cult whisky.  Islay malts are probably the most widely coveted for collectors and the island is seen as almost the ‘spiritual home’ (pun intended, I suppose, or at least acknowledged) of Scotch whisky.  With current demand being quite high for these smoky, peaty malts, you can only imagine the appeal for completists or obsessives to get their hands on whisky from a distillery that existed only briefly, if at all, within most of their lifetimes.  Not only is it a rare chance to try a ninth Islay distillery, it’s the chance to taste a malt from a closed distillery.  There are, of course, collectors whose sole raison d’être is to hunt down these liquid time capsules.  For them, Port Ellen is the grail.

Finally…let’s not discount the fact that sentimentalism plays a large part in this equation for many as well.  The historically bent out there will acknowledge in an awed timbre that what is in the glass with any dram of Port Ellen is literally liquid history.  Sharing this malt is like a sepia-toned trip down a memory lane you’ve probably never walked before.  Kind of that ‘homesick for the home I’ve never had’ syndrome.  I can certainly attest that it’s easy to lose yourself in the drink and romanticize this facet of the whisky.  I concede that some of my all time great whisky moments with friends have been over a dram of Port Ellen.

So, really…is that it?  Older, scarcer, more collectable and draped in nostalgic romance?  Nah…of course not.  There is no two ways about it: much Port Ellen is really, really inherently good.  You’ll find the occasional less-than-stellar showing, of course, but the majority are austere beauties that are memorable and of world class quality in both the highly sought after official releases and the more prolific independent bottlings.

043And let’s be clear: Diageo’s official bottlings of Port Ellen are beyond spectacular.  Those I’ve tried anyway.  There is such a profound complexity of soft fruits, threads of smoke and earthiness, oceanic influence and oak carved nuance that it’s hard to imagine anyone not being instantly enamoured with the drink.  These are natural cask strength expressions that carry all of the subtleties of Port Ellen in an elegant, yet powerful, incarnation.

In recent years, however, Diageo’s Port Ellen OBs (aka ‘official bottlings’ or ‘distillery bottlings’) are stretching the bounds of most folks’ incredulity with their hefty four figure price tags and seemingly favoritism-based market allocations.  In fact, last year’s 14th release hit the shelves at a retail price of about £2200.00.  Converting that to one of the North American currencies equates to ‘divorce’ and/or ‘homelessness’.

Independent bottlings, long the most accessibly priced options for the majority of us, have seemingly gone the way of the dodo.  There may yet be a last few specimens dust gathering on local shop shelves depending on in which part of the globe you hang your hat, but for the most part they are nothing more than memories at this point.  An occasional new Gordon & MacPhail or (one of the) Laing Brothers release may hit the shelves from time to time, but the reality is that where these once sat in the very low three figure mark, even they have crept up to about $1500 a pop.  Sadly…the days of Port Ellen being available to the average punter – albeit at a bit of a stretch – seem to be long gone.

So the question then becomes one of relative worth.  Does the whisky justify the price tag you’re going to be walloped with?  I simply can’t answer that in any meaningful way.  Here’s the way I usually put it when confronted with questions of this ilk:  If you have a load of disposable income, and are in a position to buy expensive toys with no repercussions, why not?  If money is not a concern, spend it on the enjoyment of the finer things in life.  Port Ellen can unquestionable be one of those things.  The most valuable things I have (excepting my beautiful wife and children) are memories and experiences.  A good drink with good friends goes a long way to making more of both of those.

I guess maybe we’ll close with a discussion that seems to pop up from time to time, but with no real weight behind it.  “Could there be a renaissance for this lost Islay distillery?”  Short answer:  “Who knows?”  Strange things happen from time to time in the wider whisky world.  This would certainly be one of the strangest though.  All indications suggest the distilling equipment was long ago dismantled and parceled out, and that the still house was demolished to make way for an expansion of the malting facilities.  Granted the warehouses are still intact, the pagodas and such still stand and much of the footprint is unchanged.  As I said…who knows?  My gut says it ain’t gonna happen though.

A better question to consider might be “do you really want Port Ellen to come back?”  Distillers like to sell us on the idea that every nuance of their production (water source, dings in the stills, exact spirit run times, warehouse situation, etc) has to be consistent down to the nth detail in order for the magic to happen.  If that is indeed the case, do we honestly believe we would have a true likeness of the Port Ellen we love with whisky from a ‘cloned’ distillery?  At best it might be a Clynelish vs Brora situation.  At worst…well…if you’ve watched The Walking Dead you’ll know resurrections aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be.

With a heavy heart I say let sleeping dogs lie.

Islay2 237

 

- Images & word:  Curt (With an acknowledgment to Malt Madness for a wee bit of the distillery history I was a little unsure of.)

 Posted by at 1:52 pm