Sunday, 11 September 2016

Not Good Enough

The Wines & Spirits Education Trust recently launched a series of videos, Three Minute Spirit School, which they describe as, "an entertaining and informative introduction to the world of spirits". To talk about whisky, they brought in Richard Patterson of Whyte and Mackay.

Sadly - and surprisingly, given that Mr Patterson has been working in whisky since the 1970s - the video makes a couple of questionable assertions.  There's also one statement which is presented as fact, but which, in my opinion, is actually a reflection of a crucial failing in the modern whisky industry.

Here is the video in question:



Questionable assertion #1:  Mr P says there are four whisky regions; Lowlands, Highlands, Campbeltown, & Islay.

Now look, I know that there are a fair few Speyside distillers who label their bottles as Highland, and Speyside is entirely inside Highland, but nevertheless it's right there in the Scotch Whisky Regulations; there are two "localities" (Campbeltown and Islay) and three "regions" (Highland, Lowland, and Speyside).

Questionable assertion #2: Mr P says, "take that barley, and we must let it germinate, which produces the natural starch, and then we obviously boil it up in the mash tun".

No it doesn't, and no we don't.

Germination during malting is what produces the enzymes which convert starch which is already present in the barley to sugar. And worts are made by adding very hot water ( 63-90°C) to the grist. Distillers worts aren't boiled. Perhaps Mr P was thinking of brewers.


And then there's the statement of current practice presented as eternal truth: wood contributes 70% of the flavour. Well yes, I'm sure there are plenty of modern distilleries for whom that's true. But if you are such a distiller, then I humbly submit that you're doing it wrong. I believe that the drive for efficiency in Scotch manufacture over the last sixty years has been at the expense of flavour, and as a consequence distillers have had to turn to ever more elaborate wood management schemes to produce interesting whiskies. With, in my opinion, variable results.

Two flat out errors and a policy position presented as natural law, all in the space of a three minute four minutes forty-four seconds video. Frankly, WSET, that's just not good enough.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Tasting Note: Kininvie 23 Year Old Batch 3

I'm sure we all have a personal list of whiskies we're desperate to try. Indeed, such lists almost have their own publishing category. For me, it's a rather fuzzy list, entitled "A malt from every distillery which didn't close before 1980". Very arbitrary, I know, but somewhat practical, from a financial point of view.

Today, I was rather excited to tick Kinivie off my list. It's a distillery I've  visited (or at least, pressed my nose against the windows), without ever experiencing the malt itself. Quite frankly, it was a big disappointment.

The nose is sharply spiritous, youthful, unevolved. There was a very good clean oak spice, and a nougat nuttiness, but also that raw oak character which always makes me think of gluey porridge. As Puddleglum put it, far more eloquently than I could, "it smells of modern cask management".

The palate is rather sharp. It's a light bodied whisky, sweet and nutty (like flapjacks, the sweetness is syrup rather than honey). The second sip is better, with a pleasant maltiness. Rather short, however.

In all, it's merely a decent whisky. The price is just silly. I would speculate that it has been set so high to increase the desirability of the whisky in the face of its ordinary flavour. As Smiley says in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, "The more you pay for it the less you are inclined to doubt it".

About Kininvie
Kininvie was built in 1990 to provide malt for William Grant's blends. It is also one of the three malts in Monkey Shoulder. Tucked away in the grounds of Balvenie, it's actually just a still house - mashing and fermenting is done using Balvenie's mash tun and washbacks.
Tucked Away Amongst the Trees - Kininvie

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Tasting Note: White Horse (1922 Bottling)

Thanks to the auction skills of a whisky friend, I was offered a share in a bottle of White Horse 1922 at a bargain price.

I've previously tasted a 1940s bottling of this whisky, which I loved, and one from the 1980s, which was underwhelming. For this sample, I tasted it over two days, once on its own and once alongside three other whiskies.

The first impression of the whisky was not encouraging; it was very light on the nose, timid, in fact. The palate was rather better, but still nothing like the 1940s version.

The next day, in company, it seemed much more interesting. It definitely had the smell of byegone days, when direct fired stills were heating wash fermented with brewers yeast. There was a light maltiness, and perhaps a wisp of old scorched wood - nothing as definite as peatiness. The palate was much lighter than the nose had implied (perhaps a loss of alcohol?) and very creamy in texture. After some toasty, scorched brown sugar notes the finish was somewhat drying, astringent even.

Whilst it was a fairly complex dram, it was also a bit too light for real pleasure. A dram on the way out. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure and a privilege to experience the oldest whisky I've yet tasted.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Whisky and Nitpicking


At the last meeting of Glasgow's Whisky Club a small dispute arose over how many Scottish whisky distilleries have ever used Lomond stills. Drink having been taken (ahem) and a challenge thrown down, I faced the prospect of public humiliation if I couldn't prove that there had been more than five.

The five that we weren't arguing about are Loch Lomond, Glenburgie, Miltonduff, Scapa, and Inverleven. And the Wikipedia article which lists these five also seems to offer a convenient definition of a Lomond still, as being the invention of one person (Alistair Cunningham), for one company (Hiram Walker), at a well established date (1955).

I knew, however, that somewhere or other I had seen another name associated with Lomond stills, so I sat up very late reading a big pile of whisky books (not much change there then) and roaming the maltier corners of the internet.

Bingo! Littlemill, according to both Misako Udo(1) and Ingvar Ronde(2), had pot stills with rectifying columns from 1930 onwards. Great! I was mentally crafting my magnanimous victory speech when that date caught up with my brain. 1930. That's a full twenty-five years before Mr Cunningham invented the damn thing.

It gets worse. In re-reading The Scottish Whisky Distilleries I had come across a reference to Nevis distillery (not Ben Nevis, but another Fort William distillery of a similar name), to which Barnard(3) was said to have attributed a kind of Lomond still(4). That's sixty-nine years too early. What the heck?

And as I mulled that one over, it struck me that Alastair Cunningham, in 1955, probably didn't name his invention after a distillery which would not exist for another decade. Surely Lomond stills must have been named for the malt distillate of that name which came from inside the Dumbarton complex? Holy moly, Wikipedia is wrong! The world's turned upside down!

By now, if you are still reading, then you are either the person with whom I originally had the argument (Hi Greg!), or one of the Malt Maniacs. In which case I feel perfectly relaxed about introducing a table to summarise where we're at:


Distillery
Dates of 'lomond' stills
Ownership at this date
Actual 'Lomond' stills
Nevis ~1886 Donald P MacDonald No
Littlemill 1930 Duncan G Thomas No
Lomond (Dumbarton) 1955 Hiram Walker Yes
Glenburgie 1958 Hiram Walker Yes
Miltonduff 1964 Hiram Walker Yes
Scapa 1959 Hiram Walker Yes
Loch Lomond 1965 Duncan G Thomas ???


Clear as a glass of Loch Dhu, yes?

So, here are my conclusions:

  • Six or more Scotch malt whisky distilleries have had pot stills with rectifying columns instead of plain swan necks
  • Five or more Scotch malt whisky distilleries have had pot stills with rectifying columns which are adjustable. The jury is out on Littlemill.
  • There were four Lomond stills, at Dumbarton(5), Glenburgie, Miltonduff, and Scapa
  • In a weird way Wikipedia is sort of right, since Loch Lomond does have lomond stills(6). Just not Lomond stills. If you see what I mean.
  • OTOH, Wikipedia is definitely wrong about Inverleven.
  • I don't think I've won my bet, but neither have I lost it.

Once you start digging into it, there are all kinds of tweaks to the basic pot still process which are used to cause rectification. Glen Grant's purifiers, the boil ball, Fettercairn's waterfall effect, those extra bits of piping you see running down from the lyne arm at Ardbeg or Talisker, et cetera, et cetera. It's enough to drive you to drink.

Notes
(1) Udo, Misako, The Scottish Whisky Distilleries, Black & White Publishing, 2006
(2) Ronde, Ingvar, The Malt Whisky Yearbook, Magdig Media, 2011
(3) Barnard, Alfred, The Whisky Distilleries, of the United Kingdom, 1887
(4) Although I can't find him using the word 'Lomond' in my copy of the book, just a picture of something which does look uncannily Lomond-like, on page 145, and at the top of this post.
(5) Dumbarton was a large distillery which mainly made grain whisky. It also produced two malts, Inverleven and Lomond. It seems that the two malts shared a wash still, and that while Inverleven had a normal spirit still, Lomond had a pot with a rectifying column on top. You can see some pictures of Dumbarton on the Canmore website, which is a great resource for anyone interested in Scottish industrial architecture, amongst other things.
(6) Although not according to the SWA, if Neil Wilson is to be believed.

Further Reading
E-pistle 2007/024 – Lomond Stills & The Oil Enigma
Whisky Science - Scottish Pot Still Variations

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Closed For A Reason

Closed For A Reason
My tasting note for this dram - admittedly written after a long afternoon of tasting big Australian red wines - reads in full:
A good ordinary dram. Decent malt, light fruitiness. The initial nose was like a whisky smell from childhood.
I've tasted only a handful of whiskies from Convalmore, and none of my notes really get any more enthusiastic than the one above. Hence the title of this post.

In 1985, Convalmore was one of five distilleries to close. In 1983, eleven had shut down. The Scotch slump of the eighties meant that producers had to face some hard choices. I'd hazard a guess that it was probably easier to choose to close a distillery which didn't produce a particularly outstanding whisky.

About Convalmore
You can still see the distillery buildings, although these days they are just used for storage by William Grant & Sons (Glenfiddich and Balvenie are neighbours to Convalmore). There's plenty of detail over on Malt Madness.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Tasting Note: Arran 18 Year Old

Over the past few years Isle of Arran have been releasing an annual batch of a few thousand bottles of teenaged whisky, as steps along the way to adding an 18 Year Old to their core range.

After a good 16 and a very good 17, last year's limited release 18 Year Old was a bit mince. There was a bitterness to it which wasn't enjoyable. I understand that Arran had to sell almost everything they produced back in 1995 and 1996, so they were working with very limited choices, but still. They could have waited.

So I didn't really have particularly high hopes for this new permanent release. And thus, find myself somewhat pleasantly surprised, but not delighted.

With its sweet cooked apple notes, this dram is most definitely Arran. The nose is toffee - tarte tatin, in fact, with a subtle sweet spice note. Over time a lifted aroma emerges; some sort of pungent note which isn't menthol or lavender, but which reminds me of both of those things.

The palate is slightly hot, sweet, and has a toffee apple sweetness (but green apples). There isn't much obvious oak, and any malty notes take a while to build.

In conclusion, while this a more than decent dram, I think I'd rather have the 14 Year Old, or one of the finishes - probably the Amarone finish.

Monday, 18 January 2016

The Wood Makes The Whisky

If that's the best you can offer then I really do think you're doing it all wrong.

If you're claiming that 60% of the flavour in a malt comes from the wood, then stop what you're doing and go and learn how to make a flavoursome distillate!


A case in point is this tasty dram. If you were to offer it to a hundred people, whisky fans and non whisky drinkers alike, I doubt you'd even get one person calling it woody, or oaky, or spicy, or bourbon-like. In this case, "The Peat Makes the Whisky".

It's a classic Caol Ila, salty-sweet, coastal, iodic, peaty. Is there any discernable oak influence? Pfft.