Sunday, 27 May 2007

Another new make spirit: Talisker

After having tasted the new make spirit of Bladnoch and Speyside, here is the third and last chapter: Talisker.
Another area, a typical whisky from the Isles... Peat and smoke. Are all this elements already present in the new make spirit?
The nose is very close to the one of Bladnoch and Speyside: sugared prominence of the wash. Malt fragrances dominate, and still this heady and characteristic smell which overwhelms everybody who ever enters a distillery. Spicy notes are clearly present at the first nosing, but not strong enough to emerge above the malted hints described before. Is this autosuggestion? This was not a blind tasting. Who knows if the fact I knew it is a Talisker did influence me and made me find some very discrete peaty notes in it... I'm not quite sure I would have mentioned them if this session had been a blind one.

A first conclusion could be that new make spirits are extremely close to each other, whatever the specificity of the whisky that will be bottled after years. This could mean that the aging process releases the aromas contained in embryo in the spirit when it leaves the still. New make spirit would then be more a "whisky-embryo" than a "whisky-baby"... Patience and time, combined with wise choices of casks and warehouses and of course the know-how of the distilleries will make the rest of the job... in fact practically all the job.

The palate is dominated by sweet, sugared tastes but clear (even if still in an embryonic state) peat and citrus fruit notes are present. Some experience is however needed to detect them, as they are very discrete, but indisputably present.
The finish is a bit richer than the two other new make spirits tasted before. Of course, no comparison possible with what will emerge form the cask after 10, 18 or 20-25 years, but again a nice embryo of a finish, with its peppery notes and already quite a nice length.

Saturday, 26 May 2007

New make spirit: after Bladnoch, Speyside

After the comment about the sample of new make spirit from Bladnoch here are my impressions about the Speyside new make spirit. Speyside is a distillery situated in the Central Highlands for some whisky writers, but the owners claim it belongs to the Speyside area. And in fact who could honestly say it is not...? It is settled on the banks of the river Spey, and it is even the closest distillery from the source of the mythic river... For more information about the distillery, please have a look on site.

The smell of the new make spirit of Speyside is amazingly close to the one of Bladnoch tasted before. The percentage of alcohol is close too, as this spirit is 70.7% vol. Quite normal, as distilleries respect some standards processes. One of those is the degree of alcohol of the spirit coming out of the still. This percentage is an important factor for the further development of the spirit in the cask.

The nose of this very young Speyside is very sweet, exactly as the Bladnoch at the same age. It presents however some differences, like this peppery notes I did not find at Bladnoch. But apart this spicy hints, the same general impression dominates. Wash smells are prominent. But at least one distillery visit is required to understand this pervasive smell.

Bladnoch was as flavoured as Speyside seems to be spicy. Some nuances which will be found later when the whisky will end its aging.
The palate too is quite close to the Bladnoch mouth. May be just a little more complex. Anyway here as well the degree of alcohol does not hinder the tasting at all. Clear malt domination, with an embryo of more complex tastes which will develop to become an nice whisky when it will be mature.

Here also, the finish is rather insignificant, but the sugared taste of malt remains in the mouth for long minutes. But again, no possible comparison with what will emerge from the cask within ten years...

A new experience: Tasting new make spirit (Bladnoch)

After having recently tasted some very nice old whiskies, especially old Speysiders very marked by sherry, marketed by independent bottlers (like Jack Wieber or Tates Still), I had the funny idea to taste some very young ones, not yet marketed, as it is not yet whisky...

I always wandered how spirit tastes like when it comes out of the still. What they call "new make spirit" in Scotland. Perchance I could get some samples of this very young alcohol during my last visits to distilleries in Scotland. The samples I collected come from Bladnoch and Speyside, and I got some times ago some Talisker new make spirit as well. This represents 3 very different areas, which makes me even more curious.

First of all, the colour of new make spirit is absolutely transparent, just like water. But just like most people, I knew this already.

My Bladnoch sample is 71% vol... It represents the first step in the elaboration of whisky. This spirit does not yet deserve the right to call itself whisky, as it did not yet spend the legal three years in a wooden cask. However, this prescribed time of 3 years has not always existed, and in the olden days whisky was sold directly from the still. It was very often flavoured to enhance its taste. But this really was in the olden days, more than one century ago...

At nosing, the Bladnoch new make spirit seems very sweet, sugared, with all the smells of the wash before distillation. Very perfumed and at first sight quite pleasant, despite this very sweet aspect which could quickly turn in something really sickly. Anyway, no need to add aromatic herbs to give it a pleasant smell. Future developments are quite easy to imagine, when aging in oak casks will give it its definitive colour and refine its taste during the long years it will stay in the distillery warehouses.

In the palate the same impression of sugared spirit, with a very rich taste (even if it presents obviously lacks of diversity). One could expect that such a strong spirit could seriously disturb the good working of the papilla's, but despite its 71% vol it remains amazingly smooth. The taste of new make spirit is still very far away from the refined taste this whisky will have in a few years. Barley, sugar and alcohol. The raw material is easily recognized, even concentrated by water evaporation during the distilling process. But once again, this already gives an idea of what it will be within a few years.

It is quite difficult to speak about finish in this case. OK, a taste remains for quite a long time in the mouth. The impression is warmth is obvious (of course, 71%vol...). But it does not go much further than that...

The tasting notes of the Speyside new make spirit will be published soon... And after Speyside, I'll publish my impressions about the precious sample I have from Talisker. As the latter distillery produces a well rendered as a type whisky, the comparison will be extremely interesting.

Conclusion of this apart tasting session is that it is very instructive, but I would recommend it only to trained palates... If whisky would keep this taste when it is marketed, I guess I never would have become a single malt passionate...

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Is there a "Best whisky in the world"

Of course most people have their favorite whisky. Lots of people prefer drinking Johnnie Walker Red Label (according to the market figures...), but I guess nobody dares to say it is the best whisky in the world...
Coming to professional specialists, the things seem to be different. There are some people who actually shameless dare to say there is a best whisky in the world... Of course, it is not the Red Label.
I'm not a professional, but I have (blind) tasted hundreds of single malts, and I regularly discover my new favorite. And probably tomorrow it will be another one...
I was really impressed by the very high quality of some independent bottlings from rather obscure distilleries. There are some articles on this blog about this amazing phenemenon (see for instance, the magic of single malt).
So, when a prestigious magazine like Whisky Magazine declares that they have found the best whisky in the world (sic!), we as whisky lovers are dreaming about legendary versions of Bowmore from the sixties, old sherryish Glen Grants from the fifties or some other treasures from the warehouses of Gordon & MacPhail or selected by Duncan Taylor (or from any of the other great or small independent bottlers, Douglas Laing, Signatory, Berry Bros, Adelphy, Jack Wieber, Dewar Rattray, and many others)...
No, professionals like those of Whisky Magazine estimate the best whisky in the world is Talisker 18 years old...
Of course, Talisker is a marvelous distillery. Of course the 18 years old version is quite a nice version (even if I prefer personally the 10 yo or the 25 yo). If I did not really appreciate the 18 yo version, this does not mean it is not a good or even a very good whisky. In my own ranking, it appears in the 283th position on 485. But this is not the question.
The question is how serious are those awards?
For my part, the answer is: not at all!!!
However, the "best whisky of the world" has been nominated by a panel of great specialists. Some Malt Maniacs were members of the jury.
And the Malt Maniacs awards are very serious. They really make a point to choose the very best whiskies out of hundreds of samples they collect. Their results seem much more reliable...

If I understood correctly the challenge, a panel of worldwide recognized specialists had to make a choice (blind tasting) amongst about 150 whiskies. All of them were official bottlings (bottled directly by the distillery). And this happens in a period where life seems to be more and more difficult for passionate independent bottlers.
Buying casks from distilleries gets more and more difficult. The market is growing very fast, with new markets for single malt like Russia, China, Brazil or India. So prices are growing accordingly for the whisky lovers we are.
It seems war is declared between distilleries and bottlers. Some distillers refuse the right to independent to sell their production, like the Grants in Dufftown, who seem to add a spoonful of Balvenie in their Glenfiddich and vice-versa. No influence on the taste (even if one could expect this would produce a better Glenfiddich...), but those casks cannot be sold as single malt anymore.
In a period where the best whiskies are to be found at independent bottlers, Whisky Magazine publishes its awards... The best whisky in the world! None of the bottlers was invited to participate. Is this honest?
I could perfectly agree on the title "Best whisky amongst 150 official bottlings". This would be correct, but would of course not be an advertising claim.
I can understand Whisky Magazine has to make some clear advertisements in order to increase their own sales.
I even will not comment on the other whiskies selected for the awards.Aberlour 10 ans 16 years... The 10 y.o. is indeed quite a nice price/quality ratio, but the 16 yo, double matured was one of my greatest deceptions in the last years. The 12 yo was really nice, but the 16... Well, I do not want to express my own tastes here. I have my own website for this purpose...
I just would like awards being given to things really deserving them. Far from all marketing considerations.
... I had a dream ...
(all reactions are welcome, of course)

Sunday, 6 May 2007

The magic of single malt (3)

This is the third part of "the magic of whisky"... It remains unclear why I choose this title for this series of articles (see the first and second parts)... Till now, no magic. I guess it will become obvious in this third part...

In the second part of the article, I mention that Glenfiddich was the real pioneer of marketing single malt as such. But the real massive revival of single malt had to wait a few more years to become a reality... In fact, single malt became a real economical fact with the decision of some blenders and other independent bottlers to bottle some single malts without blending them. Signatory Vintage has quite a huge responsibility in the nowadays fancy for single malts.
The great paradox is that distilleries which were built only to produce some raw material for blends, suddenly discover the single malt marketing, and try to impeach the independent bottlers to continue their business by simply not selling their casks anymore... Or even worse, some distillers have found a very tricky way to make sure their single malt will not be on the market under the label of an independent bottler: it is as simple as adding a small glass of single malt from another distillery of the group (for instance, Glenfiddich adds some centiliters of Balvenie in a cask, or vice versa), and it is impossible to sell this as a single malt anymore...
Why? Why do distillers not see that there is a market for independent bottlers... Some say it is because it would be bad for the "image" of the distillery, it would give a false image of the "style" of the distillery... In my opinion, just nonsense.
But this will probably be the subject of another article... Let's come back to the main subject.

The main subject was that many distilleries followed the example of Glenfiddich, and dared selling their own single malt. And this was a great thing for lovers of single malt. And there are many of them.
Obviously much less than blend drinkers, but most of the single malt drinkers are connoisseurs, and perfectly know why they prefer one brand to another one. Some of them even know why they prefer whisky from a given cask to the same from the neighbor cask... Of course, this only applies to single cask bottlings, something no distillery does... This is just a specialty of independent bottlers...

Most distilleries sell (often a very small) part of their production as a single malt. And there is quite a hierarchy of distilleries in the mind of single malt drinkers. Many of them have tasted at least one dram of each existing distillery, or at least have read tasting notes about them.
And honestly, if some are really magnificent, some others are just "OK". Not really transcendent pleasures... At least if one just consider the standard single malt from those distilleries.
My impression is that many of them feel they are obliged to sell single malt, but are not really interested in the quality of it, as it is just a very small part of their business.
For instance, Glen Keith or Macduff (Glen Deveron) make drinkable whiskies, but not great ones.
And here comes the magic of single malt whisky...
Knowing the making process remains mainly unchanged for years and years (same stills, comparable malt, same yeast, etc...) it's magic to notice that some very special bottles appear on the market from those distilleries working quasi exclusively for the blends market. And this are very great surprises for a single malt amateur.
I had recently some of those great surprises. Glen Keith for instance. Gordon & McPhail bottled an very special cask, distilled in 1967 for la Maison du whisky, (I did not personally taste it in good conditions) and Jack Wieber has also found very nice versions from that distillery, (see on this blog). The same is true also for others, like MacDuff or Glen Spey...
This what makes single malt really magic. These great and very nice surprises are not possible with most other spirits. Of course, such casks are unique, and as such the whisky become quickly expensive, as there are mostly only a few hundreds of bottles available worldwide. Isn't that magic?
In fact, the magic comes from the used cask. If you use a magic cask, you will make magic whisky, at least if you have some patience...

The magic of single malt (2)

After some obscure historical considerations which seem to have no link with the title of the article (see The magic of single malt(1)), this few new lines could make the title of these series of articles some more clear... At least I hope so.
Anyway, the first part of the article ended with the international marketing opportunities offered by both the invention of blended whisky (mix of single malt for the richness of the taste, and grain whisky for the standardization of it) and the French vineyard plague named phylloxera. Till here, no magic at all... Just some economical and historical facts.

With the success blended whiskies encountered rapidly, there was some raw material needed for the production of this new kind of spirit. Some genius "noses" were able to produce very nice blended whiskies based on a mix of different single malts, "diluted" and "equalized" with grain spirit.
The single malt was not anymore a basic consumable produce, but has been relegated to the status of raw material for blends which will be marketed and which will have an unequaled success for many decades.
Many distilleries will be build just to produce a certain flavor needed in the composition of a successful blend. White Horse needed Lagavulin as a base for instance. This might not be a good example, as I'm not absolutely sure Lagavulin has been created just to produce an element of White Horse...
But there are lots of other distilleries which work pratically exclusively to produce raw material for blends, and which are not really renowned for the quality of there single malt, like Glen Keith, Macduff, Glentauchers or Glen Spey...
But let's not go too fast...
The undisputed reign of blends has ruled the world of whisky for more than a century.
The first distillers who dared to market their "raw material" as a product as such were the Grant's of Dufftown with Glenfiddich in 1963. And this was immediately a great succes.
The question is: what made the success of this first single malt on the international market? The quality of the product or the quality of the marketing?
Of course, Glenfiddich is a quality product. It is a good spirit. But sure not the best single malt... But, the shape and the color of the bottle made the difference... And the commercial genius of the company. So, Single Malt saw the beginning of its revival in the mid sixties.
Of course, if a (new) product is successful, the concurrent will not wait too long to do the same... But the first one was undoubtedly Glenfiddich, and so it became the taste to imitate.
Probably a bad thing, as again the pioneer on the market was not the best quality... So commercial goals were more to imitate a succesfull product rather than produce great quality.
Till now, nothing magic yet...
(to be continued...)

The magic of single malt (1)

When Andrew Usher created the first blended whisky in 1860, nobody could foresee what would happen years and years later.
Please consider this little article as just something issued from my own reflection and imagination, and not as something with any scientific background. This is just the opinion of a single malt passionate...
In the very old days, distillation of beer was a very good way to preserve it, as the hygienic conditions were quite different from now, and because the technology was not as advanced as it is nowadays. And people began to appreciate this uisge beata (water of life) made in the local distillery. Well very often the local distillery was just in their own kitchen. This was in the Middle Ages, where people were confronted with many plagues, but not yet with the taxes on alcohol... Well it is obvious that in those days, lots of other taxes made people's life hard, tax on salt and on everything people needed just for live... But alcohol was free of taxes in Scotland until some guys of the government realized that it could be a good source of revenues to support the many wars in those olden days... and of course they also saw the effect on the health of the population.
But all this has no direct link with Andrew Usher...
Scotch whisky was already very popular in 18th century, and the oldest distilleries in activity (or recently closed) date from this period. A time line on gives quite a readable chronology of the creation of distilleries, placed in their historical context.
Obvious was that people merely drank the local production. And very often ignored the whisky made in another region. The whisky had (just like now) quite a lot of character, and therefore was not really suited for export outside of the parish...
Things changed when Aenas Coffey (an Irish excise employee) patented his still making continuous distillation possible (after Robert Stein created the ancestor of that type of still for the huge Lowlands distilleries owned by his family). So tasteless whisky was produced for rectifying the English gin originally...
People of those times were just like people now... They do not like to be surprised each time they open another bottle... It must have exactly the same taste as the previous one. Nowadays, this still is the case, if one excepts some crazy single malt enthousiasts, who like surprises.
So why not rectify whisky as well? Why not create a whisky with a constant taste? This was the great contribution of Andrew Usher in the world of whisky. And due to an historic coincidence, this was the start of the international success of Scotch whisky. The coincidence was the little beatle called phylloxera which destroyed nearly all the vineyards in France at the same period. And the disparition of the grapes meant also the disparition of brandy which was very popular in those days...
(to be continued)

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Another Jack Wieber's Glen Keith

The 33 years old version of Glen Keith from Jack Wieber was a very nice bottle. Unfortunately, not available anymore, at least in Holland where I live. This gave me the idea to try another version I could find: the 35 years old version, in the series "Cross Hill", distilled in 1971.
This was a good idea again!

Again, just pleasure. Not that Glen Keith is such a renowned distillery. But again, this bottling is another very great whisky:
  • If you have ever looked for a real sherry monster, you should give this one a try. Woah, what an incredible sherry nose. But there is much more. Nice complexity. Sherry mixed with dry fruit, plum, discrete wood, some coffee, lots of pleasure.
  • The first mouth is rather bitter, clearly marked by sherry too, before developing on coffee and woody notes and than back to sherry again. Lots of character. An absolute must have for sherry amateurs.
  • Would you believe it? The finish is also marked by sherry with nice discrete woody notes. It is lingering and extremely pleasant. Another fabulous whisky.
This bottle deserves a 19/20. It is simply marvelous. Thanks again Herr Wieber.