Ah, the year 2004... We remember that year vaguely...
And that's because our archives for this year haven't been completely reconstructed yet. During the first 15
years of our collective malt mania we produced over a thousand E-pistles about (single malt and/or Scotch)
whisky, but a bunch of those articles may have been lost due to a few massive site crashes over the years.
When MM founder and editor Johannes van den Heuvel retired in 2012, he finally had the opportunity to try
and collect all the old content in one, easily navigable archive - or rather in part 1 and part 2 of the archives.
So far, all E-pistles from 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 were recovered.
In 2004, these were just five of the E-pistles that we published:
E-pistle #2004/??? - Scottish Life: In the Parish of Peats - by Charles MacLean, Scotland
E-pistle #2004/??? - A Malty Trilogy - by Krishna Nukala, India
E-pistle #2004/??? - More on Borderline Personalities - by Davin de Kergommeaux, Canada
E-pistle #2004/??? - Bruichladdich Academy 2004 - by Ho-cheng Yao, Taiwan
E-pistle #2004/??? - The Gripes of Wrath - by Johannes van den Heuvel, Holland
And that's it for now. More E-pistles from 2004 will be added later. The results of the Malt Maniacs Awards 2004 are on-line as well.
Follow us on Twitter if you want to know when more of the old stuff will be published.
I arrived on Islay the day before my life changed forever...
I had been invited by Anthony Wills to give a talk on the origins of distilling in Scotland on the site of his proposed farm distillery at Kilchoman, west of Bruichladdich. This looks like a most interesting project. Anthony has raised enough cash to run the show for seven years, but if any of you want to invest, I am sure you won't be turned away. (www.kilchomandistillery.com.)
Later in the day I went up to Caol Ila to meet Dr. Nick Morgan (Diageo's Marketing Director, Malts) and chew the fat with Billy Stitchell, the distillery manager. A few drams of C-I led us to a couple of pints in Bridgend
Hotel, where Nick was staying, and it was here that he asked me whether I knew anything about the Maltmaniacs. 'No', says I.
'I monitor them closely', says Nick. 'They are a small group of very knowledgeable malt whisky enthusiasts, scattered across the world. We take their comments and tasting notes seriously. There are three of them on the island at the moment - Serge, Olivier and Davin - watch out for them: they're good guys - dangerous; your types. You will recognise them by Serge, who has a Frank Zappa beard.'
Next morning I went early to Laphroaig and did a tour. Claiming my dram at the end was difficult, since the bar was blocked by three tall men buying very expensive bottles and requesting samples. I caught the profile of one - more Charles I than Frank Zappa, I thought. It must be them... Before I could speak, Davin turned and asked whether I was the real Charles MacLean.
As soon as introductions had been made, I dragged them outside for a cigarette, then we had some coffee (with excellent free sandwiches!) and I suggested lunch at Ardbeg, where I knew my friend Dave Broom would be. He turned out to be sitting with Robert Hicks (Master Blender, Ballantines and Teachers) and Mark Hunt (Marketing Director, Allied Distillers), so we spent an interesting couple of hours asking these gentlemen tricky questions... They left us around 3pm and I suggested we go and visit Donald Renwick, manager of Lagavulin, a distillery which is a second home for Dave and I - we go there every other month as part of a malts training programme. Donald was out, but Pinkie was persuaded to look after us.
Pinkie - Ian McArthur, to give him his proper name (he has a brother called Treacle, but History does not relate why) - is one of the characters of Islay. A small man, he runs a successful farm and various other enterprises, so far as I can ascertain, but also works at Lagavulin, where he in charge of the filling store. He has a quick wit, and specialises in teasing people and pricking pomposity. No better guide, but before we started he insisted we have a couple of 'Islay measures' of 16YO and the same of Distillers' Edition. In the still-house we were joined by Donald Renwick who invited us back to blind taste some unusual single cask samples... By the time we left Lagavulin Distillery we were well primed for the day's major event: a drinks party on board a large private yacht at Port Ellen pier, hosted by Glengoyne Distillery.
A quick word with the owner, Hugh McCaig (with whom I went on a very wet camping trip to Brittany in 1969 - another story), secured a warm welcome for my new found friends and Mr. Broom. Large Glengoynes were thrust into our
hands, but before we got started Stuart Hendry, from the distillery, asked us to give our opinion of four sherry-cask samples he was thinking of bottling. As I recall, we all agreed which sample we liked best, although they
were all very good. But by this time recall is a problem. I remember only snatches of conversations and have no idea when my new-found friends left the ship.
Perhaps they stayed as stow-aways...
And now I am a member of that very same distinguished circle. Life will never be the same...
Within a matter of days I was sucked into a 'maniacal' on-line discussion about 'borderline personalities.
That reminded me of an article I wrote for the US magazine 'Scottish Life' not to long ago.
I've included part of it in my first E-pistle because it deals with the very same topic;
Over the past twenty years it has become common to approach malt whiskies in terms of their regional differences, on the principal that the malts made on Islay are different to those made in Speyside for mysterious reasons of terroir. It was a brilliant marketing idea, which effectively communicated the fact that all malts are different in a way which was familiar to wine drinkers, used to the idea of differences within regions such as Bordeaux. The concept also made malts more accessible, encouraged consumers to explore whiskies from different parts of Scotland. What's more, it was justified by history in the ancient division between 'Highland' and 'Lowland' styles (first noted in the 18th century), and the later identification of 'Islay', 'Campbeltown' and 'Speyside' (originally called 'Glenlivet') styles by the end of the 19th century.
The first, faltering, step in the direction of marketing a selection of whiskies which displayed regional differences was made by the old Distillers Company Limited when it launched – or, rather, slipped discreetly onto the market - 'The Ascot Malt Cellar' in 1982. This was a collection of six whiskies: Rosebank (a Lowland malt), Linkwood (from Speyside), Talisker (from the Isle of Skye), Lagavulin (from Islay), Strathconnan (a vatted malt) and Glenleven (a vatted malt).
The idea was extended by the DCL's successor, United Distillers, in 1988 when the 'Classic Malts' range was launched, specifically to demonstrate the differences between malts made in one region and another. The selected malts were Lagavulin and Talisker (both of which had been part of the 'Ascot Malt Cellar', to represent the heavily peated style of Islay, and the slightly less smoky style of the Isles); Oban (maritime in character, representing the West Highlands), Dalwhinnie (a typical Highland malt), Cragganmore (a complex Speyside) and Glenkinchie (standing for the dryish Lowland style). All come from small, traditional, picturesque distilleries: the company had in mind the fact that consumers would want to visit the places where the malts were made, and soon developed visitor facilities at each.
It was an intelligent and appropriate move, and was hugely successful. Everyone began to talk about malts in terms of their region – 'a cheeky little Lowland', 'rather a good example of the North Highland style', 'classic
Perthshire whisky, of the sherried kind' . Writers divided and sub-divided the country into smaller and smaller 'regions'. Actually, in my own experience this was driven by publishers, for whom a 'regional' or even
'sub-regional' breakdown of malt whiskies was more accessible and made for a more attractive book.
Other whisky companies began to imitate the concept, but not having United Distillers' huge inventory of distilleries, their attempts were half-hearted. Seagram's, for example tried to sell their 'Heritage Selection', featuring Longmorn, Glen Keith, Strathisla and Benriach – all good malts, but all from Speyside, and having a broadly similar flavour profile. The project did not last.
But, although useful, the concept of regional differences is by no means infallible. If Islay malts are famously smoky – 'the most pungent whiskies made' – why are Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain so mild, with not a trace of smoke? If Lowlands are typically dry and short in the finish, yet Auchentoshan can be sweetly fruity and medium length? Speyside, where two-thirds of today's malt whisky distilleries are located, embraces a wide range of styles.
The truth is that it is not location - 'terroir' - which dictates the style of a whisky, it is tradition. For a hundred and fifty years, the main customers for malt whisky have been the blending houses, and the last thing
they want when they buy malt x from Islay or malt y from Speyside is for those malts to have changed in style – if they have done, it messes up the formula for the blend.
The style, character and flavour of any malt whisky come from two principal sources: the way it is made and the way it is matured.
The way it is made embraces the peating levels in the malt, the way the malt is processed, how long the wash is fermented, the size of the stills and how they are operated, the style of the condenser (traditional worm tub or 'shell and tube') – above all the craft of whisky making: how each individual distillery makes its whisky, and has been making it for decades.
The way it is matured encompasses the length of time the whisky has lain to the wood and the nature of the casks used – American or European oak? First fill or re-fill? In some cases up to 80% of the flavour of the mature whisky comes from the cask. Macallan is an example, and many very old malts. The style of the warehouse in which the whisky is matured (traditional or modern) and the location of the warehouse also play a part – but it's a small part, in relation to all the other factors.
If they chose to, the owner of distillery x (on Islay) could make a 'Highland' style malt, while distillery y (on Speyside) could produce a smoky 'Islay' style – although neither could produce a replica of the make of another distillery, even if that distillery was next door. But if the main customers for these distilleries are blenders – and remember that 95% of the malt whisky made goes for blending – Mr x and Mr y run the risk of losing their key customers. So they tend to stick to the way they have always done it, and to the extent that this way will be the way it has always been done in Islay or Speyside, or wherever, a local style emerges, a 'regional difference'.
I - The Malt Maniacs Awards 2003
Another maniacal venture originated when Johannes informed us about the 2003 MM Awards.
that the Malt Maniacs would be awarding medals to the best malt whiskies in the industry and Serge was working on it silently towards the logistics. Serge had obtained many bottles from various distilleries and independent bottlers and his plan was to distribute these between the 12 maniacs scattered over the globe for ratings. He asked each maniac how the consignment to be sent.
Unknowingly Serge drove me into a depression. Because the last time Johannes sent me 6 samples, I received a show cause notice from the Indian Customs as to how I had illegally and without proper import license imported some liquid chemical samples from Amsterdam. I told the customs that they were urine samples of some of the weird human specimens from Europe who are habitual whisky drinkers and I was on to some experiment relating to their genetic disorders. The customs cleared the samples immediately. Since I thought that a repeat lie could be ineffective, I was in a dilemma as to how I should receive all these specimens. I could never allow all these gems to end up in some lousy Indian customs warehouses unclaimed. Then Serge declared that that there would be some festivities in Turckheim like distilling Alsatian gewürztraminer at his home, visit to Olivier's winery and that Davin, Mark and Klaus along with his friends would be joining the party. Johannes informed that the awards tasting could be done at his apartment in Amsterdam followed by a drive down to Turckheim. It was an irresistible offer.
Obtaining a visa to Europe is a painful procedure.
One has to appear in person in Mumbai or New Delhi for a Dutch or
French visa. I did not want to go to Mumbai or to New Delhi for a
personal interview, as it would have involved a lot of travel; 3-4 days
at least. A clever travel agent came out with a brilliant idea that Austria
issues Schengen Visa without personal appearance and that after you
enter Vienna you are free to go any where in Europe. So I applied for a
Schengen Visa through Austrian Consulate in New Delhi and obtained
it within 4 days. So far so good. My route was as follows:
Hyderabad-Dubai-Amsterdam-Vienna-Amsterdam and back to home.
By now most of the European maniacs had received their samples
and were already finished with their part of the tastings.
So did Craig from Australia, Roman from Israel and Davin from Canada.
There was no news about the arrival of samples in the USA. My deadline
was to finish all samples in three days at Johannes place. Owing to my
Charlie Chaplin-like build I requested Johannes to show some pity on
my liver and asked for some extension of time. But he (like head master)
firmly refused. Johannes and Serge promised to our sponsors that the Malt Maniacs would declare the awards by evening of December 1, 2003 and the deadline had to be met. I learnt my first lesson: tasting malt whisky is no fun - it is serious business.
After a whole day's sightseeing in Vienna, I arrived at Amsterdam Schiphol airport around 6:30 PM on 29th December. My plan was to meet Johannes and Mark at Amsterdam Central railway station at the Burger King on platform #1. But due to some mix up I missed them at Amsterdam Central and managed to find my way to Johannes apartment (courtesy – a good Samaritan at Bullewijk railway station). Johannes and Mark arrived just a few minutes later.
After some warm greetings, usual backslapping and driving the Good
Samaritan out of apartment (who would have otherwise become
Johannes's permanent guest) Johannes ordered a Chinese rice plate
for dinner. We were down to serious business. It was already 11:00 PM
and I was dead tired. But Johannes is a tough taskmaster. Before the
final assault, Johannes declared the strategy. He would pour about 10ml
in his large goblets and the tasting would be blind. He had already tried
and rated all the malts and he would act as a master of ceremonies.
With plenty of water around, the tastings started on a quiet note.
The night of Nov. 29, 2003 saw us tasting 14 malts in the competition.
Although none of the samples could be identified, both Mark and myself
guessed all the Speyside malts correctly and in case of Talisker we placed
it in Islay. None of the notes and points was declared till the drams were
finished. Surprisingly, the scorings were uniform barring some exceptions.
The evening ended with a complimentary Loch Dhu 10yo (40%, OB).
Johannes, I shall never forgive you for this prank. It was my first Loch Dhu
and the colour carried me away. It tasted more like weak wine with lots of tannins. Cloying and fruity. Never saw such a dark whisky before and after 14 malts my mind was too tired to award points rationally. I gave the Loch Dhu 85 points and it made Mark and Johannes jump out of their seats. They looked at me as though something had seriously gone wrong with me. This was the highest ever rating given to a Loch Dhu as none of the Maniacs ever gave it beyond 70 points. The lowest, I think is as low as 11 points.
We also tried a 3-month-old whisky matured in a wine cask, supplied by Serge. That one really blew me apart. It was a bomber on the tongue. The nose was like red wine, fruity with faint hints of smoke. There was no strength mentioned and we guessed Serge might have bottled at beyond 50%. We hit the beds immediately after. It was past 4:00 AM.
We started November 30, 2003 with a quick brunch and we were off. Johannes suggested H2H tastings.
I said: "I've never had any heart to heart tastings before". Mark and Johannes fell out of their seats again. Silly me, I don't know how many times I was going to make an ***hole out of myself. Anyway, having known what H2H means (Head-to-Head) we embarked upon our noble mission. As Johannes had tasted all the samples before, he came out with an ingenious way of pouring similar kind of blinds. Johannes, who was playing master of ceremonies, in fact is now toying with two helpless victims.
It was another marathon session - the tastings went on again till 4:00 AM.
The finale of the MM Awards was on December 1, 2003.
Twenty more malts to go and the tastings started very early after a hurried breakfast of bread and ommlettes. I can't give the details (we promised the sponsors not to reveal the losers or the number of entries) but I can tell you about some strange results with some award winners. When Mark and I sampled the Longrow 10yo 1993 (46%, OB) we thought it was an Islay malt, while we mistook the Lagavulin 16yo (43%, OB) and Lagavulin 1986/2002 DE (43%, OB) both for Speyside malts! Again the tastings ended around 4:00 PM and Johannes had to feed the data into the computer. He had to declare the results in consultation with Serge. No prizes for guessing the Unanimous Overall Winner: Talisker 20yo 1981/2002 Sherry Casks (62%, OB). All the maniacs scored it in 90s and I was very happy to fall in line with the guys, having scored 92 points for this exceptional malt.
Since we had lot of time left for the day and also for the next two days, Johannes let us have several other malts from his whisky collection to increase our mileage. "A big Thank you, Johannes", for all those wonderful malts.
(see Johannes' Log Entry #150 for an overview of the whiskies we tried.)
II - The Journey; December 4, 2003
Johannes hired a car for the long journey from Amsterdam to Turckheim.
Since we had to reach Serge's place same evening to join the Brorathon, we started early at 9 a.m. From Amsterdam we headed towards Arnhem to enter the German border. Remembering the heroes of "A Bridge Too Far", the iconic examples of human bravery, we moved forward. Halted for a short brunch at Bocholt, a small town at the beginning of Ruhrgebeit. I had no idea that Germans eat so much for breakfast. I ordered something in German and a huge pig hoof landed on my plate with a mound of potatoe paste and my plate was overflowing with food. Despite my polite request to Mark to share my food, he refused to do so. "Sorry, Mark" if I had offended you. The journey continued and Johannes, by now was using the gas at 180 Kmph. The German Autobahns are really fast. At around 12noon we crossed Cologne and after half an hour I had a doubt that we were actually traveling backwards on the same road we crossed Cologne. I didn't dare to express my doubt to the head master who by now has all ready missed a couple of right exits. Anyhow, at around 2 p.m we knew, we were on a wild goose chase and despite our best efforts to follow a general southerly direction towards either Bonn or Koblenz, were actually heading north towards Düsseldorf.
Finally, we managed to take an easterly direction towards Holland and stopped at Venlo to take stock of the situation. By now, it was 4;00 PM. Since Serge and other Maniacs would be eagerly waiting for our arrival, we made a call to Serge to explain the situation. It was decided to abandon the plan of reaching Turckheim by car and instead try a different plan. So we decided to go back home and take either an aerial or a train route. Finally at around 9 pm we were back to pavilion. After a short and quick dinner we were drawing plans for another assault towards Turckheim. A few quick telephone calls to Amsterdam Central revealed that a train was starting at 11 p.m towards Strasbourg. If everything goes right we should be in Colmar by midday.
The journey involved changing trains at least at 5 stations and a long nightly stop-over;
11:00 PM Amsterdam – Utrecht. Change train to Eindhoven.
00:00 AM Eindhoven – Venlo.
01:00 AM Arrive at Venlo; wait for train to Düsseldorf.
04:30 AM Venlo – Düsseldorf. Change train to Cologne.
06:30 AM Düsseldorf – Cologne. Change train to Mannheim.
08:30 AM Cologne – Mannheim. Change train to Strasbourg.
10:30 AM Mannheim – Karlsruhe – Strasbourg, change to local train.
12:00 PM Strasbourg – Colmar.
As Johannes was totally exhausted and was not in a position to take any more journeys, he excused himself from joining the train trip to Turckheim. However, he was very gracious in accompanying us to Amsterdam Central and load us into our first train to Utrecht. Undaunted and unfazed by what has happened, the two missionaries proceeded on their mission. It was freezing cold.
Opera in Venlo
The train reached Venlo at 1 am and the next train to Dusseldorf
was at 4.30 am. We decided to spend the night inside the station
that was found to be relatively warm. It came as rude shock to
learn that the Dutch railway stations close during the night and
nobody is allowed to stay inside - not even two freezing maniacs.
A policeman was already on his way to drive us out of the station.
There we were, in the middle of a freezing night, on the open road,
without a place even to rest our bottoms. A statue in front of the
station said it all: 4 men frozen to death at Venlo waiting for a train.
Perhaps they didn't carry a bottle of Lagavulin. Just before leaving
his apartment, Johannes stuffed half a bottle of 16yo Lagavulin
into Mark's bag and whispered "just in case it is needed….".
It was the most sensible act of any of us during that day.
Was it "needed", Johannes? You bet!
Lagavulin straight form the bottle, John Wayne style in a Western Movie.
After a few gulps, the tenor came out of Mark. It was the highest form of natural adult male voice I had ever heard.
The town reverberated with the voice of Mark, singing Pagliacci with such an emotion that I stood spellbound. He sang different pieces of the opera explaining the meaning of each piece and tears rolled out of my eyes. Pagliacci could not have been staged at a better place ever before. The European Union Anthem was adopted at Strasbourg and how could Mark miss the Ode to Joy? The fourth movement of the 9th Symphony is always a joy to hear and Mark sang it so well. Then Mark forced me to sing. I was a bit shy at first. Since no body was around to hear my dreadful voice and with fire in my belly with Lagavulin, I burst into singing one of my old favourite songs – a revolutionary song written by Wolfgang Bierman during his days in erstwhile East Germany.
Soldat, Soldat in Grauer Norm
Soldat, Soldat in Uniform
Soldat, Soldat ihr seid zu viel
Soldat, Soldat das ist kein spiel
(The song goes on…)
Then a Bengali version of Old Man River written by Paul Robeson. How strange! Two mad men singing at odd hours of night in some foreign soil and in all languages except their mother tongues! The singing went
on until we realized that it was time to catch train to Duesseldorf. Time just flew by. It was the first 1000-point Lagavulin ever tasted by any one.
III - The Festivities
We arrived a little after noon at the Colmar train station.
With Christmas around the corner Colmar looked like a fairytale town
straight out of the medieval period. We were greeted by the Alsacians
and some of their guests; the picture shows (from left to right) Serge,
Mark, Olivier, Klaus (lovingly glancing at his girlfriend Marlou hiding
behind Oilivier), Davin and yours truly. We enjoyed a little stroll in
the old town before settling for lunch at a typical French restaurant.
The restaurant was adjacent to the house where Auguste Bartholdi,
the famous sculptor of Statue of Liberty was born. The restaurant itself
must've been a cellar in the old days going back a couple of centuries.
Everything about Colmar is historical. After a hearty lunch, Serge and
Olivier drove us to Turckheim, a half hour drive from Colmar. Serge
arranged the stay for me and Mark in a small hotel, situated just a
7 minute walk from his house. Serge knew we were tired and permitted
us to take rest till evening. Around 8:00 PM he knocked on my door
announcing that it was time to head for DOMAINE ZIND HUMBRECHT,
the vinyard of fellow maniac Olivier. Great!
Olivier, the first Master of Wines in France was already waiting with the rest of the maniacs in the cellar of Domaine Zind Humbrecht. Under subdued lighting, in the bowels of his cellar Olivier lined up the best wines that Domain Zind Humbrecht produces not only in the province of Alsace but also in entire France. I would be fooling myself if I comment upon the tasting notes of the wines that Olivier produced in our honour during the evening. Even without possessing much knowledge on wines, I could vouch that the wines were of exceptional taste and quality and in pure malt-maniacal terms, they all scored above 90s. Although it was not permitted to swallow the wine in wine tasting sessions, I did go to corners to steal some full gulps. The stuff was too precious to spit.
The wine tasting was followed by a sumptuous dinner at Olivier's house. The Master Wine Maker is also a Master Chef. He cooked an Alsace specialty direct from his grand mother's recipe. Baekaoffa (baker's oven), a delicious stew of beef, lamb and pork cooked in wine with potatoes, onions and lots of herbs. With such good wines and food, it was ambrosia. After dinner we all gathered in the study for the final round of tasting of Olivier's collection of Malts. Olivier has an amazing collection of malts I had ever come across and he placed in front of us the following to taste:
86 - Linlithgow 26yo 1975/2001 (51.5%, Signatory Vintage)
84 - Ben Nevis 30yo 1971/2001 (55.6%, OB)
90 - Ardbeg 30yo (40%, OB, Black Label)
94 - Ardbeg 25yo 1975/2000 (50%, Douglas Laing OMC)
82 - Bruichladdich 18yo 1983/2001 (58.8%, OB)
92 - Laphroaig 30yo (43%, OB)
90 - Laphroaig 40yo (42.4%, OB)
82 - Highland Park 17yo 1984/2001 (50%, Douglas Laing OMC)
89 - Highland Park 23yo 1978/2001 (50%, Douglas Laing OMC)
80 - Macduff 36yo 1965/2002 (49.2%, Douglas Laing OMC)
86 - Glenfarclas 21yo 1978/1999 (60.3%, OB)
78 - Glenfarclas 11yo 1990/2001 (46%, OB, Plain oak cask, June 1990/May 2001)
80 - Glenfarclas 11yo 1990/2001 (46%, OB, Olorosso cask, April 1990/May 2001)
82 - Glenfarclas 11yo 1990/2000 (46%, OB, Fino sherry cask, Feb 1990/May 2000)
96 - Brora 29yo 1972/2001 (59.5%, Douglas Laing Platinum Collection, 240 Bottles) - The best malt whisky I ever tasted!
85 - Glenlochy 49yo 1952/2001 (43%, Douglas Laing OMC) - The oldest whisky on the Matrix!
It was almost 3;00 AM and it was decided to call it a day (or night). Had it not been for early morning gathering at Serge's place the next day, the session would have gone forever. It was one of the most amazing days in my life.
The self-contained distillation plant (the picture at the right was taken
by Klaus' friend Michael) was brought to Serge's house the day before.
Serge's friends arrived well in time and already the white wine was flowing
by 8:00 AM in the morning. All of Serge's friends who came were connected
with wine industry in some way or the other. So, you have special wines
brought from the private cellars of master wine makers themselves.
Someone ordered fresh oysters from Brittany and the party started with
oysters with white wine and a dash of lemon. Could there be any better
way to start the day? After some greedy grabbing of oysters, one of the
inquisitive friends of Serge asked me, "Do you eat raw oysters in India?"
I did not know how to react or answer immediately. Since some varieties
of oysters, clams and mussels are available so cheap in India and form a
normal part of diet of some low income groups, I blurted out,
"Yes, but only poor people India eat them".
Having just spent a fortune on bringing the fresh oysters from Brittany,
the Frenchman simply did not know how to react to my strange reply.
He said "but we are poor people in Alsace".
By now the flame steadied and the machine was charged with local
gewürztraminer wine, out of which the final product would evolve.
See Serge's E-pistle #05/11 for a detailed account of the distillation
process or Klaus' report about Santa Klaus Day in Alsace for many
more pictures (and more details) of our Alsacian adventures.
During the entire day there was a steady stream of guests and it was very heartening to see such strong family ties. Everybody knew eachother in Turckheim. Since there were so many guests, help came from every family. Serge's wife was constantly at work in the kitchen helped by his dear daughter and friends. Variety of red wines was brought specially for the occasion and the festivities continued till late in the evening. By seven in the evening the second distillation was over and the distillate was brought for tasting. It looked like arrack with a fruity nose. The palate was better than the nose and at more than 50% abv, it was a bomber on the tongue. May be with some aging it could mellow down. Serge had already prepared the labels for the bottles with an apt name. WMD from Alsace! In the evening somebody mentioned that there was an opera singer in the group and Serge had to ask Mark to sing for his friends. And so I had the honour of hearing Mark again and his Pagliacci. Very nice, but I thought the rendering of Pagliacci at Venlo was far more enjoyable.
The next day, after a sober breakfast at Serge's house, Mark and I bid farewell to his friends and especially his wife and children. Serge and his daughter dropped Mark and me at the train station for our journey back to Amsterdam. Thus ended the festivities of Turckheim with fantastic food, fabulous wines, fantabulous whiskies and above all, fanatical friends. I cannot recall any occasion when I had so much fun in my entire life!
A discussion of regional classifications of malts
Precision. That's what we need, more precision.
In years gone by, dating back long before 1494 when Friar John Cor became the first documented malt whisky distiller, the objective of whisky makers was to put to good use surplus barley (or bere). For centuries whisky was sold right off the still as new make and taken away in whatever containers were handy . Without a doubt, flavours varied from batch to batch. Stills were much more numerous than they are now, in fact there were so many stills many people made whisky just for their own use and individual outputs were limited by the small size of the stills and the locally available volumes of surplus barley. It is believed that most of this early whisky was pretty dreadful to taste and often herbs and spices and sometimes honey were added to make it more palatable. Having tasted new make spirit a number of times, I can say it does have a certain appeal and varies quite considerably in flavour among even geographically close distilleries. They are all sweet with alcohol, but some, such as that from Aberlour is grassy while the output of Glenfarclas can be quite fruity. A head-to-head tasting at Bruichladdich of organic versus non -organic new make spirit was quite astounding, the organic tasting almost like eau de vie.
The first attempts to organize distilling came from politicians who felt they should have a share of the proceeds.
And so, the first 'geographical' organization likely divided distilleries into districts based on the residence of the gauger, or taxman, and the routes he must follow to collect the duties. At the same time, crafty distillers learned to avoid taxes by hiding their stills and moving them if discovered. Undoubtedly new stills would be moved back into prime locations once the heat was off. Again, another spin on regional definitions: Do different stills in the same location make a regional style while the same still moved does not?
Well at this time in history, local barley would have been the only barley, as would local water and yeast, so the influence of raw materials would, without doubt, have been regional or even sub-regional, but certainly external influences on the flavour, such as size and location of still would have dominated so it's doubtful any regional styles existed. For that to occur there needed to be some stability in raw materials, yes, but also in the size, shape and location of stills. Charlie tells us, "I have heard it said that one of the reason's for 'Glenlivet's' excellence was that they did not have to remove their stills, and could distil slowly, in peace, owing to the remoteness of the glen and the fact that gaugers could be easily spotted miles away!" Eventually though, the taxman won out and distilling became regulated and controlled, forcing the payment of taxes, but also allowing larger, permanent facilities to be safely established. Here lay the origins of real regional styles: the same raw materials, being processed in the same manner, using the same equipment, in the same location, decade after decade.
Stabilizing whisky production not only made way for consistency in flavour, but also made it practical to produce whisky on larger and larger scales. Over time, the average customer was not a farmer with a jug, but a merchant, first with a barrel and later with many, many barrels and now with stainless steel tanker trucks. New make whisky (and legally it's not even whisky - more precision) rarely finds its way into the hands of any but the most dedicated malthead. By law, it must spend three years in oak cask on Scottish soil before it can be sold as whisky. In reality, though, this is just the start. Usually it spends many more than 3 years maturing in cask, and usually, it is then sold to a middle man for blending with grain whisky before being sold to consumers as well-advertised brands with very well-defined flavour profiles.
A discussion of regional styles deals solely with styles of single malts, so the discussion often misses the point that malts are made to be sold, and the biggest source of sales is the blender. Charlie points out in his Parish of Peats E-pistle that for a hundred and fifty years the main customers for malt whisky have been the blending houses and the last thing they want when they buy a malt is for its style to have changed thus upsetting their blending recipes. This explains why individual distilleries have their own 'house style' as Michael Jackson calls it, (drawing from the wine world), but it does not provide insight into the theory that distilleries in a common geographic region also have a common regional style. But Charlie continues, "A key element here is custom and craft. Distillers in one place might do things slightly differently from distillers in another; their innate, even superstitious, conservatism would continue the traditions; and the extreme secrecy which surrounded the practices of each distillery until very recently (say 1990) – remember managers within the DCL were not even allowed to speak to their colleagues in other distilleries! – would tend to isolate the practices in one district or another."
Charlie goes on to say "The style, character and flavour of any malt whisky come from two principal sources: the way it is made and the way it is matured." He lists a number of variables in production and equipment each of which does tend to vary even among distilleries in close proximity. Moreover, he further states that maturation can account for up to 80% of the flavour. If this be true, and there is no reason to doubt it, then given that distilleries only rarely use local barley, and never local yeast these days, the concept of regional styles becomes somewhat artificial, particularly given new developments such as an unpeated (so-called Highland) Caol Ila and a heavily peated Jura that just lights a bonfire on the palate.
I don't support the idea of regional styles. I think it's a hold-over from when wine weenies began to make money writing about whisky and transferred their vocabularies over to the whisky world holus bolus. Johannes likes regional classifications, in part because it helps him plan comparative tasting sessions. We all know what a typical Islay taste means: masses of peat smoke and sweet and sour, a powerful nose and a finish that lasts until morning. We know this but just as certainly know that Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain, though wonderful whiskies, don't have even a hint of typical Islay. Some folks even like them better.
If you've read Johannes' Borderline Personalities article on Malt Madness you know that a few months ago Serge and Johannes began discussing the matter of distilleries that different sources put in different areas. "Until now I've faithfully followed Michael Jackson's classifications, but I felt it was time I tried to make up my own mind." said Johannes. "I did a dedicated tasting session a few days ago and the results were that it might be time to change the regional classifications of these distilleries on MM:
Brackla - from Speyside (Findhorn Valley) to Highlands (North)
Dalwhinnie - from Speyside (Central) to Highlands (West)
Glen Albyn - from Speyside (Inverness) to Highlands (North)
Glen Mhor - from Speyside (Inverness) to Highlands (North)
Millburn - from Speyside (Inverness) to Highlands (North)
Tomatin - from Speyside (Findhorn Valley) to Highlands (North)"
Johannes supported his research with a table Serge had put together in which he took different writers' opinions and did a sort of average to come up with where each distillery should be classified. Now to me, identifying locations is all about maps and coordinates, and tasting a whisky to determine which region it is from involves a bit of circular logic. It goes something like this: We taste a bunch of whiskies from a defined geographical area, let's say Speyside and they have some common 'malt markers' as Craig calls them, so we say Speyside whiskies have these markers. Then we taste a whisky that doesn't have these markers and despite its having been distilled in Speyside we say it isn't a Speyside whisky because it doesn't have typical Speyside markers. See what I mean? All dogs are black; that dog is not black; therefore it is not a dog. But here is Serge's table:
(Editor's note: Brackla and Dallas Dhu are actually located west of Speyside!)
Johannes sent it around to the Maniacs and asked if it was time to change the 'designations' of these distilleries.
I responded with stese two questions:
1. Why do we classify distilleries by region at all? This seems to me to be a hold over from when wine writers started writing about whisky and felt more comfortable with regional classifications like they have in
wine. But if you want a great Speyside whisky - try Bunnahabhain from Islay. I say drop the geographical
classification altogether it conveys no useful information unless someone wants to plan a tour. How about classified by flavours - Loch Fyne Whiskies classifies their stock according to 5 flavour profiles.
2. If we want to use geographical classifications can we just go to a map? Averaging out geography based on varying opinions seems a bit prone to error.
To this, Craig quickly chimed in saying "Davin makes a good point. Because I used to be big into 'blind' identification of whiskies through the National Malt Tasting Competition, I actually went out of my way to look at flavour profiles (a la Wishart) and ignored any putative regional characteristics. In this way I could group whiskies like Scapa, Deanston and Bruichladdich (in their normal commercial guise) and Highland Park, Bunnahabhain and Glenfarclas (again in the normal standard guises) into subgroups based on 'malt markers' that have little or nothing to do with regions. Anyway, both Brora and Longrow make a mockery of Islay being the source of all heavily peated whiskies. And then you've got left field distilleries like Imperial that almost always seems like a Lowland to me and Glen Scotia and Oban that almost always seem like island whiskies. I don't think the regions are much use other than for itinerary planning." I have to say I tend to agree with Craig, and Johannes also could see the logic.
"However," he wrote, "if you follow that path to its conclusion, you arrive at the core of the whole 'single malt' idea. With more and more IBs becoming available it's obvious that the 'traditional' profile of some OBs is only achieved by careful vatting of many casks - just like they do with blends. The only way to make really sure how much a distillery actually contributes to the profile of the end product is to compare many samples of new make spirit." But having tasted new make from Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig, I can say the differences in new make greatly exceed the differences in finished product. Clearly Charlie is right; maturation is a major contributor. Johannes went on to say "Actually, I think developing a number of 'flavour profiles' like Davin mentioned could be a very challenging Malt Maniacs project. We could use these next to the regional classifications - I think chucking them overboard completely is a bit drastic - and like Davin and Craig pointed out they are still useful for travel planning and figuring out a 'theme' for your tasting sessions."
Klaus, on the other hand, thought classifying malts by flavour profiles was good in theory, but he saw two major obstacles:
1.) He thought it would be impossible to assign flavours exactly to a malt. "There will be variations, depending on the individual sensory equipment. I fear, if we use a flavour-based grouping, we will have even more borderline malts than with the geographical categories." 2. "Which malt is used to categorize a distillery? There can be huge variations even if we take only OBs into account (see Talisker 20yo 1981/2002 (62%, OB, Sherry, 9000 bottles)."
Well, true Klaus, but remember, sherry-matured Taliskers are few and far between and this gets back to Charlie's point that much of the character of a whisky is imparted post-distillation. As Olivier and Klaus both point out, this is especially true when we consider whiskies that are 'finished.' But as long as we are talking about Talisker, here is a whisky whose flavour profile has changed radically over the past four or five years. The 10yo used to be my number one whisky and I have dozens of minis I bought about five years ago. Tasting these head to head with the new 10yo it hardly seems like the same malt. The newer bottlings are much sweeter and laced with vanilla, a result, Nick Morgan says, of current batches actually being in the 12 to 13 year range. But again, would the older vattings and the newer both be considered as coming from the same region? I doubt it.
But he's a trickster, that Klaus, and after questioning the possibility of putting together flavour profiles he went on to propose some alternate approaches to bringing more precision to the classification of whiskies.
- Alphabetical order
- Number of letters in the distillery name
- Average rating of the distilleries malts on the matrix (results in a floating position)
- Output of the distillery (needs careful research and changes from year to year)
- Average price of a typical malt from the distillery
- Age of the distillery (almost to dig out, sometimes)
- Grouping by the the mother company under which the distillery is operating.
Well that got Johannes thinking and he came back with this response: "My own conclusions are just like Klaus' and Davin's: Regions are not nearly as important as we're led to believe. I thought that the peatiness of Islay malts was a regional trait until I tried peated mainlanders like Brora and Croftengea. And is the Auchentoshan Three Wood a 'typical' Lowlander? Hardly... That being said, I wouldn't want to chuck out regional classifications altogether."
Meanwhile, back in Alsace, Olivier was being drawn into the discussion as well. Olivier, as a wine maker, uses traditional methods to produce instantly recognizable wines. In his hands, terroir is truly manifest, and can be as geographically specific as a single vineyard. Olivier has lots of ideas for introducing terroir into whisky making, but this would mean getting back to traditions of using local raw materials. Oliver jumped into our discussion of borderline distilleries thusly: "This goes back to my constant irritation in whisky tasting: identical barley supply, peating process, yeasts, temperatures, distillation profile (re-using all the tails and heads) lead to identical final products. Only the shape of the still, origin & quality of the cask and ppm phenols make a difference in the end, and this is not related to the geography! Water is an interesting subject. This is geography related, and we heard that Isle of Jura and Bunnahabhain (and certainly other distilleries) are reducing their new make to 63.5% ABV using unfiltered local spring water.... This must influence the taste of the final whisky with no doubt. The day people like Bruichladdich or Kilchoman will start more close to earth process, they will no doubt develop a much stronger geographical identity. The difference between the organic and conventional new makes that we tried at Bruichladdich was very interesting."
I just couldn't agree more Olivier, but, and there's always a 'but', getting back to organic production means getting back to very small outputs. Since malt is made to be sold; and the major customer is the blender; and the blender demands large volumes and consistent flavour profiles, how will organic production be a viable way to keep a distillery open? Connoisseurs will buy some – look at the passion generated by Springbank's 'Local Barley'- but overall, commercial production methods will have to reign supreme if a distillery is to remain solvent, so the few batches of real local organic whisky will most certainly have a regional style, in fact they would define it, (and wouldn't we be surprised if it wasn't what we were expecting!) but overall, the house style of distilleries is going to remain the dictate of the blenders, and so, for commercial production, I still say regional style is a misnomer.
But while Olivier was musing over ways to get real regional styles, Johannes was still thinking about the idea of developing flavour profiles to classify whiskies. "Well," he said, "I have to say I like the idea of developing some kind of standard MM flavour profiles. It would be difficult, but I think it's doable - if not today maybe in the foreseeable future. How? Through the power of numbers, my friends! Don't forget that as a collective, we have already tried over 2,500 different malts. Although one particular bottling may be very different from the 'normal' output of a distillery, we should be able to say something about certain 'markers' or characteristics when we've tried 40 or 50 different bottlings. Even though it may be hard to define these specifically, the fact that some of us get a fair number of 'hits' in a 100% blind test proves that at least our subconscious is learning..." And here Johannes I think you have hit on something. First of all, why do we want to classify whiskies at all? Well, I think it's to make it easier to understand them. I know when I am planning a tasting I pay most attention to the flavour profiles not the regions. A heavy Brora near the start of a session will just kill a Rosebank that follows. No, I carefully arrange the whiskies from least powerful to most powerful from unpeated to more peated in an effort to allow the palate to enjoy all of them. So yes, describing them by flavour profile would be much more useful to me.
And I agree with Johannes on the power of numbers. During a conversation with some industry types on Islay, comments were made and supported that whisky scores have very little value; they convey very little information. When I countered with our system of averaging up to 12 separate scores per malt, their arguments were significantly attenuated. On Islay, I also met a writer who claimed to be from the second most influential whisky publication in the world. Darn, I forget the name, Scottish Field, perhaps? Anyway, he told me they use a panel of about 6 or more retailers and barmen who taste whiskies blind for their ratings, and they claim this gives more credibility to their scores. I've had a lot of fun with various blind tastings Johannes has arranged for me and I think blind tastings would be a very reliable way to develop flavour profiles. I think for the most part, the scores for the Malt Maniacs Awards, for example, were based on blind tastings.
Craig has put quite a bit of thinking into establishing benchmark malts and this fits in beautifully with the flavour profile concept. Tasted blind, some malts are instantly recognizable by flavour more than by region. Macallans for example and the recent Bowmores often exhibit quite distinctive and unique flavours and noses. I like the idea of developing flavour profiles, in fact I have a whole slew of Glengoynes at hand and I think I will begin with them as an example of wholly unpeated malts. It will take time though. Craig mentioned David Wishart's flavour profiles, and I think he's made a good start. Eventually I'll review his book for my Fun For Four Eyes series, but at first glance, I think he has a certain rigidity that doesn't quite capture the profiles as I see them. More research is needed and I guess we're the ones to do it. I'll avoid the obvious joke.
But there is another thing that contributes to the taste of the whisky, which might lead to the introduction of a new malt marker regardless of region of origin. As Olivier and Serge have been saying for so long the amount of time a whisky has spent in the bottle has a noticeable affect on the flavour. He makes great wines, yes, but Olivier along with Serge also makes eau de vie. This is a double-distilled white spirit that is bottled directly off the still then aged in loosely corked bottles over a period of years. Eau de vie most definitely does mature in glass, and so, despite all the assertions to the contrary, should whisky. The idea of bottle aging was confirmed when we had lunch with Robert Hicks, the master blender from Ballantynes (he also made Ardbeg Oldest, one of my favourite whiskies, though a travesty in some people's opinion, but that's another story). He told us that if a bottle is not sold after four years they decant it and mix it in at about 1% with newly blended whisky. The reason? After four years the flavour profile has changed enough you can taste it. Olivier and Serge attributed this to bottle aging and Robert as good as confirmed this. He said he could taste glass in the whisky, but he was very interested when one of us said that he felt whisky improves after years in the bottle. I wonder if 'glass' could be a malt marker and if so if this has some implications for our scores for old bottlings versus new.
Another interesting tid-bit we got from a woman we met at Glengoyne was that when she was working for Famous Grouse she learned that the blend is different in different markets. She said if you compared a bottle from Asia with one from Europe they would be different as the blend is 'tweaked' to suit local tastes. You have to wonder then about single malts bottled for specific markets although she said they would be the same all over. Still, this could add yet another dimension to the concept of regional characteristics. These comments couldn't help but catch Krishna's interest.
In dramming sessions in Scotland last summer, Krishna remarked several times how different the malts tasted in Scotland than they did back home in India, and writing from India he had this to add to our regional differences discussion: "That is what I have been saying all along. For me whisky tastes different in Europe than in India. Yesterday I was tasting a Teachers and it tasted totally different. Same is the case with all famous blends like Famous Grouse, Black Dog, Finlagger, etc. that are now being bottled in India. Mind you, all these brands used to be imported directly from UK until a couple of years ago and they used to taste very different. I mean they were all original blends. Now they are bottled in India (with local waters) at around 42.5% abv and are very light. Is it possible that malts could also be bottled to suit local palates?"
Johannes rose to the bait and leapt in enthusiastically: "Oh, yes definitely. I've heard this from several sources as well when we're talking about blends," said Johannes, "Alexander will be interviewing 'Wally the Collector' soon - he is convinced that (at least until very recently) some distilleries (like Springbank) sent all their best casks and vattings to the USA." Hmmm. Well I wonder what 'regional differences' we might find between Springbanks exported to America and those sold at home. For sure no one likes Springbank more than the Americans. Although I'm sure their core ranges are the same in every market, Macallan makes a specific 7yo bottling for Italy and Aberlour makes many 'expressions' solely for the French market. A bottling Jura did for Japan recently was so Islay-like as to be unrecognizable as a Jura. Would an Italian or a Japanese malt drinker disagree with our regional profiles if they were most familiar with these market -specific bottlings?
But Charlie reminds us the locale where it's consumed can affect how a malt tastes as well. "The fact that whiskies taste different in different places does not necessarily mean they are different vattings (although in the case of India, Lord knows…!)" says Charlie. "Some years ago I organized a tasting of six single casks of Glengoyne, sending samples to the U.S., New Zealand, Germany and London. My German nose collected his samples, and we tasted them here in Scotland. Then he took them to Germany and tasted them again there – he remarked on how different they tasted! It's the old retsina test: tastes great on a beach in Greece, but foul when you bring it home!"
But getting back to the influence on flavour profiles of aging in bottles. This is just blasphemous to almost all of maltdom and certainly puts a big kink in the whole concept of age statements. How old is an 8yo Glenfiddich that has sat 30 years in a bottle? Officially it's 8 years old, but when Serge, Olivier and Johannes tried one they found a very different malt than what Glenfiddich is producing now and one that was much superior to the current 12yo version. I have a little bottle of Glenfiddich 8yo tucked away from the 1960's and will have to crack it open soon to see just what the story is, but Serge has already given me a dram of a 12yo Oban from the 1970's and yes, it was a rich and robust little Oban that would stand up well against the current 14yo. In fact, to me it rates about 7 points higher than the 14yo of 2004. But what does this have to do with regional differences you ask? Well this: I have only tasted a few malts that have sat long in the bottle, but Serge and Olivier have tasted many and they say it improves them noticeably. "I support them in this," says Charlie, "but believe it is due to plant changes during the 1960s and 70s (direct firing, own floor maltings, use of worm tubs, lauter tuns, possibly barley varieties)." However, if Robert Hicks, a professional taster, can taste the contribution of time spent in glass after only 4 years in the bottle, then we have yet another variable that must be controlled before we can attribute flavour to 'regional style'.
Klaus is a physical scientist and knows his chemistry and physics inside out. He too has a belief, based primarily on theory, that aging must occur in the bottle. In his own words, "Do you speak of bottle ageing in a closed bottle? I think so. Although almost the whole whisky community says that whisky does not change in the closed bottle, I never really wanted to believe this. The bottle is not really air-tight. Light (photons) can interact with the contents of the bottle and chemical reactions with a small probability but nevertheless driven into a certain direction will happen, especially if the liquid rests for several years. On the other hand, the statement 'I can taste glass' is pure nonsense! Silicon will not be dissolved by alcohol. There must be something else happening to which is attributed the 'glassy' flavour. Too bad that nobody really tries to find out which substance is responsible for the "glassy" flavour (my guess: aldehydes)." Well , I don't think Robert actually said he could taste 'glass' but Olivier added that he knows lead does dissolve into alcohol and it is very dangerous to use old crystal decanters made with lead to store spirits.
Whatever the contribution, it's clear there are many more influences on the flavour of a malt than the region where it was distilled. There are the raw materials, which now may come from all over the world. There is the water used for diluting the whisky at bottling, which most often does not come from a source near the distillery. There are the casks used and where they are stored, which also is often quite distant from the distillery. There are the specific casks of mature whisky selected to vat the single malt. There are the dictates of the blenders and the market for which the malt is intended. There are editors who think regional classifications make a more saleable book, and there are also the marketing men who may think one region is more saleable than another. Glengoyne, for example is sold as a Highland malt, but as Charlie said: "Note: Glengoyne was traditionally a Lowland malt." And there you have it.
I seemed to recall Glengoyne being called a Lowlander in the past and Charlie confirmed this by sending me his blenders list from 1974, where Glengoyne is listed under Lowland. But a look at the Glengoyne website gives an even more telling story. It seems the dividing line between the Highlands and the Lowlands runs right through the distillery. Glengoyne could rightly call itself either. Michael Jackson would like to have them throw their lot in with the Lowlanders and help bring their number up to critical mass, but clearly Glengoyne has chosen to go with the big sellers and claim their rights in the Highlands. Precision: precisely where would you classify Glengoyne for a tasting? Highland, Lowland, or maybe over on Islay with Bunnahabhain?
Sounds like the knockout blow for regional styles, doesn't it? But Serge, who started this whole discussion with his table and has been sitting back wryly watching the discussion unfold, has jumped back into the fray with a viewpoint that almost argues whisky regions are like appellations (ironic since the best moonshine in America is said to come from the homonymous (in English) … Appalachians), Klaus is busily trying to work out the chemistry of in-bottle changes, Olivier hints that Signatory, Glemorangie (because of its finishes), and I presume, Gordon and MacPhail have their own styles and so could be 'regions' and Johannes has more he wants to add as well. So the battle rages. Watch this space for the next update.
What is a dream trip for a single malt lover? Soaked in single malts for one week? Not really.
Though I haven't visited any distillery before, at the time I know Bruichladdich Academy, I know my dream is about to come true.
Saturday, May 22, 2004
It's not the first time I travel alone, but it's the first time I travel alone on a non-business trip since I got married 8 years ago. I have to thank my wife for giving me this opportunity to fulfill my single malt dream. At this Saturday evening, when all people around me are crazy about Michael Jordan's first visit to Taipei, my distillery trip starts.
I have never been to Scotland before.
In the past few years, I had planned my single malt trip several times; however, none of them really worked out. The reason was quite simple: when you have little children like me, a distillery tour seems not a really good idea for a family trip. Therefore, my travel plan was delayed year by year. At the time I learned about the Bruichladdich Academy program, I told myself: this is the time; I got to do it right now. Fortunately, with my wife's support, I can finally visit Islay. Many of my friends asked me: we can understand you choose Islay for your first distillery trip, but why Bruichladdich? I think it all makes sense if you have tons of questions about single malt but have no one to go for at your homeland. Being able to work in a distillery for one week would be a great experience. Making single malt will not be "books" anymore. And, you have to admit one thing: how many distilleries will offer this kind of opportunity for common people like you and me? We are just malt lovers; we are nobody. Considering all these reasons, I think 1,300 pounds for one-week distillery working experience is really cheap. At least, it's worth it for me.
Sunday, May 23, 2004
Bad start. After the 24-hour flight, I finally made to Glasgow, but my luggage didn't arrive with me as expect. When you need to transfer through busy airports like Bangkok and London, this kind of shitty things does happen. After checking into my hotel, I still had 2 hours to do some emergency shopping. Luckily, besides the necessities, I was able to locate the gifts for my family. On the way back to the hotel, I even bought an ice cream for myself, and my mood seemed to cheer up by the lovely orange-chocolate ice cream.
Still have jetlag.
After some simple food and the famous Belgian "Hoegaarden" Beer, I went to sleep early.
But it's weird that the hotel recommend me this one.
Monday, May 24, 2004
Got up early at 3:00 AM, it's already 10AM in Taiwan.
Called back office for some boring stuff. I started reading the only book I brought: Malt Whisky by Charles MacLean.
After two hours reading, I finally got my Full English Breakfast and then headed to the airport.
It was a lovely sunny morning, so the pilot only took 20 mins to get to Islay. As it was 30 mins earlier than the scheduled arrival time, the pilot decided to take us for a touring fight around the island. We passed by Ardbeg, Laguvulin, Laphroaig, Port Ellen Malting, then passed the airport, and flew to Laggan Bay back and forth several times. Finally the plane got the permission to land. People always say it's so touching when you first see Laphroaig on the fairy arriving Islay. I have to say the same thing as I overlooked above to see these distilleries; it's unbelievable when those "labels on the bottles" become real buildings in front of you.
Lynee McEwan picked us up. She is Master Jim McEwan's daughter. Roger, my Swedish classmate, arrived at the same flight with me. Roger has a business to hold tasting events for people. This is his second trip to Islay. Lynee also works for Bruichladdich right now. She told us there are three other classmates from South Africa arrived one day earlier and have started their "work". There's another Scot that will arrive later at noon by fairy. It didn't take long to arrive Bruichladdich from the airport. Our Academy House is right behind the distillery. It is an old cottage house; Bruichladdich renewed it during the distillery off-season. Lovely country inn style. Lynee showed us our rooms, and gave us our Academy uniforms. Then she asked us to find Jim later.
After a short rest, Roger and I got changed and headed to the distillery office. The office is on the second floor, not too difficult to find. We broke in several office rooms and finally found Jim. Jim was on a telephone call, so he asked us to sit down to let him finish it. We sat in front of his desk, at that moment, I felt like I was back to be a college boy in my professor's office. Well, if you also travel half the world and finally see the master, I bet you'll be as nervous as I was.
Jim finished the conversation, turned it off and was ready to have some talk with us.
Obviously, We knew who he is, he knew who we are; it was not really the self-introduction thing. After a few words, he cut to the point: how much do we know about the whisky production? He talked a little bit about the production, and then mentioned the final exam at the end of the week. It was a mistake we asked what would be in the exam. He turned seriously and said: "You'll be able to answer those questions if you really pay attention during this week. But, I also ask you to read books I put in the living room of your academy house. You need to find out some of the answers from those books, questions like how many distilleries still survive today? how many surviving distilleries are there in Speyside region? What does the year of 1494 mean? What does the year of 1881 mean?"
Oh my! I am sure I know some of the answers but you can't be seriously to ask a Taiwanese amateur to memorize the Scottish malt history. He asked us to take our memo books out and to start writing down some facts. When he finished his brief history lesson, he said: "Reading is important. You got to know how whisky came to this stage. You got to know it!" I began to think that the history I read on books may be just some boring stuff for me, but it's what makes the whole industry today. Living in a whisky world like Jim, whisky history is not just boring stuff.
After the scary conversation, Jim was back to be an interesting master.
He showed us around the distillery, introducing people to us. We also met the other three poor working classmates from South Africa. The academy can take up to 6 students per week. Each student will work in turns to go through all the process in the distillery. My shift for today should be "mashing". My classmate Andy is up for the first shift, I'll join the second shift at 11:30.
The concept about mashing is quite easy. It is a process to squeeze out all the sugar containing in the malt. What really surprised me is that all the procedures here are manual. Before I came here, I knew Bruichladdich wants to maintain as traditional as possible, but I didn't realize how traditional it is until now. This kind of practice almost all relies on the mashman's experience. Though you know how much malt and water you add in, you also know there are exceptions from time to time; if you don't extract the same sugar level each time, the fermentation later, or the "washing" they called, would become a disaster.
I remember I was very nervous not only because of the all human-work process but because of the conversation with Jim. I mean, who can actually act normal if you really step on your dreamland and talk with the real Master you only know from books or magazines. It was the Mashman Allen, who calmed me down. Allen didn't talk too much; he is a very nice young man who knows all the tricks about his work. He answered every question I asked, slowly but clearly. He didn't want to pretend he knows everything, in the contrary, he asked Jim later when he wasn't sure how to answer my question.
This is the first week they change the mashing capacity from 7 tons of malt to 5 tons.
I was very surprised to learn from Allen that they made this change only because previous students complained about not being able to go through all the process by the old schedule. Jim figured out by reducing the mashing capacity, he would be able to work with academy students two rounds per day. Though, it means the distillery needs extra teamwork to adjust the change and to make sure everything goes smoothly to maintain the production. This change did result in some problems. As the malt reduced from 7 tons to 5 tons, you might think you just need to reduce the time proportionally. However, in the real world, it was not as easy as simple numbers; everything just didn't turn out exactly. Jim came back several times to check all the data. It's amazing that Allan discussed with Jim how to adjust the mashing speed only by looking at the clearness of the liquid the people called "wort".
I don't want to go through all the details as I know it does not really interest all of you readers, but I have to tell you that Jim really wanted us to memorize all the numbers and procedures, and those all appeared in the test we took at the end. I guess it's strange if you look at yourself as a "student", but it makes sense if you look at yourself to be a "mashman".
After the mashing, the remains, called "draff", are going to
be fed to the cattle. Mark Reynier, managing director of the
distillery, told us an interesting story during the week.
Mark said he encountered an old island farmer one day.
This old man held his hands for quite a long time and cried:
"It's so wonderful you bring Bruichladdich back alive!"
Then he said: "My cattle are so happy Bruichladdich is back.
They love Bruichladdich! You know, I did an experiment on
them: I put the draff from Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, and
Laphroaig separately, then I opened the gate.
All of my cattle ran to your draff immediately!"
Well, I can only say they hate peat.
The wort goes to the wooden "washback" and stays
therefor at least 65 hours to finish the fermentation.
During this process, adding yeast is something you need
to be very careful. You certainly want to maintain the fruit
flavor comes from the yeast, but you also want the fermentation
to go as scheduled. That's why there are two kinds of yeast being used.
Olivier, one of the maniacs, has questioned about the necessity to add yeast in the fermentation process. He said: "If you really want to create a local flavor malt, you probably want the barley to bring all the flavor into the alcohol. Anything added is not necessary." I think he really makes some point. There sure is part of flavor we can try to extract from local barley, and we should set that kind of high standard or expectation to Bruichladdich. After all, it's Bruichladdich itself to stand as "independent", not like the large multi-national monsters.
After 6 hours of hard work, it came to the valuable warehouse tasting.
The Academy Guidelines we received only states ONE master class at the end of the week and does not guarantee it would be held by Jim McEwan. Thus, when Jim asked us to meet at the warehouse at 4:30pm every day, we thought we got it wrong. We asked him again: "Everyday?" Jim smiled and said: "You deserve it."
Warehouse tasting Session 1 in Warehouse #2.
Immediately after walking into Warehouse #2, you'll see those small casks, normally called "octave".
These small casks are normally owned by shareholders or distillery employees. As the wood flavor would go into the malt very quickly, these casks are seldom kept long and will be opened during special occasions. Jim's two daughters own their own casks just for fun.
The warehouse tasting was more than a common tasting session, it was a wonderful class to teach us how to recognize different casks and years. If you haven't had a chance to join a warehouse tasting, you got to beg somebody to let you sneak in sometime in the rest of your life. The big excitement is not only from the feeling you "steal" from the cask, but also from the smell, the atmosphere you get during the event. Here are the casks we tried!
Bruichladdich 1986 First fill Sherry butt:
It's not hard to understand we tried Bruichladdich first at the very beginning.
But a first fill sherry is somewhat surprising to us. Afterall, besides the 12yo sherry cask specially bottled for US market, Bruichladdich never released sherry casks to the market. (There were some specially bottles, though.) Though already 18 years old, heavy sherry is just at the right level, you can nose ripe apple, cream cake, along with heavy sherry. 90 points.
Caol Ila 1990 Second fill Bourbon Hogshead:
Just next to previously cask, Jim taught us how to recognize different casks just by looking at the shape. This young malt didn't effect by the wood too much, medium level peat brings out vanilla, coconut, chocolate and a hint of smoke. Very refreshing! 90 point.
After tasting the two, Jim wanted us to vat these two malts with 60-40 ratio and to taste again.
I was very surprised to experience Jim's magic as the vatted one actually performed better.
It contained the heavy sherry taste but the finish is quite refreshing.
As I am quite a "single cask" believer, I actually went back to think about "vatting" again.
Probably vatting different malts is not that evil. This vatted malt will probably be bottled later this year. 92 points.
Lochside 1966 Hogshead:
A rare distillery only operated from 1957 to 1992.
Almost 40 years old but still refreshing, not even tired at all.
I think it would be able to cask for a couple of years. 92 points.
Bruichladdich 2002 Octave:
Of course we need to try the malt made by the new team. Warehouse #2 does not contain the new cask they made after they took over. Jim opened his daughter Lynee's cask. As mentioned earlier, though only at 2 yo, the woodiness goes into the malt quite fast. It's almost felt like a 6 yo malt, contains Bruichladdich unique complex fruitiness.
Though not yet balanced well, it still shows lots of potential. 76 points.
Before we ended this session, Jim showed us the experiment he conducted on the port finish.
It's interesting to see only with 7 days in the port pipe, it already has clear port taste and nose.
No wonder 6-month probably would be the maximum period for port finish. Jim said only 36 hours in the port pipe, the color would change significantly. Amazing! Bruichladdich had no plan to do the finish at that time, but with the experiment I saw, it probably won't take long come out with something new. By now, Bruichladdch just release the news of the new Mouvedre finish.
No need to mention the 5-course dinner, no complaint! I miss all the fine meals I had there.
Almost as good as any gourmet country inns.
Tuesday, May 25, 2004
My shift is cask and warehousing today. Last night I learned from two other
classmates that they didn't expect to have such heavy duty work all day long.
They filled almost one hundred casks and had to move them all to the warehouse.
There are three of us on the same shift today. After breakfast, we headed down
to the filling hall, but found no one there. Five minutes later, Jim showed up and
drove us to warehouse #11, where the two coopers have started their work earlier.
At the time we arrived, Bruichladdich just opened it's own cooperage!
Thus they officially become the third distillery to have their own cooperage on site.
The other two are Glenfiddich and Balvenie. Master Cooper John, who is one of the
remaining 4 coopers in Islay, will train the young apprentice cooper Peter to take
over this difficult task. It's another surprise that there are only 7 apprentice
coopers being trained right now in Scotland, and only 214 coopers to maintain
all these casks.
Our job today is to move those new-filled casks to the right position.
It sounds easy, but represents lots of work. Bruichladdich still uses traditional
3-layered storage method. In short, this method simply stocks casks layer by layer
with two thick sticks in between. Think about it, the size of casks are not exactly
the same. When you put different casks in one layer, the height of that layer would
not be even. Thus, you'll need to spend a lot of time choosing similar casks and
adjusting them in order to maintain each layer at the same height.
Moreover, since the casks are stocked over other casks, you certainly want to put the youngest ones at the bottom and the older ones at the top. Thus, it's kind of moving back and forth work. I am quite glad to have experienced Master Cooper John with us. Just by saying moving this and moving that, he easily grouped different casks to save us lots of energy.
2:00PM, Jim walked in with gloves. He said, "OK! Time to do some exercise."
Without saying too much, he jumped up to the third layer with me to adjust the casks. I was a little bit shocked cause Jim was more like an office guy as in my image. People forget he was trained as a cooper at the very beginning. For the next 2 hours, Jim worked with us to the end. That's the most impressive memory I had during the week. Well, maybe many people has the chance to join Jim's master class, but how many people would have the chance to move casks with him so closely?
That's really something!
After a whole day's hard work, our second warehouse tasting finally came. Master Cooper John told us about the "legend" of warehouse #6. After we begged several times, Jim decided to take us to warehouse #6 today. And it's truly fantastic, too!
Highland Park 1979 First Fill Bourbon Hogshead:
Our first tasting is quite amazing. Highland Park has always been one of my favorite distilleries.
However, most OB bottling contain more sherry casks. People sometimes forget the beastliness of Highland Park bourbon cask. This 25 yo cask has quite distillery character but balances quite well with the wood. Complex and finish long. 94 points.
Caperdonich 1968 Third Fill sherry Butt:
Bottled under Chivas Brother Group, very hard to find bottlings from this distillery. This distillery is located next to Glen Grant, so it should have similar characters. However, this cask has quite an unique high alcohol volume. This is strange to a 35 yo malt. I believe this cask is the same batch as the one in the mission II series as Jim also mentioned this on the tasting note. Straight from the cask, it shows unbelievable complex noses if you add a little bit of water. Some of my classmates even think this one is the best malt they had during the whole week. 94 points.
Bruichladdich 1972 refill Bourbon Hogshead:
Back to old Bruichladdich again, I still think Bruichladdich goes with bourbon much better.
This is the standard old Bruichladdich. Simple but last forever. 93 points.
Bruichladdich 1965 Cask#505 refill sherry Hogshead:
The only 1965 left here. Alcohol volume dropped to 42%. Only 100L left. The most gentle, smooth malt I have ever had in my life. This is what you said beyond distillery but speaks out by itself stuff, my favorite one during the week. 97 points.
Each of us took another serving of Bruichladdich 1965 before we left.
We sat outside the warehouse, with the dram! Nobody wanted to talk, because our dreams really come true.
That's about day 2. The only thing I want to mention here is the dinner we had with Jim and Simon, along with several distillery guests at night, was very warm and funny. Jim had endless jokes and stories, and this thought comes to my mind: you got to be as talkative as Jim to be a malt master.
Wednesday, May 26, 2004
Tour day! All of us got on Mark's car.
Ready for our personalized Islay tour: distilleries, Celtic Cross, birds, and lots of fun.
Our first stop was the Port Ellen ruins to take some pictures. It is truly sad when a Port Ellen lover like me stand there listening Mark talking about the stories of Port Ellen. I can understand big companies like Diageo want to be more "economy" on production. But I also believe every distillery is special. It is sad to see a distillery with history just tore down to be ruins.
Then we headed to Laphroaig for the wonderful distillery tour. The distillery guide explained in detail of the whole process, and I finally saw the floor malting myself. Don't forget malting is the only process that Bruichladdich is not doing it in house right now. But who knows, when Bruichladdich has even plant it's own barley, I think a floor malting should not be too far away. Laphroaig has made the whole process computerized. Clean, nice, friendly. I guess most of the tourists will fall in love with this place. However, what in my mind now is that I'm lucky it's not Laphroaig to set up the Academy. I came such a long way to work for one week in a distillery, I don't want to find out if the only thing I need to do is only just write down the numbers!
After I received my "Friends of Laphroaig Certificate" and my free miniature we headed to Ardbeg for some serious fans' shopping. The Ardbeg lady was so kind to treat us "The Ardbeg Very Young", "Ugdeadial" and "Lord of Isles". It was not surprising to see the comments for the latter two. But it is interesting that most of my classmates think the Very Young is definitely only FOR DISCUSSION, while Roger and I believe it shows some PROMISE for the future. Later, we stopped at the Kildalton Cross for a picnic lunch and went Peat Cutting. Cutting peat on a sunny day is quite lovely. By using the right tool at the right place, you certainly don't need too much energy on it. And of course great photos to take home!
Just before we went back to the Academy House, we finally got the chance to see the secret water source.
Inside information: Bruichladdich actually use three different water sources. First, the spring from the hill used in Mashing and Washing. Second, the stream beside the distillery is used for distillation. Then, another pure spring at a remote farm are used for diluting at the bottling line. We haven't had the chance to see the first two, only have some look for the bottling water. It's unpeated and it's crystal clear. Very sweet!
Thursday, May 27, 2004
Day 4: Distillation Day
I was quite lucky to have my own personal shift for distillation.
Though I already know every step in the process is equally important for the whisky, I still
feel a little bit exciting about today's work. Bruichladdich has two Wash Stills and two Low
Wine Stills. If you are familiar with the distillation process, you probably know that at least
two to three distillations are needed to make whisky. Most of the single malt distilleries distil
twice, a few use three distillations like the Irish whisky.
To make it simple, you can image that you use steam to heat up the wash, which comes
from the fermentation earlier. As the alcohol evaporates quicker than water, you can collect
it as higher concentrated alcohol, called Low Wines. Low Wines typically have an alcohol
percentage of around 23%. After going through the same process again, we can collect
the result, called Plain British Spirit. The most critical point in the distillation is the timing
for the MIDDLE CUT. Most single malt fans know the terms very well, but it is still quite
an honor when you do the cut by yourself. Most people could probably imagine that making
whisky is not as simple as just collecting alcohol, it is even more important to collect the
"heavy fat" along with the alcohol. It is the fat make the alcohol special. The first thing
comes out of the second distillation is call the Foreshots. Foreshots contain some dust inside,
as soon as the liquid become crystal clear, you can start to collect them. After it becomes less clear,
you stop the collecting and let it flow back into the receiver waiting to mix up with the new wash for next run.
The Middle cut contains lots of the flavor, as soon as it becomes less clear; the flavor is gone at the same time. Most single malt fans know the pot still shape affects the Spirit a lot. However; it is also very critical for the distillation speed. The slower you distill, the better the whisky you get. Most of the modern distilleries have made it standard practice to decide the middle cut by alcohol content. However, it is more precise if you can nose it by the experienced stillman and/or the distillery master. This is exactly what they are doing at Bruichladdich. As I watched Master Jim walking in with his white master gown on, I wondered what's happened? Then, Jim handed over the key to open the spirit safe to start nosing it. After s couple of samples, he finally decided it was time for the middle cut. (And it's an honor I did the middle cut that round .) The same nosing process repeats every 10 to 20 minutes during the collecting process. Some people may find it kind of stupid, as people always believe to rely on "numbers". However, my personal experience, nothing is better than your nose. If you expect your customers to appreciate the flavors in the malt, you have to respect the people to decide what will be inside the spirit to be matured in the future. And this is also the reason why Jim always believes people is the most important factor to making whisky.
Warehouse Tasting Session 3
Time for some old casks again. How about the list below:
Macallan 1969 Refill Bourbon Hoggy Score 90
Glenlivet 1968 Refill Bourbon Cask 2842 Score 92
Port Chalotte 2001 Refill Bourbon Barrel Cask #1 Score 90
Bruichladdich 1964 Bourbon Hoggy Score 94
Though I generally like Macallan more, I have to admit the Glenlivet performs better this time. The Glenlivet clearly shows more layer and it's quite a lovely Speyside malt. Port Chalotte is another surprise, by the time we taste it, it just passed 3 years and officially become scotch. Only 3 years old, the smooth, the peat, the nose, most people would think it's an Ardbeg or Laphroaig 10yo. A shinning star is about to be in the market. Want to taste it? Will maybe not so easy if you are not an Academy student, but I heard there will be a vatted malt at the year end, containing some of the Port Chalotte. It might be a chance to have some sneak preview for the peated version. As for the 1964, Jim told us it will be bottled as the 40yo later this year. Hope they don't charge it at a sky high price. I have to buy one for myself. And it seems they don't have any older casks in hands.
Friday, May 28, 2004
Day 5: Graduation
Though I was on bottling shift, I actually didn't have the chance for the work.
The major reason is that my classmate can't go for the distillation because someone forgot to open the river gate, they have no water for the distillation. As half of my classmates will be affected, Jim decided to take the chance to show us their Port Charlotte warehousing and to talk about his dreams for the future Port Charlotte Distillery. And of course, we also take the chance to taste some young vintage Port Charlotte and Octomore.
Many people had quite some doubts about the Octomore.
As the most heavily peated ever malt in the history, Octomore may not
actually be the best tasting malt. But as Jim said, they want to make the
history. In my opinion, Port Chalotte has better tasting, but Octomore is
not that un-acceptable as most people thought. And certainly don't think
Octomore will remain at the same as what they released.
Remember, Jim likes to lead the industry!
So, please expect new records on the peated level.
After the visit, we came back for the final exam.
It is not so easy, but all of us passed! And surprisingly, they asked all
employees to attend the ceremony. We are all awarded as Single Malt
Ambassador. I still remember I was so moved when I saw all of them come
to share the happiness with us. It is my dream to work inside a distillery,
but I actually know what it means now I went through the whole process.
For me as a single malt fan, Bruichladdich was just a "brand" before I came here, but it is now become a "life".
And not only Bruichladdich, but all the malts. Now, when I drink the single malt, I can't stop imaging the people who made it. To work in a single malt distillery may be the dream vacation for most single most fans. It is certainly true for me, but the most important, I think it opens a door to let me love it in different ways.
P.S. - A few words about the Islay Festival:
I think people would most wonder what the maniacs do when they meet each other.
Well, I couldn't image it until I met Serge, Olivier, and Davin on the following Sunday morning.
At first, we thought we could have a Sunday brunch together, but I didn't expect there would be no bus on Sunday and certainly no taxi on Islay. But the good news is: people are very friendly and they would love to give you a ride if possible. With some rides and walks, I finally managed to get to the Maniac House in Port Charlotte. The three "old" maniacs had enjoyed the Ardbeg midnight tour right after they arrived the island. And the tour lasted until 4:00 in the morning, Serge was so kind to get up "earlier" to have a coffee with me. After we walked by to the Maniac House, I experienced my first Maniacal Shock. I took out my ten samples ready to share with the others, I found there were already more than 150 samples sitting there. Oh my god, no wonder these people are the maniacs. (And luckily, I am one of them now.) No need for me to tell you how good the twenty malts were that we tasted within 24 hours; you can read the report from the other three maniacs. And certainly not to mention the lovely visit to Martine Nouet.
The Islay Festival is a dream coming true for most single malt fans.
But do remember, besides the distillery visits, most people enjoy the festival because they enjoy it with friends. It is good to walk in the sunny light along the Islay trail. It is even better when some of the good friends can share some nice drams by the sea.
Wow, Serge - that was quite an uncharacteristic explosion from a self-confessed 'marketing man'!
If one wouldn't know any better one would almost suspect you just had a birthday, causing a latent
midlife-crisis that was brought to the surface (rather violently) by an article in The Drinks Business ;-)
But, to tell you the truth, I have been feeling the weight of time pushing down on me as well lately...
Compared to 'the golden years' that were the 1990's, availability of single malts may have exploded,
but so have their prices. At the same time, the 'quality' of some of the big names has been steadily
declining and it has grown exceedingly difficult to find those few truly spectacular shiny needles in
an ever expanding haystack of not-so-spectacular malts. Mind you, It's still possible to find good
malts at good prices, but nowadays you often have to pay through the nose for the malts that
really blow your socks off. Unfortunately, there's not very much we can do about that except
try to fill the matrix with as many scores as we can to point you towards the 'better' malts.
But what about the points Serge makes in his E-pistle?
Well, keeping in mind that I still love single malts passionately (I'm not quite ready to switch to rum yet),
I have to admit that I do share some of Serge's concerns - and I do have some 'gripes' of my own as well.
As a self-professed anorak with sociopathic tendencies, I'm personally not too concerned with what other people might think of me; even if these people are the lucky buggers working in the whisky industry... However, Serge's mentions some more 'fundamental' issues that do actually worry me - even some of the 19 'minor' complaints that Serge hammered on the pages of MM.
I would categorise many of Serge's minor complaints as 'embellishments of the truth' I can live with, although some companies do indeed have a tendency to stretch the truth towards its very breaking point. I personally thing bagpipes should be banned as a form of auditory pollution and you won't find any tartan patterns in my clothing cabinet either, but if I have to put up with a bit of folklore to get to a good malt I really don't mind. However, Serge's 'minor' points #3 (claiming the water that's used 'runs from a hillside' when it's actually just tap water) and #10 (Using signatures of 'distillery people' that don't actually exist) do actually worry me. In fact, these practices could very well be considered fraudulent, if you ask me.
That's even more the case with the first major concern that Serge mentions (vattings of several casks that are presented and numbered as a single cask bottling) and, to some extent, his second one as well. Up until quite recently, I always assumed I could rely completely on the information provided on the box and label. The growing phenomenon of fake bottlings (malt maniacs recently uncovered fake bottlings from Arran and Laphroaig) has already made me suspicious, but if it turns out that we can't even trust the information on 'genuine' bottles, it touches the very heart of our mutual passion. For us 'anoraks', part of the fun lies in trying to learn more about the complex interplay between all the different factors that shape a single malt - and wood may very well be the most important factor in the whole process. A label stating that a whisky comes from a single sherry cask while it's actually a vatting (that might even contain bourbon matured whisky) is just as bad as a label stating that a whisky was distilled at Ardbeg while it was actually distilled at Caol Ila. If it turns out that we can't completely trust the information provided on the label, a big chunk of the fun of single malts is suddenly gone - and the industry runs the risk of losing many of the 'anoraks' that otherwise have remained loyal to single malts long after many of the 'hip & happening' crowd have moved on to other drinks.
In fact, if the people at the SWA had any sense at all they would be trying to ensure this doesn't become a real problem, instead of wasting their time picking on small foreign distilleries like Glenora. Or how about some action on the 'fakes' front - it seems individual companies are unable or unwilling to do very much about it. We had no problems with reporting to Arran and Allied about the fakes that some maniacs and readers discovered so far, but when it comes to actually acting on our reports we've seen very little progress. In fact, that would be putting it mildly - we have seen no progress whatsoever. So, caveat emptor!
Ah... it feels good to vent your spleen once in a while...
And guess what - I'm not done yet; Serge's E-pistle also confirms something I realised some time ago.
Even though the single malt market has doubled in size in just a few years, it seems many of the big companies still treat the market as one homogenous mass. I personally think that's far too simplistic a view . New customers who have had their first single malt somewhere in the last few years may still get a warm fuzzy feeling when they are reading about the golden fields of barley surrounding the distillery, but that doesn't work for everyone. Many of the 'anoraks' that discovered single malts in the 1980's and '90's have now learned enough to look beyond mass marketing and the tartan cloak of deception.
The recent introduction of Macallan's new 'Fine Oak' range was a
prime example of this watershed; when a slide with a slick sports
car popped up in the presentation there were quite some bemused
sniggers from the corner where the somewhat more experienced
maltheads were seated. A second salvo of sniggers was triggered
by a slide with some very hip, young and succesful people in a bar,
thoroughly enjoying their Macallan from... indeed... a tumbler.
Being the anorak that I am, I had a quiet snigger myself that day.
When I received Serge's latest E-pistle there weren't any friendly
PR people around who's feelings I could hurt. Unrestrained by social
conventions, I laughed long and hard when I saw the picture from
'The Drinks Business' magazine - it was the same picture they used
for the Macallan presentation. Had the writer attended the same
presentation that I had? And if so, was he more convinced than I
was about the wisdom of Macallan's mass marketing ways?
I laughed even louder when the latest issue of 'Whisky Etc.'
dropped in my mailbox. The very same picture popped up again
in a four-page article about the new Macallans - and I'm sure we'll
see it pop up elsewhere in the forseeable future as well. Hmmm.....
Wait a minute. After giggling like a maniac for a few minutes, it slowly
dawned on me that I actually shouldn't be laughing at all. If 'the media'
only repeat the 'information' they receive from the industry like they used
this picture, we can't rely on 'the media' to paint a reliable picture, can we?
And there's another element from the presentation already echoed in the media.
I'm not sure if the stellar scores from people like Michael Jackson and Jim Murray are completely unbiased or not, and to tell you the truth I don't really care as much as you'd expect. Looking at some of the scores from MJ and JM, I've already found out long ago that our tastes are quite different, their tasting capabilities are declining or they are indeed biased - or any combination of these. Whatever the reason, the netto result is the same; I use their scores for my own personal amusement instead of letting them guide my actual shopping behavior. I have to say that I trust the judgement of some of my fellow maniacs far better anyway. I'm very rarely disappointed by a malt with an average score of 80 points or more on the matrix.
Anyway, I'm getting a bit side-tracked again - I was busy venting my spleen.
I guess I could go on for quite a bit longer, but I won't. Well, at least not for now.
For one thing, there are a few other issues that require my full attention until the end of this year; the MM Awards amd my 'Mille Malts' challenge being only two of them. Besides, if I wanted to list all my gripes I would still be typing next week. Fortunately, some other maniacs have already revealed some of their own pressure points in their first responses to serge's rantings and ravings. So, I'll leave you with some more maniacal gripes;
Davin was the first to respond; 'Pardon my language, but HOLY SH*T! Serge, that is one of the most entertaining, enlightening, revealing and contributory pieces of writing I have read in ages. Man, when you get a bee in your bonnet do you rock!! It reads like you wrote it all in one go and man, does it have impact . I am in awe.'
Indeed - and so were most other maniacs...
At least for a moment. Craig quickly came back with: 'Serge makes lots of very good points and trust me it's a righteous anger, which I also share. There is an underlying continuum of an attitude of complete and utter contempt in all of these behind the hand sneers at one of their most important and influential consumer group that they dismiss as hijacking anoraks. Peter Wood has been on the receiving end as has Brian McHenry of PLOWED and FWP fame. I also agree with Serge that marketing has given us Loch Dhu, Jacksons Row and Cardhu Pure Malt while the hijacking anoraks have given the world Malt Maniacs, Ardbegeddon (the event and the malt) and Brorageddon. I'd say it's three zip to the good guys. It seems to me that despite their nods towards the psychology of marketing, they are all salesmen at heart, where the needs of the seller take precedence over the needs of the buyer. The psychological underpinning of marketing is supposedly that the needs of the consumer take centre stage. Obviously none of these guys really believes that deep down. There are some things that are beyond the pale and being so dismissive of a key consumer group is both reprehensible and ultimately self defeating. The pervasive attitude of contempt is self-defeating because, in a point Johannes' make very well, this group are loyal customers and will be around once the bright young things have flounced off to the next flavour of the month. Maybe the people who are dismissive of the issues raised by' hijacking anoraks' won't be around for long, especially if Serge's crusade takes off!!!
Lex was next; 'For me there are two issues. First of all, as several have already said, it is of course pretty stupid to alienate a group of dedicated consumers without whom all these very special bottlings would never be sold. And I agree, any industry which has such a group of loyal, dedicated, knowledgeable top consumers should feel lucky and make sure not to lose them. With the internet, they will spread the word and provide free publicity. Of course, that's a two-edged sword, but it oughtn't be difficult to make sure that sword only cuts from one edge. And then there is the misleading marketing. I'm not talking tartans and bagpipes, but really false information. I usually see it as annoying and sometimes insulting ("do they really think I'm that stupid?"), but it does make me doubt other claims made by the same company. Just to give an example. Bushmills keeps claiming the distillery was established in 1608. We all know that's complete bullocks. So the question starts creeping in "if they are willing to blatantly lie to me about that, can I trust them on other things? Is the 16 y.o. really 16 y.o.?" To make clear, I have no reason whatsoever to doubt the age of the 16 y.o. and certainly don't want to pin this on Bushmills alone, but I think you get my point.'
Louis didn't take very long to find words to vent his feelings on some other bothersome issues either.
He chimed in with: 'Yes, great piece Serge. Without specifically addressing any of the individual points, this is my assessment of the industry and their overall marketing strategy: As a group, the whisky industry still has a 'we know better' and 'we give the customer what we want, when we're ready' attitude. This is similar to the US automotive industry back in the eighties For example, General Motors actually redesigned it's entire lineup so after market car stereo's wouldn't fit, rather than improve their own crappy stereos. Also, BMW would refuse to fix your power seat if you had installed Koni shock absorbers, as you had supposedly voided the entire car's warranty by doing so. Nowadays, things are different. The automakers have outsourced all of their audio, and brag about the Bose or Infinity systems they install. And BMW sells Dinan parts thru their dealers, who install them without voiding any part of the warranty.'
Totally agreed, Louis! The whisky industry still seems product-driven instead of consumer-driven.
Louis continued to say: 'One thing that amazes me is the contempt that the big conglomerates have for the US market, which is about the size of the entire European market. When the Classic Malts Distillers Editions were released around five years ago, the claim was that it was an experiment, they didn't make enough for the world market. Well, the DE's only had another two years of aging, so we should have gotten some over here by now, right? Well, they did send us the $325, 32 year old Oban, Cragganmore, and Dalwhinnie as compensation. Meanwhile, the 12 year old Lagavulin was announced at Whisky Fest 2002, and it took a whole year until it hit the shelves.And then it turned out to be some off spec stuff, and cost a mere $150. Meanwhile, Allied has graced us with the Tormore 12 and Scapa 14 at 40% ABV, and they cost more than well known malts such as the Macallan and Highland Park 12 year olds.'
What, are you kidding me Louis? I have yet to try my first recommendable Tormore and given the choice between a Highland Park and a Scapa I'd know where my money would go. Fortunately, Louis offers a solution: 'However, I don't think that the situation is beyond help. The whisky industry simply has to wake up and realize that there are a number of different markets. Again, no different from the automotive world. Volkswagen sells economy cars, family sedans, sports cars, luxury cars, SUV's. So the whisky industry too, can sell to different levels of expectations. I wouldn't expect a typical 25 year old to go chasing after obscure single cask bottlings, but they can pick up where the Classic Malts left off by offering a wider range of introductory level malts of different styles, ages, etc, at reasonable prices. What really got my blood boiling were a few quotes from Big Whisky personalities in The Malt Advocate over the last year, much to the same effect as the article that Serge was quoting. The best/worst was the line that said that 'independent bottlings are bad because they present the distillery in a form that they would not like to be seen in' . Right, like the standard, watered down Laphroaig 10yo or the FWP Bowmores. For the enthusiast market (that would be us), they can easily keep the hated independent bottlers at bay by selling interesting bottlings at higher proof, no chill filtering or caramel coloring.
And Louis wasn't quite finished yet; 'There is actually a lot more where that came from. How about this one . When asked if the current shortage of some malts causes a decline in quality, the answer was a resounding no. Now let's look at the situation. Sometime back in the late eighties to early nineties, an amount of whisky was distilled that was deemed adequate based on existing demand. But 12-18 years later, much more is needed. Now let's assume that for every given amount of whisky distilled, there will be differing levels of quality, i.e, some for cheap NAS blends, some for younger single malts, some for older single malts and blends, etc. So if there is a shortage, some of the lower quality whisky will spend a few more years in the barrel, and be sold at a higher price point. Blends being blends, can be made up of other whiskies. OK, so how do I know that this whisky is of lower quality? Simple. A major factor in whisky quality is the cask. A good cask won't make lousy whisky good, but a poor cask will not produce good whisky. And what is 'a good cask?' A first or second fill bourbon or sherry cask. And they are expensive. Those 11th fill casks are free, since they have just been emptied. And since the same mix of casks was used to fill the expected lower demand, there is only so much high quality whisky that will be available. And while I'm on the soapbox, here is a question for our friends at Diageo. Why is it that they guard ever precious cask of Lagavulin and Talisker, but have no apparent objections to independent bottlings of Caol Ila, Clynelish, LInkwood and Mortlach? Anyway, that's my two cents worth. I wonder why can't figure this out for themselves.'
Davin quickly responded with: 'Excellent points, Louis. I think a lot of people just don't believe anything exists more than 60 miles from their own front door. If the US market suffers from contemept of the big players (and I agree, it does) just imagine how we feel up here in Canadia. Cross the pond and we just get lumped in with "America" which just infuriates most Canucks. Now here is how some of our jingos raise the big boys contempt of "America" to the next power. The LCBO, our government monopoly in the province of Ontario, brags incessently about the LCBO being the largest purchaser of beverage alcohol in the world and then has a single committee which makes all purchasing decisions. One man (ONE) runs it all. So we take the 40% offered to "America" and reject darn near all of it. I had one LCBO "product consultant" brag to me that over the past few years they have had more than 100 different whiskies on their shelves. What's the count at Park Avenue Liquors, a store about 1/20th the size of a single LCBO outlet? We did get the classic malts and DEs for a while though.'
This pulled Serge back into the discussion; 'I'd really like to know the figures as for the sizes of the different markets for single malts. The US market is much smaller than the EU considering Scotch whisky as a whole (Just France - and Spain as well I think - is bigger than the US in volumes), but I'm sure things are completely different regarding single malts. And the US have bourbon or Tennessee whiskeys. Does anybody have these figures?'
Serge went on to suggest a possible explanation for the transatlantic supply problems; 'There's one thing that might explain why some bottlings don't make it into the US: some bottlers just don't bottle some of their malts in 75cl bottles. It's sure that it might not be that easy to split one single cask into 70 and 75cl bottles, like DL or the SMWS sometimes do.'
Well, I have to say that seems to make perfect sense, Serge.
And for once, I think we can't blame the industry for this problem. I remember correctly we still had 75cl bottles in the early 1990's in Holland as well - I think the standard sizes were changed according to EU regulations.
And so the good ship 'Maltmania' slowly steers towards calmer waters again...
However, you never know when a new storm might turn up.
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