Respect for elders

Apologies, this post is a bit late.  Between SA’s opening World Cup match and work, time got away from me.  So, cutting to the chase: wednesday’s BBR launch was, as the post title suggested, interesting indeed.  There were the usual canapés, chit-chat and networking that are to be expected from these types of functions, but there was also more substance to it than the standard.  We were treated to a selection of carefully considered cocktails and drinks from their range of spirits, and a presentation with greater depth than the usual marketing veneer;  Mike Harrison, the presenter, and one of the company’s directors, clearly knows his stuff.  This is a blog about whisky, so I don’t intend to dwell on other liquor, but I’ll make a quick exception for Pink Pigeon, an infused Mauritian rum, because I’m a big fan of both rum and Mauritius.  I fear it’ll be too expensive to make a significant impact locally – but it’s delicious and exquisitely crafted.  Don’t hold back if someone else is buying.

Onto the real deal.  We were offered a dram of Glenrothes Select Reserve, which to my nose and palate was big on vanilla, underlaid with a full maltiness, and with detectable hints of citrus, dried fruit, and aniseed.  The Select Reserve, which has no age statement, although I’ve seen a Joburg liquor store boldly advertising it as a 12yo, is the entry-level variant of Glenrothes.  The guys at Kreate Brands, who are the new SA distributors for BBR, have promised me a tasting of their more premium bottlings next week.  There, it’s in print, so they can’t back out.

The guys from BBR - Mike (left) and Peter (right)

Even more interesting than the tasting was the insight we gained into the philosophy of Glenrothes… and for me one of the broader questions that it raises.  Mike explained to us that Glenrothes is all about natural flavour.  They steer clear of spirit caramel and chill filtration (which is commendable), and also finishing (why I don’t know, perhaps they feel it overcomplicates or unbalances whisky).     Most pertinently however, as I alluded to earlier, they don’t make age claims, preferring instead to focus on releasing vintage* whiskies.    Their rationale is that they don’t want to be dictated to by an arbitrary time-frame, they’d rather let the whisky mature at its own pace and “tell” them when it’s ready.  It all sounds very sensible, and I’m not by any means suggesting that the guys from Glenrothes don’t mean what they say (especially because many of their vintages are very old, and identifiably so), but such intentions are becoming almost commonplace in the industry now, and for a good reason: it’s expensive to keep whisky in wood.  It also presents certain logistical difficulties.  If your brand takes off and you don’t have enough stock…well, you just have to wait, or change the product from a single malt to a pure/blended malt (like Cardhu did a few years ago, a questionable move if ever I saw one).  Basically it’s a marketer’s wet dream to foist upon us a super-premium whisky with no age statement.  Johnnie Walker has done so quite successfully with Blue Label, and a few years ago (last year in SA) Glenmorangie launched Signet, a whisky of indeterminate age which sells for circa R2000 per bottle.  I must admit that it is a stupendously good whisky, uniquely constituted with a proportion of “chocolate” (overmalted) malt and partly aged in virgin casks to accelerate the effect of the wood without overpowering the whisky.  Nonetheless it makes me uncomfortable that I don’t know its age.  Full disclosure has not been made.  The producers are treating me like a child, thinking that the age, which would obviously be far too young for the price tag, would distract me from appreciating the merits of the whisky and valuing it accordingly.  I take a Jake White view on this – age in whisky, like size in rugby,does matter (up to a certain threshold, after which it becomes detrimental).   Pieter de Villiers, not typically known for his eloquence, summed it up quite nicely: “A small talented guy will always be better than a big untalented guy, and a big talented guy is better than a small talented guy”.

Age statement or not Glenrothes is a fine single malt offering decent value.  It currently sells in the R300 odd bracket.  I don’t think that they intend to make the vintages widely available in the local market in the short-term, but I’ll post my impressions next week regardless.  Have a great weekend and may the dram be with you!

*A whisky, even a single malt, is usually a “blend” of products of different ages.  This is done to maintain flavour consistency from bottling to bottling.  A whisky claiming vintage status was all distilled and put in wood in the same year – the one specified in the label – and then later also bottled at the same time.  In theory it is individually good enough to be offered as a stand-alone bottling, and would usually have a distinct flavour profile to the standard bottling.

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2 responses to “Respect for elders

  1. FRANTZEN JEAN-ARNAUD

    Thanks for all these infos: your blog is very interesting for spirits adept!
    Age indicated on the whisky label has to be read like one side of view only because kind of maturation appears the most important (I think). For example, three years of maturation in a 180 litres barrel stored in an humid cellar are completely different with three years in a 500 litres wine barrel stored in a dry cellar…(I think that people has not the same age depending they have work 20 years either in a very hard quarry or in a quiet office).
    In my opinion, blind taste is the best because without “a priori”…with a tinge of mystery!
    Slaint!
    Jean-Arnaud

    • Thanks JA. I absolutely agree. My point about maturation was made ceteris paribus i.e. based on all other things being equal. To continue the rugby analogy a big talented player would not be better necessarily than a small talented player if he’s big because of fat (I think that’s probably as far as I can stretch this metaphor ). I also don’t disagree with your thoughts on blind tasting, although you’re without a doubt a more talented taster than me. Age though is a substantial basis for flavour and it would be helpful to everyone if it was universally disclosed. A young whisky that stacks up against its older counterparts can only be a tribute to its maker’s skill.

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