Every now and again life treats you to a glorious surprise. I was privileged during a recent visit to The Edrington Group’s head office in Glasgow to get to meet Gordon Motion and to be invited into his sample room for a nosing session.
This was my first foray into a Master Blender’s domain, so I was a little uncertain about what to expect beyond the obvious. It proved to be a sensory feast. I was told that the space was a re-creation of the sample room from their bygone offices of a bygone era – and indeed it exuded the old-style elegance of a Victorian library…that had substituted bottles for books.
Whilst the aesthetics were undeniably appealing and worth a linger, the focus soon shifted from the visual to the olfactory. We nosed a variety of samples – those that happened to be on Gordon’s menu of tasks for the day – including new make spirit from North British, the grain distillery jointly owned by Edrington and Diageo, and Ruadh Maor, a peated Glenturret intended for Black Grouse. It was particularly interesting to learn (or to be reminded, I had an inkling of it) that North British is the only grain distillery in Scotland using (more expensive) maize rather than wheat in its mashbill – the purpose being to achieve a buttery flavour and mouthfeel (similar to that of Bourbon).
Probably the most fascinating aspect of the experience though was the opportunity to nose the same original spirit of equivalent age from various different casks. The massive influence of wood on the character of whisky doesn’t really need reinforcement, but in this case there was an added twist. People often refer to European casks and Sherry casks interchangeably, as if they were the same thing. The wood from which the cask was made, and the liquid which seasoned the cask are two different elements, and it’s worth bearing in mind that each makes distinct contributions to flavour. Whilst most Sherry casks are made from European oak, this is not a universal rule; Edrington in particular has been seasoning American white oak casks with Sherry, and consequently producing whisky with a different category of flavour. If I ever had any doubts about the scale of this variation they were quickly dispensed by the nosing, conducted side-by-side with a traditional Sherry cask sample (and a Bourbon cask sample for good measure).
I’ve always been a Macallan and a Highland Park fan. The whiskies are sensational of course, but that’s just part of it; I generally like the way they go about their business. You might have noticed, tangentially, that almost every whisky drinking moment in an influential movie or television series seems to involve a Macallan – not by random chance I’ll warrant. These guys are a class act, and this visit served to confirm my impressions.