Category Archives: Whisky column

My monthly whisky column in Prestige Magazine

When nurture trumps nature

Putting their stamp on it.  PATRICK LECLEZIO ruminates on independent bottlings.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2017 edition).

The whisky industry is a strange and fascinating beast.  It is virtually unique, which is largely why its output inspires such passionate devotion (also because it’s tasty I guess).  Elsewhere, in more dour pastures, the usual expectation is for an organisation that puts out a product to have produced it itself, or at a minimum, in this specialising era, to have conceived and designed it and perhaps contracted out the actual production.  Not so with whisky.  Despite being rigidly conventional, and cosseted by tradition in many respects, the industry is also extraordinarily nimble in others, nowhere more so than with what’s known as independent bottling.  Tiny in volume, colossal in variety, it’s a microcosmic snapshot of how the industry operates, and of what whisky’s all about.

Independent bottling is the practice by one party of further producing, and then marketing and selling, whisky that was initially produced by another party.  This sounds a bit clumsy, but unavoidably so.  At this point, before throwing these terms about any further, it may be worth contextualising what is meant by “production of whisky”.  If one reduces this analysis to identifying discrete opportunities to add meaningful value to the final output – which is a must for any party like an independent bottler trying to insert itself into the process, then I’d suggest that there are three broad stages: distillation of the new make (being the entire process culminating in distillation), maturation, and vatting or blending or timing.  The independent bottler is not involved in distillation, in imbuing the liquid with its nature (at least not for its independent bottlings), but can be involved in the other stages to a greater or lesser extent, the grooming of the liquid into whisky.  Funnily enough, though a moot point in that it doesn’t influence the whisky, the actual bottling is in most cases done by another third party, or perhaps even by the producing party.

The origins of independent bottling date back to the dawn of Scotch whisky’s big blockbuster brands, when grocers bought liquid from distillers to create their own proprietary blends. Some of these evolved into the multiple-distillery-owning behemoths that dominate the industry today, others into what we’ve come to know as independent bottlers.  We owe a debt to many of the latter in particular for sheltering and nurturing the malt whisky flame along the way.  There was a time when single malts were only available, virtually, from independent bottlers, and it was probably their cultivation of this niche into something significant that prompted the big distillers to follow suit.  This prescient attentiveness, when no-one else was much interested, means that the older, more established independent bottlers have stocks of some of the oldest malt whiskies in existence.  In 2015 Gordon & MacPhail issued bottlings of a 75 year old Mortlach, the oldest whisky ever released, a record they had already held with the previous releases of two 70 year olds, a Mortlach and a Glenlivet.  If you’re in the market for old Scotch malt whisky, generally at much more reasonable prices than equivalent distillery offerings, independent bottlings will provide a rich potential source.

There are many other advantages aside from its aged stocks and favourable costs that independent bottlers proffer to the whisky lover.  The mechanisms by which liquid is traded amongst the big distillers (for their blends) and the smaller operators like independent bottlers are largely shrouded from public view, but certain deductions can be made.   Distillers sell to independent bottlers for commercial reasons of course, but also for whisky reasons; if, for instance, individual casks are judged to be excessively outwith the parameters of the house style it may be deemed preferable to get rid of them.  The ensuing independent bottlings play the same role as that often underlying the deployment of vintage malts: manifesting variations of standard expressions that can be both interesting and compelling.  The phenomenon of “teaspooning”, which is undocumented but popularly believed to be true, is an interesting corollary to these trading practices.  Distilleries wanting to sell their liquid without lending their names to the independent bottlers in the bargain are reputed to add a teaspoon of a different malt to the cask being transacted, a rather messy device considering that it also prevents the whisky from being sold as a single malt.  The Westport blended malt for instance is understood to be Glenmorangie with a hint of Glen Moray.

The biggest boon though of independent bottlings is that they are small by definition.  Whilst these organisations can and do accumulate for making blended malts and blended whisky, the similar stock to which they have access tends to be of relatively reduced quantity.  The implications are twofold: firstly, as I’ve already alluded to, they put out a lot of small volume expressions of differing styles, constitution and flavour.  An explosion of variety.  The big producers have their limited edition and experimental forays, but they’re by and large focused on their larger variants.  If variety is the spice of life, then independent bottlers are pivotal to extending the range of our whisky experience; secondly, with little to underpin their liquid, the romance and backing of the distillery is arm’s length at best, independent bottlers often live and die by the sword – there’s no cushion so they need to constantly be adding value, providing something more, something different, something unique.  It’s a huge stimulus for innovation and distinctiveness.  Compass Box’s Spice Tree is a great example, as is the company as a whole, of this observation in action. The liquid is bought ready matured (ten years old), but then extra matured for two years in varying bespoke casks (the key constituent being the heavily toasted French oak heads), and finally intricately woven together by their blender. It’s a cohesive injection of accelerated complexity and willed variety that is interpreted on the nose and palate as sweet, spicy and rich.

The beauty of the independent bottling continuum is the multiple layers of opportunity that it offers to add value and apply a core competence, thereby prompting the introduction of new players and products into the mix.    The Checkers Liquor Private Barrel Company has specialised in bringing elusive single casks, which would otherwise rarely be seen here, to the South African marketplace.   Single casks are a precarious business.  There’s no place to hide – as there could be in a vatting or a blend.  It’s either good or it’s not.  In this light even something as seemingly minor as the selection or timing of a cask for bottling by a private bottler represents pivotal value – especially when integrated into a holistic plan for the product.  The latest expression, a judiciously selected and well-timed Glen Scotia 10 year old, is very good indeed, with a juicy, bursting flavour of tropical fruits and sweet spices.  If credence is needed then this whisky delivers in spades.

In many senses the whisky industry, despite its conventions and traditions, has been ahead of its time, and nowhere more so than in the sphere of independent bottlers.  There is something very modern and vibrant about the focus and specialisation that they have demonstrated.  Without their existence the industry would be much diminished, and we’d be shy of many wonderful whiskies.  Let’s look forward to travelling the new paths they’re forging on our continuing whisky journeys.  May the dram be with you.

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Breaking the glass ceiling

Bourbon gets interesting. PATRICK LECLEZIO reviews the latest stage in the evolution of America’s home grown spirit.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2017 edition).

It’s impossible not to compare different styles of whisky.  People will always be measuring one thing against the other, especially things with a similar purpose.  When weighing up American whiskey alongside the other big styles, I’d always felt that it was a bit limited in its range of flavour.  I justify this opinion objectively with reference to its casks in particular:  whereas Scotch in contrast (or Irish for that matter) uses new and refill casks, made from American and European oak, treated by charring or toasting, with sizes and shapes from barrels to butts, seasoned by bourbon or sherry typically, but a wide variety of other liquors as well (and draws on this wide scope for its flavour profile), straight American whiskey is legally restricted to new, charred, oak, commercially restricted to white oak, conventionally restricted to barrels, and inevitably constrained as a consequence to a tighter band.  It’s been the blue-collar worker, the enlisted man, the poorer cousin, of the whisky world.  But things are a-changing, and bourbon is moving on up.

When I take a deeper look at any product I like to refer to its definition, the essence that gives it its identity and its constitution.  These are usually found floating about on Wikipedia and in various other crevices, but I decided in this case to get as close to the source as possible. The site for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TBB) of the United States publishes those for bourbon and straight bourbon as follows:

  • Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers
  • (Straight bourbon is) bourbon whisky stored in charred new oak containers for 2 years or more
  • “Straight Bourbon Whisky” may include mixtures of two or more straight bourbon whiskies provided all of the whiskies are produced in the same state […will big straight bourbon blends become a thing?]

The exercise allowed me to make two interesting observations, one peripheral the other central, which I otherwise wouldn’t if I hadn’t sourced the original reference:  firstly, that the legislators in the US have used the “whisky” spelling rather than the conventional “whiskey” spelling.  This may be vestigial, having remained in place from the earliest laws governing production, before the Irish and Americans introduced the e to differentiate their products from Scotch; and secondly, that there is a huge variety of whiskey styles in the United States, the bar for most being very low.  This reinforced to me that the credibility of American whiskey as a broad category rests on straight whisky. The ability thus to generate complexity and variety within the scope of these definitions is critical.

The bourbon regulations allow more latitude with stills, and mashbills, relative to some other styles.  This is the reason why a brand like Woodford Reserve is able to employ a triple pot distillation to distinguish its product and flavour profile from most other bourbons, which are double distilled in column and doubler stills (essentially a combination of a column still and a pot still).  The still types and distillation techniques may promote flavour subtleties between one bourbon and another, but it’s a measured contribution, not a revolution – the stuff of a sergeant’s stripes, not a commission.  The mashbill is more impactful.   Corn must be predominant, but thereafter, in the selection and weighting of the secondary ingredient (known as the flavour grain, because of its pivotal influence), there is room to play – with three basic styles resulting: wheated, rye, and high rye.  The former tends to be softer and sweeter, with cereal and grass flavours prominent – and there’s a preconception that it matures more gracefully, largely on the back of the Pappy van Winkle legacy I would think – whilst the latter two are bolder, spicier and fruitier.  A bourbon becomes high rye when this component approaches and exceeds 20% of the mashbill.  These three styles are well populated but the inclination to further tap this ostensibly rich vein seems muted.  Buffalo Trace’s E.H. Taylor Four Grain, using corn, malted barley (the standard tertiary ingredient, there to assist with fermentation) and BOTH rye and wheat, is a recent rare iteration (although there have been others).  This is a transcending era though, so it’ll be interesting to see what else springs from this well in the next few years.  Maybe an entirely new grain could be attempted, like unmalted barley.

We don’t get many American whiskeys in South Africa – perhaps that’s indicative of my starting point in itself – so we’re a little behind on the latest developments.  Sadly too, the Buffalo Trace distillery, one of the more innovative producers, is not presently represented locally.  We’re unlikely therefore to be seeing any Taylor bottles on our shelves anytime son.  Interestingly however the heralds to our shores of bourbon’s new swagger are products exploiting the most restrictive aspect of the definition: that guiding the maturation.   New charred oak only?  It’s a hell of a limit, but one that absolutely had to be challenged if any headway was to be made – time and wood are whisky’s single most important sources of flavour.

The wonderful Knob Creek, one of the standout bourbons to which we have ready access, is evidence of the initial forays, pushing charring to its maximum to better access the flavours in the woods and to carve a route for the liquid to travel and make deepest possible contact.  Jim Beam’s Double Oak, one of the latest arrivals, takes a leaf from Scotch with its double maturation (albeit both in same barrel styles), producing a succulent whiskey that’s rich, sweet and oaky, and highly drinkable.  I cracked a bottle with some colleagues after work, intending a quick drink before ducking home, but before I knew it a few hours had passed and the bottle was done.  Most inspiring though is the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked.  The distillery has become known in the past while for its innovative work with wood – their Maple Wood Finish in particular was ground-breaking, although like many of the other products in their Master’s Collection it can’t be called a bourbon, so probably destined to stay niched.  The Double Oaked is most certainly a bourbon, also double matured like the Jim Beam, with the second racking being in casks that were deeply toasted first then submitted to a light charring.  The resulting depth of flavour has put my notions about the constrained potential of bourbon to the sword.

There’s a lot more that’s happening, and that can and will happen: the use of other oak species, of larger casks (particularly for a spirit that overcooks easily), of White oak grown in different eco-systems, to name just a few possibilities.  We’re seeing the tip of the iceberg but it’s enough to convince me that maturation – ironically, bourbon’s more confined and restrained space – is where the vital play is being, and will continue to be, made.  The innovation that’s being wrought is its ticket to the big stage, to an eventual equal billing with its more fancied forerunners.  I look forward with eager anticipation to the fruits of the endeavour.  May the dram be with you.

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The land of the rising dram

Whisky, big in Japan.  Japan, big in whisky.  Patrick Leclezio separates his mizuwaris from his oyuwaris.

Whisky geeks have been on it for a while, but now it’s starting to explode in the mainstream.  Japanese, if you can get it, is the hottest thing in whisky.  And it’s been due for some time. Bill Murray memorably introduced (most of) us to it in 2003’s Lost in Translation: “For good times, make it Suntory time”.  After all when some paranormal publicity is required who you gonna call? Since then Suntory and Nikka, both the company and brand names of the two leading players, and their flagship single malts, Yamazaki and Yoichi, have rapidly established themselves in our collective consciousness, with the smaller marques following in their wakes.  Demand has grown to fever pitch, but with South Africa low on the list of supply priorities, the stuff is thin on the ground.  I wanted to know more and try more before writing this piece, so I sought out the country’s leading Japanese whisky distributor (and expert) Hector McBeth, to tap into his voluminous knowledge of the subject…and to sneak a few drams from his private stock.

Stranger in a strange land.  Five words that sum up the origins of Japanese whisky.  A Japanese man living and studying in distant Scotland in the early twentieth century.  A curious Scottish tradition taking root in Japan shortly thereafter.  These are the two intertwined threads, epitomising the unifying magic of whisky, that precipitated this industry.   Its watershed moment though came much later, in 2008, when Yoichi’s 20YO and the Suntory Hibiki were awarded the titles of world’s best single malt and world’s best blended whisky respectively by Whisky Magazine, one of the most credible of whisky authorities.  A deluge of awards have followed.

The face behind the liquid and its success, is somewhat inscrutable.  In fact Japanese whisky is a study in contrasts.  On the one hand there’s extreme rigidity.  The model and the basic techniques, and hence the flavours, are derived from Scotch.  I had always held out that the one tangibly identifiable feature distinguishing its whisky from others was the use of Japanese oak (mizunara), inserting the incense notes that are identifiable in some of its expressions.  Hector disavowed me of the notion, confirming that the proportion of these casks in any vatting or blend is minimal.  It’s a nice story, and it’s sometimes apparent (in Yamazaki in particular), but on the whole it’s not significant.  There just isn’t enough of the stuff (the wood).  Adding to its limitations, the various distilleries, already few in number, by and large do not trade stocks outside of their parent companies (of which there are fewer still), hence restricting the variety of product that’s available for vatting and blending.  This is a traditional convention, profoundly fixed in the Japanese ethic of company loyalty.  The result is a set of institutions that can appear deeply conservative, unimaginative and cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face inhibiting.

Then there’s the other hand, the contrast.  Paradoxically the same issues that have constrained Japanese whisky seem also to have driven it forward.  Starved of variety, Japanese distilleries began producing it for themselves.  A Scotch distillery will typically only produce one type of new make.  In Japan individual distilleries began experimenting with different barleys, different malting methods, different yeasts, different stills, and different distillation methods, to produce a wide variety of different single malts.  Bamboo charcoal filtration has been introduced.  High quality single malt has been made in a Coffey still. Necessity as they say is the mother of invention.  The narrow parameters of their setup – the adoption of the Scotch paradigm, the cultural issues – seem to have stimulated rather than restrained innovation – producing spectacular results.

The real impacts remain implicit rather than explicit.  It’s difficult to point out visible, significant distinguishing features.  Whereas other territories have made their mark with radical departures, the Japanese have made small tweaks, focusing on execution of the details.  Their work with yeast is supposedly industry leading, to the point, Hector tells me, that they legally register their strains.  My take-out is that they have taken vatting and blending to greater levels of dedication than anyone else.   Ireland and North America have their own very distinct styles.  Scotch is bound to provenance.   Japan is all about using their human resources to make the most of their limited physical resources – in whisky as in everything else really.  This is particularly evident in blended malts.   A neglected sector elsewhere the Japanese have embraced it, recognising and exploiting the extra dimension that it offers.  I’ve often maintained that blended malts have all the intrinsic advantages of single malts, and then some: they go beyond by providing the blender with an extensive palette of varying liquid, resulting in vatted potential that is undeniably superior (at least theoretically).   The Nikka portfolio in SA is a case in point: Nikka Pure Malts Red and Black, and the Taketsuru Pure Malt, along with Nikka from the Barrel, a high malt blend, being the most prevalent.

The industry has gone about things its own way, assiduously keeping the faith.  What it lacks in macro it has doubled in micro creativity, as growing legions of fans can bear witness.   If you’d like to be in that number, then march over to either Kyoto Gardens or Bascule Bar in Cape Town, or WhiskyBrother in Joburg, South Africa’s most assured purveyors of Japanese whisky.  May the dram be with you.

Sidebar:

Mizuwari: whisky with water and ice, served in a tall glass and stirred 13 and half times.

Oyuwaris: whisky with hot water, a custom that was borrowed from the drinking of sochu (the indigenous Japanese spirit).

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Treats from the top shelf

PATRICK LECLEZIO recommends five fine whiskies to accompany the festive season’s feasting.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2016 Best of the Best edition).

The end of another year looms, so reassuringly close now.  We’re in the final straight, the finish line in sight and beckoning. There’s something about this period that’s exciting, in such a deep-seated sense that it’s more physiological than cerebral – a simmering exhilaration that gets you deep in the gut.   It’s a time to devote undistracted quality time to friends and family, to step away from the frantic pace of modern life, and to reward yourself for some sustained hard toil.  It’s that once a year culmination – and it should be fittingly anointed.   If there is ever a time to spoil yourself then this is it.  Life is short, this end-of-term hiatus even shorter; these are moments to be seized and savoured to within an inch of their existence.   In whisky terms – and revelling’s not revelling without great whisky – it’s the moment to let loose with the lucre, to drink something a little more special, to embrace some celebratory catalysts for sharing time with your favourite people.   Here are my five picks to fire the flame of your festive season.

Irish – Midleton Barry Crockett

It’s only recently that Irish Distillers renewed the Single Pot Still style, beefing up what had been – given its spectacular attributes – a criminally sparse offering.  The new range is still limited but it’ll get you on enthusiastically and it’ll keep you riding indefinitely.  Redbreast, the “Spots”, Power’s – these are heralds enough to convince us emphatically that this style is the equal of single malt, but for all their worth they are blunt instruments in comparison to the Barry Crockett, a whiskey of such subtlety and refinement as to leave you in awe.   Using an uncommon combination of both ex-bourbon and new casks, the Midleton distillery has a created an uncommon whiskey indeed.   I’m a sceptic when it comes to NAS whiskies, but this one honours all the justifications that are spouted on the subject.  There isn’t any indication of immaturity; the younger whiskies used in these vattings contribute to and complement the array within with no detraction whatsoever – and what an array it is!  It’s something you’ll have to keep revisiting: sweet creaminess and autumn leaves one moment, treacly honey, orchard fruitiness, and tangy candy the next, new twists layer after layer.  Drink it in slow reflection of a year well spent.

Unpeated Single Malt – Bruichladdich Black Art 1990 edition 04.1

Great whiskies can grow on you gradually, or they can announce themselves immediately.  Black Art is unequivocally amongst the latter.  I came upon an earlier edition some three to four years ago at a whisky show, with no prior knowledge of it whatsoever.  There was no fuss.  I thought it was just another release from a distillery known for its prolific experimentation.  Until I tasted it.  It rocked me where I stood.  The universe suddenly came into focus – I kid you not.  I felt like I had unearthed genius, if you’ll allow me to be a bit liberal.  I’ve since sought out subsequent editions at every opportunity.  There is something particularly special about a series, whether it be vintages or editions.  You know what you’re getting in broad terms but each is a little different, carving out new nooks and crannies to explore, and offering fresh surprises to keep things interesting.   The wood profile is top secret – we’re told that there’s American oak and French oak (seasoned by “premium wine”) involved, but that could mean many things.  There’s no point hypothesising – it’s a sideshow.   The cascade of fruits, the hints of spice, the honey, toffee, chocolate and molasses, gather and swell into a sensational deluge of flavour that’ll keep you riveted from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day and well beyond.

Peated single malt – Bowmore 15YO Darkest

I first experienced the Darkest sitting at the magnificent bar at Bowmore (my first stop on the island) looking out over the bay under a brooding sky.  Classic Islay.  It may have coloured my perceptions at the time:  how could you not enjoy the place’s peated whiskies with that weight of geography and heritage and atmosphere weighing upon you?  Well, after many further stops, with the passage of the years, and with a few other bites at the cherry since I’ll admit, the Darkest still lives large if not largest in my memory.  This is Islay as it should be – at least for my taste.  The unmistakeable smokiness is there, but it knows its place: as an equal not an oppressor.  The result is a rich and beautifully calibrated whisky – drifting, briny smoke with a balancing scale of raisins and dark, dried fruits, and butterscotch sweetness.  I can’t think of a better whisky with which to conclude the season’s typically banquetlike meals.

Blended – Johnnie Walker Platinum Label

Johnnie Walker has its place and purpose, but on the whole I find its range of blends to be obvious, and somewhat overstated (appealing for many).   The Platinum is an exception.   It’s bold and big, yes, but there’s also a depth to be plumbed.  Candied cherries, nutty granola, and vanilla dance amongst dark chocolate crumbles and sparks of citrus and spice, with a fine smokiness, the traditional Scotch signature, playing a mellow music in the background.  There aren’t too many blended whiskies of this class and complexity on our local market – so I’d consider Platinum a get-in-the-festive-mood go-to:  something to “session” as you clink crystal tumblers with old mates, and regale each other with the highlights of your year.

South African – Three Ships 15YO Pinotage finish

I’m referencing this one as local, but let there be no misconception – this is a whisky that stands down to no other.  It is quite simply world class.  I was lucky enough to delve into some Pinotage experiments at the distillery about two to three years ago, and both the concept and the liquids intrigued and encouraged me hugely.  They spoke of a day when “we” would make a truly South African whisky, so both in provenance and style, and a truly great one to boot.  That day has now come.  The whisky that has materialised is full and well balanced, with fruits, sweet spice, dusted nougat, and mineral loaminess appearing and then disappearing like well-choreographed actors on a stage.  There’s peat smoke too, flitting around the edges of tongue and palate, clearly polished by a decade and half in wood, but still in burnished evidence.  Spend some time with this one.  It reveals more and more as you nurture it, the wine only showing itself directly to me when I nosed my emptied glass.  The whisky was finished in twelve Pinotage barrels for about two years, which makes it unusual in two senses: it’s the only mainstream (if not the only, period) release to have used this type of cask, and it’s one of a very few blended whiskies to have been either double matured or finished – so I’ll suggest that it’s a blend that’s been crafted with a level of attention, care and passion typically afforded only to single malts.  You’ll note from the number of casks I mentioned that supply is finite; only 3500 bottles are available, so don’t dawdle.   Stake your claim to a piece of whisky history whilst you can.

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Back to its roots

Whisky finds new inspiration from within.  PATRICK LECLEZIO looks at the emerging trend of beer cask maturation.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2016 edition).

Sometimes the best ideas are those that have been staring you in the face all along.  Familiarity is fickle lens.  Often you can’t see the potential in something that is closest to you.  Until you do.  And even then it can be a while until it takes hold.  The situation I’m about to describe has taken hundreds of years to emerge, when it was right there from the start.  Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for it, perhaps the industry and market conditions were not amenable until recently.  It is flabbergasting nonetheless that something so obvious should have taken so long.  Shortly before 2001 the chaps at William Grant looked at whisky deeply (I like to imagine them scrying, like a soothsayer with a bowl of water), at its very DNA, and saw a glimpse of the future.  That future was in fact the elemental past.  The future of whisky that revealed itself to them was…beer.

There’s a certain synchronicity to this occurrence, because whisky is in fact made from beer – the wash from which it’s distilled is also known as “distiller’s beer”.  The ingredients are virtually the same, with the exception of the hops – although where legislation allows, as is the case with American whiskeys, distillers have been experimenting with making hopped-up whiskey, so to speak, from consumer-ready, finished beer.  These are undoubtedly interesting developments worth exploring but since these products are yet to wash up on our shores, the effort is best shelved for another time.  More relevant is the flowering of those early Grant’s initiatives, which resulted in the Grant’s Ale Cask Reserve, and incidentally in the Innis & Gunn range of cask matured beers.

The intention had been to season casks with ale, casks which would then be used to further mature (i.e. finish) whisky, and impart flavours which it would draw from the ale.  This intuitively feels right.   What better way to bring balance and equilibrium than to find it from within yourself?  The analogy that comes to mind – intellectually, I certainly won’t be dwelling on it when I’m suiting down to nip on a dram – is an organ transplant. If you were able to donate organs to yourself (stretching this to make more sense, imagine yourself in this scenario as being an identical twin brother or a clone), then the chances of a harmonious result are hugely enhanced.

The Ale Cask Reserve and its successive incarnation, the Grant’s Ale Cask Finish, were well received, but in fifteen odd years since its ignition, the flame of this new phenomenon has spread only modestly.  In fact its widest (and unintended) impact has been on the arena not of whisky but of beer.  Once this beer had done its job on the casks, it was “discovered” that the casks had also done a job on the beer.  The story that we’re told is that the beer was slated for disposal but that workers were taking it home to drink it, such was its tastiness.  Now this sounds somewhat cultivated, it makes for good copy as they say – who’d believe that canny Scots would waste potentially good beer (or anything really) without checking it out first.  Regardless of whether it was all part of the plan or not, the beer was unarguably good, and it birthed the delicious Innis & Gunn range, and gave a massive impetus to the development of cask-aged beer.   A great idea is a still a great idea though, even if people are slow to see it.  The flame is now starting to flare.

With the release of Jameson’s Caskmates last year and Glenfiddich’s IPA experiment this year the next wave of beer matured whisky, now pounding at the dam wall, is being unleashed.  The former is partly matured in stout seasoned casks, fittingly for something of Irish provenance, and the latter is finished in casks that have been seasoned with a craft India Pale Ale.  I was impressed by the boldness of the Caskmates, which is a departure from the standard, more muted Jameson (which I always find interesting, but limited by diluted-seeming flavours).  This whisky may have sprung from the same loins, but it’s the rowdier and more boisterous sibling, the one who’s had a few pints.  A loud but good natured whisky. I’m a huge fan of the IPA style of beer so I found myself gravitating naturally to the Glenfiddich, which beautifully evidenced the anticipated hoppy flavours.  The whisky is rich without being full, possibly because it’s a touch young, but it’s wonderfully layered and palate hugging, with tranches of citrus and boiled sweets overlaying oak and cereal.  This is a sit-down-with-a-buddy-and-finish-the-bottle kind of whisky – which I almost did, finding restraint only because I knew I’d be appreciating it in diminishing measures.  It’s good enough to tempt you, but concurrently good enough to stop you.

The time seems to be right for this trend to kick on, for that dam wall to burst.  We’ve witnessed an explosion and proliferation in the craft beer arena, so if conditions weren’t optimally in place previously, the stars are now unequivocally in perfect alignment.  There is a plethora of variety from which to constitute a new palette of well-integrated, complementary flavours.  In an industry where the scope for innovation is limited, this is a breath of fresh, invigorating barley air, a genuine meaningful dose of originality in a marketplace where the invocation of “new” is beginning to feel like lip service.  May the brew be with you.

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The wood in whisky

A phenomenon called maturation.  PATRICK LECLEZIO bows respectfully but unflinchingly to one of the great forces in whisky.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2016 edition).

The use of wood in crafting whisky is enormously important.  Many years ago – almost all the players seem to have their own quaint, romantic story about how it occurred – someone put their spirits into an oak cask, ostensibly for storage or transport, left it for longer than intended, and realised that the resultant, conditioned liquid had been considerably enhanced.  I can only imagine the joy of that discovery, the whisky equivalent of fire, or the wheel, or penicillin (or maybe that’s me imagining what I would say after appropriately celebrating the discovery).  Anyhow, in the aftermath of this happy accident (or these happy accidents, if we’re to give everyone the benefit of the doubt) laying spirits in wood gradually became a deliberate practice, utilised across the board.  It is now of such importance that the makers of fine spirits, and other drinks too (wines and fortified wines in particular), dedicate massive resources to what is known as maturation.  In asserting and validating the extent of its influence I’m going to delve into some the critical factors, but I also want to counter myself with a cautionary voice, because maturation is the one issue in whisky that tends to be over-aggrandised – so I’ll attempt to debunk the glib statements that are sometimes used to stress its importance, but that often misrepresent and mislead.

I’ve repeatedly been told that the most important influence on the flavour of a whisky is its maturation, or, similarly, that maturation contributes 60% (or 70%, or 80% – depends to whom you’re listening) of the flavour of a whisky…and I’ve probably passed on these same suppositions myself.  No longer, or at least, not in these terms.  I have no problem with the direction of the sentiment (there’s no doubting that maturation is important, enormously so, as I’ve already said and will say again, and in many or even most cases of majority importance), but I find it tenuous to reduce it to a fixed, universal, and absolute point.  Firstly the effect of maturation on different whiskies is variable: most obviously because of its duration, the weightings of its input into a 3YO and a 25YO will be dramatically different, but also because wood is a natural substance, and therefore not consistent in its impacts, and further because the relative scale of other influences will also vary.  In the Ardbeg 10YO for instance I could make the (not unreasonable) contention that it is peat smoke and not maturation that commands the single biggest impression in the flavour.  Secondly, flavour is subject to interpretation – it simply can’t be factually referenced in quantitative terms (when this is done in scoring it’s an opinion), or even in definitive terms.  I may be predominantly captivated by the biscuit notes in Maker’s Mark, which I attribute to the wheat in the mashbill, but someone else, sitting drinking the identical whisky opposite me, may be more captivated by the sweet vanilla derived from the casks.  The reason I’m labouring this point is that flavour is suggestive.  If you believe that maturation is the be-all, end-all, that’s often what it will be, perhaps to your detriment. During a business trip with two seasoned industry professionals we were served a cognac which we were told was a Scotch whisky.  We proceeded to debate amongst ourselves whether it was a blend or a single malt (I went for single malt, at least I got the copper distillation right).  In retrospect (blushes notwithstanding) I knew I had identified something funky, but I had simply ruled it out of my mind before even picking up the glass that this was anything other than whisky.  Question assumptions, about this and about anything else really (life rule).

When we talk about maturation, we effectively refer, in very simplistic terms, to the process over time where a liquid resting in a cask absorbs (and relinquishes) certain characteristics, primarily from (and to) the cask itself, and to a lesser degree from the environment in which the cask is accommodated, which permeates as the cask expands and contracts (breathes) with temperature fluctuations, and where the liquid further evolves as the result of chemical reactions between its component compounds and those being absorbed.  The cask itself plays the pivotal role, both intrinsically, by contributing the natural elements of the wood from which it’s made, and by passing on “second-hand” flavours that it has absorbed in its previous maturations, typically of bourbon or sherry, but increasingly of other drinks as well.  I recently worked my way through a bottle of the Glenfiddich 21YO (“raised in Scotland, roused by the Caribbean”…classic), finished in rum casks, with the molasses underpinning that spirit startlingly and deliciously evident in the final liquid.  Glenmorangie has just released Milsean, a whisky finished (extra matured in their parlance) in Portuguese red wine barriques.  Michel Couvreur, a brand with which I was previously associated, produces Spiral, which is finished (double matured might be more apt given the duration) in Jura vin de paille casks and which is one of the outstanding whiskies of my experience.  William Grant, and now Jameson (and possibly others), make whisky finished in ale casks.  And on it goes.  This aspect of maturation has created a model where the possibilities for flavour diversity are almost endless.  It is the sexy face of maturation.  Ex-sherry, ex-bourbon! Oloroso, Pedro Ximinez, manzanilla!  Port, sauternes! And whilst it’s undeniably interesting and alluring it’s important not to forget that much of the body of the whisky comes from the wood itself.

The wood in whisky is the mighty oak – as is the case for most spirits.  There are indigenous Brazilian trees that are used for maturing cachaça, the odd, old, arbitrary chestnut cask has turned up here and there in Scotland, and I’ve read of an American whiskey using maple for finishing, but these are strictly exceptions.  Somehow, out of all the trees in all the world, it’s curiously only oak that works properly (mighty indeed!), and furthermore only oak that has been grown in the right climate and conditions. The attempt to grow Quercus Alba (American white oak) in South Africa was a disaster; the wood was of such poor quality as to be unusable.  This is the reason why a company like Glenmorangie pays such close attention to wood cultivation, to the point where Bill Lumsden, their whisky supremo, flies out to the United States to individually select the trees that’ll be used to make their casks; and why a brand like Glenfiddich celebrates the intricate role of the wood in its whisky – as evidenced by the beautiful “Journey of the Cask” photo essay, from which I’ve chosen images to accompany this piece.   I’ll spare you a detailed knowledge the actual chemistry – because it’s above my pay grade I’ll admit, but also (I say somewhat conveniently) because it’s unnecessary if your objective is to better understand whisky for the purpose of its enjoyment.  The basics of it though are as follows:  The wood performs two functions. The charred or toasted inner layer, like the charcoal that it is, absorbs impurities from the raw spirit, making its smoother and more palatable.   It also gives the spirit a pathway into the wood, from which it absorbs vanillins, lignins and tannins – the elements that make such a central contribution (the second function) to flavour.

Lost to this simplistic explanation are a multitude of other considerations, that all stake a claim:  the seasoning of the wood – the process and time governing the drying of the cut wood (to be distinguished from the seasoning of the casks with liquid); the toasting and charring levels; the skill of the cooperage; the selection and proportion of virgin casks, first fills or refills; and, very importantly, the species of the wood – the most common being the Quercus Alba already mentioned, and Quercus Robur, the European oak.  I had the privilege of attending a nosing with Edrington (Macallan, Highland Park) heavyweight Gordon Motion, during which we compared the same whisky matured for the same period in the same warehouse in American oak and European oak casks, both seasoned with the same sherry for the same period.  From the number of times I’ve used the word same in that sentence you’ve obviously worked out by now that I’m setting you up.  Yes, the whiskies were dramatically different.

Maturation then is a critical lever for flavour.  Even today it retains a sense of that natural world mystique that must have astonished the first person to have stumbled upon it.  Its influence on whisky is both broad and deep.  It’s an easy trap to fall into though to think that it is all-important.  Look at a whisky, nose a whisky, taste a whisky and the first thing that dominates your thinking is a consideration of the casks from which it’s made.  As with all things that are imposing and extraordinary though, it’s worth taking a measured perspective to keep from being overawed.  If I can leave you with only one guiding sentiment about maturation it’s this: appreciate it but don’t exaggerate it.  Leave room for other things.  May the dram be with you.

Prestige Aug 2016 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Aug 2016 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.

Grain versus Malt

A family affair.   PATRICK LECLEZIO spotlights the plight of whisky’s less favoured son.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2016 edition).

There are two brothers in the Whisky Family.   Malt Whisky, the eldest, is a prodigy of the highest order.  It’s clear from the start that he is both outrageously talented and wildly popular, and as a result his potential has been obsessively nurtured, to the virtual exclusion of anything or anyone else.  He is lavished with the best that the family has to offer, and, unsurprisingly, his accomplishments have been prodigious.  His brother Grain Whisky too shows glimpses of great potential, and he has his own aspirations, but for the most part they’ve been swept aside.  He is recognised only for what he can do to contribute to Malt’s success.  Ironically it’s as a team that they’ve made the most impact, but whilst Grain does most of the heavy lifting the plaudits always seem to go to Malt.  He basks in the glory of the applause, as his brother, unacknowledged, if not downright ignored, is relegated to watching from the wings.

This is the dynamic that plays itself out in Scotch whisky primarily (but also elsewhere), albeit in less pointedly emotive fashion.  And as with any family drama worth its salt, each party has their side of the story.  Malt typically dominates the whisky conversation, but the less recognised, less understood, less appreciated grain also deserves its chance – and if you have an affinity for whisky (which of course you do!), you’ll be amply rewarded in giving grain some of your attention.   I love whisky for a whole variety of reasons, large amongst them being the variety of flavour that it offers.  Grain whisky may be related to its malt sibling in their common whisky brotherhood, but it is also a distinct style of its own – and it varies on perhaps the most fundamental possible basis – thereby offering an alternative, refreshing corridor of exploration, which you overlook to your detriment.

The most obvious difference between malt and grain whiskies is the raw ingredient or base from which each is made: malt from malted barley, and grain from any other cereal, although there are some caveats.  Malted barley is used in many grain whiskies in small proportions to assist with fermentation, and there are some styles, single pot still comes to mind, that would defy categorisation as either malt or grain.  The grain whisky of Scotland is made primarily from wheat, but also from maize.  American bourbons (the cousins of our two brothers) are effectively grain whiskies made predominantly from maize (corn in their parlance).  This base, being the core of a whisky, imparts significant differences in flavour, and even in mouthfeel, to the final spirit.  In wheat based whiskies there is often a biscuity sweetness and an oily mouthfeel , and in maize based whiskies a full buttery chewiness, detectable through the other influences.

Malts and grains are produced by means of two different processes, the former through pot distillation, the latter through column distillation.  The conventional wisdom is that pot stills facilitate more flavour through copper “conversation” (contact of the liquid with the copper material from which these stills are usually made) and by distilling a less pure liquid to lower concentrations (with the impurities imparting flavour).  Column stills conversely are seen to produce lighter, cleaner spirit to higher alcoholic strengths.  It is true that most grain whiskies tend to have lighter characters than malt for this reason, but distillation is a dark art in which many things are possible, and accordingly you should be careful not to paint all grains with the same brush.  Anyone who has sampled the Nikka Coffey grain and malt whiskies would be able to testify to the richness and depth of flavour achieveable with a column still.

Perhaps the most striking deviation between the two styles is not so much in their intrinsic constitution – the ingredients and the processes just described – but in the intentions that have guided their creation and importantly their maturation.  Scotch grains have been made almost exclusively for blending.  As a result they are designed: to be light, to “dilute” the rough edges of young malts; to be cost effective, so perhaps racked in lesser casks, and to be simple and accessible, so that the blend doesn’t detract from character of the malt.  These intentions, that have inhibited grain’s ostensible ambitions for the most part, are luckily not ubiquitous.  They may be in small numbers but there are grain whiskies that have been and are being produced for their own glory, and that are equivalent in class to the great malts whilst having their own unique charm and flair.

I evaluated two of these recently – Compass Box’s Hedonism (a blended grain), and Bain’s Cape Mountain whisky (a single grain), both brilliant fulfilments of the grain whisky potential.  Hedonism is a decadent delight, especially for those of us who value the typical elements of American oak ex-bourbon cask maturation.  Vanilla and coconut abound, being given free rein, with some oatmeal and honey also detectable.  The advantage of a lighter, purer spirit is that it doesn’t have to fight with its casks – it simply provides the canvas, and lets the painting ensue.   Bain’s, whilst still a lighter whisky in an absolute sense, is noticeably more fat and robust, with toffee nibs, a brisk hit of spice, and sweet oak prominent, the latter perhaps a factor of the double maturation, and ripe-ish fruitiness and some vanilla in the background.  It strikes with a certain confident aplomb the tenuous balance between interesting and easy.

There is a certain line in the whisky family which is expected to be toed: Malt comes first.  This is how it is – and it’s not to be disputed.  The extent of his talent and the weight of momentum have created an unstoppable force.  It’s exciting though that that there have been the occasional infractions, as Grain has stepped out of line to express his own talent.  There’s room I think for lot more of it.  May the rivalry endure, and may the dram be with you.

Prestige June 2016 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige June 2016 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.