Tag Archives: aberlour

Don’t forget about the blends

Overlooked and underesteemed, a strange curse of popularity

First published in Whisky Magazine South Africa (November 2020)

If you’re a whisky drinker it’s likely that the first and most recurring choice you’ve had to make on your journey is that between blend and single malt.  There are other styles of whisky of course – single pot stills, bourbon, and grains to name a few – but here in South Africa, and in most places, these are the two that predominate;  and of the two blends are the popular favourites, massively outweighing single malts.  There’s no little irony then in pleading their case.

The reality though is that whilst blends may dominate the box office, single malts are the indie darlings, garnering the lion’s share of critical acclaim.  The romance of whisky, its bucolic provenance, colourful history, and crafted production, is largely essential in single malts. 

Whiskies like Aberlour’s A’bunadh epitomise the appeal of the style: forged in distinct, numbered batches in the heart of Speyside in Scotland, perhaps the most renowned whisky region, replicated from an inadvertently discovered bottle dating back to 1898, and delivering deep, rich, impeccable sherry cask flavours, but with enough effervescence on the finish, at least in the batch (56) currently in market, to play short of the line where intense lapses into overpowering, this is an outstanding whisky in all respects.  With serious interest in whisky escalating in recent years, and with the proliferation of compelling specimens like the A’bunadh, the ballooning population of aficionados has increasingly been opting for single malts. Their potential, long either ignored or underemployed, is progressively being realised, recognised and appreciated, to the extent that the relative spend on single malts compared to blends is about three-fold higher now than it was twenty years ago – a staggering shift.  Single malts are a hot commodity.

Blends on the other hand owe their comparative scale (in general) to a substantial cost advantage, and to flavour profiles that tend to be light and accessible, rather than to any superior merit.  They’re by-and-large cheap, and easy to drink.  Many blends, if one was to be unkind, could be described as bland fodder for the undiscerning masses.  Its lesser exponents have somewhat tainted the style, with the result that it’s become perceived, often unconsciously, as uninspiring and second best.   

This is the backdrop against which you might find yourself unwittingly making your choices, but if you were to buy into and consistently act on these perceptions in isolation you’d be selling your whisky wonderment (to be poetic about it) woefully short.  It’s always worth re-examining assumptions, especially those that lead to ingrained, automatic, and detrimental prejudices.

A blended whisky is constituted from a variety of single malts (made from malted barley in a copper pot still), mixed with grain whisky (made from corn or wheat in a column still).  The grain, habitually maligned as a diluting filler, in fact introduces a few elements of potential “extra” value: a particular mouthfeel (typically an oiliness), its own specific flavours, and a distinct dynamic that changes how the malt flavours present themselves i.e. much as men behave differently around women, so does malt in the company of grain. 

The challenge lies in combining the selection and proportions of these various components into a whisky that’s more than the sum of its parts – the process known as blending.  Get it wrong and it’s forgettable.  Get it right and it can be something awe-inspiringly special – something on which you wouldn’t want to miss out.  One such whisky is Johnnie Walker Blue Label, a replete demonstration of the best possibilities of the style.  Oaky, spicy, peaty, and sweet, with an array of fruits, this whisky has drawn from an all-encompassing palette of flavours and somehow melded them into a harmonious, coherent and delicious whole.  Notably, it’s one of the first high-profile bottlings of a multi-vintage whisky, merging liquids of substantially different ages.  Whilst this is looked upon cynically in this “No Age Statement” era, Johnnie Blue is a well-intentioned, trail-blazing execution of the technique, achieving a real, indisputable synergy.

Another blend worth singling out is Jameson, the consistently fastest growing whiskey (it’s Irish hence the spelling, with single pot still playing the malt role) of the past twenty years.  The standard bottling is a marvel, but an upgrade gets you the ridiculously quaffable Select Reserve, a denser version with an injection of dark fruit flavours.  Perhaps the most compelling example of a blend’s appeal though is found in another Irish, Bushmill’s Black Bush: interesting, complex, rich, and, importantly for everyday drinking, affordable, amongst other charms.  You can look if you want but you won’t find a single malt that’s both similarly satisfying and easy on the pocket.

Whisky is set apart by its complexity and variety of flavour.  There’s arguably more to experience in single expression, and there are more different and distinct expressions, than with any other spirit.  This is partly inherent to the qualities of the liquid itself, but also brought by its evolution and momentum – more people demanding more.  Either way it wouldn’t be the case if it wasn’t for its great blends.  Something to ponder next time you’re ordering a drink or choosing a bottle.  May the dram be with you!

As it appeared: https://whiskymag.co.za/dont-forget-about-the-blends/

Primed for whisky

Wanted’s gallivanting guide to six of the finest

First published in Wanted Magazine December 2017.

Whisky, the so-called nectar of the gods (justifiably so!), originated in Ireland and Scotland, where over centuries it was passionately nurtured from humble beginnings to the globally popular drink that it is today.  We browsed through the collections of these two countries to find a few of the best.

The Glenlivet, Scotland’s first licensed distillery and industry groundbreaker, is synonymous with Scotch whisky and its history.  ‘’THE Glenlivet is THE ORIGINAL’’, says South African brand ambassador Isaac Pooe.  ‘’It’s been the Original Speyside Single Malt since 1824, setting the benchmark in taste, heritage and exploration ever since.  This is the reason I enjoy hosting private tastings so much – I get to reveal the story behind our whisky, and the tenacity of George Smith, the founder,  whose passion for his craft made me fall in love with whisky in the first place’’.

At the helm since 2009, Master Distiller Alan Winchester has ushered in a raft of progressive expressions from the Guardians’ Chapters and the Alpha to the extension of the Nadurra range, helping to entrench the brand as one of the world’s leading single malts.  It’s the inception of Founder’s Reserve though that’s been the most compelling development of recent years:  a multi-vintage whisky that triumphs in the ambitious trifecta of affordable, accessible, and interesting.

Nose: citrus fruit, sweet orange; Palate: zesty orange, pear, toffee apples; Finish: long, creamy, smooth

Wanted says: fruit compote in silky porridge

Equally special amongst the country’s gems is Aberlour (pronounced Aber-lauer).   Founded by James Fleming in 1879, there’s a deep sense of continuity and tradition at this distillery.  The acclaimed A’bunadh, a mouthful in every sense, was recreated from a bottle dating back to 1898.  And distilling chief Douglas Cruickshank, along with most of his team, has been forging these exceptionally balanced whiskies for some 25 years, not least the metronomic 12YO.

Nose: Soft and rounded, with fruity notes of red apple; Palate: A fine sherried character, balanced with rich chocolate, toffee, cinnamon and ginger spiciness; Finish: Warming and lingering – sweet and slightly spicy

Wanted says: a ripe plum of a whisky that’ll never let you down

Across in Ireland it’s single pot stills that preside, rather than single malts.  This once dominant style, made from both malted and unmalted barley, is staging a rousing comeback, led by the Midleton Distillery.  Crafted by a team under various “Masters” including Billy Leighton (Blending) and Brian Nation (Distilling), Midleton’s muscular pot still portfolio is making the rich, fruity and spicy band of the flavour spectrum its own.

The backbone of the style, especially during its hiatus, Redbreast is now the world’s best-selling single pot still.  The range numbers five delicious, aged expressions, but the 12YO remains the paterfamilias, exercising authority over both its stable and style with sheer force of character and weight of credibility.

Nose:  A complex spicy and fruity aroma with toasted wood notes evident.  Palate: Full flavoured and complex; a harmonious balance of spicy, creamy, fruity, sherry and toasted notes.  Finish:  satisfyingly long, the complex flavours linger on the palate.

Wanted says: Every day is Christmas with this baked melange of dark fruits

The Spot Whiskeys were named after the method of identifying the age of the casks used for their maturation i.e. by daubing them with a spot of coloured paint.  Yellow Spot, with its unusual mix of Bourbon, Sherry and Malaga cask influences, delivers a succulent sweetness is that is almost uniquely special.

Nose:  Mown hay & cracked black pepper. Red bell peppers, nutmeg, clove oil & green tea.  Sweet honey & peaches from the Malaga casks. Palate: Honey sweetness with pot still spices.  Flavours of fresh coffee, creamy milk chocolate & Crème Brûlée. Notes of red apples & toasted oak.  Finish: Sophisticated & complex with a sweetness throughout.   a mix of red grape & dry barley on exit.

Wanted says: a dripping honey pot infused with fruit and spice

Powers whiskey dates back to 1791 when James Power established a distillery at John’s Lane in Dublin.  Since then it’s built a reputation for bold to bursting, flavoursome whiskeys, one of latest exponents being the Signature Release.

Nose:  Crisp herbal notes with touches of nutmeg, fig and black pepper corns. Sweet vanilla, followed by succulent berry fruits.  Palate: Vanilla with black licorice and cinnamon reveal fresh fruit – melons, green apples and pears – followed by crisp barley.  Finish: Long and wonderfully complex honey and spice.

Wanted says: a punchy combination of orchard fruits and sweet spices

Its eponymous brand is also the distillery’s most premium, with good reason.  Whereas the others are overtly demonstrative, Midleton runs to subtlety, complexity and refinement.  The Barry Crockett Legacy takes its name from the distillery’s long serving, now retired Master Distiller, a pivotal figure in the resurgence of Irish whiskey.

Nose: Elegant aroma of vanilla and toasted oak complimented by a touch of lime, succulent green berries, pears and green sweet pepper.  Palate: Light pepper carries onto fresh citrus, limes and mandarin orange sweetness. A hint of cinnamon with vanilla and oak reveals its years spent in American oak.  Finish: The full spectrum of flavours lasts well into the finish, slowly fading to expose the clean American oak foundation.

Wanted says: sweet creaminess and autumn leaves one moment, treacly honey, tart fruits, and tangy candy the next, it reveals one delight after the next – drink it in slow reflection of time well spent

Wanted Magazine Dec 2017 p2

As it appeared.

The Spanish Connection

They arguably own as much of the whisky heritage as any producer. Patrick Leclezio reviews a selection of whiskies owing their vital essence to the grapes of Spain.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2015 edition).

As it appeared - p1.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared - p2.

As it appeared – p2.

Ay caramba, the Spanish have infiltrated! This is not breaking news – in fact it shouldn’t even be news at all – it’s been a good long while in the making. And despite my ambiguous exclamation, it’s a good thing; for many, like me, the very best thing. I’m talking about sherry, of course, that quintessentially Spanish fortified wine, that has become so important to so many people – us whisky lovers – who don’t drink it, who have no intention of drinking it, yet who wouldn’t want to live without it. I set out recently to review, with a little bit of help from some discerning friends, some of the more notable sherried malt whiskies on the market, and to learn a bit more about sherry’s epic contribution to my favourite tipple.

One is often told – cut to an industry emissary assuming a portentous tone – that whisky is made from only three ingredients: barley, water and yeast. Deep (not really – I’m just paying homage to the pregnant pause that usually follows), but also misleading. It may be true in terms of direct ingredients, but that’s only part of the story, luckily, otherwise our noses and palates would be bored stiff. There are other ingredients that have come to play a part, peat and oak notably, and, acting in synergy with the oak, a variety of other drinks, of which bourbon and sherry are overwhelmingly the most significant.

It may be worth taking a moment to contextualise matters. The single most important factor influencing the flavour of a whisky, undisputed and empirically proven, is the maturation (or ageing) of the spirit, which itself, for the most part, is constituted of three essential, equally vital elements: time, wood, and the sherry or bourbon in which the oak was seasoned. It’s a subjective view on which some may differ – you have to make up your own minds – but I would venture that of the two sherry is by far the more interesting. By this reasoning then – I don’t think I’m being dramatic – it is critical to whisky.

Sidebar

The sherries in whisky

There are a few distinct sherries primarily used by the whisky industry for the seasoning of its casks, each of which imparts a different influence to flavour.

Oloroso: The most popular sherry for whisky maturation. An oxidatively aged sherry – which means that it matures in contact with air. Dark, nutty, often sweet.

Pedro Ximenez (PX): Increasing in popularity. Pressed from dried grapes, thereby concentrating its sugars. Intense raisin and molasses. Very sweet.

Fino: A biologically aged sherry, covered during maturation by a cushion of yeast known as flor, which prevents contact with air. Light, fresh and dry, with no oak influence.

Others: Amontillado and Manzanilla casks are also rarely but occasionally employed.

Strangely, having said this, the importance of sherry to whisky is not endorsed in the regulations (I refer to those for Scotch whisky), which only require whisky to be matured in oak casks. Its use exists purely on the basis of accident (like so much with whisky), convention, and its own considerable merits – enough in itself. The origins of the relationship lie in the reuse of the casks that transported sherry from Spain to Britain (an idea stemming from the prudent Scots no doubt), to hold and store whisky for merchants and wealthy customers, who subsequently discovered a beneficial influence on the liquid. The practice was accordingly perpetuated and by the end of the eighteenth century distilleries had begun to mature their whiskies in this fashion as a standard. Today these transport casks have been replaced by bespoke casks – casks seasoned with sherry on instruction, for a prescribed period of usually between one and half to two years.

The resultant variety of flavour is attributable to the different types of sherry, but also to the different types of wood being used. This is sometimes overlooked by much of the whisky community, which often refers to sherry casks and European oak interchangeably – a gross mistake. Casks seasoned with sherry are made from both American oak and European oak, and have been for much of history, the latter mostly of Spanish oak, but possibly of French oak or of other types. The same sherry in one or the other has a markedly different result for the whisky end-product. Even the same sherry in the same wood, being organic and imbued by nature with its own individuality, will produce varied results, albeit less markedly. It’s a truly synergistic process where sherry, wood and whisky interact in a process where the resultant cask will be absolutely unique.

These insights could be evidenced in much of the selection that we reviewed. The pool, not comprehensive by any means, but as representative a collection of reasonably priced sherried whiskies as was possible and practical, was as follows: Aberlour 16YO, Balvenie 17YO Doublewood Bunnahabhain 18YO, Glendronach 12YO, Glendronach 16YO Platinum, Glenfiddich 18YO, Glenmorangie Lasanta, Highland Park 12YO, and Macallan Sienna. There isn’t a whisky amongst the lot that I wouldn’t gladly drink on a daily basis, testament to sherry’s potency if well deployed.

The most intense were the two Glendronachs – I could literally feel the tannins tugging gently on my palate. Both exclusively sherry cask matured (combination Oloroso and PX), the 12YO is aged a few years in American oak, but spends most its life in European oak, whilst the slightly more restrained 16YO is entirely matured in European oak. Powerful indeed! They define the term sherry bomb. The most interesting (but also challenging – there’s a lot going on) of the selection is perhaps the Balvenie, matured in both American and European oak (seasoning not specified but I would imagine both bourbon and sherry) and then finished in Oloroso butts for six months. A marvellously complex interplay of the dark dried fruits and spices expected of sherry. Its stable mate, the Glenfiddich, is rich and flavoursome, but less ambitious. The Bunnahabhain 18YO always reminds me of a salted dark chocolate. It’s full flavoured, with notes of cocoa and a hint of salt so subtle that I sometimes think it’s suggested by my visit to the distillery’s spray flecked dunnage, located point blank on the ocean. The Sienna is undeniably a Macallan with all the rounded richness that this entails, offering enough of the Macallans of yore to keep us all interested I’d warrant. It’s fully sherry cask matured in a pleasing, well balanced mix of first-fill American and European oak. The Highland Park was the only peated whisky amongst those we tasted, and it reconfirmed to me the need for sherry as a counterweight to peat, at least for my taste. It remains one of the most complete Scotches on the market. Lasanta, essentially a Glenmorangie Original finished (or extra matured in Glenmorangie parlance) in Oloroso casks for two years, is a striking example of the sherry contribution in general, taking a light, citrusy whisky, and transforming it into something rich and full bodied.

I hesitate to use the word favourite with reference to whisky, so I usually don’t and I won’t now. Your appreciation and consequently your evaluation of a whisky can depend I feel on your mood, your environment, and your physiology at a moment in time. You may have noticed however that I omitted mention of one of the whiskies in the review. Why? Well, I have this thoroughly unscientific test that I’ve used to single it out. After a tasting I unconsciously drink (hmm…don’t make too much of this combination of words) what remains of the bottles over time. Every now and again I take stock of the inventory. In this case the Aberlour 16YO was the first to disappear. Read into it what you will. My simple conclusion is that it ticks all the boxes with a flourish. Rich, balanced, and interesting without being taxing, with wisps of redolent flavours weaved into the backdrop of a thick, hearty traditional, home-made fruitcake. It’s an exemplary whisky, the type I can imagine to have created the tradition, that had people nodding their heads in appreciation and in realisation, and that forever bonded Spain into the whisky bloodline. May the dram be with you.