Tag Archives: Private Barrel Co.

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.

Prestige JUN 2017 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige JUN 2017 Whisky 2

As it appeared – p2.

 

 

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From one whisky to another

Painting the town a golden amber. Patrick Leclezio looks back at 2015’s whisky calendar.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2015 edition).

Prestige Whisky Dec 2015 p1

As it appeared – p1 (except with whisky spelling corrected).

Prestige Whisky Dec 2015 p2

As it appeared – p2.

It’s been another lively period on the scene. Year-in year-out South Africa offers a wide variety of interesting diversions to the whisky devotee, from festivals and shows, to dinners and launches, with fanciful and sometimes extravagant events in between. We are one of the world’s largest (and still growing) markets for Scotch whisky. This pretty much ensures a continuous cycle of activity. There’s little I enjoy more than drinking whisky, but one of those things is drinking whisky with other people who enjoy little more than drinking whisky. If you’re one of those then it’s worth keeping your eyes and ears open, and staying abreast of the possibilities. These were the highlights from 2015. May the dram be with you.

The Wade Bales Wine & Whisky Affair

This is one of my not-to-be-missed favourites. I’m almost never ill, but in 2013 I managed to contract a 24-hour virus concurrent to this event, and I was absent as a consequence. The regret still hangs over me like a pall. Its eponymous founder is a wine specialist, but he’s fluently extended the “affair” into whisky, and he gives it enough focus for the result to be meaningful. It is an outstanding show in every respect: well-catered, I particularly enjoy the enormous parmesan wheel which makes an annual appearance (I hope I’m not jinxing it), relaxed and elegant, it draws a fun-loving but refined crowd, and diverse, the association with wine is natural, beneficial, and convenient, giving you the rare advantage most especially to attend with friends who may not particularly like whisky (yes, there are such people, unlikely as it may seem). I love the ambiance of the occasion – it affords the opportunity to engage, with the various whiskies’ representatives, and with other whisky lovers, without having to battle a crowd.

Checkers single casks

Earlier this year the retail juggernaut launched the latest batch in its series of single cask whiskies. Single casks, as the name implies, are single malts drawn from a single cask. One style, one source, one cask – they epitomise the romance of whisky. With each expression limited to no more than some 600 bottles, the Checkers range represent a golden (and in SA virtually unique) opportunity to sample a small share of fleeting whisky uniqueness. I had a few reservations about some of the previous offerings but these latest few variants are a step ahead, mostly sourced directly from the distillery owners, which is a good indication both of quality and of the group’s expanding influence in the industry. Expect more in the years to come.

Three Ships PX finish

It’s been an open secret for some time that Three Ships (and Bain’s) Master Distiller Andy Watts has been busily cultivating some extra special whiskies. This year, prompted by a Twitter campaign – #DistellAreYouListening – orchestrated by blogger Mark Hughes and whisky luminary Marsh Middleton, distillery owner Distell duly stepped up and decided to release one of these onto the market. We were witness thus to a shot across the bows of whisky’s big boys (ok, maybe not quite that dramatic) with the launch of the heraldic Three Ships single cask PX finish – a vatting of Three Ships whiskies finished in a single Pedro Ximenez sherry cask. The whisky is deliciously well crafted of course, but, more importantly, it signals the advent of a brave new era in South African whisky-making.

Whisky Live

Albeit under new management this year, and having weathered some challenges in the past this whisky extravaganza continues unabated, testament to the value of the concept, the skill of the organisers, and the substantial public appetite for whisky and whisky entertainment. There have been events in Cape Town, Durban and Soweto (and plans for the smaller cities as well) but the flagship event in Sandton is a beast of a spectacle that dwarfs all the others; it is reputed to be the single biggest whisky show in the world. I was invited this year to host The Glenlivet’s Dram Room, a quiet-ish (nothing escapes the bagpipe music!) pod set apart from the throng, where I had the privilege of talking whisky with small groups of fellow enthusiasts. It kept me busy but on my occasional excursions into the main hall the pulsing heartbeat of whisky love was overwhelmingly in evidence. If you haven’t attended before (or even if you have) then make a point of it next year. It’s a scarce chance, for relatively little outlay, to taste a wide range of top class whiskies, speak to the experts, and share in the communion.

Keepers of the Quaich banquet

After years of deliberation I finally decided to take the plunge and get a kilt. It was made for me by Staghorn, South Africa’s only Scottish Outfitters, in the tartan I’m proud to say of the Breton town from which my ancestors originated. Kilt in hand I now needed an occasion to wear it, and there’s no better time and place, the baking late-November weather notwithstanding, than at the annual banquet of the Keepers of the Quaich. The Keepers is an invitation-only society, intended to serve the interests of Scotch whisky, and into which members are inducted on the basis of their service to Scotch whisky. With its convocation of Highlands attired guests, its pipe bands, its haggis, its Burns recital and its generous lashings of whisky, this is truly the feast of feasts for South Africa’s whisky folk. The guest of honour at this year’s function was industry legend James Espey, the founder of the society, and the man behind landmark products such as Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Malibu, a special treat.

The song of the single cask

How bias governs the malt universe, and why it doesn’t matter. Patrick Leclezio runs the rule over blended malts, single malts, vintages and single casks.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2015 edition).

As it appeared p1.

As it appeared p2.

As it appeared p2.

With whisky there is the spirit and then there is the story. And make no mistake the story is important. In his bestselling book on cognitive biases: “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, Rolf Dobelli explains that people have an innate need to seek the meaning in or the understanding of a thing through the vehicle of a story – something he calls the ‘story bias’. A narrative – a suggested meaning – that may be irrelevant or inconsequential to the underlying matter, such as the concept of single malt is to the actual, real quality of the whisky for instance, can nonetheless be found to be irresistible and compelling. Whisky lovers, as much as we’d want to deny it, are not immune to this logical lapse – but whether it’s a problem in this sphere, ignoring the ostensible exploitation of pricing by producers, is less evident. I’ve always found that even if certain factors don’t affect the liquid they may well indirectly influence a person’s perception of the liquid. This is whisky after all, not the Matrix – we’re not being deceived so much as inspired.

Have you thought about the differences between blended malts and single malts? I mean really thought about it. The malt whisky universe is categorised into four types: blended malts and single malts, as a start, and then the latter further into “regular” single malts, vintages, and single casks. Typically, all other things being equal, pricing tends to correspond to the order that I’ve listed, because that’s the order in which they’re valued by whisky buyers. Yet, as much as we see these types as distinct, there’s no actual physical difference between any of them. They’re all made from the same ingredients (malted barley), using much the same production and maturation processes (specifically the copper potstills and oak casks that are so important to the flavour). The difference is only in the story – and what a lyrical story it is.

The concept of single malt is rooted in its unique source and single point of origin. This is the theme that drives its story – although, as an aside, it’s worth nothing that some have strayed slightly from the script: many distilleries don’t mature on site. It goes something like this (in my own words, no insincerity meant, the tangible reality notwithstanding, I believe it and I intend it). These whiskies embody a singular terroir and style: their unique stills, their local water, their people, focused on a coordinated, defined, unified purpose, for the most part multiple generations in the making, their heritage, and indeed their very air, the breath in their casks, set single malts apart from other whiskies. They are pure, distinctive, rare and limited – and bound to their birthplace – and each individual single malt is a critical point, one of many, on the map that makes whisky the great, complex, varied, and much-loved spirit that it is today.
These are the melodic sounds that have catapulted single malts deep into the popular imagination. It’s not much considered by the casual whisky drinker but in fact most single malts are in fact blended (or, more correctly, “vatted”) – different casks of different wood from different years can be and are typically used, to give the blender enough range to maintain flavour consistency from one bottle to the next. The succeeding verses, whilst more specialised, are in much the same vein. Vintage single malts are slightly more specific; only whisky distilled and put into casks in the prescribed calendar year can be used in these vattings. Here flavour consistency is less important – or often disregarded. The appeal of the vintage plotline is that whilst each bottling might reflect a broad distillery style they will vary from one another; each will offer something new, something different, and something limited in an absolute sense i.e. once the vintage has expired then that’s it, it’s over and done, for ever. The outstanding Balblair distillery offers outstanding exponents of vintage whisky – with subtle, interesting variations of their primary philosophy of bourbon cask maturation, to the odd wild deviation, such as the excellent sherry matured 1990. The final type, the single cask, is the apex, the chorus: one source, one year, one cask…(although these can be double matured or finished). The ties to its heritage, always important if not definitive with whisky, are particularly strong here – single casks explain its history. They are the origins of the story, whisky at its  purest and most unadulterated.

All of this though is pure romance. There is nothing that a single malt can do, that a blended malt cannot do better. In fact as one moves up the value trajectory, from blended malts to regular single malts, and then to vintages and single casks, as a whisky maker one becomes increasingly limited. In terms of the hard science this inflating status is counter intuitive. Blended malts can summon all of the intrinsic advantages of the others, and then can add to these – by calling on its blender’s palette, at least in theory – an unlimited potential for variety and complexity.

I challenge you however to name ten blended malts, off the top of your head. You’ll struggle. Five? The fact is that there’s just no story. No quaint distillery, no home in a craggy corner of Scotland, and no shiel-wielding old-timers, working the same malt as their grandfathers, and their great-grandfathers before them. They just don’t have the same ability to inspire. This might afford us a new appreciation for the potential of blended malts but it shouldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for single malts, vintages or single casks in the slightest. The story counts for something. Enjoyment does not need to be rational. The single cask serenade may influence my appreciation of the sumptuous Private Barrel Company GlenDronach 20YO that’s currently cradled in my hand, but it’s a positive influence, so why fight it. We’re human, and these are two hand-in-hand human vices – whisky and whimsy – that we should be able to enjoy without restraint. May the dram be with you.

Single casks – on the knife’s edge

I mentioned in my last post that I’d recently attended a pairing lunch laid on by Checkers LiquorShop – for the launch of Private Barrel Co., a house label of single cask whiskies.    We were introduced to four private bottlings – a Glenlossie 15YO, a Benrinnes 15YO, a Glen Grant 17YO, and a Mortlach 14YO – each of which was paired with a separate dish.  The food was sumptuous – par for the course(s…) at the Cape Grace – and whilst I remain dubious about this manner of pairing for anything but the occasional there’s little doubt that it can (and did in this case) work spectacularly well as a promotional format.

Anyhow, I’m not going to linger on the finer details of the lunch itself.  It was enjoyable for those of us attending – who can argue with fine food in the company of whisky and the whisky brotherhood? – but it’s of little further relevance for my purposes here; apologies to any food voyeurs who might be reading.

Cape Town whisky brotherhood, including Dave Allardice, Karen Chalenor, myself, Bernard Gutman, and Hector McBeth.

Members of the Cape Town whisky brotherhood seated and ready, including Dave Allardice, Karen Chalenor, myself, Bernard Gutman, and Hector McBeth.

Onto the whisky.

Actually, wait.  Allow me a contextualising aside before I continue.

Single malts are considered to be pure and unadulterated whisky.  They are representative of a singular terroir and style, and they are rare and limited.  Many casual whisky drinkers though aren’t explicitly aware that there are in fact three broad categories of single malts.

The typical, regular single malt is in fact blended – or vatted to be more correct about it.  A variety of casks, sometimes filled in a variety of different years, are used to maintain flavour consistency from one bottling to the next. 

Vintage single malts are slightly more specific; only liquid distilled and put into casks in the prescribed calendar year can be used in these vattings.  Here flavour consistency is less important – or often disregarded.  The appeal of vintages is that whilst each bottling might reflect a broad distillery style they will vary from one another; each will offer something new, something different, and something limited in an absolute sense i.e. once the vintage has expired then that’s it, it’s over and done, for ever. 

Single casks are the apex:  one source, one style, one cask…(with a qualification for the latter – single casks can be double matured or finished).  The link to the past, always important with whisky, is particularly strong here – single casks define its origins.  This is whisky at its purest and most unadulterated.

There’s a persuasive basis thus on which to recommend both single casks in general and the Checkers range specifically:

          They epitomise the romance of whisky.

  –          They are tangibly and dramatically limited – whilst the precise volume depends (primarily) on the type of cask and the length of maturation, we know with certainty that each expression would be restricted to somewhat less than the capacity of the largest possible cask (a pipe or butt at a little under 500 litres – at cask strength).   The Checkers offerings are limited to no more than 600 bottles each at 46% ABV, so they present a golden opportunity to secure a small share of fleeting whisky uniqueness.

 –          Single casks are uncommon on the South African market – our laborious liquor legislation making it cumbersome to import small batches of any one product – so these new entrants make a welcome addition to our repertoires.

          I’d expect to pay a premium for single casks given their rarity and distinctiveness, but the pricing on these offerings – ranging from R550 to R850 – suggest that they’re great value for money…at least in theory.

Checkers deserves substantial credit for identifying this gap, and, even more so, for filling it.  These guys may be new to the whisky game – as evidenced by their tasting mats which displayed the words “whiskey” (Checkers is only offering Scotch at this stage) and “palette” – but their flair for retail is undeniable.

You’re probably thinking that at this stage that I should be brimming with untempered enthusiasm.  Unfortunately – being a bit of a cynical bastard (both a curse and a blessing) – I retain some reservations.  Single casks are the only whiskies that are not vatted (ok, the grain versions too).  Quite simply, when making this type of whisky, there is nowhere to hide.  Other whiskies may be able to get away with sub-optimal components – camouflaged in the vatting – but with single casks everything is either good or it’s not.

So, in evaluating the merits of the Checkers range, the vital issues for me – which eventually detracted from an entirely favourable impression of these whiskies – was provenance and cask profile.  I wanted extensive and specific cask and producer information.  What kind of wood?  Seasoning?  First fill or refill?   Did these casks come from the distilleries (unlikely in this age of whisky shortages), or from an independent bottler?  Which independent bottler?  If the quality of a single cask is an inherent risk – as I’m suggesting it is – then this information would mitigate that risk to an extent.  It would give someone considering purchase a certain measure of assurance and direction, and a fair means to assess pricing.  R850 may not be a lot in premium whisky terms, but for gaping uncertainty it’s still a long outlay.

It turned out that the cask information was unavailable – other than some bare bones.  The producer information was initially also unavailable, and somewhat muddled.  I was told at the function that some casks emanated from the distilleries and some from a variety of (unnamed – because Checkers wanted to keep the focus on their own brand rather than an association) independent bottlers.  Fellow blogger Bernard Gutman, who’d attended the luncheon with me, was later told that the casks had all been sourced from Hart Brothers, a relatively little-known independent bottler.

(Correction 04/01/14:  Bernard has just informed me that the casks were sourced from Meadowside Blending, which is owned by Donald Hart of Hart Brothers).

What to make of all this?  I personally don’t believe that any organisation in the business of maturing casks of whisky – whether the distilleries themselves or independent bottlers – would offer its better casks for a private bottling in the usual course of business (there are always exceptions – especially where long-standing relationships are involved).  It would stand both to make more profit and to better enhance its reputation by bottling them under its own label.  So my educated, and perhaps ungenerous, but honest guess – and I stress that it is a guess given the patchiness of the information – is that these are second-choice casks from a second-tier bottler (or bottlers).

The range

The range.

The whiskies themselves were a mixed bag.  I enjoyed the Glen Grant, especially its stewed-pear nose – and I’d have to say that this is a good bet at its R799 price-tag; the Glenlossie and Benrinnes were pleasant, if middling; and the Mortlach was a touch disappointing – even more so given the Diageo overhaul that will likely project pricing of Mortlach offspring into the stratosphere.

The balanced view is that overall this is a great initiative – but with the potential to be even better given some transparency.  We live in an era when consumers are increasingly hungry for knowledge, and knowledgeable as a result.  It’s becoming counter-productive in my opinion to withhold critical information – just generally, or in an attempt to portray products as more than what they are…and there’s too much of that happening in the marketplace already.

I look forward to lots more (whiskies and information about the whiskies) from Private Barrel Co.  May the dram be with you!