Tag Archives: Single cask

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.

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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!