Thursday 13 June 2013

The Allure of Old Whisky (And the Reality)

At a Mulberry Bank pre-auction tasting tonight, we enjoyed ten drams, none of which were distilled after 1977. This post does not describe any of these very fine spirits. Instead, this post is aimed more at the idea of old spirits.

What is it about old whisky that gives it such allure? Well, price obviously - everyone likes a little luxury and old whisky never comes cheap. And the idea that you're tasting something that has been thirty, forty, fifty years in the making is intriguing. To taste something from another age, made by people who likely had no intention of waiting so long to sell their product, is a kind of time travel.

I've been lucky enough in the course of my work to taste a few spirits as old or older than me, and I think I have learned a few things which bear repeating.

In all spirits, the fierce fire of youth gradually damps down to the mellow heat of glowing coals and then on to the faint warmth of embers. Ardent spirit gives way to "whisky long in the wood and mild as milk". Texturally, all whiskies smooth out, like a pebble made glassy by waves.

Most importantly, as spirits age, the character of the cask in which they are stored comes to dominate. Very old rums, whiskies, and brandies are more like each other than they are like other, younger, rums, whiskies, or brandies. Given (and this is a very important proviso) good quality wood, old spirits take on a woody, solvent-y, lifted, floral character which is like no other flavour, and to which there is no short cut.

For those spirits aged in very inert casks with little flavour to impart the evolution is different. Fresh fruit flavours transform into dried fruits, and, further down the line, become herbal or spicy.

These considerations aside, there is the matter of taste. As remarked above some aromas and flavours only come with extended ageing. The intense wood flavours of some old whiskies (or indeed cognacs, armagnacs, or rums) are so far removed from the usual taste that they can be shocking or unpleasant to the novice taster. They are certainly an acquired taste.

And this, I think, is central to the allure of old whisky. Tasting something that has been aged for thirty or forty or fifty years allows one to experience a flavour unlike any other.

Friday 17 May 2013

Comparison: Scapa 16 Year Old versus Scapa 14 Year Old

Scapa 16 Year Old (40%, distiller's bottling)

nose: light, dry(-ish) and fruity. Not smoky
palate: sweet and easy. Marzipan, battenburg cake. It's somewhat empty in the finish. Coming back to it later, it is noticeably light bodied. There's a definite attractive marzipan sweetness.

Scapa 14 Year Old (40%, distiller's bottling)

nose: slightly smoky (a rooty kind of peat), gristy, with lots of raw cereal notes. Over time, richer fruit notes evolve.
palate: sweet and rounded. There's a slight marzipan note, but less so than in the 16. Very easy to drink. hardly any smoke except late in the finish.


I wasn't really expecting to find any peat in either dram - I know that I'm sometimes deceived by the wood flavours in teenage or older drams, and I wondered if that's what has happened here. However, consulting the Malt Whisky Yearbook I learn that Scapa practices fermentations of up to 160 hours (the longest in Scotland), which can lead to the presence of acrolein, which is said to have a burnt smell.

These are both decent drams, no more, no less. I have a slight preference for the (discontinued) 14 year Old, because of the smoky woody burnt note.

About Scapa

The distillery, which is a near neighbour to Highland Park on Orkney, is owned by Pernod Ricard, who have not really promoted it (understandable,since they also own Glenlivet and Aberlour, amongst others).

It was built in 1885. After various changes of ownership it was taken over in 1954 by Hiram Walker who then proceeded to install a Lomond still (in 1959). The distillery was mothballed from 1994 to 2004. Following extensive renovations it was sold to Pernod Ricard. The 16 Year Old is the only readily available bottling, while the 14 Year Old was discontinued in 2008.

Sunday 5 May 2013

Distilllery Visit: Tamdhu

Tamdhu is a Speyside distillery which was built by a cross-industry group of investors in 1897 just as the late Victorian whisky boom was peaking.

The new owners, Ian Macleod Distillers, took over two years ago in 2011. The brand has now been relaunched, and to mark the occasion they invited me to lunch at the distillery (there might have been a few other people there too).

Tamdhu was built to provide malt for blending purposes. Indeed, it wasn't released as a single until 1976. And even in more recent times the previous owners, Edrington, didn't really do much to promote Tamdhu as a malt whisky, which is understandable seeing as they have the distractions of Macallan and Highland park to play with.

They did, however, pursue a policy of filling the spirit into sherry barrels, which means that the newly launched 10 Year Old  is 100% sherry matured, a rare distinction amongst core whisky brands these days.

We are told by Leonard Russell, managing director of Ian Macleod, that as of 2013 there are ten years of sherry cask stock on hand, that the policy of filling exclusively into sherry barrels is to be continued, and that Tamdhu will be repositioning itself upmarket.

It's interesting to note that Tamdhu fills at 69% rather than the industry standard 63.5% - perhaps as a way of economising on the use of ever more expensive sherry barrels.

Not the prettiest distillery in the world

Distillery manager Sandy Coutts explaining how Tamdhu does things

Some of the stills - I couldn't fit them all into the shot!

After the presentation we were shown round the distillery, which isn't open to visitors at the moment. Perhaps as a consequence of that, the place isn't quite as spruced up as, for example, Glenfiddich. To my mind, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Distilleries are busy factories, and if they're sometimes a little worn round the edges, never mind - as long as the whisky tastes good.

At the end of the tour we were led through a tasting of the new ten year old expression, along with a limited edition (how limited I'm not sure. Certainly we won't be able to stock it in the shop).

The Ten Year Old is a good solid example of sherried whisky. The nose has brown sugar, raisins, sherry, and a sweet toffee note. The palate carries on from the nose, adding a generous dose of beery malt to the sherry, raisins, and brown sugar. What I find most interesting is that the sherry character seems qualitatively different to expressions of Highland Park and Macallan I have tasted recently Different, and to my taste, better.

This difference in sherry character, I believe, can only be due to Ian Macleod's cask selection criteria, since these barrels were filled by Edrington. To speculate, I'd suggest that since there isn't the same sort of demand for Tamdhu as for Highland Park or Macallan, Ian Macleod are able to reject lower quality barrels which Edrington would be forced to use.

(I'm well aware that I'm comparing apples with oranges here. Nevertheless)

However it came about, I like the sherry character of Tamdhu 10. It's a tasty drop; quite middle of the road, but very well put together in a way that will have wide appeal. And it looks like it's going to be a pretty decent price too - somewhere in the mid to upper thirties I believe.

Well done to Tamdhu for producing this tasty malt, and well done to Ian Macleod for not messing about with it. Long may they continue.

Saturday 20 April 2013

Tasting Note: Glenfarclas 40 Year Old

Glenfarclas are one of Scotland's few family owned distilleries, with the Grant family having been in charge since 1870. It's perhaps because of this family ownership that the distillery has some practices which I believe are unique in Scotch, and also offers a range of aged expressions which no other distillery can equal.

The Family Casks range of bottlings, for example, include vintage whisky for every year back to about 1954. The interesting thing about this range is that the casks on offer run through first, second, third and even fourth fill to what are described as plain casks (Fifth fill? Sixth fill?!)

Now, if you are planning on keeping whisky on the wood well into its fifth or sixth decade, fresh oak is most decidedly your enemy. Whilst it's true that whisky will take most of what it extracts from the cask in the early years of maturation, that extractive process will continue for the entire time that the malt is in the barrel. So for liquid which one intends to bottle after forty years, a fourth-fill cask will produce a much better result than a fresh, first-fill cask. After forty years a first fill cask would most likely be undrinkably tannic. On the other hand, and as is the case with tonight's fine dram, forty years is a useful span of time if you plan on using plain casks.

(I should note that as far as I know, Glenfarclas don't specify the casks used for this vatting as precisely as with the Family Casks range. So I'm speculating, mainly on the basis of how the whisky tastes.)

Appearance: a deep, deep nut brown, much darker than most drams.  Is that natural? I hope so.

Nose: old mellow and woody. There's a very restrained sherry note, but what dominates is the kind of elegant oak perfume I associate with Armagnac, something which reminds of old varnished wood warming in the sun, or of lavender furniture polish.

Palate: Supremely smooth. Sweet and gently sherried, with dried vine fruits, treacle toffee, and the other kind of toffee that has raisins and brazil nuts in it. Again, I'm strongly reminded of old Armagnac - there's not a lot of malt character.

Conclusion: the parallel with Armagnac is very interesting. It's the practice there to age brandy for many many decades in wood, and fifty year old spirits are not uncommon.

This is a very fine dram indeed, and in comparison with more or less everything else on the market at that age, the price tag of £300 seems like something of a bargain.