Thursday 29 September 2016

An Unfair Comparison

In the middle of a Twitter tasting organised by Steve Rush for the Lakes Distillery I found myself, slightly to my surprise, thinking of Campbeltown.

The whisky on tasting was a tawny port cask finished version of The One, which is a British whisky blended with spirit from across the UK, and there was about it a faint but distinct air of tarry rope, or coal tar soap, or some such. In other words, Eau de Kintyre.

Having enjoyed it, I thought I would finish off my sample in comparing it with the genuine article, in the shape of Springbank 12 Year Old Cask Strength.

I know, I know, it's a completely unfair comparison. One of these is a blended whisky, and very likely with a component average age of not much more than three, while the other is a full strength malt from the most old school distillery of them all (and regarded by many folk as the best of distilleries). Nevertheless, dear reader, compare them I did.

The very act of making the comparison seemed to change the blend. The smoke went from being tarry to a sort of damp earthy burnt wood - still pleasant, but less impressive than previously. On the other hand the red fruit notes were still there, a tasty distilled version of the sort of jam used to fill doughnuts. Yep, still a decent blend.

But, alas, no match for the Springbank. Next to the blend it seemed a complex, slightly argumentative dram, with very faint smoke, a sour-sweaty-farmyard note right next to the most refined feminine perfume, dry maltiness, and the faint shadows of other flavours beyond those (is that marzipan? Next to the frangipane? I can't be sure).

So, well done to the Lakes distillery for a really interesting blend, and well done again for managing to invite comparison with Springbank. And now I'm away for another glass of Springbank.

Wednesday 21 September 2016

Distillery Visit: Glenkinchie

I'm probably the wrong person to report on a visit to Glenkinchie. I'm no fan of the whisky, and I don't much care for Diageo either. These caveats aside, there were aspects of the visit that I enjoyed.

(I should say, by the way, that I completely failed to get any good pictures. Diageo, of course, have a blanket ban on photography in production areas or warehousing, but that aside, I failed. I took the distillery bus from Edinburgh, which gives you very little time to wander about. And Glenkinchie is tucked into a wee valley which doesn't offer many telephoto opportunities.)

The first pleasant surprise of the tour was meeting the guide, an ex-colleague from Oddbins days. She knew of old my penchant for pedantry in the nth degree, and was very tolerant of my questions. And, as is nearly always the case with Diageo, the tour script was factually accurate, concise, and very clear. It was great to see the huge wash still (30,963 litres—biggest in Scotland), which hinted at the historical role of Lowland distilleries as volume producers of low quality spirit.

I also enjoyed the tasting at the end of the tour. The bar at Glenkinchie has a very good selection of Distillers Editions and Flora & Fauna bottlings, which isn't always the case. After trying the Glenkinchie 12 (workmanlike) and Glenkinchie Distillers Edition (decent sherry casks, no spirit character) I had a Benrinnes 15 (always a pleasure, at least until 2020 or thereabouts, when the last of the spirit produced by partial triple distillation is finished) and a Lagavulin Distillers Edition.

I always think of Lagavulin as the malt whisky equivalent of Guinness in a crap pub, so to extend the metaphor, Lagavulin Distillers Edition is like going into a pub and finding unpasteurised Guinness, or Guinness Foreign Extra, on tap. In other words, a surprise and a delight.

On the down side, the warehouse we were shown seemed awfully Potemkin village. There was a remarkable absence of dust, dirt, or Baudoinia compniacensis. And when I looked up I could see plenty of daylight through the gaps between the floorboards, which rather implies that the upper warehouse floors are empty.

I also happened across a couple of interesting snippets. The first of these was a Heath Robinson print, about an imagined redesign of the Johnny Walker bottle.

I'm a huge fan of Heath Robinson, so this made me grin. (can you see me grinning in the reflected image?)

The second was this manufacturer's plate on a filter (for worts, I suppose).

Royal Letters Patent
Filtre Rapide
22-23 Great Tower Street London
Manufactured Aboad

I don't know why, but to me words like these from the past have a very strong appeal.

In summary, this is a great tour for visitors to Scotland. You can be picked up from Edinburgh and be back in the city centre in an afternoon, having enjoyed an imformative trip at a pretty distillery, plus a few acceptable-to-decent drams. For the seasoned malt drinker (as for me), Glenkinchie's main appeal is to add a stamp to your Classic Malts passport.

Sunday 11 September 2016

Not Good Enough

The Wines & Spirits Education Trust recently launched a series of videos, Three Minute Spirit School, which they describe as, "an entertaining and informative introduction to the world of spirits". To talk about whisky, they brought in Richard Patterson of Whyte and Mackay.

Sadly - and surprisingly, given that Mr Patterson has been working in whisky since the 1970s - the video makes a couple of questionable assertions.  There's also one statement which is presented as fact, but which, in my opinion, is actually a reflection of a crucial failing in the modern whisky industry.

Here is the video in question:

Questionable assertion #1:  Mr P says there are four whisky regions; Lowlands, Highlands, Campbeltown, & Islay.

Now look, I know that there are a fair few Speyside distillers who label their bottles as Highland, and Speyside is entirely inside Highland, but nevertheless it's right there in the Scotch Whisky Regulations; there are two "localities" (Campbeltown and Islay) and three "regions" (Highland, Lowland, and Speyside).

Questionable assertion #2: Mr P says, "take that barley, and we must let it germinate, which produces the natural starch, and then we obviously boil it up in the mash tun".

No it doesn't, and no we don't.

Germination during malting is what produces the enzymes which convert starch which is already present in the barley to sugar. And worts are made by adding very hot water ( 63-90°C) to the grist. Distillers worts aren't boiled. Perhaps Mr P was thinking of brewers.

And then there's the statement of current practice presented as eternal truth: wood contributes 70% of the flavour. Well yes, I'm sure there are plenty of modern distilleries for whom that's true. But if you are such a distiller, then I humbly submit that you're doing it wrong. I believe that the drive for efficiency in Scotch manufacture over the last sixty years has been at the expense of flavour, and as a consequence distillers have had to turn to ever more elaborate wood management schemes to produce interesting whiskies. With, in my opinion, variable results.

Two flat out errors and a policy position presented as natural law, all in the space of a three minute four minutes forty-four seconds video. Frankly, WSET, that's just not good enough.