Monday 27 February 2017

Old and Rare and Obscure

Last week's Old & Rare show at the Grand Central Hotel in Glasgow—the first of many, I hope—was enormous fun. Catching up with whisky friends, tasting amazing old whiskies; it's just a pity it couldn't have lasted longer.

I was in attendance with colleagues, and was constantly being invited to try ever more delicious, ever more ancient drams. My notes are not the clearest, but there are definitely remarks regarding a Berry Brothers Highland Park 1957, a Port Ellen 25, Mortlach 1954, and a Cadenhead's Glentauchers 38 Year Old.

Whilst it is a delight to sample such fine malts, there's some perverse part of me that discounts them. Of course old school Highland Park will taste stunning. Naturally a well aged Port Ellen will impress. What really drew my attention was the opportunity to taste whiskies which don't have such a reputation. I'm not sure why, but finding a Mosstowie and a Glen Albyn, not to mention a humble Connoisseurs Choice Royal Brackla, really made my day. So here, then, are my notes on a five year old Auchentoshan and a twenty-one year old Glen Albyn.

Glentoshan 5 Year Old (40°, for the Italian market)
Nose: initially cabbage, but that soon clears. Very rich and fruity - much more fruity than modern Auchentoshan. After a while a light elegant perfume (which is much more what I expect from Auchentoshan).

Palate: very sweet and light, and it has the prickle of youth. There's a touch of fustiness in the finish. As with the nose, it seems much sweeter than I'd expect from an Auchie. There's a light, grassy or barley element, much like modern Auchentoshan. And of course this whisky has the very characteristic silky texture of spirit which has been long in the bottle.

Conclusion: it's often said that malts were much fruitier before about 1980, and this one certainly fits with that. But I could see a continuity between this dram and modern expressions from the distillery.

Glen Albyn 21 Year Old (40°, distilled 1963, bottled by Gordon & Macphail)
Nose: interesting. It's very fresh, considering it's age, and there's a lot going on. It's herbal, spicy, and fruity. Plus, there's a good dose of old wood. Not sherry or bourbon barrels, just old wood. And is that something minty?

Palate: milky sweet, soft, and round. So very soft and gentle, but definitely not watery or lacking in flavour. There's a sherry wood umami note, and then some red fruits come through - plums, I should think. Just like the Glentoshan this dram has a silky smooth texture.

Conclusion: A very fine dram indeed. Based on a sample size of one, it seems almost criminal that the distillery was closed.

Monday 20 February 2017

Terroir, again.

I keep having the same sort of argument with different people about terroir and whisky, most recently with @maltreview and @WhiskyPilgrim. Since Twitter doesn't lend itself well to lengthy exposition, here's a blog post instead.

The notion of terroir is deeply bound up with wine, and with France. The word itself is French, although my copy of Hachette unhelpfully translates it as "land". The Oxford Companion to Wine offers the slightly more useful "total natural environment of any viticultural site". The Companion then goes on for some two or three thousand closely spaced words which—and I hope my twitter antagonists can agree—don't really serve to settle the matter definitively.

But I think all sides can agree that a terroir wine has flavours unique to the place where its grapes were grown and where it was made.

How, then, does this idea transpose into Scotch whisky? I would argue that it doesn't.

We can straight away disregard the hundred plus distilleries who buy their malt from Crisps or Bairds or whatever, since that barley is sourced from all over the UK and beyond. For them, there can not be the total natural environment of the triticultural site. Their barley is not site specific.

But even when we look at Springbank or Bruichladdich or Ballindalloch, the idea of a flavour unique to the place where the barley is grown does not stand up to any sort of scrutiny.

That's because the analogy with winemaking is just that, an analogy - and a poor one at that. Wine is the all but inevitable consequence of not drinking the grape juice, of leaving the juice to rot. Humans need do little more than pick and press the grapes and something wonderful (or at least drinkable) will result. Whereas whisky is the end result of a multi stage process, with each stage contributing flavours. The human element is far more important than in wine making.

From the peating level of the malt to the length of fermentation to the shape of the stills to how the stills are run to the choice of casks, all these human choices contribute much more than the place where the barley is grown.

We see this in the resulting product. Yes, Bruichladdich's Islay barley bottlings are slightly different from their Scottish barley expressions - but they are unmistakeably, first and foremost, Laddies. And Springbank's Local Barley bottlings differ from other Springers of similar age and cask type, but they are most definitely Springbank.

By contrast, were Laphroaig to take barley from Rockside farm and turn it into whisky according to the Laphroaig method and procedure, which would it more resemble, Laphroaig 10 or Bruichladdich Islay Barley?

The unvoiced answer to this rhetorical question is why we talk about distillery character and not barley field character. Whisky terroir does not exist.

Friday 17 February 2017

This Tasting Note Is Not Standards Compliant

I spilled some Longrow just now, and the aroma is very intriguing: almond pasty, the 1970s, shiny silver balls, eaux de vie, almonds, rolling tobacco, something sweet

Tuesday 14 February 2017

Why Kennetpans Matters

Don't feel too bad if you have never heard of Kennetpans, since it doesn't really feature prominently in many histories of Scotch. But please!, do read on to find out what you should know about it, and why.
Kennetpans Distillery: the mill, engine room, and stillhouse

Along with a colleague I was lucky enough to be invited to visit the ruins of Kennetpans distillery last week. It's in something of a parlous state, with parts of it close to collapse. Considering how central it is to the history of the Scotch whisky industry, that's a crying shame.

That's a fifteen foot diameter flywheel cutout

The Haig and Stein families were the original whisky barons, dominating the nascent industry from the 1750s through to the mid nineteenth century. Kennetpans in its heyday was a huge distillery; the Scotch Whisky Industry Record states that in 1773 it employed over 300 men and produced upwards of 3000 tons of proof spirit (which, cross referencing with government records, implies that it produced a fifth of all the spirit consumed in Great Britain in that year. A fifth.)

Massive stone piers supported the Watt steam engine

The first Watt steam engine in Scotland was built at Kennetpans in 1786. The canal between Kennetpans and its even larger successor, Kilbagie, was one of the earliest in Scotland, and built ten years before the Forth and Clyde canal. The first railway in Scotland ran between the two distilleries.

Part of a millstone. And a rusted fragment of the iron band which held it.

Even more fundamental to the Scotch whisky industry, the Stein Patent Still, forerunner to the Coffey still which continues to be used to this day, was developed at Kilbagie.

Remnants of the pier where ships took on their cargo of whisky.

This last development, the high volume (and low flavour!) continuous still, perhaps points to the reason why Kennetpans has been forgotten. It, along with many of the other Lowland distilleries, spent much of its working life churning out cheap, poor quality spirit which was much more likely to be rectified into gin than to be drunk as whisky. And that side of the whisky business, the vast bulk of cheap blended Scotch, with minimal malt content, is one that the industry just doesn't bother to talk about.
Inside the maltings.

Kilbagie is long gone; demolished, built over, and built over again. But much of the structure of Kennetpans is still standing—just barely—and it's still possible to see evidence of the different activities that went on there. The massive piers which supported the steam engine are incredibly impressive, until you see the size of the maltings, and consider that they were said to be five stories high.

One of the many huge cracks in the structure

Even in its decayed state, Kennetpans still has the power to impress. If it were to be stabilised and made safe, so that people could visit and learn of the earliest days of the Scotch whisky industry, I think that would be a very good thing indeed.

About Kennetpans
As is so often the case with Scottish distilleries, the foundation date for Kennetpans isn't known, but by the 1730s it was was the biggest distillery in Scotland. It was closed by John Stein Jr. in 1825 or '26.

You can learn much more about Kennetpans and the Haig and Stein families at the Kennetpans trust website, where you can also make a donation to support the work of rescuing the structure.