Monday, May 10, 2010

A Clearach and Present Danger

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What an April! New baby, new sleep routine, new jeans, new make...
White dog is everywhere, man. What happened?

As exhibited at whisky festivals and in the hands of mixologists across the USA, it is clear that THIS and THIS were certainly no April Fools jokes, but lord please tell me THIS was. Sku, say it ain't so!


Then God help us all.

I have always relished the opportunity to taste the new make spirit of my favourite distilleries: Balmenach,
Clynelish, Balvenie, and Laphroaig stand out in my memory, but only partly due to the taste, mostly due to the excitement of being "allowed" to sneak a few drops at the distillery. Makers Mark shares their white dog at tastings, many Scotch companies share their clearach before enjoying their mature whiskies, and I know I often use new make to show folks what a great impact wood has on the final mature whisky, but selling white dog/new make/clearach/moonshine? And for more money than its matured bretheren? Perhaps cool if genuinely moonshine or illicitly distilled make, but from legal commercial distilleries? Seems totally absurd.

In Scotland, whisky is, by law, grain spirit matured in oak barrels for a minimum of 3 years. Before that, you cannot call it whisky. And, what follows, is that the name "Glenfiddich", for example, cannot be applied to a new make spirit or vodka that is commercially sold because the SWA protects against consumer confusion and "Glenfiddich" means scotch single malt scotch whisky. Glenglassaugh, a 20+ years mothballed distillery, was recently reopened and promptly released some new make which it called "The Spirit Drink That Dare Not Speak its Name" due to the above restriction. Kilchoman, a new single malt distillery whose name currently means very little to the consumer (oh, but it will in no
time) has released new make under it's brand name but is able to do this precisely because it is a new distillery and has never had whisky (3 year old grain spirit) to release. An established distillery cannot do this. In Scotland.

But in Japanese whisky we have Chichibu's "New Born" releases. And in America, it seems open game. A name like "white whiskey" could never work in Scotland because immature spirit is NOT whisk(e)y. And to name the white dog after the distillery (Buffalo Trace?) and then sell it (for more than the mature stuff!!?!!) would simply not fly. Nor should it.

Highland Park, Glenglassaugh and Bladnoch now have their new makes available for purchase, as does Tullibardine, the same distillery that sells beer, water, and retail space as a part of its economic model.

Without a shadow of a doubt, this trend is an immense cash crop and is no doubt extremely lucrative from a commercial perspective. Short term.

This opinion may not be popular and may attract some flak, but as a whisky lover, I do NOT think that this is a good direction for distillers to head, least of all because it is exploitative of the consumer... and that should be enough! But also because what makes whisk(e)y whisk(e)y is the time in spends in oak casks. How each distillery's make has a unique chemical construction, nearly imperceptible to the nose UNTIL it reacts, extracts, and interacts with oak. Ask science!

Whisk(e)y contains hundreds of chemical compounds, HUNDREDS of different concentrations of flavour and aroma-giving chemical compounds such as esters, aldehydes, and phenols (although these only account for 0.2% of a bottle of whisky). Four
12 year old casks of Pulteney, Clynelish, Glenmorangie, and Dalmore, all Northern Highland distilleries, will have very distinct flavours and aromas detectable to the human nose AND to gas chromatographs and pattern recognition algorithms. If you are someone nerdy enough to read this blog, your nose could probably distinguish between these four mature spirits, right? No? Well, that's fine. Science can detect a very clear distinction between them.

But in a series of experiments done in Scotland, Spain, Japan, and England over the past 20 years, it has been shown that new make from different distilleries, indeed, from different countries, had more in common than they differed. You will agree that if we sat down and nosed/tasted mature Irish, American, and Scottish whiskies, that you could distinguish between them, right? Well this sample of Irish, American, and Scottish makes had nearly imperceptible differences that went incorrectly identified by gas chromotograph and pattern recognition.

"Oh, chill out, Doc," I hear you say. "I love drinking clearach and will spend any price tag to have some. Maturation isn't everything." Well, I have to disagree. While maturation isn't EVERYTHING, maturation IS the most important SOMETHING in Scotch whisky. Mature spirit is what separates cask from cask, distillery from distillery, year from year. It is what allows single distilleries have varied expressions that means not only do we have over 100 distilleries in Scotland to drink from, but we have thousands of different expressions from which to swill. But if you don't mind the idea of a handful of distilleries making only a handful of styles, then keep riding that white dog. Or fucking that chicken. Or whatever it is that you do.

Doesn't a trend to premiumisation piss most of us off? Isn't that what Hansell recently editorialized about, that WDJK and Malt Advocate readers and the online whisky fora target premiumisation as a large problem with Scotch Whisky? Well, isn't this trend premium pricing a less valuable product? Let's grab a bottle of J&B -6 to celebrate!

But I shouldn't get too excited, really. This trend could just be a short blip in an economic recovery, right? Or is it part of a well thought out commercial plan with clear implications for the whisky industry? If you think Bruichladdich's was wise to charge 120 bucks for Port Charlotte 5 year old, or Ardbeg was successful with their Very Young, Still Young, Almost There series, just wait. You ain't seen nothing yet.

Let me know your thoughts in comments, on Facebook, or get in the ring on the Moonshine post at What Does John Know?

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Wee Whisky Month 1

Wee Whisky 1 month old
68% abv or pretty damn near
$ not for sale

Maturation is a slow process and one shouldn't watch the pot. In the month since birth the liquid has gone from clear to light gold. The child has changed, too. I was on the road for a 5 day stretch and there were noticeable changes when I returned. With the child, I ob
viously want to spend every minute, but with the whisky not so much.

I admire distillers for having the patience to just fill a cask and leave it the hell alone. I don't have the patience for this!
I want to get to know you, already. What kind of person will you be? What are you going to like and what are you going to hate? Will you be a funny? Serious? Outgoing? Shy? Who are you already!?!!

As far as tasting notes go, the only fair thing to do is to compare to the new make/white dog as all it is (so far) is really new make plus.


Brown sugar sweetness replaces the vegetal aromas of the new make, with some cake mix and apple aromas, too.

Very new make-y on the palate. Wow. 68% abv!


Sweet, young, and strong. But of course I would say so, I'm her father. With water I can taste more, but it really is just yellow new make. I think this stuff might last a year in this cask... and then we will have a 1st birthday party to remember.

Wee Whisky Week 1

(thanks for the shoes, K&E!!!)

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Malt Mission 2010 #385

Glenfiddich 1955
Private Vintage

Cask, 4221 Bottle 168

Aug 16 2006

Speyside Single Malt Whisky

52.6 % abv


Water. I wrote a bit about it on my last post, and will do so again today. Or, will at least make a few citations organised in a pretty haphazard way.

Whatever the effect of water on whisky, it is fair to say that the single most important fact in choosing the location of distillery is the availability of a good clean water source as water is used in nearly every stage of the whisky-making process. Out of necessity, crofter distilling took root along the arteries of the land, "lands of hills and valleys, of lochs and mountain streams, of much poor land but of very good water," (R.J.S. McDowall, The Whiskies of Scotland, 1967). Today, most distilleries use surface water, "collected from a loch or resevoir above the site, and usually it is soft water. Much of this water is coloured brown by peat. Often different sources are used for the production and colling processes. This is very important condition to build the distillery near a good source of water supply. The quality of the water is the keystone of making good whisky." (Misako Udo, The Scottish Whisky Distilleries, 2006).

Understood, but "quality" of the water? What the hell does that mean? No poisons, fertilizers, etc., okay. But beyond that? "The water source, whether it is alkaline or acid, hard or soft, plays an important part in the taste and smell of the final single malt." (Helen Arthur, Whisky: The Water of Life=Uisge Beatha, 2000)

The mineral content affects the taste and smell?
"Production water used in the production of wort makes a major contribution to the quality of the spirit that is produced." (Timothy C.S. Dolan, Whisky Technology, Production & Marketing, 2003).

Quality of the spirit? What does that mean? What is water's effect on the character of the spirit?
"Douglas Murray of Diageo [...] sums up the general industry view. 'On a scale of one to one hundred, I would rate it at between one and two." (Andrew Jefford, Peat Smoke and Spirit, 2004)
Taken with a grain of salt, certainly, but is there any truth to it?

A representative from the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI) told me that while it was important to have untainted water at all stages of the production process, "with mashing there is the additional possibility that the composition of the water used can have an impact on the progress of fermentation. Research carried out at SWRI by one of our PhD students showed that using mashing waters from different sources, with different compositions, can influence flavour." So this answers my main question, "Can water used in production effect the flavour of whisky?" But, as the representative from Diageo queried above, how much of an effect does it have? "Obviously the use of tainted water can potentially have a huge negative impact of the flavour, depending on the degree and nature of the taint. The influence of different mashing waters on flavour is detectable, but it is important to be aware that these differences are subtle. However, many other factors in whisky production, when looked at in isolation, only have a subtle effect. It is often the accumulation of a large number of subtle difference that give the overall larger differences in final flavour."

It would seem, in spite of my intial doubt, that water does play an important part. Yes, it is only one variable of many (and a small one at that) that affect the nature of a given whisky, but its importance is accounted for by science. But it's not as if we needed that, is it? We already know it is accounted for in our romantic imaginations, reinforced by the whisky maker's themselves (Ardbeg named Uigeadail, it's cask strength no-age statement 2003 release, after the loch that supplies its water; Dalmore's precious 62yo sold at McTear's in 2002 was christened "Kildermorie" after the distillery water source, William Grant & Sons had a blend called Robbie Dhu, etc., etc...)

"Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody." - Mark Twain. Well, Benjamin Rush had other ideas, as exhibited on his Scale of Temperance. Rush's moral thermometer (1828) varied slightly, but in every incarnation, spring water was the drink of the highest order leading to health, wealth, serenity of mind, long life, etc.

Water, that mix of hydrogen and oxygen, is vital for all life, for all living spirits, and vital for making whisky. "Personally, however, I prefer [...] the enduring mystique - whisky-making as something akin to alchemy." - Gavin D. Smith


Fresh and fruity with peaches and pears, but weighted by cream, oak, and evident time.

A savoury, appetizing, tapas-like array of flavours: parsley, brie, pastry, sage, lamb, stewed apples, all drying into a finish of yellow plums, hard peaches, and carpentry.


Wholly unique. Unusual, rich, and deeply interesting, a dram to cotemplate and revisit. An expensive luxury, no doubt, but nonetheless, too bad it is all gone.

Malt Mission #381