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?


Jason JY said...

Sam, I don't understand your principal argument here. Is it that new make spirit ought not be available to the public because it doesn't represent a distillery's product particularly well or that new make spirit ought not be sold for such exorbitant prices?

As I wrote on Guid Scotch Drink back in March I think this move towards making new make available is terrific (if you're in the business of tasting and demonstrating, as you rightly point out, just how important cask maturation is). I don't think it ought to be sold in full size bottles as I don't think the purpose of this is to relax with it at the end of a hard day. I think a 25cl or 35cl bottle priced around 10 or 15 GBP would make for a fine purchase (for the purposes mentioned above).


Tim F said...

Fair point, Jason - but just to play devil's advocate, why should distilleries bother ageing whisky at all if they can sell new make for more money?

Jason JY said...

Hi Tim,

I don't think there's a market for new make as a pleasurable drinking experience the way there is for aged single malt. And my guess is that part of the pricing is a) because they can and b) to save themselves from the claim that they're endorsing irresponsible drinking.

Over the course of a single year I don't see myself purchasing a case of, say, Highland Park new make the way I do Laphroaig 10 Year Old or Laphroaig 10 cask strength. One bottle of new make, from any distillery, and I'm kind of done with it. I don't think distilleries will ever be able to support themselves on the back of new make sales.

Does that make sense?


Jason Debly said...

I totally agree with your view that this is unfortunate, lucrative opportunism being practised by many distilleries. Highland Park? I would thought they would have known better, but lately, I think they are getting a little too big for their britches.

Anyway, it is a fad that will hopefully go the same way as the mood ring.

Unknown said...

Fair arguments Doc but...
- being able to try the NMS of a distillery is an essential learning experience for the malthead.
- silly packaged products aside (where price is inflated because of box etc) distillers haven't been making THAT much money from the unaged spirits so far. NMS products emphasise how much of the retail price of an aged malt is tax and other costs (try making anything look cheap when nearly £10 of cost is tax before margin!). They're only able to sell 10 yr old single malt at approx £25 because of huge investment in stock over many years of cycles of cash flow. Just ask a distiller like Kilchoman if their 3 year old single malt is cheap at below £50! You might think not, but they're prob making a thumping loss at this stage.
Arthur, Royal Mile Whiskies

Anonymous said...

Red_Arremer here,

I like gin a lot so I have no problem with unaged spirits. But I agree with you on basically every point you're making.

The real issue is that, since premium vodka took off, 70$ 15 year old scotch all of a sudden looks like a bad investment.

I think the thing to do is turn vodka people on to drinks, which have higher production costs ;)

Dr. Whisky said...

haha... mood ring.

No formal arguement here, just a general whine that sloppily expresses my hope that the marketplace doesn't encourage this trend any further, that is all.

And Arthur, I totally understand the commercial context for pricing but tax is the exact same on a new spirit as it is on a 12 year old spirit and while an increase in the margin on the new spirit may be understood (packaging, limited run, etc., charging twice as much is a bit bonkers. In fact, it works against the core quality cue that single malt has worked for decades, arguably centuries, to achieve.

Arthur said...

There is a tax difference.
HP NMS is 50% ABV, standard 12 is 40%
Leaving aside low-run packaging and marketing cost of the project, tax is easy to work out.

40% ABV = £6.66 duty x 23% retailer profit x 17.5% VAT = £10.17
50% ABV = £8.33 duty x 23% retailer profit x 17.5% VAT = £12.72
23% is about the smallest retailer profit you'll see in the UK so in reality differential could be a bit higher.

BTW, hadn't really looked at the links and didn't realise most of this refers to Bourbon distilleries. Would be really interested in trying them.

I like the fact that 'normal' people get to try unaged spirit. If you spend lots of time at Festivals and tastings its easy to forget that there are lots of massive whisky fans who spend a lot of time enjoying the stuff at home but don't have desire/time to hang with the maltogeeks.

Oliver Klimek said...

I wholehartedly agree with the Doc. On one hand, I think tasting newmake is a very interesting experience and can tell you a lot about the distillery. But selling bottles at the price of a decent aged malt is just not justifyiable. I'm not talking about startups like Kilchoman here because they have to look at ways to generate cashflow until the real stuff is ready for consumption.

StridArt said...

Have you tried Dry Fly Whiskey yet?
I painted a picture of the bottle and am curious to get my hands on some. I'll be painting more bottle shorty if you want to check them out.

TOm said...

Ein wirklich sehr schöner Whisky. Bin begeistert.

Steffen said...

I think there's a wee market for newmake and a few distilleries are just selling what the customers want. I don't think this will ever be a big seller, I am for sure not gonna buy a bottle (I prefer older stuff), and I am not really aware of anyone who bought this. They might have but not been telling me about it
Anyone ever heard of anyone buying 2 different kind of newmakes ?

Unknown said...

hey sam,

i don't know what the fuss is all about... we see increasing numbers of whiskies, from scotland no less, with no age statement... so why not new make spirit? I tried the tuthilltown new make 100% corn spirit, and i was truly amazed.
the 'what does john know' spot on super accelerated aging shows there is a drive to bring more to market... the industry has been toying with such ideas for years. I, too, am experimenting with my own patent pending processes.
Rick wasmund also sells new make spirit with a mini-barrel for consumers to age themselves.

l'chaim (and shanah tova),

joe h (whisky farm)