Yeah it's pink. What's your point?

It was about a month ago that the story about Strawberry Kiss whisky liqueur was making the rounds. I didn’t make any mention of it at the time because frankly, I had nothing to add. The target market (young women) is an attractive potential growth
segment for the industry as a whole, so why would I argue?

If you read the story, you also noticed that the Leith Liqueur Company prominently used Dr. Bill Lumsden’s (Master Distiller, Glenmorangie) endorsement of Strawberry Kiss:

"I quite liked it and normally I don’t have a penchant for sweet things
like that. This drink isn’t too sweet or cloying as I
expected it might be when I saw the colour.

While the skeptical bastard in me might jump to the conclusion that Glenmorangie is the whisky part of the ingredient list, this isn’t the
case. The unnamed single malt is apparently a 14-year-old Speysider (and not a 10-year-old Highlander). And if you’ve met Bill, you’ll know he’s an earnest and ardent promoter of good great whisky. I don’t believe he’d give his support to crap.

The product got a lot of "air-play" from non-whisky focused sites such as Luxist, SlashFood and LiquorSnob. Not on the basis of taste, but on the basis of it’s "pinkness". I can’t blame anyone – it’s an easy target – a pink, strawberry-flavored whisky aimed at "girls". And it’s easier (and more fun) to make fun of pink whisky than it is to understand the concept of a whisky liqueur.

That’s right – I want to reinforce that Strawberry Kiss is NOT classified as a whisky, but instead as a whisky liqueur. A liqueur is class of spirit that is produced by mixing or redistilling spirits
with fruits, herbs, spices, and/or cream. Liqueurs are sometimes referred to as "Cordials" and often served as a digestif (after-dinner drink).

Whisky liqueurs are nothing new – Drambuie, Glayva, Columba, Atholl Brose, Heather Cream, Cock O’ The North, Stag’s Breath and Drumgray are all whisky liqueurs.

Glenfiddich, Old Puteney, Glenturret, Arran and Edradour have all released branded whisky liqueurs based on their malts.

No, whisky liqueurs are not the seventh sign of the whisky apocalypse. This one just happens to be pink. It’s simply another way to enjoy whisky. And if it attracts a new type of whisky lover, then I’m all for it. I may even try it, given the opportunity.

Wild Scotsman

Have you heard of The Wild Scotsman?

It’s the name of a US-based independent bottler (that’s right, another damned American breaking into the world of blending and independent bottling). It’s also the pseudonym for the president of the company, a guy named Jeffrey Topping.

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Jeff Topping is a big, affable guy with a passion for good whisky. I first had the pleasure of meeting Jeff and trying his stuff at the November 2005 Whisky Fest New York.

His first release is The Wild Scotsman 15 year old Vatted Malt Whisky – non-chill filtered, with no artificial coloring. 46% abv. The official tasting notes: Nose: Fragrant on the nose, with pleasant aromas of fresh-cut flowers, slight hints of smoke and a variety of sweet herbal sensations. Taste: It tastes velvety and composed. Finish: Full finish and a pleasant aftertaste.

My tasting notes: Clouds immediately with water – obviously not chill filtered. Smells of Fall: straw, grain, some heather? Mouth feel – very light, sweet. Nice. Taste – has a nice bite that gives way smoothly to more grains – along with a little smoke going down. The finish is medium long -  pleasant and trails off nicely with some grass notes. $79.99 at Sam’s and Binny’s.

If you are anywhere near Chicago on February 28th, you really should plan to attend the Sam’s Wine & Spirits Night Grand Tasting Event. For $35 you’ll get to try over 150 different spirits including Wild Scotsman AND you’ll get to meet Jeff in the flesh.

I got a chance to talk with Jeff about his stuff, his company, and his views on the whisky industry:

KE: When did you start Wild Scotsman?

JT: The idea of Wild Scotsman started around 1997 when I was thinking about opening a Scottish-themed Pub, called the Wild Scotsman. At that time I used the name as the name for my restaurant/bar consulting company until such time I could make my dream a reality.

The actual idea for the Wild Scotsman whisky began to develop not long after my experience at the Bladnoch Distillery School. I had invited John McDougall over from Scotland in 2002 for his first US whisky tasting. John and I had discussed importing Scotch whisky, however there was the question of not being able to control the quality of other people’s bottlings. If you represent a brand you must take the good with the bad. It was then that John and I discussed creating my own brand and my own label. In looking back I believe John sensed that I am the type of person who makes things happen no matter what the odds, which is the kind of man he is as well.

KE: What prompted you to become an Independent Bottler?

JT: A bit of insanity mixed in with some stubbornness – and a whole lot of patience. 

When I told people that I was going to create my own brand, quite frankly they all thought I had lost it.  But I saw being an independent bottler as my way of being able express myself through whisky. Some people put paint to canvas – but I put whisky in bottles.

But not just any whisky – whisky that, in my opinion is very different than what the average person gets to experience. I like to think that if one never goes to Scotland they could still share my experience through the whisky I bottle. I also believe the craft of whisky making is being pushed aside by large companies who are only concerned with profit! We need more work boots and blue jeans and less lab coats and clip boards. Let’s face it, how many distilleries have been closed over the years?

KE: How has another American been received in the whisky community?

JT: It is hard to tell. I must admit with each show I get to know just one more person in the industry. I will say that the other independent distillers have made a point to chat when we are at the shows. In my opinion, they might have more respect for what I am trying to do than someone working for a huge corporate-owned distillery since they understand the passion to succeed. 

The guys at Bruichladdich are always great, as well as John Glaser of Compass Box. Raymond Armstrong at Bladnoch is always very kind. I have quite enjoyed spending time with Colin Ross at Ben Nevis when I have been to Scotland.  Like John McDougall, Colin has lived a very interesting life in Scotch whisky. I would like to see more articles written about Colin. 

I especially appreciate the kindness and kind words from Fred Noe of Jim Beam. I have a lot of respect for that man and I hope I can be as gracious and humble  – especially if I can achieve even 1/4 of what he and his family have in whiskey.  I got a good bear hug from him at the Philly Spirits show that past year as well as some words of support.  That meant a lot to me.

KE: All right, what’s in the Wild Scotsman 15?

JT: That’s what
everyone wants to know! Unfortunately I will never allow the
ingredients to be published. Not because I want to be deceptive or
rude, but because what is in the bottle, the specific distilleries, is not
what this whisky is about.

No one questions what is in a Single Malt,
even though a single malt is a VATTING of Single casks from a single
distillery.  Most of which comes from various cask types (bourbon and
sherry), different ages (age statement is the youngest cask in the
bottle), and sometimes different distillation methods or mash bill
composite.

I will say that The Wild Scotsman is made up of 10 Single Malt Casks from
10 different distilleries in Scotland. There is at least one
distillery per region of Scotland as well as from the Island sub-category.
All the casks are ex-bourbon – there are no
sherry casks used.

The casks were chosen to fit a certain nose, taste,
and finish profile that I worked out with my mentor, John McDougall.
As you already know I am an apprentice to John learning the ART and
HISTORY of Scotch Whisky – which we here in the states might call the
CRAFT (i.e. craft brewing).

It was fitting that my first whisky
encompass all of Scotland and not just a single region. People are too
caught up in "regions" and not enough into what they like about their
whisky. There is a rich history to Scotland and to Scotch whisky,
which is why I coined and trademarked the term, "history of a nation in
just one dram". 

When I close my eyes and nose the Wild Scotsman Vatted Malt I think of my first dram of real Scotch whisky – which I drank directly from
the cask at Bladnoch. The amazing complexity of aromas and flavors was
just unbelievable.  Whisky was no longer this sometimes sterile and
antiseptic drink which I had come to know but something totally
different. I want to capture that first experience in a bottle for all
to enjoy.

KE: Let’s talk about the new SWA terminology and how it affects you…

With boutique bottlings like my Vatted Malt consumers may be somewhat hesitant to give it a try. Not because it is not a great whisky, but because they have not been given a proper explanation of what a vatted malt is and that ALL SINGLE MALTS ARE VATTED (with the exception of a SINGLE CASK Malt whisky).  The Wild Scotsman Single Cask Selection will allow the consumer to have a snap shot of what goes on inside the mind of the Wild Scotsman. Basically, the tastes that I find appealing in a whisky.

Let’s face it, being the smallest bottler in the industry means I cannot take chances with shoddy casks – and at the same time, I only want to bottle whiskies that I am passionate about.

KE: Tell me about the new bottling?

JT: The
new bottling is the "Wild Scotsman Single Cask Selection Series".  It
will not be that wordy on the shelf, however, it will be the first of
many single cask bottlings from some of different distilleries that I
enjoy. I am releasing a beautiful Ben Nevis single cask which I will
show at both Whisky Fest Chicago and Whisky Live NY.
The product will not be in the country or available at that time due to
the time it has taken to produce and print the new label, however, it
will make a statement. There is nothing conventional about my
presentation except the bottle.

KE: Any other bottlings on the horizon?

JT: I do plan on making another vatted malt, but, I want to get the single cask line moving a bit. I also have some ideas for a blend, but I need a bit more time. 

KE: Where is The Wild Scotsman sold?

JT:  Wild Scotsman is available
right now in Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Massachusetts. We will be available in New York
and New Jersey in the next 3 months.  We will open up South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida in the next
year.
You can also mail order Wild Scotsman through Binny’s or Sam’s.
 

The brand has just been picked up by Indigo
Wine Group for US Distribution. Up until now Indigo has strictly sold
wine. We are the very first spirit they will represent, which is a
perfect match for both of us.

KE: Are you sold overseas?

JT: Yes, I have a few bottles floating around the UK, Europe, and I believe a few have even gone to Japan. I know I have some happy drinkers in the North of Sweden – in fact the Burea Whisky Club were the very first people to taste the Whisky in Europe.

All orders can be filled at our bottling facility in Glasgow, the Cumbrae Supply Company, also known as the House of MacDuff. Jane MacDuff can fill any order if contacted: +44 (0) 1505 322793. I even have a miniature available of the Wild Scotsman Vatted malt at Just Miniatures in the UK.

KE: What’s up with the "Whisky Chix"?

Whisky Chix was originally the idea of Wild Scotsman Whisky. We first used the "Whisky Chix" nationally at the WOW show in 2005 and then at Whisky Fest Chicago 2005. This idea was later copied by a whiskey company as well as trademarked by them or an associate company under the spelling Whiskey Chicks for a bourbon book. It was interesting that their booth was right next to mine at the WOW show.

The official Whisky Chix are my fiancee Tina and her friend Amy. Unlike a lot of women working the booths at the shows these two know a lot about Scotch whisky and about Wild Scotsman, so the crowd got a treat. Pretty smiles and a brain. I have a new female oriented marketing blitz tag line which I will release next year and after all trademarks are filed.

And of course there is Free Stuff. This is March’s free stuff, a little early.

Jeff was kind enough to send a number of shirts for readers of The Scotch Blog – which I will ration out for a few give-a-ways.

This month I have three (3) t-shirts, but they are ALL for my female readers out there. That’s right the first three women to email me can claim their shirt.

Please remember, you’ll have to pay postage, so include your postal code. Include the the shirt and size you want in descending order (for example, if I get your email second and your preferred shirt has been taken, you’ll get the next one on the list.)

Don’t worry guys, I have more Wild Scotsman shirts which will be give-a-ways in the future.

I have:

One white spaghetti strap shirt (ladies small)

One black spaghetti strap shirt (ladies medium)

One black t-shirt (ladies small)

Jeff says:

These shirts are collector items of sorts since I have no plans to produce any more of them.

Wswcf
Front

Wswcb
Back

Mom, I'll be at the Library…

On my last trip to New York, I asked several industry guys about the best whisky bars in the city. A number of destinations were offered up for my consideration – but the one mentioned most often was the Brandy Library.

If I were to imagine the perfect upscale lounge, Tribeca-based Brandy Library would be it. The place oozes suave ambiance – the deep woods, soft lighting, and rich leather made me feel under-dressed, yet strangely at home.

But while the decor is nice, for the Scotch lover the draw is the impressive selection. The Scotch collection at the Library numbers somewhere around 270 different labels – second only to the selection of over 290 brandies. I counted over 235 single malt expressions on the menu. Nice.

And Flavien Desoblin, Director of Operations  tells me that the single malt selection is about to get
even bigger with the addition of the Gordon & MacPhail and Murray
McDavid lines.

Considering I have more bottles in my own Scotch cabinet than the best stocked restaurant in my area, I savor the opportunity to try something new – and with 235 to choose from, I can.

The attraction doesn’t end at the beautiful interior and the incredible Scotch menu – their special events, particularly Single Malt Seminars, Tasting Fridays and Single Malt Saturdays, are the real reason you should check them out.

Flavien tells me:

Single Malt Saturdays is a free presentation and opportunity to sample some of the newest additions to our selection, and Classics that we feel are important to revisit and /or compare to the new ones. The tasting is pretty casual and lead by our Spirit Sommelier Ethan Kelley. From 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. every Saturday.

As for the Tasting Fridays, I know for sure that we will have Lorne MacKillop from MacKillop’s Choice on April 5th, Denis Lesgourgues from the Armagnac Laubade on March 9th.

Tasting Fridays are NOT limited to Scotch, and sometimes there are surprise guests – for example on the night I’m writing this (2/17), I know Ronnie Cox (Glenrothes) showed up for a special, unscheduled tasting.

As if that were not enough, you can store your own bottle of your favorite Scotch at the Library and it will be waiting for you whenever you visit. THAT is a service I could learn to like.

While talking about the Brandy Library, Flavien says:

As far as the place itself is concerned, this is my baby and I am the major owner of it. A passion for wines and spirits in general turned into a deep desire to sink into the brown spirits and here I am.

The current success of the place has a lot to do with the work of my Spirit Sommelier Ethan R. Kelley and the rest of the team!

Is Brandy Library cheap? No. But what in New York is? (Speaking as a guy who dropped $40 on lunch at Nobu around the corner). Still, I’ll be back in April (WhiskyLive), I have my eye on that 1969 Oban :).

The Brandy Library
25 N Moore Street
New York, New York 10013

Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre

No Scotch lover’s trip to Edinburgh would be complete without a stop at the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre.

The Centre, located next to Edinburgh castle, was created in July 1987 (and opened its doors in May 1988), when 19 individual Scotch Whisky companies jointly invested £2m to create a permanent exhibition featuring the history and development of Scotch Whisky. The Centre consistently ranks among the most popular tourist attractions in Edinburgh.

It is the mission of the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre to promote the
enjoyment of Scotch Whisky by providing a world-class, visitor attraction which will give visitors from all over
the world an excellent appreciation of Scotch Whisky in an entertaining
and informative way.

The Centre offers a number of activities and options including:

  • The Whisky Tour covers all the various aspects
    of Scotch Whisky and tells its 300-year history. Not so good with the English? Not a problem – Scotch is loved around the world, so the tour is available
    in ten languages on a head-set system – English, French, German,
    Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, Japanese, Russian and Mandarin.
    Brochures are also printed in these languages. Admission prices here. Before you visit, make sure you go to the web site and download your coupon for a free dram!
  • Scotch Whisky Appreciation
    Society.
    Take it a step further – join the SWAS and receive a taste of four
    different malts with tasting notes and discounts in the shop.
  • The Amber Restaurant Whisky Bar offers over 300 different whiskies and whisky liqueurs
  • The Amber Restaurant won the “gold award” from the Edinburgh Restaurateurs Association.
  • The Gift & Whisky Shop – while the Centre does not produce whisky, their Gift & Whisky Shop stocks over 270 different whiskies – including some pretty rare ones – they claim to have the most extensive range of original distillery bottlings in Edinburgh (no independent bottlings here).

The Centre also introduced the Scotch Whisky Training School
(SWTS), a full-day "certificate of expertise"  program designed to help ensure that "those involved in the sale and service
of Scotch Whisky, have access to good training and best practice." 
Susan tells me:

The Training School has been accepted well by all Restaurant, Bars and Hotels who have participated over the last 5 years.  We now run the School all over Scotland – and have run courses at Tomatin Distillery, Bowmore Distillery, Glen Ord Distillery, Talisker Distillery, Glenfiddich Distillery and a number of hotels.

Apparently, they really know how to treat their 235,000+ yearly visitors, and have earned a 5 star rating from the Scottish Tourist Board. Not too shabby.

You may have also read about the hub-bub regarding the Centre’s desire to modernize their entrance by replacing the current stone archway with a modern
glass "cylinder" entrance. The plan also includes improved access for the disabled, as well as new signs for the Centre.

The
proposals were attacked by the Cockburn Association, the Architectural
Heritage Society of Scotland and the Old Town Association, who feel that the
new entrance would not fit in with the area.

This time, however, members of the council’s planning department studied the application and  believed it would be a positive contribution to the area. On February 7th, the council’s planning committee granted
permission for the work to start.

Make sure the Heritage Centre is on your agenda next time you are in or near Edinburgh.

www.whisky-heritage.co.uk
www.amber-restaurant.co.uk

Free Stuff – February: Compass Box

This month’s give-a-way is something from Compass Box.

Whether you love his products or not; whether you deplore his non-tradional approach or admire it; you have to appreciate the chutzpah that John, an American living in the UK, exhibited by starting a Scotch company. Says John:

My approach is American as opposed to traditionalist. I say, "Why not? Why don’t we?"

Cigar Aficionado had a great article about John (with interview)  (1-25-06):

In an atmosphere in which whisky connoisseurship has been defined by
the single malts of Scotland, Glaser has championed not only vatted
malts (marriages of pot-stilled single malts) and blends (malts blended
with column-stilled grain whisky), but grain whisky itself — the very
ingredient that was thought to degrade blended whiskies. Despite his
odd choice of direction, he has been consistently putting out whiskies
that are not only interesting taste experiences for enthusiasts, but
world-class spirits.

I hear that.

Over the past 7 months I’ve mentioned Compass Box quite a bit.  Below are links to the The Scotch Blog stories that mention Compass Box, John or one of his products, or have a comment from John:

Compass Box Monster
Compass Box Gets It
A rose by any other name
John Glaser’s opinion on SWA nomenclature
Spice of Life
Orangerie
Art of the Blend
Hosting a tasting
Downfall of Civilization

Into the Wood

After reading these articles (and the Cigar Aficionado article) you won’t look at Compass Box the same way.

Now on to the Free Stuff, But first a change in the way I do things:
As you know, I don’t accept advertising on this site. Yes, there is an Amazon banner at the bottom of the page, but I view that as a public service (and promoting my own book) and I doubt anyone has ever used that link.

As a result, I don’t make any money on The Scotch Blog – as a matter of fact I spend a lot. The postage alone for last month’s Free Stuff (free copies of Whisky  & Scotland Magazines) cost me more than $40 to send those issues around the world.

So starting this month, the stuff is still free, but the winner will have to pay postage. Postage will vary depending on where it needs to be sent. Sorry about this, but unless and until I start accepting advertising or financial support from the Scotch industry, it will just have to be this way.

Peatmonster_label
This Month’s Free Stuff is an XL Peat Monster T-shirt. The shirt has the Peat Monster on the front and the Compass Box logo on the back. These shirts were a limited edition and are no longer available.

How do you win?

There are two ways to win this month.

  1. Be the first to email a picture of a bottle of Compass Box you own, preferably with you in the picture enjoying Compass Box, or
  2. Send me an email which lists the names of all of Compass Box’s products.

Remember to include your postal code so I can let you know how much the postage will be.

I will respond to you with the postage cost, which you can then pay via Paypal. The first person who agrees to the postage will be the proud owner of this awesome collectible.

What’s coming up for Compass Box?

  • SF Whisky Expo
  • Chicago Whisky Fest
  • Whisky Live London
  • Whisky Live Belgium

And this bit of lucky news for Londoners and attendees of Whisky Live London:

Just back from Whisky Festival in Munich, which was great. Oh, and we’re having a part the night before Whisky Live London at our office.  The whole world is invited! Thursday, March 2nd from 4pm to late.

Where’s the Compass Box office? Go check out their web site…

Get your Scotch on (for some good causes)

Good Cause 1

For those of you in the New York City area next Saturday, Binny’s and J. Lawrence Kolodny are presenting A Taste of Scotland. This is a fundraiser to benefit Bonei Olam, an organization whose mission is to help orthodox Jewish couples who are experiencing infertility.

When: Saturday, February 18, 2006 8:30 pm – 10:30 pm
Where:Park East Grill, 1564 Second Avenue, New York, NY
How Much: $100

Your $100 admission will allow you to enjoy 29 Single Malts. Not bad.
Reservations are recommended as the tasting will be limited to the first 125 paid participants.

There will also be a raffle for “The Ultimate Scotch Collection” valued at over $1,200 which includes Strathisla 1960 “Binny’s Cask”, Glengoyne 1967, Glendronach 1968, Glenfarclas 1968, Glenrothes 1974, Highland Park “Binny’s Cask” 1981. Tickets are 1 for $50 or 3 for $100
A maximum of 150 total tickets will be sold, so your chances are pretty good!

For more information or for a reservation please email: bosmst@yahoo.com

More information is available here.

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Good Cause 2

If you live in, near, or will be visiting Toronto on Thursday, May 16th, you may want to head over to the National Club. That’s the night that Trout Unlimited Canada’s will host their 2006 Scotch Tasting and silent Art auction.

Trout Unlimited Canada‘s mission is to conserve, protect and restore Canada’s freshwater ecosystems for current and future generations, this is accomplished with funding generated through various fundraising events as well as the tireless efforts by our numerous chapters and volunteers in Ontario and throughout Canada.

The 2006 Tasting will feature "A Tour of Balvenie-Dufftown-Speyside" presented by the Blair Castle "Keepers of the Quaich" inductee Todd McDonald, with a formal tasting of five exclusive Balvenie single malt scotch whiskys (Balvenie 10-year-old, 12-year-old, 1991 Balvenie Portwood, 15-year-old Single barrel and Balvenie 25-year-old single barrel).

Tickets can be purchased by using the order form posted on the TUC website, or by faxing TUC at (905) 333-1964, or by phoning Kim Blain at (905) 333-3264.

Tax receipts will be issued for a portion of the ticket.

Here are the facts:

When:  Tuesday, May 16th 2006
Where: The National Club, Toronto, Ontario
How Much: $150 per attendee
RSVP by: April 28th, 2006

TUC’s first Scotch Tasting was held way back in June of 2004 when attendees were treated to a presentation of seven Glenmorangie single malt whiskies by my friend, Glenmorangie brand ambassador, Anthony Burnet.  Here are some pictures from that event:

Anthony Anthony Burnet

Nationalclub

The National Club

Johnnie Blue go bye-bye?

    Over on Whisky 101 (The reader-participation sister site of The Scotch Blog), Dean from Australia asked this interesting question:

One of the bartenders I work with recently asked me if Johnnie Walker Blue was being discontinued. I have no idea where he got it from but he said that he heard it was no longer being produced??

This is the first time I’ve heard that particular rumor.

A little background
Blue Label has been around for years, though only recently has there been a big marketing push to capture the mind-share (and market-share) of the ultra-premium blend drinker. This push was apparently designed to coincide with Johnnie Walker’s 200th birthday.

Originally introduced in 1992, Johnnie Blue was created to:

…evoke the character of Walker whiskies from the  early 19th century  by using a blend  of aged, mellow whisky with younger malts and grains.

It’s important to note that although the label of Johnnie Walker Blue does not include an age statement, Blue definitely contains some old and rare whiskies. I understand there are 16 different single malts and grain whiskies that go into the blend – but how old the youngest one is, is anyone’s guess.

Now back to the question

Discontinuing Blue? This didn’t seem right to me. If you were under the impression that the product was brand new you might believe that Diageo saw Blue as a noble, but expensive and failed, marketing experiment and wanted to cut their losses after not seeing a return on the marketing investment.

But, as I said, JW Blue has been around for a while – and I don’t believe that Diageo thinks of their current marketing campaign as "wasted."

Consider this – they have successfully positioned Blue as the "Cadillac of Blends" (feel free to replace "Cadillac" with any appropriate status symbol). Consider also the "Halo Effect" – someone says "Gosh I can’t afford $200 for the Blue, but I’ll spend $25 on the Red or $35 on the Black." Advertising the Blue is really an advertisement for the whole JW line.

But I have no insider knowledge. So, when I have questions about Johnnie Walker I turn to Spike McClure. Spike is one of the Masters of Scotch Knowledge – an ambassador for the Classic Malts and the Johnnie Walker line.

Here’s what Spike had to say:

Kevin,

Blue Johnnie Walker Blue Label isn’t going anywhere.  Unlike single malts which can fall pray to their own success–selling out all of the available matured stock of a certain malt– blends are always combined from scratch to recreate the original characteristics of the label.  If any single component of a blend is unavailable, the blender can finesse the entire composition to include other malts which will replace the lost malt.  This is the art of blending. 

The large volume of old stock created by the "Whisky Loch" of over production some years ago will give the blenders of Blue Label enough rare malts to work with for many years (understanding that as the years pass, younger malts are maturing into the "old and rare" range as we go.)  Indeed, managing the rare malts to guarantee sufficient stock for JWB is vital part of maintaining the blend.  As long as whisky continues to be produced in Scotland, there will be old and rare Scotch whisky.  Scotch is a renewable resource.  Thank God.

Spike

There you go, Johnnie Blue is alive and well and will continue to occupy liquor cabinets in mansions for the foreseeable future!

Into the Wood

The interaction between wood and whisky is one of the most interesting, if not completely understood components of the whisky production process.

The following article is based primarily on a presentation entitled “A Wood Primer” that John Glaser of Compass Box Whisky created and was kind enough to share with me – much of the content of that presentation was based on the work of Dr. Jim Swan who is well known for his work as a consultant in the whisky industry and who is currently working with the Welsh Whisky Company in the production of Penderyn. Additional information came from a recent article by Ian Wisniewski entitled America – the Stave in issue 52 of Whisky Magazine; the work of Dr. Masaharu Minabe of Suntory; Graeme Richardson of William Grant & Sons; and Dave "Robbo" Robertson of the JMR Easy Drinking Whisky Company. Enjoy!

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Why Oak?

One of the most frequently asked questions is “Why do whisky makers use Oak?”

The reason that Oak is utilized is its unique physical and chemical nature. Oak has strength -  physically, its wide radial rays give strength when shaped for a cask; Oak is also a "pure wood" as opposed to pine or rubber trees which contain resin canals that can pass strong flavors to maturing whisky.

But it’s not just the Oak itself, it’s the transformation that happens to the Oak as a result of the seasoning and heating treatments during the coopering process – these result in the production of pleasant-tasting Oak lactones.

Oak has three broad effects on the spirit:

  1. Additive – Adds organoleptically (a $0.50 word meaning the taste and aroma properties of a food or chemical) desirable elements from the cask.  For example: vanillin, Oak lactone (coconut, bourbon character), toastiness, wood sugars and color.
  2. Subtractive – Removes undesirable elements from new make spirit. For example: sulphur compounds and immaturity.
  3. Interactive – Adds extractive wood elements from the cask and converts them to organoleptically desirable elements. For example: change tannins to acetals; change acetic acid to fruity esthers.

Dr. Swan defines 5 specific constituents of Oak and identifies how they influence maturing spirit:

  • Cellulose – Which has virtually no effect other than to hold the wood together.
  • Hemicellulose – Which consists of simple sugars that break down when heated and provide:
    • Body: through the addition of wood sugars
    • "Toasty & carmelised aromas & flavors"
    • Color (unaged or "new make" whisky is a clear liquid)
  • Lignin – The binding agent that hold the cellulose in wood together which, when heated yield:
    • Vanillin
    • Sweet, smoky and spice aromas
  • Oak Tannins* – Which play an essential role in maturation by enabling oxidation and the creation of delicate fragrance in spirits. Tannins combine with oxygen and other compounds in the spirit to form acetals over time. According to Dr. Swan, acetals:

Have a strongly ethereal influence on the product giving it delicacy and top-note…without it, spirits are dull and flat.

*Naturally occurring preservative compounds with a slightly puckery, astringent taste in the mouth, similar to the effect of strong black tea or fresh walnuts.

  • Oak Lactones – Resulting from lipids in the Oak, they increase dramatically during toasting and charring and can pass on a strong woody and perhaps coconut character; lactones give bourbon its distinctive character; and occur in higher concentrations in American Oak than in European varieties.

Will any Oak do?
So any Oak tree can be used when making a whisky barrel? No. Of the hundreds of Oak species, just three species are used for wine and whisky cooperage:

Quercus Alba, “White Oak” (America)

  • Commonly referred to as “American Oak”
  • The most commonly used variety in whisky cooperage
  • More vanillin than European varieties
  • Fast growth
  • High in lactones, which when toasted, provide woody, vanilla, and coconut flavors

Quercus Petraea, “Sessile Oak” (Europe)

  • Found across Europe, notably in France
  • Most commonly used for wine cooperage
  • Slow growth, fine tannins and more vanilla (compared to Pedunculate)
  • Most common species in Tronçais forest

Quercus Robur, “Pedunculate Oak” (Europe)

  • Found across Europe
  • Spanish Oak generates more raisin, prune-like flavors
  • Most commonly used for cognac and sherry cooperage
  • Fast growth, more tannins, thus more oxidative characteristics in the matured products (compared to Sessile)
  • Most common species in Limousin forest

Whoak Now that that’s out of the way, there are a number of other factors in how wood affects whisky. Chief among them are:
- Growth rate of the "donor trees";
- Method and length of time to dry the wood;
- Toasting and charring during cooperage.

Impact of Oak Growth Rate: Slower is Better
Winemakers are convinced of the relationship between Oak growth rates and the flavor and quality of their wines; while in whisky, this factor is not widely considered. It is known that slow growth Oak has more of the “good stuff” – especially vanillins and Oak lactones. White Oak is "fast-growth."

Tis’ the season
Once the wood is cut, the method used to season (dry) the wood has a huge impact. The wood MUST be dried before being used to make barrels – the drying process converts chemical compounds in the wood to more desirable types. How the wood is dried and for how long has a direct impact on the quality of the spirit.

It’s accepted that air seasoning is better than kiln drying (it reduces tannic astringency as well as releases more vanillin), yet, while the barrels used to age wine may be made of staves which have been air dried for as much as 24 months – most bourbon barrels are made from wood which has been kiln dried in a matter of weeks.

Why? Some distillers think that the method for drying the wood is only important for the first-fill of a spirit aged in a new cask, (e.g., wine or bourbon) and has little or no impact when maturing spirits in previously used casks – and of course, Scotch is aged in previously used casks.

The Heat is On
The application of heat is integral to the process of making the barrel – wood fibers behave much like plastic polymers – they want to be straight. In order to bend the staves, they need to be heated. The straight staves are arranged inside a metal hoop and heated. I have heard that either an open flame or steam may be used. As they are heated they become more pliable and are shaped – hoops of various diameters are added to each end – six in total – which are hammered down, towards the middle. Each hoop is held in place by the pressure exerted by the staves as they try to straighten themselves. The casks are then toasted which caramelizes the wood sugars.

This is where the construction of bourbon casks and sherry casks diverge.

Bourbon Vs. Sherry

Bourbon Casks

The barrels, once formed, are charred – the inside of the cask is set on fire for a short period of time, which creates a black charred layer. There are various levels of charring which will have different affects on the spectrum of compounds and
flavors the Oak will impart to the maturing spirit: more vanillins,
lactones, "toastiness," spice characters, and tannins.

Charring casks causes further transformation. Char (carbon) removes sulphur compounds and immaturity from new spirit. Bourbon casks are typically charred for 40 seconds to 1 minute, but some distilleries have experimented with charring times of up to 3-4 minutes. The result of charring is dramatic changes on the surface – for example, wood sugars are caramelized, which will leech into the maturing spirit.

Sherry Casks

Sherry casks are only toasted and not charred. The casks used to mature Oloroso are the most popular with the Scotch industry. Sherry casks can be made of American Oak, but this is usually for Fino Sherries and are generally not used by the Scotch industry. It’s accepted that European Oak adds more flavor than American Oak – sherry cask matured whiskies tend to be more full-bodied than bourbon cask matured ones, and this is likely the result of the type of wood, just as much as the type previous liquid occupant.

More History

The wide-spread use of bourbon barrels is a fairly recent occurrence – a result of the difficulty in sourcing sherry casks during the Spanish civil war in the late 1930′s. Currently any where from 300,000 – 400,000 bourbon casks are acquired for use in the maturation of Scotch whisky – in contrast to only about 18,000 sherry casks.

Contrary to popular belief, very few whiskies are aged exclusively in bourbon barrels – most ex-bourbon aged malts are vatted with a (varying) percentage of whisky which was aged in ex-sherry barrels. Laphroaig, Glemorangie 10, Ardbeg 10, Glenlivet 12, are among those few "pure" ex-bourbon matured whiskies.

It’s not the size of the cask (or is it?)

There are three cask commonly used by the Scotch whisky industry:

  • Barrels -  190 liters/50 gallons
  • Hogsheads – 250 liters/66 gallons
  • Butts – 500 liters/132 gallons

Butts come from the sherry industry while the majority of barrels and hogsheads originate in the bourbon industry. All things being equal, the larger the cask the slower the maturation. Conversely, a smaller cask means that the maturing whisky is exposed to more wood and maturation is quicker – the Laphroaig quarter cask is an example of this.

One last thing
Once a bourbon cask has completed its "first life"  that is, it has been used to age bourbon, it is ready for its second life as a whisky aging vessel. It is broken back down into separate staves and shipped to Scotland. In Scotland, coopers reassemble the staves into casks which will be used to age the whisky that you will enjoy in a few years. Some bourbon casks and all sherry casks are generally shipped whole – not broken down into separate staves.

It’s not common, but some companies re-char ex-bourbon casks before use.

Casks may be used for as many as four fills, i.e., filled with four separate batches of new make spirit. Generally, though, casks are retired after their second, or third re-fills. Sometimes when a cask has reached the end of it’s their useful life – after it has been filled and re-filled so many times that the spirit has taken out all the "good stuff" from the wood, some distillers will shave down the the inside of the cask to reach fresh wood and then the cask will be re-charred.

Below are pictures of this being done at a Diageo Cooperage in Carsebridge. The first picture shows the machine that shaves down the inside of the cask. The second picture shows the recharring – which lasts 30-45 seconds at this cooperage.
Carsebridgeshave

Carsebridgechar

How ex-sherry casks are treated, once whisky distillers get their hands on them, differs by distiller. Most will empty the cask of any residual sherry, nose the cask (to ensure the casks smells fresh, and then fill with new spirit. Dave Robertson doesn’t believe any one would char fresh sherry casks unless the sherry cask does not smell "right", in which case they might char, or may simply reject the cask.
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I’m sure that in the future I’ll delve more into the nuances of maturation, bottling, etc. But for now, I suggest that you pick up issue 52 of Whisky Magazine. In his article, Ian discusses the various charring techniques – focusing on "how the bourbon barrel influences the taste of whisky." A thoroughly interesting article.

As a matter of fact, if you live in the US and you don’t currently subscribe to Whisky Magazine, you may want to consider a subscription; especially since Paragraph publishing offers readers of The Scotch Blog a 22% discount off a new subscription. Simply go to Whisky Magazine and use the code BLOG1205 when placing your order.