Best of Scotch Blog – Through the Tasting Glass

If all has gone well, I should be in Speyside when you read this, with plans over the next few days to visit George Grant at Glenfarclas, as well as The Glenrothes distillery, Aberlour, and Balvenie.
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Originally Posted – November 16, 2005

Through the Tasting Glass

I get a lot of suggestions from people for stories that I should write.

Kevin, how about a story on Irish Whiskey?

Hmm. Nothing wrong with Irish Whiskey. It’s great in a Car Bomb*, but it’s just not my thing.

But Ronnie Cox, the Director at The Glenrothes had a great suggestion:

Good
to meet you Kevin. I believe you are starting something very
interesting with your Scotch Blog. One of the key subjects that needs
higher profiling is the glass type. As in most countries the tumbler is
associated with whiskey. Need to tell people that to really appreciate
Malt Whisky we need some sort of tulip shape to take the image
correctly from one of drinking to one of savouring.

I do briefly mention the use of the proper glass in my book:

TastingglasssketchThe
glass favored by blended whisky drinkers is a short, cylindrical
tumbler, usually referred to as a scotch or “rocks” glass. This type of
glass is fine for tasting a blend with some ice, but is completely
unsuited for the subtlety of malt whisky.

A tulip-shaped tasting
glass is ideal for single malt, but if all you can get your hands on is
a sherry or brandy glass, either will work just as well.

The
tumbler/rocks glass does nothing to enhance the whisky drinking
experience, instead it is simply a glass that is readily available at
bars, restaurants, and in the average home.

The picture above is The Glencairn Glass, a very popular whisky tasting glass designed specifically for the Scotch whisky industry and introduced in 2001.

Glencairn’s description:

The glass was
designed with a tapered mouth to focus the aroma while at the same time
being open enough to make it easy to drink from. This was married to a
robust base that is comfortable in the hand and allow gentle warming of
the liquid to open it up, resulting in a stylish attractive glass, a
base to keep the hand clear of the liquid and it has no cuts or
decoration that would obscure the colour while at the same time being
easy to drink from.

If you don’t have a proper tasting glass, you really need to get one. Ronnie’s point is well taken.

David Wishart, Author of Whisky Classified:

To truly savor all that a single malt has to offer, the proper shape is of the utmost importance.
The
nosing glass used in the whisky industry is tulip shaped like a sherry
glass with a narrow mouth…The narrow mouth is important for
containing the aroma that rises from the whisky, so that when we nose
it we get the maximum fragrance.

Many restaurants and bars don’t (or can’t) carry the appropriate
drinking vessel for every beverage, but you are really cutting your
experience in half if you accept a single malt Scotch in a rocks glass
from a restaurant or bar.

If I am trying a Scotch at a nice restaurant, I can be very
demanding. And at $10-$20 per dram, why shouldn’t I be? Sometime
though, I just test the bartender.

The first thing I do is look at the Scotch menu. If it has less than
ten bottles on it, I know I’ll have to be specific, because chances are
good that they don’t get a lot of Scotch orders. I’m never surprised to
see that one or more of the distillery’s names have been misspelled. I
always point it out to the bartender.

Then I order. Now I know a lot of the distilleries have interesting,
sometimes hard-to-pronounce names, but I never fail to be amused when I
order one, and the bartender doesn’t understand me:

Kevin: I’ll have the La-froyg
Ignorant bartender: Huh?
Kevin: The La-froyg, that one (pointing to Laphroaig)
Ignorant bartender: Oh is that how you say it?

Or when the bartender incorrectly corrects me:

Kevin: I’ll have the Glen-fid-ick
Smarmy bartender: You mean Glen-fidd-itch?
Kevin: Yes, but it’s pronounced Glen-fid-ick
Smarmy bartender: No it’s not.
Kevin: Whatever.
Smarmy bartender: You want that on ice?
Kevin: Check, please.

But when I don’t feel like training the bar staff for free, I get straight to the point:

I’ll
have the Macallan 18, neat, with a small glass of room temperature
water on the side. If you don’t have a whisky tasting glass, I’ll have
that in a brandy snifter. Thanks.

You’d be surprised at the street-cred you’ll get from a good bartender when you know how to order.

But more importantly you’ll experience Scotch the proper way, with a
glass that allows you to aerate the whisky, a glass that concentrates
the bouquet, and a glass that makes it tough to fit an ice cube into.
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*If you read The Scotch Blog regularly, you know that I have since broadened my horizons and DO talk about non-Scotch whiskies.

Irish Car Bomb

Ingredients:
8 oz Guinness stout
1 oz Bailey’s Irish cream
1 oz Irish Whiskey (Jameson’s)

Mixing instructions:
Combine the Bailey’s and Whiskey in a shot glass.
Drop shot glass into beer.
Drink immediately.

Best of Scotch Blog – World's Most Expensive Scotch

On the day you read this, I should be recovering from Bruichladdich
day and my birthday, which happened to serendipitously take place on
the same day – May 28th. Today, if I am up for it, I’ll be visiting
Caol Ila, the Port Ellen Maltings, and avoiding alcohol at the Whisky
Ceilidh.

More rants about expensive stuff:
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Originally Posted – December 05, 2005

World’s Most Expensive Scotch

If
you found this via a search engine, I must admit that I’ve played a
trick on you. But it’s not a cruel trick – it’s for your own good.

If you read on, you’ll find out about those "most expensive Scotches" you’ve been Googling.

If you are a regular reader, I think you’ll find this discussion quite interesting.

Today’s article is not to talk about "The World’s Most Expensive
Scotch," but instead to vent about how I am tired of reading about rare
and expensive Scotch and the people who buy it.

The question: "Why is it that every time some wanker (see also:
drunken, rich fool) spends way too much money on a rare bottle of
Scotch, it’s given so much media attention."

Everyone is familiar with the stories:

  • The six bottles of 1937 Glenfiddich on sale at the Hong Kong Airport for $48,000 each.
  • Johnnie Walker releasing a new blend at $28,600 per bottle to celebrate the real Johnnie Walkers’ 200th birthday.
  • The Dalmore 62 that went for £25,877 ($44,000) in 2002.
  • Or my personal favorite: how this year another bottle of the same vintage was bought at a London hotel bar for $55,000 and how the purchaser uncorked it on the spot and consumed it with friends.

Now the fine folks at Whyte & Mackay and William Grant &
Sons, are happy to promote the fact that their products hold the
distinction of being the most expensive bottles of Scotch ever sold,
but at what cost?

While I understand that positive exposure and free press
are a great thing, in this context, and in my estimation, it simply
reinforces the widely held misconception that Scotch is for silly old
rich men, Dot Com millionaires or Traders with expense accounts.

I wonder if there is a correlation between the release of the "most
expensive" stories and a noticeable increase in sales? I also wonder if
such stories have the effect of solidifying any "for the old &
stodgy" perception that Scotch may have amongst the general public.

All in all, I would really like to know if these stories ar a net
positive or a net negative. Both for the companies mentioned as well as
the sector as a whole.

I’m guessing that the short term bump in brand recognition
is not worth the long term effect. But I’ve certainly been wrong
before. So lucky for me (and for you) I have access to people in the
industry who can and will share their viewpoint with us…

Name withheld, Major Distillery

Yes,
I’m tired of the emphasis on expensive, as opposed to "good." These
frivolous purchases ARE over-hyped – but at least the Dalmore was
enjoyed, and isn’t sitting on the shelf of some collector.

Mark Reynier, Bruichladdich

There are two types of person who will support these extraordinary prices: The Collector and the Show Off.

Pride
and the ‘reflected glory’ of being the most expensive malt (“Look what
some nutter has paid for a bottle of our malt – so our malt must be
really special”) keep it in the public arena.

It is certainly nothing to do with quality
– it is all to do with rarity for collectors. The ultimate ‘supply and
demand’. Anything ultra rare will fetch astronomic prices: 1787 Chateau
Lafite @ $156,450 a bottle is not a reflection on extravagant
drinkability – but rarity. Worse – single malt does not improve in
bottle. It will taste the same today, as the day it was bottled. And a
collector will go to any lengths to complete his collection.

Sure, some City Boys in a restaurant,
spending excessively (I’ve seen it myself) on company money is another
story. That is showing off; one-upmanship. And that is entirely their
prerogative – their company’s budget.

Congratulations to the restauranteur!

Jimmy Robertson, Morrison Bowmore

We would rather pick up a lot of awards for our 12 year-old, 17 year-old and 25 year-old–affirmations of quality that the average guy out there can actually go out and enjoy.

At Frankfurt this year we introduced a Bowmore 16 year-old unchill-filtered, cask strength at 75 Euros (KE – which has just arrived in the US at about $90)
and I believe that will do a lot more for our image than a few bottles
sold at a few thousand Euros – in that a hell of a lot more people get
to try it than if we did a super super deluxe!

Ronnie Cox, The Glenrothes

To see a fine wine or picture break record
prices is not an unusual story. Being for a moment on the side of the
producer, I would hope these would offer a true excellence combined
with unbelievable rarity, but there are lots of other reasons that
motivate the purchaser.

It is not so extraordinary that Rare
Old Malt Whiskies should be considered in the same light. Purchasers
pay what they want and with their own justification criteria ; no rule
against that. But, if I personally, wanted to enter this world, now as
a consumer and a Scotsman at that, the wee sample would need to do a
great deal of convincing.

Robert Ransom, Glenfarclas

We
have recently released a 50 years old Glenfarclas, to celebrate the
bicentenary of the birth of John Grant, who purchased Glenfarclas in
1865. With a recommended retail price of GBP 2,250 per bottle it offers
excellent value compared to the bottlings you have referred to! I am
pleased to say the rate of sale has exceeded our expectations.

Brett Pontoni, Binny’s

It’s
a good perspective, the one thing I can tell you is that the breadth of
people stories like this reach is narrower than you might think.  We
face the problem you bring up all the time in both wine and spirits.
The fact is the vast, vast majority of business and interest is in the
price range real people actually regularly purchase in, but for some a
disproportionate amount of attention is paid to the high end.  I
usually turn it on its ear, because I can prove that:

a.) you don’t have to spend a ton of money for a great whisky,
b.) at a certain price point you’re buying rarity, not necessarily the best whisky, and
c.) age isn’t everything.

It’s good to add perspective to the issue.

Dave Robertson, JMR Easy Drinking Whisky

I
suggest that it is a positive ’cause it suggests to some consumers that
whisky can be rare, expensive and very, very exclusive.  It brackets
whisky with the top fine wines, top champagnes, luxury cars, jewellery,
etc.

Of course this is classic aspirational marketing, but why not.

Who are we to say that someone has to be old/stupid/crazy to buy
something rare and expensive – caveat emptor (buyer beware) and for
those lucky enough to have the means to access this rarified world –
good luck!

Just look at top fashion brands, car brands, holidays, travel
and you see that it is not just the "old money" classes that choose to
experience the best.

Rory Steel, William Grant & Sons

 The
coverage of the Glenfiddich 1937 leaving the distillery even surprised
us. We issued the story in Scotland and it went around the world on the
Press Association wires and was covered extensively from there.

I wouldn’t say from the coverage that I
have seen that it implies Scotch is for ‘silly old men’, but rather
that it’s a defining moment in the history of the world’s favourite
single malt distillery (in much the same way the world’s oldest Model T
Ford being sold would create media interest).

As I’m sure you are aware, the Glenfiddich
1937 was a truly remarkable find and there can be few other single
malts to have aged so long. It is the amazing story of the 1937,
together with the price tag, that seems to have appealed to media. This
underpins that Glenfiddich is a quality product, so you’re right, the
coverage probably does benefit us, but measuring any direct impact on
sales is nigh on impossible.

If you look at the record prices paid by
collectors for vintage wines, it’s far more than for Scotch, but wine
doesn’t have an image of being for the elite, fuddy duddies. Collection
of these vintage wines may have the image for being for the ‘silly old
men’, and this could be the same for vintage Scotch collectors, but to
say that these types of story depict an image that is applied to
drinkers across the whole Scotch or wine categories’ range is, in my
opinion, misleading. Besides, you just need to see the commentary from
people such as Angus Winchester in  the UK to see that Scotch is having
a resurgence and is fast becoming the fashionable drink of choice in
style bars.

As always, blunt responses from industry insiders (much
appreciated), and varying opinions (also much appreciated). It’s
obvious that the whisky industry in Scotland does not "vote as a block."

I agree with a good portion of William Grant & Son’s response.

I’ll definitely agree that maybe I went a little too far with the
"Silly old rich men" comment. I’m a "man," I’ve often been called
"silly," and to your average college-aged person, I’m sure I’m "old."
As for "rich" let’s just say that writing about Scotch hasn’t started
paying the bills yet.

But what the heck, I like to stir up the pot :)

I WILL disagree with promoting Scotch as the next fashionable thing.
Fashions tend to come and go very quickly. Polyester suits were fashionable at one point.

Best of Scotch Blog – The Shape of the Bottle

On the day you read this, I should be sitting at a distillery on Islay enjoying something.
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Originally Posted – October 12, 2005

The shape of the bottle

I received an interesting question from a reader:

Dear Kevin/Scotchblog,

I have a simple curiousity about the bottle designs of the various
single malts. Particularly, why do most have a similar shape in the
neck area with a slight ‘bulb’? Is this just a design that developed
into a bottle trend or is does it have a technical/scientific reason?
Any light you could shed would be helpful. Thank you.

Sincerely,
Scott

I’ve never come across any
mention or discussion of the particular shape of the traditional whisky
bottle in any book, so I thought maybe, I’d missed something…

So, I thought I’d ask some of the experts to see if they knew of any
concrete reasons for this. Several experts simply said "Beats me." But
some others thought they’d take a whack…

Mark Reynier, Managing Director, Bruichladdich Distillery

It
was an old  bottle design that has become standardised for mass
production. Probably, in the past with hand blowing, the neck bulge had
something to do with  glass strength in the neck of the bottle and for
receiving a standardised cork stopper. Today they are produced in
moulds.

KME - Bruichladdich does not use the "bulb" – their bottle is very much like the original whisky bottles (see Macallan photo below)

Dr. David Wishart, Author, Whisky Classified gives us this great history of the bottle as well:

The
origin of the glass bottle is as a serving vessel, used by the upper
classes and by merchants from the mid-18th century. Whisky (and wine)
was supplied in a cask or stoneware jar, and was decanted into a clear
glass vessel (the decanter, the job being performed by a "bottler",
hence the title "butler"). When supplied by a merchant it would be
stoppered for transit, with a deposit refundable when returned. Clear
glass was taxed at 11 times that of black or green glass, and was
therefore the preserve of the wealthy.

The first whisky bottles were re-used wine bottles, e.g. Macallan.
They took off in the whisky boom of the 1890s when whisky began being
sold by the case for export. They started to be mass produced by glass
factories after a glass-blowing machine was invented by Arnall and
Howard Ashley in 1887. The bottles were cast in moulds, which
presumably followed the style of the decanters used by the upper
classes.

The advantage of the sealed bottle for export was that it could be
properly stoppered and sealed, thereby reducing the scope for dilution
or replacement by unscrupulous intermediaries. During US prohibition,
Captain William McCoy, a smuggler based in the Bahamas, supplied such
good quality Scotch compared to the illicit bootlegged US alternative,
that patrons of Chicago speakeasys dubbed his sealed bottles the "Real
McCoy".

As to the shape of the neck, I can only speculate that it evolved
from the decanter in a bulbous form for easy and safe gripping by the
butler, and has remained that way ever since.

Dominic Roskrow, Editor, Whisky Magazine

I
really don’t have a clue beyond to say that if you look at early bottle
making, the long neck style seemed to develop out of that early
glass-firing process. So you’d assume it was the easiest way of making
a pouring bottle – so it’s been imitated as much through tradition as
anything else. And of course there are a growing number of different
bottle shapes now – suggesting that the science isn’t so important.
Really not sure though…

Dave Robbo Robertson, Easy Drinking Whisky Company

Here are our considered thoughts from our bottling expert.

To
be honest, it is a tradition, now widely associated with "traditional"
Scotch Whisky design. It probably has resonance in the "bulbous" shape
of the pot still. In fact it makes the bottle slightly more difficult
to make, not easier, because of the transition of radii. There is a
slight advantage in the design in that it allows a little more empty
space in the neck (which we call vacuity) thereby allowing a slighly
higher fill up the neck, which will look more attractive under the
capsule. Not all bottles have a bulb…in fact we have deliberately
tried to be different with some of our designs, but a straight neck
does look more austere, and more modern I think, and the bulb is softer
and more gentle to the eye. Therefore it is more appropriate for older
malt whiskies. There is a limit to what you can actually do with a
neck!!

Regards,
Mike.

Kevin Erskine, The Scotch Blog

My
own SWAG of a guess is that it is a combination of being an easy to
hold handle AND having some design function to maximize airflow. I also
have a suspicion that the bell shape, mimicked by today’s whisky taster
glasses, gathers the aroma of the whisky to give you that first great
whiff after opening a bottle.

Well there you have it – if there is any real reason for the "bulb" it’s been lost over the ages.

Today it’s likely just a matter of tradition as many distilleries
use the bulbous neck (with wide variations), while just as many do not.

I’d like to thank the experts for taking time out of their day to ponder this question.

And thanks for asking a great question, Scott.

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1034_lo

One of my favorite bulbous neck bottles is used by Balvenie.

100_0585

Some distillers use the bulbous neck (Glenfarclas, Laphroaig, Talisker)

100_0586_1

While some do not (Glenfiddich, Bruichladdich, Oban)

Macallan1841

One of the earliest known whisky bottles, an 1841 Macallan. Just a reused wine bottle – no bulbous neck.

Best of Scotch Blog – Meaningless Awards

On the day you read this, I’m on my way to Scotland to attend the Islay Festival. While I’m away, new comments will not be approved, but please feel free to make your comments and I’ll get to them when I return.

Highland Park is good stuff, don’t get me wrong. But PLEASE STOP turning the comments of a single critic into meaningless awards. It demeans the industry!

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Originally Posted – July 26, 2005

Who chooses what’s No 1???

Note: I’m
sure you’ll be reading the following in a number of places if, like me,
you get a regular feed of whisky related stories. This very "article"
is a big part of the reason why, unlike all of the whisky news and
information sites, I don’t simply post press releases.

"Highland Park named world’s No 1 spirit"

According to a recent story in the Scotsman (link at the bottom), The American Spirit Journal, "a leading drinks magazine" has named Highland Park 18 year old the best spirit in the world. Not just the best whisky, mind you, but the best spirit.

    The problem is there is no American Spirit Journal!!!

Even aside from that little fact- I’m a little suspicious of stories
like this. I mean how do you compare and judge a whisky (or ALL
whiskies) against the numerous tequilas, vodkas and gins?

I want more information. Who were the judges? How were they judged?
Just what is "The American Spirit Journal," since it doesn’t really
exist?

A little reading and research goes a long way. And obviously reporters don’t do either.

Let’s look closer. According to the Scotsman article,

The
Highland Park 18-year-old single malt topped a list of the world’s 100
best distilled spirits, published in the American Spirit Journal. The
list was compiled by the American drinks specialist Paul Pacult, who
judged thousands of whiskies, rums, gins, vodkas, tequilas and other
distilled spirits for the list. He said: "Out of the hundreds of
whiskies from Scotland, Canada, the US, Japan, India and Ireland,
Highland Park 18-year-old is the finest of them all and right now is my
favourite distilled spirit.

Ah, Paul Pacult. Yes, he is a writer on the topic of spirits, with
four books under his belt. Though two of those books appear to be
written on behalf of the companies on whom the subject matter is based
(Chivas Brothers & Jim Beam). But as stated above, there is no American Spirit Journal. So where was this list of best spirits published?

Could it be in the F. Paul Pacult’s Spirit Journal which DOES exist?

If so, this means that Paul has decided to rate his favorite liquors, in his self published journal.

Does he have the right to name his "favourite distilled spirit?" Absolutely.

But Paul’s personal preference was disseminated, via press release,
as if it were an actual award. And of course, the release was scooped
up and further disseminated by Highland Park. And those news hungry
reporters turn the press release into a story.

Don’t you think that releasing Paul’s personal favorites as a news story is a little silly?

Highland Park IS a great whisky. But is it the best? To Paul, obviously. To you and me? Maybe, maybe not.

If you want to rate "the best" how about you start by convening
panel of experts including MacLean, Jackson, Murray and some select
others. Now that would have some weight with me. (Note 8/3/05: Brett from Binny’s reminded me that Whisky Magazine recently released their 3rd "Best of the Best" list which is done with blind tastings by panel judges. Highland Park 18 y.o. did not make that list.)

I doubt though, that this prestigious group would agree on a single "best."

I think any promotion of the whisky industry is a good thing, and
helps bring new drinkers in. But getting new drinkers is all about
helping them find what they like. Not pushing a single, expensive
bottle, based on one person’s opinion.

Read the press release here.

Keep an eye on this; and you’ll see the media ‘chain
reaction’ begin,with reporters beginning to grab, in ever smaller pieces,
the parts of the story they want. The story will soon morph into a one
liner: "Highland Park voted best whisky in the world" without much of
the background info.

Oh, by the way, I hereby declare Laphroaig Cask Strength to be the best whisky. And Hendricks Gin to be the best spirit in the world. Well at least they are MY favorites.

Terroir-ism (Part 4)

Dave Robertson, Robbo of Jon, Mark & Robbo’s Easy Drinking Whisky Company, is always ready to chime in, and he is today’s guest writer for the final installment in the series on terroir:

In days gone by when the technical aspects were poorly understood it was common place for the then distillery manager to wax lyrical about his/her water source, barley and its own maltings, his/her traditional rake style mash tun with its 6 larch wood washbacks which filled the small copper
pot stills, heated by coal condensed via worm tubs and aged in old sherry/bourbon barrels on site in low lying dunnage warehouses before being mixed in 100’s of cask batches to create a massive super blend.

It has only really been since the interest in single malts that the notion of "romantic marketing" and the need for terroir to be talked up in addition to provenance, origin, raw materials and ancient process techniques have become public knowledge.

Romantic – yes. Consistent flavour and high quality – no!

Since those times, science has played a stronger role in the understanding and manufacture of malt whisky leading to improved yields and efficiencies, but more importantly, consistency and quality of flavour. Allied to that has been the massive improvement in wood maturation knowledge – where it is
commonly accepted that some 40 – 80% of a mature whisky’s flavour can be derived from the wood (ex-bourbon lower, first fill spanish oak ex-sherry much higher…).

Given all this I could, with a little help from my friends, (Jon & Mark) create whiskies that resembled (and maybe even matched in a blind tasting) any single malt that exists without actually using that malt in the recipe.

For example, our Rich Spicy has been commented on as being Macallan in style and is derived from Bunnahabhain, Highland Park, Glenrothes and Tamdhu – all matured in Spanish oak sherry casks. 

With careful selection from a range of cask types and ages we can create a spectrum of flavours that match anything that exists as a single malt! In some ways, blending (grain and malt or vatting malts
together) can create an even more interesting taste experience – and is much like what top wine producers, chefs, parfumiers and conductors do with their selections!

"Heresy" I hear you shout.

Try it yourselves – take your fav single malt, understand its flavour, and pick some others from your drinks cabinet that you then mix together to create that style you love.  My granddad (a PhD in Chemistry from Edinburgh in 1927) used to love mixing his own hooch by taking a bottle of cheap blend and mixing it with some cask strength malt my dad managed to draw for "testing the instruments" in the good old days and low and behold made some fab stuff.

Slide1
I have attached a simple chart that covers all the main 4 flavour bases as far as JMR is concerned – fell free to play about with this and I would urge that readers of the Scotch Blog position whiskies on the map for themselves, think about what they like and start mixing.

We think that Dave Wishart has maybe made it a tad too complicated by picking 12….

As we like to say – maximum flavour, minimum fuss – to victory with vatted!

The days of terroir, location, etc., etc., are much less important and can be illustrated by the fact that 1 large distillery on Islay (as a trial) was run without peated malted barley and made some of the tastiest "speyside" style new make spirit – weird, wonderful and wacky!

Oh, almost forgot….. most distilleries will have had to change their water source, barley varieties, maltings, mash tuns to lauter tuns, wooden to steel washbacks, direct fired to steam fired stills, computer operated still cut points, cask types and place of maturation and who the master blender/distiller is……are we really suggesting that nothing has changed and that terroir is still fundamentally important ?

Don’t get me wrong I still love the romanticism of it all – but temper my enthusiasm with how the stuff really tastes….

For those that crave flavour we salute you!

Plus ca change
plus c’est la meme chose

Cheers

Robbo

———————————————-
Terroir-ism (Part 1)

Terroir-ism (Part 2)

Terroir-ism (Part 3)

32 Primary Aromas? Myth Busting

While doing some research about the part that your sense of smell plays when tasting/ drinking/ enjoying whisky, I repeatedly came across the following statement in one permutation or another:

…there are only four primary tastes (sweet, sour, salty and bitter) but there are
32 primary aromas.

I found this to be an interesting little factoid – something that I’d never heard before – so of course, I set about to find out what those 32 primary aromas might be.

Continued research turned up something odd. Charles MacLean, Whisky Magazine, Aberlour, The Scotch Doc, The International Centre for Brewing and Distilling, (and a few other random places) all state unequivocally that there are 32 primary aromas. Yet not one of them lists those 32 primary aromas.

Glenfiddich’s Ludo Ducrocq also mentions the primary aromas factoid, but says:

…there are apparently 32 primary aromas – although nobody has ever been able to tell what these are…

Interestingly, ALL of the sources which declare the presence of 32 primary aromas, are related to the Scotch Whisky Industry.

Apparently, someone, somewhere made this fact up, and everyone else just accepted it as the gospel and continued to reiterate it – without ever stopping to ask what the 32 primary odors were.

That’s not how we roll here at TSB, SO I started off on a little research of my own, which included discussions with Ed Lavin at the
Department of Food Science & Technology at Cornell University; Gail Vance Civille, President of Sensory Spectrum, and co-author of the books Aroma and Flavor Lexicon for Sensory Evaluation: Terms, Definitions, References, and Examples; Sensory Evaluation Techniques; and Sensory Evaluation in Quality Control; Dr. Barry Green at Yale; and Dr. Marcie Pelchat, Experimental Psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. I also exchanged emails with Dr. John Piggott, University of Strathclyde and was also pointed to the work of Jordan Ross, (though I did not speak with Jordan).

Here is what I learned:

  • The statement that there are 32 primary aromas is FALSE. None of the scientists had any idea where such a concept would have come from.
  • There are several hundred different types of olfactory receptors, but they do not correspond on a one-to-one basis with classes of odors.
  • Another myth is that the primary tastes each have their own little spot on the tongue:

TongueThe tongue map, showing sweet on the tip of the tongue, bitter
on the back and sweet and salty on the sides, long accepted as fact, is a myth. It’s based on
a mistranslation of a German paper that was written in 1901 by a Harvard
psychologist. If you do any experimenting on yourself you’ll discover
it’s not
true.

  • Sweet, sour, salty and bitter are perceived anywhere there are taste buds.
    While there are differences in sensitivity to the four tastes around the tongue,
    these differences are small.
  • Most researchers accept the existence of a fifth taste: umami, a Japanese word meaning savory or meaty.
  • Unlike taste
    preferences, which are hard-wired from birth, preferences for odors are, for the
    most part, learned through experience.
  • The human tongue contains about 10,000 taste buds located
    in four different types of structures, called papillae. It is these papillae,
    not the taste buds, which give the tongue its bumpy surface.
  • There appear to be several receptors for bitter and sweet, tuned to different molecules.
  • The "four basic tastes" are an out-dated and language-limited model of what we perceive.
  • Some people are born with more taste buds – and as a result may experience taste,
    particularly bitterness, much more intensely.
  • There are proven differences in the way men and women smell – women can be more sensitive to strong smells, and more capable of detecting weak aromas. There is no corresponding research that states men and women taste things differently. This is important to keep in mind as the industry attempts to attract more female Scotch drinkers.
  • The brain is trainable and will get better at picking out subtleties and nuances in aromas – a developed "palate" is really a developed brain.
  • The Olfactory Bulb, the Hippocampus, and the Visual Cortex all play a part in helping to recognize aromas.

I hope you find this as interesting as I do. I plan to explore this in greater detail.

The next time you see a article about Scotch that declares there are 32 primary aromas…you’ll know better.

Going to the Academy. Wanna Come?

I’ve hiked to Machu Picchu, been scuba diving in the Andaman Sea, went to Burning Man, and jumped out of a plane. I’ve also participated in a water-gun fight during Songkran in the streets of Bangkok until 4 in the morning, and saw some very interesting things in Patpong.

I’ve spent a week solo back-packing in Yosemite Park during the winter and taken people on sea kayak tours of the Monterey Bay. I’ve gotten drunk on Ng Ka Py in Hong Kong, and gotten even drunker with Pink Floyd’s roadies. I’ve even had the good fortune to have a beer with Michael Jackson (the writer, not the singer). I haven’t lived what one would call a "quiet life", but I still have some things left on my "to do" list.

One of those outstanding things? What every whisky lover wants – to work in a distillery! And this year, I expect to cross that one off my list as well, thanks to my friends at Bruichladdich.

Now, I know that many of the readers out there can describe, in excruciating detail, the traditional method for making single malt Scotch – but how many of you have actually done it?

That’s what I thought.

At Bruichladdich, they are still making it the way it was made when the distillery originally opened – without computer-controlled equipment. From the site:

Cask Bruichladdich provides the rare opportunity to experience ‘hands-on’ the art of distilling – the Victorian way.

Stay for 4 nights in the Distillery Manager’s house, limited to a maximum of 6 guests, you will work alongside our craftsmen on a one-to-one basis as they go about their craft of milling, mashing, distilling, tasting and bottling our whisky.

Bruichladdich was built in 1881 as a state-of-the-art distillery; the testament to the simplicity of the layout and the quality of equipment is that nothing has changed ever since. Today, while essentially considered a museum in comparison to others, the original production equipment is still in use, with not a computer or microchip in sight.

Here is the opportunity to make whisky the traditional way, to live Islay’s culture, see the heritage, and experience the magic. We do not claim any teaching qualifications, nor do we rely on classroom study, or facile industry indoctrination. Instead we offer the Islay way of down-to-earth, independent, friendly knowledge sharing. We tell it the way it really is.

Of course corporate marketing/propaganda events already exist. But a genuine, independent, Whisky Experience?  Nowhere else will you get this.

Peat The Academy is limited to six guests, and each part of the process is experienced on a one-to-one basis (it is not a group thing) for maximum effect. You WILL be making whisky – but what exactly will you be doing?

Monday: Arrival day.

A welcome to Bruichladdich meeting at 6:30 PM including a tour of distillery, health & safety briefing, and outfitting.

The next three days activities are rotated so each guest gets a chance to fully participate: so you may not experience the following activities in the following order:

Malting, Milling & Mashing Day

The day starts at 8:00 AM and includes working in the Mill and Mash houses

Fermentation & Distilling Day

Starts at 8:00 AM and includes the Still Room and The Tun Room

Warehousing and Bottling Day

This day’s activities include visits to the Filling Store, The Warehouses, The Cooperage and Bottling Hall.

Thursday evening

Includes an exam, followed by an  after dinner award ceremony.

Friday

Eat a hearty breakfast and bid a fond adieu to Islay. Well, you don’t have to leave Islay, but the Academy is over.

I talked to Mark Reynier about the program:

Are guests welcome?

Warehouse Girlfriends and partners are welcome (but they do not attend the course – just meals – and must occupy themselves during the day). Evening and overnight distillation can also be experienced for that extra magical moment.

What types of people take the course?

Our guests come from a wide background and have included brain surgeons, undertakers, bar staff, businessmen, housewives, professors, unemployed, and the unemployable. 

Will I get to experience Islay?

You’ll be pretty busy learning the whisky process during the course. That’s why we recommend that you extend your trip – acclimatising to Islay and Islay time before the Academy course.

What else should I know?

The term "Academy" may give the impression of being quite high falut’in – but it is very, very down to earth in reality.

One if not all of the directors and management of the company will be available to enlighten guests with information, stories, tastings etc.

Start packing your bags, because I’ll bet that like me, you are sold.

The first thing you need to do is read about the Academy on the Bruichladdich web site. The Academy costs £795 per person (about $1,385 USD), which isn’t cheap, but it is a once in a lifetime experience, and includes:

  • Private room for the duration of the Academy
  • Three meals a day, dinner and drinks
  • Transport to and from the airport
  • Transport to scheduled events
  • Academy work wear and an Academy T Shirt, notebook, pens, course material
  • Academy Valinch and certificate

Transportation to and from the island is not included. Space availability for specific dates can be checked on the web site www.laddieshop.com in the Academy section.  A deposit of £300 (about $520 USD) is payable to secure your place, with the remainder due prior to the start of the course.

In the off chance the web site doesn’t answer all of your questions, feel free to contact Ella Edgar who administers the Academy – she’ll be able answer any and all questions.

I haven’t made my plans yet, though I’m leaning towards the Fall – I’d like to invite five readers to take the Academy with me. If you are interested, please contact me – It would be great to meet some of you!

Terroir-ism (Part 3)

Today, Gerry Tosh of Highland Park, does a stint as a guest writer to give his views terroir:
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Why do people feel the need to pin down definitions of whisky or get scarily scientific about its production?

Our Distillery manager refers to making whisky as a "black art". This is because we don’t know all the answers to making whisky and long may it continue – as the mystique that surrounds Scotch whisky is half the fun.

For me, terroir is a very difficult term to steal from Wine or Coffee and land on Scotch Whisky.

Terroir has to do with ecology; from the grapevine to bottle. Covering aspects such as: micro climate, soil, geology, aspect, altitude, vineyard and vinifaction. We, in Scotch whisky, simply don’t do this anymore. 200 years ago we would have had distilleries getting their Barley locally, malting at their own distillery and then maturing at the distillery. Although most of us will do some of these, very few of us will be able to own all of them.

The wine guys who have been doing this for a lot longer than us still can’t agree on the true benefit of terroir. The historic Paris wine tasting of 1976 is a good example where the crème de la crème of French wine experts ranked a California wine as the best red wine and three of the four top whites were from California. These results and many more subsequent blind wine competitions around the world suggest that the importance of terroir can easily be overstated.

But for some distilleries this might work.

Take Highland Park as an example:
We don’t use the barley we used in 1798 because we would have no chance to get the volume of alcohol out of that strain of Barley we need for today’s demand. All our barley now comes from mainland Scotland.

We still do floor malting at the distillery. We have tried to replicate the flavour we get from doing this in big industrial machines but just get close.

We use locally grown peat to smoke the barley, the geology of which is unique as it is about 9000 years old, but more importantly it contains no wood. Thus creating a different aromatic flavour than any other whisky.

We use the same water source used in 1798 which is a "unusually hard water" and rises through Walliwall stone.

The Orcadian climate is unique. With maximum average temperatures of +10 C (about 50 F) and minimum averages of +2 C (about 35 F) therefore we have a wonderful, consistent, cool climate which means our "Angels" go a little more thirsty up here than at other distilleries.

The winds blow over 100 mph for about 80 hours a year – this carries the salty air across the island, killing all the trees, which changes our peat. It gets the salt into the barley, especially the floor malting. In fact it gets into every facet of the distillery.

Then we age it on the island.

So terroir, although redundant for most distilleries, may possibly have its exceptions.

Regards
Gerry

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Terroir-ism (Part 1)

Terroir-ism (Part 2)

Free Stuff – JW Red

Johnnie Walker Red

Here’s the question…

Name the distillery that produces the main malt for JW Red.

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We have a winner. Jody Cairns of Canada answered CARDHU.

FOTSB – The Whisky Exchange

Welcome to a new feature: Friends of The Scotch Blog: shops, sites and people associated with Scotch whisky that I’ve met along the way…

The Whisky Exchange & Sukhinder Singh

On my last trip to London, I had a chance to have dinner with John Glaser (Compass Box), John Milroy of Milroy’s fame, Sukhinder Singh of The Whisky Exchange, Nadi Fiori (Italian importer – High Spirits) and Jakob Bruhns, André Doerlit, & David Larsson (of Danish importer QualityWorld).

I got to sit next to Sukhinder and chat with him a bit.

The Whisky Exchange was established in 1999 primarily as a mail order business – offering a variety of spirits – with Single Malt Whiskies at the forefront.

Suhkinder is a collector and a purveyor, but above all, he is a lover of whisky. Says Sukhinder:

The Whisky Exchange came about due to my passion for Whisky and in particular for Single Malts.

I originally started collecting Miniatures at the age of 12. When I purchased a very large collection of minis I was faced with the dilemma of "where do i keep 8000 miniatures?"

I decided to specialise in Single Malt Whisky minis – I sold everything else and ended up with 300 or so minis. 20 years of collecting later and I have 4500 Single Malts in miniature and now the task is to find a place to display them all.

About 12 years ago, I started getting interested in the larger bottles and started with collecting only 1 bottle from each distillery.

I now have about 1000 different bottles, dating from the 1880’s.

The profile of the collection is a mix between drinking whiskies and collecting whiskies…

Whisky is of course for drinking; therefore I have set aside a large number of bottles, which I feel are very good drinking whiskies – to be drunk in the future.

On the collecting side, as with every other collector I would like to get an example from every distillery that has ever existed in Scotland. Many bottlings from distilleries which were easy to find a few years ago, are now getting difficult and of course pricey!!!!! (eg: Kinclaith ).

This will only continue to happen as stocks from closed distilleries are used up.

Original distillery bottlings are always better, but not possible in many cases such as Banff, Convalmore, Kinclaith, etc.

Limited Edition bottlings are usually interesting, with the best example being Black Bowmore.

My main areas of great interest are Ardbeg, Bowmore, Macallan, Port Ellen, Springbank and of course Lost Distilleries.

Some bottles from my collection may be seen in our Rare/Old Malts section.

Located in London, between Heathrow and Central London, close to the Boston Manor tube station. Sukhinder says that customers are welcome to visit their facility by prior appointment, and they’ll even pick you up from the station.

We have a large showroom with over 1200 new & old expressions of Single Malts to choose from with a price range to suit everyone from £10 – £20,000.

We can recommend drinking whiskies to suit your taste, help with collecting and advise for investment purposes.

If you are looking for something in particular, please check as we have many items arriving everyday and these may not have been added to our list as yet.
Sometimes special whiskies are kept back for customers making enquiries only.

Whiskyshop The Whisky Exchange also recently opened a satellite location - inside the incredible Vinopolis. Located close to the Borough Market under London Bridge, Vinopolis is a massive educational center – originally designed to highlight wines, the center was expanded to include  spirits.

With the addition of the Whiskey Exchange shop and The Still Room (set up by Diageo with an emphasis on Talisker and Johnnie Walker Black Label) Vinopolis now helps visitors appreciate whisky.

The guys from QualityWorld and I took a field trip to the Vinopolis shop.

At the Vinopolis location, The Whisky Exchange has a range of about 500 Single Malts, 200 other Whiskies, and about 150 other premium spirits including cognac and rum.

"We also have 5 casks on display, you can fill and label your own bottle. The spirits have not been filtered in any way so this is as close as you will get to drinking "Straight from the Cask."

The current choices are 3 Single Malts, a Bourbon and a Rum.
Wecask2 Longmorn 1990 from a Bourbon Barrel
Clynelish 1994 from a Sherry Butt
Caol Ila 1991 from a hogshead
A 6 years old Bourbon Whiskey and
Pampero 1992 Rum from Venezuela.

The also have a nice selection of books and whisky related gift items.

Next time you are in London, visit one of the two locations, I’m sure you’ll walk out with something interesting.