Monday, May 29, 2017

"Scotch" Isn't a Type of Beverage - It's More Like a Trademark

"I'll have a Scotch."

"I like Scotch."

Most people who say these things probably don't understand or mean exactly what they are saying.

By "Scotch", they should mean "Scotch whisky", and there are legal requirements that must be met in order to call a beverage "Scotch whisky" that have nothing to do with how it is produced or what it tastes like.  The requirements in terms of raw materials and production process are a topic for another blog.  But in addition to those, in order for a whisky to be called "Scotch whisky" it must be distilled in Scotland, aged for at least 3 years in an oak cask in Scotland and matured only in Scotland.  So if you have whisky produced from barley grown in Scotland and distilled and aged for 20 years in Scotland, and then ship that whisky to a location just across the border in England where it sits for a few months maturing further and then bottle it (which would be illegal), that is not "Scotch" - it's just "whisky".  If you instead shipped it to a different location a few feet away but barely inside the Scottish border, then it is "Scotch whisky". More importantly, if you were to use exactly the same raw materials, equipment and processes and produce a whisky in Ireland, Japan, India, the United States, etc. that is chemically indistinguishable from and tastes exactly the same as a Scotch whisky, it could not legally be called "Scotch".

Why do so many people make this mistake?  It's because for so long, when it comes to its particular style of whisky, Scotland's whisky was very distinctive from other whiskies and totally dominated the world market.  Generally  there was not a lot of confusion in thoughtlessly referring to "Scotch".  You see this same thing happening with trademarks.  "Ping Pong" is technically a trademark for a particular brand of table tennis equipment, "Escalator" was a trademark for a particular brand of moving stairs, and 'Kleenex" is a trademark for a particular brand of tissue.  The same goes for "zipper", "aspirin" and "thermos".  But in recent years there has been a great proliferation of fine whiskies made in other countries using similar raw materials, equipment and processes, so it is becoming a more and more common mistake to wrongly refer to "Scotch".

Lest you think that the Scotch whisky industry would be proud to have the term "Scotch" be synonymous with whisky having certain characteristics, be aware that one of the principal purposes of the main association of Scotland's whisky producers, the Scotch Whisky Association (and its small army of lawyers), is "to stop any misrepresentation that states or suggests a whisky is Scotch Whisky . . . when that isn't the case."

So, sorry, while it is easy to shorthand things by referring to whisky tasting generally a certain way as "Scotch", please don't forget about the many fine whiskies from other countries, but don't refer to them as "Scotch" either unless you really are specifically referring to "Scotch whisky"!

P.S. Why do you think my blog is "Whisky with Ward" and not "Scotch with Ward"? (Other than the alliteration thing.)

P.P.S. Why it's "Whisky with Ward" and not "Whiskey with Ward" is a topic for future blogs.

Monday, April 3, 2017

A Few Ideas for the Whisky Aficionado who has a lot of Extra Cash Sloshing Around

Are you a whisky aficionado who has a lot of extra cash sloshing around?  I most certainly am not, but if you are, here are a few ideas for you:

1. Buy a Bottle of 50 Year-Old Whisky.  A number of distilleries have whiskies with 50-year old age statements on the market right now.  (See article) The Balvenie, The Macallan, THe Glenlivet and Glenfiddich have 50-year old offerings ranging from approximately US$22,500 to US$33,000 per bottle.  Must be nice to be able to buy and drink something that expensive and enjoy it!

2. Buy a US$2,500 Macallan Whisky Flask Into Which to put It.  The Macallan challenged Swiss watchmaker Urwerk to design a flask suitable for its rare vintages.  This admittedly cool-looking, part titanium flask (See article) is going for approximately US$2,500.  Sorry, it's not THAT cool-looking.  If I had a whisky that called for a US$2,500 flask, I don't think I would be putting that whisky into a flask. But apparently The Macallan and Urwerk think there are at least 500 people who feel otherwise.

3. Buy a Watch that has a Drop of the World's Oldest Whisky in It.  Let me start by saying that this is not a belated April Fool's Day post.  Apparently Swiss watchmaker Louis Moinet saw its competitor Urwerk coming out with an over-the-top whisky accessory and said "Hold my beer, I got this."  They have come out with a line of watches (See article) that contain a single drop of what is supposedly the oldest whisky in the world, Old Vatted Glenlivet 1862.  These watches retail for approximately US$18,000 with a steel case and US$47,000 with a red gold case. You have got to be kidding.  What is that saying?  Oh yeah - "A fool and his money are soon parted."

4. Buy your own Scotch Distillery.  After selling his yogurt company for US$80 million, Australian David Prior apparently decided that it would be really fun to roll over half of it back into purchasing the mothballed and bankrupt Bladnoch distillery on the other side of the world in Scotland, spend another US$10 million refurbishing it, and then reopen it.  Apparently his wife is totally cool with this.  That guy (See article) is living the dream, isn't he?

Who ARE these people who are buying these things?

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Whisky Appreciation vs. Whisky Enjoyment

My blog is about helping people appreciate whisky.  One dictionary definition of "appreciate" is "to judge with heightened perception or understanding".  This is enjoyment multiplied, taken to another level.

Think about watching a sporting event.  Even if you don’t know much about the sport, you will at a superficial level appreciate the athleticism and the festivity of the event.  How much greater is your enjoyment if you have played the sport yourself, you have a knowledge of technique and strategy, you know background stories of the players and the teams, and you are perhaps emotionally invested in them?  Your enjoyment of the event will be of an entirely different level.

The same is true for just about any activity, including enjoying a dram of whisky.  You can certainly enjoy that whisky with no knowledge of it at all, perhaps pouring it liberally into a rocks glass with a lot of ice and other ingredients.  But if you have trained your nose, palate and mental faculties to distinguish and evaluate aromas and flavors, you have a knowledge of what makes each whisky taste the way it does, and you know background stories of the individual whisky and its source, you more fully appreciate the whisky and your enjoyment of it is much greater.

The whisky does not need to be expensive to be appreciated, and your training does not need to be formal.  A wonderful example of this comes from John Steinbeck’s book “Cannery Row”.  One of the members of a group of bums has a part-time job as a barman.  He collects remnants of peoples’ drinks in a jug that he keeps beneath the bar, and after work he takes the jug back to his group of friends.  They savor the mixture together every evening.  They discuss the proportions of various beverages  that were apparently dumped into the jug, and take note of anything unusual that seems to be present in that evening’s mixture.  And as they drink, they reminisce about the jugs from previous evenings.  They have an appreciation for what they are drinking, and they are enjoying it to the fullest.

The purpose of my blog is to disseminate information that will help people enjoy more drinking their drams, examining their menus and perusing their liquor store shelves.  I hope you find it helpful!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Irish Whiskey: The Revenant

In conjunction with St. Patrick’s day, I would like to celebrate all that is going on with Irish whiskey these days.

The Irish invented whisky.  For a very long time the Irish dominated the whisky business over everyone, including the Scots.  In the mid-1800s there were 88 licensed distilleries producing more than 100 million liters annually, and Irish whiskey was the largest spirits category in the world.

The Irish really stepped on their - well, messed up in an embarrassing manner - in the middle of the nineteenth century when they pooh-poohed the newfangled patent still, which ironically was perfected by one of their own, Irishman Aeneas Coffey.  This type of still was widely adopted by the Scots for the high-volume, inexpensive production of grain whisky for blending with malt whisky in order to produce a whisky that had a more general appeal.  The new blended whisky left pure pot still whisky in the dust.  The Irish whiskey industry took another big hit compared to Scotch whisky during American Prohibition.  The Scots were more accommodating to bootleggers than the Irish.  So in the absence of real Irish whiskey there was much bad homemade whiskey made that claimed to be Irish whiskey, damaging the reputation of Irish whiskey.  By the 1970s, Irish whiskey sales had shrunk to two percent of that of Scotch whisky.  Thirty years ago, there were only two distilleries in Ireland and they were both owned by the same company.

Beginning in earnest ten to 15 years ago, Irish whiskey has been mounting a comeback.  For the last ten years Irish whiskey sales have been the fastest growing of all brown liquors, growing 131% compared to 13% for Scotch whisky and 56% for bourbon.

That's a nice growth in sales volume, but as late as 2013 Ireland still had only four distilleries.    You can see a plethora of brands of Irish whiskey on the market, but they are largely different labeling of combinations of the same stuff from just a few distilleries.

That is all just beginning to change, and greatly.  We are about to see a tremendous increase in variety from Ireland.  At my last count there are 21 Irish distilleries producing whiskey and nine others under construction.  Irish whiskey, like Scotch whisky, must be matured for at least 3 years, and the bulk of those working distilleries have not been producing whiskey for that long yet.  In a few years we will see whiskeys from this wave of new distilleries coming of age to a point where it can be sold.  In addition, the laws governing production of Irish whiskey provide more latitude for experimentation than the laws for production of Scotch whiskey, meaning all of these new distilleries have the potential to produce very innovative and different products.

Looking at it from the outside, it looks to me like the Irish whiskey scene has recently gone from fast growth to explosion.  Possibly after watching the Japanese, the Indians, and even the English and the Americans produce new whiskies that can successfully compete with the Scots not only in the whisky market, but even on the palates of connoisseurs, the Irish have decided that enough is enough and they have decided to reclaim their legacy.  It looks to me like the entire country of Ireland, from individuals in bars to the Irish government, has collectively and recently decided to mount a ferocious comeback in the whiskey world.

The Scots have long had the well-established Scotch Whisky Association to represent the interests of Scotch whisky producers.  There was no corresponding organization in Ireland.  Finally in 2014 the level of interest specifically in Irish whiskey was found to have reached a level that a new Irish Whiskey Association could be formed.  My current issue of  Whisky Magazine has a large "Irish Whiskey Magazine" insert.  My next to most recent issue of Whisky  Advocate magazine has Ireland on the cover and feature articles relating to Ireland and Irish whiskey.  The brand new  Irish Whiskey Magazine, the world's first publication devoted to Irish whiskey, published its inaugural issue this past winter with the hearty endorsement of the Irish Whiskey Association.  (Founder and Editor-in-Chief Serghios Florides has graciously offered free shipping and a 25% discount to up to 100 people who refer to this offer in my blog.).  Blogs and news publications are filled with articles about the resurgence of Irish whiskey.

The tidal wave of developments in Irish whiskey is on the horizon and approaching fast, and it will be exciting to see the coming impact on the whiskey world made by an entire country that already has whiskey in its DNA and is hungry to reclaim its lost glory.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Development of the Glencairn Whisky Drinking Glass, the De Facto Standard


Using a proper glass is essential for full appreciation of a whisky.  This is a nice article from Great Drams on the development of the Glencairn whisky drinking glass, the de facto standard.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Why Some Single Malts Don't Bear the Name of the Distillery That Produced Them

Usually, a Scottish distillery will market its single malts using the name of the distillery, e.g., The Glenlivet distillery markets The Glenlivet 12, The Glenlivet 15, etc., Glenfiddich distillery markets Glenfiddich 12, Glenfiddich 18, etc.  In a handful of cases, single malt Scotch whiskies are marketed by the distilleries under other names.

Why these departures from tradition?  When it is an official bottling from the distillery itself, usually one of two reasons.

In some cases, a distillery uses different names for expressions having different degrees of "peatiness", in order to minimize the chance for confusion in the marketplace. Springbank distillery's flagship expressions are moderately peated, and Springbank markets unpeated single malt under the "Hazelburn" name and heavily peated single malts under the "Longrow" name. Tobermory distillery's namesake single malt is unpeated, but it sells an almost equal amount of peated expressions under the name Ledaig.  The single malts sold by Bruichladdich distillery under its own name are unpeated, and it markets heavily peated single malt under the "Port Charlotte" brand and "super heavily" peated single malts under the "Octomore" brand.

Another reason why a distillery might market whisky under a name other than the distillery name is a business name conflict!  Glengyle distillery (owned by the family that owns Springbank) markets its single malt under the name "Kilkerran", because by the time the current Glengyle distillery was established, the name "Glengyle" was already registered for use for a blended malt marketed by another company.  Knockdhu distillery markets its single malt under the name "anCnoc" in order to reduce the chance of confusion with Diageo's Knockando distillery.

Usually a distillery's official bottling single malts will be marketed under the name of the distillery, but occasionally that is not the case - and one of these reasons is usually why.

Friday, February 24, 2017

How big of a deal is it whether that whisky is a “single malt”?

For many, the term “single malt” carries with it a cachet as perhaps a superior product.  Is it?  How much does it mean that a whisky is a “single malt”?

The “single” in “single malt” means that all of the whisky in the bottle was distilled at the same distillery.  If you mix two or more single malts, you have a “blended malt” such as a Monkey Shoulder, a Johnnie Walker Green Label, or any of a number of Compass Box whiskies.  To say that “single malts” are better is apparently to say that they are better because of their purity of character or flavor?

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

First, let’s say that you own a distillery and you decide to expand.  You buy the parcel of land next door and build an exact duplicate of your distillery on that parcel, “cloning” your first distillery.  You buy exactly the same kind of stills for the second distillery.  You have both distilleries draw their water from the same sources at the same places. You use the same grain in both distilleries, the same yeast and the same procedures in every respect.  Your warehouse is plenty big, so once you have distilled your whiskies you mature the whiskies from both distilleries in the same warehouse, side by side, in identical casks.  Let’s say that when you are bottling the whiskies, you permit an undetectably small amount of whisky originally distilled at the clone distillery to be mixed in with the whisky from the original distillery.  You cannot call that a single malt.  It is a “blended malt”.  (The introduction of a minuscule amount of whisky from a second distillery specifically in order to keep the whisky from being sold as a “single malt” is actually done regularly in the industry, and is called “teaspooning”.)

For the second example, stay focused on the fact that most of the flavor of a whisky comes from the cask in which it is matured, which is of course independent of the distillery.  Let’s say that you decide not to expand, but instead you decide to “liven things up”.  You take a cask of whisky that has been matured in a former bourbon cask for three years in a very mild environment, and you mix it 50/50 with whisky that you have had maturing for fifteen years in a former sherry cask located on the other end of Scotland, lashed to a rocky outcropping on the southern coast of Islay.  No problem, that is still a single malt!  A real life example of something that is commonly done that is not as extreme is the common practice of “finishing” a single malt by finishing its maturation in a different type of cask in order to add a layer of different flavors.  Further, due to the uncertainties in the maturation process, in order to achieve the flavor profile that consumers expect from a given single malt, it is generally necessary to mix whiskies from different casks that taste different anyway.

So when presented with a “blended malt”, don’t automatically turn your nose up at it because it is not a “single malt”!  There really is nothing special about whisky qualifying as a “single malt”.

A brief word to prevent confusion.  I am talking about the difference between “single malts” and “blended malts”.  A “blended whisky” is indeed something different, but that is a subject for a later blog.  I will, however, go ahead and go on record saying that I am not among those who consider single malts to be inherently superior to blended whiskies.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

How much does the stated age of a whisky really matter?

An "age statement" is a number meaning that all whisky within the bottle has been matured for at least the number of years indicated by the age statement.  Even a single malt is typically a blend of whisky from different casks.  A bottle of Benromach 10 might contain a mixture of whisky from a number of different casks that have been matured for different numbers of years, but the bottle may not contain any whisky from any cask that has been matured for less than 10 years. Many whiskies (for example, Benromach Traditional) bear no age statement, meaning no commitment is given about the age(s) of the whisky in the bottle. 

Many producers are moving away from age statements more and more.  Their argument is that an age statement unnecessarily limits their ability to produce quality whisky.  Let's take the Benromach example.  Maybe a bottle of Benromach 10 typically contains a mixture of whiskies aged for from 10 to 15 years.  Maybe a whisky having precisely the same flavor profile could be produced by using some eight and nine year-old whisky and increasing the proportion of older whiskies in the mix.  But such a mixture could not be sold as "Benromach 10"!  The producer's argument is that they are unnecessarily restricted in their ability to produce a product that is in high demand.  The other side of the argument is that what the producers are trying to do is make more money by pawning off whisky that does not meet the same standard.  To me, that is based on an assumption that age is strongly correlated with overall quality. There are many who turn up their noses at whiskies that bear no age statement, and might even refuse to drink them, apparently believing that age indicates quality and that no assurance of age means dubious quality.

I don't get it.

Not all years are equal.  Whisky matured in warmer environments (such as India or Taiwan) will reach the same level of maturity in a fraction of the time.  Even in the same environment, the individual cask has a substantial influence on what happens in maturation.  For just one example, casks are generally re-used, and a cask that has been re-used less will generally introduce the influences of maturation faster than a cask that has been re-used more.

Even if all years were equal, more is not necessarily better.  During the maturation process, numerous changes occur in the chemical composition of a whisky.  Think about cooking.  The overall taste of the dish depends upon the harmony between the various flavors.  Up to a point, adding salt might make the overall flavor of a dish better, but beyond a point more salt destroys the balance of flavors and begins to detract.  There is even a name for this occurring in whisky maturation, with the whisky becoming too "woody".  Personally, for my  own palate, I cannot remember going to a vertical tasting at which I liked the oldest expression the most.

You can readily see this principle at work with the peaty whiskies of Ardbeg and Laphroaig.  The flagship expressions of these distilleries are matured for 10 years, on the  very young side for whiskies that bear age statements.  Why?  Because the balance of flavors with these peaty whiskies is best struck at about the 10-year mark, whereas the most harmonious balance will tend to be achieved after a longer maturation for whiskies that have a different flavor profile.

Don't count on aging a whisky for a long time to turn a whisky that is fundamentally subpar into a really good whisky. To extend my cooking analogy, if a recipe is otherwise subpar, manipulating the amount of salt is usually not going to make it good, and the mediocre recipe with an optimal amount of salt will still be inferior to a really good recipe even though the amount of salt might not be perfect.

Personally, I think that it's all about the end result - does the whisky taste great with a wonderful flavor profile, or not?  I think being hung up on age statements can sometimes mean that people do not trust themselves to judge whether they find a whisky to be a good one or not and they delegate their judgment to a single number that is easy to grasp but doesn't necessarily mean very much.

There are wonderful whiskies with no age statement, and there are some really mediocre whiskies that have been matured for a very long time and are very expensive.  Producers who care about their brands are not going to put out a product they believe will reflect unfavorably upon them.  I say try different whiskies, perhaps following the lead of people whose opinions you trust.  Free the hands of the producers, and let the market pass judgment on the quality of their products.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

February 10 is International Scotch Day!

Alexander Walker
Drinks giant Diageo has declared February 10 (the birthday of Alexander Walker, pioneer of the Johnnie Walker line) as its first "International Scotch Day", with the goal of helping to raise awareness and deepen knowledge of Scotch whisky around the world.

It is important to note that this is International Scotch Day, and not International Whisky Day, and is a celebration of whiskies distilled and matured in Scotland and no other country.  A little ironic in light of the fact that the biggest news Diageo has been making in the whisk(e)y category lately has been its ventures in the Irish whiskey category: the launch of a new premium blended Irish whiskey, Roe & Co., and the announcement of its plans for a very large investment in a new Irish whiskey distillery at St. James's Gate.  However, there is already a "World Whisky Day" and, anyway, Diageo believes that Scotch whisky should have its own day.  I, for one, will not argue with them.

Festivities currently planned include Diageo's opening  for a limited number of free tours of the visitor centers of its Scotch whisky distilleries and, for the first time to the public, the Diageo archives.  I believe that this first International Scotch Day is being put together somewhat hurriedly, and additional events around International Scotch Day are likely to be planned between now and February 10.  Assuming this first International Scotch Day is successful, Diageo plans to make it an annual event, but not necessarily on February 10.

I intend to do my part to see to it that International Scotch Day is a success!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

What will be Donald Trump's next ripples in the Scotch whisky pond?

Donald Trump's ownership of two golf courses in Scotland has provided occasion for bumps with the world of Scotch whisky in the past.  Now that he is President of the United States, are the opportunities for news multiplied?

A few years ago, President Trump was engaged in conflicts with landowners over his Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He built walls between his resort and some of these adjacent landowners (seriously!), and according to at least one account that I have read did indeed send one of them a bill in connection with the work!  One of the defiant landowners, Michael Forbes, was voted "Top Scot" by the Scottish people in the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Awards.  In typical Trump fashion, he not only lashed out at the landowner with insults but, ignoring the fact that the contest was the result of a vote of the Scottish people and out of the hands of the owners of Glenfiddich, issued a statement reading in part:

“To think that a product like Glenfiddich would recognise a man like Michael Forbes, who
lives in a property which I have accurately described in the past as a total pigsty; a man who loves the attention he has gotten because of his so-called fight with Donald Trump, would receive an award over someone like Andy Murray, a Scot, Olympic Gold Medal Winner, and the first British man to win a Grand Slam title in 76 years.  Glenfiddich should be ashamed of themselves for granting this award to Forbes, just for the sake of publicity. 

"Glenfiddich is upset that we created our own single malt whisky using another distillery, which offers far greater products. People at our clubs do not ask for Glenfiddich, and I make a pledge that no Trump property will ever do business with Glenfiddich or William Grant & Sons. I hereby call for a boycott on drinking Glenfiddich products because there is no way a result such as this could have been made by the Scottish people. It is an insult to both Andy Murray and Scotland itself.

“Glenfiddich’s choice of Michael Forbes, as Top Scot, will go down as one of the great jokes ever played on the Scottish people and is a terrible embarrassment to Scotland. If Glenfiddich had integrity, they would investigate who voted, and would find that the votes formed part of an organised campaign with multiple votes made by a small group of detractors who are angry that they not only lost, but lost so badly.

Wow, sound familiar?

The single malt referenced in Mr.Trump's statement comes from GlenDronach distillery.  Just over 500 bottles of 26 year-old GlenDronach were bottled as "Trump Scotland Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky" to celebrate the opening of Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeenshire, and a few of the bottles were signed by Donald Trump.  Of course, his recent election to the office of President of the United States spiked interest in these bottles, one of which was recently sold at auction for the sum of  £6,000, more than double the pre-auction estimates.  I wonder how much it would have fetched if it had also been signed by Michael Forbes?

Anyone care to speculate about what will be the next occasion in which President Trump is in Scotch whisky-related news?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Looking for an Occasion that Calls for Drinking Scotch? Attend a Burns Supper January 25 (or Thereabouts)

Many of those reading my blog are well familiar with Burns suppers, held on or about the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns (January 25, 1759 - July 21, 1796).  For those who are not, it is a great Scottish (and Scotch-drinking!) tradition to attend dinners celebrating the life and works of Robert Burns each January 25, or close to it.