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!