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What's old is new in Scotland, where malt masters are proving their traditional spirit is still evolving with exciting new expressions that are pushing the envelope in the whisky world
Posted: December 1, 2006
"This is the closest thing we've ever done to a breakfast whisky."
Dr. Bill Lumsden is only half joking as he displays a wine glass full of Champagne-colored Glenmorangie Scotch to the few dozen spirits writers who are eager to sample the master distiller's newest limited release—even at a 9:30 a.m. reception. The whisky was finished in barrels that formerly held Château Margaux wine and it's a gingery, spicy quaff with hints of carmelized fruit, tobacco and hard candy that well complements the traditional Scottish breakfast being eaten.
No one in New York City's Le Bernardin restaurant is complaining this morning, but certain elements of this scenario would set some Scotch whisky traditionalists atwitter. A single-malt whisky made in Bordeaux barrels proffered as a breakfast drink?
After all, tradition may not be prized much these days, but Scotch whisky is one area in which the age-old is held in high regard. A 30-year-old house may be a teardown, but we still revel in the centuries of history behind each dram, we celebrate the ancient settings from which it arises and we gladly pay extra dollars for extra years in a cask. Scotch is one of those quaint, maybe a little staid, art forms whose utter changelessness we take comfort in.
Except that that last statement is a myth.
Scotch may be the world's oldest whisky, it may improve with age and it certainly promotes itself as the model of tradition, but it is also one of the most vibrant categories in the spirits industry when it comes to innovation and even controversy.
Put away your men-in-kilts image for a moment and consider that the last decade has been among the most evolutionary for Scotch—so much so that the preeminent industry association has had to take steps to redefine and reclassify some of its most basic products. Neither a better, nor a more interesting time to drink Scotch has ever existed. The breadth of quality drams is like never before and the growing pains within the industry have exploded into newspaper headlines.
Go to a well-stocked liquor store. Single-malt Scotch whiskies, which were a blip on the spirits radar screen a few decades ago, now crowd the shelves and most brands have a range of expressions from which to choose. Some are designed for specific situations, like The Dalmore with its cigar malt. Some distinguish themselves by trusty age statements, but increasingly bottles trumpet the unfamiliar nomenclature of cask finishes and wood treatment. Take a look at the blended whiskies. You'll likely find bottles older than some prized malts.
It's right to ask how something so old can be so new. The oldest written reference to whisky making in Scotland—an entry in an exchequer's account book—dates to 1494, but current thinking has distillation entering the country a thousand years before that with the arrival of Christianity. You can quibble all you want over a millennium of heritage one way or the other, but Scotch has been around long enough that it would seem to be beyond innovation. To understand why it still evolves, it helps to see that its long history has been a tale of shifting political fortunes, and never have its makers failed to take advantage of serendipity in the marketplace.
Consider, for instance, that the country's most emblematic export—single-malt Scotch—was next to unknown a few decades ago. That is truest in the United States, where virtually the entire market was blended Scotch before Glenfiddich first imported singles here in the early 1960s. Even now, despite its lofty reputation, most of what is distilled as a single-malt whisky makes its way into blends. Nevertheless, single malts have exploded into the marketplace in recent decades as the industry tries to slake the whisky drinking public's thirst for new experiences.
THE FINISHED PRODUCT
The clamor for new taste sensations is insatiable even as more and more of Scotland's 90-some distilleries have created single-malt bottlings out of whisky formerly sold to blenders. And that is where the industry's hottest innovation—cask-finished whisky—comes in.
The concept is pretty simple and was probably done by someone on a limited basis long before Glenmorangie made it famous with its Port wood finish in 1994. Any whisky takes most of its flavor from the cask in which it matures. That's why age—the time it spends soaking into the staves—is such an important concept. Unlike Bourbon makers, who are bound by law to age their spirit in new barrels, Scotch makers can reuse casks—even ones that once held other products. Because of the Bourbon industry's steady supply of once-used, relatively inexpensive barrels, a majority of Scotch is aged in them. However, Sherry, Port and Madeira barrels are also common. As you might suspect, the liquid that first inhabited a barrel implies a particular flavor on the next whisky to find a home there. At Glenmorangie they thought, "Why not take our core expression that has rested in Bourbon barrels for 10 years gaining the signature vanilla notes and add some fruit and spice by aging it a few more years in a Port barrel?"
Judging by sales and the amount of imitation by other distilleries, the experiment was an unqualified success, one which Glenmorangie has followed with other finishes that have included casks from fine French wine houses like the aforementioned Château Margaux as well as Château d'Yquem. Techniques used by some of its competitors are even more arcane. (Auchentoshan has a three-wood finish, using Sherry, Port and Bourbon. The Glenlivet finishes in unused Limousin oak.) Lumsden calls the practice the first genuine innovation in the last 30 years. Nevertheless, some purists believe that it compromises Scotch whisky tradition. I first witnessed that resistance a number of years ago at an introduction by Bowmore of a selection of whiskies that had been finished in Port and Bordeaux wine casks. While most found them fascinating, one guest implored then-master distiller Jim McEwan (now of Bruichladdich), "Please, don't do this."
His point was that a Bourbon barrel was the natural and customary partner for the whisky; it had always been aged that way and there was no reason to change. That would be an arguable—if a little Luddite—point, if it were true. "Bourbon casks didn't become the standard aging barrel in Scotland until after Prohibition ended," points out Fergus Hartley, the global sales director for Bowmore. "Before that, all sorts of casks were used: wines, Sherry, Port, rum barrels." His is a good argument: how would Scotland get barrels from an industry that was shut down? Furthermore, beginning in the seventeenth century, ever stricter taxes made distilling effectively illegal until regulations were softened in 1823. With essentially all whisky being moonshine, it's unlikely that anyone would have been importing American barrels even after Bourbon was invented in the 1780s. If distillers aged their whisky at all, they likely used whatever barrels were available.
Certainly options for Scotch aging have always existed and been availed by whisky makers. In today's climate, even producers who aren't involved in anything as radical as cask finishes are fine-tuning their product through other kinds of wood management. The Macallan and Highland Park, both predominantly Sherry-aged whiskies, sometimes meld a low percentage of Bourbon-aged whiskey into the mix. The Macallan countered the trend to wine casks with its Fine Oak in 2004, which uses Bourbon barrels alongside Sherry casks. Russell Anderson, distillery manager at Highland Park on the island of Orkney at Scotland's northernmost tip, takes the approach of re-creating Bourbon barrels in the image of his own casks. When barrels are sent from America, they are disassembled to save shipping space. Coopers in Scotland put them back together. At Highland Park, the staves are reshaped to create a larger vessel. The practice creates more surface area with which the whisky can interact.
Many other variables contribute to the unique character of single malts: the still shape, how it is operated, the type of barley used, the local water and climate, even air quality. The Glenlivet, for instance, is made high on a hill in fresh air overlooking moorlands. Many Islay Scotches are made at sea level, with salt air imparting its flavor on the whisky. Anderson points to the consistent climate at Highland Park and the fact that the whisky makers do their own floor malting of barley (the stage at which relative amounts of peat smoke are infused in the grain), but he reckons that 60 to 80 percent of the flavor of whisky still comes from the wood.
Even casual Scotch drinkers will note that the packaging of Scotch now contains more and more information about the way the spirit was aged. That is an attempt to explain the idiosyncrasies of the product. Most Scotch makers point to the education of drinkers as one of the most important tasks in the current atmosphere of innovation. David Cox of The Macallan simply has to point to his title, director of brand education, to show the importance the brand puts on teaching customers about the product.
If special finishes ruffled a few traditionalist feathers, they offered a wide spectrum of new choices to the not-so-stodgy majority, who could taste something special without paying the nosebleed prices charged for super-aged Scotches found at auction. "The consumer is demanding to be excited," says McEwan. "He wants to come through the cloud base and really fly. It's the consumer that pays my salary and not the collector."
Things turned a little weird, however, when it wasn't just wine casks that were used for aging. How does a Tabasco sauce finish sound? Some found that they could cut corners by adding wood chips into the barrel to promote faster aging. Others just skipped the aging process altogether and added the wine itself. Some Scotches were finished in casks from other regions in Scotland, such as a Speyside whisky poured into former Islay casks. "Islay cask finishes? Why would you want to do that?" asks McEwan, a maker of Islay whisky. "Why bugger up a good Speyside with an Islay finish?" The deeper issue was that it confused consumers who might read the word "Islay" on the label and assume the whisky had actually been aged on the Western island known for the effect its sea spray has on its heavily peated whiskies.
It was in this atmosphere of confusion that the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) stepped in and defined Scotch whisky vis-à-vis the kind of casks it can be aged in. The industry organization essentially ruled that extra wood finishes were allowable as long as a pedigree and a precedent existed for aging Scotch in the type of barrel used. In other words, wine casks and rum barrels were all right, but not Tabasco sauce tubs, even though they are actually reused Bourbon barrels.
Normally the SWA trade group protects the Scotch industry from outside elements: a draconian 500 percent tariff in India, the counterfeiting of whisky in China, the Brazilian whisky that chooses to call itself Loch Nest. According to Campbell Evans, the SWA's director of government and consumer affairs, the association employs five attorneys and at any given time is involved in some 50 lawsuits. Among other things, the SWA promotes responsible drinking. It isn't as often that it is called upon to resolve intramural disputes, but they fall within its purview, as Evans points out. "We are a trade body that looks after the interest of the industry by protecting Scotch whisky as a drink."
Despite the fact that innovators such as Glenmorangie's Lumsden allow that finishes were "gimmicky with the addition of what I would call fairy dust," not everyone is pleased with the SWA's guidelines.
John Glaser, who owns Compass Box Whisky, is an independent bottler who has put together a portfolio of some of the most groundbreaking whiskies available. One of his products, Spice Tree, which he no longer makes, drew the ire of the SWA. It was created by the addition of barrel staves made of French Limousin oak. Glaser says that the SWA's view is unnecessarily narrow since he feels that the practice has created a better product. "As an American in Britain, I can look at things with a fresh eye. I'm putting higher quality staves in the cask. But they told me, 'There's one thing you have to understand: quality is unimportant.' These guys are lawyers. They are not whisky makers."
Evans says the SWA is simply taking action to apply the legal definition of Scotch whisky. "If people can find ways of innovating within that, we say 'good luck' to them."
Glaser has done just that. His newest expression, Oak Cross, utilizes refilled Bourbon barrels on which he has placed cask heads made of his prized new French oak.
Naming disputes have long been the province of Scotch whisky. In 1824, The Glenlivet became one of the first distilleries to register under the new licensing rate laws and took its name from the valley where it was produced. It became so well thought of that other whisky names referenced Glenlivet, the place, whether they were made there or not. At one point, so many whisky brands were named for the little glen that it was joked that Glenlivet meant "the long valley." The company finally took the matter to court and secured exclusive rights to the name in 1884. Andrew Nash, The Glenlivet's brand director underscores the absurdity: "There even was a whisky called Aberlour Glenlivet. Aberlour is nowhere near Glenlivet."
About that time Scotch whisky was spreading throughout the world in the guise of a relatively new product: blended Scotch. The invention of the efficient column still had made whisky production more consistent and less expensive. Also, Cognac makers had been forced out of production by a grape scourge called phylloxera. Blends stepped into the market in a dramatic way. Makers of malt whisky saw the newcomer as an interloper and took their beef to the government in an attempt to have blends outlawed. In 1909, a British royal commission ruled in favor of blends, and until fairly recently, single malts packaged by themselves were a nonentity.
But as unknown as single malts might have been, a third type of Scotch whisky, vatted malt, rivaled it for obscurity. The category is something of a cross between single-malt and blended whisky and it has been getting a lot of attention lately mainly due to a controversy that arose when a former single malt—Cardhu—joined its ranks.
A little nomenclature is in order. The term "single-malt Scotch whisky" defines four things about a Scotch whisky. First, it was produced in Scotland. Second, its grain recipe is purely malted barley. Third, its distillation was performed in pot stills. (Pot still distillation is more labor-intensive and expensive and renders whisky that matures at a slower rate.) Fourth—as the word single indicates—it is the product of one distillery.
Blended Scotch whisky, as it was described by the panel of 1909, defines a mixture of not only malt whiskies from different distilleries, but grain whiskies (spirits made from several different grains and distilled in a column still). It is the admixture of the grain whiskies, not the blending of different single malts, that makes a blend a blend. The core of the 1909 decision was that such whiskies could be called Scotch whisky as long as they were identified as blended.
A third category of whisky combines single-malt whiskies from different distilleries, but doesn't include grain whiskies. Until recently they were known as vatted malts or pure malts, and depending on the number of constituent malts could be called double or triple malts. They enjoy a long tradition that dates back to at least the nineteenth century, when the term "vatted malt" was first used. Essentially, malts from various stills are chosen with the intent of creating a whisky that is more complex than the product of each distillery. Some of Scotland's most exquisite expressions have arisen out of such skillful mingling of malts. Vatted malts have only recently made a stand in the United States, with the traditional blenders Famous Grouse and Johnnie Walker introducing them. But in Britain, it has been customary to create limited-edition vatted malts to celebrate events such as royal weddings and the anniversaries of its rulers. Not too shabby, eh?
If vatted malts have an image problem, it stems from a name that rings none too elegant and that few understand. A vat sounds like something you do your laundry in, and even as I type this into my computer, the spell-checker keeps reminding me that vatted is not a verb in its dictionary. So it's easy to understand why whiskies like Johnnie Walker Green began proclaiming themselves pure malts rather than vatted. Pure in that sense meant the spirit was purely a malt product, that is, no grain whisky was added. It is something like designating that a sweater is pure wool—the wool may have come from different sheep, but the term pure tells us that no cotton or polyester was twisted in with it. But pure also confers a mark of quality.
Which is why some cried foul when Cardhu, a former single malt, defected to the pure malt side in 2003. At the time, the spirits giant Diageo, which makes Johnnie Walker, was faced with shortages of Cardhu, which it offers as a single malt and as one of the components in its blends. The Speyside single malt had boomed in sales in only two or three years, particularly in Spain, France and Portugal. The problem was that Cardhu is most widely sold as a 12-year-old malt and no one had foreseen such demand a dozen years ago. The solution, it was decided, was to reintroduce it as a vatted malt, mingling Cardhu with other malts produced in the region. What Diageo did not do was draw much attention to the change. The bottle and label remained largely the same, with the word pure substituted for the word single before the word malt.
Diageo pointed out that it was trying to deal with unprecedented demand and that it had used the term pure because it was more easily understood by the speakers of Romance languages who defined the demand. Still, the company worked with the SWA to change its labeling and started a program to educate the public to the nature of its product. Nevertheless, the damage was done, and Diageo switched the product back to single malt. (Before purists claim victory, they might consider that because of continuing shortages, Cardhu is now no longer available in some markets, including the United States.)
With Cardhu returned to relative normalcy, SWA decided that a naming convention was needed to clarify that a pure malt wasn't a single malt. It came up with regulations that will compel whisky labels to refer to products once known as pure or vatted malts as blended-malt Scotch whisky. Another requirement is that whisky named for a specific distillery must arise exclusively from that distillery. That means that the Diageo product could not be called Cardhu blended-malt Scotch whisky even had the company kept the product.
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