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
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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.
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