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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: Single Malt Whisky

A world of flavour: Behind Benriach’s new look

Speyside Scotch whisky distillery Benriach has undergone something of a makeover, with a refreshed core range and revamped presentation. We chat to Dr. Rachel Barrie, Benriach master blender, to get…

Speyside Scotch whisky distillery Benriach has undergone something of a makeover, with a refreshed core range and revamped presentation. We chat to Dr. Rachel Barrie, Benriach master blender, to get the inside scoop.

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Benriach is a distillery with a storied history. It dates back to 1898 when it was founded towards the north of Speyside by a chap called John Duff. Over the following decades, and like many distilleries, it faced periods of closure and changed hands multiple times. Since 2016, Benriach has been part of the Brown-Forman’s family, marking the Jack Daniel’s- and Woodford Reserve-maker’s first foray into the world of Scotch. At the time, the deal made the whisky headlines. But now, with its new look, a refocusing on flavour, and a compelling narrative around innovative cask combinations, Benriach is making waves all on its own.

Dr. Rachel Barrie has developed the range

“I’ve been with the company three-and-a-half years now, and I’ve really got to know all of the whiskies,” said Dr. Rachel Barrie, Benriach’s master blender. We’re speaking on the day of the relaunch. The line-up has been unveiled to the world, and drinks social media is in a chatter about the news. And it’s been a while in the works. Even within six months of taking on whisky development at Benriach, Dr. Barrie said she was thinking ‘what’s next?’.

“I had thousands of casks,” she said, outlining the process. “I’ve described it like discovering all these paint pots; it’s like painting with flavour.”

She mentioned she’d always admired Benriach from afar. “I’ve always loved the balance of the fruit and the malt,” and this balance is at the heart of the new core range. 

So what have we got in the line-up? Dr. Barrie took it back to Benriach’s Speyside home (Did you know it gets 40 more days of sunshine a year than anywhere else in Scotland?” She quipped.). A key source of inspiration was the 1994 Benriach 10 Year Old expression, the first bottling that really cemented the distillery as a brand in its own right. It’s balance, body and mouthfeel underpin the philosophy behind each new expression.

All about the cask: the new core range lines up

At the heart of it all, there’s The Original Ten, The Smoky Ten, The Original Twelve, and The Smoky Twelve, all bottled at natural colour. Two fundamentals thread through the quartet: production (essentially peated versus unpeated), and the cask make-up. These are all a blend of three different cask maturations. Move higher up the range to The Twenty One, The Twenty Five and The Thirty, and you’ll find four different cask types. The entire line-up was crafted to offer accessibility to whisky newcomers, and established enthusiasts alike. And the clear positioning does just that.  

When it comes to the malt specification itself, it’s useful to look at the calendar. Each September is devoted to ‘smoke season’, where malt processed to 55ppm using local Highland peat prior to distillation tracks its way through the distillery. Then malting season (yes, Benriach has its own malting floor), takes place each spring. There will be dedicated Smoke Season and Malting Season limited editions to come in due course, too. 

“My job was to create this perfect world of flavour, a journey of taste, many different layers all perfectly integrated,” Dr Barrie continues. “There’s a rainbow of flavour as the spirit comes off the still, which you can then amplify with casks.” 

And why such an overt focus on smoke? “It’s such a sweet smoke with Benriach, it opens the door to new consumers,” she explained. “Just saying ‘peated’ is too simple, it’s a different character.” 

The core quartet

In the tasting glass first is The Original Ten. “It’s like sunshine on Speyside,” Dr. Barrie described it. “A fruit orchard, ripening peaches, a patisserie.” Interestingly, while it’s barely perceptible, there is still a wisp of that Benriach smoke running through. “It’s less than 5ppm,” she said, adding that it adds more of a depth, a textural quality, rather than contributing flavour as such. Going into the Original Ten is liquid from bourbon barrels and sherry casks, plus virgin oak. “It’s got layers of perfect balance,” she continued. 

Benriach is embracing its smokier side

Next up was The Smoky Ten with an intriguing cask mix indeed: bourbon barrels, toasted virgin oak, and Jamaican rum casks. She confirmed the latter previously held high-ester, pot still liquid. “It amplifies the esterification that happens with the maturation,” she got technical for a moment. “It brings out the vanilla, coconut, lactones, the sweetness.” The result? “Exotic fruits charred on a barbeque.” Delicious!

The Twelve is a “new to world” expression, Dr. Barrie continued. “Everything changes with maturation. You’re going to have more oxidation, and therefore more of those top notes.” She reckoned the esterification reaches a “sweet spot” at this age for Benriach. Plus the addition of Port pipes to the bourbon and sherry make-up “lifts and lengthens”, with a “dark chocolate note on the end”.   

Rounding off the four at the heart of the range is The Smoky Twelve. “This is unexpected in its cask combination,” Dr. Barrie said, referencing the bourbon, sherry and sweet Marsala cask recipe. “It’s a collision of the rugged side of Benriach with the sweet side,” she added. “Plus, I love Italian food, I love Sicily. You can see how I was drawn to this.”

An experimental approach

It’s true that there are some unusual cask combinations across the four expressions we explored. How does that come about, and will there be more experimentation to come?

“There’s like a ‘eureka!’ moment with all of the whiskies,” she detailed. “It’s a constant quest. You have all the casks, you blend, you go back and think, ‘imagine…’. Eventually to get to the point where you’re, 80%, 90% there, and then you raise the bar even further.”

Announced alongside the new range was an intention to release esoteric limited editions in the future. Are there any experiments or cask types she’d like to play with yet but hasn’t?

“Oh, there’s so much experimentation,” she said, referencing what’s going on in American whiskey with mashbills and developments within wine. “And within our group [Brown-Forman], there are so many different types of spirit… Tequila with Herradura. Now, that would be interesting. Never say never!”

The range takes on the character of the distillery and the surrounding Speyside region

Other ongoing projects include working with the R&D team at Brown-Forman’s Louisville HQ to investigate the impact of different types of oak on flavour, another area of interest. It makes the whisky lover incredibly excited to see what might come next from Benriach as part of this new programme. 

“There’s plenty to try, and then different combinations to try!” There’s an energy to her statement that makes you long for a sneak peek around her blending lab, just to see what’s there. There’s lots to taste in the new range, and there’s certainly deliciousness to come. Dr. Barrie best sums it up: “There’s an everlasting world of flavour.” 

Benriach’s new-look line-up

The Original Ten, 43% ABV

Bourbon, sherry and virgin oak casks with a trace smoke level for orchard fruit, honeyed malt and marmalade on toast notes. 

The Smoky Ten, 46% ABV

Bourbon barrels, virgin oak and Jamaican rum casks combine for smoky sweetness with barbecued fruit notes. 

The Twelve, 46% ABV

Liquid from sherry and bourbon casks along with Port pipes combine for smoked applewood, honey and spicy pear.

The Smoky Twelve, 46% ABV

Made with an unusual combination of bourbon, sherry and sweet Marsala casks for a rich smoky sweetness with dark chocolate, almond and charred orange notes. 

Plus coming soon, three older bottlings which we were given a sneak preview of:

The Twenty One, 46%

Bourbon, sherry, virgin oak and red wine cask liquids with elegant smoke. Lashings of orchard fruit, pinewood and honey smoke. 

The Twenty Five, 46% ABV

Sherry, bourbon, virgin oak and Madeira wine casks combine for an intensely rich mouthfeel with baked fruit, cinnamon spice and caramelised smoke. 

The Thirty, 46% ABV

The oldest peated Speyside ever bottled. Sherry, bourbon, virgin oak and Port casks result in chocolate raisin, smoked walnut and cinnamon cocoa notes. 

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New Arrival of the Week: The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage

Back in August, we heralded the imminent launch of a rather special whisky from The GlenDronach – a wonderfully well-sherried 29 year old single malt, created by master blender Rachel…

Back in August, we heralded the imminent launch of a rather special whisky from The GlenDronach – a wonderfully well-sherried 29 year old single malt, created by master blender Rachel Barrie to coincide with the upcoming release of The King’s Man. Ahead of the GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage hitting shelves this week, MoM took a moment to sample the liquid. Here’s what we thought…

The folks at The GlenDronach certainly know their way around a sherry cask, and this latest release is no exception. Created in collaboration with the Kingsman film franchise director Matthew Vaughn – and also MARV films and Disney – The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage has been exclusively matured in oloroso casks before a delicious finishing period in Pedro Ximénez casks from Spain. Because, well, why not?

For those unfamiliar with Kingsman, the action-comedy film franchise is centered on a fictional secret service organisation of the same name (it’s also a screenplay of a comic book series, but we digress). Set during world war one, the latest instalment – The King’s Man – delves into the origins of the intelligence agency. While most of the plot details remain under wraps, here’s what we do know: There are tyrants. There are criminal masterminds. They have nefarious plans that involve inciting some kind of war that will wipe out millions. Saving the world is down to one man and his protégé, who must figure out how to stop them in an exhilarating race against the clock.

It’s proper fancy…

A combination of six casks distilled in 1989, the new release is said to be inspired by the oldest bottle of whisky housed at The GlenDronach Distillery – a 29 year-old whisky bottled in 1913, just before the outbreak of the first world war. The story behind it goes like this: three friends bought a bottle each before the war, promising to open them together once they came home. Only one returned. Having never opened his bottle, his family donated it to the distillery, where it’s displayed in remembrance of fallen friends. What a tragic tale.

Master blender Rachel Barrie commented: “This expression is deep in meaning, paying homage to ​fallen friends who bravely fought during WWI, and the depth of character and integrity shared by both The GlenDronach and the Kingsman agency. This is none other than a whisky truly fit for a King’s Man.”

There are just 3,052 bottles available, all labelled, numbered and wax-sealed by hand, and signed by Barrie and Vaughn – who also shared his thoughts on the release. “There is an important line which says, ‘Reputation is what others think of you, character is what you are’,” he said. “Strength of character and dedication to upholding the highest values perfectly encapsulates the true spirit of both the Kingsman agency and The GlenDronach Distillery.”

The packaging is quite smart too

So, what does it taste like? Flavour-wise, Barrie described “smouldering aromas of dark fruits and sherry-soaked walnuts, vintage leather and cedar wood”. On the palate, “dense autumn fruits meld with date, fig and treacle, before rolling into black winter truffle and cocoa”. Throughout the “exceptionally long” finish, she said, you’ll find lingering notes of “blackberry, tobacco leaf and date oil”. 

Sounds rather tasty, doesn’t it? So, without further ado, here’s our take on The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage:

The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage tasting note:

Colour: Pouring the whisky into a glass, you’re instantly struck by how dark it is – almost a mahogany brown. There’s no colouring added, we’re assured. Spending 29 years in Sherry casks is a heavy enough influence on the colour, with no need for any extra ‘assistance’. Ahem.

Nose: Dark brown sugar, cherries, plums and salted caramel with a touch of aniseed. Another whiff and you’ll find raisin, vanilla and a hint of citrus peel.

Palate: Thick waves of juicy dark fruits give way to tart pluminess that evolves into powerful and pronounced dusty oak spice.

Finish: Incredibly rich and long. Rum-soaked raisins, leather and tobacco dryness, rounded off with dates and a touch of clove and cinnamon.

Overall: Sweet and intense. Remarkable how it transforms on the palate. Like Willy Wonka made his Three Course Dinner Chewing Gum in an orchard.

The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage is now sold out. That went fast!

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Cask customisation: have your whisky made bespoke

Bourbon hogshead or red wine barrique? Limousin or American oak? For devoted whisky lovers keen to call a barrel their own, there’s never been quite so many cask options available….

Bourbon hogshead or red wine barrique? Limousin or American oak? For devoted whisky lovers keen to call a barrel their own, there’s never been quite so many cask options available. As Edinburgh’s Holyrood Distillery launches its custom cask programme for 2020, inviting buyers to tailor every aspect of the process – from yeast varieties to distilling cut points – we take stock of the evolution of cask ownership…

Laying claim to your very own cask of whisky is a dream shared by many. But what if you could choose the precise type of malted barley you’d like, and pick out the yeast used for fermentation? What if you could tinker with the distillation process – cut points and flow rates – choose the cask type, oak species, size and previous fill? What if you could tailor the whisky from start to finish, becoming involved in every stage of the production process to create your ultimate personalised dram? 

At Edinburgh-based Holyrood, you can do just that. “We thought, rather than just making hundreds of the same cask, why don’t we ask people what they would like to make?,” says distillery co-founder David Robertson. The process starts with an in-depth consultation and sample tasting, in order to identify exactly which flavours you’re looking for. From there, the team will come up with several recipe suggestions based on your preferences. “You might say, ‘I’d rather have an extra yeast in it,’ or ‘I’d rather pick that wood rather than this wood’, and eventually we’ll land on a recipe,” he says.

Holyrood boy: David Robertson talks a client through the options

Got your heart set on rare Japanese oak, barley from a bygone era, or a cask that previously contained beer? Whatever the request, the team will help you make your dream into reality – but they’ll also guide you to make sure it tastes good. “If someone said, ‘I want you to have a cut point from 75% down to 42%, I want you to put it into a Tokay cask, and I want you to mature it for 247 years, we’d be going, ‘Yeah… That’s probably not the best idea’,” Robertson says. “We want to be there to guide, make recommendations and make sure there’s no mistakes.”

Besides offering more choice for whisky fans, there are other benefits to offering such tailored cask choices. Giving whisky fans control over the whisky-making process provides a unique jumping off point for learning and experimentation. “It’s a real two-way collaboration,” Robertson says. “We might have ideas and suggestions, but we won’t be smart enough to come up with all the best ideas and suggestions. The people we meet through this programme give us stimulus, inspire us and push us in different ways that we maybe hadn’t thought of ourselves.”

It also presents an opportunity for distilleries to engage with fans and expand their community. “I love getting a request from a potential customer to source a unique cask,” says Elliot Wynn-Higgins, cask custodian at Lindores Distillery, which has one of the largest and most diverse private cask offerings in Scotland, and allows buyers to choose from metrics such as cask size and flavour profile. The ownership scheme is seen as “an experience, rather than just a sale,” he says. “Each year we host exclusive cask owner’s events at the distillery, and they also get exclusive early bird offers on our whisky releases in the years to come.”

Casks in the warehouse at Lindores Distillery

It could be argued that an element of personalisation acts as a deterrent to those viewing cask ownership solely as a money-making endeavour – the type of buyer David Thompson, co-founder and director of Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery, is keen to avoid. There, the team offers buyers a choice of first fill ex-bourbon and various ex-red wine casks. “The secondary market worries me to an extent,” he says. “If someone said to me, ‘how much money am I going to make?’, I probably wouldn’t go any further with [the sale], because they’re doing it for the wrong reasons. I’d much rather someone bought a cask because they wanted to get involved in our business, our philosophy, the people.”

While distilleries selling private casks is nothing new – “this was quite a big deal in the nineties,” John Fordyce, director and co-founder of the Three Stills Company, informs me – today’s interested buyers have more say than those in previous decades when it comes to the final liquid. At Borders Distillery, Fordyce and his fellow directors have released 1,837 private whisky casks for sale by invitation only, allowing buyers to choose their preferred filling date and cask type across rum, bourbon, rye and Douro wine. “Not every distiller wants to do this, and those that do tend to engage in an quite intimate way,” he says. “One of the great things about the drinks industry is that you’re always in a position of moving with the times. And these waves sweep across us all, and some react and some choose to stay out. And that’s what provides all the variety and choice for the consumer.”

Having only been distilling for a year, the Holyrood team can afford to be more experimental than most. “We’re lucky in that we’re new and we’re small, which means that we can be as flexible as we want to be,” says Robertson. “If you’re a large, established distillery, you probably have a style of spirit that people expect you to produce. We don’t have that kind of heritage or history. We don’t have a core range that we’re known for yet. Now, that might be different in three, four, five years’ time, because we’ll have to start putting out whisky that defines Holyrood Distillery’s style. But at the moment, we are playing at the edges.”

Holyrood Distillery manager Jack Mayo peers into a still

As distilleries become more established, and their spirit comes of age, the custom cask market will inevitably change again. “In 10 to 15 years’ time, many current distilleries offering cask ownership will no longer be doing so, or at least be offering a reduced variety,” says Wynn-Higgins. “The reason being because their whisky will have hit the market, and the majority of their spirit will be required to satisfy customer requirements in bottles on shelves rather than entire casks. This makes now an even better time to buy a cask, as opportunities to do so will become ever rarer.”

It’s a delicate trade-off, acknowledges Annabel Thomas, founder and CEO of Nc’nean Distillery. Each year, the team offers up 60 casks for sale, allowing buyers to choose which type of cask you want and which of their two new make recipes they’d like to fill it with. “The cask sales are important, obviously, for cash flow,” she says. “And also, we end up with an amazing community of cask owners around us, which is a really important part of that whole process for us. On the other hand, we can’t spend the whole year producing private casks, because we have to actually have whisky to put into bottles at the end of it!”

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Five minutes with… Julieann Fernandez, master blender at Deanston

Located atop the River Teith, around eight miles from Stirling, lies Deanston – beloved for its delicate, fresh, waxy whisky. On the blog today, master blender Julieann Fernandez brings us up…

Located atop the River Teith, around eight miles from Stirling, lies Deanston – beloved for its delicate, fresh, waxy whisky. On the blog today, master blender Julieann Fernandez brings us up to speed with the latest goings-on at the Highlands distillery…

Deanston distillery started life as a cotton mill back in 1785, designed by Richard Arkwright, the great inventor and entrepreneur of the early Industrial Revolution. It was converted into the single malt distillery we know and love today in 1966, and began bottling its liquid in 1971, starting with a single malt named Old Bannockburn. Its eponymous Deanston single malt followed in 1974. 

Now operated by the Scotch whisky arm of multinational distiller Distell Group – which also owns Bunnahabhain Distillery on Islay and Tobermory distillery on Mull – Deanston has lost none of its original charm, and this is reflected in its approach to distilling. A team of 10 local craftsmen make Deanston’s single malt by hand using barley sourced exclusively from local farmers and soft water from the River Teith, which starts high up in Trossachs National Park.

Deanston is housed in a former cotton mill

The site has long led the charge when it comes to sustainability in Scotch whisky. Thanks to its location on the banks of the fast-running Teith, Deanston is the only distillery in Scotland to produce all of its own electricity, with power generated by an on-site hydro-energy facility. In 2000, it became one of the first Scottish sites to start producing organic whisky, as certified by the Organic Food Federation.

We caught up with Julieann (sic) Fernandez, who last year became Deanston’s master blender, to chat about her role, delve into the DNA of the distillery’s new make, and learn more about this unique Highland site…

MoM: Tell us about your career – what was your journey into your current role?

Julieann Fernandez: My journey was a little bit different, I never really planned to work in the whisky industry at all. I studied Forensic Science at university and between my third and fourth year, they were really big on us doing placements. I got a placement in Chivas Brothers’ laboratory doing a lot of analytical testing for the spirit samples they were getting in. I did that for about a year, and during that time I started doing a little bit of work with them on new product development – they were working on making a whisky for younger people and females to try and break the mould of whisky typically being an older gentleman’s drink. So I was involved in that project, which was absolutely fantastic. I really started to get a passion for whisky through that. I went back to university, finished my fourth year and graduated, and started working in the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, which does a lot of the analytical support for the whisky industry. Again I was working in a lab, and as much as I enjoyed it, it just wasn’t really what I wanted to do. A job came up at Chivas Brothers’ grain distillery right in the centre of Glasgow, so I went back to work for them. I learned about the grain whisky process and from there, I worked in some of their malt distilleries to build my knowledge on how the whisky is actually made. I spent a lot of time with them, did a lot of organoleptic stuff and really, really enjoyed it. And then the job came up with Distell, so I moved over to them just over three years ago now, starting as a blender – working on our malt portfolio and our blends, getting involved in our limited editions. I was promoted to master blender at the tail end of last year, and now I’m in control of all our malts, our blends, all of our inventory. So it’s been a crazy journey, but it’s been excellent. 

Deanston single malt whiskies

MoM: Could you bring us up to speed with what’s been going on at Deanston over the last few years – any new equipment, ongoing projects, experiments, etcetera?

JF: There’s been a few things going on! We replaced our mash tun last summer, that was a big project. The old mash tun had been running since about 1966, so it really needed replacing. It was a huge open-top mash tun, I think the biggest open-top mash tun left in any distillery – typically distilleries have a copper dome covering the mash tun, whereas ours is open, so it’s great when you come and visit, because you can see right inside. We decided to keep it very traditional, so it looks like an old mash tun, even though it’s new, which is lovely. It’s given us a clearer wort, which is what we are looking for, for the character. We’ve also recently moved from oil to gas, to boost sustainability at the distillery, because it burns a lot cleaner – that was a massive project. We’ve also got new limited editions coming up. We’ve just launched Deanston Kentucky and Deanston Dragon’s Milk, which are different to what we typically do with our portfolio. Deanston Kentucky is filled into bourbon and new oak barrels from Kentucky and soft-filtered. All of the malts in our portfolio are non-chill-filtered whereas with this one, the ABV’s a little bit lower, and we soft filter it instead – just making it a little bit more accessible and easy to drink. So there’s a lot of different projects on the go.

MoM: How would you describe the distillery – and the character of its new make – to someone who didn’t know much about it?

JF: The distillery is absolutely beautiful. It dates all the way back to 1785, when it used to be a cotton mill, and it was transformed into a distillery in 1966. It overlooks the River Teith, which is where our water supply comes from. Being an old cotton mill, it doesn’t look like a distillery when you first see it, and so many bits of it are very different. Our warehouse, for example, was an old weaving shed; they used to weave the cotton there, so it’s got big vaulted ceilings on it. The distillery has been a backdrop for Hollywood productions, because it’s such a lovely setting. They filmed Outlander there – the cast actually signed a couple of the casks that sit in our warehouse. The tour guys tend to point out where bits were filmed, and once you’ve been to the distillery and go back and watch Outlander, you can match it up and see which bits are Deanston. The stills are really tall, and have a gently-inclining lye pipe, so that encourages a lot of reflux which gives us a really light, fresh spirit. It carries a sort of strong cereal note and has beautiful hints of crisp apple. We also have a waxy character in the new make that’s quite unique – not just on the nose, but it’s almost a mouthfeel as well, which is really nice.

Master blender Julieann Fernandez

MoM: Deanston is the only distillery in Scotland to produce all of its own electricity using hydro power and is also certified by the Organic Food Association. How do these environmental credentials shape the whisky?

JF: The River Teith is the second fastest flowing river in Scotland, so it’s absolutely perfect for producing electricity for the distillery. We use what we need and sell the rest back to the National Grid, so we are giving back as well as powering our own distillery. We’re certified by the Organic Food Association as well, which is a really difficult certification to get, because so much work goes into it. You need to make sure your cleaning process is up to scratch. After a shut down – where we’ve maybe shut the distillery down for maintenance work – we’ll clean the entire distillery, and when we bring it back up, that’s when we [distil] organic. We also need to take great care on where that malt comes from, making sure that we’ve got the malt passport for it and can follow it back to the farm, which is also organic-certified. [The new make] then goes into new oak barrels that haven’t held anything. There’s a lot going on at Deanston that makes it special. 

MoM: In terms of production process and equipment, what else sets Deanston apart from other Scottish distilleries? 

JF: The River Teith flows over granite, so it makes the water really soft, which is just absolutely perfect for making whisky. At Deanston all of our malt’s Scottish – in Scotland we can’t grow enough to support the Scotch whisky industry, so naturally, people have to buy from England or Europe or wherever it may be. But at Deanston we only use Scottish malt. We only use traditional techniques, there are no computers, so it takes a lot of skill and craftsmanship to make our whisky.

MoM: Deanston has always fostered a sense of community – what is it about the distillery that makes it so special and well-loved among whisky fans?

JF: When you visit the distillery, you can see the passion the guys have for it. For a lot of the men who work in the distillery, it goes back generations. A lot of them live locally and the fathers or their grandfathers worked in the distillery, it’s lovely. During lockdown our kitchen stayed open and provided soup for the local community, which was really nice, because it was a difficult time for so many people. We’ve got a big meadow at the back of the distillery, which we’re planning to donate to the local school. Obviously that would’ve happened by now but it’s been pushed back a little bit with lockdown. They’re going to make it into a wildflower garden, so that it’s right at the heart of the community. 

The Deanston single malt range is available from Master of Malt.

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Master of Malt tastes… Glenmorangie Grand Vintage 1996

We’ve got a very fancy whisky on the tasting counter today. A Glenmorangie laid down in 1996 in special casks cut from oak trees growing in the Ozark mountains. Was…

We’ve got a very fancy whisky on the tasting counter today. A Glenmorangie laid down in 1996 in special casks cut from oak trees growing in the Ozark mountains. Was it worth the wait? Read on…

When people get into whisky, they often go for the big flavours. Which is why Islay has such a cult appeal, with peatheads in search of bigger and bigger hits of smoke, measuring out their obsession in PPM. For me, however, it was all about sherry. If it didn’t smell like old Cognac, then I wasn’t interested. I wanted heavy oily new make, fruit cake and tannins from European oak. It was rich Speysiders like Glenfarclas, Macallan and Mortlach that got me all hot and bothered. 

Which is why it took me a long time to come round to Glenmorangie. My sherried palate didn’t quite get the flavours, the sweet peachy fruit, the cream, the all-bourbon cask smoothness of the 10 year old Original. Initially it seemed a bit, well, vanilla. But slowly I came to appreciate what a superbly-made whisky it is: no rough edges, so creamy and fruity but with great depth of flavour. It’s not shouty or showy, it’s a grown-up dram.

The rest of the Glenmorangie range takes things in different directions adding Port or sherry, or, to my mind perfect marriage, Sauternes barrels. Then there’s the ‘and now for something completely different’ Signet – that’s a whisky with more than a touch of old Cognac about it. Now, however, there’s an expression that takes all the elements of the Original, and lifts them into something sublime.

It’s the sixth release from Bond House No. 1 Collection, a series of Glenmorangie’s most prized whiskies: a limited edition 23 year old bourbon-cask whisky. The barrels have an interesting story. Rather than just buying used casks from American whiskey producers, each tree was especially by the team at Glenmorangie. They come from the Ozark mountains in Missouri, the oak trees grow slower here producing a tighter grain to the wood. These first chosen trees were made into casks to precise specifications, seasoned with bourbon and filled with new make in 1996.

These casks are now made every year in small numbers; they are used to age the small batch Astar expression and form the heart of the 10 year old. The original casks were tasted every year by Dr Bill Lumsden until they were pronounced ready and bottled in 2019 at 43% ABV. He commented: “Glenmorangie Grand Vintage Malt 1996 wonderfully demonstrates how we can bring our most extraordinary dreams to life. The oldest whisky we have ever aged in our bespoke casks, its fresh, floral aromas and luxuriously creamy tastes are gloriously enhanced by age. A delicious step on from Glenmorangie Astar, this limited edition will be adored by whisky lovers old and new.”

We can’t argue with Dr Bill, we absolutely loved it. You can really taste the DNA running through from the 10 Year Old but it’s so much richer, more intense and complex. The apotheosis of the Glenmorangie style with the classic fruity, creamy flavours joined by more aromatic notes like tobacco. Not cheap but it is absolutely stunning.

Tasting notes from the Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: Warm baking spices, cinnamon, custard, toffee, vanilla, so opulent. Custard tarts and a hint of espresso – it’s like a Portuguese breakfast here. 

Palate: Super creamy, very smooth, dark chocolate, coffee, and salted caramel with fresh peach and pear fruit, it’s like a super-charged Ten Year Old. But it’s not all sweet and smooth, there’s aromatic tobacco and menthol notes lurking in the background.  

Finish: It’s back to custard, long and lingering with vanilla, cinnamon and almond plus that faint aromatic herbal note.  

Glenmorangie Bond House No.1 Grand Vintage 1996 is now available from Master of Malt.

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Five minutes with… Ron Welsh from Beam Suntory

As master blender and strategic inventory manager for Beam Suntory – which owns Laphroaig, Bowmore, Auchentoshan and others – Ron Welsh has a better idea than most about what you’ll…

As master blender and strategic inventory manager for Beam Suntory – which owns Laphroaig, Bowmore, Auchentoshan and others – Ron Welsh has a better idea than most about what you’ll be drinking in five, 10, and even 20 years time. Here, we discover how he and his team bring the company’s Scotch whisky forecasts to fruition…

You mightn’t have thought about it before, but the whiskies you’ll enjoy over the coming years are more than likely maturing in cask somewhere already. And the whiskies you’ll sip over the next few decades? They’re being distilled right about now. The work that goes into assembling our favourite drams is an intricate operation that relies on complex whisky forecasting, a decade or more in advance. 

As master blender and strategic inventory manager, Welsh is responsible for more than 800,000 individual casks of all ages destined for Laphroaig, Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch, Ardmore, McClelland’s and Teacher’s bottlings. Some casks will go into each brand’s flagship whiskies, while others will make up new expressions that are yet to be conceived. Here, Welsh shares insight into his unique role, lifting the lid on an aspect of whisky production we don’t often think about, but that is a fascinating and crucial one nevertheless. 

Ron Welsh in the tasting room

Master of Malt: Thanks for chatting with us, Ron! First things first, how did you start out in the whisky industry?

Ron Welsh: I’ve been in the industry for 27 and a half years, not long before I get to my 30th which looks set to fly by. It wasn’t an intentional start in the whisky industry, I’d previously had a role in steel making. I moved away from that voluntarily and was looking for a job in production and one of the jobs I applied for happened to be at Strathclyde grain distillery. I got the job and that was my start in whisky. I hadn’t really thought much about the final product – it was a couple of years before I realised what I was producing at the distillery was going to be in a bottle in a few years’ time! 

MoM: Could you share some insight into your role as master blender and strategic inventory manager?

RW: My main priorities are spirit quality, from new make to bottling, and inventory management: Do we have the right amount of stock in the right place to fulfil the forecasts that are coming in? [This means] planning all whisky movement. Moving new make from distilleries to filling stores, new make in cask from the filling stores to the warehouses. My team picks out all the casks for all our expressions that are going into a bottle when [the liquid] becomes mature, set to a recipe that I have laid down. They ensure that we get the casks out of the warehouses and through to the draining facility, so that we’ve got the whisky in vats and ready for bottling when they’re asked for. There’s a lot of stock moving around. We’ve got casks that are over 50 years old, so we’re looking back across 50 years of what we’ve laid down and matured. When we get a forecast, we look at what we’re going to use in the next 20 years, which is part of the inventory that’s already there. It also means looking at what we’re going to produce as new make spirit from each of the distilleries over the next five to 10 years, to give the business an idea of where we might need to expand, where we might need to invest in terms of warehousing. It’s also my role to put together what we require in terms of empty casks for filling, and what we need to purchase each year, and making sure we’ve got suppliers that meet our quality standards. 

MoM: Balancing inventory and planning production requirements for so many global Scotch brands simultaneously is a huge undertaking – how do you plan for the future?

RW: The sales forecast is put together by the commercial and marketing teams – they will dictate which markets we should be trying to invest in and how they see each individual expression growing over the next 10 to 20 years. They’ll send me a sales forecast for 20 years for all our expressions, so all the Laphroaigs – 10 Year Old, PX Cask, Triple Wood, etc. – all the Bowmores, all the Auchentoshans, all the Ardmores, all the Glen Garioch, the McClelland’s, and the Teacher’s, and from that I can then work out how many litres of alcohol we should’ve put in a cask at any given time. So, do we have enough 10 year old for this year’s Laphroaig 10 Year Old? And do we have enough 9 year old for next year’s 10 Year Old? And enough 8 year old for the 10 Year Old in two years’ time? And so on.

Wooden washbacks at Auchentoshan

MoM: What about expressions that haven’t been invented yet, how do you factor for those?

RW: We’re running quite a lot of new products these days and quite a lot of them are limited time offers (LTOs). If you do that every year, you know you’re going to consume some stock, so I put in a provision for LTOs and I’ll work closely with marketing to decide what we’re going to do over the next five to 10 years. We have a very good idea of what expressions we’re going to bring out over the next five years, and I’ve got a good idea of maybe from 5 to 10 years after that as well. What you tend to find is when you bring in a permanent new expression for a brand then you may well lose an expression that you already have, so you just need to ensure you’ve got the right stock to allow you to change from one to the other. 

MoM: There must be whisky coming through now which you helped lay down years ago. How does it feel to see fans of say, Laphroaig or Bowmore, rave about a release that you’ve seen progress from start to finish? 

RW: It’s really nice to see expressions that I have put a lot of work into over the years appreciated. For me, the biggest one would have to be Laphroaig Lore, which Jim Murray recognised as the best non-aged single malt in 2019. That was an eight-year development, just accentuating the peat smoke from Laphroaig to bring it up to another level. Really good. I’ve been in the industry long enough to see my work coming through in terms of inventory management from 10, 15 years ago. Did I do a good job at the time? Have I got the right stock ready to perform a forecast? I haven’t come across anything too bad at the moment!

MoM: Stylistically the new make from each distillery is very different, is there one in particular that feels especially exciting to experiment with?

RW: Well, they’re all really interesting to work with. You look at Laphroaig and you think, ‘oh, it’s such a powerful Islay, what could you do with a Laphroaig that would be exciting?’ but it can take some changes in maturation. Bowmore is just as exciting – it’s got a unique character which I haven’t often seen in terms of the way it changes over the years. It starts off with ripe orchard fruits and then as it gets older and older, that transforms into syrupy tropical fruits. It’s amazing when you’ve got a flight of Bowmore in front of you. Auchentoshan is triple distilled, it can take flavours on really quickly without getting totally lost. Because it’s a city distillery and a bit more edgy – an urban malt as we like to call it – you can do a bit more experimenting with slightly different casks. We’ve just brought out a Sauvignon Blanc-finished Auchentoshan which is lovely. Ardmore’s a really nice whisky as well – we’ve been making some changes at the distillery in terms of new make, and that’s starting to come through. And Glen Garioch – I’ve got a wee soft spot for Glen Garioch. It’s a very small brand and quite boutique. Great things are going to happen for that distillery. 

Whisky maturing at Bowmore

MoM: Do you think we are creating better and more complex malts and blends today than when you first started out?

RW: The industry has more control over how it makes whisky. It’s got better knowledge of how to make good whisky, and I think that those changes over the past 10 to 15 years where you’re controlling your mash, your fermentation, your distillation, are resulting in a more consistent product which is at the best quality that the raw materials can provide. That’s one side of it. The other side is that the type of barley that’s being used has changed over the decades to give a more agronomic yield, so you get more tonnes out of an acre of field, and better distillery yield, so you get more litres of alcohol per tonne you bring in. And that process has, in my opinion, changed the flavour profile of whiskies, and it’s changed it for everybody. Unless you’re still using some of the old varieties, like Golden Promise. So there’s making more consistent whisky that [is at the] best quality for the raw materials, but there’s also a change in the raw materials, which are probably not providing as much flavour as they were before – so it’s up to the distiller in making sure they produce the best flavour out of that malted barley.

MoM: And how about casks – has anything changed in that regard?

RW: The biggest change is probably in the sherry industry. Sherry sales have declined rapidly over the past 30 years, which means that the number of casks coming from sherry bodegas has declined. They’ve been replaced by seasoning houses, which make new casks and season them with whatever style of sherry you want, and for however long you want. That process has resulted in more consistent cask quality.

Bowmore looking all moody and windswept

MoM: So for distillers, it’s almost changed things for the better?

RW: In some instances, yes. When sherry producers put their casks into storage when they weren’t using them, they would often put sulphur candles inside and light them to ensure they didn’t get any fungus growing inside the casks. But those would be the casks that would then come across to Scotland to be filled with new make spirit, and that sulphury note would come through in the final product. Seasoning houses don’t use sulphur candles, so you don’t get that problem. Some of the casks over the past few years have been absolutely exceptional. But then again, if you had a good cask from a sherry bodega that hadn’t been sulphured, it would produce a really good whisky as well. 

MoM: When was the last time you were bowled over by something in the whisky industry?

RW: There’s a couple of different cask types we’ve purchased recently, I can’t divulge what they are, but they knocked my socks off in terms of the quality of spirit that they’re producing. I’m hoping to use some of those casks in a couple of products over the next 12 months. In terms of outside Beam Suntory, Brian Kinsman is producing some really nice single malts at Glenfiddich, the guys at Ardbeg produced a nice Pinot Noir-finish which is interesting. It’s good to look at what other people in the industry are doing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Master of Malt tastes… Waterford Single Farm Origin whiskies

These must be some of the most eagerly-anticipated whiskies ever, Waterford’s inaugural releases each made only from barley grown on a specific farm in Ireland. Mark Reynier, ex-Bruichladdich supremo, is…

These must be some of the most eagerly-anticipated whiskies ever, Waterford’s inaugural releases each made only from barley grown on a specific farm in Ireland. Mark Reynier, ex-Bruichladdich supremo, is the man behind it, and he’s got a lot to say.

Mark Reynier is not a man to mince his words: “The whole principle of provenance based on terroir is understood in wine and Cognac, but for some reason when it comes to whisky everybody seems to have had a lobotomy.” Scotch whisky might be made from Irish, Canadian or even, sharp intake of breath, English barley, and, though this might surprise some readers, is considered completely normal in the industry. Received wisdom is that where a barley is grown has a negligible effect on the finished product.

Reynier has a different perspective perhaps because his background is in wine. He spent 20 years in the trade before moving into whisky with the revival of Bruichladdich in 2000. Here he became interested in the raw materials, producing an organic whisky and a release made from bere, an archaic type of barley. But on Islay, there wasn’t the space, infrastructure or climate to conduct a commercial experiment in terroir so he could prove that different bits of land affect the flavour in the end product.

Reynier described terroir as: “the 3D connection between bedrock, subsoil, soil, microclimate, topography, elevation, orientation to the sun, drainage”. Ireland proved the perfect place to realise his dreams. He said: “Climatically it’s much much better to grow barley in and you don’t have geese, autumn gales, the deer, or the other associated issues.” Ireland being further south has milder weather and a longer growing season. He was inspired by the late Duncan McGillivray from Bruichladdich, “he told me the best barley he ever saw came from Ireland,” Reynier said.

Quiet, demure, unopinionated, it’s Mark Reynier!

He looked at various old distilleries around the country, there wasn’t much around, but he stuck gold in 2014 when an ex-Guinness brewery came on the market in Waterford. It was state of the art having only been built in 2004 at the cost of €40 million. “Brewing is two thirds of distilling,” he said, “we just introduced the copper element to shiny stainless steel.” It took one year and a day to convert it into a distillery. The copper element came in the form of two old stills from a now closed lowland Scotch distillery, Inverleven. The high tech equipment proved ideal for the terroir project as it involves processing a huge amount of data: “Diageo equipped distillery with latest date collection material for efficiency and volume which we have repurposed for quality  and analysis,” Reynier said. 

Farms and farmers:

Then it was a question of finding farmers who wanted to be involved. The Waterford team works with 40 farms each year, though they have changed as, according to Reynier, “some wily old farmers either found it too much hassle or weren’t up to scratch. It’s the young farmers really get what we are trying to achieve.” Around 100 farms have been involved in total. The grain from each farm has to be processed separately. Data is collected every step of the way, over 8,000 pieces per farm.

Interestingly, according to Reynier, there is no discernible difference between different varieties of barley. That is because they are “all based on the same parents and selected for disease resistance and yield. Not for flavour”, he said. The team is currently experimenting with early 20th century strains but this is a long term project.

Harvesting, drying and malting:

Waterford has what Reynier calls a ‘cathedral’ located in the heart of the barley-growing area. It contains 40 bins, each one can take 140-50 tonnes of barley. Here the barley is dried to preserve it before it’s off to the maltsters. It’s a huge undertaking, this is not a little craft distillery. 

Waterford uses Boortmalt in nearby Athy. The distillery has its own mini-maltings just for its barley within this larger facility. “Malting is a vastly underrated part of the distilling operation. One that just gets passed over. That’s where the great artistry is, being able to malt barley properly,” he said. Initially, each load of barley was malted in a one size fits all way but that led to some erratic results so each batch is subjected to a mini malting in the lab to ascertain the best way forward. 130 tonnes barley from the field results in around 75 tonnes of malt.  

Ex-Guinness brewery, now the Waterford Distillery

Mashing and fermentation:

Because this is a modern brewery, the equipment is more advanced than you would normally find in a distillery. Instead of a traditional mash tun, there are a series of pneumatic filters which according to Reynier means that you get more flavour out. 

Waterford uses a standard distilling yeast but uses about half of what most distillers use. The next step will be to propagate wild yeasts from certain fields, “that’s the next part of the project”, Reynier said, “but it’s not as interesting as terroir.” The team do a long fermentation of about 120-150 hours using the temperature control to slow it down, a facility that most distilleries don’t have. Reynier said: “not only are we getting more flavours extracted by our mash filter, but we’re also getting purer flavours”. As you would hope, he was on fighting form comparing the Waterford approach to the industry norm: “Distillers see fermentation as a bottleneck that has to be overcome. It is overcome by using a double volume of yeast to obtain a highly volatile, aggressive fermentation that is over in less than 24 hours, sometimes considerably less.” I’m sure many distillery managers would have something to say about that, but the Waterford approach would be uneconomic for most Scotch whisky producers. 

Distillation:

Reynier handed us over to Ned Gahan, who spent 15 years working with Diageo before joining Waterford in 2014. The stills date back to 1974 were designed to create an elegant floral spirit. Waterford uses double distillation as in Scotland and, interestingly, spells ‘whisky’ without the ‘e’. The process is slow with a narrow cut between around 66-75% ABV taken, all in the name of purity. Again, as with the malting and fermentation, the exact cut depends on the barley used. The spirit is not diluted before running into casks. The distillery produces around 1 million litres of pure alcohol per year.

Ned Gahan in action

Wood:

As you might expect, Reynier has some strong views on wood: “Now people say 80% of whisky’s flavour comes from wood, I bloody well hope it doesn’t.” He went on to say: “They [large whisky companies] have corrupted wood into this marketing pseudo thing where every whisky you see now has to be finished, why can’t you just start with the right barrel in the first place, then you don’t need to finish anything at all?!” 

The wood used is top quality, 30% of production costs go on barrels. The team uses a mixture French oak, virgin and first fill from wine producers, American oak, virgin and first fill bourbon, and fortified wine casks which they refer to as VDN (Vin Doux Naturel), not just sherry and Port, but also Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes from France. 

Taste that terroir:

From tasting the new make spirit, Reynier noticed different flavours: sandy soil produces more fruit flavours, clay soil more malty, limestone-influenced soil giving more spice. Gas chromatography analysis backs up sensory experimentation, we were told. In September, the University of Cork will publish a paper, which is currently being peer-reviewed, showing how terroir does influence flavour. 

Reynier puts it down to the three ‘t’s: terroir, traceability, transparency: “we believe in real provenance. It’s no use having it and saying you have it you have to be able to prove it.” In the words of the Sultans of Ping, “I like your manifesto, put it to the testo”. It was time to try some new make, both from Olympus barley harvested in 2017.

The first from Meadow Lodge Farm in Galway owned by Brian Kenny. Soil type: loamy drift with limestone. This smelt spicy with notes of liquorice and a saline freshness. In the mouth it’s fresh and peppery with some oaty porridge flavours.

Second sample came from Groveside farm in Wexford owned by John Cousins. Mixture of shale and limestone with some sand and an undulating topography. This smelt vegetal and fruity with green olives, lemon, honey and a malty sweetness. On the palate, it’s sweet and fruity, with lots of malt character. 

They certainly taste different. Rather proving Reynier’s point about where they are grown. And also the quality is obvious, both samples at around 71% ABV were incredibly smooth.

But would the terroir character persist after cask maturation?

Terroir, transparency and traceability

Whisky:

The first two releases are from single farms: 

Produced from barley grown by Ed Harpur in Wexford, right by the ocean at sea level.
Variety: Overture from 2015
Filled 23/06/2026
Bottled: 5/2/2020
ABV: 50%
Spirit aged for 3 years and 7 months
American oak first fill: 35%
American new: 20%
French first fill: 25%
VDN: 20%

Tasting note: Sweet smelling with notes of hay, vanilla, coconut, spicy oak, liquorice and cloves. In the mouth, banana custard with some oak tannins and spice. Initially it seems like oak dominates but apple fruit, elegance and depth come through with time open. Lovely texture.

Waterford Single Farm Origin – Ballykilcavan 1.1

Produced from barley grown by David Walsh-Kemmis in Laois
Variety: Taberna from 2015
Filled 19/04/2016
Bottled 5/2/2020
ABV: 50%
Spirit aged for 3 years and 10 months
American first fill: 45%
French first fill: 37%
VDN: 18%

Tasting note: Wow, this is so different: fruity nose, wine-like, red fruit plus some funky touches of barnyard, and sherry vinegar. Acidity and freshness followed by earthy notes, chestnuts, and baking spices, like mulled wine. Not as elegant as Bannow island, very intriguing. 

They taste so different: The Bannow island initially a bit young but coming back to it, the depth of flavour even at that age is startling. It’s in no way raw or one- dimensional. Ballykilcayan tastes pretty crazy, tasting it you’d think there was a lot more wine cask influence than in Bannow Island. Again, great depth of flavour for how young it is. You’ll notice that the cask regime is not identical because Waterford had yet to acquire any French new oak when the 2015 Ballykilcavan barley was distilled. In future, all single farm expressions will have exactly the same oak treatment. They are both bottled with no colouring or chill filtration at 50% ABV, Reynier recommends a drop of water to bring out complexity.

These are not limited edition whiskeys. 200 barrels of each has been produced Reynier described it as an artisanal method but made to a “sensible commercial volume.” 

The bottles are pretty fancy too

The future:

In 2021, Waterford plans to release what Reynier refers to as a Grand Vin though will probably be called Cuvée. It’s an assembly of the best farms to create something like a Grand Cru Bordeaux or a vintage Port with “layers upon layers of complexity”. Further in the distance will be the Arcadian range made from organic, biodynamic and/ or heritage barley strains.

The Waterford project is fascinating for its sheer ambition and from tasting the new make and these young whiskies, the team are clearly on to something special. When asked about how the big boys would respond, Reynier was characteristically forthright: “In the next three, four or five years expect lots of images of barley, lots of images of farmers, lots of Gladiator-like fields of shimmering barley as they carry on doing exactly as they’ve always done. The word terroir will be abused beyond belief, it will be corrupted to being almost worthless.” 

Waterford Single Farm whiskies are now sold out. We don’t know when we’ll get any more in.

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And that’s a wrap

There have been some amazing whisky publicity stunts over the years but none quite as audacious as the one Ian Buxton tried to pull off with the artist Christo. Here’s…

There have been some amazing whisky publicity stunts over the years but none quite as audacious as the one Ian Buxton tried to pull off with the artist Christo. Here’s the full story. . .

You may have noticed that the artist Christo died recently. He was 84. His wife and artistic collaborator Jeanne-Claude died in 2009 and thus Christo’s passing marks the end of a remarkable creative duo. They worked together but always under the name of Christo.

You will remember them of course as the guys who wrapped things. Starting in the 1950s with mundane household objects such as chairs and bicycles they graduated to wrapping trees, fences, bridges, monuments, buildings and, on occasion, islands. They wrapped the Pont Neuf in Paris and even the Reichstag (below). 

Imagine getting one of these for Christmas!

They were colourful and sometimes controversial characters. Not everyone cared for their work; there were frequent objections to their planned installations and one lady even died when one of their Umbrellas (1991) was toppled in high winds and struck and killed her.

We didn’t seem to ‘get’ them here in the UK, though after Jeanne-Claude’s death, Christo was able to install his London Mastaba in Hyde Park in 2018. So what’s this got to do with whisky you may be wondering.  Well, if I had been a more persuasive advocate, they might have completed their first UK work in Scotland, nearly twenty years earlier. It’s an unusual story, strange but true.

Prior to this writing lark I worked almost exclusively in consultancy, building on my previous career in marketing. Together with my wife (note the parallel), we established a consultancy business in Edinburgh where we had a number of whisky clients. However, in early 1999 one major client appointed a new president of global brands. This is generally not good news for the incumbent agencies as, determined to make their mark, the newcomer looks to shake things up. Based in the USA, the lady concerned did not appear impressed with anything other than the most fashionable of trendy New York agencies. It was imperative that we come up with a suitably grandiose idea. And fast.

So I proposed that we ask Christo to wrap the client’s main distillery. To bait the hook, I suggested we pay them £1 million, cover all the costs, give them complete creative control and see what they came up with. But I had a cunning plan: to get the client their money back I also proposed a special Hommage à Christo limited edition of wrapped bottles of single malt. 1,000 bottles at £1,500 should do nicely, I reckoned.

How long would it take to wrap a distillery?

Well, the client loved it and I was instructed to go and see Christo immediately and make it happen. Through friends of friends we were put in touch and, in the summer of 1999, I found myself in New York visiting Christo and Jeanne-Claude at their combined store, workshop, gallery, studio and home in an old warehouse in the Meatpacking District (not in those days the most salubrious part of town).   

I was received with great courtesy and we toured the studio, looking at the concept studies for their current project, Over the River. Later abandoned due to local opposition, this envisaged suspending 5.9 miles of fabric panels along a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River between Cañon City and Salida in south-central Colorado. They told me that they needed $5m to fund the project. My hopes rose – compared to a river, wrapping a distillery would be a breeze and surely a million quid would come in handy.

Some whisky was shared, and then some wine, and they agreed to look at the drawings I had brought. Scotland seemed to appeal; the drawings received close and apparently sympathetic attention and some practical issues were discussed. All seemed to be going well.

But then we hit a snag. Quite a big one, as it happens. Rather gravely and, I thought, a little sadly they explained that, on principle, they never ever accepted commissions. There were no exceptions; they were both completely clear that a commission would not be their artistic vision and thus fatally compromised. A little recklessly – both bottles had been well sampled by this stage – I assured them (quite without any authority) that my client would surely want to increase the fee. I mentioned figures, increasingly extravagant figures, but they were unmoved. So I returned, older, wiser and empty handed to my client to report my failure.

And, you’d assume, we lost their business.  Well, no.  Along with my Christo project I’d also proposed building a visitor centre and they loved that idea as well. So Aberfeldy distillery got Dewar’s World of Whisky – but, sadly, neither of us will ever feature in the history of art!

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New Arrival of the Week: Crabbie 25 Year Old 1994

Today we’re celebrating a single cask release from John Crabbie & Co. Normally this independent bottler keeps the source of its whisky secret but in this case we are allowed…

Today we’re celebrating a single cask release from John Crabbie & Co. Normally this independent bottler keeps the source of its whisky secret but in this case we are allowed to reveal which island distillery it comes from. . . . 

John Crabbie was one of the great pioneers of blended whisky like John Walker and Arthur Bell. Crabbie, who lived from 1806 to 1891, owned a grocery and tea-blending business in Edinburgh, but moved into the whisky trade when phylloxera devastated the vineyards of Cognac leading to demand for an alternative from English drinkers. He acquired casks and started bottling whiskys from more than 70 distilleries around Scotland. With his friend Andrew Usher, he began blending whisky to create a consistent product. This led to him purchasing a brewery in Leith where he set up his own distillery producing not just whisky but also gin and liqueurs including a famous ginger wine. Later the two of them, along with William Sanderson (of VAT 69 fame), would set up the mighty North British grain distillery.

The North British is still going strong but until very recently the Crabbie name was only known for ginger wine, all that whisky heritage was largely forgotten. In 2007, Halewood, the company behind Whitley Neill gin as well as the Aber Falls Distillery, City of London Distillery, Liverpool Gin Distillery, and the Bristol & Bath Rum Distillery, acquired Crabbie. Production of Crabbie’s ginger wine moved to Liverpool, shock horror! But Halewood has not neglected Crabbie’s Scottish roots. Far from it, in December 2018 the company opened Crabbie & Co, Edinburgh’s first single malt distillery in over 100 years. Whisky, of course, takes a long time, so Crabbie has been building a reputation with some award-winning single malts releases from mysterious distilleries. 

The latest release, however, Crabbie is proud to announce is from Tobermory, a popular distillery at Master of Malt and not only for its excellent whiskies. This particular one was distilled in 1994 and aged in an ex-sherry hogshead and then bottled without chill filtering or the addition of colour at 46.2% ABV. John Kennedy, head of sales for Scotland, commented: “Crabbie 1994 Island Single Malt is one of our most carefully planned releases to date. We’d had cask samples from distilleries all across Scotland and it was a difficult choice, but this sherry cask from Tobermory was absolutely stand out with its nose of sweet macerated dates, fruit cake, warming spice and its orange marmalade and rich dark chocolate finish. It will most certainly appeal to those who take their whisky seriously.”

We take our whisky very seriously here and were suitably impressed. Despite the all sherry cask ageing, it’s not what you’d think of as a ‘sherry bomb’. The nose is aromatic, minty even, followed by sweet toffee, coffee and dark chocolate notes. In the mouth, it’s fruity and fresh, with cedar, black pepper and muscovado sugar on the finish. All round, it’s an elegant drop. It’s also a very limited edition with only 247 bottles available for all of the UK market. We think it’s a great tribute to a giant of Scotch whisky who deserves to be much better known.

Tasting notes from the Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: Brandy butter and fruitcake, with a hint of menthol sneaking through.

Palate: Soft on the palate, with sultana, chocolate mousse and malt loaf. A slow build of clove and caraway warmth.

Finish: Tiffin, chocolate peanuts and some fresh mango fruitiness.

Crabbie 25 Year Old 1994 is available now from Master of Malt.

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Master of Malt tastes… Mars Japanese whisky

Today, we’re tasting whiskies from a lesser-known Japanese producer, including a couple that are distinctly affordable. Not something you hear that often when the words ‘Japan’ and ‘whisky’ are put…

Today, we’re tasting whiskies from a lesser-known Japanese producer, including a couple that are distinctly affordable. Not something you hear that often when the words ‘Japan’ and ‘whisky’ are put together. 

It’s well-known that Japanese whisky is based on the Scotch industry, dating back to when Masataka Taketsuru visited Scotland in 1919, and brought distillation and ageing techniques back home. But did you know that much Japanese whisky is based on Scotch a little more literally? 

Yes, it’s something of an open secret that many blended Japanese blended whiskies contain some Scotch. Japanese whisky regulations are almost non-existent, and a whisky can be labelled as Japanese even if it contains foreign-distilled spirits. In the past ten years, demand for Japanese whisky has exploded, and at the same time bulk imports from Scotland (and Canada) have increased dramatically. According to SWA figures, there was a four-fold increase in bulk exports from Scotland to Japan between 2013 and 2018.

Pot stills at Shinshu

Many Japanese blends, even those imported into the EU and USA, contain Scotch. One hears all sorts of rumours but it’s hard to know which producers are involved. One brand, however, is open about its use of Scotch malt in its blends: Mars.

I met with Cristian Cuevas, the UK brand ambassador for Mars before lockdown to taste through the range. The venue was an amazing bar in London by Old Street roundabout called Bull in A China Shop that specialises in Japanese whisky. They have Karuizawa at £55 a glass. According to the owner, Stephen Chan, many people who order it “are collectors who have a bottle at home but have never tried it”. 

Mars has a pretty convoluted history. Its parent company Hombo has been making shochu since the 19th century, as well as that uniquely Japanese style of wine, Koshu. After a few false starts with distilleries around the country, in 1985 it opened a single malt distillery, Mars Shinshu at Miyata in Nagano province just in time for the Japanese whisky crash of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The distillery closed in 1992, but reopened again in 2011 when the market picked up. It was completely refitted with new stills of the same shape as the old ones, but larger. At 800 metres above sea level, this is the highest distillery in Japan. Some grain whisky is now made here too. 

Tsunuki distillery

In 2016, the company opened a second distillery, Mars Tsunuki, in Kagoshima prefecture. Both distilleries produce unpeated, lightly peated and heavily peated whiskies, and they use mainly ex-bourbon casks with some ex-shochu and Yamanashi wine casks, and mizunara oak as well as various fortified wine barrels. They only operate around half the year in the cooler months. Mars has three warehouses including one at Yakushima in the far south of Japan where it’s extremely hot. The team moves barrels around so that the whisky ages at different rates. 

Because of those closed years, the company has something of an inventory problem with small stocks of very mature whisky, plus younger casks from the post-2011 rebirth. Scotch whisky is used to plug this gap, which it does seamlessly. And no wonder, as raw materials (much Japanese whisky uses imported malted barley from Scotland) and production methods are pretty much identical for Scotch and Japanese whisky. As long as producers are open about it, we’re all for this blending of two great whisky nations. 

Casks maturing at Shinshu

Right, let’s try some whiskies!

Mars Kasei 

This is a special blend created for Le Maison du Whisky in France. The name means ‘Mars’ in Japanese. Sneaky. It’s a mixture of Japanese malt and grain with, according to Teddy Althapé Arhondo from LMDW, some whisky from Scotland. It’s aged in a mixture of new American oak, ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, and bottled at 40% ABV. On the nose there’s a little smokiness with some lavender, honey and green apple. It’s fruity with sweet vanilla on the palate but with that smokiness lingering underneath. Delicious, drinkable and deceptively complex, it might be the ultimate Highball whisky. 

Mars Maltage Cosmo

The name is a clever portmanteau of ‘malt’ and ‘age’. It’s a blend of Japanese malt, approx 80%, and Scotch single malts. A plethora of different cask types are in here: bourbon, Madeira, sherry cask and Port. It’s bottled at 43% ABV. The flavour profile is classic ‘sherry bomb’. There are lots of fruitcake aromas and a distinctive spicy note like cardamom. On the palate, it’s rich and round with orange peel, dark cherry and chocolate. Very long finish. This is a luxurious dram that will appeal to lovers of Tamdhu or Glenfarclas. Cigars at the ready!

Mars Komagatake single malt (2019 release) 

Every year, Mars releases a small batch single malt from Shinshu, combining young casks with mature pre-1992 malts. This gives you a taste of the old Shinshu distillery before it was refurbished (there are also some old single cask bottlings which tend to be very expensive). This 2019 release was aged in bourbon casks, apparently, though it does taste as if there’s some European oak in there. It’s a rich, spicy whisky with ginger, dark cherries, dried apricots and aromatic notes of cedar and tobacco. Lovely mix of sweet and spicy balanced by smoke and fruit. It’s bottled at 48% ABV. Absolutely superb and for a Japanese single malt, good value for money. 

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