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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: Single Malt Whisky

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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What we’re buying for Father’s Day

Today we ask a few people from around the office which bottle they are buying this Father’s Day for their dads. Some of the answers might surprise you… For many…

Today we ask a few people from around the office which bottle they are buying this Father’s Day for their dads. Some of the answers might surprise you…

For many of us this will be the first Father’s Day in years that we won’t be able to raise a glass to our fathers in person because of lockdown restrictions. It’s a particularly difficult time with grandparents unable to see their children and grandchildren, and the pubs are closed! But we don’t want the old man to feel unloved so we will be sending a card and something from Master of Malt such as a nice bottle of wine or two, a single malt whisky, or some unusual gin. What better way to say ‘Happy Father’s Day!’ than with booze. Here’s a selection of what a few people from Master of Malt and the wider Atom family will be buying their fathers.

Stevie Heyes – head of engineering

Fiona Macleod 33 Year Old – The Character of Islay Whisky Company

I’m treating my dad as he is hitting a milestone age later in the year (no more details for fear of meeting an untimely demise when I see him next). He loves Islay whisky, but he’s a frugal chap and wouldn’t dream of buying the Fiona Macleod 33 for himself, so I will. Well you’re only 70 once oops.

Jess Williamson content assistant

Jaffa Cake Gin

Since I introduced my dad to Negronis there’s literally nothing else he’d rather drink (so long as someone else is making them), and I’m yet to find a better gin for the cocktail than Jaffa Cake Gin! It’s super zesty, plus he loves finding new spirits to show his friends, and this is definitely a unique one. Negronis all around this Father’s Day!

Cal MeGuinness – trade service advisor

Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva

It’s safe to say that my dad is not the easiest man to buy for… A copy of ‘A Beginners Guide to Birdwatching has gone unread, and last years ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ mug has turned into a rather nifty pen pot. So this year I’ve decided to go for something a little different and picking up a bottle of Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva rum from Venezuela. It’s full of flavour on it’s own but also makes a rather delicious Rum and Ginger! Surely I can’t go wrong with rum?! 

Charlotte Gorzelak – social media and email assistant 

Caorunn Small Batch Gin

My dad has had a thing for gin ever since my sister introduced it to him seven years ago. Now we have a regularly updated bar shelf which has at least five types of gin. To add to his collection this Father’s Day, I am giving him a delightful Scottish gin made with dandelions, Caorunn Small Batch Gin. We’re going to drink it with a slice of red apple and plenty of ice.

Henry Jeffreys features editor

Father’s Day Whisky Tasting Set

My father likes his single malts but he’s more of a wine drinker. So what better way to broaden his whisky horizons than with the aptly-named Father’s Day Tasting Set. There’s a classic ten year old Islay, a 12 year old Loch Lomond, a small batch bourbon and just to confuse him, a blend of whiskies from around the British isles. 

Adam O’Connell  writer.

Tobermory Gin

My dad remembers drinking the occasional gin and tonic in his youth in Ireland, but for much of his life he’s had two go-to drinks: lager and Guinness. But recently he’s embraced all things botanical again and likes to pair his gin with ginger ale instead of tonic. A savoury gin with plenty of warming citrus and delicate sweetness, like Tobermory’s flagship gin, makes a great base for this cocktail. 

Peter Holland – rum consultant 

Foursquare 12 Year Old 2007 – Exceptional Cask Selection

My father is hardly a drinker, so I am thinking about something you really could spend your time with, a single pour that evolves and takes you on a journey. Foursquare 2007 is one of those spirits that covers a lot of bases. Perfect for those looking to explore cask strength rum; It offers so much without being overtly challenging but will not disappoint the experienced sipper either.

There’s more gift ideas and special offers to be found on our Father’s Day page. 

 

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Win a VIP trip to Tobermory Distillery

Our latest competition offers a whisky-dipped VIP trip to the fabulous Tobermory Distillery, the perfect present for Father’s Day… Among the beautiful colourful houses of Tobermory, you’ll find the Isle…

Our latest competition offers a whisky-dipped VIP trip to the fabulous Tobermory Distillery, the perfect present for Father’s Day…

Among the beautiful colourful houses of Tobermory, you’ll find the Isle of Mull’s only distillery since 1979 and one of the oldest commercial distilleries in Scotland. The wonderful Tobermory Distillery is probably best known for its two delicious and distinctive styles of Scotch whisky: the fruity, non-peated Tobermory and the robust, smoky Ledaig, as well as its recent success with a certain award-winning gin… 

As big whisky fans, we’d all jump at the chance to visit the scenic distillery that sits at the water’s edge of its idyllic Hebridean home. But one lucky person reading this blog and their plus-one will have a chance to do just that. With Father’s Day on the horizon, we think this would make quite the present. Nothing says you love your dear old dad more than a bundle of brilliant booze and a once-in-a-lifetime trip, after all.

VIP trip to Tobermory Distillery

The kind of drinks and view you could be enjoying soon…

“I’m very excited. What exactly do I win? Tell me all the details”.

Well, you win a VIP trip to the Isle of Mull to visit Tobermory Distillery, enjoy the local surroundings and eat and drink all kinds of delicious things. Your transport for the duration of the trip is covered. Your accommodation, likely to be two nights at the Tobermory Hotel (depending on availability), is taken care of. You’ll enjoy lunch and a tour of the local village, as well as dinner for two at £50 per person per night (£200 dinner budget for trip). But best of all, you’ll get a private VIP tour and tasting with either management staff or ambassador and two 70cl bottles of a distillery exclusive Scotch whisky expression. It’s a whisky lover’s dream!

“How do I win?! I want to win!!!”

We’ve made this competition really easy to enter. All you need to do is purchase any qualifying 70cl bottle from the Tobermory distillery range for a chance to win. You can buy as many bottles as you want from the following selection, from the sherry-soaked and sublime, to the peaty and powerful, and even one particularly delicious gin! A selection of expressions from the range also boasts some incredible savings:

You’ll also be entered if you purchase one of the following:

VIP trip to Tobermory Distillery

Buy one of the eligible bottles, including the tasty Ledaig 10 Year Old, and you’re in it to win it!

So, even if you don’t win, you’ll still have a terrific bottle of whisky or gin to call your own. That’s some consolation prize. Best of luck to you all and happy Father’s Day!

MoM Competition 2020 open to entrants 18 years and over. Entries accepted from 12:00:01pm 29 May to 23:59 23 June 2020. Winners chosen at random after close of competition. Shipping restrictions apply. See full T&Cs for details. 

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Lessons in sherry casks with Tamdhu

We take a lesson in the complexities of sherry cask-ageing with one of the very few single malts that is entirely aged in sherry casks, Tamdhu in Speyside. The last…

We take a lesson in the complexities of sherry cask-ageing with one of the very few single malts that is entirely aged in sherry casks, Tamdhu in Speyside.

The last tasting I attended in person before lockdown was with Gordon Dundas, brand ambassador from Tamdhu. We met in a tiny room in London: a few writers, lots of whisky and no social distancing. At the time it was fun and enlightening, looking back, it seems almost miraculous that such a thing was possible.

Tamdhu has to be one of Speyside’s least-known distilleries. Dundas said that he’d never even heard of it before he got the job at Ian McLeod Distillers, the parent company. “Even whisky people don’t know Tamdhu”, Dundas said. “We are not an old distillery,” he continued, “when the distillery opened in 1897, it was the most modern distillery of its time.” Tamdhu nearly disappeared a couple of times: no distillation took place between 1925 to 1947 and then after a period of expansion in the 1970s, it was mothballed by the Edrington Group in 2010. Ian McLeod acquired the distillery in 2011 and production resumed the following year. The company, Scotland’s second largest family-run distillers, now owns three whisky distilleries, Tamdhu, Glengoyne, and the soon to be reborn Rosebank, along with brands such as Smokehead, Sheep Dip and Edinburgh Gin

Sandy McIntyre and Gordon Dundas

The distillery:

At Tamdhu there’s capacity to produce four million litres of pure alcohol per year, 85% of this goes into blends. The rest is put into sherry casks to be sold as a single malt. Despite the rather trendy looking St. Germain-style bottles, introduced in 2013, it’s marketed very much at the single malt lover. There’s no line about demystifying the category or changing whisky’s image. Dundas commented: “We’re after the whisky drinker. We’re not trying to convert people nor are we after the cocktail market.” 

While sister distillery Glengoyne packs in 90,000 visitors per year, Tamdhu doesn’t even have a visitor centre. According to Dunadas it would cost £1million and they would rather spend the money on sherry casks. He also added: “We are not a pretty distillery”. The whole operation is automated. Dundas told us little about the process: “we heat the stills slowly. It’s a very different whisky when stills get too hot. It’s more of a simmer than a boil which gives us lots of reflux. Historically people used to whack the stills on full power.” 

The new make certainly tasted good. We tried it at 66.9% ABV and it showed lots of cereal character and green minty notes. Water brought out a creamy texture. You wouldn’t know it but Tamdhu uses a tiny amount of peated barley because, according to Dundas, that’s what’s always been done.

The casks:

Then we got onto the serious business of sherry casks. The distillery has its own on-site cooperage presided over by an ex-Glenfiddich cooper. The firm has produced a useful 12 minute film called Spain to Speyside (above) to explain how the casks get to Scotland. The team buys from various firms in Spain: Tevasa, Vasyma, and Huberto Domecq (scion of the great Domecq sherry family). Tamdhu uses butts (around 500 litres), puncheons (like a dumpier butt, no giggling at the back!), and Hogsheads (250 litres). These are sent whole to Scotland, not broken down. 

The casks are all seasoned for two years with oloroso sherry of roughly five years of age. This is real sherry, not sherry-style wines that some producers use. The wood soaks up about 35 litres of sherry per year. Dundas said: “The role of sherry is to modify the oak. Colour and flavour come from oak not the sherry. Sometimes it can be hard to tell sherry-infused oak from bourbon oak.” 

Tamdhu uses both American oak (quercus alba) and European oak (quercus rober). The Spanish wine industry has long-used American oak barrels which are much cheaper as you get many more casks per tree. It’s not just in Jerez, traditional Rioja owes its signature taste to long ageing in American oak. The final factor to be considered is whether the casks are first-fill or refill.

Tamdhu cooperage (you probably don’t need a caption here)

 

So when someone says ‘sherry cask’, there are a number of questions we can ask:

-What size is the cask?
-Is it European or American oak?
-What type of sherry was used to season?
-How long was the sherry in the wood for?
-Is the cask refill or first-fill?
-How long was the whisky in the sherry cask for?

It’s complicated. To demonstrate the importance of just one of these factors, European or American oak, we tried two limited edition Tamdhus:

– Representing America was a single cask bottling named in honour of Sandy Mcintyre, distillery manager, winner of best Single Cask at the World Whiskies Awards this year. It was distilled in 2003, bottled in 2019 at 56.2% ABV, and only aged in a first fill American oak sherry butt.

– And in the European corner was the Edinburgh Airport Cask which was distilled in 2006, bottled in 2019 at 58.9% ABV, and only aged in a first fill European oak sherry butt

 

Casks, very important

The American oak one had some of what you might think of as sherry notes on the nose, some dried fruits, but really it was all about fresh fruit with vanilla, crème brûlée, and caramel. Tried blind, I think most people would say something about bourbon casks. The American oak character is really strong. 

Then we tried the European one, the colour is much darker (all Tamdhu expressions are the colour they came out of the cask, unlike some other famous sherry-influenced malts that Dundas mentioned). Now this is what you’d think of as a sherry bomb: dried apricot, tobacco, leather, a smell like getting into a Jensen Interceptor. Then the mouth, it’s all about wood tannins, strong chilli spice, drying leather and maraschino cherries. 

Both are superb sherry-influenced whiskies but only one is what you’d think of as a classic sherried whisky, the European oak version. Those ‘sherry bomb’ notes come not from sherry but from European oak. It makes sense, because those flavours also crop up in old Cognacs. Old Macallan often tastes a lot like Cognac. 

Tamdhu 12 Year Old, a lovely drop

We then tried some of core range bottling that combine the two oak types, different cask types as well as refill and first fill casks: 

– The 12 Year Old leans more to American oak. The nose smells of butter and vanilla with a touch of tobacco then peachy fruit with some strong herbal new make character coming through. It’s creamy and sweet on the palate with some peppery notes.

– The 15 Year Old is matured in around 40% European oak. The nose is so fruity with apricot, pineapple, oranges in syrup, lots of rancio character. On the palate, there’s vanilla, orange peel, demerara sugar with walnuts on the finish.

– Finally, we tried the Batch Strength #4, a limited edition NAS expression bottled at 57.8% ABV.  It’s a real beastie that would appeal to lovers of whiskies like Mortlach. Nose is marmalade, dark chocolate, then the palate is like burnt sugar, thick dark marmalade, dark chocolate and chilli spice. 

My favourite of the day was probably the 15 year old, a graceful melding of European and American oak but everything we tried was spectacularly good. Tamdhu is very quietly, without making too much fuss about it, turning out some of the finest whiskies in Scotland. You should check them out. And now you’ll never use the words ‘sherry cask’ when tasting whisky without thinking carefully again. 

 

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