The Old and the New – the changing world of the sherry cask

Glenfarclas 10s

I recently tasted a bottle of Glenfarclas 10yo with the old-style bottle design. It wouldn’t have been from too long ago – the design changed in 2009 – but tasting it alongside the current expression of the 10yo was a striking difference. You could see a lot of the same factors in each, but the current release felt a lot more laid back in all aspects: there was pear and vanilla fudge on the nose, where the old version had brandy and toffee fudge; there was simple syrup and a faint creme de cassis on the palate, where the old version had cinder toffee, caramelised sugar and blackcurrants. The finish was a gentle tailing off of the palate in the current 10yo, and very rounded, while in the old 10yo those burnt sugars lingered and lingered. In short, they felt like very much the same whisky, but with a focus that has changed from peppiness and power to a more sedate and assured mellowness. And as far as I’m concerned, each expression carries out its aim brilliantly.

So why might an expression like this change over time? There can be many reasons – a change in distiller or blender can lead to a change in style, either through conscious choice or simply because the new person at the helm interprets the whisky differently. There might be an alteration in style to better suit a particular market – for instance, many have speculated about a perceived change in the Glen Ord 12yo when it became part of Diageo’s Singleton range and was marketed in Asia. In some cases the change might just be a slow, organic drift in flavour, with no true cause but time.

A factor that has become a lot more prevalent in recent times, particularly for distilleries like Glenfarclas and Macallan, is actually the availability of their chosen type of cask, ex-sherry casks. While the demand for scotch whisky, particularly single malt, has increased over the last 30 years, the demand for sherry has fallen heavily by comparison, and a good ex-sherry cask is hard to come by. Initially, this meant that the cost increased – while you might buy an ex-bourbon cask for a little under £100, a sherry cask might set you back between £600-1000.

However, over the last 10 years or so, the problem has worsened, and it is hard for distilleries who predominantly use sherry casks to get enough of them at any price. Instead they are forced to turn to other measures. Glenfarclas have always used a mixture of first fill sherry casks (ie, fresh from a bodega) and second fill (ie, ex-sherry casks that have already been used to mature scotch). I suspect that they have transitioned towards using a slightly higher percentage of these second fill casks, and this is why the current 10yo is a bit more mellow and less juicy than in previous years.

The other option is the one Macallan have been using – they have their own Spanish oak casks made, or import North American oak casks from the bourbon industry, and then have these sent to Spain. Here they are seasoned with oloroso sherry at a bodega owned by Macallan and used for this sole purpose. The seasoning period is almost always shorter than a typical aging period for oloroso, meaning that the casks are less heavily impregnated with the sherry than they would otherwise be. Combined with this is the increased usage of North American white oak, a less porous type of wood that contains more vanillins and fewer tannins than Spanish red oak. These two factors are largely responsible for the shift of the Macallan style towards a somewhat less fruity character.

Do I mind? In honesty, not that much. As a committed whisky drinker, I will always have access to whiskies with a strong sherry influence, even if these do have to become limited to a smaller scale of release. I feel sad that those starting their whisky journey are losing the chance to experience these iconic sherry bombs, but we are already starting to see this balanced out by increasing usage of other types of European oak cask, like port and red wine. The Scotch whisky industry will find its feet again, and very likely end up in a place where the number of different cask influences on offer is much wider than it is today. And for me, that is a welcome thought.

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Distillery Review: Glen Ord

P1000723 (1)(1)I spent a week on the Black Isle recently, full of sun, rain and pretty much everything in between, and of course I couldn’t leave without checking out the local distillery. Being the Highlands, ‘local’ means ‘within 50 miles’, but I had a designated driver and Glen Ord are a distillery I’ve always been curious about.

Glen Ord is one of three distilleries that comprise Diageo’s Singleton brand – drinkers fom Europe will better know the releases from Dufftown distillery like Spey Cascade and Tailfire, while North American whisky fans will have seen the Singleton of Glendullan. The Singleton of Glen Ord is bottled primarily for the Asian market, and as such I’d only ever had the 12yo, which I’d found to be a very more-ish introduction to their range.

The distillery itself is much like any other – you’ll wander through from mash tun to washback to still room and spot the same familiar setup, the only small difference being that our guide Charlie (fantastic fellow, by the way, shout out to him) told us the sparging of the mash happens as a continuous process with hot water added while the mash is stirred and wort is drawn off, whereas most of the distilleries I had visited before would add water to the mash first and hold it in the tun for a while before draining the wort. A quick search revealed these two methods as, respectively, fly sparging and batch sparging, but you’d need a greater knowledge of the process than I to say exactly what advantages each style would have over the other. (If this has all been Greek, see here for some context about the overall process)

What I really enjoyed about the tour though was how frank Charlie was about what really goes on at a working distillery. A lot of places will wax lyrical about the old traditional methods and proudly show you their barely used malting floors and warehouses that contain about 10% of their casks. Charlie, on the other hand, was quite happy to show us the tankers taking off the spirit to be casked elsewhere, and told us up front that most of the casks in the warehouse actually belonged to other distilleries in the Diageo family. This is part of a practice of ensuring no distillery has too many of their casks in one place, which makes a lot of sense.

The other thing to mention is the distillery malts its own barley. A proper industrial setup with big drums and all, the Glen Ord maltings are one of four, alongside Roseisle, Port Ellen and Burghead, which malt barley for Diageo’s distilleries. In particular, a lot of the malt for Talisker will have come from Glen Ord.

The tour finished, as they all should, with a vertical tasting of the Singleton of Glen Ord range, 12yo, 15yo and 18yo. Here are my thoughts:

Singleton of Glen Ord 12yo, 40% ABV – 78/100

Light on the nose, but nonetheless quite juicy, with pears and a bit of citrus. Becomes more rounded with a drop of water, with buttercoming through as the citrus departs. The palate is dangerously close to Glenfiddich 12 levels of gentleness, with red apples and poached pears sitting on a slightly butterscotchy base. There’s currants and ginger there as well, but none of it is quite strong enough to make the whisky stand out. Saved somewhat by a moreish and creamy finish, this is one I’d quite happily drink all evening. But if I didn’t know what I was drinking, I wouldn’t make much effort to find out.

Singleton of Glen Ord 15yo, 40% ABV – 89/100

Glen Ord bottle

The 15 year old and some friends

This is my nectar, and I bought a bottle there and then. It’s the kind of versatile whisky I really appreciate which starts off full and tangy, but becomes warm and mellow with a drop of water without losing the strength of flavour. The nose brings warm gingerbread, stewed apples and a little bit of brandy showing through after a while. On the tongue I was getting a perfect black forest gateau, the juiciness of the cherries rounded out by the thick chocolate. Spiciness develops as the palate evolves, with ginger returning and bringing some anise to the party. But like a tiger that rolls over for belly scratches, water brings out a soft underbelly, revealing a buttery biscuit base that would make Gregg Wallace swoon. A very fine example of that part-tamed Highland style which keeps us coming back time after time.

Singleton of Glen Ord 18yo, 40% ABV – 75/100

For me, this is a whisky that has tried too much, and just over-reached itself. Glen Ord mature in a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, and while it has taken a back seat in the younger expressions, the sherry cask influence is much more pronounced here. The nose is brilliant – thick with toffee and blackberries, with a warm ginger that makes me hope this will be a heavyset big brother of the 15yo. The palate is more tart, with Granny Smiths, blackcurrant and port. There’s something slightly herbal and peppery on the finish, but the body of the whisky feels a bit thin, and the overall effect comes across rather sharp and tannic. A splash of water improves it, bringing out some of the toffee that I found on the nose, but not quite hiding the tannins. There’s a lot of potential in this whisky, and I wonder if bottling at a slightly higher ABV might give it the weight to carry the depth of flavour that is undeniably present. As things stand though, this wasn’t the dram for me.

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Islay’s Ninth Distillery – The Strange Tale of Gartbreck and Ardnahoe

Since Kilchoman was founded in 2005 (an event for which I will ever be grateful) there have been a great many people interested in who might come next. The ability to stamp the word ‘Islay’ proud and clear on your bottle is an incredible draw, one which can overcome any issues surrounding isolating your distillery on a barren rock in the Hebrides where all but about 100 yards of the road is single track. And for a while it seemed like the ninth distillery on Islay might be named Gartbreck. Continue reading

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At least one good thing happened in 2016…

2016 hasn’t been a fantastic year, pretty much wherever you are in the world – it’s kind of heart-wrenching when you can look at your country, where the value of your currency is plummeting and racial tension is skyrocketing, and think you got off lightly. But fear not, for I bring tidings of great comfort and joy. 2016, whatever else it may be, is the year of the red wine cask. Continue reading

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Frozen

I saw the release bumf for the Johnnie Walker Blue Winter’s Edition the other day, and it reminded me of an occasion some time last year when I went into a supermarket and saw a box of cereal. At least, I’m fairly sure it was cereal, because the box was the right sort of shape, with that tab thing on top. Other than that, there wasn’t actually much hint as to what was inside, because the packaging was smothered, absolutely saturated, with images from Frozen. Continue reading

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Diageo Special Releases 2015

I try not to do posts that are just about tasting some whisky, but I went to a tasting of the Diageo Special Releases, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London, which I figured merited some special attention. I feel like there’s some kind of Whisky Scouts badge for tasting Brora and Port Ellen for the first time, and it’s good to have checked those off my bucket list. Although I wonder if I’m getting a bit jaded – I think I got most excited when I realised Neal’s Yard were doing the cheese selection… Continue reading

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The Soaper’s Choice – No. 8

Just a quick note on the latest edition of the Soaper’s Choice. I’ve just added the last of the Kilchoman 10th Anniversary Release, a lovely wee dram that I was very tempted to finish off. But a deal’s a deal, so I popped it in the mix, and I’m very glad I did. The Anniversary release was a limited batch made earlier this year using a cask from each of the years that Kilchoman has been open (up to 2012, of course. It still qualifies as Scotch.) Continue reading

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