Enjoying Scotch


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This was our Friday Dram members intro bottle to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and is a 15 y.o. Altmore bottled in May 2008.

Color

Light gold, very bright. Reminds me of a clear tea.

Aroma

The first smell is very unusual, slightly medicinal and quite floral. It deepens out and becomes almost syrupy. Adding water softens the nose, and reduces the sweetness while bring out more of the floral notes. After tasting and getting familiar, the aroma becomes slightly dull.

Flavor

The first hit on the palette is very spicy which builds up into slight lemony caramel notes and finishes very slowly with a syrupy taste and an oily feel building back up to a peppery spice. Subsequent sips add a menthol minty flavour.

Rating

Great long finish, that continues and warms for many minutes even when tasted with water. I really like this, but it is also mostly typical of a highland too. I would be happy to drink this any time, but I think I’ll rate it a 7.5

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Thanks Graeme for your kind comments on the blog. You asked the question about drinking whisky at home vs drinking out. That is an interesting decision, and the conclusion depends entirely on where you live which determines the available options.

About 7 years ago I moved from the UK to New Hampshire. Prior to that move, I had a number of good friends who also held a great appreciation of the ‘water of life’ and I think the social aspect is very important. I remember my last few visits to Scotland involved a number of visits to small pubs that had a huge array of single malts. This provides the opportunity to try something that you might not be able to drink at home or a good way of sampling am expensive product that you are interested in but do not want to put down the large amount of money down for a full bottle.

Unfortunately the pickings are very slim here in New Hampshire, and I have yet to find a place that has anything outside of the Classic Six or the usual brands (Glenmorangie or  Glenfiddich for example). The liquor stores do however have a decent range, and so I tend to socialize and consume at home.

Graeme, if you check back, I’d be interested if you have any location tips in San Francisco as I do travel there from time to time and have spent plenty of time and money in the San Francisco Whisky Shop. Another place I cannot wait to visit with friends is the Brandy Library in New York. I have heard many great things (mostly via Whisky Cast) about that place and I know they have a number of unique varieties.

I think to conclude, the social aspect of drinking good whisky is paramount, particularly when tasting products that are new to me. Mostly I prefer doing this in a home environment due to the better available range and (of course) the reduced overall cost. I gradually get more friends into single malts, and am hoping to get some tasting parties together to make the experience more enjoyable and to be able to expand my horizons even further.

Last week my family went on a short vacation to Florida, and whenever I am somewhere new I try to find something that is not available where I live. There were actually a few bottles of interest, but I eventually settled on the Bruichladdich Links edition “16th Hole, Augusta”.

While I do not normally fall for such marketing ploys, I have been impressed with every offering that I have tried from the Islay distillery and this 14 year old failed to disappoint.

This is a limited release, with only 18,000 bottles according to the Bruichladdich website. As is typical with any Bruichladdich, this is non-chill filtered and not coloured. It runs at 46% abv.

The first look showed a lighter colour than the photo on this page implies, and was more of an ochre colour than the golden tan seen here. First nose was very light – almost transparent – with soft florally notes and none of the impact you would typically expect. Adding a dash of water opened up the nose somewhat, with elements of citrus and a hint of the sherry cask used to age the whisky.

On tasting, the flavour builds up slowly and deliciously. It starts with a soft texture and slightly sweet flavour and builds to a more complex array of all the floral, citrus and ripe sherry notes found on the nose. Additional tastes bring out some of the oakiness, but there were never any of the typical Islay flavours (I barely detected any peatiness or smokiness).

The finish fades as deliciously as it built up and while not a long finish by any means, it definitely lingers enough to really enjoy the full and subtle flavours within.

All in all a very drinkable single malt that reminded me a lot of the 10yo Bruichladdich albeit with a little more complexity, fullness of flavour. All in all I’d rate this an 8 out of 10 with the recommendation to savour this as an aperitif or an early evening dram.

More and more often now we are seeing whisky manufacturers take a more purist approach by avoiding chill filtering and colouring of their products. But what exactly are these processes, what is the reason for them and how does it affect the end product?

Firstly, lets talk about colouring. As the single malt whisky industry grew, its clientele began to expect a level of consistency between any two bottles of the same labeled product. One large area of inconsistency comes from the flavourings and colourings imparted by the cask used to mature the distilled malt whisky.

As I have mentioned in another post, the flavour aspect is controlled by the skillful blending of whiskys across casks and even ages from within the distillery. The colour tone can also be normalized in this manner, but more typically a standardized rich golden tone is provided with the addition of caramel for colouring.

Chill-filtering has an entirely different purpose. Say for example, you poured directly from a cask into a bottle. How would that be any different from a carefully blended and filtered single malt? First the whisky will contain small ‘chips’ and impurities from the inside of the cask (I’ve heard these referred to as coals). These are entirely harmless, but offputting to most consumers. These can be mostly removed using regular filtering (through a metallic filter mesh). The second difference is that the malt that is not chill-filtered will contain natural oils and proteins present from the distillation and also extracted from the cask. These oils can cause the whisky to become cloudy when chilled or mixed with water which is again offputting for the average consumer.

Chill-filtering is a process (created I think sometime in the early 20th century) whereby the liquid is chilled to around freezing point (0°C) . This causes the natural oils and proteins to clump, and once passed through a filter these elements can be more effectively removed. This process also removes the sediment and coals.

A purist typically does not care for unnatural additions to his single malt, and in fact would celebrate differences from one cask to the next. In fact, becoming familiar with how different a whisky can be between casks really does lend some knowledge to what factors do affect the final product in terms of flavour, colour, aroma and finish and to how important the cask maturation is.

The same purist would typically also not care for any extractions from the product, and the chill-filtering process does just that. Personally, I have no problem with a single malt clouding up with the addition of water, and instead celebrate the fact that the whisky almost certainly has flavour aspects and a texture that would have been very different had it been chill-filtered.

As I mentioned, more and more single malts now label the fact that they are unchill-filtered or colour free. Custom bottlings are rarely touched in this manner, and the Blackadder bottles I own contain a fair amount of the sediment talked about earlier. The Signatory collection have some great cask strength and virtually untouched malts. Most cask strength whiskys are probably non-chill filtered as well, for example the Aberlour A’bunadh.

Please feel free to post your feedback in the comments. I’d love to know if this helped anyone clear up some of the meaning behind the terms. 

When talking about a Scottish Whisky (Scotch), there are two main categories of product – blends and single malts. The difference between the two is simple. A single malt is made entirely by distillations from a single producer at a single site, whereas a blend is created by mixing distillation from multiple producers.

Blends are typically also a mix of malt and grain whiskys (though there are exceptions), whereas a single malt is obviously only made from malt whiskys.

Blended whisky was first produced in the mid 1800’s, and the main goal is to produce a consistent marketable product. Typically the bulk of a blend is made up of grain whisky which is cheaper to produce, lending itself to a more cost effective product. The grain aspect is an unmalted cereal such as wheat or maize and it lends itself to a harsher flavour than whisky from malted grains. One thing to note is that over time, the availability of the base components of a blended whisky might become unavailable (either the distillery closes, or it decides to longer provide the malt whisky product to the blenders), causing quite a challenge to the blender. Good examples of popular blends are Bells, Grants, Teacher, Famous Grouse and Dewars.

Confusion can often arise when talking about a single malt. The term single actually refers to the fact that it is sourced from a single distiller and the end product is a crafted blend of malts of various ages. The goal here is to retain the character of the product while retaining as much consistency between batches as possible.

One important thing to note is that if a single malt is aged (for example, Aberlour has a single malt product aged at 10 years old), by law no whisky in the product can be younger than that age. Therefore a 10 year old might be a blend of 10 year olds, 12 year old, 16 year old and higher (each maybe from multiple hogsheads). The reason older products are used is often to give heightened character and sophistication to the younger product.

There are two more rare classes of product worthy of discussion – often referred to as single single malts, and single single single malts.

A single single malt denotes a malt whisky that comes from a single distillation from a single producer. It might still be a blend across hogsheads to obtain a level of consistency from batch to batch, but it typically gives a much better representation of the product you might obtain directly from a single cask.

More exclusive is what is sometimes referred to as single single single malt, although I prefer to refer to it as a direct bottling or whatever term is used by the bottler (such as Blackadder’s use if Raw Cask). This is a bottling from a specific barrel and the selection of this barrel is carefully considered in order to be representative of the distilleries regular product. Independent bottlers might also buy casks from a distiller and release such a product – an example of which would be the Blackadder products in my collection – although these products might be much more random in flavour as the barrels are rarely custom selected by the signitory or master distiller.

Given that the fewer components that are in a particular bottle usually means a more careful selection of those components, the best way to get a high quality product is to move up to single single malts, or the direct bottlings. Even here in New Hampshire there is a good selection available and as always it is worth looking out for new items at the liquor store or specialty spirit/whisky shop.

I mentioned in a previous post that my collection contains two bottlings of Aberlour by Blackadder. Blackadder whiskys are special because the buy casks directly from the distilleries and literally pour them straight into a bottle. The resultant whisky specifies the actual barrel (hogshead) number along with the year of distillation and the year of the bottling.

Because Blackadder avoid the chill filtering process, and also do not blend various ages together for consistency (I’ll talk more about the reason for both of these processes in later posts) the resulting single malt is very inconsistent in terms of colour and flavour but yet has many spectacular characteristics of its own. Each bottle is essentially unique and a masterpiece in its own right, never to be repeated.

I originally got into the Blackadder bottlings around 7 or so years ago after moving to the US. As I was still making a number of flights back to England I was always finding myself in London’s Heathrow Airport Terminal 3 awaiting Virgin Atlantic flight to Boston. Inside Terminal 3 there is a great specialty whisky store, making the wait that much easier. At around the same time I had read about the popularity increase of non-chill filtered single malts and wanted to try it for myself, which lead directly to a purchase of Blackadder Aberlour (Aberlour being my favourite distillery of the time).

As far as I know, that store was the only one in the UK to sell Blackadder bottlings, but shortly after my second purchase I was informed that they were no longer stocking the product. A bit of research showed that the majority of the product was being exported to Sweden of all places, making it a bit out of my reach. Over the last few years Blackadder have finally been extending their reach and at last they have announced an import deal with a US company.

I would encourage anyone that comes across Blackadder for sale to make the purchase. It is a little expensive (I paid a little over $200 per bottle if I remember correctly), but well worth it. Before adding water, the aroma amazingly seems ‘locked in’ to the liquid, but once diluted to a more palatable 35-40% the natural oils in the whisky start to become apparent and the aroma bursts out. The tongue feel is amazing, with a nice smooth and oily feel and a delectably long and smooth finish.

Regarding the two bottlings that I continue to eke out (by only drinking on extra special occasions), even though they are bottled from consecutive hogsheads they are very different in character. #3317 has a soft warm hue, and a smooth flavour with very nice and lengthy finish. #3318 is much lighter, almost clear, and yet has a very punchy flavour and a bright and potent aroma.

I’ll provide tasting notes next time a special occasion comes up. While you will probably not find the same bottling of the same hogshead, it should highlight how different each cask can really be.

More information at www.blackadder.com. Personally I cannot wait to try their Bruichladdich.

One big ticket discussion item that often comes up is the topic of ice (Scotch on the Rocks?),water and mixers as ways to enhance the experience of a good single malt.

Here is my personal take on the addition of these items to a good single malt.

Other

Ginger ale and Cola are the two most common requests I had as a bartender for (flavoured) mixers to a scotch. Usually these were additions to a blended scotch, such as Bells or Grants, and I do think that Ginger Ale in particular can enhance the harsher flavour of a blended whisky (malt and grain) when used in moderation.

Cola on the other hand never made any sense to me. While Cola can accentuate certain drinks – such as rum – I don’t feel it brings anything to a scotch, whether it be blended or single malt.

Would I add a mixer to a single malt? Absolutely not! The beauty of any single malt comes from the (sometimes subtle) differences in flavour from producer to producer. These different flavour notes are a complex product of the local geography, the malting process, the unique shape of the stills used by each distillery and the aging process used for each product within a producers arsenal. It would, in my opinion, be a travesty to mask all of that with a flavoured soda drink.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that if you need to add a flavoured mixer then you really do not enjoy scotch enough to appreciate a good quality single malt. Stick with blends and save some money.

Ice and Water

Ice is a trickier cat. Once again, I really have no problem with adding ice to a blended scotch whisky, as it really helps to tone down the harsher tone of the grain whisky. Single malts, however, generally lose their subtlety of flavour when ice is added. The main reasons for this is that by cooling the drink it reduces the rate of evaporation of the liquid, meaning that the ‘nose’ or aroma of the whisky is dulled down. In addition, the tongue can sense more flavour notes for a warmer product. Again, personally I avoid ice in all single malts at all costs, and generally try very hard to persuade others against the use of ice as well.

Water, though, can have the opposite effect. Unless the single malt is particularly mild or subtle in flavour to begin with (like most lowlands and the Bruichladdich 10y.o.), a small splash of water can really open up the aromas and flavours.

In fact, water is an essential addition to any cask strength single malt. These were never intended to be enjoyed at 60% strength, and should be watered down to the equivalent of 35-40% (experiment on the qty for each cask strength product) to really get the most out of the product.

 

Note, that all the comments above are really my personal preferences for enjoying whiskys at their best. As always, if something works better for you and helps you enjoy a whisky product that much more then by all means go for it.

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