If you’ve read enough pieces, opinions, wisdom – and certainly reviews – on Whisky & Wisdom, you’ll have noticed a subconscious, underlying nostalgic tone occasionally. When you’ve been enjoying whisky for over twenty years and observed the very significant changes and growth that has occurred in the industry in that time (even in just the last ten years), it’s hard to look at and comment on current whisky affairs without inadvertently glancing backwards to how things once were.
Such observances even pervade one’s thinking when it comes to Johnnie Walker. Once upon a time, the Johnnie Walker stable was a pretty simple and well-defined house. Just four simple colours: Red, Black, Gold, and Blue. (Yes, there was the occasional sighting of something different (e.g. Swing), and let’s not forget the rumours of the elusive Grey Label that did the rounds back in the mid-2000’s.)
It doesn’t seem that long ago that the core-range of many distilleries consisted of a ubiquitous 12yo, followed by an 18yo and a 25yo. The really daring distilleries would then inject something colourful into the portfolio, such as a vintage release or something with an exotic name.
Glenmorangie is a remarkable distillery for many reasons, but one of its most impressive aspects is its huge and diverse core range. The humble (yet sensational) Original continues to underpin the line up, but the flavour profile and offerings rapidly then diversify with the likes of the Extra Matured range (Lasanta, Quinta Ruban, and Nectar d’Or), followed by the older age statements – namely the 18yo and 25yo. The latter two – in particular – were notable for being exceptionally rich and luxurious.
But in today’s whisky world, nothing is constant for too long and there was a touch of sadness when we heard that the Glenmorangie 25yo was effectively being discontinued. However, any sadness you experience will instantly evaporate once you taste its replacement: The Glenmorangie 1990 Grand Vintage Malt.
Members or watchers of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society may recently have heard about one of the Society’s latest projects: The release of a blended malt. No, not a blend….a blended malt. (And if that subtle distinction in terminology still confuses you, you are welcome to write to the Scotch Whisky Association and let them know your thoughts on the matter. Good luck.)
If there’s one thing you can’t accuse the Society of doing in recent times, it’s standing still. Clubs, societies, bottlers, and brands need to continually evolve and change with the times, and the Society has been particularly pro-active in expanding its list of bottlings and the benefits that membership bestows on its members.
Anyone who’s bring drinking whisky for a few years now will no doubt have noticed “change”. Brands have changed their packaging and labels. Distilleries have changed their core-range or introduced new expressions into their line-up. Prices have changed. Distillery Managers and Brand Ambassadors have changed. According to some, whisky itself has changed!
Another key area that has changed (and will continually evolve and change) is whisky’s marketing. In particular, each whisky brand’s image can change. And few brands can match the change in persona that has overcome Highland Park.
With so many different special releases of Ardbeg that catch everyone’s attention each year (i.e. the annual Ardbeg Day releases such as Kelpie, Dark Cove, Perpetuum, Auriverdes, etc, or the limited release of the 21yo), it’s easily to forget that Ardbeg’s actual core range consists of just three bottlings: Uigeadail, Corryvreckan, and the 10yo.
Of course, a decade or two ago, a distillery with multiple expressions in its portfolio usually showcased its core range via a diverse spread of different age statements, for example, a 12yo, an 18yo, and, say, a 25yo. However, as is widely reported and acknowledged these days (see here), distilleries today are increasingly turning to No Age Statement releases to manage their stocks and inventory. (Talisker is a classic example – arguably one that has gone too far – with core range NAS releases such as Skye, Storm, Dark Storm, Neist Point, Port Ruighe, and 57o North). Given Ardbeg’s chequered history, with such small and sporadic production between 1983 and 1997, it’s no surprise that Ardbeg must also make a virtue of NAS releases. Fortunately, as anyone who’s tasted them can attest to, Uigeadail and Corryvreckan are two very good whiskies. But what if you’re a huge Ardbeg fan and you still yearn for something more? Relief is now at hand…
Glen Moray celebrates its 120th anniversary this year, having been founded way back in 1897. The distillery had humble beginnings and had already endured over a decade of silence and inactivity when it was bought by Macdonald & Muir (effectively Glenmorangie) in 1920. Glenmorangie held the reins for the next 88 years, during which time the distillery became a workhorse for the many supermarket blends that Macdonald & Muir were behind. If you believe the folklore, Glen Moray was also the playground for Dr Bill Lumsden, who would conduct all manner of trials and maturation experiments on Glen Moray spirit before transferring his more successful undertakings across to Glenmorangie.
With Ardbeg Day now an entrenched part of the whisky calendar, it seems unnecessary to go into great detail about the day itself and what it entails. Of course, whilst the day itself is a great hive of fun and activity, most people’s focus and attention is on the special release bottling. This year’s release, Kelpie, is a belter, and an Ardbeg to make the purists happy.
The Committee Edition release – bottled at a higher strength of 51.7% – was released earlier this year and found many friends. The commercial or retail bottling, bottled at 46%, will be released on June 3rd to coincide with Ardbeg Day.
Of course, many people make the mistake of simply dismissing the retail version as being a “watered down” version of the Committee Edition. Chemically speaking, they’re correct, but from a sensory perspective, there’s so much more to it than that. Yes, whilst the retail version simply has more water added to it to bring it down to a lower strength, the effect of this on the whisky is very pronounced. The influence of the ABV is huge when it comes to how our palates react to the whisky. Master blenders and independent bottlers often carry out multiple tastings or samplings to establish whether a special release should be bottled at, say, 46%, 48%, 50%, or 51.5%. The different ABV’s influence how the alcohols and flavour compounds are balanced, and thus a different bottling strength will pronounce (or, in contrast, diminish) certain aspects of the flavour spectrum. For example, a whisky bottled at 46% might seem saltier, or sweeter, or fruitier than the same spirit bottled at 48%.
It’s hardly shiny or earth-shattering news to write that new distilleries are popping up all over Scotland. In fact, such a statement is unlikely to pique any interest amongst the more learned whisky enthusiasts. However, what does become interesting is when you start to look at the geography of these new distilleries. Many are now re-populating the Lowlands, such as the Glasgow Distillery, or the wee-explosion of distilleries in Fife (e.g. Kingsbarns, Daftmill, etc). Others are adding to the spectrum of Speyside, such as Ballindalloch or Dalmunach.
When starting a new distillery in these current times, the owners will be looking for some key necessities when deciding upon the site of their distillery. In addition to the most obvious requirement (i.e. a good water source), other considerations will be existing infrastructure, convenient access, shared resources, a ready-made tourist trail for visitors, and ease of transport for both the delivery of raw materials and the departure of spirit and filled casks. So – with all these essentials being key to a successful distillery start-up, why would you choose to locate your distillery in one of the most far flung, remote, and inaccessible parts of Scotland? In the case of Ardnamurchan, the answer is pretty simple: Because they can.
For anyone who’s entered the single malt whisky scene in recent years, the choice and array of bottlings, brands and releases can be overwhelming. Almost 30 years ago now, the situation was very different when Diageo launched “The Classic Malts” – first into travel retail in 1988, and then into the domestic market in 1989. Those six whiskies (Glenkinchie, Cragganmore, Oban, Dalwhinnie, Talisker, and Lagavulin) became the vehicle through which hundreds of thousands of people were introduced to malt whisky. For close to a decade they were almost the definitive collection and – notwithstanding the omnipresence of the likes of Glenfiddich and Glenlivet – it was only by the late 1990’s that other brands and recognisable labels started to consistently appear in regular retail outlets.
Never one to rest on their laurels, Diageo continued (and continues) to expand their range. The so-called Rare Malts range ran from 1995-2005, and the Managers Choice range also kept hardcore fans happy with its single cask, cask-strength releases. The original Classic Malts range was also expanded in 2006, adding the likes of Clynelish and Caol Ila, in addition to others that were custom selected for individual markets (e.g. Cardhu for the USA).
One of the longer-term and more interesting projects has been the Diageo Special Releases range, consisting of a specially selected and crafted series of bottlings released annually each year since 2001. As the name inherently suggests, the releases are “special” and typically include Diageo’s rarest stock, such as whiskies from closed distilleries – Port Ellen, Brora, and Cambus being three examples.
With multi-tasking all the rage these days, this piece combines two distinct happenings involving Ardbeg. The second of these relates to Kelpie, this year’s new release to coincide with Ardbeg Day. But before we try and conquer that wee beastie, have you heard of Ardbeg Untamed?
The last three decades have seen the distilleries and the whisky brands take ever increasing and impressive steps to bring us into their sanctums. Once upon a time, importers and distributors simply held a tasting event and poured out their whiskies for the punters to taste. Then came the brand ambassadors, who did more-or-less the same thing, except with the assistance of slide shows, which then morphed into the “multi-media presentations”. With the advent of live webcams, distilleries took us into their production areas and you could get a sneak peek into the workings of a distillery without having to leave your own home.
So, short of hopping on a plane and making your way directly to Scotland, what was the next step and development for distilleries to bring us ever closer to their heart? The answer is Virtual Reality. Ardbeg Untamed is one such undertaking. Courtesy of VR, Ardbeg has launched a series of visual experiences that take you across the water to Ardbeg and through the distillery. As the fly-through whizzes through the warehouse, you’ll see and hear Mickey Heads, distillery manager, talking to the lads as they go about their daily routine.
Given that so much about a distillery is now available online in the form of pictures and virtual tours that you can enjoy whilst sitting at your desktop, the VR experience is pretty special and certainly adds both a layer of realism and a tangible feeling of being within the space. Surely this is as close as you can get to Islay without actually being there.