Johnnie Walker continues to extend their portfolio and bring interest to the category of blended Scotch whisky with a number of new and/or limited edition releases. The “Blue Label” brand has many incarnations and variations these days since it was first expanded with the King George V release several years ago now.
The latest Blue Label release comes with all the usual fanfare and back-story, but this one will deservedly and legitimately grab your attention. For, whilst many rare blends tease you with vague or enigmatic tales of especially “rare” or “old” whiskies making up the blend (but never telling you what they are), Blue Label’s first “Ghost and Rare” release proudly shows its hand and tells you its secrets. And any whisky that declares Brora as a key ingredient is going to draw the interest of whiskyphiles.
The whisky calendar is blessed these days to have annual events and annual releases that we all look forward to. For example, Islay-philes hang out each year for the Feis Ile bottlings, and Ardbeg fans are always keenly anticipating May for Ardbeg Day and the release of the special Ardbeg limited edition that accompanies it. For those who prefer a more typical “Highland” style of whisky, there is always huge interest in the annual release of Glenmorangie’s Private Edition bottling. This year’s release – Private Edition No. 9 – is called “Spios”.
For the uninitiated, Glenmorangie’s Private Edition range is a special once-off and limited release that comes out each year to showcase a new variation or interpretation on the Glenmorangie flavour profile. Through the use of different casks or wood regimes during maturation, or by using different varieties of barley (or different peating levels), the usual Glenmorangie DNA is given a tweak and a nudge to explore new and – without fail – delicious flavour territories. Some within Glenmorangie, including Dr Bill Lumsden himself, (Glenmorangie’s Director of Distilling, Whisky Creation, and Whisky Stocks) have hinted or suggested that the Private Edition range showcases experimentation but, to my palate, the results are consistently too successful and too good to be mere experiments. No, this is a product line that knows what it’s doing. And for those who are curious, in terms of volume, the Private Edition range makes up less than 1% of Glenmorangie’s total annual production, so it is genuinely a very limited product.
Eight previous releases make up the Private Edition range, namely the PX Sonalta, Finealta, Artein, Ealanta, Companta, Tusail, Milsean, and Bacalta. Experimentation is a long-term exercise in the whisky world, with the results of any tweak in production or new cask filling not being fully realised until years after the fact and after maturation plays its role. Of course, if the results are good, then replicating the experience resets and starts the process with – again – a return period of 10-12 years. It would be nice to think that some of these Private Edition releases might one day form part of the core range but, as Dr Bill explained during the launch of Spios, some of them simply don’t have the quantities of materials or economies of scale to make this possible.
Spios is the Scots Gaelic word for “spice”, and the whisky itself showcases spirit that has been wholly matured in American oak (quercus alba) ex-rye casks. Many associate finishing or “extra maturation” with Glenmorangie, but it’s worth re-iterating that Spios is wholly matured in the ex-rye casks – in this case, the casks evidently held and matured the rye whisky for six years before Glenmorangie acquired them.
Rye whisky (or whiskey, as is more commonly and appropriately referenced) once held court as America’s most-loved grain spirit. However, tastes, palates, and traditions changed over the 13 years of prohibition, and when US distillers went back into production in 1933, rye had fallen from favour and the softer, sweeter tones of bourbon ruled the roost. Interest in rye has been building again in recent years, arguably driven by the bar scene and its trendy use in cocktails, although – it must be said – the likes of Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and others have been churning out rye in healthy quantities for a few years now. Anyone looking to “pigeonhole” rye or de-base it down to a singular descriptor invariably reaches for the word “spice” or “spicy” at some point (particularly when comparing it to corn-based bourbon), and so it is no surprise that Glenmorangie’s rye cask release is similarly named.
Repeating the successful format of last year’s Bacalta, Spios was launched simultaneously around the globe this year via a virtual tasting and audience with Glenmorangie’s Dr Bill Lumsden and Brendan McCarron. Courtesy of a live hook-up, TV screens, internet cameras and microphones, Brendan & Dr Bill sat in the Whisky Creation room at Glenmorangie’s headquarters in Edinburgh, and were beamed directly to a number of gathered audiences around the globe. The Australian launch shared a mutual session with Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, and Sydney. After a shared address and tasting by Bill and Brendan to everyone, each city was then given an allocated slot to speak directly with the two gents, and to ask questions, which they both happily and helpfully answered.
The initial tasting, led by both gents, commenced with Glenmorangie Original, which set an important context for the night, given that most of the Private Edition range whiskies “start out” as Original and are then manipulated beyond this. This was followed by Nectar d’Or, which again stamped its credentials as surely being amongst the most luxurious of readily-available whiskies on the planet.
And then came the star of the show: The Spios. So what of the whisky itself? Well, happily, the new release was being freely poured out on the night, and yours truly spent some serious time getting acquainted with it. The whisky is bottled at 46% and is non-chillfiltered. Whilst it’s officially a No Age Statement, Dr Bill dropped enough hints on the night to indicate the whisky was around 10 years old, give or take. Whisky & Wisdom’s tasting notes as follows:
Nose: There’s no mistaking this is Glenmorangie, but the rye casks add unmistakable…um…spice! Cinnamon, clove, mint, toffee are up front, followed by hay (straw?) and stale wood shavings.
Palate: The signature Glenmorangie fruit is here, but there’s a lush wood smoke note evident that reminded me of smoked and/or cured meats. The cereal notes never stray too far from centre, and there’s also spicy barley and weak black tea.
Finish: Long and intensely silky and smooth! Some wood tannins come through at the very tail.
Comments: As a Private Edition release, this has achieved exactly what it set out to do: It’s a twist and a variation on the standard Glenmorangie theme. There’s no denying that rye (as a category in itself) and rye-finished or rye-casked Scotch whisky is gathering traction (note Johnnie Walker’s recent foray into this field), and the results speak for themselves: It’s good, tasty whisky.
As an aside, it is a stunning and rewarding exercise to go back and forth between the Spios and the Glenmorangie Original. The Original is 100% matured in ex-bourbon casks, whilst the Spios spent its years in ex-rye. When tasted side by side, the vanilla in the Original becomes very pronounced, and – almost on cue – the spice and the cloves in the Spios becomes extremely evident in its own right.
Spios will be available in Australia with an RRP of $165.
Well done, Dr Bill and Brendan – we look forward to Private Edition No. 10 !
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.