The dark side of samples and bottle-splits

Last week I walked into a fancy steakhouse – one that’s run by one of Australia’s leading and most well-known restauranteurs and celebrity chefs.  I was shown to my table and handed the menu.  Wow! It showcased an amazing selection of gourmet choices, although with price tags to make most of us squirm.  There was one particular steak that stood out – it was a particular cut of wagyu that sounded out of this world.  As was its price tag!  I’d love to have treated myself to it, but it was more than what my budget could justify.  Besides, there were much cheaper steaks that also looked pretty tempting, and I couldn’t order two meals now, could I?  I resigned myself to the fact that I’d probably have to order one of the cheaper, more regular cuts.

As I pondered this situation, a waiter brought the main course out to the couple who were sitting at the table next to me.  I couldn’t help but notice that the man had ordered the very wagyu steak I was lusting for.  As they settled into their meal, I leaned across and said, “Excuse me – I was just wondering if you’d mind cutting off a piece of your steak and giving it to me so that I can try it?”

– – – – –

It’s nonsense, isn’t it?  You’d never have the temerity to do such a thing or to make such an undignified request.    So why does this very situation play out in the whisky world?  We wouldn’t do it with food at a restaurant (yes, for the record, the above story was a fictional allegory), yet plenty of people are quite happy to make similar requests when it comes to whisky.  It’s the dark side of samples.

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2016 Diageo Special Releases

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.

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Paul John: The Man and the Whisky

If there’s one message the whisky industry is sending to Consumerville right now – both implicitly and explicitly – it’s that for malt whisky drinkers looking to try new drams, your options extend well beyond the shores of Scotland. Malt whisky is being made all over the world, both from serious contenders set up for large scale production, and from the plethora of craft distilleries forging small but new ground.

The trouble for many of these newer distilleries is that finances and cash flow almost demand that they put their product out to market early. Yes, we all know that these early releases are works in progress and that these “Hey, I’m here” bottlings at two, three, and four years old are all immature and not a true reflection of what the whisky might one day become.   But one wonders if such producers might do their brand a favour if they were to simply sit back and patiently wait until the spirit was truly ready?  Nonetheless, regardless of the marketeers or the accountants, every distillery has to get through its awkward years of puberty until it can put world class whisky on the shelves.

Meanwhile, one country that continues to press on and build on an already firmly established foundation is India. Paul John is certainly one distillery that has its teething years behind it and is now bottling impressive whisky. Very impressive whisky.   Whisky & Wisdom has previously told parts of the Paul John story, and you can read much of the background information, plus read tasting notes on the core range here.

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Listen to your whisky

For people being introduced to whisky, the textbooks and the brand ambassadors teach you that whisky engages your senses.  We look at the colour.  We smell the aroma.  We feel the mouthfeel and the texture in our mouth.  We taste the flavour.

That’s all good and well.  But when did you last actually listen to your whisky?

Listening is a skill.  And, as any parent with young kids can tell you, listening is different to hearing.  Hearing is easy; listening is not.  Consider the following sage words:

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”. (Stephen Covey)

The word LISTEN contains the same letters as the word SILENT”. (Alfred Brendel)

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The heart of Heartwood

The Australian whisky industry needs no introduction.  Its distilleries and bottlings are consistently winning awards and accolades around the world.  Much has been written about Bill Lark and his efforts so many years ago to have Tasmanian legislation amended and to set out on the journey that, ultimately, has led to the vibrant and dynamic industry which now exists.

But in distilling the Australian whisky industry into words, attention naturally focuses on the distilleries, because this is where the action is at.  This is where the whisky is being made; it’s where the whiskies are crafted and matured; it’s the story of adversity, hard yakka, passionate individuals, and – eventually – bottled spirit.

Notwithstanding this, the Australian industry has grown to a stage where it can now sustain a number of independent bottlers.  These are the enterprising types who acquire the casks of whisky from the distillery and then bottle it under their own label.  But if there is one enterprising person who has risen above the pack and forged completely new ground (let alone a whole new way of thinking), it is surely Tim Duckett – the man behind Heartwood.

Mr Tim Duckett

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Visiting the distilleries of Tasmania

As recently as 15 years ago, the term “Australian whisky industry” used to be a cute little phrase that vaguely referred to the activities of a few hobby-distillers, whose products were more curiosities than serious globally-acclaimed malts.

Today, nothing could be further from the truth: A swag of international awards; coopers and coppersmiths suddenly in constant work; an industry that supports visitor centres and regular tours; impressive investment in new stills and bondstores; and well-aged stock on the shelves of major chain liquor outlets.

Travelling to these distilleries and visiting them is not necessarily an easy task, particularly taking into account the rural likes of Limeburners in Albany, or Blackgate in Mendooran.  However, with the bulk of the action taking place in Tasmania, a quick trip to Hobart and its surrounds allows the whisky tourist to see quickly and in no uncertain terms that the Australian whisky industry is a force to be reckoned with.  So for those wanting a snapshot of the main Tasmanian distilleries, or for those thinking of touring the Apple Isle and paying our friends a visit, here’s your guide to the main players amongst Tasmania’s whisky scene:

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Bringing balance to the foreshots

A joint essay & publication by Matthew Fergusson-Stewart of Whisky Molecules, and Andrew Derbidge of Whisky & Wisdom.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, your two correspondents were co-hosting a tasting event together and explaining the distillation process to the audience, going into detail about the fractioning – better known as the foreshots, middle cut, and feints.  We explained that the foreshots was heavy in methanols and other undesirable elements, which everyone was happy to accept.  We also explained how the foreshots and feints are never wasted, but are mixed back in with the next batch of low wines, and the process continues repeatedly. Everyone was happy to accept that, too.  Well, almost everyone.  One chap sitting near the front objected: “If the foreshots keep being recycled and mixed back in, won’t you get a continually increasing build-up of methanol in the spirit?”   Ummmm……

It’s a vexing question that’s since been posed to us both many times.  What do they do with the methanol and where does it go?

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Ardbeg and the new 21yo

Ardbeg. That wonderful Islay distillery with a cult following so devoted, over 120,000 fans from over 130 countries have pledged their allegiance to ensure the distillery never closes its doors again.  Again?  Yes, Ardbeg has quite a tale to tell…

Ardbeg has a weight, a brand, a persona, that is bigger than itself. It has a reputation for huge, bold, peaty whiskies, and its name travels so far and with such reverence that you could be forgiven for thinking it’s the biggest distillery on Islay.  In truth, it’s actually the second smallest!  With just one pair of stills churning away, its potential annual production capacity is just a trickle over 1.1 million litres.

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The pioneers of Australia’s malt whisky appreciation community

“The whisky appreciation scene and the whisky enthusiasts’ community is booming.”

Captain Obvious, 2016.

For anyone who’s climbed aboard the hurtling whisky juggernaut in the last three or four years, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was always this way.  Here, in Australia, we have brand ambassadors flying around the country and presenting whiskies to established fan bases and new audiences.  We have multiple whisky bars operating in the capital cities and out in the suburbs.  We have countless whisky clubs that meet regularly.  We have online whisky clubs and groups that exist in various Facebook spheres.  We have a selection of 40 to 50 different whiskies to choose from in the supermarket chain retailers.  We have online whisky stores that ship the latest and greatest releases to your doorstep.  We have whisky expos in each of the capital cities.  We have distilleries opening up or establishing all across the country.   I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  We ain’t never had it this good before.

But it wasn’t always this way.   Hard as it might seem to believe, there was a time when life for the Australian whisky enthusiast was the polar opposite.   Imagine being a whisky fan in the mid-1970’s when less than a handful of single malt brands were available.  Imagine going into a bottle shop in the late 1990’s and having a selection of no more than six different bottlings to select from.      Imagine no whisky bars.   Imagine no online whisky resources or communications.  In fact, imagine no internet.

It was in those seemingly primitive times that the first pioneers and members of the whisky enthusiasts’ community of Australia set out trying to (a) source malt whisky, (b) share their enthusiasm with other people, and (c) gather together a community of like-minded souls around them.

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Eight ways that whisky tells you you’re getting older

In many of life’s pursuits, there are often tell-tale signs along the way that you’re getting older.   For example, that radio station you used to love listening to in your teens no longer does it for you.  Certain drinks you used to enjoy no longer agree with you.  Or you discover your favourite bands that you grew up with are now referred to as vintage or classic rock.  Or that 5km jog you used to do in 25 minutes now takes you 40 minutes to complete.   You get the idea.

Whisky is another such medium that delivers the not-so-subtle message to you that – just like a perfectly balanced Glenfarclas – you’ve been maturing for quite a few years now.   Whilst the whisky industry seems to be hurtling you down a steep path towards a No Age Statement retirement, there are…particularly if you’re older than 40 and have been drinking whisky since the 1990’s…plenty of signs that you, personally, are carrying an age statement.

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