Friday, February 26, 2010

Aging Gracefully

"I like my whisky old and my women young"
- Errol Flynn

The recent discovery of three crates of one hundred year-old whisky left in Antarctica by Ernest Shackleton provides the perfect backdrop to a posting about age and whisky.

It's a pretty common misconception in the whisky world that older is always better. Age is often thrown about as a measure of the quality in the same vein as karats of a diamond, but the reality is slightly more complex. Although age will definitely induce change in a whisky, it will not necessarily improve it. Increased age will generally be reflected in the price, at a near exponential rate with higher ages (30+ years) but that is more due to its scarcity than overall quality of the product. As a discerning whisky drinker, it is important to understand why whisky is aged so that you can judge the potential effects of extended aging.

There are different laws governing how whisky must be aged, but for Scotch whisky it must be aged for at least 3 years in oak casks (in Scotland) for it to be called scotch. If you ever have the opportunity to sample raw spirit from the still before it is introduced to a cask, it will become immediately obvious what a difference even 3 years of aging makes. The raw spirit is nearly colourless and very harsh, with more of a chemical aspect to it, although very sweet. If you know anyone who makes moonshine, it is essentially raw spirit unless they do their own aging in casks. So how does storage within a wooden cask allow the whisky to mellow?

The wood in the cask is porous, and this allows many of the more volatile elements in the whisky to evaporate as they pass through the wood. Unfortunately, not all of these volatile elements are undesirable, so you lose some good alcohol (ethanol) along with some of the bad alcohols (like methanol). This lost volume of ethanol, affectionately called "the angel's share", amounts to roughly 3% of the alcohol volume per year. While 3% may not seem like such a dire loss, you can imagine how much the lucky angels have taken out of a cask after 40 years! This is a contributing factor to the scarcity of older whiskies and why the price rises so much with age - there is less volume to sell and the distillery is losing more product the longer it sits in the warehouse. Other chemicals are also being lost through the wood. Lighter, more volatile compounds are lost before heavier oily ones. The esters which contribute to the fruity and floral aromas of the whisky are harder to retain than the heavier smoke and peat flavours and aromas.

The wood doesn't just steal, however. it also adds its own special touches to any whisky aging inside, which is why wooden casks are still used after hundreds of years. As the whisky penetrates into the pores of the wood, other chemical reactions take place as it reacts with compounds in the wood. The products of these reactions can leach into the whisky and imbue it with their own special flavours: vanilla, nuts, oak, and butter, for example. The use of wooden casks that have previously held sherry, port, bourbon, or other wines and liquors results in "special finishes", where aspects of the previous occupant (such as colour and flavour) will influence the aging whisky. Just pick up a bottle of something like the MacAllan Fine Oak and compare it to their standard sherry-finished expressions to appreciate the influence wood and casking can make (see the Wood, Wine and Whisky posting).

To much aging in a cask can mellow a whisky too much, however, muting its character. This is why distillery managers are always sampling whisky from aging casks and making important decisions about when to bottle the contents. Whiskies known for their particularly strong flavour characteristics can lose these over time. Aging Ardbeg, for example, brings out some of its more subtle flavours, but too much time and mellowing and it can cease to be recognizable as Ardbeg. Whisky reviews of old bottles (30+ years) will often comment on the extent to which it has retained its traditional character. Ideally, old whisky should keep some of its youthful perkiness while adding smoothness and grace. Just like people!

My father-in-law once boasted to me that he had a bottle of 30 y-o Chivas Regal, then proceeded to show me a bottle of the 12 y-o blend that had been sitting in his liquor cabinet for roughly 20 years (unopened). This is another common misconception about aging of whisky, and I think it must be due mainly to the popularity of wine and wine aging in the bottle. Once whisky is removed from the wooden cask and placed within a corked glass bottle, it is essentially inert, or frozen in time. The glass bottle has none of the porosity of the wooden cask and will not react chemically with the whisky (to any significant degree) with the whisky, so it will not change within the bottle. This has been observed for many old unopened bottles which have been sold in auctions and subsequently sampled. Once a bottle is opened however, it is the presence of air within the bottle which allows for evaporation and can react with the whisky. This brings me back to the lost "Shackleton Reserve". A large measure of the excitement over these bottles is the fact that some of them are unopened, intact, well corked and are therefore expected to be essentially the same as when they were bottled more than a hundred years ago.

One of the great benefits of drinking whisky relative to wine is that you can keep an opened bottle on the shelf for an extended period of time, dipping into it occasionally before it begins to diminish in quality. There is currently some debate over the extent and rate at which air will start to degenerate the quality of the whisky in a bottle. I tend to look at it in terms of how much air is present within the bottle that can react with the liquor: More air in the bottle means more reactions with the whisky. Some people, as a rule, will try to finish a bottle within a year of it first being opened. I try to finish it within a year once it is below half its original volume within the bottle. The more times the bottle is opened, the more air is exchanged and that will speed up the degeneration. You can experiment with your own whisky stocks to see how they change over time, but the important factors when thinking about whisky changing in the bottle are 1) presence of air 2) time 3) light (in that order of importance).

If you are really concerned about your favourite bottles, there are several tricks to help stave off the ravages of air and time: 1) Transfer remaining whisky to smaller bottles (therefore less air) 2) Displace the oxygenated air within your bottles and replace it with a more inert gas, like nitrogen (yes, people do this!) 3) Put clean glass marbles in the whisky bottles to displace the air. I'm pretty confident that all of these tricks work, but personally I'd rather just finish the whisky!

Sir Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Atlantic expedition may have ended badly, losing the good ship Endurance in the process, but I'm glad he decided to bring along some Scotch whisky. It will be a great test for whisky preservation in bottles, provides a glimpse of what whisky was like a hundred years ago, and gives a whole new meaning to Scotch on the rocks!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Flora McBabe - Bruichladdich Valinch Bottling

"Always remember, a cat looks down on man, a dog looks up to man, but a pig will look man right in the eye and see his equal"
-Winston Churchill

It is with great pleasure that I post some tasting notes for this very special bottle of whisky: Bruichladdich's Flora McBabe Valinch expression. As described in the "Daddy's Dram" posting, this particular bottle was brought back from Scotland after being bottled at the Bruichladdich distillery by yours truly. It is a sherry-finished Bruichladdich, distilled on the 5th of September and bottled on September 9th, 2004. My bottle is # 691 of 700 and I had the pleasure of watching the distillery staff empty out the last of that cask (#3666) while allowing the visitors who were present that day to fill the last dozen or so bottles.

Bruichladdich is an Islay distillery built in 1881 that is located on the Western edge of Loch Indaal. After being closed in 1994, it came under new ownership in 2000 and promptly re-invented itself to become a prime example of how successful a small, privately-owned distillery can be in this new age of interest in single malts. The owners have done a masterful job in marketing their product with innovation and a small measure of panache. Bruichladdich is one of the few distilleries that distills, matures and bottles their whisky in-house. Master distiller Jim McEwan, who is both well-known and respected after 40+ years in the industry, brings a special flair to his craft and has been given the freedom he deserves to experiment with the expressions at Bruichladdich. Your blogger had the opportunity to meet Mr. McEwan at WhiskyFest 2006 in Chicago. He was charming and very approachable. It is immediately obvious that he loves his job, enjoys meeting whisky enthusiasts, and believes strongly in what Bruichladdich is doing.

The Valinch bottlings are somewhat smaller than traditional bottles, with a volume of 50cl (500ml) as opposed to 70-75cl (700-750ml). They are bottled at natural or cask strength; in the case of Flora McBabe a tongue-tickling 55.2% abv. Bruichladdich whiskies tend to be very fresh and complex. As they are not chill-filtered and no colouring is added, you get the full natural flavour of the whisky. The 10 y-o expression is one of my favourite drams in this age group, and though floral and fruity, it has a touch of peat and is as crisp as a breath of fresh sea air - with an almost effervescent quality. Tasting notes for the Bruichladdich 10 y-o will appear on The Spirit Safe very soon.

So what happens when to Bruichladdich when you add the influence of a refill sherry butt (cask) and a wee bit of porcine inspiration? The tasting notes for this whisky are a collection from several drams shared with close friends and acquaintances: Groomsmen, bridesmaids, siblings, old friends, and the minister who baptized our daughter. In short, they all represented a celebration of our daughter's birth and we couldn't have chosen a better whisky. Samples were sent to a couple of friends by mail which allowed us to do a tasting over the phone. Not as good as doing one together in person, but a great way to share a dram nonetheless!

Bruichladdich Valinch Flora McBabe bottling
Nose: Heavy sherry, molasses with cream. Blacker S says Grape-flavoured cough syrup (not as bad as that sounds!)

Taste: sweet sherry, some nuttiness, woody vanilla and cream notes

Palate: oily and salty, feel it on the back of your tongue and inside of cheek. Finish is long and delectable, with lots of sherry flavour. Some enjoyable bitterness and lingering woodiness.

Value: To be completely honest, I can't remember how much they were asking for the Valinch bottlings, but my memory tells me that it was around 30 pounds, which would make it around $70 CDN. Although this bottle is only 500ml, it is still a good value. As McBabe was bottled at cask strength (~55% abv) you could add another 25% of the volume in water just to get it down to the standard 40% abv.

It's hard to put a price on the novelty of bottling whisky yourself at the distillery. Following through on a promise to save it for the birth of my first child has added immeasurably to its value for me. In this way, the context of a particular bottle of whisky can make it shine in a crowd and stand above the rest. Everyone who has sampled it with me has agreed that Flora is a very tasty whisky. The happiness of that moment (the first dram in the hospital room) makes this a very special malt for me and I hope that everyone reading this post gets the chance to share in a similar moment - with or without the whisky. I never had the opportunity to meet the actual Flora McBabe, but if this pig deserved such a fine whisky, I regret having missed her!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sweet and Salty Tears- Caol Ila 12 y-o

It is a moment of distinct satisfaction to finish a bottle of whisky, tinged with a little sadness; especially if it is one that you have owned for some time, shared some special moments with, or have grown particularly fond of. The latest bottle laid to rest in our household fits all of these criteria, so it is with some small measure of regret that I post these tasting notes for a bottle of Caol Ila 12 y-o. It met its end in the best way a bottle of premium liquor could hope for, savoured by a group of friends still sober enough to appreciate its finer qualities and discuss its merits.

The Caol Ila distillery (pronounced Cull Eela) is located on Islay, a Scottish Isle in the Hebrides that is known for producing smoky and peaty whiskies. Caol Ila stays true to that stereotype, and shares some characteristics with its more popular neighbours: Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. The distillery is found up the Eastern coast of Islay in a remote cove near Poart Askaig, and due to its relative isolation does not see nearly as many visitors as the Kildalton distilleries (the three listed above). Caol Ila is owned by the same company (Diageo) as Lagavulin, and up unitl a few years ago was relatively unknown except to connoisseurs. It was not one of the original six classic malts (see Diageo Calling posting) but was part of the flora and fauna malts range, a group of whiskies sold as single malts in a very limited market. Two particular malts from this group, Caol Ila (from Islay) and Clynelish (Coastal Highland near town of Brora) were selected as the next two whiskies to be pushed into the spotlight by Diageo. They were initially dubbed the "hidden malts" but have since settled comfortably into the classic malt club.

Personally, I've had a soft spot for Caol Ila ever since a trip to Scotland back in 2004 (I can't believe it's been six years!). One of the first things my traveling companion (also a whisky enthusiast) and I did upon landing in Glasgow was visit a whisky shop and pick up a bottle to accompany us on our travels. I had read some good reviews about Caol Ila, so being fans of Islay malts, and this particular one being unavailable in either of our Canadian provinces of residence, it was our first choice. We picked up a bottle of the 12 y-o and it traveled with us for almost three weeks, to Islay, the Orkneys and through the Speyside region of the Highlands. We drank about a dram a day (sometimes two) and after a couple of weeks it became very familiar and distinctive to us. The bottle was ultimately finished in Edinburgh, leaving us with some uncertainty as to whether we would ever have the chance to try it again.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover roughly a year later that Caol Ila 12 y-o was available in Quebec, then in New Brunswick. Over the past few years, it has passed in and out of liquor stores in these provinces (as well as Ontario and Nova Scotia), slowly becoming more of a fixture but not always available. Upon trying it again a couple of years after the Scotland trip, it was immediately reminiscent of those three weeks and the taste was still distinctive and recognizable. I still feel that this is the most effective way to become very familiar with any particular malt: Drink small amounts regularly over a relatively short time period (weeks, not months). My own bottle was bought in Quebec roughly 3 years ago, but I hadn't dipped into it for some time, so when I noticed that there were only a few drams left it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finish it off with some friends and do a formal tasting.

Caol Ila 12 y-o

Nose: Sweet, salty breeze, iodine with a whiff of smoke

Taste: Sweet iodine, peat, salt and pepper, salty licorice (the real stuff - think Scandinavian)

Palate: Heavy, oily mouth feel, sort of like melted salty butter. Long, somewhat peppery finish, with tobacco notes

Value: This bottle should run you somewhere between $55 and $75 CDN. At the lower end of this price range, it's a great value; at the higher end, it will depend on your particular preference. At the higher price, it's in the same price as Ardbeg 10 y-o and Talisker 10 y-o, while at the lower end it's closer to Laphroaig 10 y-o and Quartercask. Is it better than these other whiskies? No, but it is quite distinctive and a nice alternative to these other bottles at roughly the same price. Caol Ila is quite peaty and will appeal to those who like their smoke and peat.

In closing, Caol Ila 12 y-o delivers what you might expect from an Islay malt. It has its own character and holds its own against its more popular neighbours. If you like Laphroaig, Ardbeg and/or Lagavulin, you should definitely give this whisky a try. Tasting more of these peaty whiskies helps to demonstrate their variety and complexity underneath the peat and smoke. I'm a big fan of the packaging and the bottle has a simple elegance to it. A solid performer in its price range, Caol Ila 12 y-o is a worthy addition to the classic malts range and could serve as a great introduction to the peatier Islay malts.