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Showing posts with label america. Show all posts
Showing posts with label america. Show all posts

Friday, 18 July 2014

All Hail The Cooper: Glenfiddich Excellence Single Malt Scotch Whisky

The great author Jonathan Swift once wrote that “he was a bold man who first ate an oyster”. It is this sort of gastronomic experimentation which has given us such great delights as a human race, tickling our taste buds with incredible innovation.

I often wonder who it was that first invented the meringue; they must have been the Heston Blumenthal of their day, but probably didn’t get the fame their invention should have rewarded them with, let alone a Michelin star or even their own range of cookware.

And it is this need to create, to always push the boundaries, that man has been striving for ever since we had a sense of taste, a lust for flavour. Of course we all need to eat, drink and be merry. But the tastier the first two parts of that phrase, the greater the volume of merriment.

It’s a simple equation: Eat + Drink = Merry. Increasing the pleasure aspect of one, or both is like swapping the ‘plus’ symbol for a ‘multiply’ symbol. This is why we celebrate those who have the ability increase our pleasure, to change our +, to an x.

In the mix of master blender, the superstar bar tender (what an appropriate phrase to write with Tales of the Cocktail happening at the moment), the footballer-turned-whisky-maker... there is one person often forgotten, who is key to the final flavour of any aged spirit. And that is the cooper.

The origins of cask maturation have been long forgotten as the cask has, for centuries, been a fairly utilitarian tool for the transportation of goods. From coal and fish, to a variety of liquids, the barrel was the carrier bag of its day; developed into a sea container for special goods. But it is the people who first discovered maturation from a white spirit to a dark, delicious drink who should be celebrated as much as the man who first shucked and sucked an oyster. Long forgotten, these men are responsible for something very special, the ideal of the cask to cradle some of our most precious liquids from simple spirits to super single malts.

Already this year I have visited cooperages in Scotland, Spain and the USA and the results never fail to surprise me. Handmade, in the most part, casks are designed to absorb a small amount of their liquid contents, swapping spirit for spices, whiskey for wood influence. But not only do casks add flavour to their contents, they also breath; slowly letting air in and out, as if they are giant wooden lungs, taking in oxygen and breathing out lost spirit, a gift to the angels.

This conflicting purpose, to both store and give away, makes barrels almost biblical, following the guidance that the more you give away, the richer you will become; ergo, the more active the cask, the more condensed the liquid inside becomes, taking flavour from both the wood and the previous incumbent of the cask, and the richer the liquid gets. A truly spiritual experience.

In my journeys to see both sherry casks and bourbon barrels in production, to understand more about their role in maturation, I have learned a lot about the preparation that a cask must go through before it is allowed to mature Scotch whisky.

There are huge differences between American oak and European oak, between ex-sherry casks and ex-bourbon barrels, between a hogshead and a puncheon. But all were, at some stage, the results of experiments by innovators, leaving a legacy for today and well beyond. 

Thank you to those people, whoever you are.

Glenfiddich – 'Excellence' – 26 Years Old – Matured 100% American Oak – 43% abv - £350

Nose: The casks which this whisky has been matured in have delivered a first class aroma of sweet vanilla, custard cream biscuits, malted milk and crème brulee. There is a hint of oak spice, but only to give body and provide a platform for the developed Madagascan vanilla and white flowers to build on.

Palate: A richer mouthfeel than expected, this is a buttery dram with a hint of heather, yet again some spices to balance out the palate. It is clearly American oak, ex-bourbon and takes in the butterscotch aspects of well matured whisky from these styles of casks, but sprinkles a small amount of cinnamon on top.

Finish: A brilliant balance of sweet and spicy, with that rich vanilla giving a super landing to a great dram.

Overall: This whisky was designed to reflect the style of cask it has been matured in. American oak, ex-bourbon barrels filled in the last century, have marshalled a spirit through more than two decades, resulting in a whisky which is the perfect ambassador for this style of maturation.

If it hadn’t been for those great cooper-innovators, inventing the cask, maturing and re-maturing spirit in it, we wouldn’t have a whisky like this today. So, cheers to those forgotten folk for giving us all something so special which will echo through the ages.    

Friday, 11 July 2014

Employee Of The Month: American Maturation at Heaven Hill

To Dream, The Impossible Dream...

America: land of dreams and opportunity. Visiting is always a joy (despite ever increasing security checks at Heathrow- yawn) and it highlights one of the great things about being UK based- our closeness to the US and to Europe. We really do occupy a funny middle ground between our friends on the other side of the Atlantic, and those just across the Channel.

Having recently returned from another trip to the States, it is easy to draw on the similarities (language, popular culture, most foods, sense of humour, etc) to feel very much at home, but to look at the 'differences' (currency, costs, weather, architecture, style, accent, a lack of social responsibility to look after the poor and sick...) to realise you are elsewhere.

And these differences do not stop at currency, politics and tastes, for America also makes whisky, but an entirely different style of whisky that we make here in the UK and these differences, along with some striking similarities, were highlighted to me on a recent trip to Heaven Hill distillery in Kentucky.

Heaven Hill is composed of two main sites, both huge in scale; the result is a company whose fingerprints are seen across the whole whisky category, in Scotch, Irish and Japanese whisky bottles because most of ex-Heaven Hill barrels end up being used to mature spirit from producers in these countries. To put it simply, the ripples of distilling here spread far and wide, on a truly global scale and all this under the influence of the owners, the Shaprio family.

It is unusual to find a place with such influence, such standing and such fame that is still family owned and it is in this fact where we see, in all the differences between Scotch and American whisky production, another small similarity, another mirror of authenticity, as Scotland is home to William Grant & Sons, producers of Glenfiddich, The Balvenie and Grants blended Scotch, and also still family-owned and operated. In both you see a friendship and a working relationship between the two dynasties, with much of the William Grant Scotch distillate matured in ex-Heaven Hill casks.

As is the way with Kentucky bourbon production, one distillery can accommodate the production of many brands, and the Heaven Hill distillery is no exception. Spread over two sites, one for spirit production (the Bernheim distillery in Louisville), and one now specifically for the maturation of spirit (just on the edge of Bardstown, Kentucky), the former contains column stills producing various base spirits with differing mash bills, which will go on to mature, at their second site, into individual, unique expressions such as Elijah Craig, Fighting Cock, and Parkers.

At this juncture, we could get bogged down in the differing spirit profiles and make-up, looking at Heaven Hills portfolio and drawing comparisons between their different brands. But seeing as this task could encompass a blog in its own right (and not just a blog post), I want to look at something more fundamental: maturation.

The one thing we can be sure of is that prohobition had a huge impact upon spirit production in the USA. Not only did it create a vacuum of quality spirit (often filled by Scotch smuggled into the country), it provided a fertile ground for the cocktail to thrive and stuck the nail in the coffin of several distilleries around the world, as well as in the States itself. But for all the negatives, what it did do was create almost a clean slate for the distillers of America to embrace new technology.

As a regular visitor to Scotland and someone who writes a lot about Scotch, there are certain touchstones which can nearly always be relied on: ancient distilleries, copper pot stills, small dunnage warehouses, pagoda roofs... these are the 'shortbread tin' stereotypes which don't just nod in the direction of heritage and history, but positively support it. But lets not forget that the original distillers who first came to the newly discovered land of America would have been Welsh, English, Scottish, Irish and European distillers, arriving to farm the land which would have included running the occasional still, as they would have done back home.

However, prohibition served to wipe these small pot still artisans from the landscape and, once the Great Experiment ended, it was time to rebuild the distilling business to quench the thirst of a nation.

 Now, if youre starting a new business today, you dont head out to buy a typewriter, headed note paper and stamps. You go and purchase a laptop, register a domain and set up an email address. In the same way, the distillers of America didnt opt for pot stills (yesterdays technology) but for the new, efficient column still. They didnt build small dunnage warehouses, only three barrels high because that is the height a man can lift a cask to. Nope, they built enormous cathedrals of casks, because items like forklift trucks existed, to lift barrels into place. And thus the slow drift from the similarities of the Celtic settlers and their relatives in Scotland, and the modern distilling and maturation techniques seen in the bourbon business today, commenced.

Column stills can also be found in Scotland and it is the production of grain which keeps the industry alive through blends (and now a growing category in its own right thanks to single grain whisky from the likes of Girvan), and of course there are huge technical differences in the base production of bourbon and Scottish grain whisky (the basic grain make up, sour mashing, etc) but it is the maturation which really is striking.

As with all Kentucky bourbon whiskey, brand new American oak casks are used, imparting a strong, robust and sweet flavour to the maturing spirit inside. But unlike those hobbit-esque warehouses to be found on the distillery doorstep in Scotland, the warehouses at Heaven Hill are, quite frankly, enormous. Seeing their sheer size put me in mind of the first time I saw an Airbus A380 descending over London for its arrival at Heathrow. Massive and a little bit scary.

Entering one of these huge, white spaces (which look they might have been designed by someone with a fetish for Soviet-era prisons) you are simply hit with a staircase, leading to a series of floors and doors: The Maturation Zone in the Crystal Maze, perhaps. Perfectly constructed, each level (of which there were thirteen!) houses an intricate system of barrels, all holding a different style of spirit, designed to mature for different lengths of time, becoming different brands of bourbon.

There was no musty smell of earth and bung cloth as there would be in Scotland. But a sweet aroma of spirit, oak and freshly cut pine. The temperature was warmer than outside (something you dont get in Scotland) and the barrels, all uniform, were organised by row. Walking around them, up and down between the floors, was like flying around in the 3D grid system in Blade Runner. Sadly, without an iconic glass of whisky in my hand, as these casks were very much sealed.

Climbing the stairs to the very top and peering down thirteen floors to the ground level, taking in the scale of maturation, surrounded by other enormous warehouses, this couldnt have been anywhere else but America. This was maturation, supersized.

Back inside the safety of Heaven Hills visitor centre, I was finally able to experience some of the magic of a single barrel bourbon when I was handed a glass of whiskey, and one which represents some of the best value for money of any bourbon on the market today:

Evan Williams Single Barrel - 2003/2013 - 43.3% abv - 75cl

Nose: Rich vanilla, red summer berry compot, a big splash of new oak, builders tea with about 15 sugars and a sprinkling of cinnamon. Rich with a big attitude, but not over-oaked.

Palate: This is where this badboy really delivers. The palate is seriously easy going, yet there is a foundation of big flavour with more vanilla, aprcot jam, some smoky BBQ sauce (without this being smoky, oddly) and rasberry travel sweets.

Finish: Robust, rounded and very well balanced with more vanilla and a hint of oak spice.

Overall: If you want a great example of a single cask bourbon, at ten years of age, this is a real corker. I paid about $25 for this bottle (well under £20) and I'm note sure I could have spent $25 better, really. An absolute corker of a dram which is still only about £35 over here in the UK.

I had the chance to pop into the new Evan Williams experience in Lousville and the plans there are fantastic. Theyve just built a small pot still operation which fills a barrel a day (when it is running) to bring a craft, pot still element to Evan Williams, so look out for stocks from that in the future. This scaled down visitor experience, in a former shop in the heart of Louisville is, quite simply, one of the best whiskey-based attractions I have ever visited, so if you find yourself out there, make sure you go.

In visiting Kentucky to discover the joys of bourbon, you get to see the legacy of The Great Experiment and how it has forever changed the landscape of distilling in America. With the craft distilling revolution bringing back the pot still, and the stalwarts of the business such as Heaven Hill offering seriously good liquid at such great value, the future for American whiskey looks incredibly positive

Friday, 28 March 2014

The Great Tennessee Whiskey Debate: Jack Daniel's Old No.7 Review

I have a new favourite spot of an evening to sit and write. It is outside one of my new local pubs. Having recently moved house, I have had an opportunity to explore the array of local ale houses, on a mission to work out which shall eventually become my (second) home.

At present, my chosen haunt is a classic English freehouse: yards from Windsor Castle, it is steeped in history, has real ale on tap and, more importantly, has Lagavulin 16 on an optic (on an optic!!).

Handily, along with two open fires inside, it also sports a small group of outdoor tables, allowing for a large glass of whisky and a cigar as the spring evenings start to turn into long summer ones.

Sitting, as I am tonight, enjoying a glass of Laga and a Monte Open Junior, I am alone in the half-light of the evening, due to a slight cold snap which has taken hold in the south of England.

However, the pub inside is rammed and as I sit here, the sounds of the gathered masses indoors, muffled by the thick Edwardian walls of the establishment, bleeds into the open air. It is a sound of convivial jolliness, people enjoying themselves, relishing their conversations as they nestle their chosen drinks for the evening.

As the conversation flows, I can still make out parts of chitter-chatter, threads of debate as the words mix into the night air along with my cigar smoke.

For someone who is passionate about whisky, of all types, I'm always looking at the global impact of the spirit and the hot topics of conversation around it. Having recently visited the U.S. to discover more about bourbon production and American white oak casks, I was able to dip into the current hot topic of conversation which is bubbling away Stateside. Like someone popping into the bar to place their next order and accidentally getting caught up in the chat, being back in the UK is like being back outside the pub, listening to the debate from afar; slightly muffled by the walls of distance.

The conversation in question comprises two main parts and it all starts around a legislation passed in 2013 to define what Tennessee whiskey really is.

It was the Tennessee General Assembly which created a designation for whiskey produced in the State, drawing up a rule which says that Tennessee whiskey can be made only of "fermented mash comprised of at least 51 percent corn, aged in new barrels of charred oak, filtered through charcoal and bottled at 40 percent alcohol (80 percent proof), or higher, by volume".

Now, those of you who know whiskey, will realise that this sounds a lot like the way the Tennessee stalwart Jack Daniel’s is made.

Jack Daniel’s – No.7 – Tennessee Whiskey – 40% abv

Nose: Sliced green apples dusted with cinnamon. Vanilla and light toasted oak notes. Fire-charred marshmallows and a hint of hazelnut. Not strong, which makes this more of the mixer that we know it as, rather than a sipping bourbon. 

Palate: At first a plesant palate of hazelnut and fig, with a touch of toasted almond; but it becomes slightly 'plastic' over time in the mouth. Once this subsides red apples and more fig appear backed with spices and air dried, salt cured ham.

Finish: Spices; vanilla and cinnamon. Medium in lenght.

Overall: Nothing wrong with this whiskey, it is just a little weak and a little over spiced. Want vanilla coke? Drink JD & Coke. It is a classic, afterall.

Essentially, what this ruling has done is to ring-fence a specific production method, one that happens to be the same one used by Jack Daniel’s, for any product which wants to call itself ‘Tennessee whiskey’; something I find rather strange because if you have a product which has a uniqueness in the process, why would you want other producers to have to conform to that standard? Celebrate what it is that makes your product different from others; give yourself a USP. Vodka producers are looking for one all the time. If your USP becomes legislation, it is no longer a USP. Look at Kim Jong Un’s hair cut. Distinctive. A brand. His brand. That is, until he gets all the other men in North Korea to have the samestyle... then it becomes just a hair cut; the same as everyone else’s.

This legislation has caused somewhat of an upset between some of the other producers in the State, particularly the Diageo-owned George Dickel, which calls itself ‘Tennessee whisky’ and who oppose the move to set in stone the process of production.

It has all started to get rather complicated and has seen much debate in the corridors of power in Tennessee, to the extent that just this week, following a debate, it has been decided to refer the matter to a Summer Study review.

If you really want to, you can watch all 15 mins or so of amendment 14041 being proposed in the General Assembly, here (about 2 hours in). You should, as I’m going to come back to it in a moment.

So, why should there be any concern to us, the humble whisky drinker, agnostic as to where our matured spirit comes from (be it Scotland, Ireland, any number of States in the USA, Japan, or indeed elsewhere), but just loving the spirit we call ‘whisky’?

Well, because there is one key rule in the production of American whiskey, be it bourbon from Kentucky, bourbon from elsewhere in America, or Tennessee whisk(e)y which is the use of new American oak barrels.

In the above link, the chaps in Tennessee are discussing what gives a product the right to be labelled ‘Tennessee whiskey’ and they hit on an interesting point, when Rep. Bill Sanderson, proposing the amendment says, referring to some Crown whiskey he has in his car:

“We can make quality Tennessee whiskey by using used barrels.”

Later in the debate, Rep. Curry Todd underlines the issue of wood, by saying:

“This is all about barrels.”

Now, let’s focus on Scotland for a moment: Scottish distillers, from small indie operations through to the major distillers who base their business on blended malts (where the millions of litres of new make grain spirit produced each year is often filled into First Fill, or 'used' American oak barrels) will be looking nervously over their shoulder to see if there is not only a change to the production methods of the spirit that can be called Tennessee whisky, but also the maturation process in America, too.

And a small change from the use of ‘new oak’ to simply ‘oak’, will have a huge effect in Scotland, Ireland, Japan and other whisky-making counties, as much as it will in Kentucky or Tennessee. With American oak casks becoming harder to source anyway, a change in legislation towards the use of barrels more than once could cause somewhat of a bottle-neck to those distilleries outside of American looking for used American white oak in which to mature their spirit.

As a result of this possible restriction in the supply of casks from the US to the rest of the whisky-producing world, the price of casks is sure to go only one way: up. And if the cost of goods to the producers increase, you’ll more than likely see this reflected in the price of the bottle on the shelf.

If I were a distiller, I’d be keeping a close eye on the proceedings in the American States’ Committee houses on this subject. And as a whisky drinker with a limited budget, I’d relish today’s prices because tomorrow’s may not be quite so pleasing.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The American Dr(e)am: From Branch to Bottle. Glenfiddich Single Malt Scotch Whisky

The American Dream. Sort of.
One of the magical things about whisky is seeing it grow up: from being a pure, clear spirit it transforms itself into a dark, delicious aged liquor. It is no secret that what aids this transformation, and where a large percentage of the flavour of whisky comes from, is the oak barrels in which the spirit is matured.

Earlier in the year I visited Jerez to see the production of sherry and sherry barrels, which are in the minority when it comes to the maturation of whisky. For the job of turning spirit into Scotch is left mainly to those casks sourced from America. So vital are these American oak casks to the whisky business, that I took a trip with Glenfiddich to find out exactly how they are made and where the wood comes from to produce them.

Living in London, nipping up to Scotland or heading over to Ireland to watch whisky making in progress is pretty easy. Not so, visiting some of the central and southern states of America... but if you want to see American oak barrels being produced, as well as the bourbon that will first fill them, that's where you have to go. So I packed my bag, my hat and my lumberjack shirt and headed out to the US to find out more about these casks.

Arriving in Kentucky I was surprised to find how cold it was; American whiskey maturation is all about high temperatures and humidity, allowing for fast maturation (a 'straight bourbon' must be two years or older, for example). However, I was out of luck if I wanted to top up my tan as temperatures in the morning had dipped to around about -9°C. It's funny how you can find a use for that bad Christmas jumper, even at the start of March!

My jumper, a hand-knitted affair from a far-flung relative, came in super-handy as my first appointment was a chilly start early one morning- not at a cooperage nor at a distillery, but in the middle of a field somewhere in Indiana. Growing up in the country, I'm used to early starts and cold weather but as a whisky writer I'm also used to warm drams and leather armchairs... so to find myself in the middle of the forest at 6am as the sun rises, without a hip flask in sight... well, you can imagine my terror.

Tim The Lumberjack
As the rising sun slowly lit up the misty forest, with the leaves crunching under foot, I made my way to a small clearing where the light came flooding in. Slowly emerging from the mist, a beast of a man carrying a chainsaw in one hand and a map in the other appeared, making his way towards me. Thrusting out his hand like a bears paw, he introduced himself as Tim, the local lumberjack.

Tim's job is to locate the enormous American white oaks which will be used to make whiskey barrels. Finding white oak trees is not the simplest of tasks; forests are agnostic as to the tree types which call it home and Tim works with just one other person to scour his and his neighbours' woodlands for them. After finding a maple and several other varieties of trees, we eventually came across what looked like a promising specimen: tall and straight, reaching high into the now clear, crisp blue sky, this tree was to be our first catch of the day.


Video: Tim Cuts Down An American White Oak (Note How He Manages To NOT Knock Other Trees Over At The Same Time)

Starting up his chainsaw Tim encouraged me to stand back in the woods to watch ("Back a bit further. A bit further, please. No... keep going. It's a big one!") as the tree came tumbling to the ground. Crashing into the forest floor Tim estimated it to be about 90ft long; quite a winner. After a good morning finding the right white oaks to fell, Tim loads his logs onto a lorry and drives them to the nearest sawmill, where they are turned into staves.

Tim The Lumberjack's Truck
A fascinating job, the role of this local lumberjack was far from my vision of huge teams of trunk-hunters deforesting left, right and centre. My favourite example of his lifestyle was when I asked Tim if he does this every day. His reply? Simply "Nope. Some days I go fishin'".

Once Tim's timber has been processed into staves, they make their way to a local cooperage, in this case, the family run Kelvin Cooperage.

Kelvin Cooperage is, as you would expect with the current demand for casks from all over the world, a hive of busyness. Sandwiched between Louisville airport and the wilderness of the sprawling State, it produces casks for some of the biggest companies in the world, including the chaps at Glenfiddich where there seems to be a real symbiotic relationship between the two companies, both being proudly family owned and operated.

The two brothers in charge at Kelvin, Paul and Kevin, are two of the most fascinating people you could wish to spend some time with, when it comes to the world of whiskey. These are the guys who provide the key element for every distiller who wants to make a mature spirit and as a result quality has to be at the forefront of everything they do.

A Heavily Charred American Oak Stave at Kelvin Cooperage.
Originally from Scotland and sons of a cooper, they relocated to Kentucky to start their cooperage. Sourcing wood locally, the barrels destined for Scotland are firstly used in the American whiskey business before being sent, whole, to Scotland to be filled with spirit.

I've been to cooperages before but have never witness the entire journey of oak, from branch to barrel, experiencing the sheer human endeavour involved; from taking 90ft logs out of a forest on a frosty spring morning to the coopers hard at work making or mending the barrels to be filled with spirit. Add to this the care and attention of the whisky-makers in Scotland and time it takes to mature Scotch whisky, then you'll realise that the age on the bottle is a mere indication of the whisky's age; it's true birthday to be found deep in the roots of an American white oak tree.

The Glenfiddich - 12 Years Old - 40% abv - 70cl - £26ish here and here

Nose: A big hit of vanilla, fresh green apples, cool whip, iced buns and some malt. Over time, kiwi, goosberry fool and basil appear to give the nose added depth.

Palate: The kwiki and goosberry (and other soft green fruits) come to the fore, with green and red apples in the middle and vanilla underpinning the whole palate. The malt gives good foundations for these flavours to sit on, while the vanilla takes the driving seat over time, especially with a splash of water. Fresh.

Finish: some spices but the ultimate flavour is apple sours and American-style 'watermelon'.

Overall: We have always said that these single malts with a more accessible price point are not to be dismissed. Sometimes it really pays to go back and try stalwarts such as this to see why they are so well loved by the consumer. Don't ignore because of their ubiquity.