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Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Vats All Folks!

Regulation ties, Regulation shoes,
Those regulation fools
With the regulation rules.
Just keep on breakin' the rules
C'mon get ready to rule
Just keep on breakin' the rules

It seems very apt that you join us tonight and find us quoting the lyrics of a band, who to so many represented throwing off the shackles of oppressive authority: be it at work, at home or a higher power indeed. As straight down the line as they may be, AC/DC were unquestionably operating on a no frills, no bullshit policy.

The world of music is full of rule breakers - some with a genuine agenda to challenge convention and authority for the greater good - remember Rage Against The Machine? Gigs pulled by the authorities, peaceful protests ending in police tear gas dispersion tactics and tense stand-offs with politicians. In 2009, they even held off the full frontal assault from the dark-forces-of-the-bland-and-the-mediocre in claiming the Christmas no.1 from The X Factor.

Of course the whisky world is full of folks who challenge convention and probably occasionally break the rules, but we're probably not at the tear gas stage yet.

Artisinal whisky makers Compass Box notoriously clashed with 'The Man' - i.e, the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association) when Spice Tree was deemed to be 'illegal'. The following is an extract from the the Compass Box website, which brilliantly points out how absurd the whole episode was:

'Working with friends like the famous Dr. Jim Swan, I borrowed a technique commonly used by winemakers and I began experimenting with secondary maturation of whisky in casks with new oak barrel inserts inside them. I was effectively using a quality of oak that is never used in Scotch whisky.The results were extraordinary! Why, I began wondering, are the winemakers getting all the good wood? Why don’t we use this kind of oak to mature Scotch whisky?

Well, we did. And this is where “The Spice Tree” came from. Our inaugural batch of just over 4,000 bottles was sold out in five weeks (we thought it would last five months!) And our second batch, released in April 2006 was entirely pre-sold to our importers before we bottled it!

However, the SWA did not like it. I tried to explain to them that we had studied the law and believed that what we were doing was well within it, not to mention a positive quality step forward for the industry. “Quality,” I was told by the SWA, “is completely irrelevant.” They had their interpretation of the law, which held that what we were doing was not “traditional”, so that was the end of the story, as far as they were concerned.

Not much we could do at that point, with a gun, (figuratively speaking) pointed at our head.'

Of course the rest is history and Spice Tree is still in production, (yay!) albeit with a different and apparently 'agreeable' technique.

But that's not the end of the story, concerning da rules. back in 2009, Parliament decided to take out Statutory Instrument 2890 - The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009.

The rules are far too long-winded to go into detail with here, so for another brilliant explanation from Compass Box's John Glaser, click here:

What we will tell you is that from 23rd November (today) the term Vatted Malt and Vatted Grain (ie a vatting of different single malts or grain whiskies) has been deemed illegal to use on the label of a whisky bottle. The new permissible phrase is as follows:

'Blended Malt Scotch Whisky' or 'Blended Grain Scotch Whisky'.

Now, we know what you're thinking. 'Isn't this awfully like Blended Scotch Whisky and therefore, more confusing than using Vatted Malt?
The SWA's argument is that the phrase 'Vatted' is not something understood by the consumer, which we can't really argue with, but clearly this leads to a predicament, especially if your company makes both blended whiskies and blended malts.

So last night, to mourn the 'passing' of the term vatted, we found ourselves standing alongside a small gaggle of folks in the middle of Westminster Bridge, overlooking the House Of Commons. At precisely 11.59pm, Mr John Glaser conducted the very last 'legal' vatting of whisky for us to enjoy. A rather excellent vatting, sorry, blend (them's the rules now) of some rather old Speyside and Islay malts. Sublime stuff indeed - subtle smoke, fruits and sherry cask spice. Luckily John had set his watch via Big Ben time, so no need for the SWA to set their strategically poised snipers and rabid hounds loose on the assembled crowd, should the vatting have accidentally taken place at 12.01am.

The gathering was also the 'launch' for Compass Box's newest creations- Last Vatted Grain and Last Vatted Malt, of course bottled just before the ban came into place.

Despite the cold London air playing havoc with our nosing ability, here's our thoughts:

Compass Box - The Last Vatted Malt - 1,323 bottles - 53.7% -Single malts from Speyside and Islay

Nose: Huge dried fruit notes, some oaky dryness and a big waft of spice hit first, then a gentle sooty peat, which can only be classic old Caol Ila, although you didn't hear it from us. Perfect for a night like this.

Palate: The spiced fruits coat the tongue first, then the peat develops- but it so wonderfully soft, it just washes over with a gentle wave. This is seriously good Caol Ila in here, that's for sure. Fabulous.

Finish: Lingering wood spices, a hint of Creme Caramel and the remnants of the peat.

Overall: Every time, you have to hand it to Mr Glaser. To pick these casks and then vat them, (sorry, blend them) with such precision is a work of alchemy.

Next up: the last ever vatting of grain. We're told this came together from a mixture of '65 Invergordon, '79 Carsebridge, '91 Port Dundas and '97 Cameronbridge, all from first fill American oak, so you begin to get an idea of how exciting this is going to be.

The Last Vatted Grain - 297 bottles - 46% - various grain whiskies

Nose: Oh Hallelujah! It's like walking into a tropical fruit market. Mango, meets sweet pineapple, fat vanilla pods washed in bourbon, creamy cereal and slightly charred blood oranges.

Palate: The tour around the fruit market continues its stroll along the tongue - ripe pineapple, green bananas, vanilla custard tarts, and a little lingering nutmeg. Wonderful, light and beautifully balanced.

Finish: The creaminess of the nose returns to the finish and your mouth is left with the feeling of a midnight feast of crunchy nut cornflakes. Pretty damn accurate considering the time.

Overall: Again, a mastery of the vatter's, (sorry blender's) art bought to life for an all-too-short run of bottlings. If you can locate this - buy it now, treasure it for a moment as a relic of the past, then open it, whilst listening to I Fought The Law - whichever version you prefer; in our case the Dead Kennedys...