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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.