Many New Brands Dodgy Mixes
They're Draining The Big Stacks
by PHILIP WHITE
Noticed new brands of whisky on the shelves of your local?
Beware. Scotch whisky’s booming like never before. When there’s a surge like this, quality drops.
Sales of whisky from Scotland, of both the premium malt type, and the bulk blended sort, are exploding. Consumption of premium malt whisky in bars and restaurants soared by 31% in the UK in the year to April; Scotch whisky in general saw an export increase of 23% last year, earning £4.23 billion.
This is in spite of the inroads Irish whiskey has made into the huge USA market. Last year, Irish whiskey sales there increased by 24%, surpassing Scotch single malts for the first time.
This has led to the big French companies buying Scotch distilleries. After twenty years of decline - sales crashed by one third from 1992-97 – the French Cognac business is finally enjoying something of a renaissance, but they’re hungry for more of Scotland. Pernod-Ricard, which owns Jamiesons Irish whiskey, at last count also had eighteen Scotch distilleries. Louis-Vuitton-Möet-Hennesey owns Ardbeg and Glenmorangie; and still smarting from its loss of the latter, Rémy Cointreau bought that beloved pearl of Islay, Bruichladdich (below), in July. After Jim Beam had let it fall to the point of dereliction, Mark Reynier, a London merchant, and some bright privateer mates bought Bruichladdich for £4 million in 2000, and after twelve years of smart and enlightened management and a sharp hike in quality, let it go to Remy for an incredible £58 million.
But all this is nothing compared to the ravening British lion, Diageo. Not only does this monster own 34% of the Möet-Hennesey part of LVMH, but it owns Smirnoff (the world's biggest-selling vodka), Baileys (world’s biggest liqueur), Guinness (world's best-selling stout) and little old Bundaberg rum. Not to mention Johnnie Walker (the world's top-selling Scotch).
Like Diageo’s other blended whiskies - J&B, Bell's, Black & White, White Horse, Vat 69, Haig and Dimple, Johnny’s a mixture of cheaper grain whiskies, blended with malts from Diageo’s phenomenal mob of malt distilleries. These happen to include Auchroisk, Banff, Benrinnes, Blair Athol, Brora, Buchanan's, Caol Ila, Cardhu, Clynelish, Convalmore, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glen Albyn, Glen Elgin, Glenlossie, Glen Ord, Glenkinchie, Lagavulin, Linlithgow, Lochnagar, Knockando, Mannochmore, Mortlach, North Brechin, Oban, Port Ellen, Rosebank, Royal Strathmill, Talisker, and Teaninich.
Malt distilleries are mothballed and rekindled according to the booms-and-busts of the international economy. There are barrel houses full of ageing whisky all over Scotland – at least half a million barrels at any given time. When there’s a boom, like the current explosion, with very aggressive inroads being dozed into India and Asia, these vast stores are pillaged.
Put crudely, whisky is vodka made from grain - some of which has been smoked over peat fires - stored in barrels for a minimum of three years. It is coloured and sweetened with caramel and then watered down for bottling.
Given the parsimony of the Scots, the whisky business was never big on expensive new oak. Traditionally they bought old barrels from the sherry makers of Jerez, bolstered by an endless supply of cheap throwaways from the corn distillers of the USA, where local laws usually determine that barrels can be used only once, and it's probably just as well - made from fast-growing Quercus alba, these are spongiform, like balsa.
But as the British post-war vicars and their wives died out, so did much of the sherry business, meaning that, used bourbon butts aside, the cheapest barrels on Earth ran out. Good clean sherry barrels have become rare and expensive.
This meant an inevitable change of flavours.
Enlightened distillers, like the Bruichladdich rebels, went to other parts for their oak. As well as trialing new American barrels, which tend to give whisky a distinctive citrus tinge, they bought old wood from the wineries of France. Suddenly we had whiskies that carried flavours of Bordeaux and Burgundy, even Sauternes.
These experiments are often sold as novelties, so single-barrel bottlings and small batch blends proliferate, filling the market with a baffling array of new premium whisky flavours at an equally astonishing range of prices, from expensive to stellar. In the twelve years of his management of Bruichladdich, Mark Reynier and his master distiller, the legendary Jim McEwen, released well over 200 such products.
But in those huge stacks of slumbering barrels elsewhere round Scotland, there are hundreds of thousands of barrels that would not, shall we say, make a responsible blender’s top cut.
The styles of the cheaper blended whiskies are jealously protected. Like Guinness, their characters may change slightly from market-to-market, but within each of those it is important that the product retains a constant aroma and flavour. While it’s possible that dud barrels can be lost in such mega-blends, they can’t take many risks.
It seems to me that the risks are being taken much further up the price range. If your new small-batch product can bring you twice the money of your constant cheap blend, you can push it into aspirational markets obsessed with exclusive luxury goods but which are naïve about what they should in fact be getting for their bigger spend.
In other words, if you’re going to take a risk, you might just well make a bigger profit from it by flogging it to ignorant show-offs.
In recent years, we’ve had a proliferation of expensive small-to-tiny batch whisky releases in special crystal and whatever, at prices which can hit the tens of thousands of pounds. Most of these, no doubt, are exquisite and unique. A beautiful example is the $17,500 Highland Park 50 year old pictured. Having Shetland blood, I'm rather partial to a dram of Highland Park, from Kirkwall, Orkney. That's our closest distillery. With a license.
But back to the whisky shelves: tucked in, lower down, above the blends, amongst the more common and famous malts and whatnot, we’re seeing new house brands at alluring prices, especially in the giant chain stores.
Many of these are dodgy assemblages of the sorts of rejects and second-rate barrels that makers would never risk on their best, most jealously-guarded products. Amongst them you’ll find the taints of brettanomycaes, the enemy of winemakers. It lives in oak and kills wine flavours. As it does with whisky. This is best hidden in whiskies boasting peatiness: a novice will often fail to tell the difference between the acrid yeast and the smoky peat. You can even lose cork taint in such styles if they’re flogged to novices, like the disbelieving storekeeper who looked at me as if I were mad when I took a badly corked Ardbeg back to his shop for a refund. He took a dram and told me you couldn’t get corky whisky. “Especially in a malt. Not one this good.”
Which leads me to the Japanese. When Brian Morrisson sold that other pride of Islay, Bowmore, to Suntory in 1994, there was a sudden change of style as the economic rationalists from the huge Japanese brewery had their way. Amidst much rumour and argy-bargy, the legendary stillmaster, Jim McEwen, abandoned the retirement monies he would soon be due after 37 years there, and moved across Loch Indaal to Bruichladdich. Since its phenomenal sale in June, it would appear likely that Jim now has some retirement money. And he’s left his reputation untarnished.
But not all malt lovers run from the Japanese, and not all Japanese whisky-makers are economic rationalists. One of the more reliable and loveable whisky characters of these risky boomtimes is the crusty Scots blogger, ralfy.com, who publishes inimitable whisky reviews on Youtube. In his appraisal of the new Japanese Yoichi 15 year old pure malt whisky, he makes various wise references to many of the matters I discuss above.
In Japan, he says, “the quality of the casks used is absolutely first class. And that is simply not always the case when it comes to Scotch whisky ... Japanese whisky is produced by design; Scotch whisky is produced by default.”
Check him out by clicking here.
The Bruichladdich motto, by the way, is Clachan a Choin, meaning Dog's Bollocks. To read my 2009 report of the Bruichladdich revival, click here. To read of recent manoeuvres at Johnny Walker and a weird whisky adventure in the outback, click here. That's the wild Islay coast near Bruichladdich below.