So, this whisky thing we all love….seems at times to have multiple personality disorder. I mean, lets look at it from the side lines. Its been with us since early 1400 (us being the Scots) and we have enjoyed our party juice in many different ways. It never saw an oak barrel before the glass (unaged), it was supped still clutching big levels of alcohol (straight off the still) and flavoured no doubt with a plethora of ingredients (heather, spices and probable sheep wool!), yet it remained a drink of conversation. A dram amongst friends and loved ones- sometimes who turn out to be not so loved by the end of the evening perhaps?
After 400 years, heavy taxation, the discovery of the wonders oak aging can bring and improvements in distillation techniques, we arrived at a whisky that would be recognized today and luckily even after all this time, it remained a drink to have with friends. Not a collectable luxury item as we see in many cases today.
It puzzles me that as the luxury market increases, and popularity of whisky does the same, the drink is starting to become a dividing factor. I have worked with brands who seem hell bent on raising their whisky to almost iconic status, to sit shoulder by shoulder with couture fashion, car marques and dare I say, champagne up high in the rarefied atmosphere only a handful of us mere mortal folk get a chance to breath in (usually on an expense account!).
Do you like my bubbles?
This troubles me because this is not what whisky should be, not what it started out as. Ok, neither did clothes, cars or champagne, but to choose to only be seen in this light I think is brand suicide. In particular, and of course I am not about to name names here, but one whisky that springs to mind is actually taking the bold step to remove its entry level whisky from the market altogether ensuring that when one does purchase a bottle, it will have to be a 15 year old or more. This paints a picture in my mind of having a ladder to the stars, but starting the rungs so high that only a few can climb it. Pathetic if you ask me…oh, you didn’t? well I am telling you!
So that’s one way to encourage new drinkers right? Grab enough headlines about the price of your dram, make sure it is seen in a Hollywood star’s hand at a premier, make sure all your ambassadors dress like an extra from a Bond movie and you set the mood for future growth within your chosen demographic.
Somewhere "safe" for the rarest of drams?
But that is only a tiny, albeit important sector of the whisky consumer market – actually, look closer and you may find such an individual hoarding rare bottles of divine liquid not too far from wherever you are sitting reading this. The challenge is to ask then to describe to you, in glorious detail, the nuances of the bottles’ contents. The emotion attached to drinking such a rare whisky, the memories evoked from its smell and taste as each sip is savored, one second for each year it has been alive. The conversation struck up amongst the fellow drinkers they have gathered around to enjoy it with them. I’d say it will be a challenge- because 9 out of 10 individuals I have asked just that question to reply with the same stock answer- “Drink it? Oh God no, I’m too scared to open it”.
If you want to show off wealth, and lets face it- that’s what it boils down to because it can’t be taste!- then buy art. Not only will you adorn your wall with an individual creation that you will gain pleasure from on a daily basis as you pass it by, and perhaps notice it in a different light, but you will also be able to enjoy it with friends as they gaze at it and derive the same pleasure you do. It also says a lot about you as an individual, such as your viewpoint on life depending on if it happens to be a Degas from his racehorse era, or a Frank Auerbach from one of his less detailed periods. You cannot do that with a bottle of whisky in a glass cabinet.
So as this world of whisky evolves, especially Scotch as other whiskies from distilleries in all corners of the world start to compete, where does the distiller take his vision. A distillery can keep churning out age statement whiskies time after time. Sticking to what it knows best and hoping that new youthful whisky lovers will be born and hopefully, eventually stumble upon their creation and be a fan for life. A short-sighted approach I think and thankfully the Scotch whisky industry has few distilleries which fall fowl of this. Take for example Glenglassaugh, originally built in 1875 and mothballed in 1986 it was re-opened on the 29th February 2008. Clearly, the resting casks were a bit too old and expensive to make your first reborn release, it’s wonderful to be a phoenix, but if your feathers are all gold, you wont fly very far. The last thing they wanted to do was set out to be one of those dream drams (although they have since and it is wonderful!) they chose to sell the you “new make” spirit to create a revenue stream- smart right? It allowed people to try something different at a young age that expressed the distilleries style and future without a hefty price tag. I was a big fan of this move, I was not so much a fan of the name “The spirit that blushes to say it’s name” was the first title of new make rested for a short time in red wine barrel making it rose´in appearance. Brave, but it worked.
But what of more established brands? How do they look forward, if at all. Well, this week I was fortunate enough to be invited to try, along with 1000 others around the UK, a new release from The Balvenie, The Craftsman Reserve No 1. The Cooper.
It was to be unveiled during a “live tasting” linked via the distillery online to anyone who chose to join in. If you so wished, you could register at Warehouse 24 and they would send you out a rather impressive sample bottle and two etched tasting glasses. I must admit, it was difficult to keep my paws off it until the evening of the release! The live tastings are an indication of the forward thinking of this brand- using technology available to most and giving them an opportunity to be part of something fun- not just for the privileged few, journalists or whisky geeks.
Keep yer mitts off!
In saying that, a select few (limited by the room size) gathered at Boisdale of Belgravia restaurant to join in the tasting and discussion. Neil and Joel from Cask Strength were present, as was Billy Abbot of The Whisky Exchange, Ben Ellefsen from Master of Malt, Olly Wahring of Just Drinks and Alwynne Gwilt who is Miss Whisky. Always nice to catch up with people from the industry who have become friends, joined by a dram. Again, the congregation is testimony to Balvenie and how important getting the message out through all avenues of electronic and social media is today. Andrew Forrester hosted the event in his typically informative and relaxed manner and in describing the provenance behind Master Distiller David Stewart’s creation, managed to create a real interest in this special release.
The Balvenie is the only family owned distillery which today grows its own barley, malts in a traditional (floor malting) way, has copper-smiths on site to maintain the stills and even its own cooperage- to which this, the first of no doubt many releases, is in celebration. Ian McDonald joined the Balvenie distillery in 1959 at just 15 years old. He signed up for the 5 year apprenticeship in the cooperage and is now the Head Cooper for Balvenie. Just to confirm how important Balvenie think it is to have a cooperage on sight, not more than 2 miles down the road from the distillery is a commercial cooperage which supplies most of the Speyside distillers. But not The Balvenie.
Those of you familiar with The Balvenie will be aware of its house style – heather honey on the nose, light warming spice to the palate. In general, with the exception of the Single Barrel 15 yr old, the core range displays this, cleverly combining the use of both European sherry cask and American ex-bourbon cask in perfect balance delivering that delicious style. But here we have a change of direction and within the room on the evening talk was quickening regarding the style of this 100% sherry cask. Only 515 bottle were created from the two casks chosen and just 315 of those will be exclusively available in the UK to members of Warehouse 24 and at the very reasonable retail price of £65. Its free to join the warehouse, so don’t think you are being shut out- but do hurry!
Let me just pause for a second and repeat that: it is £65 a bottle. Not £650, not £6,500. This is an exceptionally rare and exclusive bottling, a step aside from the house style, created by a man with 50 years experience and only 515 bottles grace this rock we call home. Now, some reading this may still baulk at that figure- but listen, I will say this only once- this bottle could easily state a £650 price tag and every last drop of it would be purchased by the end of the summer. But would it be in the right hands, or more importantly the right glasses?
To me, this release shows foresight. It shows an understanding of the modern world of spirit and as we see new world whiskies creating more and more fine examples the Scotch industry needs more people like David Stewart. Unafraid to experiment, unimpressed with stardom and “Haute Dramture” (I might trademark that). To the Balvenie fans out there, they will get it. To those who approach the Balvenie for the first time, they will be impressed by the range and obvious craftsmanship employed here. Despite the various conversations in the room that evening, all agreed the whisky in the glass was excellent and look what happened, we enjoyed it amongst friends and we carried on talking about this and many more important things in life like good shoes (Neil) first loves and car accidents (Joel), isn’t that what it is all about?
The Balvenie No.1 The Coopers Reserve
100% sherry butt from just two casks (10142, 17949)
Grab it whilst you can!
Age: 15 years
limited release 515 bottles (315 in the UK)
Available via Warehouse 24
Appearance: Light copper with rose gold shimmer and core
Nose: Complex mix immediately of rich sherry and deep malt. Brittle toffee follows turning into polished mahogany and leather. Lighter wafts of sweet popcorn, honey and spice of mace play a part before a circling note of fresh ground coffee.
Palate: Honey smooth with character to follow. Spiced nuts of Brazil and dark chocolate drizzled over dried apricot and fig before turning more citrus towards the end almost marmalade like.
Finish: Long and lingering with an abundance of syrupy spice which turns bitter coffee (in a delicious way!)
Nigella: try her with a dram of The Balvenie
The last question of the night was directed towards me, seemingly my continuous use of foodstuffs of various kinds at my tasting sessions as I try and drag whisky from the after dinner shelf into the pre-dinner selection has earned a reputation for pairing a dram or two. So, which foods would I pair with this creation. After a quick run through in my mind of the profile of the dram, it has to be Nigella Lawson’s ham joint roasted in coca-cola (other flavored fizzy drinks work equally as well). Alwynne ran with the ham theme and suggested one of my all time favorite breakfasts- this will knock the socks off a pile of warm pancakes buttered with salty butter, layered with maple cured streaky bacon and all drowned in good maple syrup. What better way to start the day? nice one Miss Whisky. More whisky and food pairing ideas here.