Category Archives: Richard’s Blog

Cascade of Variables

I was perusing another blog recently and a saw a question about the rerelease of Old Grand Dad bourbon in all new packaging. The post went on to talk about the history of the brand. One of the commenters asked about why there is so much difference between the Old Grand Dad made by National Distillers back in the day and the one now made by Suntory Beam. That got me thinking about all the variables that go into how a particular whiskey tastes. I’ve seen focus pieces in magazines and books around certain aspects (wood management, etc.) of flavor drivers but nothing more comprehensive. Frequently, you will hear someone in the industry say that X% of the flavor comes from the wood. Whatever that percentage is I’m not going to argue with it. However, the remainder is made up of many more factors than you might think. So let’s talk about that for a few minutes.

Mashbill: The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about how a particular whiskey gets its flavor is the mashbill, or the blend of grains that make up the mash used to make the distiller’s beer. The most basic example of this is bourbon versus scotch. Single malt scotch is a barley base while bourbon is corn first with lesser components of rye, wheat, and barley. When you taste a lot of younger bourbons especially, that corn forward flavor really shines through.

Grain Varieties: After the blend of different types of grains is established the next stop in the cascade of flavor would be the varieties of each grain used. The single malt scotch industry is a great example of this. It’s all barley but the varietals vary from distillery to distillery. Some use Optic, others use Golden Promise, yet others use a mix of numerous varietals. The various varieties were first developed for increased yield and environmental resistance but there are flavor nuances too.

Malting & Peat: If you’re working with barley, whether or not you malt that barley has a distinctive impact on the flavor. If you malt all of it (single malt scotch), some of it (Irish whiskey), or none of it (some American whiskeys) then the end result can be drastically different. Taking it a step further, how you malt the barley can be one of the most impactful components of flavor? Peat smoke anyone?

Water: After getting all our grains sorted we move to the next component…water. Water is water, right? No, it isn’t. Given the environment and location, the water source can affect the flavor. Is it filtered through peat bogs or limestone? Traces of those can be found in the water. When you also take into account that a lot of distillers cut their whiskey for bottling with the same water used in distillation then as much as 60% of what’s in the bottle is that water. Do you know why Four Roses uses five distinct yeast strains? According to Master Distiller Jim Rutledge it came about as Seagrams consolidated their bourbon operations to the one facility. They didn’t want to lose the array of flavors they had so they found yeast strains in their yeast banks that mirrored the flavors from the water sources at the closed facilities.

Yeast: That was one of my better segues into yeast. So you put the grains and the water in the fermentation tanks but you need that yeast to get the whole sugar to alcohol conversion going. The yeast you use can have a significant impact on the finished product. Just look to Four Roses again. Try the five different bourbons they produce using each mashbill but with different yeasts and you begin to see a distinct difference.

Fermentation Time: How long do you let the mash ferment? There is no one right answer. Longer you get more sugar conversion and more dead yeast. Does that impact the flavor? Probably. Is it noticeable to the consumer? I have no idea.

Fermentation Vessel: Pine washback or stainless steel fermentation tank? Last year I visited a local fellow who is using large plastic tubs. Again, the method used could well be impacting the flavor of the finished product.

Still Type: Coffey, Column, Continuous, or Pot Still. What’s your weapon of choice? All impart different flavor profiles on their spirits. Woodford is a great example. Did you ever notice that no matter what whiskey they make at Woodford there is a uniquely Woodford note to the nose? Why is it so different from other bourbons or even the other Brown-Forman bourbons? Even the recently released Woodford Rye has it on the nose. I’m betting it’s that pot still they use.

Still Design: This takes the previous variable and pushes it down to a more minute level. It’s easier to see in the scotch industry. Among single malt distillers they will often talk about the shape, volume, and height of their stills in discussing the aspects of flavor. It factors in copper contact and how much reflux passes through versus rolling back into the still.

Distillation Proof: The proof or alcohol strength that the spirits comes off the still at will also impact the flavor. I’ll lump this in with barreling proof for sake of not splitting too may hairs (too late?). A great example of this is Booker’s. Beam uses the same wood, same mash, same so location, same still, etc., etc. with Knob Creek, Baker’s and Booker’s. However, Booker’s comes off at 125 proof versus 135 for everything else. They do it so they don’t have to cut it before going into the barrel but it does give Booker’s a distinctive profile.

Number of Distillations: Once, twice, three times a whiskey. Basically, the more times you distill a particular spirit the less of the impurities there are that pass into the final product. Scotch is usually distilled twice and Irish whiskey is usually distilled three times as basic examples.

Cuts: During distillation a choice is made on the front and back end of the distillation run. That choice cuts off the first part (heads) and the last part (tails) to be redistilled or disposed of. In those first and last parts are chemical compounds (congeners, etc.) that are seen as impurities but also flavor components. Depending on how much you cut off rather than let pass through to the next stage will impact your flavor.

Wood Type: New oak, refill hogshead, sherry cask, European Oak, American Oak, etc. All these are examples of the references you will hear about whiskeys. It is probably the most talked about factor affecting flavor, especially in scotch. A “sherried scotch” anyone? That’s the big thing that the cool kids are drinking now right? The wood type and what, if anything, that previously resided in the that wood will give distinctive flavors to the finished product.

Barrel Size: Now that you’ve determined your desired wood you have to figure out how big of a barrel you want. Smaller barrels give you more wood to whiskey contact but can leave the whiskey overly woody in flavor. It’s a delicate balance.

Warehousing: Stone walls or wood? Single story or four story rickhouses? The size, shape, design, and location of the warehouse can impact the maturation environment and further impact the flavor.

Barrel Location: Taking the warehouse location one step farther, within a given warehouse where the barrels are can also impact it. Some distilleries do barrel rotations throughout the life of their barrels to drive consistency. Others realize that certain parts of the warehouse are better for certain flavors and as a result certain brands come from those areas. Buffalo Trace produces a large number of brands from just two ryed bourbon mashbills. Some of those are picked only from certain locations within the warehouses. They recently released experimental releases from three distinct warehouse locations to emphasize this point.

Climate: The climate also affects the maturation which in turn affects the flavors. In Kentucky for example there are much more extreme fluctuations in temperature through the course of a year than in Scotland. That causes the whiskey to push deeper into the wood and extract farther back out with a regularity that pulls flavor compounds out of the wood more effectively.

Age: This one is kind of a no brainer but I added it for completeness.

That’s 18 variables on my list. I realize that this is not an exhaustive list. It’s a list of variables that most come to mind for me when thinking about flavor factors in whiskey. If you feel there are critical ones that I’ve missed then by all means post and we can continue the dialogue. Regardless of how many are on your list I hope the point is made that there’s more to the flavor of a whiskey than wood and water.

Are we at the tipping point?

As a lover of whiskey in all (well…most) of its forms I diligently follow whiskey related news, stories, books, blogs, and publications of all kinds. That works for and against me. With the growth in the popularity of whiskey there is no shortage of information available. Unfortunately, a lot of its either crap or true enough but just serves to piss me off. I have a lot to be pissed off about these days.

Recently, I saw this article in The Spirits Business and some of the commentary around the web and I had to take another long, deep sigh. When I saw the headline “Diageo Halts Scotch Expansion as Demand Dives” my first thought wasn’t “oh, no the proverbial sky is falling” but rather “It’s about damn time.” I’m not worried about a scotch whiskey bust. I’m not worried about more moth balled distilleries. I’m not really worried at all. I’m actually kind of excited because maybe we are finally at the tipping point.

I’ve been a scotch drinker for about fifteen years now. That doesn’t sound like a long time but for an industry that has had as much change as scotch has in the last decade and a half it feels like a lifetime. More to the point of my excitement, the way scotch prices have soared in the last 15 years is ridiculous to me. When I say “soared” I am not being hyperbolic. In 1999 I could walk into my local liquor store, at the time it was Capital City Liquor and grab Macallan 18 (Gran Reserva at the time) for around $65. Now if you can get it for less than three times as much you’ve found a deal! That kind of price inflation should be left to third world countries with tanking currencies.

Yes, I know times change and prices of consumer consumables go up but scotch as an industry and particularly single malts are an egregious perpetrator of this farce. It does not cost three times more to make a bottle of 18 year old scotch compared to 1999. What has happened is that the companies making scotch have taken advantage of the interest in their products and wrung it for every damn dime they can get. I’m not just picking on Edrington for Macallan. Pernod Ricard, Diageo, and most of the rest are just as guilty. Macallan is just the easiest to pick on. They aren’t making any better whiskey than they used to. They aren’t making less whiskey than they used to. What they are doing is riding a marketing wave that should be the capstone of someone’s marketing MBA course work. That wave tells you that their product is awesome and you should buy it. More of you have bought it. That drives up demand, which drives up price. Also, through advertising and other great public relations work they have convinced you to pay more for their whiskey than anybody else’s. Is it better? Not necessarily. It’s good, sometimes really good but there is a lot of good whiskey out there.

The whole industry participates in the push to drive demand and premium pricing and collectively prices have risen dramatically. Again, I’m not just picking on Macallan/Edrington. Whyte and Mackay tried it a few years ago when they relauched Dalmore. While the regular line prices has fallen more in line with the market their special releases command astronomical prices in the tens of thousands of dollars at retail. The latest to try to rebrand as super premium is Mortlach. Diageo’s pricing for these 500ml bottles is laughable. But somebody is buying it….or at least they were.

Let’s shift back over to Diageo now. They were the focus of the article that started this rant, they are the latest super premium rebranders with Mortlach, and they are the largest spirits company in the world. Of their portfolio of spirits, a significant amount is whiskey. So even though they don’t release enough detail for me to dive deep down into their whiskey portfolios, their corporate numbers tell the story better than most. From 2009 to 2014 their sales have grown by about 10%. However, in Asia it is 48% growth over the same period of time. By contrast, North America grew by less than 5%. However, from 2013 to 2014 sales in Asia dropped twice as fast as North America as a result of the economic factors mentioned in the Spirits Business article. Although, it is also true that the sales numbers have dropped across the board for Diageo over the last year. I find it interesting though that even though sales declined in North America by 7.5% the profit margins went up. In fact, those margins have steadily increased year over year since 2009.

I don’t want to get too into the weeds on this point because even though my day job is in finance, most of you come here to read about whiskey and may not care about the difference between an operating margin and margarine. Bear with me for a minute. What the margin increases mean is that for every dollar of product they sell they are keeping more of that money as profit for the company. How do they do that? Well really in one of two ways. They can lower their costs which include materials (barley, water, barrels, etc.), logistics (delivery, transportation, etc.), marketing dollars, and other expenses or they can charge more for their products. Said another way, if you make 40 cents on the dollar you can make it 45 by either cutting 5 cents of cost or charging $1.05. When looking at Diageo’s cost of goods sold it only went up 3.5% over the five years from 2009 to 2014. That means that they are either charging more (they are) or are shifting to a different mix of products that they make more money on (they also are).

In getting back to my original “It’s about damn time” comment it’s only so long a company or industry can keep doing this before the market’s demand for its products will no longer bear the prices they are trying to charge. So in looking at Diageo’s financial results in light of their halt of further expansion it looks like they got the double whammy. The new markets they are pushing look to be pulling back a bit and their old markets (Western Europe’s numbers look similar to North America) may just be tired of continuing to pay more every time they go buy another bottle.

It’s not just Diageo. Pernod Ricard’s trends are similar. It’s not just scotch. Bourbon has seen large increases and marketing driven price increases too. It’s all got a bit out of whack. In “proselytizing the way of malt” I’m not supposed to root against whiskey but as the international fascination and fad dies down a bit maybe we can come a little closer to a healthy normalized industry. One with good give and take between consumer and suppliers instead of the crazy race to the top we’ve seen in the last few years. Prices have gotten ridiculous and it pisses me off. Hopefully, I’ve vented enough that I don’t start a regular series of “Things About Whiskey That Piss Me Off” on Whisk(e)y Apostle. Now I’m going to go take another deep breath and have a drink.

Free Tickets: Whisky Extravaganza

Who likes free stuff? Really who doesn’t like free stuff, right? How about two tickets to one of the fall tour events for the Whisky Extravaganza? The Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America is donating two tickets to one of our lucky readers. These are $135 to $165 each so I think this is a pretty cool give away. Do I have your attention now?

If you are interested in winning two free tickets to either the Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., Seattle, Los Angeles, or Fort Lauderdale events then send me an email to no later than midnight EST on September 30th, 2014. I will pick a winner at random on the morning of October 1st. The winner will get an email asking for legal name, mailing address, which event you want the tickets to, etc. and we will get the tickets sent to you via mail from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America. Obviously you have to be of legal drinking age and I ask that you don’t win the tickets and try to flip them. Those are the only requirements. Let the contest begin!

Retired Balvenie’s

Over the next few days we’ll be reviewing a couple of old (dusty if you’re a bourbon guy) Balvenies. One is the now discontinued 12 year old Signature, itself launch in 2008 to replace the old 10 year old Founder’s Reserve. The Signature was replaced with the current 12 year old Single Barrel. Those Balvenie guys can’t keep still 😉 . The second is one of the earlier limited releases that came down when David Stewart first started playing with rum casks. It’s the 17 year old RumCask bottling from several years back. Stay tuned!

Laphroaig for Father’s Day & Graduation

We recently received a feature request from the folks at DBC Public Relations for a Laphroaig feature leading up to Father’s Day and Graduations. Well we love Laphroaig over here at Whisk(e)y Apostle so it was a no-brainer. Over the next few days we will feature reviews of several expressions provided to us for review including:

  • Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength
  • Laphroaig Quarter Cask
  • Laphroaig Triple Wood
  • Laphroaig 18 Year

Again, in full disclosure we were provided the above bottles for review but that in no way impacts our reviews.  Additionally, we’ll pull an old bottle of Laphroaig 15 Year from the dusty Whisk(e)y Apostle bunker for comparison to the 18 Year that replaced it.   That one we paid for and sadly it’s the last one we have. 🙁

Laphroaig is spearheading their campaign with the cask strength expression of their 10 year old.  Here’s a little piece from them on gifting Laphroaig this season:

I wanted to share info on a great Scotch that dads and recent grads (21+ up!) will love.

  • Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Cask Strength is a strong, peaty single malt Scotch bottled straight from the barrel and only barrier-filtered to remove remnants of American oak barrel char. Both fathers and graduates will appreciate the thoughtful gift of Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Cask Strength – deserving Dads will be able to enjoy a classic and unforgettable Scotch, and Grads will be given the chance to start a worthy Scotch collection.
  • Your gift will also keep dads and grads in good company, considering that Laphroaig’s most famous patron is recognized by the distinctive coat of arms, which is proudly carried on every bottle. In 1994, HRH Prince Charles personally came to Laphroaig and gave his Royal Warrant — which is especially fitting for Laphroaig, as His Royal Highness is the present “Lord of the Isles.”
  • Lastly, you’ll be giving more than the world’s #1 Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky! Each bottle of Laphroaig contains a lifelong gift: a unique code inside the bottle allows recipients to register as a Friend of Laphroaig and receive a lifetime lease on one square foot of land on the island of Islay, right next to the distillery.