Distilleries all over the world use Scotland as a touchstone for quality. For this reason, the techniques of production vary little from country to country. So why does the whisky vary so greatly? In my last blog, I rambled on about yeast and barley and how much that can affect the flavor of whisky (specifically single malt). However, we know that it’s a myriad of elements that come together to create unique flavor profiles.
Just a week ago, I guided a tasting that unintentionally lead to a personal study on the effects of local ingredients, environment and wood management. My tasting menu would take us around the world and open my eyes to an even greater appreciation for the whisky I hold so dear.
We started with a standard Talisker 10yo for a basis of comparison. I chose Talisker because it exhibits many qualities associated with Scotch whisky; brine, peat, fruit, malt. Talisker is complex yet quite approachable. For this reason, it’s one of my favorite drams in general and is great teaching dram.
We started our tour with Reisetbauer 7yo from Austria. Reisetbauer is definitely the most unique whisky from the tasting menu. For this reason, prudence would suggest putting it toward the end of the tasting. However, it was the lowest ABV (40%) of the bunch and I was afraid the subtleties of the dram would get lost after tasting stronger whiskies. What makes Reisetbauer so unique is the strict adherence to local products. The barley, water and yeast are all local, of course, but even the barrels used for maturation are locally sourced. No bourbon or sherry casks here. For maturation, Reisetbauer uses Austrian Chardonnay and Trockenbeerenauslese barrels. I’m not a wine guy, but I know Chardonnay (not a fan). I had to look up Trockenbeerenauslese. This mouthful of a wine is produced using grapes that were left to dry on the vine. Essentially, it’s raisin wine.
The nose on Reisetbauer is somewhere between spoilt Chardonnay, dirty feet and baby diarrhea. There are notes of sweetness and sourness that are equally unappealing to my nose. Everyone noted the distinct scent; some liked it for some of the more herbal elements, others were more to my frame of thinking.
If you did not know what kind of barrels were used for maturation. Your first sip would tell you all you need to know. There was crisp fruitiness and dry oak from the Chardonnay and an undeniable flavor of sweet white raisins (sultanas). Underneath it all, lurked a distinct maltiness. This whisky is really not my cup of tea, but I admire the uniqueness and complexity (and at a mere 7 years!). If you can find Reisetbauer, give it try. There is nothing else like it on the market.
Next, our journey brings us to the Willowbank Distillery in Dunedin, New Zealand. The Milford (10yo) is some the last whisky to be bottled from this dead distillery. We can’t even use the term “moth-balled” as the distillery was completely dismantled in 1999. Of our world whiskies, the Milford most closely resembles Scotch whisky. The climate conditions of Willowbank (once the Southernmost distillery in the world) are very similar to the conditions of Northern Scotland and the water used comes from snowmelt that filters through peat marshes. There is no specific reference to barrel selection, but I will guess bourbon barrels. The Milford reminds me of a lightly peated Speysider. It’s creamy and smooth with honeyed malt, oak, and light peat. This was one of the crowd favorites. Unfortunately, once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. If you find it in your area, pick it up.
While we are in the South Pacific, we might as well head up to Japan and try some Yamazaki 12yo. Richard and I did a review of this one not too long ago. The Japanese are very true the Scottish tradition. While environmental conditions and local ingredients may vary, Suntory takes it a step further by aging some of their whisky in Japanese oak barrels. So, it’s easy to pick out the stranger in the room if you are tasting through a bunch of twelve year old Scotches and this one sneaks in. In addition to the Japanese oak, some of the whisky ages in bourbon and sherry casks. The cask variety gives an uncommon richness to this whisky (a richness that only grows with the older expressions). Another group favorite, Yamazaki is probably the easiest whisky on the menu to find in stores. All I can say is “More Japanese whisky, please.”
Next we jump all the way back to the UK; not to Scotland, not to Ireland, but to Wales. Penderyn is the only whisky produced in Wales today. On our menu, the Aur Cymru (Welsh Gold) expression. Penderyn is situated in the Brecon Beacons, a beautiful area of Wales with low rolling mountains and plentiful clean water sources. Of course, they use Welsh barley. For the Aur Cymru expression, Penderyn first ages the whisky in barrels from Buffalo Trace and Evan Williams, then finishes the whisky in Madiera casks. We did a Penderyn review here pretty recently too. The nose and the palate are unique, with strong flavors of Starburst fruit chews.
While Reisetbauer was the most unique of our whiskies, Amrut comes in a close second. Amrut Single Malt is produced in Bangalore, India using barley produced at the foot of the Himalayas. Bangalore has some unique environmental conditions that really affect the flavor of the whisky. Firstly, it’s 3000ft above sea level. Secondly, the climate is tropical in temperature, but quite dry. The heat and the altitude cause the whisky to interact with the wood very quickly (don’t expect to see a 20yo expression from Amrut). There is no age statement, but I’ve heard that the whisky is about 2 ½ years old. For our tasting, we had the Single Malt expression. This expression uses 100% malted barley from India. Amrut Single Malt is extremely sweet and malty. It’s almost like drinking a really strong barley wine. Personally, I prefer the Fusion expression that uses some Scottish peated barley as well. The peat helps cut through the sticky sweetness.
Every once in a while, something happens to stoke the flames of my passion for whisky. This tasting was one of those things. I’ve been really excited since then; about barley and yeast, climate and wood management. Most importantly, I’ve been excited about whisky (product and process).
I encourage you to get out and try these world whiskies (and any others you can find). You may find a new favorite. If nothing else, it will be a great education.
Drink well, drink responsibly.