Speyside trip 2016: Part three – Coleburn/Murray McDavid – Strathspey steam railway tasting

Liquid sunshine!

After the two rather long and eventful previous days, our group was keen on taking it easy on the third day. The entire day was centred around a steam train ride and everything else was planned around it.

Coleburn

Coleburn Warehouses
Coleburn Warehouses

So we started off as a group of four, Kat Presley, my brother and I hitching a ride with Crystal Coverdale to the decommissioned (since 1985) Coleburn distillery. What’s so interesting about an old, dismantled distillery with no equipment left inside? The warehouses! The re-founded independent bottler Murray McDavid (the original company was sold in the course of the Bruichladdich takeover in 2013) bought them in 2013 and now they’re used to mature their casks of whisky – stock they bought from the original Murray McDavid owners. We were met there by distiller and master blender David Simpson, who prefers the title of “Whisky Creation”. After an introduction to the company we were led into the warehouses and were free to roam around and look at all the different casks stored on site (including bourbon and they also talked about vodka and rum). The oldest cask on site is a 1962 North British, in case you were wondering! Well, it’s a traditional dunnage warehouse on two floors, as you can see in the pictures. I’ve seen my fair share of warehouses, so instead of peeking at all the casks and labels I mostly engaged in conversations with David and another lad – Tony Whitnock, former excise officer for Coleburn and other distilleries, joined our group and had a few stories to tell and confirm (involving “copper dogs” for sneaking out whisky from the warehouses…) which was a nice added touch. That’s the guy you want to sit down with for a few drams and listen to stories of bygone times! Continue reading “Speyside trip 2016: Part three – Coleburn/Murray McDavid – Strathspey steam railway tasting”

Nosing, tasting and casting my vote for the #ArranWhiteStag second release

Nosing, tasting and casting my vote for the #ArranWhiteStag second release

Nosing, tasting and casting my vote for the #ArranWhiteStag second releaseThree drams of Arran Malt, sent to 20 panel members, all to be tasted completely blind, in a quest to choose which one will become the second “White Stag” release. This will be a single cask bottling of Arran whisky, exclusive for the members of the (free!) White Stag club. I was chosen as one of the panellists and now face the hard task of choosing my preferred sample. All drams were tasted on the same evening at the same time – first the nose of all three drams, then palate and finish afterwards. Hey, you’re here for the whisky, so let’s get going!

Sample 1

Info: Single Sherry Butt No. 96/1320 filled on 17th September 1996. 54.5% abv. 3 votes overall
Colour: 
copper gold
The nose opens on what I love about Arran. Perfect dram to start with! Light fruits (red apples, sweet pears), orange juice, orange peel, the signature is there. It’s also getting a bit tropical with mango and sweet pineapple. Progressing into darker berries with a slightly bitter note of cracked berry seeds on light, fragrant oak. Delicate, yet with a substance in the background provided by the cask. Continue reading “Nosing, tasting and casting my vote for the #ArranWhiteStag second release”

Speyside trip 2016: Part two – Dalmunach – Tamdhu (+Maltings) – Glasgow Distillery Presentation – #whiskyfabric dinner

Dalmunach still room

Scotland is a very diverse country and it is easy to forget how remote it can be when you’re in the central belt or the more populated areas. But when you’re trying to locate a big distillery, in the middle of nowhere, with no mobile reception for miles, you sometimes start to question your navigation skills. What? There’s supposed to be a distillery at the end of this 1.2-track, broken up, pot-holey road with no signs pointing you anywhere? Yep, there sure is – and what a distillery!

Dalmunach Distillery

Dalmunach Distillery
Dalmunach Distillery. Photo credit: Johannes Doblmann

Pulling into the Dalmunach car park we (my brother Johannes and I) were met by malt mates Lora Hemy and Peter Moser, with Crystal Coverdale  having traveled with us. Speyside is a big area – but somehow you keep bumping into the same people! Distillery tours are always best with partners in crime!

“Dalmunach? Never heard of it!” you might be inclined to say, unless you’re one of the most die-hard whisky geeks. The new 10-million-litre distillery was constructed on the site of the previous Imperial distillery, which had been mothballed for several years and, since 2013, is now officially a “lost” distillery. Construction of the new site was in the hands of Douglas Cruickshank, a former Chivas executive, who started his career at the Imperial site at age 15. Talking about creating a legacy! Dalmunach is owned by Chivas/Pernod Ricard and is to produce spirit for the blended whisky market, relieving stocks of the likes of Glenlivet and Longmorn. Production is overseen by Trevor Buckley, distillery manager and our “tour guide” that day.

Trevor Buckley showing the group around
Trevor Buckley showing the group around

The distillery is not open to the general public, thus instead of entering a big, branded visitor’s centre, we met in the distillery “lobby”, which is dominated by a strange round, familiar shape. Wood from one of the old Imperial washbacks was integrated into the structure of the new distillery, housing for example the manager’s office, as Trevor pointed out to us. You can spot it in the first picture – the round structure in the middle.
Joining us on our tour was also architect Mark, responsible for this stunning piece of functional, modern architecture, tucked away invisibly, like a hidden gem, by the river Spey. The plant has a layout of three strands, reflecting the three distinct production processes: Mashing, fermentation and distillation. And what a spacious layout it is! Lots of room, big, windows drawing ones eye to the stunning scenery all around. Continue reading “Speyside trip 2016: Part two – Dalmunach – Tamdhu (+Maltings) – Glasgow Distillery Presentation – #whiskyfabric dinner”

Speyside trip 2016: Part one – Boortmalt Maltings Buckie – Speyside Cooperage – Auchroisk Distillery

Auchroisk #whiskyfabric group picture
Plane to Aberdeen
Our plane to Aberdeen

Going somewhere for the first time is always filled with anticipation and excitement. In the last week of April 2016 my brother Johannes and I packed our backpacks for our first ever ‘real’ trip to the Speyside in Scotland. While we’ve been to Scotland many times before and even visited Benromach and Glen Moray last year, this was to be our first proper visit to the current heart of Scotch whisky production. Well, our decision to head there might have been triggered by the fact that there was a whisky festival going on at that time – the Spirit of Speyside Whisky festival. You might have heard about it. If not – click the link! Part of the festival excitement had to do with us meeting friends old and new as nine of us whisky geeks (that would be Jo, Johanne, Crystal, Viva, Kat, the Spellers and us two boys) shared a house for a week – a bit out of the way in Cullen (home of the famous Cullen Skink fish soup), but it was comfy and cheap – perfect as a base camp! And right next to our base camp – the next town, literally – was the first destination of our first tour on the first day of #dram16, Thursday, the 28th of April.

Boortmalt Maltings in Buckie

Boortmalt Maltings in Buckie
Boortmalt Maltings in Buckie

It’s Wednesday morning, the sun is shining (for the most part) and we’re driving our car towards Buckie to take a look at the Boortmalt maltings operation there. What better way to start a whisky festival than looking at how THE main ingredient in malt whisky production, malt, is made? At the door we were greeted by plant manager Gary and led into the board room for tea and cookies. Not a bad way to start the day indeed. The day even got better when we bumped into house mate Crystal for the first time as well as Lora and Rachel – always great to meet fellow malt mates at festivals!

Malting barley is a three-step process. At first you “steep” the dried barley in water to raise water content of the grain, as can be seen in the second picture, which was taken at the time when the steeping vessel was “stirred” by way of introducing compressed air from the bottom. Once a moisture content of approximately 45% is reached, the water is drained and the barley transferred to the germination chamber.

Steeps at the Maltings
Steeps at the Maltings

Under controlled climatic conditions the barley begins to grow during the modification phase, where enzymes break down the proteins and carbohydrates, essential for fermentation later on in the production of whisky. After germination has arrived at a critical point, the barley is kilned – you could also call it heat-dried, to terminate the germination process, or otherwise a barley plant would grow and we wouldn’t want that to happen, now would we? Drying is achieved by introducing hot air through the bottom of a perforated floor. Sometimes peat is used during the first phase of kilning to create smoky flavours, at the Buckie maltings they only produce unpeated malt, from local (Scottish) Concerto barley. They once tried making a peated batch, but after burning 40 tonnes of peat only got them about 10 ppm in the malt, the trials were abandoned. Continue reading “Speyside trip 2016: Part one – Boortmalt Maltings Buckie – Speyside Cooperage – Auchroisk Distillery”

Highland Park ICE or: Where’s the ceiling?

This cask needs a medic...

This cask needs a medic...

I don’t often feel inclined to post a short opinion piece, but I just had lunch and sat down with a cup of coffee in front of my computer to look at new arrivals at whisky shops. That’s when I saw the new Highland Park ICE on offer. Let’s put it that way: Coffee stains on my keyboard and screen when I saw the price.

Highland Park ICE. The latest instalment of Highland Park’s highly collectible series of whiskies. There are 30.000(!!!) bottles worldwide. That’s hardly “limited” by any standard, most distilleries have much smaller batches with their regular bottlings.
In essence it is 17-year-old whisky, selling at 350€ a bottle. 350€! Their very good standard 18 year-old is already sold at a steep price – and it’s “only” 100-125€. If you’re lucky, you can get four bottles on offer for the price of one bottle of this new limited edition.

I am scratching my head here. Did I miss something? Is Highland Park a lost distillery, closed for 10 years or longer? Is there a pure gold stopper on the bottle? Or did the queen sign them? Or perhaps the queen’s poodle sniffed the vatting tank? What’s the heck is going on here?

In my opinion this bottling is displaying everything that’s wrong with the whisky industry right now. It will be talked about not only amongst whisky enthusiasts (heck, I’m even giving them publicity here, even if it’s more of a rant so I too fell into the trap…).  It is one of many puzzle pieces as of late changing public perception of whisky being that of an elite luxury, a dream only rich can fulfill, worse, a snobist’s tipple. Whisky used to be a tipple of which nearly everyone could afford a “special” bottle for special occasions. These days the market is increasingly divided.

I have to congratulate Highland Park and their marketing team for pulling it off, though, and I’m dead serious about this. It takes skill, a great reputation, a large following of collectors and devotees, predecessor bottlings which are highly sought after and a superheated market to be able to place a bottle of whisky in pretty high volume at such a price level. Not everyone can do it and I’m sure it will be a quick sell-out.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’s a lovely dram and if you head out to buy and enjoy it – good on ya, no envy involved, enjoy it with a few mates as intended. But, in the end, it’s still “just” a very big batch (30.000 bottles amounts to roughly 150(!) barrels at 200 bottles each) of 17yo ex-bourbon matured whisky that isn’t any more expensive to produce than the standard expressions (except for a few additional coins for the admittedly very nice packaging – which you can’t drink).

But, in the end, when you look at it from a distance, it’s just another sign of how superheated and completely over the top a portion of today’s whisky market is and it makes me wonder whether we’re getting close to the ceiling or if there’s still loads of head space to trump it in the upcoming years…

2015 in review, my personal whisky awards and an outlook of what’s coming in 2016

Wolfburn: The two whiskies we got to taste

2015 in review

Wolfburn: The two whiskies we got to taste
Wolfburn: one of the distilleries we’ve visited in 2015

2015 was a schizophrenic year. It was a great one and a bad one. Let’s start with the good stuff, shall we?
I managed to churn out 117 whisky reviews – that amounts to about one review every three days. I’m quite happy with that and although other bloggers get much more done I prefer to take it easy and be thorough – and that can mean taking two hours just to write about one whisky. Quality, not quantity, both in my writing and in my consumption of alcohol.
I attended only two whisky festivals, the biannual Vienna whisky festival and the Finest Spirits in Munich. Both are fantastic ways to meet fellow whisky enthusiasts, try good malts and make new friends, but at least Munich was so crowded it was almost too much to bear. At times one couldn’t even move. Talking about crowded: I expected Feis Ile 2015 to be much more crowded than it was. Sure enough, there were many people there, but the limited housing and ferry capacities put a cap on the number of visitors – and that’s a good thing. My first Feis and probably not my last, though I prefer visiting Islay in the quieter months. Nonetheless, Feis Ile was a big party, meeting many people – old friends and new ones – and bonds for life were formed. Not a day goes by when I don’t think back! Continue reading “2015 in review, my personal whisky awards and an outlook of what’s coming in 2016”

Scotch Single Malt distillery recommendations from a price/performance standpoint

Many different kinds of casks in use at Ardbeg
Many different kinds of casks in use at Ardbeg
So much whisky, so little time

So my last piece on this blog was more or less a rant about ever increasing whisky prices. Soon after that my Facebook friend and Arran Whisky Ambassador Andy Bell challenged me:

Let’s see an article about the distilleries that sell good whisky at a reasonable price Klaus… 🙂

Right on, Andy – great suggestion! I’ll gladly pick up this ball and run with it. So, here goes. I took a list of all Scottish single malt distilleries and looked at the current officially bottled market offerings of all of them (Austrian/German markets). In the end I came up with a few suggestions of Scottish whisky distilleries which seem to still care for us regular punters looking for quality drams at still reasonable and affordable prices in today’s high-price market.
I tried to stay as objective as possible during the whole process but, of course, there is always personal opinion and preference and not everybody might agree with me – which is perfectly fine as whisky is a very individual drink! Those are just my recommendations – imagine me walking a mate through a liquor store pointing out individual bottles and distilleries as we go along.

The distilleries on the following list stand out because they fulfill all or most of these criteria:
– offer a range of affordable whiskies, not just one affordable entry-level bottling
– do not chill filter or add fake colouring to the majority of their whiskies
– bottle their whiskies (except for bottom-shelf entry-level releases) at higher than the legal minimum of 40% ABV
– still offer a good selection of age-statement drams and don’t overly push no-age-statement expressions
– plus some other reasons, like independent ownership, number of people employed… (stated in the text) Continue reading “Scotch Single Malt distillery recommendations from a price/performance standpoint”

Whisky prices: Where we are, where we were and where will we go?

This cask needs a medic...
This cask needs a medic...
This cask needs a medic – does the industry need one too?

I love browsing the different whisky retailers’ websites, discovering all the new releases and shiny new bottles on offer. Or should I say “I loved”? Browsing the online shops nowadays leaves me mostly indifferent, sometimes saddened, and with less excitement every single time.

Here’s why, this is a selection of recently released bottles at a German online retailer: Continue reading “Whisky prices: Where we are, where we were and where will we go?”

Visiting Wolfburn – the most notherly distillery on the Scottish mainland

Wolfburn: Stills (wash still on the left, spirit still on the right)

Who’s heard of Thurso before? Besides those on the way to catch a ferry to the Orkneys? I guess not many. So where exactly is it? Well, it’s a beautiful 2,5 hour drive north of Inverness and the largest most northerly city/town in mainland Scotland with about 9000 inhabitants. And, since 2013, there’s also a whisky distillery (again), Wolfburn, named after and situated besides the place where there once was a distillery by the same name (and using the same water source, the Wolf Burn) in the 1800s . Not much is known about the old distillery, so let’s talk about the new one:

Wolfburn distillery - the sight as you enter the production building
Wolfburn distillery – the sight as you enter the production building

Founded by a private group of investors, including a man from the Caithness area, wherein Thurso lies, it was built in a very short period of time between August 2012 and January 2013, with the first spirit flowing on the 25th of January 2013. To pull all of this off, they hired Shane Fraser, previously production manager at Glenfarclas, to oversee the design, building and running of the place and to this date the distillery is run by Shane and colleague Iain, previously with Balmenach. Continue reading “Visiting Wolfburn – the most notherly distillery on the Scottish mainland”

Scotch Whisky production, warehousing and export statistics number crunching. Or: How old is the majority of Scotch Whisky when it is bottled?

One statement most of us will have heard – or even mentioned ourself is: “If there’s no age statement on a bottle, it’s 3 years and a day old”. Because that’s the legal minimum a whisky has to mature in oak barrels to be called Scotch Whisky – regardless of it being a blend, blended malt or single malt. But is said statement true? How old is the majority of Scotch when it is bottled and how much is allowed to mature for double-digit years? How do production and sales numbers compare? Lucky for us the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) publishes yearly reports with numbers to crunch and relate. The downside is, the publicly available detailed reports only range from 2009 till 2013, with the 2014 data expected in the fall of 2015. While not ideal it’s better than nothing and with lots of calculations and spreadsheet magic we’re able to condense the data into more digestible summaries. Continue reading “Scotch Whisky production, warehousing and export statistics number crunching. Or: How old is the majority of Scotch Whisky when it is bottled?”

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