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February 5, 2013

The Kiwi Share

What have Dan Carter’s left boot, Hobbits and 80,000 litres of mature single malt got in common? They were all discovered in New Zealand, before achieving prominence further afield.

The rampant rise of Australian distillers on the island of Tasmania has received a great deal of coverage with half a dozen craft enterprises making a great deal of noise. Yet for many years there has been silence from the other side of the Tasman Sea. Despite distinctly Scotch-like landscapes and a healthy ex-patriate population, New Zealand has been somewhat anonymous on the global whisky stage. Greg Ramsay wanted to change that.

Greg Ramsay of the New Zealand Whisky Co.

Since training under Regis Lemaitre at St Andrews’ Old Course Hotel Road Hole Bar as a younger man, Greg’s enthusiasm for whisky had played second fiddle to that other business which it is impossible to escape on the East Coast of Scotland: golf. Returning to his native Tasmania to build courses, it wasn’t until his skills in the financial world were called upon, together with the two-pence of Aussie distilling’s godfather Bill Lark, to evaluate some old whisky stock which had been kicking around in a warehouse near Dunedin that malt spirit occupied his full attention once more. Their appraisal was positive: Greg would buy all 600 casks of the whisky that was the legacy of the Willowbank Distillery, which operated until 1997, themselves and release it to the world as the New Zealand Whisky Company.

Some of the expressions we sampled at the Old Course Hotel.

Part of this match-making process involved Greg returning to his former place of work, the Old Course Hotel, to host a tasting of his sleeping beauties. Over the course of his talk it became clear that Greg’s intentions were not to parade New Zealand’s faded glories, but to supply fuel for a distilling renaissance on the island. With the oldest whiskies ever to hail from New Zealand, Greg hopes to oversee the rebirth of whisky-making in the area.

Greg held court before a room packed with St Andrews’ epicurean luminaries, not to mention cheese. We were welcomed into the soiree with a glass of the South Island 18yo, a wonderfully sprightly single malt considering its mature years. Once Greg’s presentation began, Ian Fenton of Gordon & MacPhail – the UK distributors for the New Zealand Whisky Co.’s stocks – performed splendidly, distributing the remaining whiskies in the ‘core range’. This has already been snapped up by the LCBO, Canada’s biggests purchaser of alcohol. Next came the DoubleWood, a red wine finish which tip-toed around fudgey grape oblivion without falling in.

The history of the liquid neatly conveys the final years of the distillery from which it hailed: acquired by a wine company after Canadian giants Seagrams sold on the business, spirit was reclaimed from patchy ex-Bourbon barrels and put into red wine casks. Pinot noir, syrah and merlot had made these casks their own once upon a time, and Greg has entertained notions of bottling the DoubleWood on a single varietal basis to demonstrate the influence of particular grapes on the final whisky.

Our next dip into the New Zealand whisky archives came in the shape of the 1993, one of only five spirits to be awarded a gold medal at the Wizards of Whisky Awards, established by Dominic Roskrow. I found it to be soft, floral and peach flesh fresh with honey and iced gingerbread on the nose. It was distinctly savoury on the palate (and no, I had not touched the cheese) with rosemary, pizza base and a strange oaky flavour. Water improved the nose still further, but couldn’t redeem the palate.

Anticipating the future through an evaluation of the past.

Greg eulogised about the ‘explorers market’ of single malt whisky, and I was delighted to have been invited along to sample a valuable and exotic find. However, at around £70 a bottle for the DoubleWood, neither it nor its stablemates amounted to the ‘destination dram’ with which I had hoped such a dear adventure overseas would  furnish me. The New Zealand Whisky Company has made available some very amiable expressions, and if ‘inoffensive’ does them a disservice, neither is ‘compelling’ exactly justified.

As a man on a whisky mission, however, Greg Ramsay is one to watch. Armed with one of the stills from the old Willowbank plant (the others are in Fiji making rum), he hopes to begin his distilling campaign by the end of the year. We shall see if Kiwi whisky, as well as their rugby players, can conquer the world.

October 22, 2012

Whisky Quality Emigrating?

Will we eventually have to leave Scottish shores in search of whiskies with personality?

Perhaps by way of compensating for the wheezing, frigid wind, and rain that strikes with an assassin’s stealth and ferocity, whisky companies have always released some jolly nice specimens at this time of intractable, dismal decline. Whether it is Diageo’s array of Special Releases - and the salivatingly tempting (if soberingly-priced) Lagavulin 21yo in particular, or the fourth rendition of Compass Box’s iconic Flaming Heart expression (want passionately), some whisky gems always appear at this point in the year.

However, today I intend to discuss not just new whiskies, but New World whiskies. A very interesting article appeared in the Scotland Sunday Times last month entitled: ‘Aussies scotch claims to best whisky’ (News section, Sunday September 16th. In fact, the debate surfaced on connosr.com in March, and continues to rage here). I stashed the piece to one side because I knew I wanted to discuss the matter it raised once I had finally put essays to bed.

Put simply, some voices from the recent distilling operations – notably in Australia – have attacked the ‘dumbed down’ malts some parties within the Scotch whisky industry are allegedly producing. As the category swells to encompass the globe, the argument is that quality and ‘personality’ are sacrificed. To meet demand and make profits, Scotch isn’t being made as it used to be, and is suffering as a result.

Tim Puett, an Australian independent bottler, asks whether the Scotchs of yesteryear are being ‘driven out by rationalisation, basic resource availability, and financial return?’ These questions are valid when bottles of Ballantines or Dalwhinnie pop up on the back bars of establishments from Sao Paulo to Shanghai. How could they maintain a given standard when chasing new markets so aggressively?

I intend to produce a defence of Scotch one the one hand, but a rallying cry for all whiskies more generally. I don’t believe Puett has set the right tone for his inquiry, or acknowledged as fully as he might have done that the category of Australian whisky could not have taken the form it has, or enjoyed such an immediate and largely positive reception, were it not in part for the ground broken by the industry based in Scotland. He talks of the pimple on the elephant’s back in the connosr piece, but the implications for this are far greater than a naturalistic metaphor. Though based on radically different business models, Scotch drove consumer curiosity in single malts while still maintaining chief focus on its blended products to crack new markets. This was not achieved with sub-standard juice, as the present continuing boom in single malt whisky surely attests to decades of fine bottlings. These Scotch whiskies were what inspired drinkers to explore the unexpected outposts of single malt hailing from overseas. Scotch is – and in blended form always has been – a spirit with a global personality, by which I mean certain flavours have always travelled the world and will continue to do so.

Not enough good examples of these kicking around?

Of course, I have not been drinking Scotch whisky for that long (it will be my five-year anniversary on Thursday), and so I cannot compare the likes of Highland Park 12yo or Talisker 10yo through the ages. I would expect their precise characters to have changed, although I naturally dislike the notion that this may well be for the worse and that I shall never sample spirit from those golden Halcyon days. But this nostalgia may be more romantic than apparent, and what I have come to accept is that for the last fifty years at least, the Scotch I enjoy has been made – and made possible as a varied product I can feasibly purchase - in large part thanks to volume and scales of production. The best of what is now a far more consistent product has charmed and inspired me: I do not look at a £30 bottle of Balvenie and rend my garments in anguish that it would be a superior dram were there a million fewer examples of it. And let’s not forget, when discussing whether producing more whisky more speedily and at a reduced cost makes for a poorer whisky, there is an interesting comparison to be made with start-up distilleries. Their costs will be necessarily higher and the need to bring a product to market is just as - if not more – pressing. This is the 21st century: these distilleries are businesses, too, and cannot survive on a philosophy.

Puett’s remark about ‘basic resource availability’ is most curious, however. If there are shortages in grain and casks, surely this ought to affect all distillers equally? Indeed, shouldn’t it prove a greater hindrance to the new guys, who don’t have these networks of resource acquisition quite as finely-honed as the established powers? Quality oak is a global, finite commodity, and everyone wants some. Surely those with bigger budgets and longer-standing relationships (e.g. Scotch) will muscle in ahead of the queue? I don’t buy the claim that start-up distillers work best from a supposed dearth of materials.

My final quibble is with the implicit contrast between Scotch as a category of mass-production and shareholders, and the New World as the home of boutique enterprises. Amongst the behemoths in Scotland, there are independent companies passionate about making themselves distinct, and harnessing centuries of distilling know-how to best effect. The number of Australian distilleries numbers 18 (see here) and not all of these can boast a mature product available outside Australia, although distribution of this exciting category is improving all the time. I can list just as many small or independent Scottish distilleries concentrating on producing a unique, high quality spirit without the primary focus being volume, of which Bladnoch, Daftmill, Kilchoman, BenRiach and GlenDronach, Benromach and Springbank are the most prominent examples. As one commenter beneath the original connosr post correctly stated, this is a prime period for unusual and exciting products emerging from Scotland. The entire category ought not to be slighted as ‘average’ (a potential future suggested by Dominic Roskrow in the Sunday Times article) because of its multifaceted activities. To boast the most vibrant and diverse blended whisky category in the world, iconic frontline single malts and small-scale producers is a singular achievement in a style as closely legislated as Scotch.

I can understand the more recent distillers trying to create a fuss about themselves, to make points of distinction and appeal to customers who maybe want something new. Scotch, however, assumes a dual responsibility in trying to keep the commercial aspects of the spirit healthy (which benefits all distillers internationally) as well as the connoisseurs happy. The former is not something the Larks, Bakery Hills and Amruts of this world have to worry about. I am not denigrating the up-and-coming distillers. I will always seek out new whiskies (I have an independently-bottled Lark to review later in the week), and I firmly believe that there is room for more exciting single malts on the shelves. I like it, too, when people shout about what they believe they are doing well but my point is that attacking the old guard is not the way to go about it. As Puett concedes, Scotch has had 1000 years to work out what its magic formula is: considerably longer than this - worthy but still nascent - movement in Australia.

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