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September 24, 2011

Medicine with Uncle Mike

You may have heard of the description, ‘a shrinking violet’. They tend not to make good sales people. Mike Drury, of the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul, is a very good sales person. He is not a shrinking violet. The shop is run as a private church to his evangelical faith that whisky ought to be better than the standard which most official bottlings, to his mind, settle for. Mike is vehemently, unapologetically passionate about single malt Scotch, and when taken together form one formidable duo.

Hopefully I can make annual visits to this tantalising apothecary shop of astounding, individual whiskies.

My staunch refusal to countenance anything other than a Mortlach last year had evidently pained him – ‘there are much better whiskies than that in here…’ he had sighed – and so last week I vowed to submit to his tutelage. Despite a rapidly congesting nose, I begged to know what was good at that moment. ‘He’s come to Uncle Mike for a cure,’ beamed Mr Drury, and I had a Douglas Laing Mortlach in my hand inside 25 seconds.

I explained my Project – cask strength, preferably single cask, non-chillfiltered: a whisky with genuine personality – and away he went to forage in the forest of bottles behind the counter. He produced a Gordon & MacPhail-sourced, Whisky Castle-bottled Arran. ‘This,’ winked Mike, ‘is one sexy whisky – if you like toffee.’ A first-fill ex-Bourbon barrel had held Arran spirit for 11 years, and the result was a bonanza of the best that wood can offer: butterscotch galore, creamy, unctuous, with a suggestion of green fruits and spring blossoms in a cool mist. We had our benchmark.

There followed many others: amongst them a Bunnahabhain (heavy lactose notes at first, then a more mature maritime character and a complex oak-malt interchange on the palate) and a ‘diverting’ A.D. Rattray melange of malts. Nothing flicked any switches, however, and I began to worry that my Cinderella whisky was simply a fantasy.

This 15yo first-fill ex-Bourbon will hopefully prove to be the ultimate Caol Ila experience.

However, Cathy – Mike’s wife, who all this time had been surfing the net calling out cruise trip options further along the counter – spoke up in support of another G&M/Whisky Castle collaboration: a Sherry-matured Caol Ila. The moment those gloriously familiar peat notes reached my nose – a mixture of peat bog and the lightest smoke eddying on the Islay breezes, my mission changed and I was acquainted with a Dewar Rattray 15yo.

Meanwhile, others were getting the Mike treatment: controversial declarations which gently put the customer’s nose out of joint. However, his bluster is always backed up by a stunning malt the customer would never have thought of. I reflected as I counted out seven ten-pound notes how effective Mike’s approach is. Whisky is a complicated matter: a wood wilfully obscured by the trees at times. I would wager that Mike’s particular methods, by starting from the customer’s own tastes and challenging them with good-natured abuse and tenacity, induce new opinion in his punters. To defend your predilections is to gain a more rounded understanding of them and with a new conviction comes new confidence. By establishing a dialogue, aided and abetted by those glorious drams I talked about, people become genuinely interested in what whisky is and can be. A steady stream of samples shows that there is no harm – only greater rewards - in exploring.

I left with my Dewar Rattray after all, similarly bristling with single malt bombast. Mike knows his own mind, and he knows whisky, and consequently I believe that it is possible at the Whisky Castle to purchase drams as they should be drunk: in lively, enlightening conversation.

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June 29, 2011

Size Matters?

Gargantuan Glenfiddich.

Gargantuan Glenfiddich.

From whisky’s commercial beginnings, success has meant going large: more equipment equals more liquid which equals more profit which equals more equipment. As businessmens’ wallets expanded so, inevitably, did their distilleries.

Miniature Edradour.

Miniature Edradour.

Today, however, we find a subtly changed model. Like the tiny birds which munch their lunch from the hides of rhinos and elephants, there are those whose comparatively diminutive size ensures their survival and prosperity. Fluttering in the wake of the industry’s behemoths are flocks of boutique operations flourishing thanks to the robust health of their enormous counterparts. Liberated by their small-scale natures to offer something particular, distinctive, unusual – maybe even personal – these distilleries cultivate a following of devotees which, though often equally as minute, are enough to sustain a brand and a philosophy. Small, for increasing numbers of ambitious and passionate people, is the whole point. But is boutique best? In the following paragraphs my aim is not exactly to answer this question. I want instead to ponder how whiskies differ on a level beyond – or perhaps it would be more correct to say beneath – flavour. The means by which Springbank journeys to your drinks cabinet contrast with those of The Glenlivet; which dram, therefore, speaks most faithfully of the provenance, process and people behind it?

This train of thought chugged into motion with the Benromach press release published yesterday. However, I should say that the thrust of this article is not innovation. Rather, I want to interrogate the principal bottlings from the likes of Glenmorangie and Macallan and evaluate whether they are as honest as they could be. Has their extraordinary volume compromised their identities as discernible in the final product? Could distillery character be more vividly captured and engaging with less output? Does spirit from smaller sites taste somehow more authentically like itself?

Giant Jura.

Giant Jura.

My tentative belief is that with fewer litres produced, requiring fewer casks and therefore with perhaps a smaller spectrum of oak-derived (or oak-perverted) flavours available, the creation of a new core expression presents the master blender with fewer alibis – whisky special effects. When putting together a 12-year-old, for example, he or she hasn’t the diverting inventory of casks with particular qualities which might in other conglomerates be brought to bear on the vatting with ameliorating, distorting consequences. I know that, with the larger companies, whole floors in warehouses are exhumed to contribute towards the next bottling run, many hundreds – even thousands – of litres many years older than the age statement that will finally appear on the bottle lend colour, fragrance and structure which may have been lacking in the youngest stock. This practise is not misleading exactly, just obscuring. Also, when releasing a subsequent batch of ’12-year-old’, the boutique master blender may be unable to maintain consistency with the previous release at the volume demanded by head office. Theirs will rather be a whisky for and of the here and now. They cannot replicate the character of a single expression, they can only construct a whisky that reflects how the Edradour or Royal Lochnagar spirit has coped with and embraced those variables which are at the heart of whisky manufacture.

Titchy Arran.

Titchy Arran.

I compared the scores given in the latest Malt Whisky Companion to the principal – or only – bottlings from the eleven smallest Scottish distilleries in output terms with those of the eleven largest. They were, once I had calculated an average, to all intents and purposes identical (80 plays 79 respectively). This, of course, tells me very little. Were the MWC published on an annual basis, however, and were the bottling habits of the likes of Kilchoman, Arran and Benromach to become de riguer for all boutiques, I would expect their scores to fluctuate, whilst those of the giants remained constant.

Not to conclude, therefore, but rather to adjourn for now, what about flavour exploration? Is fluctuating whisky better whisky? For me, I would bellow ‘Yes!’ I have enormous respect for how the big boys put out consistently tasty stuff year after year, but right now I yearn for variety, digression and different shades in my drams. I want to explore the products of those whose business models and above all artisanal attitudes empower them to shout about something really great when they find it, instead of having to surrender those drops of transient magnificence into the uniform ocean of brand continuity. To my mind, master blenders must too often sacrifice wonderful malts to function as a kind of whisky airbrushing tool; our omnipresent malts are merely beautified – they are not truly, idiosyncratically, beautiful.

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