Archive for Sherry

WhiskyFest San Francisco 2009

I got to experience a few new-ish Bruichladdich expressions that I have written about but never tasted. I have to say that I really loved the Resurrection 2001 dram. It was a well-balanced expression and I find the range of whiskies that Bruichladdich produces to be a continual source of amazement. This is the first (I think) product since the new owners acquired the distillery in 2001. The Port Charlotte range also dates from that time frame, and I’m not sure which came first.

I also had the 16yr “First Growth” Series – A and B. They are very different! The effect of the wood on the whiskies is very unique. I believe that all these started out as 16yrs in ex-Bourbon barrels and then were migrated to the appropriate ex-burgundy casks. These were not as fruity or sweet as Sherried whiskies, but were wonderful nonetheless. Sadly, the First Growth Series is a bit out of my price range, but I think I’ll be having a Resurrection 2001 (and a Port Charlotte PC7) before the year is out.

Finally, it was a pleasure to meet Andrew Gray, one of the principals at BDC. I’ve exchanged many emails with him in the past and it was nice to personally welcome him to my home town.

Three Recently Announced Bruichladdich Expressions

Golder Still: Aged in rare “squat-hogsheads,” innovative casks tested in the late 1970s by US coopers who were trying to create the optimum cask shape. (The idea was to create a barrel shape that has more surface area enclosing a given volume of whisky, to increase the barrel’s ability to impart wood notes to the contents.) According to Mark Reynier (one of Bruichladdich’s executives): “There’s not much and it’s unrepeatable – but it’s a glorious, old-style whisky; a classic Laddie, all barley-sugar flavours with a golder hue.”

Sounds yummy. This expression is aged 23 years and is cask strength (bottled at 51% ABV). This is a limited edition; there are only 4,900 bottles (each is numbered) and should be on sale now, at least in the UK. If it makes it to the USA, expect to pay around $300 for a bottle.

Sherry 21: This also comes from the last of a line, but despite this it is a larger scale bottling which replaces the successful Twenty series of Bourbon-matured Bruichladdichs. The stocks of Sherry 21 are scheduled to last until 2010.

A bit of history on Sherry: The UK historically consumed a lot of it. Most Sherry, until about 1980, was shipped in bulk transport casks to be bottled closer to the consumer, e.g, in the UK. This practice was gradually phased out in the early 1980s and today virtually all Sherry is bottled in Spain, so it’s now much harder to get Sherry butts.

Think about it: Prior to the 1970s, empty Sherry butts almost literally littered the landscape in the UK. Storing aging whisky in them was a no-brainer (when distillers wanted to produce a Sherry-influenced dram). The reason that this Sherry 21 expression is the “end of the line” is that it’s much more difficult to get fresh Sherry butts today. I suppose that the real point about Sherry butts is that they used to be trash, thus cheap, and now they are still available much more expensive.

Again, quoting Mark Reynier: “Decent condition, authentic Oloroso butts are now almost as rare as hens’ teeth. […] This is the natural, real deal – rich, mellow, and warming whisky; an ideal winter night-cap with it’s hints of orange, apricot, plum, fig, and dates. For connoisseurs, these are two delicious extremes of Bruichladdich.  For us, they are  the end of a run. For both, they represent the end of an era.”

Sherry 21 replaces the Twenty series. So if you liked the 20, make sure to run out and get some while you still can! The Sherry 21 is bottle-strength, which for Bruichladdich is 46% ABV, and it will retail for around $175.

2001 Resurrection: Besides Port Charlotte, which was also first distilled in 2001 by the re-commissioned Bruichladdich, that is peated at ~40 ppm, another whisky was distilled in 2001, and it’s being bottled now as the 2001 Resurrection expression.

A very brief [recent] history of Bruichladdich: Bruichladdich was closed down In 1994. Stocks were still aging in warehouses, but the rest of the distillery (which had stood since 1881) was no longer producing new make spirit. Luckily for Bruichladdich, it was acquired by new, private ownership that re-awakened it in 2001 and spent six months refurbishing the Victorian-era machinery. All the many Bruichladdich expressions on sale by the new ownership since 2001 have been constructed from the stocks that were distilled prior to 1994 (with the exception of the “Sherry pair” that I wrote about a few months back here and here that was distilled in 1998; regardless, all spirit before 2001 was not made by the current owners).

The 2001 Resurrection expression is the first spirit that was distilled in the new/old distillery. Now this 2001 Resurrection expression takes its place alongside the other new spirits: Port Charlotte, Octomore, X4, and presumably many others to come.

John Hansell Reviews Sherried Bruichladdich Pair

Now, I have had Oloroso and Manzanilla Sherry, and I know they are both very different drinks. Wikipedia lists about a half-dozen varieties.

What I commented back on John’s blog was that “Sherry” is usually unqualified (at least at the top-level description) when discussing whisky aging.

Having read John’s nosing/tasting notes: There seems to be little in common between the two whiskies. It seems obvious to me that whisky aged in an Oloroso butt should taste different than whisky aged in a Manzanilla butt. If the type of Sherry makes such a difference, why isn’t the type of Sherry listed front and center when mentioning the wood used to age or finish the whisky?

John is a skilled taster and has a LOT of experience rating whiskies. He’s a lucky man! I can’t help wondering if the fact that he knew the whiskies were aged in the different casks made a difference to his perception. I wonder if he tasted them blind, not knowing which was which? He didn’t say, but that’s how I would have done it. Of course, he only has decades of experience, and probably already knows what to expect from different types of Sherry.

I’ll comment back here with my own notes as soon as I find these two at my local whisky emporium (Beltramo’s is in my blogroll).

Accidents Happen

In this case, a happy accident. I read on the Whisky Grotto blog that Bruichladdich’s former owners had distilled a batch of new make spirit and put it into two casks that formerly held Sherry, believing both casks to be identical. This was in 1998. The spirit was intended to mature completely in those casks. However, while it was true that both casks had held Sherry, it was not true that they both held the same kind of Sherry. One had held Manzanilla and the other Oloroso…two very different styles of Sherry.

Bruichladdich is taking an interesting stance in this situation and is selling the bottles separately. If you are so inclined you can acquire both and taste the difference for yourself. It’s a unique opportunity to get a chance to taste a specific influence in isolation, since the only difference is the previous content of the two Sherry butts. Check out the full story here. If you want these, act now: They will only be available until Christmas of 2008.

Wood Is Where the Magic Happens (Or Is It?)

It seems like all of the best things in life are aged in wood: Cognac; Armagnac; Tequila; Wine; Rum; etc. What is it about wood (oak in particular) that makes it so useful for aging alcohol? Well, oak is dense, yet porous. Oak is also just flexible enough to support seasonal expansion and contraction. What the oak provides is a way to allow alcohol to escape — very gradually — while imparting wonderful flavors to the liquid inside. In the case of Scotch, the imparted flavors strongly depend on what was in the container before.

We have to take a detour to America for a while. It turns out that making bourbon and rye whiskey has a lot in common with making Scotch whisky. Let’s be generous: There is a grain that provides carbohydrates to a solution that is then fermented with yeast before distillation, and the resulting spirit is then aged in oak barrels. And, importantly, the barrels used in bourbon production can only be used once. The ex-bourbon barrels are happily bought by Scotch manufacturers who use them to age their product. A Scotch that has been aged exclusively in ex-bourbon barrels will be lighter in color than one that has been aged in, for instance, a Sherry butt. (No matter how many times I see those two words together, I can’t help but remember a girl I knew in high school. Enough said.)

Sherry is a fortified wine that is produced in Spain and it imparts much darker colors and completely different flavors to the Scotch. As with any oak barrel, the oak’s role is to provide the flexible membrane through which the alcohol can slowly escape. The thing about these containers is that they are quite large compared to bourbon barrels. They hold about 3x the volume of liquid, and due to the geometry of the container, don’t have 3x the surface area exposed to the whisky. So the effect is that the whisky takes a longer time to acquire the effects of this wood when it’s in these containers.

What does Sherry have to do with Scotch? Well, it used to be common to ship alcohol in wood barrels. And the residents of the UK used to drink a lot of Sherry. So there were a lot of empty Sherry butts…perfectly good, but unused. It’s not too surprising that an opportunistic distiller took advantage of this situation.

I’m not sure when the bourbon law took effect that mandated the one-use system, but once that happened, the US had lots of excess bourbon barrels. They weren’t as convenient as the Sherry butts, but they are ideal for aging Scotch, so eventually a brisk export business was set up to provide empty bourbon barrels to Scotland. There is basically an an unending supply: As I wrote in an earlier posting, the US domestic whiskey market is also hot, in fact it is so hot that the coopers here are running out of mature oak trees from which to fashion bourbon barrels. We are almost literally drinking our oak forests! With all the bourbon being produced, as long as we can figure out how to grow more oak trees, there will always be enough barrels for Scotch producers.

The folks that actually work in the distillery would take issue with my title. It’s said that they make the spirit, and the oak makes the whisky. Well, yes, but most people don’t find new make spirit palatable. And on the other end of the scale, it’s certainly possible to have too much oak influence, which overwhelms the spirit. The master distiller and blender will test regularly to see when each cask is done aging. I almost can’t imagine a better job.

Now it’s late and I am tired, but I wanted to touch on sulphur. Or sulfur (both are correct, depending on where you live). Sherry butts don’t necessarily transport themselves to Scotland anymore. Most Sherry is transported in bottles these days. So the butts are in Spain, and since Spain is hot, there is a chance of spoilage. Since each of these butts is worth probably $1000, there is a desire to make sure they don’t spoil. One way to make sure they don’t spoil would be to get them to Scotland as quickly as possible. However, some combination of human laziness and inventiveness gave someone the bright idea to burn sulfur candles in containers to act as a preservative. If only sulfuric odors weren’t reminscent of rotten eggs, this might be ok, but those odors are NOT what you want in the flavor profile of a fine Scotch! I haven’t heard of this issue with the bourbon as much, perhaps because Sherry is much sweeter and therefore leaves a surface that is almost literally a perfect breeding ground for microorganisms. What I do know is that I don’t want sulfur in my Scotch. Some distilleries take a very proactive stance on this, and manage their barrel supply as if it really matters to them (it does!).

As I said earlier, the oak is flexible and porous. This is ideal in Scotland’s gently evolving seasons. As the days get longer, the warmer periods cause the barrels to expand, then contract at night. The very slow expansion and contraction oscillation of the barrels is a kind of subtle encouragement to the osmosis process that squeezes out the alcohol and/or water. In a humid environment like Scotland, the net result is that more alcohol than water escapes, diluting the strength of the whisky. In a drier place like Kentucky or Bangalore, the net result is that more water escapes, which strengthens the contents. And the latter places have more significant temperature swings so there is a more rapid aging process. What takes 30 years in Scotland might only take 5-7 years in Kentucky (or 4 years in Bangalore!).

Bruichladdich uses a variety of woods in a variety of ways. If I were more awake I could write about them, but I’ll sign off for now and add to this posting tomorrow.

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The usage of the wood is in some sense related to the type of Scotch being produced. The master distiller has in mind a certain flavor profile for the finished product and knows that various casks each contribute a specific flavor profile (bourbon casks certainly yield lightly colored spirits with floral notes as well as notes of vanilla, caramel, and other baking references; sherry butts will contribute dark fruit or dried fruit like raisins, plums, figs, etc.; port casks that held port will contribute even stronger flavors and smells, like fruit cake or Christmas pudding; Scotch producers have been known to use rum casks and pretty much anything else you can imagine, with varying success).

The wood notes combine with the spirit notes and you can get other notes from the aging process, including iodine, seaweed, etc. After all, the warehouses at Bruichladdich are very close to Loch Indail. In fact, you might not know that all Bruichladdich spirit is produced, aged, and bottled right on Islay. No other Islay Scotch whisky distiller does this. They take Islay seriously: They even try to buy all their barley locally. Other notes like leather, tobacco, and other things definitely impact on my nose, but I don’t know whether they come from the wood, the char, the former contents, or the spirit, or some of the above.

Back to the wood: The size of the vessel matters, too — a smaller cask has proportionally more surface area exposed to the enclosed volume, so it makes its flavor and aroma contributions more quickly. Wood contributes so much to the whisky, but this is the sum of the source of the casks (i.e., type of oak, char level, etc.) and what they previously contained. The total package is what’s important. I mentioned char a couple times without defining it. Bourbon barrels are rather severely charred before use, creating a nice charcoal layer inside that acts as a filter. If you have a pool or a fish tank, you know that charcoal is used for filters and the char layer in the bourbon barrel provides the same role here.

Note that historically some casks were used more than one time by Scotch producers, and you can expect that the flavor contribution decreases with each use. That’s the other factor that’s important: Whether or not the cask is first-fill, fourth-fill, whatever.

One other final note about the “Angel’s Share” (the alcohol that escapes through the wood). Osmotic membranes allow a flow from one side to the other to balance the concentration. Since Scotland is humid, and since the inside of the barrel is humid, not much water is lost to the surrounding air. But since there is little alcohol in the surrounding air (well, normal air is not very alcoholic — but air in a whisky or wine warehouse is noticeably elevated in alcohol!), the net effect is that alcohol is expelled from the casks at a slow rate.

The initial fill of new make spirit is at about 70% ABV. Fortunately for us consumers, the kind folks at Bruichladdich bottle the product when it’s ready, before the angels take all of the good stuff, and still has a bit of “kick.” We consumers appreciate that. 🙂

Next time I’ll start to peel apart the wide variety of expressions made by Bruichladdich. It would be too difficult to take a bottom-up approach: There are too many variables that are being used to make the components of the final product — a previous posting had the quote from Mark Reynier where he said that they are running four stills with something like 8 different barleys at 4 different peating levels and all the resulting spirit is going into specific casks for prescribed amounts of time. Oh, and I forgot that they do double, triple, and quadruple distillation, too! At least a top-down approach has a shot at making sense of things. What I hope to achieve is a matrix or chart that shows which of the expressions are similar to each other. I have only my own interest at heart: I need to know how to branch out from what I know I like into stuff I might like as well.

Somewhere along the way I am also going to write about the actual equipment used in a distillery.