Cult whiskies

They’re out there. If you can find them, that is. You see them on display at specialty whisky shops, but they’re often not for sale; if they are, you’re going to pay dearly for them. Whisky collectors show you pictures of them with pride, as if they were pictures of their firstborn child. They also command exorbitant prices during specialty whisky auctions.

Welcome to the world of cult whiskies.

What is it that makes a whisky so special that enthusiasts will go to extremes to get it—spending countless hours searching, paying unbelievable prices to procure it, traveling across the world to pick it up—and then not even open it for years? As one of the many enthusiasts seeking out these whiskies, I can tell you that they all meet some, if not all, of the following criteria:

The distillery has a stellar reputation. This reputation is earned by producing consistently high quality whiskies for many years, if not decades.

The whisky in question frequently garnishes high ratings and reviews by respected whisky writers and whisky publications.

The whisky is often unique in some way with regards to its production method or flavor profile, and it is usually complex—sometimes challenging—in nature.

Cult whiskies from Ireland

The whisky’s production is limited in quantity. Either the distillery is small, operates intermittently, or the whisky is a special limited release.

Not all whiskies that command a high price at auction are what I would consider cult whiskies. Many collectors purchase whiskies as an investment based solely on the whisky’s rarity, regardless of the quality. Their intention is purely financial, and I’ve met many collectors who don’t even enjoy drinking whisky. So, the difference between a rare whisky and a cult whisky is the ultimate intention of the procurer. An enthusiast purchases a cult whisky with the ultimate intention of actually drinking and enjoying the whisky. Therefore, a cult whisky is usually both rare and exceptional in quality.

For example, for the past several years, United Distillers and Vintners (UDV) has been releasing limited cask-strength whiskies called the Rare Malt Selection. Two of the earlier releases included a 1969 vintage Lowland whisky called Hillside (better known as Glen Esk) and a 1972 vintage Northern Highland whisky called Brora (the original Clynelish distillery). Both are from distilleries no longer in production and stocks are limited. As a result, both meet the criterion of being rare and are highly collectible.

However, it is the Brora that would be considered a cult whisky. Why? To start, the distillery (and the new Clynelish distillery across the street that replaced it) has enjoyed a reputation for producing good, complex, often difficult to find whiskies. Add to that the special nature of this specific bottling. This Brora was very heavily peated to levels similar to the peat smoke-infused Lagavulin from Islay. In the early 1970s, the parent company feared that they wouldn’t be able to produce enough Lagavulin to meet the demand, so they experimented with the possibility of making a Lagavulin-like whisky at Brora. The end result was a fabulous whisky that combined the spicy, coastal character of Brora with the peat smoke of whiskies from Islay. It meets all the criteria for a cult whisky—rare, respected, complex, challenging, and unique. This whisky was released nearly six years ago, and its cult status just continues to increase.

While there have always been cult whiskies to some degree, there seems to be more now than ever. What is it that is propelling this cult whisky craze to new heights? And what could cause this trend to cool off faster than whisky served over ice?

There are several factors driving this demand. Let’s start with a booming global economy. The so-called “wealth effect” of the stock market and a strong job market has some of us feeling a little richer. Because of this, we’re spending more. A lot more, according to recent statistics. So, why not indulge a little with a good bottle of whisky, right? No use being frugal just so our kids can spend all our money after we’re dead. That’s how many people are looking at it, anyway.

Another source of whisky-itis is the amazing benefits of the Internet. For example, I participate in a single malt mailing list consisting of more than 300 whisky fanatics all over the world, and it’s the Internet that brings us all together. Fifteen years ago no such opportunity existed. Now we have news groups, mailing lists, chat rooms, and websites—all fueling the fire of whisky.

A third forum for whisky exchange is whisky auctions. More specifically, it has been the semi-annual whisky auctions conducted by Christie’s, held first in Glasgow and now in London. These auctions have brought the whisky buyers and sellers together, allowing an efficient exchange of cult whiskies and social interaction by their owners. Other whisky auctions are also developing.

A fourth venue is the specialty whisky retail outlets located throughout the world. Many have made it their personal mission to offer the widest array of whiskies—often traveling to distilleries and collectors to get the really rare ones—and offering them at the appropriate price, of course.

Finally, we have to credit the obliging whisky companies. While many cult whiskies are created from unintentional production activities at a given distillery (e.g., low production runs at small distilleries or changing the age statement of a given expression), many of the larger, reputable whisky distilleries have been offering limited releases of exceptional qualities. For example, limited expressions like The Macallan 1874 or Glenmorangie Tain L’Hermitage boosts the distillery’s cult status.

Cult whiskies fromthe United States

So, what could bring a whisky down from its heavenly perch? There could be an event significant enough that would bring the entire family of cult whiskies back to reality. For example, if the United States or other leading whisky-consuming countries would experience a recession, the demand for higher-end whiskies would certainly wane. Also, if the industry incorrectly projects the demand for higher-end whiskies and overproduces, such excess supply would cause the entire category to become less glamorous.

On an individual distillery basis, a gradual decrease in the overall quality of the whisky, with a corresponding increase in mediocre or poor product reviews would certainly cripple the cult status of that distillery’s whiskies. Also, a quality reduction due to management or ownership change can have a dual effect. In this case, the whiskies before the change will become more coveted, while the whiskies produced after the change will be ostracized. Of course, the opposite could also occur if the change is for the better. Even if there is no real change in the whisky, a management or ownership change could temporarily affect the cult image of a given whisky until the consumer’s anxieties are allayed.

Finally, are cult whiskies worth the price of admission? That depends on a couple factors. The first one—and this is a critical one—is whether the whisky was already a cult whisky when it was initially released. Over the past 20 years, many whiskies were released at very reasonable prices and didn’t become cult whiskies until years later after the prices were marked up by specialty retailers or at auction. The challenge wasn’t the price tag, but rather having access to procure the whisky. Often it is just being at the right place at the right time, like being at the distillery when a special bottling is released.

This leads us to the second factor. How much you can afford to spend? If you are very wealthy, you can buy cult whiskies at today’s going prices. Many people do, and they buy a lot of them. I know people with thousands of whiskies in their collection. Some have built libraries—even museums—for their collections. Others have actually written books about their collection. For the rest of us, we’ll have to pick and choose, and hopefully be in the right place at the right time. Some whiskies might seem relatively expensive when they’re first released, but their value can increase several fold within a few years. Being aware of what’s going on, knowing what new releases are coming on the market, and having a venue where you can procure these whiskies will help increase your odds.

 

While not all-inclusive, below is a list of some of more coveted cult whiskies within the past two decades (In alphabetical order).

Single Malt Scotch

Aberlour 1964 One of the first vintage whiskies sold in the United States and the first of a small, continuing series of Aberlour vintages.
Ardbeg All Ardbeg whiskies have cult status to some degree, given that the whisky has been in limited production during the past 20 years and because the whisky has historically been the smokiest whisky of them all. Enthusiasts are particularly obsessed with vintages from 1974 and earlier (when the whisky was consistently heavily peated), and with the 10 year old distillery bottling from the old Allied Distillers days. New expressions, like the new 10 year old, will ensure its continued cult status (if they can maintain high levels of peating).
The Balvenie “Classic” 12 year old Also known as Founder’s Reserve. It was a richly sherried, honeyed Balvenie sold in a tear shape bottle with a tall neck. It predates the current 10, 12, 15, and 21 year old expressions. Many have said that it is better than any cognac they’ve ever had, regardless of price.
Bowmore Three expressions of Bowmore from the 1960s and bottled by the distillery in the mid 1990s were known as Black Bowmore. The whisky was so heavily sherried and aged for so long that it appears almost black in color. Serious devotees with deep pockets have the entire set. Another cult whisky is Bowmore’s Bicentenary bottling, that was celebrated in 1979. Jim McEwan, who has worked at Bowmore most of his life, told me once that he’s going to be buried with his bottle.
Caol Ila Caol Ila in general is something of a cult distillery. This distillery’s spicy, phenolic whisky is hard to find. However, the 12 year old distillery bottling that predates the current 15 year old distillery expression is particularly cult-worthy. I got mine from a retired distillery worker who gave me a tour of the distillery nearly 10 years ago. A 20 year old 150th Anniversary cask strength whisky bottled in 1996 for the workers is also highly craved.
Glenmorangie Any of the earlier one-time runs from Glenmorangie are cult whiskies. In particular, the 1963 Glenmorangie (their first vintage offering), Glenmorangie Tain L’Hermitage (the first limited run Rhône wine-finished expression), and the Glenmorangie Sesquicentennial Bottling, celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the distillery (sold in 1993 in a stone bottle).
Lagavulin 12 year old The distillery bottling that predates the current 16 year old. This peat-infused whisky has always had a great reputation, and remaining bottles of the 12 year old are very rare.
Laphroaig Laphroaig is probably the most mainstream of the cult whiskies. Allegations that its peating level has diminished over time (whether true or not) have not helped its cult status of late. Still, the 10 year old (especially back when it was bottled at 45% ABV), some of the recent vintage offerings, and the current Cask Strength version are all worthy of cult status.
Longmorn 25 year old Longmorn is not a common name like its Speyside brother Glenlivet, but it is highly respected among enthusiasts. The 25 year old was a very limited distillery bottling with a gold label to celebrate the distillery’s Centenary in 1994.
Longrow Any Longrow is worthy of cult status due to its high quality and very low production levels. This peated version of Springbank combines the best of Islay and Campbeltown. Most cult-worthy are the distillery bottled vintages from its first two years, 1973 and 1974. The “last cask” bottling of the ’73 vintage and a Cask Strength Cadenhead’s bottling of the 1974 are probably the most coveted.
The Macallan Any limited production of The Macallan is highly sought after. Collectors trade older vintage 18 year old and 25 year old Macallans like baseball cards. The 18 year old is becoming more cult-like, now that supplies are limited. Of recent releases, The Macallan 1874 bottling qualifies for cult status, as does the Private Eye bottling. If you have a bulging wallet, the smoky 1946 vintage or the just released 50 year old will certainly make the guys down at the country club very jealous.
The Manager’s Dram The Manager’s Dram bottlings never were meant for retail. They were selected by the United Distillers’ Distillery Managers every year, bottled at cask strength, and offered to employees and special friends. Bottles surface at auctions every year, and collectors and enthusiasts quickly snap them up. Bottlings from cult distilleries (such as Caol Ila) are even more highly coveted.
Springbank Springbank has always been a cult whisky. Its limited production and high quality has ensured this. Because of production gaps over the years, specific ages become rare for several years and enhance the cult image. For example, Springbank 15 year old has disappeared from sight and will be unavailable for several years. When the 15 year old comes back, the Springbank 21 year old will no longer be available. I’ve already got my stash of 15s and 21s. How about you?
  Other cult Springbanks include the two simultaneous releases of “Green Springbank,” which was cask strength Springbank aged in two different rum casks. The first “Local Barley” release, where most of the ingredients and production processes came from the vicinity of the distillery, is also a cult whisky. Incidentally, that one was quite sherried, while the more recent Local Barley releases are from bourbon casks.

 

Irish Whiskey

Green Spot Distilled at the Midleton Distillery, but the label is owned by wine merchant Mitchell & Sons of Dublin. It is a pure pot still Irish that’s hard to find except at their shop on Kildare St. in Dublin.
Redbreast 12 year old Another pure pot still whiskey from Midleton, with very limited availability throughout Europe.

 

American Whiskey

Hirsch Bourbon distilled at the now silent Michter’s Distillery in Pennsylvania. Stocks are finite and consist primarily of 16 and 20 year old expressions distilled from 1974.
Maker’s Mark While the distillery enjoys general cult status, there are two cult whiskeys on enthusiasts’ minds. Neither of them was sold directly to the American public (duty-free export only). The first is Maker’s Mark Select, a more robust version of Maker’s Mark that brandished a black wax top. The second one, Maker’s Mark Gold was essentially the same whiskey as the flagship red wax top bottling, except it was bottled at 101 proof, not 90.
Old Potrero Extremely limited productions (called essays) of young, cask-strength whiskey from San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing and Distilling Co. The first essay was only sold to a handful of restaurants, and is very cult.
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 year old Rye whiskey is the American equivalent of the peat-infused Islay whiskies of Scotland. They are inherently cult-attractive, because of their extreme nature. For the past few years, the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 year old has been the oldest straight rye on the market—and the best.

 

Possible Future Cult Whiskies

Aberlour A’bunadh A new cask strength, unfiltered Aberlour aged in sherry casks. If production remains limited, it could become a cult whisky.
Ardbeg 10 Year Old This new peat smoke monster picks up where the old Allied Distillers 10 year old left off. The fact that it is not chill filtered and is bottled at 46% just enhances its complex, rich, Islay flavors. It has the potential to knock the 10 year old Laphroaig off its throne as one of the more readily available (and affordable) cult whiskies.
The Balvenie 1966 Vintage This is Balvenie’s best kept secret. They are single cask bottlings of Balvenie at least 30 years old. The depth of flavor is astonishing. More recent bottlings have been from 1967. With supplies being low and quality being extremely high, it could become a cult whisky as long as the price doesn’t escalate.
Black Bottle This is a blended scotch whose single malts only come from the island of Islay. It has enormous flavors for a blend and, as you would hope, is infused with peat smoke, seaweed, and brine. I can think of no other blended scotch quite like this one. If supplies remain elusive (it is not even available in the United States), it could evolved into a cult whisky.
Bushmills Millennium The oldest Bushmills ever bottled and only available to those who bought an entire cask. It was a one-time bottling, and the quality of the whiskey is excellent.
Jameson Pure Pot Still 15 year old Like Redbreast and Green Spot mentioned earlier, the only pure pot still Irish whiskies being produced today. It is also a limited release item, which should make it increasingly harder to find.
Sazerac Rye 18 year old By the time you read this article, a new Sazerac 18 year old Rye will be out on the market that I expect to approach cult status very quickly, for all the same reasons as the Van Winkle Rye above.

 

Spanish Whiskey

No one ever said drinking whisky would be easy. Forget about how challenging Laphroaig is to drink. It’s hard enough just spelling and pronouncing it!

Well, at least we don’t have to be experts on wine too—or do we? We now have whiskies like Glenmorangie Fino Sherry Finish, Glenmorangie Claret Finish, Balvenie Port Wood Finish, Glenfiddich Solera Reserve, and Talisker finished in Amoroso casks. And I know of at least two whiskies matured in Pedro Ximinez casks.

Pedro Ximinez? I thought he played first base for the Yankees!

As the whisky industry continues to mature, each company hopes to emerge with a new idea that will spark a trend and boost sales. Although finishing off a whisky in a Pedro Ximinez sherry cask might be new, the concept of maturing whisky in used wine casks—particularly sherry wine—is not new at all. Sherry was shipped from Spain to Britain in wooden casks for hundreds of years, and it didn’t take long for the Scotch whisky industry to figure out what to do with the casks after they were emptied.

But which casks are used for maturing whisky? And why? What happens to the sherry casks before they are shipped to Scotland? And what impact does sherry cask aging have on the overall quality of a given whisky?

I decided it would be easier to appreciate the contribution sherry wood has on a given whisky if I had a better understanding of how sherry is made and what makes one sherry variety different from another. With this goal in mind, I packed my bags for Jerez, Spain. Jerez (pronounced “hair-eth”) is a small town in southern Spain, located in the heart of the sherry producing region.

I was honored to have with me the person who probably has the most at stake when it comes to sherry cask aging—David Robertson, the Distillery Manager for The Macallan. After all, Macallan is the only distillery that ages their entire line of single malts exclusively in sherry casks. According to David, more than half of the sherry casks shipped to Scotland for whisky maturation are filled with The Macallan. This year at the Macallan distillery, 12,000 sherry casks will be filled with new make spirit. At any given time, there are more than 20,000 casks filled with sherry in and around Jerez that will ultimately be used to mature The Macallan.

From the grapevine

It’s early September in Jerez. The temperature is in the mid 90s—in the shade! In the middle of the afternoon, there’s no escape from the blazing sunshine. “Time for a quiet, relaxing siesta,” you might think.

Well, think again. For the next two weeks this sleepy town and its neighboring Andalucian countryside will be working dawn to dusk harvesting grapes to make sherry—something for which all of us who enjoy whisky aged in sherry casks can be grateful.

At the Tevasa Cooperage they can’t make the casks fast enough. The incessant sawing of the staves and hammering of metal barrel rings creates a clatter so loud, there’s no way anyone within a mile of the cooperage could even entertain the thought of a siesta. With enough wooden staves there to make more than 10,000 casks, I don’t expect they’ll be stopping production anytime soon.

Over at the El Agostado Vineyard and many others like it, ripe Palomino grapes—known for making the highest quality dry sherry—droop heavily from the vines that thrive in chalky white soil known as albariza. When it rains, the soil readily absorbs the moisture. In the summer, the surface of the soil bakes and hardens, preventing the moisture in the soil from escaping. Its light color reflects the sun’s bright rays. Workers harvest the grapes quickly and carefully, placing them into crates, which are then transported to processing facilities.

Some grape processing facilities are small, others are very large and industrial looking. One of these facilities is the Les Copas de Gonzales Byass Bodega (where Teo Pepe sherry is produced). This particular harvesting facility is so massive that dozens of trucks continually unload crates of grapes. The grapes are crushed and pressed to release the mosto (grape juice), which is then transferred to the adjacent bodega (a tall, well-aired warehouse for storing sherry) while it matures.

Within the bodega, the mosto is fermented in tall cylindrical stainless steel tanks and becomes wine, ultimately being transferred into one of 40,000 wooden casks sheltered inside the bodega. Here the wine continues to ferment. It is ultimately fortified with grape spirit (to approximately 15% alcohol when producing the lighter fino sherries, and to approximately 17-18% when producing oloroso sherries).

The level of alcohol is critical. At 15%, a velo de flor (literally “flowered veil”)—a natural yeast that thrives in the Jerez air—is allowed to grow on the surface of the wine inhibiting oxidation of the sherry. For this reason, the lighter fino sherries express a fresh, tangy, yeasty character. With the oloroso sherries, the alcohol level kills off the flor, exposing the sherry to air. This oxidation produces a darker color and more nutty flavor in olorosos. Generally speaking, the best wines are selected for finos, because they are so light and delicate.

The wines mature into full-fledged sherry via the solera aging system. Each solera consists of a series of wooden casks (called butts) containing sherry, usually placed in rows according to age. Traditionally, the most mature wines are in butts on the bottom row. Younger wines of different levels of maturation sit in rows of butts above them, with the youngest wines traditionally on the top row. The entire series of rows is called a criadera. Wine for bottling is taken from the bottom row of butts, with only a fraction of the butt being emptied. These butts are topped up with wines from the rows of butts above them, all the way up the criadera, until the youngest wines are introduced into the system. The solera system ensures a mature, consistent product.

Show and smell

Even with all these Spanish oak sherry casks being shipped to Scotland, the predominant cask that is used to mature whisky is American oak casks that previously contained bourbon. “A Spanish oak cask is ten times more expensive than an American oak cask,” David pointed out. “And this is only one part of the cost associated with the commitment of using sherry casks exclusively.” Another big cost is research. David explained that since the majority of the wood used to age whisky is American oak, that is where most of the organized research is focused.

Because of this, Macallan has decided to conduct their own research on Spanish oak. “Bourbon casks are more tightly controlled and more consistent in quality,” notes David. “Sherry casks have a greater potential for complexity—there are dozens of different types of sherries and the potential for The Macallan is equally as great—but the casks also have been more variable. We want to minimize this variability to ensure a more consistent product.”

He continued. “Right now, before we put whisky in a sherry cask, we just smell the cask to judge its quality. What we really want to do is be more scientific in our approach when determining the wood quality of a cask before we age whisky in it for many years. Our goal is to be able to scrape a wood sample from a cask and analyze it in a laboratory for key components to determine its overall quality so we can know which casks will produce a good whisky and which ones won’t. Right now it’s too much hit or miss.”

To this end, he has commissioned a series of studies to be done by wood expert Jim Swan of the consulting firm Tatlock and Thomson. Some of the preliminary studies have proved promising.

In one study, David selected samples from dozens of different Macallan casks of varying ages, nosed them, and assigned a quality rating to each one. The same cask samples were then sent to Tatlock and Thomson where they were analyzed for specific wood and wine extracts to determine if there was a correlation between the quality of the whisky and the levels of wood or wine extracts in the whisky.

The results were conclusive in many respects. As it is widely believed in the whisky industry, the study suggests that the quality of the whisky is highly correlated with the type and quality of the wood it is aged in. More specifically, the tests show a strong correlation between the quality of the whisky and specific wood extractives, namely vanillin (a wood lignin extractive) and ellagic acid (a wood breakdown product). These preliminary studies seem to suggest that wood extractives like vanillin and ellagic acid might be used as “markers” when developing an analytical test on Spanish oak wood samples to determine whether a specific cask should be used for whisky maturation.

Another finding from these studies addresses the impact of the sherry wine on the quality of the whisky. One might think that its impact on The Macallan whisky would be strikingly significant, given that all of The Macallan whisky is aged exclusively in sherry oak. While the studies by Tatlock and Thomson suggest a good correlation, it is not nearly as strong as the type and quality of the wood itself.

“When using Spanish oak, the studies indicate that about 10% of the quality of The Macallan whisky is based on the sherry wine-derived compounds,” notes David. “In fact, we have some casks of Macallan whisky from the late 1970s aged in different sherries—fino, amontillado, and oloroso—and we’re seeing little difference between them. The wine’s impact would be more significant if American oak casks were used.”

While the initial studies have shown the quality of The Macallan whisky is largely “wood driven” and that the impact of sherry wine extractives are lesser so, there are still many other variables which David hopes to isolate and quantify. These variables include the impact of oxidation on The Macallan and the overall contributions of the new make spirit to the quality of the whisky.

One thing is for sure. The impact that sherry bodegas have on the whisky industry is enormous and will continue to be so. To quote David Robertson, “without the sherry casks and Spanish oak, it just wouldn’t be The Macallan.”

What did Scotch whisky taste like 100 years ago?

Despite all the claims made by whisky companies that it is the same as it is today, you know the kind of thing: “Consistency in an Age of Change” (Famous Grouse), “The Drink of His Ancestors” (Dewars White Label), “Born 1820, Still Going Strong” (Johnnie Walker), one wonders.

Blenders acknowledge the phenomenon they call “flavour shift”: with the best will in the world, and despite holding reference samples of their blends going back several years, it is difficult to achieve absolute consistency of flavour.And remember, that consistency is one of the two pillars upon which the Scotch whisky industry has stood since the 1860s. The other, and related, pillar is quality of product. Only when high quality blends could be created and repeated batch after batch did it become possible to market them nationally and internationally: all marketing efforts are futile if the bottle you buy in Chicago today tastes entirely different from the one you bought in Maine yesterday.

I remember once tasting a blend which had been bottled during World War II. It was the consistency of treacle: dark and heavy, much sweeter than contemporary blends, with a strong caramel flavour. The overall impression was of vintage Spanish brandy. The bottle had lost its label, so I could not compare it with a modern version of the same brand. The truth is that it was unlike any blended whisky made today. It may be that some of the fillings required for a specific blend are no longer available and have to be substituted. Distilleries go out of production, or their mature whiskies are reserved for bottling as a single malt (as happened at Glenmorangie). It may be that, very subtly, the blend is allowed to change, to meet the consumer’s changing tastes. Many of the best sellers in the U.S., J & B Rare and Cutty Sark, for example were created specifically for that market immediately post-Prohibition.

What about flavour shift in the constituent whiskies themselves? Distilling technology has altered greatly since the 1890s; the chemistry of distilling and maturing is better understood, so that distillers have a greater degree of control over their operations and are able to enhance their efficiency. Surely this will affect the flavor of the whiskies they produce?

Bearing all this in mind, I was delighted to be invited by Macallan to sample a whisky they had distilled in 1874, and to compare it with a new expression, which (they claimed) copied the original.

The company had bought the bottle at Christie’s whisky auction in April 1995, for £3,900. The distillery’s own archives speak of the 1870s as being something of a golden age for whisky-making, and when a minute amount was extracted by hypodermic and nosed by some of the top people at the distillery, they were astonished and delighted to discover that it bore a close resemblance to the Macallan they make today. Willie Philips, Macallan’s Managing Director, described the hairs raising on the back of his neck as he sniffed a whisky made in the year that Cezanne and Degas gave their first exhibition; the year Herbert Hoover, Gertrude Stein, Somerset Maugham, and G.K. Chesterton were born: the year lawn tennis was invented. Caught up in the excitement of the moment, Frank Newlands, Director of Production and Nose-in-Chief, claimed that by a judicious selection of casks he could recreate the whisky. He covered the precious sample with a watch glass and began to search his mature stocks. Within a day the sample had collapsed into an oxidised mess, so the selection had to be made from memory.

“What I was looking for was spirit with a distinctly orangey aroma-zest of orange, with a hint of lemon and an undertone of new, sappy wood,” he told us. “The 1874 whisky was astonishingly fresh and citric. My hunch is that it had been matured in a fino sherry butt, and since the label bore the name of my predecessor, Roderick Kemp (who did not buy the distillery until 1892 ) it must have been at least eighteen years old when it was bottled.”

In the end he vatted nine casks which seemed to share the notes he was looking for – the oldest at 26 years old, the youngest at 19. He married them for a month, then nosed the result: it bore little relation to his memory of the 1874!

He was very concerned. The company had gone to great expense, commissioning bottles and labels identical to the original and planning an advertising campaign to promote the new expression (to be called “The 1874″) based upon its similarity to the hundred-year-old malt.

At last, after seven weeks of marrying, the whisky began to settle down and develop the notes he was hoping for. The next question was whether his memory of the original was accurate. . . . This would be publicly answered when the old bottle was opened and the new one compared to it on July 2nd at a very smart venue in Knightsbridge, London. Poor Frank slept hardly at all on the night of July 1st. . . .

The Launch
Before a distinguished gathering of whisky experts and journalists, the two Macallans were analysed by a tasting panel made up of two master blenders, a leading perfumier, and a tea expert. We watched with bated breath as Frank Newlands drew the cork which had been driven in over 120 years ago and extracted measures with a syringe. While the panel was doing its job, samples of both the original and the remake were given to each of us. Both whiskies were clearly Macallan. Even in a blind tasting, I believe they would have been identified as such. This remarkable fact proved that the degree of “flavour shift” over the past 122 years is minimal.

The earlier sample was wonderfully delicate on the nose: a friend described the impression accurately as “old lace.” Fresh citric notes were immediately evident, and some light toffee notes. The whisky had retained its alcohol over all the years, and was probably at about 40 – 42% alcohol by volume. The flavour was delicious: smooth and succulent, with a balancing dryness and a finish like a lingering sunset. The new 1874 was very similar, but fruitier and bolder – less delicate and refined. Tom Richardson, the perfumier, summed it up well when he said he could imagine the original whisky having just that profile when it was filled. The cardinal aroma is of orange chocolate; the sherry-wood is more subdued than standard Macallan bottlings, and the flavour is saltier and generally drier than its predecessor.

Everyone agreed it was a splendid whisky, and an impressive achievement by Frank Newlands. It is magnificently presented in a specially commissioned bottle, the same as the one used in 1874, with a driven cork (a stopper cork is provided, so you don’t have to drink the bottle at a sitting!) and a label of similar design to the original. The bottles are packed in plain deal, straw-filled boxes – appropriately distressed, bound with rust-flecked wire and accompanied by a charming little booklet. All very authentic. Four hundred cases have been allocated to North America from a bottling run of a thousand cases.

Afterword
Allan Shiach, Chairman of Macallan and great-grandson of Roderick Kemp, who bottled the original 1874, was not surprised by the fact that the old whisky tasted so similar to today’s Macallan: “the company devotes all its energy towards achieving quality and consistency, and always has done,” he said. I find it comforting to discover that the malt whisky drunk by my ancestors is so similar to that I myself enjoy. I didn’t expect this to be the case. The very day “The 1874″ was launched, it was announced in the press that Suntory, the Japanese giant, and Highland Distilleries (owners of Highland Park and The Famous Grouse) had combined forces to achieve a 51% shareholding and take over Macallan.

What the future holds for the company is uncertain, at the time of writing. One can only hope that Macallan’s devotion to quality and consistency will not be eroded by conglomerate number-crunching.

The Myths and Realities of Irish Whiskey

“I went to Ireland for the holidays. I love Tullamore Dew and went to visit the distillery in Tullamore, but I couldn’t find it. Where is it located?”

I’m often asked questions like this, and I can certainly understand the confusion. After all, the bottle of 12 year old Tullamore Dew I recently purchased in a Duty Free shop states the following on the label: “Distilled and bottled in Ireland, Tullamore Dew Company Ltd., Tullamore, County Offaly.”

You can imagine the look on their faces when I tell them that Tullamore Dew is produced in Midleton, County Cork, along with dozens of other whiskeys. It’s just one of the many common misconceptions about Irish whiskey.

I have made an attempt to clarify some of the most significant misconceptions below. Hopefully, the next time you drink an Irish whiskey, you won’t be viewing it through shamrock-colored glasses.

Belief: There are dozens of Irish distilleries.

Reality: There are only three distilleries—Bushmills Distillery in the North, and the Midleton and Cooley Distilleries in the Republic of Ireland.

Most of what the Bushmills Distillery produces is sold as Bushmills whiskey. However, they have produced the occasional whiskey under a different name (e.g. Coleraine).

The Cooley Distillery near Dundalk, Ireland’s only independent distillery, has been in operation since 1989. It produces many different whiskeys, including single malts and blends. The distillery bottlings are Tyrconnel (single malt), Kilbeggan (blend), and Connemara (peated-smoked single malt). It also produces a myriad of branded whiskeys of varying quality, with one of the best examples being the subtly complex Knappogue Castle single malt (1990, 1991 & 1992 vintages).

The Midleton Distillery in County Cork, the biggest of the three, produces many of the internationally-famous whiskey brands, including Jameson, Powers, Paddy, Tullamore Dew, Murphy’s and Dunphy’s, along with many other lesser known brands.

There once were dozens of distilleries in Ireland, each making its own whiskey. For example, Tullamore Dew was produced at the B. Daly Distillery in Tullamore, Jameson was produced at the Bow Street Distillery in Dublin, and Powers was produced at the John’s Lane Distillery in Dublin. Economic conditions along with other factors led to consolidation in the industry, leading to production of the whiskey at the current Midleton distillery in 1975.

Belief: I’m Catholic, and therefore won’t drink Bushmills. (Alternatively, I’m Protestant, and therefore won’t drink Jameson).

Reality: The same company owns The Bushmills Distillery and Midleton Distillery (where Jameson is produced).

I don’t want to get into politics, so I’ll keep this one brief. But I must say something, because I hear these kinds of comments all the time.

The Bushmills Distillery and the Midleton Distillery are both owned by Irish Distillers. Where do you think the grain whiskey component for the Bushmills blends comes from? Not the Bushmills Distillery. Bushmills only makes malt whiskey. The grain whiskey for the Bushmills blends comes from the Midleton distillery in County Cork—the same place where Jameson, Power’s and Paddy is produced.

If you were wondering, the opposite is not true. According to Barry Crockett, Midleton Distillery Manager, malt whiskey from Bushmills doesn’t go into any of the whiskeys produced at Midleton.

Finally, Irish Distillers is owned by Pernod-Ricard, of France. But there’s no need to worry; I was just at both distilleries and they were still making whiskey, not brandy.

Belief: Irish whiskey is unique in that it is triple-distilled and is made from smoke-free malt (paralleling the belief that Scotch whisky is only distilled twice and always produced with peat-smoked malt).

Reality: What makes Irish whiskey unique is the practice of using both unmalted and malted barley in their pot stills.

Yes, it is true that most Irish whiskey is made from malt containing no peat smoke. But Connemara single malt, produced at the Cooley distillery, is made from peat-smoked malt. And while the whiskey produced at Bushmills is triple-distilled, the whiskey produced at Cooley is only distilled twice. What happens at the Midleton distillery depends on the whiskey being produced. In fact, one could argue that—given the production techniques and flavor profile common to many of their whiskeys—the Cooley distillery is essentially a single malt Scotch distillery located in Ireland, although I doubt that analogy will please anyone.

Realize also that there are Scotch whiskies, like Glengoyne, produced with unpeated barley, and some Scotch whiskies, like Auchentoshan, are triple-distilled. In fact, Frank McHardy, Distillery Manager of Scotland’s Springbank Distillery is making a peat-free, triple-distilled whisky at Springbank called Hazelburn. No surprise to me—Frank’s previous Distillery Manager position was at Bushmills.

But there is one production process unique to Irish whiskey; more specifically, to the Midleton Distillery. Whiskey produced at Midleton (therefore, the majority of the whiskey produced in Ireland) has some component of it produced in a pot still using both malted and unmalted barley. This is different than all the other whiskies produced from a pot still in Scotland (and the other two distilleries in Ireland), since they produce single malt whiskey utilizing 100% malted barley—no unmalted barley.

Using both malted and unmalted barley in the Midleton pot stills is what, to me, gives Irish whiskey its Irish-ness. And when they produce a whiskey entirely in a pot still using both malted and unmalted barley, it can’t be called a single malt. Rather, the whiskey is referred to as a “pure pot still” whiskey. There are only three pure pot still whiskeys produced at the Midleton distillery and sold on the market. The rest of the whiskeys are “blends” and contain just a portion of pot still whiskey.

Belief: All Irish whiskeys tastes the same.

Reality: The majority of Irish whiskeys are distinctly different from each other.

I understand why you might initially think that all Irish whiskey tastes the same. One of the reasons for this is that most of the whiskey drinkers whom I know haven’t ventured much beyond the standard Jameson and Bushmills bottlings. Part of this lack of consumer awareness I believe must lie directly on the shoulders of Irish Distillers and their parent company Pernod-Ricard. While the Scotch whisky companies have been more than willing over the past ten years to satisfy the demands of a growing consumer base wanting more variety and a better selection of premium products, many of the outstanding whiskeys produced in Ireland have been Ireland’s best kept secrets.

For example, Redbreast and Green Spot have been on the market for many years. They are outstanding whiskeys, but how many of you have even heard of them before, let alone tried them? They’re nearly impossible to find—even in Ireland! Only now is Irish Distillers beginning to show off its talents and potential by exporting Jameson Gold, Jameson Pure Pot Still 15 year old, and Bushmills 16 year old “Three Wood” to the U.S.

Another reason for the confusion might lie with the fact that so many of the whiskey brands are made at the Midleton distillery. Is Irish Distillers just making the same whiskey and selling it under different names? I can understand why you might think this way. But the whiskeys are indeed completely different from each other. A simple taste test of the different products proves this point.

But how can this be? How can one distillery produce so many completely different whiskeys? Well, to begin with, the distillery is unique in that it has both pot stills and column stills under one roof. Therefore, it can produce a single malt whiskey in a pot still, it can produce a pure pot still whiskey that is not a single malt because it contains both malted and unmalted barley (examples include Redbreast, Green Spot, and the new Jameson 15 year old), or it can produce blended whiskeys made in a combination of pot stills and column stills (e.g. Jameson Gold, Powers, Tullamore Dew, Paddy’s, Murphy’s, and Dunphy).

Master Distiller Barry Crockett can differentiate even further. He can select different degrees of malted barley vs. unmalted barley to produce different types of pure pot still whiskeys, and different percentages of grain whiskey vs. malt whiskey to produce different types of blended whiskeys. If that’s not enough, he can take it one step further. He can take different “cuts” from the pot still spirit and different fractions of spirit from the column stills to produce completely different whiskeys. Finally, the spirit can then be matured in different types of casks (e.g. sherry vs. bourbon), and bottled at different ages and strengths.

Once you see all the different possibilities that this distillery has in making whiskey, it is almost surprising that they don’t make more whiskeys than they already do.

Belief: Irish whiskey isn’t as good as Scotch whisky.

Reality: Just like Scotch whiskies, some Irish whiskeys are outstanding while others are not.

When I told a Scotch whisky distillery manager that I was going to Ireland, his reply was (tongue-in-cheek), “I didn’t know they made whisky in Ireland.” The truth is that Scotland, Ireland, the United States, and Canada make some great whiskies, and they also make some not-so-great whiskies.

Unfortunately, I encounter many single malt scotch drinkers who don’t drink Irish whiskey and aren’t willing to even try it. Given that the flavor gap between Irish and Scotch whisky is narrowing, combined with the recent release of outstanding, high-quality Irish whiskeys, if you adopt such a myopic view you will miss out.

To prove this point, I often slip in a good Irish whiskey during my single malt scotch tastings events; you would be surprised by the overwhelming favorable response.

Belief: Only Bushmills makes a single malt Irish whiskey.

Reality: Single malt whiskeys from both the Cooley and Midleton distilleries are currently on the market.

Single malt whiskeys from the Cooley distillery include Tyrconnel, Knappogue Castle, and Connemara. A single malt produced by the Midleton distillery (but not sanctioned by Irish Distillers) has been sold in the United States under the “Erin go Bragh” label.

Finally, after all this talk about Irish whiskey, you might have worked up a thirst for one.

Do The Irish Still Drink Whiskey

An Irish barometer… The bottle of whiskey! Upside-down, opticated, one golden eye glowing… right side up, in the home shadows, acutely reflecting human change.

Do the Irish still drink whiskey was the question.

Do the Irish still breathe is the answer!

The barometric image is accurate. We celebrate our births with whiskey. We toast our marriages with whiskey. We mourn our deaths with it, salute our heroes with it, brace ourselves against life’s slings and arrows with it, warm our old bones with it, wrap it around the warpings of our lives. Remember its true name; where it springs from. The Gaelic word—uisce beatha—the water of life.

Our barometer. It occupies a special place.

If I try to explain that special place I think it is best emphasized by this: there are very few houses indeed throughout Ireland which do not have a bottle of whiskey sitting quietly in some corner—usually out of sight. The other side of that coin is that there are many hundreds of thousands of homes where there is no other alcoholic drink of any kind under the roof but that bottle of whiskey.

There it sits, in its special place, the true spirit of this island in every sense of the word, the Irish barometer. The bottle of Paddy or Powers or Bushmills. The label does not really matter as long as it is good strong whiskey.

In this land of the pub culture, where two out of every three drinks are consumed in Ireland’s thousands of pubs, the social centers of a merry land, I believe it is the solitary presence of the bottle of whiskey in so many homes which most strongly hallmarks the special niche we have for uisce beatha, for the water of life… and death.

And in a pub culture, especially the rural pub culture, so heavily dominated by the pint of Guinness that it is usual enough to enter a bar and see nothing else being consumed, then the continuing usage of whiskey as a special drink for special occasions—and we have so many of these!—is guaranteed, now, into the forever of the years ahead.

When you see that opticated golden eye blurring and blinking rapidly in a country pub you can be certain that it is not an ordinary day, not an ordinary occasion. Maybe it is to celebrate the sale of a farm, the return home from the fields of emigration of a local son or daughter. Maybe it is to mark a great sporting win in Gaelic football or hurling (the best small ball game in the whole world!). If the sporting win, or any other triumph, for example, is such that it brings a silver trophy into the bar then that cup is always filled to the brim… not with beer… but with golden whiskey, even if it takes two bottles. And if some man has fathered a new son, or lost one, or has married, or is mourning a death, then that is always done, too, with whiskey. And whiskey alone.

The special place—our real barometer.

We have a phrase which, in many ways, says it all. We say, on the great occasions which are being celebrated publicly—pub-licly indeed!—that it is an occasion for “the top shelf. ” It was upon the top shelves of the older pubs, you see, far above the porter kegs and beer taps, that the bottles of whiskey stood in rigid ranks and files, overlooking all. In the undisturbed few pubs that survive to the lip of the millennium they still stand there, spare, superior, elitist more than a little, awaiting those tides in the affairs of the mortalities below which are high enough to alter their levels and their equilibrium.

Our barometer….
My father died in the seventies, in his time and season. We gave him the traditional old-time wake—already going out of fashion even here then—laid out in his best suit in his own bedroom in his own bed and the aroma of whiskey as close as the mutteration of prayers and sympathy. He was waked the way his father was waked, and those before him. I am the eldest son. I had several special duties in that role.

Probably the most important and ritualistic of these was to take two bottles of whiskey by the neck, on the morning after he died, and bring them to the Arney cemetery where his grave was being rudely crafted through the earth of the Mac Connells that have always been buried there. And stand at the edge of that grave and talk to the neighbors turned gravediggers by tradition and ritual. My great-grandfather’s huge dome of a skull turned up once again in the digging, yellowed and eternal, as it will turn up also when I am being buried. They had set it up once again on the lip of the new grave and even mentioned that strange man’s name—stuttering Mickie Mac Connell—as I spoke the ritual elder son’s words to them. But that is another story of course. What was required was done as, please God, a long time from now, my own eldest son Cuan will do it. And, in an almost Victorian quirk, neither I nor he will ever see that grave whiskey being swallowed direct from the bottle by those who dig the Irish graves.

I drank whiskey then. With my father’s old friends, and with his enemies too, coming in shyly from the shadows, enemies in the petty sense of being divided from him by politics or by sporting affairs. An enmity drowned in wake whiskey. And I drank whiskey for my mother, in her time and season, and, Lord love her, for my dear wife Ann, taken long before her time and season by a destiny whose twistings and turnings, beyond our ken, so often require us to stiffen our courages from those shadowy kitchen-pressed bottles of whiskey, waiting there for just such moments.

And I drank whiskey, more than my share, when each of my children were born, and born healthy. And my brothers’ children. And the children of my friends. And for the deaths and marriages of all those who I know and love. Sweet whiskey, sour whiskey, always the same taste, mark you, but flavored by the occasion that is in it.

The Irish barometer. . . the bottle of whiskey. . . . . solitary in so many homes. To be mixtured with boiling water and cloved lemons for the colds and chestiness of the old. To be egg-spooned into the dental cavity of the child that cries in the night when the dentist is sleeping. To put color into the shocked white faces of the bad occasions, to add more color to the ruddied cheeks of our joys. To seal deals, pacts, and promises, to say farewell and to say welcome home. The supreme spirit to punctuate the fluctuations of the Irish lives of both yesterday and today. And tomorrow.

Since the time of stuttering Mickie Mac Connell, who was a genius, and who was able to billet rats from one farm to another, always sending them from the farms of his Catholic neighbors to the farms of Protestants, by way of some kind of black art, until he was stopped by the clergymen of three churches. But sure that’s another story altogether and, to tell it right, with a sense of occasion, both ye and I would have to reach for the top shelf.

Do the Irish still drink whiskey?

This was the question?

Does the barometer ever stop a-rising and a-falling?

That, my friends, is the answer.

Slainte!