NAS Again…

Sure NAS whiskies get flack from whisky lovers. We consider the age statement a definitive mark of quality, care, and investment by the distiller. The distillers will come back at us with arguments that ‘no age statement’ expressions give them the freedom to pick the best casks, etc. But I have to think, if we as consumers roll over and accept this, we’ll be on the road to what wine has become. Manufactured. And there will be apologists for manufactured whisky as there are apologists for manufactured wine. Take the article in the New York Times by Bianca Bosker just last March. When I read it I was certain, until it concluded, that the piece was a tongue in cheek sendup. I mean, oak dust? Liquid oak tannin ‘(pick between “mocha” and “vanilla”)’ — really? Ms. Bosker promoted the idea that we should accept products designed by committee for easy drinking palates, further straining credulity. I do not exaggerate:

“many mass-market wines are designed by sensory scientists with the help of data-driven focus groups and dozens of additives that can, say, enhance a wine’s purple hue or add a mocha taste. The goal is to turn wine into an everyday beverage with the broad appeal of beer or soda.”

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Whisky and Words Number 25: Springbank 10

The Springbank website crawler hint says “Springbank is a unique Campbelltown distillery’ and this is no mere marketing. Read on.

I’ve really looked forward to trying this malt. I had to afford it first, it’s pricey ($78 in Oregon). But as “the only Scottish distillery to complete 100% of the production process on site” (link) and their claim that Springbank 10 is distilled ‘two and a half times’ — I had to know, how much magic resulted?

Honest coloring

I’ve had a bottle pf Springbank on my desk for three months. And just a week or so ago, I found myself within a an hours’ drive of the distillery. My wife and I were returning from three glorious days on Islay, and had to get all the way to Glasgow, turn in the car by 6, and catch a train. The thought of taking a few more hours out of an already hectic day seemed daunting, and in retrospect, I’m glad we passed Springbank by. It would have been too much for one day, and it gives me a reason to return to that corner of Scotland (besides the wonderful people on Islay).

I don’t remember my first impressions of the whisky, so I opened the bottle today and gave it a good whiff. I expected peat for some reason, but got instead a distinct maritime note and a higher nose of grassy overtones. Quite pleasant — no hint of oil or phenols. There’s lemon, honeysuckle and a touch of spice on the nose that’s completely distinct and unique. Obviously, bourbon casked.

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Whisky and Words Number 24: Laphroaig Quarter Cask

Laphroaig's Quarter Cask is actually a bit lighter in color than in this shot (another cloudy day in Portland).

Laphroaig’s Quarter Cask is actually a bit lighter in color than in this shot (another cloudy day in Portland).

We’re still on Island expressions, and time to address a No Age Statement offering from Laphroaig: the Quarter Cask. A quarter cask is a cask one quarter the capacity of a hogshead. Sounds official and specific, doesn’t it? It does, until you start looking at what a hogshead is, which is ‘a large cask or barrel‘ of anywhere from 55 to 63 US gallons. It depends. The Laphroaig folks explain that they use a ‘small‘ cask, which gives, compared the their normal casks, a 30% greater cask (interior) surface area for a given volume of whisky. A higher whisky-to-oak ratio, if you will.

That ratio, it is presumed, allows the goodness of the charred oak to infuse more quickly with the spirit, rendering a quicker maturation. They also point out that the surface-to-spirit ratio also increases the ‘Angel’s share’ of alcohol which evaporates out of the oak. True enough, and that evaporation is displaced with good sea air, of which Laphroaig distillery has plenty. In the end, this is a gambit to allow the whisky master to create a whisky with the balance and sophistication of a fully (e.g., 10 or 12-year) matured whisky with spirit what hasn’t aged as long. Alchemy, I say! Can you get gold from lead (well, without a nuclear reactor)?

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New Age Statement Whisky (NAS)

We’re still on Island expressions, and the first No Age Statement release I’ve reviewed is coming Real Soon Now (Laphroaig’s Quarter Cask). But let’s talk NAS first. The lads at Whisky Waffle did an entire week on NAS; they tightened their belts and screwed down their green eyeshades and really went at it with as much seriousness as they can muster (they were pretty tough, actually). Their series is worth a read for getting some background on NAS, so I’m not going to re-fight that campaign. However, before I get to Quarter Cask, I’d like to get a couple facts about the NAS expressions we are seeing out in front.

The odd Supply and Demand Curve for Whisky

I like to know what I'm buying. Such a Luddite, eh?

I like to know what I’m buying. Such a Luddite, eh?

My feeling is that, while these days of rising sales and a limited supply of aged whisky have led to high prices for aged single malt, NAS should be a way for distilleries to produce more volume of good whisky. They can be a bit creative and mix in some newer whisky with the old and bottle more product. NAS should be a way of increasing supply, thus reducing price. I know this, I took a major in Economics, ceteris paribus and all that.

However, the opposite has happened. We’ve got more expressions than ever, and I have to surmise more whisky being shipped, but at higher prices. That’s counter-intuitive, and that got me curious. Here is a short survey of current aged and NAS offerings in my home state, Oregon. (Prices are set by the state, so are not affected by locality or time of year.) I have rounded to the nearest buck.

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Whisky and Words Number 23: Ardbeg 10

Finally, Ardbeg 10. I’ve been looking forward to reviewing this. I’ve had a bottle for almost a year. I drink it, like most of my single malts, sparingly. It’s in a class I call Damn Fine Whisky. So, what’s it got?

The Ardbeg label. No false modesty here.

The Ardbeg label. No false modesty here. Click for full size crop. We want you to read the small print!

First off, Ardbeg is sort of the snazzy new kid on the block, but he’s got some classic threads to back up his bling. Ardbeg is one of those distilleries that was shuttered for years, only to be resurrected by ‘craft’ style distillers. By craft, we mean a few notable aspects to the whisky production:

  • Non Chill-filtered – proudly declared front and center of the bottle
  • Higher (than typical) alcohol content, in this case 46%
  • Attention to detail in production and presentation
  • Attitude!

Yeah, they have some attitude, declaring right on the label: not only the best Islay malt, but the best whisky in the world. That’s fightin’ words for the folks at Bunnahabhain, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. So, what’s behind the bluster?

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Whisky and Words Number 22: Highland Park 12

If I remember correctly, I read about Highland Park 12 in Jason Debly’s blog back in early 2014. I was just starting to expand my horizons into single malts, after a long hiatus brought on by the financial strain of an old house, growing children and various stock market crashes. Those challenges behind me, I felt like spoiling myself a little. Jason’s review of Highland Park caught my eye as I was looking for a scotch with a lot of character, a touch of peat and a reasonable price tag.

A fine whisky, but about time to buy more.

A fine whisky, but about time to buy more.

Highland Park is one of the older distilleries, founded in 1798, about half a century before the big boom in distillery foundings in Scotland. Probably the folks up in the Orkneys needed a local supplier. Considering the long winter nights, not a bad idea.

The elegant canister boasts of hand-turned barley maltings, so along with Bowmore and The Balvenie, HP is yet another distiller holding on to the old customs. Given a 2.5M liter/year production, I wonder, how much of their malt is local? I inquired of them and received a helpful answer in a few days from Mark Budge, Visits Co-Ordinator at Highland Park:

We are malting 20% of the total malt we use onsite. We then peat this malt before drying. Our makeup of malt is 20% peated (malted and peated on site) and 80% unpeated (bought from commercial maltsters).

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Whisky and Words Number 21: Talisker 10

Onward with our Islands series. We jump from Islay to Skye, for Talisker 10.

A maritime whisky, smoky and smooth.

A maritime whisky, smoky and smooth.

Like Bunnahabhain, Talisker 10 and I go back a long way. But in the way-back, some twenty years ago, Talisker was a bit much for me. Perhaps they’ve tapered off on the phenols, but who knows, I may have changed too. At any rate, back when I was a Scotch noob, the smokiness and medicinal qualities of this whisky were a bit much for me.

The Talisker distillery is on Skye, an island far to the north of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland. It’s the most northern of the inner Hebrides, and like Islay, there aren’t a lot of trees on Skye. Peat is the traditional fuel for malting here, and although Talisker distillery took out their malting floors in 1972, their flavor profile was established by then and Talisker is still produced with a fairly hefty dose of phenols for a “richly flavored maritime malt” (from the label) that flavor is a combination of the smoked malt (from the mainland) and a peaty water source (Hawk Hill).

On the Talisker web site, they don’t say much about their ’10’ — they focus most of the marketing muscle on the NAS offerings that are all the rage these days (newer whisky, more $$, WTF?). The 10 is “smooth, smoky, with a warm afterglow.” I’d agree, with a caveat — since the bottling strength is nearly 46%, a few drops of water are called for.

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