The distance from J&G Grant’s Glenfarclas distillery to William Grant & Sons’ Balvenie location is but 13 miles by road; it’s a much shorter distance by helicopter. Both are Speyside distillers, and both offer whiskies finished in sherry casks. Like J&G Grant, William Grant & Sons is an independent company. Both started in the 19th century: William laid down his distillery in 1889 (finished in 1892); John Grant of J&G Grant bought Glenfarclas distillery (built in 1836) in 1865.
However, the William Grant company has since grown into the largest independent distiller in Scotland. In fact, with over 10% market share, William Grant and Sons represents the third largest producer of Scotch, behind Diageo and Pernod Ricard. Not bad for a family company.
The Balvenie distillery is a bigger operation than J&G’s Glenfarclas by about double (5.6 M litres vs 3 M litres per year) and William Grant have a more varied range. Furthermore, they achieve their market share by operating a constellation of associated distilleries. This was pointed out in the Monkey Shoulder review, as that blend from this same distiller boasts of 25 composite single malts. Similarly, Grants Family Reserve blends a similarly numerous number of malts. This Grant is a giant. We know from these reviews they make respectable blends, so let’s investigate a single-malt whisky.
I’m an engineer of sorts…I don’t hold an engineering degree but my entire post-military working life has been designing, writing, testing and explaining software and computer systems. There is a natural dynamic between the messaging folks (marketing) and the engineers. We techies like to know what’s what and make our own decisions. Marketing’s job is, as we see it, to spiff up, deflect, and entice. That might be fine for the hoi polloi, but we engineers like to think we’re immune to such blandishments.
Well, of course we aren’t, marketing is a powerful force and here to stay, but it sets my heart all aflutter to encounter a company like Glenfarclas. To say they are transparent about how they create their product would be an understatement. This starts at their website, which is professional but not the most visually stunning. It’s probably considered a couple years behind the times as far as design, yet I appreciate it for the amount of information they place at your fingertips. It is amazing. Furthermore, their brand ambassador manning the email trenches is similarly forthcoming (thank you, Myriam). This is a huge benefit to those of us who want to know just what it is we are drinking, how it is made, why it tastes as it does.
So, you have someone you know is ‘into’ Scotch and you want to buy a nice present. You don’t want to set a foot wrong, and certainly don’t want to see her writing about your present as “the Scotch I save for folks who don’t know Scotch, or drown it in Coke.” Yes, I’ve read that on many a Scotch blog. Rude, I think…but it happens — because A) The styles of Scotch vary wildly in their aroma and taste (why it’s a fascinating obsession, yo!) and B) Scotch drinkers are often quite partisan about their preferred style.
Prep: Single malt vs. blend, and U.S. availability
We’re going to focus mostly on single malt scotches — this refers to a whisky that is made totally from one distillery’s production. They can (and do) mix casks and even years of production for a single malt. But as soon as they mix casks from another distillery and add grain alcohol (mass-produced, typically), then it is a blend. Common blends are well-known, like Johnnie Walker, Chivas, Dewars, Whyte and MacKay. These are the province of the casual drinker, not the Scotch enthusiast. Single malts will have more character, as the peculiarities of water and still are not blended out — hence they appeal to folks looking for adventure. Note: my focus is on brands available in the U.S., as that’s where I live.
There is a bit more to learn, so let’s do this in steps. We’ll gather some intelligence, align that to some facts, and send you shopping with a budget and some suggestions.
When you see Aberlour’s A’Bunadh, it is quite obvious this is not your run-of-the-mill whisky: the deep tawny-red color is highlighted by a clear glass bottle, short with a high shoulder. The spirit is clear, and when backlighted has tones of polished oak, but when in shadow, the whisky looks like an alchemist’s reagent for making dragon blood. Or maybe it is dragon’s blood—it’s strong enough! Bottled typically around 60% (my bottling, #46, is at 60.4%), A’bunadh has enough kick to get anyone’s attention. This is a spirit to be approached with respect.
Tobermory is one of those was-mothballed, now-resuscitated distilleries which is now producing a high quality product. It’s considered an island distillery, being on the isle of Mull (north of Islay and Jura, south of Skye), but the style isn’t like what we think of as an island malt. It does not have the medicinal quality of a Talisker or Caol Ila, nor the peat of an Ardbeg, nor the smoke of a Laphroaig or Lagavulin. In fact, Tobermory reminds me of a Speyside or lowland malt (as we’ll see, this is no great surprise).
Bought in 1993 by Burns Stewart, the Ledaig distillery, as it was known, has since been expanded and sold a few more times. The current owners are embracing the craft expression, with 46.3% ABV and (since 2010) a non-chill filtered finish. I like the former, as I can add water to taste, but frankly I haven’t been amazed nor confounded by the absence or presence (respectively) of chill filtration to date. Others may carry the torch for that battle (and they do). I need a head-to-head comparison to sort that out.
I first heard about Bunnahabhain while walking around Edinburgh back in 1992. I had been making my way down to high street from Nelson’s column on a Sunday. Not much was open, the skies were leaden, the city quiet. It wasn’t late but the light dim — it was November in Scotland, and that means short days. I was making the most of a day off after having done some business with Heriot-Watt University. Heriot-Watt is notable for being the college where James Bond went to school. I heard that from another Bond fan, I’m not entirely sure this is so, but we’ll let it go for now. What is certain is that they are involved in the country’s business education and especially the whisky business. They even had their own bottling of whisky, and I brought back a sample. I have the bottle still, but the spirit is long gone, so no solid review of that, though I remember not being too taken by it at the time.
The folks at Heriot-Watt were quite friendly, though they had taken particular care in softening up the young greenhorn from the U.S. That had been a day to remember, mainly due to the challenge of remembering it. Professor Scott had dosed me with my first taste of cask-strength whisky, taken me out for Chinese food and a cigar, then on a pub crawl. It was a hell of an introduction to Scottish social life. I’ll never forget him leaning over to me at one pub and saying, “If a Scotsman smashes his glass against the bar, watch out, because he’s gonna swipe it across your face!”
Nevertheless I felt some affection and brotherhood towards my cousins from across the sea (being a long-lost MacNaughton, after all). I enjoyed my time there and took advantage of Sunday’s quiet to tramp all over town. While I stopped in front of a liquor shop’s picture window to gaze at the bottles, another gent wandered up and took station beside me. “It’s too bad they’re closed,” I said. My accent tagged me as an American but he didn’t seem to mind. “What’s your favorite?” I asked after some small talk.
Why not mix them up? Some of the greatest writers have drunk whisky. I’m not advocating that for anyone — I never write unless I’m sober, and responsible imbibing is the message here. But I think they can go together. I often have a dram while I’m reading. Both I do at the end of the day to relax. And since I muse a lot about other weird stuff, I’ll be writing about whisky to relax, too.
Note: what I won’t be doing is getting overly-wrought in my descriptions. I do not pretend to be a super-taster, capable of discriminating upon which Caribbean island my toffee was browned. And that’s OK as most likely, you aren’t either. So we’ll keep it sane.
Whisky Review: The Macallan 12
So let’s start with a standard and safe selection, a dram no one will criticize you for buying and everyone will enjoy (no overpowering peat, smoke or oil). The Macallan 12-year-old.
Whenever you see a whisky that’s ‘the’ something, you can bet it has been around a long time. But it does not necessarily mean it is good. ‘The Glenlivet’ 12-year-old, for example, has been around for ages. The Glenlivet is the first single-malt many (such as I ) tried and it has admirers, but to me, the cost/benefit just is not there. The Glenlivet to my palate is uninspiring — just not a lot of ‘there’ there. For a bit more you can get Highland Park 12, which has vastly more character, or Ardbeg, .
But back to the Macallan 12. You have to give those folks at Macallan credit. They use barrels that have been used to age sherry. But not just any barrels — they buy the barrels themselves, from wood they select, then essentially rent them to the sherry producers and get them back after a single run. So Macallan guarantees a steady supply of sherry-aged oak in top condition.