Into the wood: whisky report

Innovation in cask selection and wood finishes are part of continuing excitement and exploration in the whisky category in the UK, reports Mark Ludmon

Whisky may have been pushed by vodka into second place as Britons’ favourite spirit, but there is still a thirst for it. Even before Ardbeg Distillery released its 12-year-old Galileo in September, many suppliers had sold out. With only a few thousand cases available, the Islay single malt was in as much demand as the distillery’s previous limited editions, with orders placed well in advance. And last month, tickets for The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show in London were selling out in advance, making it the most successful yet.

Interest is coming from innovation in the use of wood as well as vintages and age statements. According to research by whisky company Chivas Brothers, 94 per cent of consumers believe the age statement serves as an indicator of quality and 89 per cent actively look for an age statement when making a decision to purchase. This insight informs its global campaign Age Matters and the current ad campaign comparing the making of whisky with the creation of great wonders of the world such as the Great Pyramid of Giza which took 18 years to complete.

Age is just one of the indicators used in the whisky portfolio of International Beverage Holdings, which includes Old Pulteney, Balblair and anCnoc. “Age statements are still the default for consumers, especially in emerging markets,” admits head of malts Iain Baxter. “Numbers are easier for people to understand than abstract things such as number of fills. But having no age statement can allow you to be more innovative with the whisky.”

Age is important for Old Pulteney, where the focus is on the 12-year-old, 17-year-old and 21-year-old. Well established in the off-trade, International Beverage is driving distribution in the on-trade, especially in top bars where the 21-year-old is particularly in demand after being named world whisky of the year in last year’s edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.

The latest release is the much-anticipated Old Pulteney 40 Year Old which, Iain says, highlights another opportunity for the bar trade. “With the emergence of a whisky collectors’ market over the past 10 years, high-age whiskies are rarely ever drunk because they are an investment. But for bars, there is an opportunity from big spenders and enthusiasts who will take the only chance in their life to have a drink of a 40-year-old malt whisky for tens of pounds rather than thousands of pounds. It is a great solution for the on-trade as it draws in consumers and could make your bar a destination.”

In contrast, Balblair has always been about vintages, as demonstrated by the second release of the 1997 vintage of the Highland single malt last month. Nonchill-filtered, the 46 per cent ABV whisky means there are now four vintages in the core Balblair range along with 1975, 1989 and 2002. As the first release from the 1997 vintage was in 2007, the new expression has been aged for another five years. “Vintages are a different way of looking at whisky,” Iain adds. “When we launched Balblair as vintage only, we expected people who understand wine vintage concepts to come to it.”

The Glenrothes is another whisky that focuses on vintages rather than age statements. While the popular Select Reserve was the first whisky from The Glenrothes to be bottled from casks from different years, the current vintages are 1978, 1991, 1995 and 1998. Owner Berry Bros & Rudd has now unveiled a series of single-cask bottlings from the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the Extraordinary Cask Collection, after a cache of casks was located by brands heritage director Ronnie Cox. The first release is a whisky distilled in 1970 and matured in an ex-bourbon hogshead, cask number 10573, but, due to demand, the 179 bottles are available on allocation only, in hand-blown lead-crystal decanters.

Despite consumers’ dependence on age statements, the importance of wood is being understood more widely by mainstream consumers. The new-look range of Glengoyne Highland single malts highlights the use of oloroso sherry casks in its maturation as well as the age statement, with three new malts joining the range: a premium Glengoyne 15-year-old malt, a cask-strength expression to replace the current 12-year-old cask-strength, and an 18-year-old replacing the 17-year-old. They join the 10-year-old, 12-year-old and 21-year-old.

Wemyss Malts continues to launch single cask whiskies named after their natural taste and aroma as well as their age. The latest are the 30-year-old Sugared Almonds from Aultmore distillery, the 26-year-old Autumn Berries from Blair Athol, the 16-year-old Lemon Smoke from Caol Ila and the 14-year-old Beach Bonfires from Laphroaig distillery.

The combination of wood and age runs through The Balvenie’s range, with the addition in November of The Balvenie DoubleWood 17 Year Old. With the same honeyed, spicy characteristics as the popular DoubleWood 12 Year Old, the new release has deeper vanilla notes and hints of green apple and creamy toffee. The name refers to the technique of maturing the whisky first in American oak barrels and then transferring it to European oak sherry casks.

The launch marks the completion of the new-look core range of The Balvenie after the UK arrival of The Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask in September. This has been matured for 14 years in traditional oak whisky casks and then transferred to casks that previously held Caribbean rum for finishing.

The Balvenie’s marketing manager Jonny Cornthwaite from distributor First Drinks says: “Age statements are important but not the sole drivers of quality. The new core range is more consumer-friendly in terms of providing a straightforward ladder with age, which is great for the consumer who is not a complete whisky nut, but also with the joy of cask finishing. It’s also something interesting for the connoisseur, using age as a ladder but also playing with second maturation.”

First Drinks is bringing an exclusive new “ritual serve” to the on-trade for The Balvenie with the introduction of “dipping dogs” (pictured) that tap into whisky’s heritage. Working with the distillery’s own coppersmith Dennis McBain, they have developed a serving vessel based on the illegal “dogs” that were used in the past to steal whisky from the warehouse. These small metal tubes would be lowered by a piece of string into a barrel to fill with liquid and then hidden down the thief’s trousers. The new dogs hold 100ml of The Balvenie and are carried to the table with two glasses.

“It gives the bartender a reason to upsell, adds value for the outlet and engages the consumer to get them to drink high-value, high-margin product,” Jonny explains. The first bars to use them are the Coburg and Connaught bars at London’s Connaught Hotel, the Athenaeum in London, The Bonham hotel in Edinburgh and Roslin Beach Hotel in Southend-on-Sea, Essex.

Age statements have been dropped for single malt whisky The Macallan for its high-profile new 1824 Series, which are each named after the colour of the whiskies from their maturation. Distributed by Maxxium UK, it has started with The Macallan Gold, which is matured in sherry seasoned oak casks to give it a burnished gold colour and notes of vanilla and dark chocolate.

In spring 2013, it will be followed by Amber, Sienna and Ruby – again colours of the whiskies. Ken Grier, director of malts at brand owner Edrington, says: “As some 60 per cent of the aroma and flavour of The Macallan derives from the oak maturation casks, this new range is a genuine opportunity to demonstrate the critical role of these exceptional casks and also to challenge perceptions about bottling at arbitrary ages.”

Major investment in the whisky category is also coming from Diageo both for its single malts and its blends. For the connoisseurs, it has launched its annual Special Releases single malt whiskies which this year includes a 35-year-old Talisker, a 32-year-old Port Ellen, a 25-year-old Dalwhinnie, a 21-year-old Lagavulin and a 14-year-old Caol Ila.

Diageo GB has also been promoting The Singleton of Dufftown single malts to new audiences with initiatives such as The Singleton Taste Room – a consumer “experience” in London in September curated by chef Mark Hix, DJ Gilles Peterson and designers Dominic Wilcox, Max Lamb and Daniel Poole. It focused on the 12-year-old Singleton, promoting it for drinking neat or with ginger ale.

Diageo also unveiled two new blends – with no age statements – in a revamp of its core Johnnie Walker range this summer. Tapping into the growth in premium spirits, Johnnie Walker Platinum Label is a blend of malt and grain whiskies that have been matured for at least 18 years, for drinking neat. Gold Label Reserve is made up of master blender Jim Beveridge’s favourite whiskies, including casks of Clynelish malt, but is aimed at the upmarket club sector and for mixing. “Gold Label is intended to be served in lots of different ways – it’s great to mix or to drink with ice and a chunk of orange,” Jim adds.

The mixability of whisky is a route taken only by a few brands, such as Maxxium UK’s leading blends, The Famous Grouse, and its stablemates, The Naked Grouse and The Snow Grouse. During London Cocktail Week in October, First Drinks was promoting cocktails for Monkey Shoulder whisky at a pop-up bar with Edinburgh’s The Bon Vivant. This is part of a wider series of One Night Only events running to November, themed around classic serves such as a Rob Roy and a Blazer.

Whisky cocktails are part of the strategy for Chivas Regal within its global Crafted for the Senses campaign. At the top end, Chivas Brothers has been working with leading bartenders, such as Giovanni Spezziga of London restaurant and bar Benares and Oliver Blackburn of Claridges Bar, to create new cocktails using Chivas Regal 18 Year Old, linked to publication of a new book celebrating craftsmen, whisky and whisky-based cocktails.

In the mainstream, Pernod Ricard UK is promoting Chivas Regal 12 Year Old for the globally successful Chivas & Green Tea serve, mixing it with green tea, lemon juice and honey syrup, served in a branded teapot with cups. Chivas Regal 12 is also being promoted for two simple winter serves – a Winter Warmer that mixes it with sugar, hot water and grated nutmeg, and a Christmas Berry mixing it with soda water and either raspberries or blackberries. “Developed to feature on Christmas food menus, the serves will help to drive consumer footfall and awareness of Chivas Regal in the on-trade,” adds Pernod Ricard’s on-trade channel director for spirits, Ian Peart.

Spotlight on Japanese whiskies

Suntory has added excitement to the already-booming Japanese whisky category with the launch of a rare collection of limited-edition releases aged in different woods. With an ABV of 48 per cent, they include the unusual Yamazaki Mizunara, which is aged in the loosely-grained mizunara oak from Japan, giving it notes of sandalwood and cinnamon.

The Cask Collection, which carries no age statements, also comprises the Yamazaki Bourbon Barrel, the rich and dark Yamazaki Sherry Cask, which uses wood seasoned with oloroso sherry, and the smooth Yamazaki Puncheon, which is matured more slowly in larger American grain whiskey oak casks that have been slightly toasted. All the barrels are used in Yamazaki’s 12-year-old, 18-year-old and 25-year-old single malts. Suntory’s other whisky brands include Hibiki and Hakushu.

Case study: Roast, London

London restaurant Roast has embraced Japanese whiskies through events and its drinks list. Bar manager Sebastien Guesdon, formerly of The Ritz, has created three Hibiki whisky infusions: lily; sultana and vanilla; and orange and cinnamon. He has also devised a cocktail to celebrate the 2013 opening of The View at the top of The Shard – its skyscraper neighbour at London Bridge. The Shard Sour mixes Hakushu 12 Year Old with lemon juice, egg white and cherry juice.

A popular whisky from the bar is the 25-year-old Yamazaki, which was named world’s best single malt whisky in the 2012 World Whiskies Awards. It is also running monthly hour-long Japanese whisky tastings, costing £60 per person.

Originally published in the November 2012 edition of Bar magazine.

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