Saturday, April 30, 2011

Alas, The Tale of Two Corks: Why I Love Laphroaig, but Loath its Cork

I had already forgotten my first experience with a disintegrating cork until I looked for its replacement. I just opened a Laphroaig 10 year old. It sat on my counter along with three other Laphroaig bottles waiting to pop. Apparently, I am not the only one to experience this Laphroaig phenomenon. The situation is a persistent annoyance, among others, effecting the cork of at least three Laphroaig expressions. Two are photographed.

Laphroaig ten is truly a water of life that makes me salivate. This Distilleries are liquid gold for me, but blessed with uniformly exceptional slightly oily, yet smooth, peaty Islay expressions. Some with subtle, yet others with blatant distinctions, due to age, conditions, peat, or well executed wood management.

Yes, I carefully removed the foil sheath, then I slowly rocked the cork back and forth. Ah, then that odd sensation with no hesitation halting the Quercas suber breakdown. My eyes witnessed, my hands felt, and my mental mindset was adjusted. The agony of delay; yes, breakage! Crap! My new Laphroaig ten was now a bottle without a functional cork. I resorted to searching for an effective corkscrew to persist in the extraction of my first dram.

Beam is blessed with this top contender for Islay Gold.  Aged in Makers Mark Casks, among other quality refills, some sherry, others port, there is something about the Laphroaig synergy of condition, distillation and bourbon cask aging that pleases nose, tongue and gullet. The smooth licorice twig bonfire that exudes the sea side like syrup are unlike the complexity, spice and pepper that Ardbeg 10 year old's peat brings on. Laphroaig is simple, yet sweet and syrupy for a single malt with oily Islay goodness. It's a distinct peat perfection that is aged well and affordable. 

It lacks the acquired full throttle ppm Islay flavor that Port Charlotte, Caol Isla or arguably Isle of Skye's Talisker bring to the table. One layman commenter, Ralfy, over exaggerates the Laphroaig peat reek for the arguable benefit of the newcomer.  Perhaps, there are a few who may need time to adjust to the more peaty expressions. Laphroaig is a far cry from the other Islays in coal, spice and pepper overdrive that is less favored among some who savor single malt.  I liked Laphoaig the first time that I tried it.

The Froig Ten still makes the Lagavulin 12 look like an overindulgence at its price point, but there is an appreciation. I drink more Laphroaig! Each distillery is distinct, some require more effort to the golden dram; by analogy, most learn to respect both Latour and Margaux for their taste profiles.  For me, its not hard to find a satisfying, yet affordable Laphroaig.

Fortunately, Laphroaig is still run by a potentially dying breed on the verge of a takeover from the Malt Trusts.  I don't consider Beam to be 'quite' one of them. Yes, some distilleries deserve respect and higher sales that ultimately generate more profit, not suck up shelf space. Laphroaig moves, but as more corks break and spirit evaporates, memories endure.

That said, I look forward to the day that Laphroaig Cairceas and Triple Wood grace Our Shores. I remain a Friend of Laphroaig.  Just a slightly perturbed consumer of its corks. What's with those disintegrating corks?

Ah, everything seemed so good. I was ready to experience Islay Greatness. The appreciation that Prince of Wales, among others, have a good palate. I can only wish for an audience with ye royal single malt cache of Laphroaig. 

Well, what does Prince Charles, or his sons, really know?  Perhaps, he is too gracious to mention the unmentionable.  Okay, flash forward, I look at my empty cache of the bottles that I have completed and see a Laphroaig Quarter Cask. The Linked IN favorite of one member, who posts of its accolades.  I cannot call it my favorite among Laphroaig expressions, but it certainly worthy as evidenced by its current expression; empty!

This seemed like an acceptable substitute as witnessed by its emptiness. I believed its cork was an appropriate candidate to replace the Laphroaig 10 cork now lying in pieces on my counter with a few tidbits sprinkled within the green atmosphere, below.  I opened the metal top for my next revelation; another broken cork.

What are the chances of two Laphroaig corks disintegrating?  What about the Whisky Magazine Laphroaig cork breakage section linked above? What does this suggest from committed Friends? Well, we are in need of better cork! If not, a synthetic cork like the one that graces The Glenrothes, perhaps. We need something that will last. If not, then customers and retailers should be graced with a supply of spare corks and an explanation. Perhaps, there is a good explanation why the corks break that justifies keeping the present cork stock.  I hope that Laphroaig can explain and even make fun of that fact for marketing sake.

Is this the first time that I have witnessed the consequences of poor quality corks? No. I have Four Prohibition Era Old Hermitage Bourbon Bottles. I have one Belle of Marion Bourbon Bottle. Three of four Old Hermitages completely evaporated. The third is half full, but went cloudy.  The Belle of Marion has a high quality cork, the bourbon is clear as day, and it as close to the fill line as you can get for an expression bottled in the 1920s.

John and Simon; you are brilliant marketers and producers of a tremendously tasty single malt. It is certainly one that I am willing to store, just like my grandfather did when he thought that he preserved three bottles of Old Hermitage for posterity.  However, we just need those bottles to be around when, we or are adult kids, want to drink them. We need a cork that can not only retain spirit, but prevent it from decay and spillage over time, not until delivery and its first breath of fresh air! We have sacrificed enough to the greedy angels.

I certainly hope that we can find this Kingdom some cork that it will afford. I have been fortunate to avoid such an experience with any other distillery, but perhaps it is in the making. Alas poor Old Hermitage, I knew it well, Laphroaig!

Any thoughts?  BTW, where did all those Scotch Chix go, anyway?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Las Vegas Distillery Starts It's Stills

There is a new distillery in Nevada.  George Racz, a native Hungarian now New York transplant to Las Vegas decided to put his roots down in nearby Henderson. His plans have remained in tact. He persisted in his dream investing hundreds of thousands of dollars and that of his family.  He wants to produce spirit and remains optimistic. George studied with Kent Fleischman and Don Poffenroth at  Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane, Washington before setting up his Las Vegas Distillery. Mr. Racz's grandfather used to run a still in Transylvania, so his Hungarian family was open to helping him with his dream. He has now taken his passion one step further.

The Las Vegas Distillery just began distilling yesterday on Thursday, April 24, 2011, but this was not as easy as it seems.  George had to lobby his way through the Nevada Legislature just to secure Nevada's first distillery license. The incline to trailblaze through Nevada's bureaucracy derserves our respect. He still has a fight so that he can simply offer samples of his products at the distillery. Soon, he will sell product and we understand that the Wirtz family will help with local distribution.

The Distillery has 111 of small casks made by a Minnesota cooperage known as Black Swan, which are for sale for $777. This is similar to what Glenglassaugh is doing with its cask offering, but with a few marketing twists.  For more information, contact the distillery.  The distillery offers tours, but it is very challenging for some taxi drivers, so it is wise to phone first and rent a car.

The distillery will start by making spirits that can be aged as well as sold with little aging. It does not have immediate plans to release a bourbon, but is using other grains. The owner has collaborated with Dry Fly Distillery, of Spokane, Washington, which is now selling a single malt, gin, and vodka. The owners of Dry Fly studied with Christian Karl Distillery in Germany.  The Las Vegas Distillery uses machinery manufactured in Germany, as well.

The distillery has and will continue to purchase most of its grain from Nevada farms, wherever possible. We understand that there is an emphasis on organic grains in the distillation process.  The distillery utilizes an reverse osmosis before water is introduced to the stills.

Plans are for eventually distilling multi-grain aged spirit, like the Tuthilltown Distillery, but expect Las Vegas Distillery to first cater to The Strip. To do so, it will produce vodka, gin, and network with bars to provide products that mixologists are anxious to see locally produced.  George is open to many alternatives, even the use of non-traditional, yet indigenous products that can be infused during the distilling process.

I wish George luck and consider myself fortunate to have visited him at the distillery's infancy. His positive attitude suggests that he will continue to persist in the trade.  George's motto is "Follow your heart and raise your spirit." Let's hope that his product is good enough to put Las Vegas Distillery on the map and his bottles on shelves nearer to you.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

IB v. OB: The Cask Controversy; are Lessons Learned or Lost?

Most of us hope that the whisky, or is that whiskey, industry pays close attention to its own history. We now experience a whisky renaissance. I agree that this bubble may not burst, but it can get pin pricked and lose a bit of hot air.  Yes, when the pickens are good, the Official Distilleries [OBs] get upset and triumphantly insist they have little reason to sell to the Independent Bottlers [IBs]. Or do they?

It can be reasonably argued that when single malt is in demand, then selling off some casks to Independents at market can prove a wise investment.  Perhaps, even joining in the fun makes economic sense.When demand is low, name distilleries too often lose steam. In doing so, they may end up selling at bargain basement prices or getting mothballed in vain.  Furthermore, without cash to support those dry heave moments, the Ladyburns and Rosebanks of their times are subject to tumultuous takeover by the DCL's and Diageo's of the spirits industry.  When those distilleries fall, they no longer produce. Why not cask and sell planned allocation to the IB that can keep the potstills running? Perhaps, there are times when selling a distillery makes sense for the industry or a blend, rather than mothballing and dismantling it!

Diageo's main site has a pull down brand finder.  Has Diageo taken on too much out of fear? Does it deter or control perceived cannibalism, competition, and demand? If it does, does it lose more than it gains? To keep good distilleries alive and more expressions both efficient and profitable, timing is everything.  Predicting what the market wants and when the market will bottom out may prove evasive. Whose to know what cask will 'pop' and with which supplier? Can a good cask distributed by Adelphi or Cadenhead's help the official distillery when sales are down and blending seems the only option?  When was the last time that an official distillery supported an established independent in their mutual quest for market share?

If some whisky expressions can be sold quicker, with all factors considered, then it seems like there is good reason to do so, even if it means shedding a few pounds to the independent bottlers. An independent offering may be 150 to 1000 bottles compared to many more by the OB. When does the market gone down and why? Which distilleries or conglomerates will suffer most? Is there any predictability? That's the subject of debate.

Many in management find it too difficult to admit or determine whether they were licked and how. There is much pride in the whisky business and for good reason at times.  So much so that self defeating tactics are at play in the single malt market. The idea of hiding the names of distilleries and 'teaspooning' to deter Indy sales seems counterproductive, foolish, and juvenile to me.  However, I'm willing to read the arguments.

For those of us who enjoy single malt, we know that it's virtually impossible for a few blenders or masters at one distillery to know exactly what the public will like.  At this point, no one will buy everything.  There is a desire for consistency in flavor for each distillery, which defeats constructive change.  There is too much fear that it will become destructive.  At times, expressions like Ardbeg's Blasda may have been better off introduced by an Independent.

Status quo sales by the Official Distillers do not allow single malt to evolve as an industry. Yet, the risk experienced by distilleries like The Balvenie, Bowmore or Bruichladdich seems counterproductive for some retailers' shelves without well placed marketing muscle. As a result, and too often, the odd independent bottler makes a 'cask call' that proves brilliant and viable with support.

It's easy to detect DE, or distiller envy among Official Distillers.  Perhaps, there is a feeling of possible embarrassment at the selling off of the perceived Queen's silver. There seems to be a scapegoat mentality that looms. Yet, encouraging the Independents to shoulder some financial burden, while conserving the capital makes solid economic sense! It is a learning experience. This is what cask sales should foster, when encouraging the Independents to exist.

Not all Independent bottlers price below market.  And whose to know! Those from Adelphi, Murray McDavid, Douglas Laing, Duncan Taylor, Lombard, Signatory, Whisky Doris, and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society among a throng of others too often do justice to a distillery like no Diageo or Moet Hennessy has done before.  Yet, even Moet Hennessy has entered the IB Market with its takeover of SMWS.  I guess if you can't beat them, join them!  Yet, it seems that Diageo recognizes its priorities are the blends.

Those Independent bottlers with cask strength or vintage bottles create an aura all their own.  If a person is tempted to know, then they can find a segway to a more expensive official bottling.  In addition, there are limits when dealing with single cask selection, but these bottles can be used to gauge what a distillery is capable of doing and what the market has interest in.

For example, the Duncan Taylor Strathisla 35 year old, cask 7009, which was bottled in 1968 sold quite quickly.  Although the bottle was limited, an Independent bottler like Euan Shand, if encouraged, can keep tabs and a few bottles aside for the official distiller to consider as a future expression.

Although Port Ellen closed, we still see bottles that have kept its memory alive.  Yet, what Diageo, and its predecessors have done is to dominate. There is no doubt that with its dominance it is the master, but it has yet to reach its full potential to the benefit of the scotch industry as a whole. Yet, when a distillery is gone, the limited expressions left serve merely as ghosts lost in the machine, not found by those who once ran them. Therefore, allowing such a demise without trying to figure out market demand for flavor may be a mistake.

When such a decision seems inevitable, it is time to shed the distiller, not simply demolish or dismantle it! Yet, its understood that Port Ellen still serves a purpose for Diageo as a malting plant.  Certainly, Lagavulin is a Diageo Distillery to be reckoned with, but it had its fair share of Independent bottles, as well.

Perhaps, there is a reason why some limited Indy expressions sell out and others don't?  Maybe, some bottles are priced above the market based upon demand. Perhaps, a few IBs offerings are too obscure or similar enough to official expressions in both taste and price, so that few really notice except for a few die hard single malt drinkers.

This is the X Factor. The idea that distilleries will ignore what others don't to the benefit of the industry and the market.  I respect that some differ in opinion.  There is the belief that 'teaspooning' deters all. Some insist that keeping out the Indies somehow helps keep the single malt industry going.  As I said, if there are better marketers with different noses and tastebuds, then letting a few casks go does not hurt the bottom line; it can help profits.  However, I am writing to see if any have enough experience to coherently argue the distillers' position.  In a nutshell, the independent bottlers bring diversity to a spirits industry in need of perpetual change.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Chicago Whisky Fest 11 Sold Out! What are the Other Chicago Options?

For some this may be old news, but for the first time in years, if ever, that Whisky Fest has sold out in February. For those unable to get tickets, all is not lost. There will be other Malt Advocate Promoted events during Whisky Week Chicago in April including Binny's World of Whisky.  Also, the U.S. Annual Ardbeg Committee Meeting will be in Chicago on Saturday. Some of us delayed our purchases due to the price increase, while others capitulated to new ownership and quickly paid the increase.  Frankly, I was frustrated with the minimal VIP discount, but ended up with the vanilla envelope ticket. I know its a bargain.

Malt Advocate's  membership program appears in limbo after the new management takeover. In a world with at least two top names in whisky magazines and a third or fourth in their genesis, it is unclear how some stalwarts will react to change.  If Chicago is any indication, it will make no difference. However, a few notable players including Binny's will not be at Whisky Fest. This, according to Malt Advocate is due to Illinois Law

Apparently, Malt Advocate informs us that its lawyers fear that retailers cannot sample whisky at the off site events.  However, I am told that the Illinois forms allow for retailers to do so and the license is for the individuals working for the retailer. In addition, we understand that tasting sites may be registered, as well.  Perhaps, new management overlooks one of the most renown retailers in the U.S., let alone the U.S. due to Binny's Event which is on the day before Whisky Fest Chicago. Perhaps, there is confusion over Illinois law.  Maybe eliminating a big retailer from the floor is better for the smaller ones.

Excuse the digression. Whisky Fest is a popular event in Chicago, so expect more competitors, one of which is Whisky Live, which will be at the Scottish Festival and Highland Games on June 17 and 18 in Itasca. That is a bit of a drive from Chicago.  However, I'll be in California, so Binny's Event and Whisky Fest remains more of a priority. Also, watch for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Extravanganza in October.

Meanwhile, check Binny's Website and the Malt Advocate Website for more information in the weeks before April 15, 2011.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Tale of Two Mortlachs. One Way to Compare and Contrast.

These two bottles appear similar. However, how different are they? No one will know unless both are opened and tasted together. Perhaps, this may happen at some Mortlach Single Malt Scotch tasting event. If not, a collector may hold onto them for decades. Some families may hold onto the bottles for a century. Unlike wine, whisky rarely goes bad.

These two bottles are from two different casks distilled on the same exact day. However, one is aged a year longer than the other. The casks are numbered four from each other, so they likely contain malt distillate from the same still.  In aging longer, one cask lost 0.7% alcohol by volume or 1.4 proof.  However, at 60% ABV, this likely will not make much difference. 

The difference in time spent aging in the wood as well as the location where aged, and the fact that two different casks were used may impact the nose (meaning "bouquet" or "scent") and the flavor (referred to in three parts as the "palate," "body," and "finish").  The difference can be significant or very limited. For some, it can be difficult to sense the difference due to the higher alcohol content.

Often, collectors want the official as well as independent bottlings, like these two Gordon and McPhail single cask bottles, for a representative tasting. An official bottling or OB may be unavailable or difficult to find, since some distilleries casks tend to be used mostly in blends rather than sold alone. However, this is changing due to demand.

In addition, the dwindling supply from some distilleries, due to closure, can create shortages. As a result, a stock from Independent Bottlers may be almost all that is left, where a distillery is demolished, dismantled or demolished. If the distillery is/was owned by Deageo, among other conglomerates, then securing official bottlings of a non-producing distillery may prove futile to cost prohibitive without enough interest.

Just who do the malt trusts think will drink if prices exceed demand? That is the risk, but more often then not, reasonable prices may be found. At what point do single malt producers like Deageo best introduce the public to their official bottlings of closed distilleries? Well, that is easier said than done.  Sometimes, demand exceeds supply even at higher price points.

Certainly, there are many pundits.  There are some who think that they can do better at finding the best casks. Yet, there is a balanced interest to remain in business, while making a profit, yet not losing out on opportunity. The efforts of Whisky Fest, Whisky Live, the Whisky Extravanza, and other events create more demand. However, reaching the folks that actually drink may make a difference in whether the stock sells soon or sells short.
Those of us who do more than warehouse know that there is a time and a place for everything. We just take it one day at a time and drink responsibly. Who would want to miss that opportunity?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix and My Twist of Fate

Eventually, you may begin to appreciate a dram of Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix, but respect may take a few sips.  That is my experience, because there is something that works.  If I were to score it by nose, taste, body and finish, then its at 87 points based upon N21, T22, B23, F21.  I will explain in a moment, but first the history.

Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix was developed and released after several Glenfiddich Cask Warehouses had roofs destroyed from snow damage. Many casks within these warehouses had to be blended in order to avoid serious loss.  As a result, Snow Phoenix arose as the no age statement blend of a variety of these casks of varying ages.  Perhaps, someone knows whether any casks in the blend exceed fifteen years. I understood otherwise. It is now being sold in the U.S.

A number of Glenfiddich Dinners at The Palm Restaurant featured Snow Phoenix.  This expression was a temptation due to respect for Glenfiddich and its unfortunate loss.  I liked the way it turned a mess into a money maker. The price was worth taking a risk.

After U.S. Distribution delays, the introduction, and a few questionable comments from some single malt bloggers, among other internet acquaintances, I 'too quickly' labeled it 'snow penis.' This was prompted upon the what seemed like marketing overdrive and a desire to challenge it. The first sip was not it.  It did not help to view comments by other experienced imbibers. In the end, the dram was well above average. Although the snow god may have screwed with Glenfiddich, these whisky lords rose up and threw back a bunsen that does not burn given the market and limitations!

I like the primarily sherry nose, get almonds, enjoyed the body, but the finish, well. The mouth feel for me became better as I sipped a bit. It is unique and takes over in a friendly, yet pronounced Glenfiddich way. I don't think that scoring on one sip will work for me.  After two to three, I get it.

My recommendation? Well, if you get the chance, have more than a few sips, perhaps three, before you throw this bottle back into the snowy cabinet of oblivion.  Glenfiddich fans should buy this expression. And if you find this bottle not to your tasting, I won't fault you, but the body on this Snow driven expression is worth the experience, IMHO.  I have had about four to five drams this week. I will move on to others, but there is something that I have yet to identify and savor a bit for this price point. What have others found?

It is worth the $89.99 that I paid for it.  For me, it's a fun bottle to double up on and pull out in ten years.  It is dynamic and complex for a Glenfiddich. It has some parallels to Glenmorangie Astar in that it is the no age statement Glenfiddich of 2010-2011.  I think that I'd prefer the Glenfiddich 21 rum finish, but that now averages $130 a bottle. There are other unique Glenfiddich expressions that I have been fortunate enough to sip. However, none recently due to controls put in place by the distillery. Now, if I had just taken notes.  However, those bottles are likely in the history books. 

I have yet to see any Indie Glenfiddich Casks being sampled at the Hansell's, Binny's, or Shayne's Events. Perhaps, I have to look harder. They may be older. I hope to taste more than the garden variety Glenfiddich expressions.  However, I consider the Snow Phoenix to be an historic oddity worth the experience.  Some with more Glenfiddich experience may rank it higher.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Is Bland Better? Does the Diet Matter Before Dramming?

One thing that I have learned is not to try to sell a friend on single malt after an Indian or Mexican meal!  My first glass of Chivas Regal was ruined by a spicy meal.  It took me a decade, perhaps longer, to believe that any form of scotch could actually taste good. 

As a result, I became a tea drinker. Pettigrew, not Jackson or Murray was my guidebook.  I still enjoy loose tea and favor Keemun with Souchong, in the morning, but it depends upon my mood.

If there is one thing that I noticed for me is that a bland diet is best before tasting single malt. I have heard a blender, or another professional, comment on one of Mark Gillespie's Whiskycasts that he has the same challenge, so he avoids spicy food.  In addition, Official Macallan tastings often start with bowls of walnuts? Is this an attempt to revive the tastebuds?

If I have that samosa or salsa, then single malt may turn into a spicy oblivion of near useless heat. At that point, I'm no longer tasting, I'm wasting.  When I fear the worst, I usually test my tastebuds and if they aren't working, I not drinking single malt.  Maybe beer or wine, but not scotch.

How bland will my diet need to land? I'm unsure.  Salt seems less destructive. How long must you stay away from that burrito or hot and sour soup? What seems to mess up your tastebuds?  If you're striken, then how long do you take a licking?  Do you notice a difference?

For me, it seems like I have to wait the better part of a day, arguable longer, before I can savor the flavor, again.  So do you remain bland and enchanted? Or are you able to find single malt contentment as you haul down the jalapenos?