Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Unlocking the Secrets of Ardbeg 10 years

Unlock the Mystery
At 46% alc/vol, Ardbeg 10 is a big dog Islay scotch whisky.  I mean real big!  The smoke, sooty peat, sea salt and dulse rains down upon the palate like a tornado funnel cloud touching down in a Kansas wheat field.

For me, Ardbeg presents a mystery.  This malt is praised by critics, readers and friends, yet for the longest time I would draw a blank.

When I first encountered this malt, I could not understand what all the fuss was.  I mean I could appreciate it was a unique punch to the gut of peat, smoke and cracked black peppercorns, but little else.  I was missing something that all the critics and friends were raving about.  What was it?  Was I a little slow?  There was a renewed sting of those old school yard taunts of "sling blade."

So, in an effort to unlock the secrets of Ardbeg, I would take sip after sip and before I knew it, I had a foreboding feeling that either I would figure out the allure of the malt or be doomed to find myself lying face up in a grassy public park, inexplicably muddied, with my pants missing and rain pelting my face in the middle of the night . . . or worse on all fours barking at the moon, as the police approach with flash-lights drawn . . . and barking Dobermans.

Ok, maybe I am exaggerating.  Usually if I have a little too much, I simply fall asleep in the lazy-boy.  Ahem, anyway there is a mystery to be solved.

46% alc/vol

Recently, my newly formed whisky club met and Ardbeg 10 was on the table.  I sampled it and again was missing the boat.  At the end of the evening, I scooped the bottle off the table, into my overcoat, hopped into a cab and scooted home.

In subsequent weeks, I sampled and sampled and basically came to the conclusion that at 46% alc/vol it is too untame and wild. The flavors were too much for my palate to appreciate.  And then it dawned on me: add water.

Nose (diluted)
Phenol, mint, smoking damp wood bonfire, wet leaves.

Palate (diluted)
More subdued.  Smoother, softer, silken but still with plenty of smoke, tar and black peppercorns in the centre.  Smokey bacon too.

Finish (diluted)
This is where the excitement starts.  The malt started as sweet peat upon the palate, transitions in great form to a sea spray dry evaporation of flavors like:  white capped waves of salt, lingering green seaweed, tarred fishing boat ropes.  White cheddar and more ashy, soot and smoke leave you reaching for more.

General Impressions
The mystery of why this malt appeals to so many has been revealed to me.  Add a little water (ie. 1/4 to 1 teaspoon) to a single or double pour, and you will taste much more complexity of flavor and sweet smoke that was not available 'neat.'  For me, water makes all the difference.

I love Lagavulin and I think my addition of water to Ardbeg is my own way of bringing it closer to my favorite of Islay.

In general, I find any malt at 46% abv can generally benefit from a little water.   At such a high abv, you run the risk of numbing your palate, which prevents you from tasting all a whisky has to offer.

In conclusion, if the appeal of Ardbeg has been a bit of a mystery to you, try a little water.  Maybe you will be let in on the secret too!


Jason Debly

Photo credits: (1) Photograph of key in hole by Flickr member: Millerman737, who holds all world copyright.  No reproduction permitted without his express permission; (2) Photograph of close up of Ardbeg emblem by Flickr member: Thomas Alexander who holds all worldwide copyright.  No reproduction is permitted without his express consent; (3) Photograph of Ardbeg bottle on its side taken by Fallen Shutter Photography and may be reproduced if you comply with the creative commons license; (4) Close-up photograph of Ardbeg cork taken by Sonicwalker and is reproduced here pursuant to a creative commons license.  All other content subject to copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission. Note: All images appearing in this article are for the purposes of nostalgia, education and entertainment. Moreover, all images used are considered by the author to be significant in illustrating the subject matter, facilitating artistic/critical commentary, as it provides an immediate relevance to the reader more capably than the textual description.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Reflecting on Architects, Malt Masters and the Rules of Modern Courtship!

A colleague of mine, in the dating game, declares that upon meeting a lady of some promise, in one of his haunts (usually a bar or multi-faceted glass disco ball spinning nightclub), at some point in the conversation, invariably tells what he considers to be a little white lie.

"Don't worry J-Man!  I don't give them your name," guffaws Marc-Andre.

Somehow I am not appreciating the humour.  I also wince at his use of "J-Man" and what he is going to say next.  And then, of course, he continues . . .

"Dude, eventually they ask what I do for a living."

"Yes.  That would be logical."

"You know what I tell them?"

"No."  I felt like adding that if I knew, we would not be having this conversation, but decided to let it go.

"Architect!" he enthusiastically declares.  I stare at my drink.

"But, you're a lawyer," I mutter, trying to inject some reality into the conversation.

"Yeah, yeah, I know."  Marc-Andre pauses for dramatic effect, takes a sip of his Guinness and then continues.  "Jason.  Everyone likes architects.  Think about it.  They design skyscrapers, houses, lake-front cottages.  Everything.  I mean they do it all.  They are creative.  Think of Donald Trump."

"He's not an architect."

"True, but I mean he hires architects.  People like them."

"You mean Frank Gehry or Frank Lloyd Wright."


"Nevermind.  So, what was your point?"

"Architects!  Women love them.  Everyone loves them.  No one has a bad architect story.  But, everyone has a lawyer story affecting their family or someone they knew who had all their money or inheritance taken or something like that.  The girls get all dreamy eyed when I tell them I am working on a new hospital for sick children."

. . .

Like an annoying one-hit wonder (I am thinking Convoy by C.W. McCall) you hear on the radio while driving into work, I just couldn't get Marc-Andre's peculiar insights into the allure of being an architect out of my head.  "Architect!" I would hear him enthuse over and over.  So, I started to think about architects.  Creative?  I suppose.  Making beautiful buildings?  Sure.  I guess, but then I recalled a business trip to Boston a while back.

Me, the hapless suit, after an all day meeting, was in search of a decent restaurant in Boston.  It was a brutally cold November evening, and Boston may not be the ideal city to wander around in at night.  So, I asked a passer-by,  an elderly lady, for directions to Quincy Market.

"Keep walking up this street," she indicated with a bony index finger.  "Turn left at City Hall.  It's just below that."

"But, I don't know what City Hall looks like," I protested.

The little old lady smiled, gently tapped my arm and resumed her walk in the opposite direction.

I had no choice but to trudge on and follow her suggested route, and then I saw it . . . .

Hideous, gargantuan, grotesque concrete monstrosity that some architect surely regretted, as soon as it was constructed.  God knows the taxpayers did (click here).  I knew by the institutional style, a gulag for office workers, that it must be Boston's main municipal office headquarters.  I was not mistaken.

. . .

Master blenders and malt masters are architects of a different kind.  To my mind, these guys & gals are "architects of flavor."  They have a distinct advantage over their brick and mortar colleagues.  If a master blender or malt master erects a Boston City Hall monstrosity of a blended scotch or single malt, they can undo the damage in subsequent years by adjusting the recipe: whiskies chosen, tinkering with wood management (ex-bourbon, ex-sherry casks, European oak, American, etc), playing with ageing,  level of peat and many other variables.  Several distilleries have recovered from bad malts in this manner.  Others have taken something great and run it down a bit.  Take Lagavulin 16 years as an example.

Lagavulin 16 years
Some people will tell you that Lagavulin was in its hey-day in the early 1990's or even the 80's where a robust smokey, peat/medicinal attack upon the palate was delivered with utter elegance.

Today, they whine Lagavulin is less robust, softer and sweeter.  Gone mainstream.  Sold out to the masses.  I have noticed in the last six or seven years some variation in taste.  It seems to be getting slightly softer and less peated.  Sweeter too.

What happened?

Nobody can say for sure unless they worked at the distillery and if they talk I would imagine that would breach employee/employer confidentiality, and result in being litigated into the stone age.  However, we can still engage in some speculation.

Peating Levels
Thinking about Lagavulin back in the day and comparing it to today, I would say for starters somebody has tinkered with the peat levels.  Not as smoky.  Maybe the peat parts per million (ppm) have been purposely brought down.

On a Whisky Magazine forum (click here) a knowledgeable member (published whisky author) makes the claim that in the late 70's and into the 80's the peat ppm was 50, but by the 90's peating levels were reduced to a gentler 35 ppm.  I happen to believe this claim about peating levels.  If it once tasted of bigger peat and smoke and now less so, it would be logical to assume peating levels have come down.  The Laga of today is less peated, more in the vicinity of Bowmore than Ardbeg or Laphroaig.

Wood Management
Obviously if the malt master makes changes to the type of wood cask (ie. American oak vs. European) there will be a difference in flavor.  The same whisky author on the Whisky Magazine forum also claimed that a transition took place from ex-sherry cask usage to ex-bourbon.  This would explain the malt becoming sweeter on the palate.

Distillery Hours of Operation
The Malt Madness website claims that during much of the 1980's the distillery only operated two days a week.  However, by the 90's it was operating many more days per week.  Is there a correlation between expanded operating hours of the distillery and flavor?  Not sure but I do know that the pot stills can become over-heated when in constant operation and that presents a problem of foaming.

As you probably know, all whisky starts as beer at one point before being distilled into whisky.  Distillers do not want that frothy beer head to get into the lyne arms of the stills.  If that happens the whisky is ruined.  In order to address this problem distilleries use "anti-foaming agents."  And guess what that is?  Basically soap or detergent.  Click here for a more involved discussion on the Whisky Magazine forum that I initiated a while ago.  One commenter wrote:

"Most distilleries use defoaming agents. Some may not - i'm not sure - but many have defoaming arms that rotate above the washbacks. At Springbank they suspend a bucket that tilts when the foam rises and lifts it, which applies the defoamer. I'm not certain of what agents are used and by whom, but many use non-perfumed soap flakes. Occasionally these distilleries produce soapy notes in the whisky (Edradour for example), and many feel the soap flakes are responsible. However, soap flakes are widely used by distilleries with no such issues, suggesting that the defoamers have no influence beyond distillation. As i recall defoamers are used in bourbon production also (i may be corrected)."

So soap in my whisky?  Ouch!  That might explain the soapy taste I detect in some malts, albeit rarely.

I have never detected the taste of soap in Lagavulin.  But I wonder if the expanded hours of operation has affected the flavor profile.  I am not sure anti-foaming agents are used at the Laga distillery.  But, I give the example of anti-foaming agents to show that expanded hours may result in other measures taken that can possibly have an affect on flavor.  Some people think the use of such agents has no adverse influence on flavor.

Malt Master Leaves
Change the malt master in charge of final decisions with respect to casks, ageing, peat levels, water supply and G-d knows what else and you are going to impact flavor.  People come.  People go.  Every malt master will have his/her own style and tastes that will affect casks selected, proportion of blending, etc.  

. . . .

Change can be good!
Most of the whisky critics praise the Lagavulin bottlings of the 1990's and look back longingly for them.  Those super peaty beasts have won their hearts.  But you know what?  UDV/Diageo made a decision to change the flavor profile.  Why?

They were probably convinced that the average consumer preferred a less peated, less smoky/medicinal flavor profile.  And guess what?  They were right.  Demand for Lagavulin is in the stratosphere.  The distillery probably runs 24/7, certainly more than the mere 2 days it once did.  And guess what further?  I prefer the Lagavulin of today over the one of the 1990's.  I am in that crowd of preferring the softer profile.

So, what can we take away from this?  Basically that malt whisky is in the hands of the architect of flavor, and his/her decisions have as much impact upon you as the architect that designed the cold war/Stalinesque, concrete open wound upon the city of Boston.  The upside for the malt master is that if he screws up, he can fix it in a couple of years, by making strategic changes.  As for the brick & mortar architect, unfortunately Bostonians can attest to the visual/psychological pain of one architect's mistakes that cannot be undone so easily.


Jason Debly

P.S.  Marc-Andre is still a bachelor . . .

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved except for certain photographs taken by people other than the author.  Photo credits: (1) street level view looking to sky of Trump Tower taken by Jason Debly; (2) This is the cover art for the single Convoy by the artist C. W. McCall. The cover art copyright is believed to belong to the label, American Gramaphone, or the graphic artist(s);  (3) Photograph of Boston City Hall taken by architectural photographer, Hagen Stier.  Please visit his website as well as his Flickr profile in order to explore more of his great work.  All world wide copyright of this photo vests with Mr. Stier, and no reproduction is permitted without his permission;  (4) Fantastic photograph of a bottle of Lagavulin taken by Flickr member Greune Stee.  All copyright and world intellectual property rights vest with this Flickr member and his permission is required for any reproduction;  (5)  Photograph of the Lagavulin distillery was taken by Flickr member take-m.  All worldwide copyright vests with take-m and no reproduction is permitted without his express permission.  As for the rest of the above blog post, any and all use is prohibited without permission. Note: All images appearing in this article are for the purposes of nostalgia, education and entertainment. Moreover, all images used are considered by the author to be significant in illustrating the subject matter, facilitating artistic/critical commentary, as it provides an immediate relevance to the reader more capably than the textual description.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Multinational Corporate Giant Diageo tangles with Anarchist/Punk Rock inspired BrewDog and gets Bitten!

The other day I was trying to figure out what Diageo (the world's largest multinational alcohol beverage company) was doing to their Johnnie Walker product line up.  You know they have discontinued my much loved Green Label, but they have also been tinkering with Gold Label.

Johnnie Walker Gold Label used to have an 18 year age statement.  Not so anymore.  The age statement has disappeared, and now it is Gold Label with the addition of the word "Reserve," but remains a blended scotch.  They have also recently introduced "Platinum Label."  It is the new 18 year old age statement blended scotch in the stable and priced in between Gold and Blue Label.

While web surfing on these weighty matters, I stumbled upon some unrelated and not so flattering stories about Diageo. 

Back in May of this year, The British Institute of Innkeeping held their annual awards dinner.  Weeks in advance of the awards ceremony, a small Scottish beer company, BrewDog, had been selected by committee as "Bar Operator of the Year."  Now, before I go any further in this tale, I gotta fill you in a bit about BrewDog because it has some relevance to a turn of events later in this tale. . . well, at least in my mind.

BrewDog operate a number of brew pubs in the UK.  In addition, they also produce about 120,000 bottles of beer a month for UK and limited international export.  Now, here is where it gets fun.  If you visit their website (click here) you are greeted by some hilarious, pushing-the-envelope, serious bad-ass, wannabe beer bravado:

"BrewDog is a post Punk apocalyptic mother fu*ker of a craft brewery.

Say goodbye to the corporate beer whores crazy for power and world domination.  Swear allegiance to the uncompromising revolution."

These guys got some serious attitude.  Especially when you consider past and present titles of their various beer bottlings: Punk IPA; 5 AM Saint; Sink the Bismarck and my favorite . . . Trashy Blonde.

They also pulled a publicity stunt by releasing "The End of History" ale in beer bottles made from dead squirrels (formerly roadkill - I'm serious).  Actually, they just put out a mere twelve bottles. Heh heh!  I suppose, animal loving, Brigitte Bardot will not be a corporate spokesperson for them any time soon.  I also guess when you don't have a big advertising budget you try by other means.

So, now getting back to our story.  BrewDog attend the awards evening, a gala dinner, and await the trophy.  At the dinner, Diageo people learn, for the first time, of BrewDog's imminent award, and one of them (a senior executive) threatens the event organizer that "under no circumstances" was BrewDog to receive the trophy.  If they do, Diageo will pull all future sponsorhip of the event.

So, you might be thinking at this point why would Diageo executives care about such an award?  You would be forgetting that Diageo owns a very respectable/world class stable of beers like: Guinness, Red Stripe, Harp, Kilkenny, and Smithwick's Ale.  (They also own a piece of a bar that would qualify them for the award.)

I also happen to think that BrewDog take great pleasure in launching subtle jabs (recall "corporate beer whores . . .") at the likes of Diageo.  So, I would imagine the last thing Diageo wants to see is an event it sponsors make an award to a competitor that does nothing but antagonize them and take the beer industry in directions it views with consternation (see The End of History ales above).  My point is:  there's a history between these two competitiors.

Any how, so what happened?

The announcer read out the award category and declared the winner was Diageo.  A Diageo executive hopped up on to the stage and accepted the trophy, complete with engraved plaque which read: "BrewDog: Bar Operator of the Year."  Meanwhile, BrewDog people and members of the awards committee stared in disbelief.

BrewDog did not take this turn of events laying down.  They went public with the matter on their blog and provided a quote from the chairman of the award committee:

"Diageo (the main sponsor) approached us at the start of the meal and said under no circumstances could the award be given to BrewDog.  They said if this happened they would pull their sponsorship from all future BII events and their representatives would not present any of the awards on the evening.

We were gobsmacked as you by Diageo's behaviour.  We made the wrong decision under extreme pressure.  We should have stuck to our guns and gave the award to BrewDog."

Shortly thereafter Diageo apologized.

Senior Diageo executive, Andrew Cowan, in damage control mode.

. . .

So, you may be wondering why am I writing about a screwed up awards ceremony?  First of all, I was shocked to read the stories.  I mean we are in 2012!!!  Isn't this the kind of dirty tricks, pseudo corporate Watergate type nonsense that doesn't happen anymore?  Evidently not.  Secondly, it reinforces my opinion that whisky award events are hardly independent/transparent evaluations of spirits, but rather just another opportunity for Diageo and other big spirits companies to promote their brands.

There is nothing wrong with marketing.  Just don't lie to the consumer by claiming this bottle or that 'won' a 'gold' medal!  Whisky 'competitions' should be replaced by whisky 'festivals' where companies present their wares and we, the people, celebrate them.  Whisky critics, master blenders and learned brand ambassadors can chime in too.  Some of those people we respect enough that we want to hear their thoughts.  Festivals of this sort ultimately help the consumer, taste and decide for themselves!  And . . . and the drinks companies benefit too by maintaining and hopefully expanding market share!

Accordingly, I have not wavered from what I wrote two years ago about the International Wine and Spirits Competition.  Another corporate marketing opportunity at best.  I always disregard such awards and medals trumpeted by the companies that own various scotch whiskies because I know they are nonsense.  Explore the IWSC site and see for yourself how many scotch whiskies won "gold."


Jason Debly

P.S.:  I really like BrewDog's marketing approach.  It is unorthodox, points a stick in the eyes of industry players, all the while having  a lot of fun doing what they do.  More power to them.

Diageo on the other hand really need to clean up their act.  In an unrelated matter they settled bribery charges in 2011.  Click here to read the Wall Street Journal article about yet another tale of woe.  

By the way, it should be noted that Andrew Cowan (pictured above) of Diageo was not the senior executive who threatened the BII organizer.  Mr. Cowan is the executive tasked with cleaning up this public relations mess.  An unenviable position to be in for sure, but he will probably succeed if he looks to other good corporate citizens such as LLBean.  While LLBean is not nearly as large as Diageo, it is a billion dollar company (privately held) with an impeccable reputation.  They worked hard to achieve such a reputation and more importantly maintain it.  They sponsor events in their field of commerce, but never have this kind of scandal.  Mr. Cowan will no doubt examine how his company got into this mess and plot a strategic plan to prevent it from happening again.  Of that I am fairly certain.  Call it a gut instinct.