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.


  1. I can promise your friend that not everyone loves architects. There are engineers all over the world that greatly dislike architects!

    Also, I'd love to see a review of Caol Ila 12 and get your take on how it compares to Laga 16 and the other Islay's. (It's my favorite dram!)

  2. Hello Dulahey, I will try to obtain a bottle of Caol Ila. Where I live it is not available but will see if a friend in other parts travelling can pick up one.

    Yeah, a female engineer may not swoon in a bar with the line of being an architect.

  3. Jason, The actual malt released as Lagavulin 16 haven't charmed me for many years. It's just overpriced and my least favorite among well peated malts choices. It is just not interesting enough for my table, let alone at its price. Give me Caol Ila 12, Talisker 10, Ardbeg Ten and Uigeadail, The Laddie, Laphroaig 10, Kilchoman Machir Bay, Springbank 10 or anything Longrow, even at Lagavulin prices. I respect the opinions of other tasters and happily leave the King of Ispay to those so inclined to support it.

    1. I guess, it depends on individual taste, JK. Caol Ila, Ardbeg, and Laphroaig have very different peat profile compared to Lagavulin 12, 16, or distillers edition. Longrow is closer, but standard CV, 14, or 18 yo have much more medicinal and iodine profile. Again, Talisker 10, 175, and 18 as well as standard Springbank 10, 12, 15, and 18 have much less polyphenols (peat) compared to Lagavulin. I personally prefer Lagavulin/Longrow peat profile over the other Islay malts, but again this depends on an individual taste. As for sweetness, if someone would like try "back to the 80th" Lagavulin, try Lagavulin 12 yo cask strength, especially 2003 - 2005 bottling years (2011 and 2012 are less dry)! Cheers, V

  4. Jason, I know you have mentioned being in Boston before but there are a few places you should go if you visit again. The first is Citizen Public House, it's a gastropub with an amazing whiskey list. The second is the Last Hurrah, a bar -- more of a lounge -- that has an amazing whiskey list. I think you'd enjoy both of these places.

    Also, there are some of us who actually like the inverted ziggurat that is Boston City Hall. We just think it doesn't match the surrounding architecture.

    1. I will check out the Last Hurrah bar and Citizen Public House if I get to Boston again.