Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Whisky of the Year!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I am the worst procrastinator of all time.  Christmas is one day away and do you think I have my gift shopping done?  No!  I am the worst.  No doubt about it.

My procrastination extends to this blog too.  I was at a whisky festival in late November and walked out of there bedazzled and gobsmacked by an incredible run of single and blended malts.  I thought, I must write on that cold wintery night and let you know that there are still some stars twinkling in that inky, foreboding night whisky sky.  Did I get that post out?  Hell no!  The black hole of procrastination bent back any ray of ambition I had..  Well, until now.  I'm gonna tell ya all about it now brother!  I have broken free of the gravitational, soul-sucking force of the collapsed dead star of my procrastination.

So, I was at this whisky festival and most of the tastings were OK, but no surprises, and well there were a lot of no age statement releases that left me wanting, left me with considerable Charlie Brownesque discontent.  However, the last tasting of the night put a smile on my face like the rare one on Chuck pictured above.

I and the whisky dogs (that's how we pretentiously refer to our whisky club members) went to the usual tastings put on by Ardbeg, Macallan, Highland Park and others.  But, like I said, the magic just wasn't there.  Fortunately, I had suggested we check out Hart Brothers.  Alistair Hart would be leading a tasting of Hart Brothers latest releases.

Hart Brothers are independent bottlers.  As you know, independent bottlers do not own a distillery and therefore do not actually make whisky.  But, they inhabit a special place in the whisky cosmos where they have the uncanny skill to see merit and potential in unwanted whiskies of an established or even a mothballed single malt distillery.  So, Hart Brothers, Gordon & MacPhail, Berry Bros, and others are constantly buying up the unwanted stocks of distilleries both famous and unknown.  They do their own blending and wood management/aging, warehousing, etc and the end result can be pretty amazing at times.  Needless to say, I was pumped to attend the Hart Bros tasting.

The first whisky up was the Mortlach Distillery 14 year old single malt.


Pale straw.

Nose (undiluted)
Lightly peated, rich  yet restrained sherry notes, damp earth, a delightful mustiness too.

Palate (undiluted)
Concentrated citrus, apple juice, hay, honey, spiced marmalade.

Finish (undiluted)
Malty, sherried, raspberries appear, drying, pomegranate.

General Impressions
Wow!  This is good!  This is the reason why I like whisky and deep down believe Scotch to offer what no other varieties of whisky can: magical complexity.  Specifically, there are mineral notes delicately weaved with honey, that delivers a fine mosaic of flavors.  This is complexity, this is what great whisky is all about.  But, this is not the whisky of the year. The others were good, but then I had my moment of oneness with the universe . . .

Hart Brothers Blended Malt 17 year old Port Finish
When I tasted the 17 year old blended malt with a port finish, I was stopped dead in my tracks.  Atheists!  Take note!  Drink this and you may abandon your previous notions of a lack of divinity.  This spirit has been touched by the hand of G-d.

I don't have a tasting note, but I can tell you this, it was incredibly complex, the port finish delivered what sherry never can, dark, rich fruits of plum, blackberry, logan berry and the best Christmas cake with COMPLEXITY.  The tapestry of flavors woven so well, it left me at a loss for words (a truly rare phenomenon).  Aging in port pipes is tricky and fickle business, but Alistair Hart and his team succeeded where many have failed.

While I don't have a tasting note written down, I and everyone in the room held their breath when they drank this blended malt.  It was the best of the night and the festival.  I was so in awe, I wanted my picture taken with Alistair.  I mean, I wanted to stand next to the guy who had a hand in creating this masterpiece.

The ABV of the Port Finish Blended Malt is 50%, but of course I was enjoying it neat because it was that damn good!

I tried to get Alistair to tell me what were some of the single malts making up this blended malt.  With some prodding, he mentioned Glenfarclas.  He also said that this and other malts were aged in first fill port pipes.  No chill filtering and color added.  This is the real deal.

I rarely get super excited about a whisky, but this is one, that I can say in the past year was the best.

You've got one day till Christmas, a few more till New Years, so do the right thing and pick up a bottle as a gift for that special person in your life!

Cheers!  Happy Holidays!  Merry Christmas and I hope Santa finds you!

Jason Debly

Saturday, December 13, 2014

What does Pierre Cardin and Macallan share in common?

That's me on the right in my Pierre Cardin, 100% white polyester, ready-to-wear, leisure suit, circa 1972.  Next to me is my brother, who looks like he has a future with one of New York's Five Families, and on the far left is my smartly dressed cousin May in forest green bell-bottoms.  Looking down is my mother with the Mobutu Sese Seko style leopard fur trimmed green coat.  These early 70's fashions got me thinking about brands, and that got me thinking about whisky.  Before you stop reading and move on to a sensible whisky blog, please hear me out.

Remember the Pierre Cardin brand?  There was a time when it was the leading brand in the fashion world.  He was the first designer to go from designing strictly for rich people, and selling through very exclusive boutiques to introducing a ready to wear/off the rack collection that would be available everywhere, even my local Kmart!  The brand was hot, the styles were cool, but over time, he started licensing his name to everything including car interiors!  Check out this Cardin interior of a 1972 AMC Javelin:

What do you think that did to the "Pierre Cardin" brand?  Suddenly licensing the Cardin name for everything under the sun, ranging from "industrial design" of cars and airplanes to apartment interiors and furniture took away the cachet and the value of that brand.  Similarly, I notice the same phenomenon happening to single malt Scotch whisky brands.

At a recent whisky festival, I attended numerous tastings by major single malt brands.  The whiskies were unexceptional.  They tasted fine with no obvious flaws, but were not exciting.  The lack of amazing and downright magical flavors I attribute, in large part, to the decision by major brands to move to no-age-statement (NAS) releases.  I think there has been a loss of quality.  Examples?  Macallan.

In the past, Macallan was a single malt brand with an exalted status.  It was expensive, but worth it.  The 12 year old was a classic sherried single malt that was a benchmark against which all other sherried single malts would inevitably be measured.  The 18 year old sherry oak was an Everest peak on the single malt landscape that was responsible for grown men having first time conversations with their souls that they never knew were possible.  The 25 was fantastic, but too costly for us lesser mortals, who only enjoyed it at festivals or when a Macallan rep would pour some if we were a really good audience.

More recently, Edrington (owners of the Macallan brand) have announced that they are slowly discontinuing the core range of 10, 12, and 15 year age statement editions while at the same time launching 1824 Series NAS releases: Gold, Amber, Sienna and Ruby.  I have tasted these precious metal and semi-precious stone libations and I have been left cold (except for the Sienna, but the price is outrageous).  What gives?  They had something good with the 12 year old, like my Pierre Cardin leisure suit, but moving to NAS bottlings is like Pierre branching out to the Javelin.  These whiskies are leaving me disappointed (except for the Sienna, but it is too damn much!).

Macallan is not the only brand going Cardin on us.  Diageo got rid of the 18 year old Johnnie Walker Gold label and moved to inferior NAS Gold and Platinum Labels.


Let's return to Macallan.  My personal theory is that the demand for Macallan has outstripped supply.  Based on limited stocks of aged whiskies in their warehouses, the age statement releases are naturally finite in annual supply.  But, if Edrington drops the requirement of an age statement, younger whiskies can be used, thereby boosting supply to meet that insatiable market demand for Macallan.  By boosting supply, I bet Edrington boosts profits too.

Profit is not a dirty word in my vocabulary.  I am all for capitalism, while flawed, it is still the best way to organize our economy.  But, I believe this pursuit of profit is impacting the quality of whiskies being produced by Edrington and other multinational drinks companies.  The deleterious affect on quality is not one that I would term dreadful or terrible, but rather a slight lowering of the bar.  The prices are still high, but the malts are not tasting as good.  Initially, sales will be strong and maybe profits, but over the long run this move to NAS allows a decrease in quality of whisky to creep in.  Please note, I am not saying that NAS automatically means mediocre whisky.  I am saying that by lifting the age requirement, the temptation to add in whiskies that are too young and much less expensive can result in a dram that once was great to one that now is about as much fun as watching golf on TV.

What Macallan should do is stick to its core business: producing great single malts.  I always think of Oban when this topic comes up.  Oban is limited in annual supply because its water comes from the local town.  It gets an allottment and when it is used up, that is the end of production.  Prices tend to stay firm and demand high.  Diageo are not launching NAS Oban and I pray they never do.  There is no need.  A great product with a loyal following means steady profits.  Maybe profits would spike for a year or two if they went the NAS route but in the long run, Diageo would damage this wonderful brand.

Ultimately, I am unconcerned because the market will correct the problem of Macallan and other brands that venture too far with NAS releases.  Just as a lot of consumers turned away from Cardin, so will a great many whisky consumers move away from high priced NAS releases in favor of other distilleries and independent bottlers that are producing higher quality products.  And, there are great NAS whiskies, but lately I am noticing they are coming from the smaller producer and independent bottlers.  In my next post, I will tell you about a great NAS release as well as an age statement single malts that I discovered being brought to market by an independent bottler that has the magic we are all seeking in our whiskies.


Jason Debly

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Little Humor!

I was at the pub last night with some friends.  The bartender took one look at us and pointed to this sign:


Jason Debly