A blend of whisky news and commentary from around the web. In this edition: Those Yeasty Beasties, Japan moving in the business space, whisky in the movies, ambience (admit it, you love saying it), Whisky Web 3.0, and Holy Grain Spirits, Batman! Editor's note: all Nosing the Net links will now open in new tabs, allowing you to continue to browse this page without annoyance. Enjoy!
Feature: Those Yeasty Beasties
Popular Science has an amazing article about those marvelous organisms that make this entire whisky affair possible:
You might say that a master brewer is to yeast what a dog breeder is to a champion purebred. Both disciplines harness the power of artificial selection, also known as selective breeding. As Harvard microbiologist and avid homebrewer Sarah Douglass explains, “when you add yeast to sugar, you’re putting them into into their ideal environment for rapid evolution via rapid growth. You might see several generations of yeast live, reproduce, and die in a single fermentation.”
Whisky companies (I'm most familiar with the work of Seagrams) pour millions of dollars a year into research behind proprietary yeast strains and their effect on fermentation and flavor. Four Roses' four-letter recipe codes (there are 10 proprietary recipes at the distillery; ex. OBSV would be one recipe) all end with a letter that designates the yeast's contribution to the mash (either V, K, O, Q, or F). When the recipes are tasted separately, they reveal distinct differences in each bourbon's style and body. Beer brewers have known for years that yeast was the "brewer's best friend"; it seems that master distillers may soon be coming to the same conclusion.
Suntory (great Japanese whisky makers) created quite a stir early this year when they announced their acquisition of Jim Beam (American bourbon icon). Predictably, the move brought about a rash of ignorant comments from interweb warriors. The spectacle was unfortunate, since the merger is really a win-win for both sides. Japan gets access to great American bourbon (which continues to represent a single digit percentage of all whisky consumed in Japan), and our bourbon gets access to new markets and new converts. It will only make the Jim Beam brand stronger, and it's unlikely Jim Beam's daily operation will change much, if at all.
There's a good (if short) track record of Japanese management of American brands. In 2002 Kirin purchased Four Roses bourbon as part of a realignment of Seagrams' portfolio, and it turned the brand from a bottom shelf also-ran into an elite player at the top of its industry. Four Roses' single barrel bottlings are now consistently my most recommended bourbon purchases, right alongside products from Heaven Hill. What's more, it's not like a move to Jack Daniels is going to make you feel any better. They're owned by beverage giant Diageo, a British company. This is just how international distribution in the whisky boom works now, friends. If you really like small and local, find thee a craft distillery! There's plenty to choose from nowadays.
I'm coming around to Canadian grain whisky. It really has been getting an unfair rap for the last few decades. Still, they can only blame themselves. You can't rest on your laurels during a disruptive whisky boom.
There are lots of online whisky auctions popping up in recent months. You'd better be REAL sure you're not getting duped.
Also, regarding rye: been sayin'.
[And now you will know why I write about whisky instead of blogging for Rotten Tomatoes.]
I have a lot of good things to say about The Angel's Share, a heart-felt and well-paced Scottish drama about whisky, mild shenanigans, redemption, and persevering through adversity. My wife and I rented it through iTunes, but I understand it's now available on Netflix and a host of other digital distribution sources. It's not a whisky documentary, it's a drama with plenty of unemployed millennial street-kid angst and cussing (hey, they're Scots, deal with it). The subtitles are actually totally necessary, unless you're a native. Check it out sometime (but earmuffs for the kids). I started drooling when they brought out the 35 yo Springbank.
If you've read my recent review of Nikka's 15 yo Japanese single malt, then you may be interested in this documentary about Nikka founder (and Japanese whisky industry co-founder) Masataka Taketsuru's wife: "the Scot behind Japanese whisky." There's a rich and wonderful history here, told alongside a beautiful romance.
Finally: it's tough to beat out Bruichladdich when it comes to pairing whisky zeitgeist with cinematography. This is just gorgeous...
We now know that ambience affects whisky flavor, because science. Say that word with me again... ambience. :-)
By now we've put lots of thought into how the grain, the yeast, the fermentation time, the design of the still, the wood, the maturation time, the finish, and the ambience all contribute to whisky flavor. I thought it was particularly interesting to add warehouse design to the list of variables.
I generally feel that whisky is less susceptible to the sorts of psychological marketing gimmicks that haunt wine-buyers. On second thought... never mind.
Science finally does something useful by bringing you the iPhone-controlled micro-brewery. If only the law would accommodate iPhone-controlled micro-stills...
In case you didn't already know that whisky could come in "vintages" (Balblair isn't always easy to find, depending on your distributor network), now you do.
Glenmorangie's Cask Master's Project (an attempt to crowd-source the company's next Private Edition release) nailed down the finishing touches on Taghta last year. So this year's Private Edition release... was not Taghta. Companta was the burgundy-finished cask series that formed one of three finishing choices in last year's Cask Master's Project (and was actually my second favorite, Taghta - a Manzanilla finish - was my third; I have personally tasted all 3 expressions). So... I can comfortably predict you will now see all three of these finishes released as Private Editions in the next few years (SIGH). Taghta, wherever you are, you were a brilliant marketing stunt. So much so that the Glenlivet is now following suit. Wake me up when the Bordeaux finish arrives (for what it's worth, a friend has already acquired a bottle of Companta and enjoys it thoroughly).
The Antipode: cool name, cool coffee.
Holy Grain Spirits, Batman! It really is fantastic cave vodka (HUGE vanilla hit). I'm very sad to hear that they're following the micro-barrel craze with their whisky maturation. Still, I'm trying to work out a personal distillery tour and see what it's all about before we move away from KC this summer.
A counter-point to that Canadian whisky article: whisky water may not make a huge difference before distillation, but think about the water you're using after. I personally will not spend extra money for source water. Talk about obnoxious.
I love barrel-aged gin, but barrel-aged sriracha? Hokay.
Jim Beam continues whiskey's sorry descent into flavored obscurity. This was before the Suntory acquisition, BTW.
Quote: "Whiskey, like a beautiful woman, demands appreciation. You gaze first, then it's time to drink." - Haruki Murakami
...owned by the same company. I was settling down with my muse (currently Ardbeg Day's Committee Release) this evening and had an epiphany of sorts.
I don't work on Madison Avenue, but I'm often fascinated by the many marketing angles at work in the world of whisky, especially Scotch. I'm also a political scientist, so I enjoy studying policy and how people organize. Put these two "passions" (hey, I do have a life) together and it means that I find myself reading up on the whisky business scene with regularity. And speaking of religion, what's interesting to me is the zeal - and often times, ignorance - that accompany's people's beliefs about those 750ml brown, aged spirits that they covet and hoard.
I'm here to present a theorem of sorts, a tale of two distilleries and their current marketing approaches - Ardbeg and Glenmorangie.
These distilleries are known for being unquestionable leaders in their fields. Glenmorangie are the pioneering experts of ACE'ing (Additional Cask Enhancements) since 1995, treating the world to "finished whiskies" like the Lasanta, Quinta Ruban, and Nectar D'or that are all the rage nowadays. Many distilleries have since followed Glenmorangie's lead, whether it's simply to chase the money (Glenmorangie's offerings fetch a premium price and reputation) or to expand their flavor portfolio. Some distilleries like Bruichladdich - revived by Mark Reynier and Jim McEwan - have even leapt out in front, blazing a trail of experimentation that has proven extremely rewarding. Nowadays it's no surprise to hear of whiskies around the world spending time in an exotic range of casks for flavor enhancement: sherry, port, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Pedro Ximinez, Manzanilla, Sauternes, bourbon, rum, virgin (helloooooo Ealanta)... maple syrup. I shit you not. Goes well with breakfast on top of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, I suppose.
All in all, Glenmorangie is known for producing stalwart, premier whiskies and leading the charge on elite cask management and maturation. It's signature malt is also supremely light, heathery, and filled with "orangey" (heh) and menthol topnotes, which give the distillery a larger, more neutral palette to "paint" with as it selects casks for ACEing.
Owned by Glenmorangie Company Ltd. (which is actually a subsidiary of the French Company Louis Vuitton Moet Hennesy) is Ardbeg, one of eight distilleries on Islay that are currently still producing. Ardbeg's claim is to be the "peatiest" whisky on Islay (which pretty much makes it the peatiest whisky in the world), and although you'll find no argument from me on the nature of the nose, its actual phenol levels (~55 ppm) are eclipsed by those of Bruichladdich's Octomore series (140-169 ppm). Ardbeg's strength lies in its cult following, members of a "committee" of over 50,000 members (how's that for an island of 3,457 residents?) whose zeal and evangelism rival anything you'll see at a Southern Baptist Convention (ironic? yes).
"Unquestionably the greatest distillery to be found on Earth. If perfection on the palate exists, this is it." Jim Murray, Whisky Bible
These Ardbeggians love their Ardbeg, and the distillery is more than happy to include them (committee membership is free) and indulge them. What struck me tonight, as I skimmed through the latest news on these two distilleries, was how diametrically opposed their current marketing strategies are - a difference made stark when you understand that these distilleries are owned and operated by the same parent company (despite their independent leadership).
My thesis in a nutshell: Glenmorangie is Microsoft, and Ardbeg is Apple.
WHOA THERE, Cereal dude. You tryin' to start a flame war?
Hey, even I relish the idea of the page-views. But hear me out here. This goes beyond surface fanboyism and settles down inside some well-established pop culture memes. Besides, it's an illustration through metaphor, not a direct comparison to every facet of their business models.
Let's start with Ardbeg.
You have Apple, Inc. in distilled (pun intended) form. Hell, this company even went so far as to check off an entire calendar day as it's day. Just claimed June 1st as its own, every year, for time immemorial. That's chutzpah. That's confidence. That's Ardbeg. Have you seen the hype for the Ardbog release on Ardbeg Day this year? I don't even have to taste it - I can tell you right now it will be worth a fortune in no time and be impossible to find a year from now. That's the Ardbeg reality distortion field in full effect.
Then we have Glenmorangie, the quintessential "whisky establishment" types who've been around a while.
I have a feeling you're going to demand some evidence to back up my assumptions on that one. After all, for some reason, say a company is "like Microsoft" nowadays and Apple fanboys tend to let it go to their head: "Oh YEAH, take that Glenm... Glen... whatever it's called. Apple, WHOO!" Microsofties get Stockholm syndrome: "Why you hatin' on Glenmorangie, man? FASCIST!" You're all insane.
Look, in general, I love what Glenmorangie produces, as evidenced by the fact that I own all of their expressions except the Signet. Fanboys, you need to get with me on this. However, you Microsofties, you need to face up to the fact that Apple is kicking your ass in the mobile sphere, despite the beauty of Metro UI and the well-known drawbacks of iOS. It just is, and I just said that neither system (or dram) is perfect. This could be a generational gap - show me several images from the life of each distillery and tell me which one the Millenials will go with and which one takes the boomers. Go ahead. YEAH, I am right on this. That doesn't mean that I've just argued one is better than the other, unless you really dig ageism, which is okay I guess.
I am not a whiskey apologist, nor a tech apologist. Now that we've cleared the water a bit, a defense of my actual thesis is in order. In short, I've just claimed that one company has the "coolness" and hype on its side (but for how much longer?) and the other is playing the long, open establishment game.
Glenmorangie's been at this business for a while. The long game has long been on their side, and they're doing everything they believe is necessary to stay on top. But acting like sherry, port, and Sauternes finishes are a bold, new thing at every tasting is clearly a bit passe. The release of the private editions (like Metro UI) are a great step in the right direction here. Astar and Ealanta? There are no better expressions of wood finish on the market.
I've read several interviews where Glenmorangie totally spilled the beans on the contents of their major releases. "Oh, have you noticed the original has been tasting better in recent years? That's because it's about 30% Astar blend now." Whoa, sweet. "Ealanta is aged in slow-growth, American white oak from the northern slopes of the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri, cut and air dried for 2 years before being coopered into a virgin cask and mellowing the spirit for 19 years." Bangin'. "Any other questions?" Huh?
They can also be somewhat tone-deaf in their master classes. "Pick up the Artein. What do you smell?" There's a kind of meaty sweetness, perhaps a bit of almond butter and grape skins. "Well, what I smell is the orange, the heather, that signature Glenmorangie menthol topnote." That's nice, I'm tasting some leathery mocha notes here, along with chocolate cherries - quite dark for the Glenmorangie palate, no? "Chocolate covered cherries yes, but really look for that mint." UGH. Don't you think the Lasanta still has a problem with sulfur notes in the casks? "Some people have more sulfur sensitivity than others." (A true statement, but you see what I'm getting at here). Lasanta was never my favorite of their ACE whiskies.
What I really must commend Glenmorangie on is their latest crowd-sourcing initiative, the "Cask Masters Project" that aims to let the (mostly) common man have an input as to what will go into their next private edition release. I tried all 3 version finishes at Whisky Live NYC, and personally, I loved the chance to speak my mind about the comparative strengths and weaknesses of each expression. Any of them will be great whiskies, but if you get a chance, vote Bordeaux finish ;-)
So you see, I'm not really hating on either distillery here. In fact, just the freakin' opposite! I own dozens of their whiskies and enjoy them all. Still, I think the comparisons are apt, and the topic is perfect for drams and cigars. DISCUSS!