Single malt whisky - tasting notes

Whisky is dying

23 Jul 2013 | * News

Or at least part of the whisky community seems ready for palliative care.

 

<start rant>

There is a huge community of whisky geeks in Western Europe, as well as the US and some other countries. We don’t mind being called geeks, after all we’re constantly looking for interesting bottles and doing anorak comparisons to find the best Tomatin 1976 for example. Of course we’re just peanuts compared to the turnover of the total whisky market, but a loyal and dedicated part of it nonetheless. A thriving community that needs enough interesting whisky to survive.

On the other hand there’s no denying the fact that we have been spoiled. The Whisky Agency started in 2008, Malts of Scotland in 2009. Both bottlers built their reputation on excellent 1970’s whisky. Very high quality for reasonably high prices. Even the 1960’s – though rare already – were still within the reach of enthusiasts back then. In two or three years, this situation has changed dramatically. Old whisky is getting thin on the ground (I’m not talking about the ultra-premium expressions here). There are a couple of reasons behind this change:

  • Stocks of old whisky are really low. They were already low and now bottlers are struggling to find available casks. On top of this, the 1980’s have been a period of crisis for the whisky industry, so there comes a point in time where even the distilleries that survived the crisis will have to deal with at least a decade of significantly lower production. One, maybe two years ago, suddenly the 1970’s expressions didn’t appear on the market as they did before, and 1980’s were rare anyway so that brings us immediately to the 1990’s. This is sold as premium whisky now.
  • New markets like Russia, Taiwan, Japan and other Asian countries have suddenly discovered whisky. Not only are they buying / collecting long gone bottles (old Macallan springs to mind), they are also bringing a lot of new bottlings of old whisky to their countries. Old Pulteney 40 years old, Bunnahabhain 40 years old, Highland Park vintages, the new GlenDronach 1968… they are all aimed at these markets, with prices that shout “prestige” rather than “value for money”.
  • Scots are smart people. They are holding back the old whisky that is left, as they hope to sell most of it to emerging markets. Of course, why would they sell it to European geeks who are complaining that old whisky is getting too expensive? New Port Ellen releases for instance are very rare and they have suddenly become too expensive for enthusiasts, even from independent bottlers. Most closed distilleries are going down this path, and it’s not just old whisky. Bottlers can hardly find medium-aged Islay whisky these days.

 

To overcome this situation of a currently booming whisky market with high demand and stocks that haven’t been continuous, more and more (healthy) distilleries and bottlers are focusing on No Age Statement releases or simply younger expressions. I’m not totally judging this, I’ve liked most of the Decades concepts that were launched by several distilleries and I’m convinced there is good whisky made in the 1990’s. Lately we’ve been discovering young beauties from distilleries that had previously been overlooked. In fact some parts of the whisky spectrum have not been investigated enough and independent bottlers will surely present us with nice whisky. But lately I’ve made a couple of observations related to this:

  • The new GlenDronach single casks releases used to contain several casks from the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. The latest batch contained one 1971 cask, all the rest were 1990’s until 2002 vintages.
  • We’ve seen Teaninch 1973 and Glencadam 1973 from German bottlers lately. That’s about it from the 1970’s.
  • At a recent presentation of the new Gordon & MacPhail bottlings for Belgium, there were four 1990’s releases and three 2000’s. G&M used to be a reference for old whisky.

 

I’m worried that the average quality (and individuality) is getting lower, simply because we’re looking for complexity and age matters big time in this respect, no matter what distilleries are trying to tell us. In my view, modern whisky is always well-made but usually less interesting / individual as well (the outcome of the thorough optimization and quest for consistency of the industry). I don’t have conclusive evidence for this, but my general impression is that I’m seeing far less 90+ drams than before. Even the rare 1970’s vintages that do appear, don’t seem as stunning as they once were.

This also worries me for whisky enthusiasm in general. Personally I’ve always bought much more whisky than I had been drinking. A lot of these were ‘last chance’ purchases, i.e. the kind of whisky profile that would not appear on the market for a long time. When I buy a bottle of Scapa 2001 on the other hand (just a random example), the reason would be its instant drinking quality and not its future value. I’m not talking about investment value here, I’m simply saying that I don’t want to secure my share of Scapa 2001 for the future, contrary to Brora 30 or BenRiach 1976 for instance. I will only buy as much Scapa 2001 as I’m planning to drink right now (virtually none), whereas I’ve bought multiple bottles of my other examples. I’ll tell you even more: I’ve bought surprisingly little whisky altogether during the last few months (only counting new releases). There simply weren’t that many whiskies that made me grab my wallet. I feel that part of what got me interested in whisky is now disappearing.

As a side note, I’ve seen a lot of friends on Facebook talk about beer lately (Geuze and others), all sorts of premium gins and tonics, rum has been popular for a long time as well… In fact I’m planning to set up a second website about a different drink as well, more about that later. We could blame the hot weather for this change of interest but maybe something else is breeding. Whisky just doesn’t offer the value for money it used to.

Is whisky dying? The kind of whisky that I’ve come to adore, definitely is. It may seem contradictory in times of a flourishing worldwide whisky industry, but indeed there is a good chance that the Golden Age of whisky anorakism as we knew it, is coming to an end. The Times They Are a-Changin’.

<end rant>

 

Disclaimer: this may come accross as an exaggerated opinion. Sure, it’s based on my personal situation and my particular whisky community - maybe you drink younger, more standard drams already and you won’t notice the change. In any case I don’t expect my interest in whisky (or this website for that matter) to end completely anytime soon, but it is a fact that I’ve been worrying about the current state and the near future of the whisky world.

I hardly ever ask for comments, but this time, please share your personal views and comments!


The latest members of the Classic label series by The Whiskyman is a Glen Grant distilled in 1992.

 

 

Glen Grant 1992 | The Whiskyman | MassenGlen Grant 21 yo 1992
(48,4%, The Whiskyman for Vinothek Massen 2013, ex-bourbon cask, 118 btl.)

Nose: all the fruity brightness we expected. Juicy pears, apples with soft cinnamon and hints of pineapple. Lemon candy and Frosties. Some buttercups and freshly cut grasses. Vanilla custard. In the background, there’s also a buttery / waxy note. Very fresh and aromatic and nicely summery. Mouth: sweet and candied. Pear and apple galore again, mixed with citrus and a herbal sharpness (ginger, mustard, pepper). The barley and yeast shines through – very natural whisky. Fades on grapefruit zest and tonic bitterness. Finish: medium long, clean and fruity, with a slightly eau-de-vie kind of alcohol tang.

In summer I’m not looking for heavy, complex drams, so this will work out fine. Around € 80, only available from Vinothek Massen.

Score: 87/100


 

Ben Nevis 1996 TheWhiskyCaskBen Nevis 16 yo 1996
(53%, TheWhiskyCask 2012, hogshead)

Nose: a fruity profile with alcoholic overtones. Apple eau-de-vie, even apple vinegar. Marzipan. Becomes a little gentler over time, especially with a few drops of water. Papaya and grapefruit. Vanilla. Mouth: there’s a very nice, tropical fruitiness at the core of this malt, even some bubblegummy notes, but somehow it’s also packed with sharper notes of lemon zest and resin. A little chilli heat, ginger and maybe curry. Some beer-like notes. Salty almonds and liquorice. Finish: medium long, going back to slightly synthetic fruity notes.

Overall this is nice (though slightly straightforwardly modern) whisky, but I found the sharp and alcoholic notes a bit disturbing. Around € 65. Still available from TheWhiskyCask.

Score: 80/100


We all know the excellent Ardmore 1991-1993 that was released in recent years. Here’s a much older version, Ardmore 1977 bottled by Signatory Vintage in their dumpy bottles.

 

 

Ardmore 1977 Signatory #1183Ardmore 23 yo 1977
(58,1%, Signatory Vintage 2000, cask #1183, 306 btl.)

Nose: nicely aromatic, even though it’s slightly harsh at first sight (high strength). Medium peat, lemon / lime, grasses and yellow flowers. Cod oil. Fennel. Chalk. All of the elements you’d find in recent bottlings but slightly more austere I’d say. Mouth: even more peat now, with a powerful attack. Pepper and ginger. Lemon and apple. Coastal and slightly rough. Light floral notes and vanilla to round it off. Finish: long, peaty, lemony with herbs in the very end.

Islay whisky that is not made on Islay. Well made but explicitly unsexy, especially without water. Not often seen in auctions, and rarely above € 120.

Score: 86/100


Three Stars is the first white rum made by the renowned French rum house Plantation (owned by Cognac Ferrand). It’s a blend of three styles: unaged Barbados (typically showing tropical fruits and banana), 3yo Trinidad (light and citrusy) and unaged + 12yo Jamaica (usually heavy with sugarcane and liquorice).

Note that although it is a clear white rum, some of its components were oak-aged. The colour has been removed afterwards through active carbon filtration. In a way this surprises me: I’m no rum expert but it seems sad to age a quality rum only to deliberately filter out some of the flavours together with the colour, just to make it white?

 

Plantation Three StarsPlantation 3 stars
(41,2%, OB +/- 2012)

Nose: definitely tropical. A lot of marshmallow and banana notes (hints of newmake whisky). Sugarcane and vanilla cream. A little mango. Seems to calm down after a while, with a popcorn note coming out. Mellow but not one-dimensional. Mouth: sweet and fruity again. Vanilla and honey. Pisang and other kinds of banana flavours. Candied guava. A lot creamier and oilier than your regular white rum. Something citrusy in the background. A gentle spicy kick and a grassy note as well. Finish: medium, still a lot of sugar cane and gentle spices.

Maybe a little on the sweet side, but very seductive. Smooth and full-bodied at the same time. It’s perfectly sippable neat, but I can’t wait to make mojito’s with this. Or maybe a Rum Collins – I suppose the added sweetness will balance the acidity well. Around € 15 – that’s basically the same as a commercial Havana Club. A bargain!


This Tasmanian Sullivan’s Cove was finished in French Oak port wine casks. It is bottled as a single cask, varying between 11 and 12 years old. It won various awards, e.g. ‘Best Australian Whisky’ at the 2013 World Whiskies Awards, and even ‘World’s Best Single Malt Whisky’ at the 2014 World Whiskies Awards. Although I have to repeat my annoyance with awards and their inability (or deliberate unwillingness) to state which cask they’ve tried exactly (as this whisky is always bottled as a single cask).

 

Sullivan's Cove French OakSullivan’s Cove ‘French Oak’ (47,5%, OB +/- 2012, HH436)

Nose: big fresh oak shavings, nice vanilla cream and lots of apple compote with cinnamon. Gooseberries and pineapples. Some powder sugar and wine gums. Subtle nutty notes. Despite the newish oak this is a very attractive nose, definitely better than the Double Cask. Mouth: very sweet and candied. Bags of Haribo bears. Mashed banana. Toffee and caramel. Traces of mango and coconut cream. Toasted oak. Also cake notes and a little white pepper, but the sweetness is overpowering. Finish: quickly fading, still very sweet but with a leathery / planky edge.

This is the better Sullivan’s Cove in my book. Not perfect – I doubt there weren’t better single malts this year. Noticeably young as well, but quite enjoyable and friendly. Around € 80 (too expensive, I think).

Score: 85/100


We’ve had hits and misses with Auchroisk. Actually some of them are both depending on the moment. Here’s a 1990 expression bottled by Whisky-Fässle not so long ago.

 

Auchroisk 1990 Whisky-FässleAuchroisk 22 yo 1990
(49,8%, Whisky-Fässle 2013, sherry cask)

Nose: interesting nose with uncommon aromas. There’s a spirity / floral side to it. Kirsch and sour cherry nectar. Wet cedar wood. Quite a lot of wax and paraffin. Leafy notes. A little yeast. And undertones of rubber boots. Definitely a bit disjointed but intriguing as well. Mouth: again a certain spirity character (fruit liqueur), with herbal notes, pepper and cinnamon. Showing some hints of pine wood too. Bitter oranges and walnut skin. A kind of “time lapse” with lots of frames moving by in a short amount of time – and nothing really catches my attention. Finish: medium finish, becoming fragrant again (bergamot oil, scented candles). Is this a puzzle or what?

Yes, I’d like to try it again some other day. Not because I like it so much, but because I didn’t quite get it. Really standing out. Around € 105.

Score: 80/100


I have quite a few Karuizawa samples waiting on my desk, so we better move forward and start with this Karuizawa 1983 Noh, bottled last year. Not exactly a summer malt but we’re not complaining.

 

Karuizawa 1983 Noh #7576Karuizawa 28 yo 1983 ‘Noh’
(57,2%, No.1 Drinks 2012, sherry butt #7576, 571 btl.)

Nose: beautiful Karuizawa elements come out right away. Mocha beans and chocolate, figs and cherries, as well as some tobacco. Lacquered meat. Raisins. Liquorice. Also a dryness of black tea and leather. Hints of mint and plenty of polished sandalwood. Very expressive and well balanced. Mouth: powerful, this time very much on cigar leaves and pipe tobacco. Very concentrated notes of forest fruits, red berries and prunes. Goes on with nice bonfire smoke and earthy notes. A bitterness of mint stems, walnut skin and wood. Eucalyptus. Then back to sweeter toffee, balsamic syrup and cough sweets. Finish: long, fruity and nutty. Milk chocolate. Liquorice and plenty of herbal notes.

Another one of these very intense Karuizawa expressions that still manage to keep the rich balance between sweet, sour and savoury notes perfectly right. As small extras there are peaty notes and the classic exotic woods. Quite wonderful. Long gone.

Score: 93/100


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Coming up

  • Auchentoshan 15yo (Kintra)
  • Lagavulin 1997 Distillers Edition
  • Ben Nevis 1997 (Maltbarn)
  • Tomatin 1978 (Cadenhead / Nectar)
  • Aultmore 2007 (Daily Dram)
  • Karuizawa 45 Year Old (cask #2925)
  • Glengoyne 1999 (Palo Cortado)

1506 notes by Ruben

WhiskyNotes - Ruben LuytenThis blog is my personal collection of impressions, written while searching for the ultimate single malt whisky.