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Wednesday
Mar192014

Scotland – More Than Just a Whisky Shortage

The demand for single malt whisky over the past few years has done more than eat up mature supply and raise prices for the bottles we love. It's also causing a severe shortage of two other fundamental components of whisky maturation: wood and space.

As we know, once you distill whisky you need barrels to put the whisky in and then you need government-approved space to store those barrels. With producers running their facilities night and day to increase production and a number of new distilleries coming online this year, more barrels are needed and getting access to Kentucky's leftovers is more difficult than it has ever been. 

"It's a big part of the reason we've started using wine casks," said Joe Torrance from Tullabardine distillery. 

Single malt producers are looking to secure their relationships with Kentucky in anyway possible. We've seen blenders purchase distilleries to lock down their whisky supply, but now we might see more malt distilleries purchasing American whisky producers simply for the access to wood. Suntory's takeover of Beam for example helped secure cooperage for their Bowmore, Laphroaig, Ardmore, and Japanese whisky distilleries.

"I had a handshake deal with Beam after visiting last year and the guy told me to call him back in January when it got closer to the actual shipment time," Alex Bruce from Ardnamurchan distillery told us. "However, when I called back after the Suntory deal, they said he no longer worked there and they wouldn't be honoring any of his previous barrel obligations. Luckily, I had a connection at Brown-Foreman, but even there it was quite difficult to get access to empty casks."

Like many aspects of the whisky industry here in Scotland, contracts are a big deal. It's amazing how honorable the idea of an agreement is – even when it doesn't make sense during a whisky shortage. There are plenty of producers who still have filling contracts with Diageo distilleries simply because they've always had them. The same goes for barrel contracts with American whiskey distilleries. Once you're in, it seems, you're golden. It's who you know at this point, apparently. Alex and Joe weren't the only two people concerned about the difficulties in securing wood. It's been a theme at every distillery we've visited so far.

The other issue is space. We've seen it here and we've seen it in Kentucky as well: an old, decrepid distillery site with the still house falling apart and debris scattered everywhere, yet with warehouses still intact and full of whiskey. Licensed warehouse space is at a premium and we're at the point now where distilleries are investing in new buildings as a source of revenue. That was a key component of Bladnoch's income when we talked to Colin Armstrong last year (leasing barrel space) and we've met with other independent bottlers who don't own a distillery, but are considering purchasing warehouse space to capitalize on the rent.

The interesting part about the independently-owned casks sitting around Scotland is that, in the case of actual bottlers, very rarely are the barrels actually located at company headquarters. Sovereign, for example, has to pay fifty pounds every time they want to sample a cask because the barrels are actually located at the distillery or in another warehouse. They might have to call Mortlach distillery and have someone there go into the warehouse, find the cask, draw a sample, and send it to them. There's a six week backlog on all requests at the moment, plus there are instances of distilleries charging 100 pounds for the task (double what it normally is) so it's not something you do lightly anymore. It's at the point now where some distilleries are asking independents to get their casks and move them elsewhere, simply because there's not enough room for anyone else's juice. 

Rather than build a distillery, it might be a good time to invest in cooperage and bonded warehouse space. Anyone got a few thousand bucks they want to throw in?

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Mar182014

Scotland – Day 6: On the Trail

We went back to where it all started this morning and it felt great to be there. Ian Macleod, home of Chieftain's and the very first cask we ever purchased from Scotland. David and I landed in Edinburgh back in 2011 and went right to our appointment in Broxburn, a couple of glassy-eyed lads in search of adventure with no idea of what they were doing or where they were going. Three years later we're a couple of old pros. John Glass was there to meet us as usual and he had the cask samples pulled and ready to go. Chieftain's always has great selections of the highest quality and this visit was no different. There was a rockin' cask of 1997 Bunnahabhain that knocked our socks off – heavily peated and full of salty brine and Islay goodness. In all honesty, it belonged right there in that line-up of single barrel Ardbeg casks we tasted at the distillery. Stylistically it was very similar and flavor-wise it was just as good. Count on that one coming home with us.

Since Tullibardine, a small Highland distillery not too far outside of Edinburgh on our way north, had been recently purchased by an independent French company, we thought we might stop by and see if there were any fun casks available for K&L. The facility was mothballed in 1994 by Whyte & MacKay until another independent group reopened it as a visitor's center in 2003, but serious production wasn't started until five years later. That means everything in Tullibardine's warehouse is either super young or super old. We met with distillery manager John Torrance to check out the scene.

John worked for Diageo before coming over to manage Tullibardine, so he's a wealth of knowledge concerning the Scottish whisky industry. He's operated just about every Diageo distillery in Speyside, including the grains. We were super curious about how grain distilleries worked since we've never visited one and the specifics are never really made clear by most producers. We'll talk more about that information later because right now I need to show you this next picture.

When I say they have "old whisky" at Tullibardine, I'm not kidding. Fifty year old casks are there for the taking. And they're GOOD. Like 1974 Ladyburn/1979 Glenfarclas good. Let's hope, however, that the pricing resembles something from Tullibardine and not something from a lost legend or an industry darling. If it's even close to what I hope it will be I can't see any reason not to bottle an amazing 50 year old cask.

We also had lunch with one of the main directors of the brand spanking-new Ardnamurchan distillery located on Scotland's remote west coast, Mr. Alex Bruce. We've worked with Alex on some previous whisky projects with other bottlers, so it was fun to meet up and check in on the progress. He told us, with a smile on his face, that they're getting ready to begin distilling in about a week. He also showed us what the distillery will eventually look like when it's all cleaned up and ready to go. Check out the pic below:

The actual site is on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, northwest of Oban and directly across from Tobermorey distillery on the Island of Mull. Alex knows his shit and there are some pretty cool things that his new distillery has over other producers – one thing being the fact that Alex's family has been farming barley on their site north of Edinburgh for four centuries. That means all of the barley being malted at Ardnamurchan and peated in their kiln will not only be Scottish barley, but also harvested by the actual farmer. I think that makes them this era's first grower/producer if we're to use wine terminology. 

They've also invested in 10,000 liter stills (quite big for a distillery that small) and they purchased old Cognac vats to be converted into washbacks. That makes them the only distillery in Scotland using hard wood to ferment their wash. Pine and the other woods used in distilleries like Ardbeg are actually soft wood, used primarily because it's cheaper. We won't know what the difference is until we taste the whisky, but it should be interesting to see if that makes a difference. 

They also plan on selling casks, a la Bruichladdich and other start-ups, to private buyers in order to raise a little extra cash. I've never been tempted to buy an entire barrel of whisky before, but knowing Alex and his good taste, I'm a little tempted to buy in. David OG, too. If anyone else wants a barrel, let us know. We can definitely get you one.

And....Alex's independent bottling company, Adelphi, should be available in California very soon. We're looking forward to working with the brand once it's being distributed in the state.

We're in Pitlochry now, my absolute favorite place to stay, and we just went for a long run through the forest along the beautiful River Tummel. We walked to dinner afterward, had some fish and chips, a bottle of Chablis, and now we're hitting the hay a bit early to rest up for what will be our biggest tasting appointment of the trip: Signatory. 

I can't wait to see Des and make more "Taken" jokes. He really does look like Liam Neeson.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Mar182014

Scotland Conversations

It was an interesting day yesterday, meeting with bottlers of various sizes and listening to their stories about the industry status quo. We found many commonalities in our words and bonded over the shared experiences that we recognized in one another. Two themes were consistent throughout all of our appointments:

1) The market has become focused on specific types or flavors of single malt whisky, leading to negative associations with whiskies that differ in style.

2) Producers have had to look at younger stocks and consider bottling casks that before would never have been considered.

Regarding the first point, we all seemed to have a story regarding an encounter with someone who only drank one type of whisky.

"We want a representation of all types of single malt whisky, even grain whisky, in our portfolio," one bottler told us. "However, the fact that we bottle light, fruity whisky along side our darker sherried selections doesn't seem to interest certain whisky drinkers."

"Not only are they not interested, but some have come to believe that a light and fruity whisky is inferior in quality or is lacking in some way," another producer said. We nodded our heads in agreement. We've encountered the same situation from certain customers who thought that our lighter, less oak-driven whiskies were poorly-made and lacking in quality, rather than just different or "not for them." It's funny to get feedback from consumers that differ so wildly in their assessment. Some people have written to tell me that the Royal Lochnagar Faultline was a terrible selection. Others have written to ask if they can buy a case because it's the best whisky they've had in ages.

What we have to remember is that different people like different styles of whisky. I know some of us out there pride ourselves on our expansive and open-minded taste, but it's alright to not like something. That being said, just because you don't like it doesn't mean the whisky is bad and it certainly doesn't mean you have to tell everyone it sucks. It might just be the case that you don't like the whisky – and that's it. However, even though there's a tendency for consumers to enjoy sherried whisky over lighter, fruitier whisky doesn't mean we're not going to import a broad selection of casks. It just means we're going to have to be vigilant about explaining the flavors in each selection, making sure we put the right bottles into the right hands.

The second point also made for interesting discussion.

"It's true that the lack of supply is forcing us to bottle younger stock, but at the same time we're finding delicious barrels in the five to eight year range. It's not that we didn't think they were good before, it's merely that we never thought about drawing samples. Why would we taste those casks when we had older barrels ready to go?" one bottler stated. That made total sense to me.

We've found some great young peated whiskies over the last year and, yesterday, tasted a five year old sherry butt that tasted like it was a twelve year old. There are some great options to be considered, now that we're actually considering them. There's a skepticism that believes the philosophy is changing from old to young simply out of convenience (and there's plenty of truth in that), but at the same time that necessity has changed the way many producers look at young whisky now that they've been forced to focus on it. They're finding it's often better than they expected.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Mar172014

Scotland – Day 5: Digging

Each year in Scotland there are a number of appointments with bottlers and producers that we know are going to be successful – Signatory, Sovereign, Glendronach, Glenfarclas, etc. We're almost always going to find something good in those warehouses. However, there are always some wild cards – places that may or may not turn up fruitful. We also make sure to look up new contacts, seek out new sources, and schedule a few long-shots just to make sure we've left no stone unturned. Today was a day spent driving. We drove north to south, east to west, and met with some new faces in search of new labels.

But times are tough and pickin's are slim. We eventually ended up in the new warehouse of David Stirk – our buddy from the Exclusive Malts who we introduced to America a few years back. The Creative Whisky Company used to store all its casks just south of Glasgow, but David's got a new facility further southeast, near Thornhill where he lives. He had a few possibilities for K&L, so we took some samples and continued our way back to Edinburgh.

But not before hitting up the local pub. The great thing about going out for a dram in Scotland is the selection. 

We're off to Ian McCleod tomorrow morning where we'll taste new Chieftain's samples for the first time in more than a year. They've run low on availability, but they think there might be some new options on the table this time around. We'll hit a few more stops before heading off to Pitlochry and resting up for what should be an epic day with Des in the Signatory warehouses.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Mar162014

Scotland – Day 4: The Right to Roam

As I was finishing up breakfast at the Old Excise House this morning, Ron told me about a very special law in Scotland often referred to as "the right to roam." It basically states that you're allowed the freedom to go wherever you want, even private property, as long as you keep moving. For example, you can take a walk through a private beach even if it's owned by someone else, but you can't put down a chair and start fishing for a few hours. 

"That's great to hear," I said, quite fascinated by this new information. Why was that welcome news, you ask? Because on travel days without appointments (like today) David and I like to hunt down former distillery sites and explore them if they're on the way to where we're going – especially if they're related to casks we're interested in purchasing. We tasted through a few Dumbarton grain casks with Stewart Laing on Thursday evening, so we definitely wanted to see what was left of the former grain distillery and its demolished single malt hub Inverleven. Luckily for us, we had the "right to roam" on our side, so we found the abandoned site, hopped over the fence, and roamed on into the decimated rubble.

The town of Dumbarton sits along the River Leven, right about where it feeds into the larger Clyde River. In the background, on top of a large volcanic rock jutting out of the water, sits Dumbarton Castle – a stronghold that dates back to the 5th century. With the light fading fast and tide rolling in we dodged the various bricks and sharp rocks, scaled the piles of debris, and walked around the remaining brick structure that was closed forever in 2002.

Dumbarton distillery was erected in 1938 by George Ballantine & Son to help create the Ballantine's Blended brand in conjunction with Miltonduff and Glenburgie. At the time it was built it was the largest distillery of its kind in Europe. In 1988, Ballentine's merged with Allied Domecq who would mothball the site fourteen years later, switching production to the newer and more efficient Strathclyde distillery in Glasgow. Pernod-Ricard bought the Ballantine's brand in 2005 and continues to use the plentiful warehouse space in Dumbarton just a mile or so down the road from the former distillery.

One rule that David and I have developed over the years during these scavenger hunts is that we are not allowed to use the internet to find our goal. We are allowed to use vague geographical maps, verbal directions from locals, and photos in books to try and match the terrain, but we absolutely cannot Google search directions. What would be the fun in that? 

"Should we try and hunt down Littlemill as well?" David asked. "It's supposed to be nearby, I think."

"Let's see if we can find someone who remembers the distillery," I said, and we drove around looking for the right local to ask. Usually the best candidates for these types of questions are males in their late 40s or early 50s, so when we spotted two blokes smoking a couple of fags out in front of a nearby restaurant I hopped out of the car and went to work.

"Yeah, I remember it," one of the guys said. "It's in a town called Bowling. It's all houses now, but there's at least one building left and there's a bar called the Horseshoe in front of where it used to be."

David remembered having passed the sign for Bowling a few miles back, so we made a U-turn and headed back in search of the Lowland legend. Littlemill had been dismantled in 1996, but the buildings remained until 2004 when a fire gutted most of what was left. We looked for more modern housing, found the bar, and noticed that the new apartments were located on an inlet called Littlemill Place. Behind the sign stood a delapidated frame that matched the picture in our Malt Whisky Yearbook.

We walked up the hill above the old site to get a better look. As the sun went down and the bridge stood starkly in the distance beneath it, we gazed upon what was once a center for whisky production and remembered our old Faultline expression from a few years back. Then we thought about the new cask of Littlemill we had just tasted a few nights back and smiled.

-David Driscoll