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Thursday
Mar202014

Scotland – Day 8: The Final Stretch

When you hear people talk about the whisky shortage in Scotland, it's best to specify just exactly what they mean by "shortage". Do they mean actual distilled whisky, or do they mean mature, interesting, tasty whisky that you and I, as rabid whisky fans, actually want to drink? If they mean the former, then there's no reason to panic about the lack of supply. In a few years the results of increased production, distillery expansions, and the rise of new distilleries will solve that problem. However, if they're wondering how the shortage will affect the mature single cask business (for example, the one we run here at K&L), I've got three words: be very afraid.

Two years ago when we visited George Grant at his Glenfarclas distillery, every cask from every vintage was on the table – from 1960 up until 2005. We could sample anything, buy anything, and take as much as we wanted. Today, that's not the case. Like every other distillery and independent bottler in Scotland, George has been visited by Chinese businessmen, by Norwegian businessmen, by German businessmen, by Brazilian businessmen, by Indian businessmen, and thousands of other businessmen from just about any country you can think of. They all want casks and they've all got money. But, like I've said a hundred times on this blog, it's no longer about the money. They don't need our business right now. They can pick and choose their customers as they please. We like working with George and we're glad he likes working with us.

"The first time we launched the Glenfarclas 40 year no one was interested. It took us almost ten years to sell the five hundred bottles we made. Today, I could sell that amount in less than a week," George told us. 

Stocks are low and prices for mature whiskies have doubled. This was the case at Signatory as well. Their supplies are being gobbled up ten times faster than they can replace them. We're at the point where we're considering buying some casks for 2015 as well. We don't know what's going to be here for next year's trip, so it might make sense to secure a bit more than usual. Yikes! It's tough to know how much to buy! What can we do? Let's start by tasting.

One thing I love about the Grant family is their approach to luxury – it's not something to be hoarded or stored away for later. It's something to be used and consumed. You've got good whisky? You should open it and drink it. George gave us a sample of the upcoming 60 year old Glenfarclas release like it was no big deal. George's dad couldn't join us as he was currently travelling in his 1931 Bentley – a car he has shipped all over the world so he can drive it wherever he may be.

"He didn't buy it to look at it," George said. "He bought it so he could drive it!"

We busted into the warehouses in search of some sherry-aged whisky. We found a number of great things and we came up with some great ideas. I think you're all going to be very, very happy when you see what we've come up with. More on that later.

The town of Aberlour is not only home to great whisky, but also to incredible biscuits! Walker's shortbread is made right there in the town center. How could you not stop and take a look?

So many options! How can you choose just one?

"The one in the black tin with the bagpiper on it is a limited edition made specifically for our local rotary club," the lady behind the counter said. "You can only get it here."

"Then that's the one I want!" I said. Limited edition! I was pumped. In fact, I've decided to stop blogging about whisky and switch over to the various tins available from the Walker's shortbread line-up. My first post will be about the all-black, embossed Scottish bagpipe player edition – a small batch of cookies made specifically for the Aberlour Rotary Club. I give it 92 points.

With so much to pack in on our last day, we booked it over to Benriach where we met with Euan to go through samples of all three Benriach distilleries: the eponymous Elgin location, along with Glendronach and the newly-acquired Glenglassaugh. We still need to taste through more samples tonight in our hotel room as we didn't have time to get through the lot.

One last trip down through the Cairngorns and one final goodbye from the heavens. A beautiful end to a beautiful trip.

See you tomorrow in Burgundy!

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Mar192014

Scotland – Day 7: Marathon

Morning in Pitlochry. We rose at the Craigatin House (the absolute best place to stay in Scotland) where we met hotel owner Martin for our fourth straight year of pre-Signatory breakfast. Eggs, bacon, sausage, blood pudding, toast, beans, and tomato with tea and coffee. That's the only way to fortify your stomach against the onslaught that will be Edradour distillery and the back stock of whisky being aged there on-sight. This is the tasting that separates the men from the boys. We did our best to prepare Kyle, but there's nothing you can really tell anyone that will convey the experience of getting into the ring with distillery manager Des.

I took a morning walk over to the dam to catch a shot of the river coming down through the mountains. Pitlochry is one of the most beautiful places in Scotland – a nature lover's paradise full of hiking trails, bicycle paths, and plenty of other outdoor activities. It's a total ski town in the winter, as well.

Ah....Edradour. One of the most picturesque distilleries in existence. Perfect white picket fences, a small creek running through the center of the campus, and tons of delicious, mature whisky aging in the gigantic warehouse behind the main still house. We went in courageous and bold, but we left six hours later bleary-headed, glassy-eyed, and dry-mouthed – and we spit every single drop we tasted.

You know that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark when they're putting the Ark of the Covenant into the gigantic warehouse with all the other cataloged items? The Signatory cask inventory is like that warehouse times five. It's a never-ending sprawl of whisky, all different ages, all from different distilleries, continuing on as far as the eye can see. Going there as a retailer is like being a kid in a candy store. 

You name it, it's there – Port Ellen, Macallan, Glenlivet, Lagavulin, all dating back decades. It's a bit overwhelming, mainly because these types of warehouses are a thing of the past. I remember when all of our appointments would have great old stocks with plenty of fun whiskies to taste. Now, it's pretty much just Signatory. We tasted more than forty samples and took copious notes. If the pricing works out, I can imagine us taking more than twenty casks of various items of various ages – Glen Ord, Glenlossie, Glenburgie, Daluaine, Bowmore, Laphroaig, Caol Ila (old and young), Glenlivet, and more.

One of the funnier moments of the trip came as we were exiting the warehouse, still talking about Raiders and David OG said, "Did you know that Indiana Jones could have been left out of the movie and the ending would have been the same?"

"Good one, Amy Farrah Fowler," I said, referencing Mayim Bialik's television character, who first introduced the observation.

"Are you guys talking about The Big Bang Theory?" Des asked, locking the door behind us.

"Yes!" I screamed, "Do you watch it?"

"Aye," he replied, "It's so well written."

Des McCagherty, the stoic man from Signatory, who might break your kneecaps if you cross him, and who might as well be Mr. Bates from Downton Abbey, apparently enjoys American sitcoms about science nerds in Southern California. Who knew?

I conked out on the trip north from Signatory from sheer whisky saturation. We started at 10 AM and didn't leave until after 4:30, but we still weren't even close to being done for the day. It was time to head through the Cairngorn Mountains and up to Dufftown, where we had an appointment with our old friend Mark Watt. He runs the show at Cadenhead now for Springbank and had put aside some cask samples for our perusal. I did manage to stay awake until Dalwhinnie, however – one of the most beautiful distillery sites in Scotland, set against the hills, white against the darkness.

We met Mark at his house, powered through another 40+ cask samples, and eventually ended up having dinner with him and his wife in Aberlour along the river Spey. I jumped out and snapped a pick just as the sun's last light was heading behind the hills. We're here for the night until we hit Glenfarclas in the morning and Benriach soon after. Then we're back down to Edinburgh and the airport Hilton where we'll make our final decisions.

Tomorrow's the last day in Scotland. Then we'll switch over the France for another week of brandy blog posts!

-David Driscoll

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