Icon or Iconoclast
There’s no question that single malt whisky is the cock of the walk when it comes to spirits. Most everyone involved or knowledgeable (save for our friends in KY) about the spirits industry roundly acknowledge that single malt Scotch represents the pinnacle of the industry. The Scots’ reputation for producing extremely high quality spirit has made it one of the most expensive and collectable categories. This exquisite reputation is not without merit despite the fact that the huge majority of production is devoted to the low-end of the market. What’s captured the imagination of the world’s finest connoisseurs over the previous century was not simply the quality of the product, but the incredible sense of place that a bottle of Scotch represents.
Without a doubt the quality of the drinking experience is paramount to all other factors in determining the merit of any beverage, but the near mystical aura of terroir that emanates from a great single malt is not easily paralleled in the spirits world. Yes, Cognac has its chalky soils and Kentucky its limestone water, yet Scotch remains a pillar among drinkers who crave authenticity and tradition. Partly it’s the structure of the Scotch industry that’s led to so many incredible and historic distilleries continuing to thrive – the distilleries main customers throughout its history were blenders who demanded quality and consistency because it directly affected their fortunes.
As Single Malt connoisseurship moved out of dank estate cellars in Scotland and England, the drinking classes quickly realized that the blends, while consistent and often delicious, paled in comparison to the exquisite depth of their component parts. In 1968, Silvano Samaroli founded the first bottler of Scotch based outside of the UK. He would subsequently bottle some of the finest single malt to ever exist. For instance, a bottle of Samaroli’s 1966 Bowmore Bouquet recently sold for $75K at auction. His ability to identify and purchase the finest products being distilled in Scotland was legendary. But before he died last year, Silvano had declared the era of Single Malt over.
The new cellars in Bouze waiting to be filledHis argument was not that the quality had diminished severely, but in fact the opposite. With the industrialization of the inputs, modern techniques designed for efficiency and consistency, he felt that much of the unique terroir driven character of any particular distillery was now lost. Overall consistency and quality was up to the delight of the big blenders who now owned all but a handful of the top distilleries, but variations in character (the highest highs and the lowest lows) were gone. That means an overall better drinking experience for aficionados as whole, but fewer and fewer opportunities to find another Bowmore Bouquet.
Samaroli believed the future was in bespoke blends; creating whisky in the cellar greater than the sum of its parts. And while there’s no question that we continue to find stupendous single cask gems throughout warehouses across Scotland, no more exciting single malt exist than those that continue to be malted by hand. Indeed, the true luminaries in this industry today are the thoughtful blenders like Mr. Glaser of Compass Box in London or the undeniably idiosyncratic bottler in Bouze-Les-Beaunes – Michel Couvreur.
Today, we have two whiskies representing both the future and the past. One is hand malted, peated to 45 ppm, aged for 16 years in a single ultra old PX Sherry butt, the other is the return of our bespoke collaboration designed in Couvreur’s humid cellars when we first visited so many years ago. Both represent traditional styles of production that aren’t at all the norm today in Scotland and of course are not Scotch in legal terms. But they are about as close as you can get to what might have been hidden deep in the cellars of the great of estates in Scotland, who would have systematically filled old sherry butts recently depleted perhaps at some stupendous gala, with young malt whisky. The malt might have come from a local distillery or from afar depending on the owner’s tastes. Needless to say, it is a style that is not easily replicated in a modern industry.
Rarely have we come across a producer with as much creativity as the little producer of malt whisky in Bouze-les-Beaune. We’re lucky to have secured the final 45 liters from a special butt selected by the wife of the late master Mr. Couvreur and happy to support their incredible commitment to quality. JA Franzten, the Cellar Master at Couvreur, is a visionary and has recently completed additional underground cellar to expand the undeniably magical production. Turns out the future looks just like the past.