Sunday, April 29, 2007

Nosing vs. Tasting

I just wanted to formulate some thoughts on how people often focus too much on the taste of the whisky and neglect the nosing.
I'm no great noser, I must admit. My skill is limited to recognizing aromas I've encountered in other whiskies, but actually naming the smells is often beyond my capabilities. So I can probably forget about a job within my favourite industry, aside from the fact that I don't actually live in Scotland. Nevertheless I find nosing to be the most exciting part in evaluating a dram. Complex whiskies' noses take you on a journey through different sensations, often too quickly passed to be named. So it's a pity when some people don't pay any attention to a malt's nose.
To me, there are whiskies whose nose I find more interesting than their effect on my palate. I sometimes find myself still sniffing them, when others have almost finished their glass.
So I'd recommend anyone who likes whisky to linger a bit longer about the nosing, and discover what great secrets it can unveil.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Collecting bottles

Every now and then people who come and visit me, take a bit of a closer look at my whisky collection. Mind you, there is an important difference between my collection, and my bar. The bar contains six to ten whiskies, bottles that are open and from which I pour myself, and even my guests a dram. The collection consists of about a hundred bottles, which remain closed, for me, as well as for guests. Such a collection evokes several different reactions, ranging from admiration to appal.
So why do I, or any other collector, collect whiskies? There are quite a few possible motivations. First of all, what motivation do all collectors share, what motivates one to collect crystal statues, or pictures of owls, or anything else for that matter. I think that motivation is the hobby, it is fun to work on a collection, to see it grow, to find the perfect next piece to make it just a bit more complete. A good collection is never complete, because it would stop inspiring the collector.
Another motivation is being able to show it off. One of the great joys of a collection is being able to show it off. It is a great way to bring the conversation to your favourite subject. Through collecting something you also learn more of it : to collect it, is to know it.
For a collection of unopened whisky bottles there are even a few extra motivations, one of them could be to collect tham as an investment. Certain bottles become rarer and therefore sometimes more valuable. Although this is tricky, since any possible buyer is most likely also a collector. I'm afraid the market of rare bottles of whisky just doesn't fluctuate enough for bottles of whisky to be a real good investment. Nevertheless, it is nice to know that some bottles grow more valuable over time.
But this brings me to a much more valid motivation; buy cheap today, and be able to drink something unaffordable tomorrow. You see, if a particular bottle becomes more valuable over time, it also means it becomes more expensive to buy. So, if you know a bottle will rise in value, and it happens to be one of our favourites, it makes sense to buy a few now, before it becomes too dear. And then you can still enjoy a dram of that malt, when otherwise it would have become financially unwise.

Then besides envy, why would anyone be appalled by a whisky collection? What many people don't seem to understand is that you would spend so much money on a drink, and then not drink it. The purpose of whisky is to be drunk, or ideally savoured, not to be collected, to be put on some shelf and collecting dust.
Some whisky connoisseurs abhor the mere thought of collecting, because obviously a collector is a competitor. Collectors, in the minds of the non-collector connoisseurs, boast the prizes in their collection, without truly knowing them, because they've never tasted them. Perhaps such collectors do indeed exist, but it is certainly not true for all collectors. In fact I think there are many connoisseurs who have become collectors and vice versa. Personally, I became a collector the day I became a whisky enthusiast, and it cannot be said that I don't know the whiskies in my collection, because I've tasted them all, all but a very few exceptions.
Why is a collector a competitor for a connoisseur? Well they both want the same 'resource' : bottles of whisky. They both add to the demand, and therefore they both push the price of a bottle upward. You see, this obviously works both ways, indeed a connoisseur is a collector's competitor, yet collectors don't seem to mind connoisseurs.
Obviously a collector doesn't mind the prices going up too much, this makes the bottles in his collection, well at least some of them, more valuable. It are indeed the investment minded collectors who are scorned the most. A connoisseur on the other hand wants his favourite bottles, or any bottle for that matter, to remain affordable.

Collecting bottles of whisky will probably keep provoking mixed feelings. It cannot be denied that it raises the prices of certain bottles even faster, and in some extreme cases only a few bottles of a certain expression remain for too many enthusiasts, making for an unaffordable whisky, that may not even be too fantastic. On the other hand, the greater demand for malt whisky has made it possible for distilleries to bottle more of their product for the malt market, rather than selling all, or most of their produce to blenders. The malt market has now become interesting enough for distillers to actually target that market more. Already a lot of distilleries have diversified their official distillery bottling greatly.
Yes, collecting whisky bottles is rather selfish, but its not all bad for the connoisseur, because it helps making malt whisky as a product more viable, distillers can become less dependant on blenders and the varieties become richer. Lastly, not all collectors are just owners, many, like me, are lovers before that.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Just Finish

In recent years whisky makers have been experimenting with finishes, i.e. maturing a whisky on a different cask for a relatively short period of time. The types of cask used for finishes are most often not traditionally used for maturing whisky : rum barrels, cognac, champagne, port, ... anything seems crazy enough to add a weird twist in the end. This practice is met with quite a bit of scepticism from malt lovers and connoisseurs, because it seems whisky makers will do anything to sell their product.
It indeed seems a strange idea to do something so novel in an industry which prides itself for its loyalty to traditions and craftsmanship. Whisky marketing always focuses on the years of slowly maturing, on the old-fashioned way in which their malts were distilled, on quality rather than quantity.
But the truth is that the whisky industry, although its image may be old-fashioned, must survive in a modern-day market, where efficiency and profitability are the key words. And the reality of marketing a malt is quite daunting. It requires not only the skill of making a good product, but also to accurately guess what the demand on that market will be by the time the spirit has matured enough, which can easily be a decade from now.
The economic forces cause new trends in the whisky market. One such trend is that official distillery bottlings become younger. Ardbeg Very Young, Still Young and Almost There are such examples, another trend is that whisky is less and less matured on expensive casks, such as Sherry casks. Macallan, for instance, the malt that traditionally was always matured on sherry casks, now switched to their 'fine oak' series, which is a blend of their Bourbon and Sherry oak maturations. Another trend is to sell the stuff for more money, just pop to your favourite shop and compare the current prices to what they charged a few years back, for the same bottle.
I believe that wood finishes are also a product largely inspired by economic forces. Firstly it allows you to mature the whisky on a relatively cheap cask, and then differentiate it, by adding the effect of a more expensive cask at the end. Secondly it allows you to tailor for the current demand. What you didn't know ten years ago, you may know now, and after maturing your product a finish could allow you to then change your product in the direction of what is popular today. Furthermore a finish allows you to bring more people to try and appreciate your whisky, by associating it with a drink that is popular to non-whisky drinkers. If you enjoy a claret wine, you might be curious what a whisky matured on a claret cask tastes like, even though you don't really care about whisky. Lastly it is something new and exciting to those who already know their way around the whisky world.
So there is a lot to be said for a wood finish. I am always eager to try these, and see how it affects the malt. Currently there is still a lot of experimenting going on, and some of them turn out bad, others turn out magnificent. In several years finishes will still be around, but distillers will have found out which are successful, and which aren't, and they mill be used with more consideration and moderation, and I am sure the product will benefit from it. Nevertheless, the classic maturation will not be wiped away, especially because of the traditional image the whisky industry still upholds.
We should embrace the finishes with an open mind, and give earnest feedback of how we like it to those who make it. If its no good they should know it, and if it turns out to be great, they should definitely know it. This can only help to make whisky a more accessible, yet highly qualitative product, which can be enjoyed by many.

Monday, April 2, 2007

The Peat Trap

Whisky and single malt in particular are rapidly growing in popularity. Whisky is becoming better known to people who just buy whisky in their supermarket, and there is a fair number of newly beginning whisky enthusiasts, who are finding their way to specialized shops and nosing events.
Nosing events are a great way to get to know new styles and expressions of whisky, and any amateur can learn a great deal there about whisky, how it is made, and what all the different terms and phrases on the bottles mean.
Often the very last whisky of a session is a peated whisky. It is saved for the end, because the peat aroma and flavours would obviously obfuscate the gentler and less dominant ones of the whiskies that are served before, if it wasn't. This is indeed a very valid reason to set the peated whisky as the last one to nose, and the moderator usually explains this to the new attendees.
On top of that, it is also often mentioned that the peat-style whisky is one that either does or does not appeal to you. The phrase 'you love it or you hate it', is frequently heard about the highly phenolic drams. Then again, it is explained you can learn to appreciate these whiskies over time.
This is all very true, but the effect of these messages is that a beginning enthusiast gets the impression that peated single malt is superior to others, because it is drunk at the end of a session, it feels like 'saving the best for last'. It is explained that the order of the whiskies is determined by their dominance in flavour, and one could (albeit subconsciously) conclude that dominance in flavour implies dominance in quality. And lastly, it is something you must learn to appreciate over time, so it may lead you to think that your progress as a whisky connoisseur is measured by your progress at appreciating peated whisky. And these conclusions a beginner might make, are obviously false. Nevertheless they result in the fact that many beginning 'connoisseurs' tend to focus heavily on the peated malts, in an attempt to master whiskies as good and as fast as they possibly can.
This is helped along further by the fact that peat-smoke is very recognizable in a whisky, so beginning nosers have something they can determine fairly easily. Often the first thing they notice about a new whisky they nose is whether it is or isn't peated.
Furthermore, peated whisky is something of a surprise to many people who have only tasted a few blends and perhaps a Glenfiddich. So these beginning enthusiasts have something they can easily amaze their friends and family with, who might not be as adept at whisky as themselves.

The bottom line is that almost all new enthusiasts begin their journey with peated whiskies. There's nothing wrong with that, nothing at all. It is a wonderful and interesting place to start. But that's what it should be : a place to start, not as only too often seems the case, the end of their whisky journey. Peated whisky is in fact where the learning curve of the connoisseur starts. Not because I say it should be, but because I notice it is. And the problem is that it isn't perceived as such. People think Lowland whiskies, and the subtler Speyside whiskies are easy to appreciate, but they aren't. It is just their subtlety that makes them more difficult to discern. Peat is dominant enough to be easily noticed at 40% ABV or more, but many of the flavours and aromas in the subtler whiskies aren't. The true challenge lies in finding and appreciating those. It is in fact for that very same reason, I think, that the Irish whiskies are so easily cast aside, even by more seasoned connoisseurs. Triple distillation makes a whisky more mellow, but also more subtle.

Please don't misunderstand me : I LOVE peated whiskies. I am only observing the fact that there is an inverted view of the learning curve of a whisky connoisseur, which is inconsistent with the actual facts. And that as a result many enthusiast get stuck in what I like to call the Peat Trap.