Friday, September 28, 2007

Reflections In A Glass of Whisky

So I was sitting there with a dram of Aberfeldy 17 year old single malt Scotch whisky the other evening, looking at the bottle. This surprisingly intricate midlands single malt was bottled by Gordon and MacPhail, one of several independent bottlers involved in the whisky trade. I realized that most people don’t really understand what single malt Scotch whisky is for.

There are roughly 120 different single malt distilleries scattered around Scotland’s highlands, Midlands, Lowlands and assorted Islands only about half of which bottle what they produce under their own names. Many of these are owned by the same parent companies—Diageo, United Distillers, Allied-Domeqc, that sort of thing (and these companies keep buying and selling each other’s assets). Now most of these companies produce more than a few different brands of Blended Scotch whisky, your Cutty Sark, Chivas Regal, and Johnnie Walker blends to name the best known. Single malt whiskies exist to service these blends.

The flavor profile of the Johnnie Walker blends derives from the different single malts used as “top dressing”. The base of the whisky is single grain spirits, which is produced in column stills, usually in the Lowlands, from whatever grain is in surplus at the time. This makes for a cheaper base. The single malt scotch whiskies then come into play, to add flavors and dimensions to the blends. In the case of Johnnie Walker the most prominent single malts used are Clynelish, Talisker and Cardhu.

Wait a minute, you say, Cardhu? I thought that didn’t exist anymore. Aha, says I, the distillery does exist and it still produces single malt whisky, but it doesn’t produce enough to service the demand for the Johnnie Walker blends and still have some to bottle as a single. The parent company tried to get around this by bottling a vatted malt under the Cardhu name, but it created such an uproar in the whisky world that the plan was shelved.

Now this brings me back to my bottle of Aberfeldy. It was bottled at cask strength, 113 US proof, so I added a bit of water to it, and it was just lovely. The only way you’ll see Aberfeldy, or many other smaller producing single malt Scotches, here in the US is in an independent bottling. When there is a surplus of a malt, barrels are sold off, and there is a great trade in these. When there is a shortage, some rare malts will become harder to find. There are many distilleries (Rosebank, Dallas Dhu, Port Ellen and Brora, to mention the most deeply lamented) that have been torn down. However, there are even some casks of these gems floating around, and the only way we’ll see them is if an independent decides to put it in a bottle. Some of the leading bottlers are Cadenhead, Signatory, Murray McDavid, MacKillop’s Choice and the aforementioned Gordon and MacPhail. These folks provide a wonderful service of bringing drams to our glasses that we might otherwise never get to taste. We should raise a glass to them!

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