Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Madeira Review: Blandy's 5 Year Old Malmsey

Blandy's is a very old (they celebrated their bicentenary in 2011) family-owned producer of madeira.

A step up from entry-level line of 3 year old tinta negra blends, the 5 year old, single varietal bottles span the gamut from port-like sweetness (Malmsey) to sherry-like dryness (Sercial).

Malmsey madeira is fortified 48 hours after fermentation begins, leaving a significant amount of residual sugar in the wine. This is then aged for at least 5 years in oak casks in the Canteiro system, where the barrels are stored on the top floor of warehouses on Madeira, which exposes them to quite a bit of heat (Madeira is a sub-tropical island). The barrels are progressively moved down towards ground level where it is cooler.

The wine is finally bottled at 19% ABV with a pH of 3.42, 123 g/l of residual sugar, and 6.23 g/l of total acid.

Blandy's 5 Year Old Malmsey

Nose: sun dried raisin notes dominate, with some burnt sugar, earthy, a touch of cocoa powder, charred oak, some estery notes up top that seem almost floral

Taste: raisin sweetness throughout that waxes and wanes, mid-palate there's a moderate amount of savory (yeasty?) acidity that balances but never overtakes the sweetness, and some of the dry cocoa powder hanging over everything

Finish: raisins with diminishing sweetness, drier fruit notes hang around

This is, ultimately, a relatively simple wine. It hasn't had enough time in the barrel to really develop depth or complexity, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. While I find it a bit too sweet to really hit the spot for me, I think it will appeal to anyone who enjoys tawny ports. Madeira, even malmsey, has more acidity than port, but I enjoy that aspect as it seems to strike a balance between the unrelenting sweetness of port and the bone dry acidity of many sherries. As an added bonus, everyone who I've gotten to try this madeira has enjoyed it, so it seems to have broad appeal.

Monday, April 14, 2014

New Cocktail: Eau de Beckham

This drink began as a joke from Oliver Klimek about the new Haig Club single grain whisky. Given the marketing angle, it appears to be designed for vodka drinkers. While whisky, Chartreuse, orange liqueur, and a dash of Beckham Eau de Toilette isn't such a promising start, I wanted to see if I could use it as the basis for a drink.

The parameters were:

•Had to contain grain whisky, Chartreuse, and orange liqueur
•The only other ingredients had to be bitter

After a little experimentation, I worked out something that fit the mold of other drinks I've been enjoying lately.

Eau de Beckham
1 oz blended whisky
0.5 oz sweet vermouth
0.25 oz yellow Chartreuse
0.25 oz orange liqueur
1 dash Angostura bitters

Build over a large ice cube in a chilled rocks glass. Stir briefly.

The nose is a little off kilter, with the caramel from the whisky and sweet grape notes from the vermouth struggling with the herbal notes from the Chartreuse and hints of the Angostura's spices, with a hint of wood smoke drifting over it all. The taste comes together much better - the sip leads with the whisky's caramel, which flows into herbal/vegetal notes from the vermouth and Chartreuse, which is punctuated by spices from the bitters. The finish is dominated by the bitters and Chartreuse. Everything is undergirded and smoothed out by the orange liqueur.

While not an obvious clutch of ingredients, I'm rather pleased at how well this came together. It might not balance the same way with a lighter whisky, but you'll have to find out for yourself. If the folks at Haig decide to run with this, a little acknowledgement would be nice.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Whisky Review: Talisker Dark Storm

This release is a travel retail-only version of Talisker's NAS Storm. It purports to be aged in 'charred casks', which is an effectively meaningless phrase as all scotch whisky is aged in charred casks. My thoughts as to what it really means after the tasting notes.

As with most Talisker releases, this was bottled at 45.8%, though I suspect that it is chill filtered and possibly colored.

Thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky for this sample.

Talisker Dark Storm

Nose: rather floral on top (diminishing with time), new lumber and malt underneath, some woody dry fruit, sour vegetal peat, savory caramel, dusty grain, vanilla, subtle sherry/bourbon fruit notes and sweet raisins, wood smoke/char, brown rice, youth is barely covered by the casks, cardboard. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes more savory with a sort of woody meat pie quality and some brown sugar/maple notes come out.

Taste: very woody throughout with new lumber character, sucrose sweetness from the drop - fading towards the back, peat is hard to find through the thicket of oak, some raisin notes from mid to the back. After dilution, the flavor profile flattens dramatically - almost no development with overlapping lumber and sucrose sweetness all the way through, with raisins, bitter wood char, and some salt showing up right at the back.

Finish: rather tannic wood, sour peat residue, raisins, and unpleasantly sweet edge

This is lowest common denominator whisky. Almost all of Talisker's distinctive character has been stripped out, leaving sweetness, wood, and a bit of peat. If I didn't know already, it would be hard to peg where this whisky is from. Might have guessed Caol Ila, blind.

I have a hunch that this may be whisky from rejuvenated casks, which would explain the intense sweetness coupled with fresh lumber yard wood. It has a lot of the flaws of craft whiskey, with the same sort of wood flavors that you get when a distiller is trying to speed up extraction. Sadly this seems to be where a lot of new whisky is headed these days.

I'm glad to have tried this, mostly because it's going to keep me away from Talisker's NAS releases. They appear to be scraping the bottom of the barrel for the travel retail market. While even the standard 10 Year appears to be losing some quality, it's likely still better than this.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Whisky Review: Bruichladdich 2001 - The Resurrection Dram

Bruichladdich began distilling again on October 23rd, 2001 after being silent for most of a decade. Seven years later, the distillery released a bottling from that very first run, appropriately named The Resurrection Dram.

The whisky was from a single batch of lightly peated (10 ppm) barley and had been aged for seven years exclusively in ex-bourbon casks, then bottled at 46% without coloring or chill-filtration.

Thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky for the sample.

Bruichladdich 2001 - The Resurrection Dram

Nose: rather light, gentle and well-integrated vegetal peat, some maritime notes, light oak and a touch of wood smoke, vanilla sugar, malt, slightly floral. After adding a few drops of water, the malt becomes dominate and more vanilla comes out, giving a fresher feel to the whisky, the peat and wood are still present but act more as accents, and a bit of dark chocolate pops out.

Taste: woody - but not overwhelmingly so - throughout, underlying malt, grows sweeter towards the back, gently bitter peat and wood smoke at the back. After dilution, it becomes much sweeter and maltier, with the wood and peat providing a nice balance, alongside some fruity/floral bourbon barrel esters near the back.

Finish: peat and wood smoke, gentle maltiness, light bitterness

This feels like a more refined version of Bruichladdich Waves. Peat is present, but not a dominant flavor, especially after adding a bit of water. While there isn't a whole lot going on (though this was literally the last dram of the bottle, so it may be oxidized), it's quite a nice drink and would have presaged good things to come when it was released in 2008.

In some ways I find this whisky frustrating after the bizarre ride of Laddie 10. If the quality of the Resurrection Dram had been carried forward, I would have a lot more respect and hope for Bruichladdich in the future. It's not a complex whisky, but it was enjoyable and could have gotten better with time and maybe a few sherry casks. But this appears to have been a one-off, so I think we're stuck with funky Laddies instead.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Why Long Fermentation Times are Important for Ester Formation in Malt Whisky

One fact I noticed during my trip to Scotland was that the average weekday fermentation time at scotch whisky distilleries was about 55 hours, but some went as short as 48 hours while others went as long as 75 (weekend fermentations sometimes reaching 120 hours).

It was generally the case that the larger distilleries used shorter fermentation times while the smaller ones had longer fermentation times (Caol Ila used to be an outlier, but appears to have shortened their fermentation times since replacing their old wooden washbacks with stainless steel a few years ago). In addition to Caol Ila, other distilleries such as Ardbeg have also decreased their fermentation times over the last decade, likely in an effort to increase the output of the distillery. But will shorter fermentation times produce the same kind of spirit?

After doing a bit of reading on the subject, I'm willing to say that the answer is probably 'no'. While shorter fermentation times can extract the same amount of alcohol out of a mash as a longer fermentations, there are other processes that need more time.

Lets begin with what happens during the production of malt whisky.

Malted barley is ground in a mill to produce grist, a mixture of flakes, finer flour, and hulls. This is then added into the mash tun, where it is mixed with hot water to extract the simple sugars from the grain. after soaking for some time, the liquid is drained off and progressively hotter water is added each time, usually three or four times total. The water is rather hot, with the first water added at ~65º C, the second at ~75º C, and subsequent waters are between 85-95º C, which extract the last bits of sugar from the grist and are generally recycled to be used for subsequent first and second waters.

Semi-lauder mash tun at Auchentoshan Distillery
The key point in that process is that while temperatures are high, they are not, unlike mashing done at breweries, heated above 100º C. This means that while the microbial cultures living in the malt are significantly thinned by the heat, they are not all killed.

The sugary liquid from the first two waters is cooled to 18ºC and piped over to the washbacks, where cultured yeast is added. As the dissolved oxygen in the wort is quickly consumed, the yeast begin to grow and divide anaerobically, converting the sugars in the liquid into alcohol, carbon dioxide, and other compounds (for more details, see Whisky Science). Because the yeast is pitched at fairly high concentrations, it can out-compete the remaining residual bacteria for the first 30-40 hours of the fermentation. At that point, the yeast begin to run out of steam as they start to choke on their own waste products - alcohol and heat.

Highly active fermentation at Laphroaig Distillery
While the starting temperature of 18-22º C is a bit below the optimal temperature for yeast, it is necessary to start that low because no whisky distillery I have seen has active cooling systems in its washbacks. This means that the liquid will absorb all of the heat produced by the yeast as they multiply and divide, which, over time, ends up being a lot of heat. After 48 hours, the temperature of the wort can rise by 10-20º C. While wine yeasts are sometimes tolerant up to 32º C, the S. cervisiaie strains used by distilleries will begin to suffer above 25º C or so.

Additionally, the end product of fermentation, ethanol, is toxic to the yeast that produce it. Final alcohol concentrations range from 5-8%, which is approaching the upper limit of survivability for S. cervisiaie. While the yeast will attempt to sequester the alcohol by converting it into esters, this is not a long-term strategy.

Both heat and alcohol end up creating the conditions for autolysis. While you may have heard of this process as something that brewers attempt to prevent, it may actually be an important step in developing the flavors of malt whisky (and champagne). As the yeast become stressed, they begin, in essence, to digest themselves. Cells are exquisitely organized to keep different functions in distinct compartments. When those compartments begin to lose coherence, degradative enzymes are loosed upon the rest of the cell, leading to almost complete breakdown. Large polysaccharides, including the major constituents of the yeast's cell wall, are broken down into smaller mono- and oligosaccharides; proteins are broken down into peptides and free amino acids; triglycerides are broken down into free fatty acids and glycerol.

All of those compounds released during yeast autolysis provide fodder for the bacteria that have been lurking in the background during the initial phases of fermentation. A study by van Beek & Priest (2002) found that bacterial communities, primarily lactic acid bacteria, only begin to thrive after 30-40 hours of fermentation and hit their maximum growth after 70 hours.

van Beek (2002)
While the bacteria are important in and of themselves, the intermediate period between 30 and 50 hours is critical because the yeast begin to defend themselves against the growing bacterial communities. Yeast and bacteria have coexisted for billions of years and yeast have developed a number of defensive mechanisms to suppress bacterial competition for resources. One of these defense mechanisms is the synthesis of acids.

van Beek (2002)
As you can see from the table above, acetic acid concentrations rise almost 10X between 40 and 50 hours. From the previous figure you can see that this is where the bacterial community enters an exponential growth phase and starts to present real competition to the yeast. In response, the yeast produce acetic acid to suppress that growth. As noted above, this is also partially a strategy to reduce the concentration of alcohol by converting it into ethyl acetate, though that never rises above mg/L concentrations. The rise in acetic acid has effectively ceased by 65 hours, at which point the yeast have almost all undergone autolysis and the bacteria are dominant.

The major constituent of the bacterial communities during malt whisky fermentation are strains of Lactobacilli. As the name suggests, these bacteria tend to produce lactic acid. This is the end produce of lactic acid fermentation, which breaks down sugars anaerobically. Why is this important to the flavor of whisky? Lactic acid can form esters, primarily ethyl lactate, which has a creamy or buttery flavor. Additionally, Wanikawa et. al. found that lactic acid bacteria hydroxylate unsaturated fatty acids from yeast, which can be esterified into lactones, which have fruity or coconut odors and flavors. Lactic acid bacteria also continue the process of ester synthesis started by the yeast, producing new acetate derivatives of fusel oils. Additionally, the action of lipases continuing to break down the triglycerides from the yeast to produce free fatty acids, which are then available for esterification and the production of fusel oils is continued from the free amino acids released by yeast autolysis via the Ehrlich pathway, which provide the two necessary raw materials for esterification.

To add to the importance of lactic acid bacteria, Simpson et. al. found that there are differences in the strains of bacteria present in the worts of different distilleries in Scotland. These populations are relatively stable, though they do change to some degree depending on time of year and the types of malt being brought into the distillery. Especially in distilleries with longer fermentation times, these bacterial communities may represent one part of their 'terroir'.

Microorganisms growing on the washbacks at Springbank Distillery
So while yeast may get center stage when it comes to the production of whisky, there are other microorganisms that also play important roles in developing the flavors we associate with the spirit but need more time than is usually given to exert their influence. This does not bode well for distilleries that have reduced their fermentation times over the last decade in an effort to increase output. They may find that this spirit is less complex and flavorful than it was before.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Whisky Review: Miyagikyo 15 Year

Miyagikyo is the second distillery for the Nikka brewing conglomerate, built in 1969. It is located in the northern half of the Honshu (the main Japanese island), in the forested area around Sendai. Unlike most distilleries in Scotland, it can produce both pot-still malt whisky as well as Coffey still malt and grain whiskies at the same facility.

The pot stills at Miyagikyo were built to produce a lighter style of malt whisky, utilizing steam coils to heat the wort and tall stills with rising lyne arms and a bulging ring right above the pot to increase reflux.

This whisky is bottled at 45% - no idea whether it's chill filtered or colored.

Thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky for this sample.

Miyagikyo 15 Year

Nose: strong berry notes (raspberry especially) on top, savory malt underneath, toffee, cacao/dark chocolate, sherry influence, light vanilla, tropical fruits, not a lot of oak. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes more malt-focused, the sherry retreats, it becomes drier overall, and some cinnamon, nutmeg, and floral apple brandy notes pop out.

Taste: sharp acidity right up front, quickly becoming sweet malt and sherry, fading into Japanese-style malt (there's a certain vegetal sourness to it) and well-integrated oak tannins. After dilution, the acidity and sweetness become more integrated, the flavors become less distinct overall, the oak comes in sooner, there is more malt at the back and floral overtones through out, the sherry is present but less assertive, and some baking spices (cinnamon and nutmeg) come out at the back.

Finish: oak tannins, mild sherry and malt, alcohol heat

This is a really nice sherried whisky. I enjoy that it manages to be sherried without overwhelming the malt and also leans towards the savory end of the sherry spectrum, rather than overbearing sweetness. While the bottling strength isn't too high, it's enough to give this whisky plenty of presence. I also liked how well it took water, which seemed to decrease the influence of the sherry while increasing the influence of the malt and oak.

The only problem is that, these days, it comes at a price. Even the younger 12 Year is usually $100 in the States and the 15 Year is anywhere from $120-150. If you can even find it. Japanese whiskies are in demand right now and anything available outside of Japan proper exists only because the distillers are intentionally pulling stock from Japan for the rest of the world.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Whisky Review: Gordon & MacPhail Caol Ila 1998/2009 Madeira Wood Finish

Caol Ila is one of the biggest distilleries on Islay, cranking out almost boundless amounts of peated whisky for Diageo's blends. This means that it's also the most common Islay whisky to make its way into the warehouses of Scotland's independent bottlers.

This one comes from Gordon & Macphail, one of the biggest and oldest independent bottlers in Scotland. The whisky was distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2009 at 45% from two casks.

Thanks to Joe Lorigo for the sample.

Gordon & MacPhail Caol Ila 1998/2009 Madeira Wood Finish

Nose: dry mossy peat with a farmy edge wrapped around a malty core, wine finish peaks around the edges (gaining ground and integrating more with time), plums, salty depths with a touch of bacon, lots of vanilla, a little wood ash. After adding a few drops of water, the wine gains some ground, pushing the peat towards the background,

Taste: wine is present throughout, malty sweetness undergirds everything, transitioning into smooth caramel, followed by a burst of dry oak and peat near the back. After dilution, the wine becomes much more prominent, though it remains relatively dry, there's an acidic pop alongside the oak at the back, and some vanilla comes out as well.

Finish: bubblegum, moderate wine, vanilla mossy peat, nutty

I think this is a good example of what Caol Ila's peat can be. It's less aggressive than many others on Islay, but still has a great richness. The madeira finish is a bit odd - it actually reads more like some of the red wine finishes I've tried before rather than other fortified wines like sherry or port. It works fairly well on the nose, but doesn't seem quite fitting for the palate. If the peat had come in earlier and more aggressively, it might have worked, but as it stands the oak was doing most of the heavy lifting in terms of keeping the wine in check. The combination of bubblegum and vanilla with peat in the finish is more than a little strange and might be what tips me towards not wanting a whole bottle. Water seems to bring out more of the wine to the exclusion of peat, so I would lean towards leaving it neat.

In a lot of ways I might have been happier if this had been released as an unfinished bourbon cask, especially if cranked up to 50% ABV. This isn't a bad finished whisky per se, I just don't find it particularly compelling.