Friday, August 5, 2016

Whiskey Road Trip, Maker's Mark Tour

After my disappointing reception at the George Dickel distillery, I decided it would be best to clear the slate and approach my second tour of the day with an open mind. I hadn’t made any prior arrangements at Maker’s Mark, so I figured I’d just go in as a regular tourist and take the standard tour for what it was.

By the time I finished up at Dickel and got on the road it was already 11:00. I was going to lose an hour to the time zone change and Google Maps estimated the drive at three hours and 45 minutes. Those drive times are usually pretty conservative, but that would put me there 15 minutes late for the last tour of the day, at 3:30. All I could do was put the hammer down, forgo lunch and hope that I didn’t hit any traffic going through Nashville. I actually ended up making really good time and arrived at the distillery just before the 3:15 tour.

In addition to a relatively new tasting room and gift shop, which both date to 2007, the distillery completed another expansion of their tourist facilities in August of 2015. Reconfigured entry driveways separate the truck traffic from the visitor’s cars, which are now routed directly to the new, larger tourist parking area. From here the first building you come to is the relocated and expanded welcome center. The greenhouse-like space features a discarded pot still and large displays of many of the commemorative bottlings Maker’s has put out over the years. The new construction is an addition onto the Burks House, which dates to 1902. This was the residence of the original distillery owners, which has been restored to its Victorian glory and is kept in a museum-like state. This is essentially the staging area for the distillery tours, which, somewhat unusually, start and end in different locations.

The good thing about visiting on a weekday in early February is that it’s definitely not a peak tourist time. I was in a group of about half a dozen, which probably isn’t possible during the busy summer months when upwards of 1200 visitors come through each day. One of the first things our tour guide asked was if we had visited any other distilleries earlier in the day; some of us had, some had not. She looked a little surprised and a little impressed when I mentioned that my morning started at George Dickel.

About 10 minutes before arriving at the distillery, I drove past several new whiskey warehouses which were under various stages of construction. I assumed that they probably belonged to Maker’s Mark, but there are plenty of examples of warehouses which are located quite far from their corresponding distilleries. That question was put to rest when our guide mentioned that anyone driving up from the south would have gone past their under-construction warehouses. There were quite a few of them, which stands to reason; Maker’s Mark had just expanded with the addition a third still and all of the associated infrastructure to go along with it. This new still had just gone online toward the end of November, increasing production capacity by 50%.

One of the first questions came from another of the tour participants; “What is the meaning of the S IV symbol that is on every bottle of Maker’s?” This is the “maker’s mark” that Maker’s Mark is named for, and our guide noted that the “S” stands for Samuels and the “IV” indicates that William Samuels Sr., who founded Maker’s Mark, was the fourth generation of distillers in his family. There is also a star in the design, which I later learned represents Star Hill Farm, where the distillery is located.

I should note here that at the time of the inception of Maker’s Mark in 1953, William Samuels Sr. purchased the site and facilities of an existing distillery. Charles Burks and his family settled here in 1803. In 1805 he constructed a grist mill on the site as well as a dam on Hardin Creek to power the mill. There is no documentation of the exact date distilling started here, but it is believed to be shortly after the mill became operational.

Charles Burks and two of his sons passed away over the course of less than two years in the early 1830’s. Distilling ceased soon after but other family members continued the milling operations. Most of the older buildings currently in use at the distillery date to the late 1880’s, when the founder’s great grandson, George R. Burks restarted whiskey production on the site. At the onset of Prohibition he sold the distillery to J. E. Bickett, who had been a minority owner of the business since 1905. In 1935, his son, Frank Bickett, rebuilt the distillery and whiskey production resumed in 1937. The distillery was sold three separate times during the 1940’s, with the last owner, Dave Karp, shutting the plant down in the spring of 1951. Two and a half years later he sold the property and distillery to William Samuels Sr.

The original Samuels family distillery was established in 1844 by Taylor William Samuels when he and his son, W. I. Samuels, set up shop on the family farm. That was located outside of Deatsville, KY, about 25 miles north of the current Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto. Leslie B. Samuels took over the distillery in 1898 when his father and grandfather both died. In 1909 a fire destroyed the distillery, six warehouses and 9000 barrels of whiskey. Controlling interest in the business was sold to a Cincinnati based company and the distillery was rebuilt, but the Samuels family remained involved in the operation.

Much of that distillery was demolished during Prohibition, but the company reorganized after Repeal and built a new distillery at a nearby location. At this point Leslie’s son, William Samuels Sr., became involved in the business. He took over as the plant manager after his father’s passing in 1936. The distillery became quite successful and in 1943 the Cincinnati based owners decided to cash in and sell the company. William Samuels Sr. was unable the secure the financing to buy the distillery himself and was forced to sell his minority share to a New York based buyer. Samuels left the company after the sale and 10 years later started Maker’s Mark with the purchase of the old Burks distillery.

The distillery has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974 and was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1980. Many of the older building with historic significance have been well maintained and the Samuels family have been careful to keep up the turn-of-the-century appearance of the complex, even through times of expansion. Our tour guide didn’t go into too much detail regarding the pre-history of Maker’s Mark that I’ve outlined above, only mentioning that William Samuels Sr. purchased the distillery in 1953 for $35,000, as we were about to enter a warehouse that dated back to 1889. I’m guessing that the level of information given regarding that subject is something that varies from tour to tour.



From the Burks House we followed the brick pathway down the hill to the main area of the distillery complex. Even in the dead of winter, with no leaves on the trees and the grass a muted shade of green, the meticulously landscaped grounds were quite striking. I can only imagine how beautiful the place must be in the summer.



The first stop was the still house. This building stands out visually with its external grain silos and five-story tower which houses the stills. When you step inside to what is essentially a tourist viewing area, the layout is fairly compact, with a mash tub, two copper tailboxes and the lower section of a column still all in close proximity. The tailboxes are essentially the American equivalent of the traditional Scottish spirit safe; this is the piece of equipment where re-condensed distillate can be accessed for measurements as it flows to a holding tank.



At this point a few technical details were revealed. Current production capacity is 650 barrels per day. The use of a roller mill to crush the grain was a point of distinction, as most other American distilleries employ a hammer mill. They claim this adds less heat to the grain as it is being milled, which keeps the whiskey from developing bitter flavors. The mash bill is 70% corn, 16% wheat and 14% malted barley.



In the early day of Maker’s establishment, William Samuels Sr. put together a focus group of industry heavyweights which included Pappy Van Winkle to help him refine the process he would use. With their influence, he chose to burn the old family recipe and start over with a less common wheat based recipe.



Spirit comes off the column still at 120 proof and the pot still at 130 proof (like Dickel, Maker’s Mark employs a pot still “doubler”, but that piece of equipment isn’t visible on the standard tour at either distillery). Barrel entry proof is 110 and after aging the whiskey typically ends up between 110 and 116 proof.



Next we moved into another section of the same building which houses the fermentation tanks. There were eight of them in this room and they were traditional Cyprus tanks which looked quite old. Additional fermenters are housed in other, newer buildings. When I pressed for details the guide did tell us that there where 50 more tanks and they were all made of stainless steel. She also noted that the fermentation cycle lasts three days. We were all encouraged to dip a finger in the mixture and take a taste, which was a nice touch.



From there we stepped outside, crossed a small bridge over the stream that runs across the distillery grounds and feeds into Hardin Creek and walked over to Warehouse A, which dates to 1889. We went inside the two-story building which holds the barrels in wooden racks, six high (the wood “floors” only run down the aisles, not between the rows of barrels). In spite of the outside temperature reaching upwards of 60 degrees, the warehouse interior was maintaining its rather chilly winter temperature.
 


The vast majority of the whiskey made here is aged in more modern warehouses located various distance from the distillery and averaging six stories high. To produce a consistent finished product which is aged for about six years, all of the new barrels are entered on the top floors of the warehouses and then rotated down one floor roughly once a year.
 


There was also a cutaway of a Maker’s 46 barrel which showed its inside. This first (and only, if you don’t count different bottling proofs) variant of Maker’s Mark was introduced in 2010. It is produced the same way as standard Maker’s Mark in every respect, up until the end of the aging process. After six years or so, the whiskey is transferred into special barrels which have 10 seared French oak staves standing upright in the center. The additional maturation lasts for 9 to 11 weeks, and then the whiskey is bottled at 94 proof (slightly higher than standard Maker’s 90 proof). This new expression was created by William Samuels Jr., who had been running the company since the late 1970’s. He had been responsible for growing Maker’s Mark from a regional brand into a national one, but wanted to leave a more enduring legacy for himself as he neared retirement.
 


From Warehouse A, we went back outside and took a short walk to the bottling hall. It was late in the day so we only saw a few employees doing some cleanup and maintenance rather than any bottling action. The bottling line looks fairly modern, but the bottle tops are still all dipped in wax by hand. I asked about the miniatures, and yes, even those are hand dipped. This process does have quality control standards; the wax isn’t supposed to touch the label and there are an optimal number of wax legs that should run down the neck. Still, each person that does this job has their own unique way of dipping and rotating. Apparently if one of these employees goes into a liquor store they can actually pick out the bottles that they dipped. It all sounds pretty cool until they mention the production quota and the expected pace of twenty something bottles per minute. Oh, and that stuff is real hot, you definitely wouldn’t want to splash it around too much.
 


After the bottling hall, it was back outside and over to Warehouse D. This one looks very similar to Warehouse A on the outside and is only slightly newer, dating to somewhere between 1889 and 1900. But the inside is a whole different story; only a short part of the building’s center section still serves as a barrel warehouse and the two ends have been repurposed and modernized. Entering from the south end brings you into a large, open, modern looking space which is divided into three separate tasting rooms by floor-to-ceiling glass panels; two to the left of a center aisle and a third, larger one to the right. Aging barrels can be seen through glass walls at the end of the space opposite the entrance.
 


We sat on bar stools at the three rows of free-standing wooden bar top where samples in tasting glasses had already been pre-set for us. We went through Maker’s White (unaged spirit at 90 proof), regular Maker’s Mark, Maker’s 46 and Cask Strength Maker’s Mark, with a brief discussion of each.



Next it was on to the gift shop at the opposite end of the building. This has been the configuration of Warehouse D since 2007, where visitors go from the tasting area to the gift shop by passing through the in-use barrel racks in the building’s center section, which spans about 40 feet. That short walk received a major enhancement in 2014, though. Rob Samuels, who had taken over as president and CEO of Maker’s Mark upon his father’s 2011 retirement, wanted to do something special for the brand’s 60th anniversary. He commission renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly to create a Maker’s Mark inspired piece which would grace the ceiling of that historical space. The 36-foot-by-6-foot backlit installation is visually stunning.



Like passing through a time portal, the doorway at the opposite end of the barrel rack section of the building brings you to the gift shop, which is another large, open, modern space. All of the Maker’s wares and bottlings were on offer, but I was after just one; Cask Strength Maker’s 46, which can only be purchased at the distillery. What came as a surprise bonus was when I was told that if buying a bottle at the distillery shop, you had the option of getting one that hadn’t been dipped in wax yet and dipping it yourself.



After paying $40 (there’s no extra charge for the self-dipping option) for my 375 ml prize, it was time to don the proper protective gear. With safety glasses, gloves, forearm gators and an apron all in place I was ready to approach the dipping station. My tour guide explained the process; dip, remove, hold the bottle sideways, twist the wrist to rotate it over, then hold it upright and let the wax run down. Aside from a few air bubbles, I had pretty good results for a first attempt.



In my last Maker’s Mark post I discussed their struggle with supply issues and compared the standard 90 proof bottling to the short-lived 84 proof offering and the new (at the time) cask strength bottling. Now I have the opportunity to compare the 94 proof Maker’s 46 bottling to my 110.8 proof example of cask strength Maker’s 46.

Maker’s 46:
The nose has strong commonalities with regular Maker’s Mark, but in an amplified, more volatile way. The leather and shoe polish notes are accompanied by ground cinnamon and vanilla aromatics.
A certain degree of sweetness still leads on the palate, but it’s less dominant and shorter lived when compared to the flagship offering. As with the nose, much more obvious vanilla and cinnamon notes seem to be the big differentiators here, and they partialy mask the corn-forward grain notes. It’s also notably more full-bodied.
The finish is where Maker’s 46 really comes into its own. The vanilla character peaks and then gradually fades as the spice notes build, becoming more intense and more complex. Cinnamon stick and cinnamon Red Hots are the driving force, but subtle hints of Ancho Chile and Paprika are also present.
Overall, this is a bolder, more assertive take on Maker’s Mark, which shows a broader evolution of flavors.



Cask Strength Maker’s 46:
The aromas are quite similar to those of the 94 proof version, but the higher alcohol level does make itself readily apparent when nosing.
The intensity of flavor on the initial sip is almost overwhelming. It’s profoundly spice-driven and just short of palate numbing at first. After a few sips to acclimatize the mouth it becomes more manageable, but it’s still a wild ride through a range of fiery spice notes. A hint of maple syrup and a bit of vanilla driven sweetness run through the background up front, but that soon fades, leaving spice notes that evolve and become quite dry as it moves through the lengthy finish.
This one gets right down to brass tacks, skipping the formalities and jumping headlong into waves of bold spiciness. The standard Maker’s 46 seems mild but better-rounded by comparison. The cask strength version of traditional Maker’s Mark nearly matches the intensity, but with more leathery oak and less spice character.



As I said in my previous post, my decision to visit Maker’s Mark was primarily driven by the fact that no other afternoon tours would work into my travel schedule that day. Don’t get me wrong, I like Maker’s Mark; it just wasn’t at the top of my priority list for distillery tours. That being said, I was really won over by the beauty of the place and the features of the tour.

I had actually made the mistaken assumption that this was where all of the general tourists go because the brand is so well know. But the distillery isn’t really near to much of anything; you really have to go out of your way to get there. While well-rounded bourbon enthusiasts might seek out other distilleries first, there’s no shortage of Maker’s Mark fanatics embarking on the pilgrimage to their ultimate destination.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Whiskey Road Trip, George Dickel tour

Having fulfilled my whisky dinner hosting obligations in Florida, as documented here, here, here and here, it was time to transport myself northward and partake in some long overdue tours of American distilleries.

When this trip was being planned, a limited number of dates were given to me as options for the Florida event. The one that worked best happened to be on a Monday. I was also trying to not take any more Saturdays off from work than necessary; that being my most profitable night of the week. That left me with a four day window, but the lengthy drives involved meant that it would break down to two travel days and two touring days.

The first step of the planning process was to take a look at a map and see where Kentucky’s major distilleries were actually located. They’re pretty spread out, but are basically arranged in two clusters; those around Bardstown and those around Frankfort. My first thought was that it made sense to end in Frankfort because it’s slightly further east, putting me a bit closer to home when I started the long drive back to Vermont on Friday morning. That was still going to be a 15 hour drive; not easy, but manageable. I’d done a few 17 hour solo drives in my younger days, so at least I knew what I was getting myself into.

I figured I wouldn’t get on the road too early the morning after hosting the Scotch dinner, and while I was looking at drive times on Google Maps I saw that it was going to be a 14 hour run whether my destination was Bardstown or Frankfort. Not liking the sound of that and preferring to have a bit more recovery time before jumping into distillery tours first thing the next morning, I started to consider the Tennessee option. This would mean a roughly 11 hour drive to the southern part of the Volunteer State, a nearby distillery tour the following morning and then a three to four hour drive to a Kentucky distillery for an afternoon tour.

A little more research ruled out visits to any new / craft distilleries in Tennessee, leaving Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel as the options. The latter was the more interesting of the two to me, so that decision was quickly settled. Of the major Kentucky distilleries, Buffalo Trace and Four Roses topped my priority list. They’re both part of the Frankfort cluster, so spending two nights in the state capital and visiting them on the second day of taking tours made the most sense.

Now I just had to figure out what to do in the afternoon following the Dickel tour. My first inclination was to do something a little different and visit a cooperage. Independent Stave, one of the two big players in the industry, offers tours at their Lebanon, KY facility. Unfortunately they only run two tours per day; one at 9:30 and one at 1:00. Even if I took the first tour at Dickel at 9:00 and left by 10:00, the nearly four hour drive between the two would have me arriving an hour too late.

Then, for some reason, I thought I should check to see if I was going far enough west to cross from the Eastern time zone to the Central time zone at any point. Yep, sure enough the line zigzags through the middle of both Tennessee and Kentucky, and I would be crossing it. All of the distilling industry points of interest in and around Bardstown and Frankfort are on East Coast time, but Dickel (as well as Jack Daniel’s, which is nearby) is in the Central time zone. For a brief moment I thought I might be getting back the hour that I needed to get to Independent Stave in time for their second daily tour. But a closer look showed that I’d be losing an hour on the drive from Tennessee to Kentucky. On the upside, I would get an extra hour of sleep after the long drive from Florida.

Now my timing between tours was going to be even more of a critical factor, and I eventually came to the realization that Maker’s Mark was the only Kentucky distillery that was close enough (in terms of the drive time from Dickel) and that offered a tour late enough in the afternoon to be a candidate for my second visit.

I ended up spending the night before the Dickel tour in Winchester, TN, a town which is about 20 miles south of the distillery. The drive up from Florida, which was primarily on Interstate 75, was fairly routine aside from seeing the overtly religious billboards that we just don’t have up north. As expected, I got a late start leaving Florida. The time zone crossing made up for that delay, and in spite of getting stuck in rush hour traffic in Atlanta I was still able to reach my destination in 11 hours. What was probably the most scenic and interesting part of the drive, where Interstate 24 passes through the Monteagle Mountain section of the Cumberland Plateau, was unfortunately done after dark and with thunderstorms rolling in.

Driving to the distillery the next morning took about 30 minutes. After passing through the small but densely developed town of Tullahoma, the last mile and a half of the road leading out the distillery quickly becomes quite rural as it brings you into secluded, tree covered rolling hills. While the distillery is by no means small, it still has the feeling of being tucked away in a classic Tennessee hollow (you’ll want to pronounce that “holler” if you’d like to fit in with the locals). All but one of the Dickel barrel warehouses are hidden from sight behind the hills surrounding the distillery, furthering its image of isolation.




This not being my first rodeo, I was well aware of the fact that Dickel was a Diageo owned distillery and that meant there would be no photography allowed in the production areas during the tour. This was a corporate policy that I learned about the hard way while visiting several of their distilleries in Scotland. I’m not really one to look for special treatment from the industry, but considering my intention to document these tours, being able to take pictures was kind of important to me. I decided to make this request about a week in advance through someone I know (albeit peripherally through a mutual acquaintance) who works at Diageo. While I had his ear, I also mentioned that I’d be happy to chat with the new master distiller if she was available (a long time Dickel employee named Allisa Henley, who had replaced the recently departed John Lunn). The response was quick, and I was told that she would be expecting me.

Well, I’m not sure what happened, but when I arrived shortly before 9:00 and mentioned that I was there to see Allisa I got a blank stare and a polite “who are you?” After a quick phone call or two they apologized for the fact that I wasn’t on her schedule and noted that she’d be in meetings all morning. In spite of the fact that I’d spent a good chunk of the previous evening brushing up on Dickel’s history and brainstorming topics for discussion, meeting with the master distiller would still have been a bonus to what I originally asked for; permission to take pictures during the tour. That first tour of the day didn’t start until 9:30, even though the information on the website gave the impression that it started at 9:00, so I was left with a half hour to putter around the visitor center.



Located across the street from the main distillery buildings is a replica of an old-timey general store which has the visitor center on one side and a gift shop, functional US Post Office and a small room for post-tour tastings on the other side. There was an interesting collection of historical artifacts related to the distillery on display, as well as a diorama of the equipment used in the distilling process.






When it was time for the tour to start, the guide laid out the ground rules, which of course included no photography once we were across the street on the production facility grounds (apparently the rather professional looking business card I presented when I originally introduced myself doesn’t carry much weight). At that point I was actually tempted to just say “fuck it” and leave, but after driving as far as I had I figured I should at last walk through and see the place.

The tour itself was fairly standard fare, although it did feel a bit scripted and I got the impression that asking too many questions might throw the whole thing out of sync. I think it’s kind of pointless to go into the nuts and bolts of what I saw in the distillery without any corresponding images to show, so I’ll just skip on to some of the interesting info I was able to pick up along the way.

The distillery is currently producing seven days a week with two shifts per day and an output of 600 barrels per week. The barrel warehouses, which are all single story and six barrels in height, are grouped together, on location. They have a total capacity of 200,000 barrels (which equates to about six and a half years worth of production). Like most of the major American distilleries, double distillation is performed here. First a column still brings the distillate to 115 proof, then a doubler (a type of pot still) takes it up to 130 proof. That distillate is then diluted down to 112 proof before barrel entry.

But before barrel entry, the distillate goes through the Lincoln County Process. This step of filtering the liquid through sugar maple charcoal is what essentially defines Tennessee Whiskey and differentiates it from bourbon. People love to argue about whether or not Jack Daniel’s and / or George Dickel are bourbons. In actuality they both fit the technical definition of bourbon, but are not simply because their producers choose not to label them as such. The process does differ slightly between the two brands. At Jack Daniel’s the liquid slowly trickles down through 10 foot tall vats of charcoal, while at Dickel the liquid is first chilled to 40 degrees F and then filled into 13 foot tall vats of charcoal, where it stays for about a week before being drained off.

One of the more interesting points that came out during the tour was when the guide mentioned that a distillery-only 17 year bottling would be coming out in the spring. In my post comparing Dickel No. 8 and Dickel No. 12, I discussed the more recent history of the distillery; specifically the events related its four and a half year closure, from January of 1999 through September of 2003. A new 17 year old would clearly be from some of the last distillate produced before that closure. The first word of an upcoming new whiskey is usually broken when its label approval appears on the TTB website. In the case of the 17 year Dickel bottling, word of the new label approval broke around mid April, as can be seen here. Finding out about the new release more than two months ahead of it becoming common knowledge was pretty cool.

At the time, I was told that it would be a smaller bottle size (than 750 ml), but that no price information was available yet. I didn’t ask about what proof it might be bottled at. When it finally became available in early June, those details emerged; 375 ml bottle, 43.5% ABV, $75. Looking at the Certificate of Label Approval on the TTB website, I noticed that the back label has information for bottle deposits in the states that require them (ME, VT and IA) and that the “net contents” section of the form list three sizes; 375 ml. 750 ml and 1 liter. This leads me to believe that the distillery-only release may be a precursor to wider distribution.

Now we come to the part of the tour where I get a little riled up again. This time it has to do with the distorting of history. The whiskey sold by George Dickel was originally produced in a distillery about a mile from the current one and marketed under the Cascade Distillery brand. Diageo has a pretty poor track record when it comes to using accurate historical information in the marketing of the Dickel brand, as documented here by Chuck Cowdery. What rubbed me the wrong way on the tour was their accounting of how the current distillery came to be.

The original distillery was established around 1877 and ran until Tennessee instituted state-wide Prohibition in 1910. Whiskey for the Cascade Distillery brand was then produced at the A. Ph Stitzel Distillery in Louisville, KY until national Prohibition was instituted in 1919. Finally, the current Dickel distillery was built in 1958. The construction project was overseen by a man named Ralph L. Dupps, who went on to serve as the distillery manager until 1963 and the president of George A. Dickel & Co. until 1985.



On the tour, they mentioned that Dupps had tasted and had an affinity for the pre-Prohibition Dickel whiskey (this is a questionable fact considering that he was born in 1917, though not entirely impossible). But the big problem was when Dupps was spoken of as if he was some sort of random benevolent character who just decided to up and move from Kentucky to Tennessee in the late 1950’s, build a distillery and bring back the old Dickel, all on a whim.

In reality, the Shwab family, relatives of Dickel’s business partner, sold the company trademarks to the Schenley Distilling Company in 1937 (George Dickel died in 1894, his wife, Augusta died in 1916 and Victor Shwab, her brother-in-law, died in 1924). Schenley was one of a small number of companies that bought up the tattered remains of many of the American distilling businesses that had been thriving before Prohibition. In 1956 the owners of Schenley made an unsuccessful attempt to buy Jack Daniel’s, whose founding family instead chose to sell to the Brown-Forman Company. Schenley’s response was to take the Cascade Hollow and George Dickel trademarks that they owned, as well as the original recipe, and build a new distillery based on them as close to the original facility in Tennessee as possible to compete directly with Jack Daniel’s. Ralph Dupps, a Schenley employee who ran their Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, was charged with that task.

Now, lest you think I’m singling out Diageo here, I’m not. Plenty of other companies twist around the historical facts related to the distilleries they own to suit their marketing purposes. It’s a travesty whenever it happens, and they should all be called out for doing it.

On to the whiskey in the gift shop. Five offerings were available; Dickel #1 (which is labeled as a white corn whiskey), Dickel #8, Dickel #12, Barrel Select and a Hand Selected Single Barrel bottling.

One of the first things I noticed was that the George Dickel Rye was not among the lineup. When I asked about that, I was told that state regulations didn’t allow them to sell it in the distillery store since it isn’t made there. Dickel sources their rye whiskey from MGP in Indiana, which is the same 95% rye recipe used by, well, damn near everyone. It does go through the same charcoal mellowing process as the other Dickel whiskeys, but in the case of the rye that happens after aging rather than before. Why? Because it is sourced whiskey that was purchased well after it had been entered into the barrels.

While the tour was still in progress, the guide mentioned the typical ages of the three non-age stated bottlings. It was 5 to 7 years for the #8 (80 proof), 7 to 9 years for the #12 (90 proof), and 10 to 12 years for the Barrel Select (86 proof). My previous Dickel post, which I also referenced above, noted the typical ages of these whiskies from a few different time periods. I asked about the rather stark difference I had noticed between the #8 and #12 the last time I tasted them side-by-side and was told that in addition to the age and proof differences, the master distiller chooses the barrels for each with a specific flavor profile in mind. That seems counterintuitive to the philosophy of single-story warehouses which largely eliminate the variable of barrel location during maturation. This is something I would have loved to discuss further with the master distiller.

I’m not sure if I’ve expressed my opinion of white whiskey on here before or not, so here it is for the record. Every time I taste a white whiskey I think to myself “Oh yeah, that’s why they go through the trouble of building warehouses, coopering barrels and aging the stuff for years on end”. I do think white whiskey is an important educational tool. It should be available on tours and in smaller format bottles for those who want a greater appreciation of where their whiskey comes from. I don’t really think it’s something that should be sold (or bought) as an everyday drinker though. That being said, I was surprised to see Dickel’s white whiskey priced at a scant $2 less than the #8 ($23 vs. $25). But before I even thought to question that, the tour guide launched into what seemed like a preemptive defense of the product, noting its higher alcohol level (91 proof) and extolling its virtues as a brilliant cocktail ingredient. They must get questioned on this frequently. The #12, which nearly matches the proof of the #1 and is aged more than the #8, was priced at $29. It seems to me like they’ve chosen to cash in on people who are willing to pay too much for white whiskey.

Speaking of cashing in, I was kind of shocked to two bottles of Barrel Select sitting next to each other on the retail shelf with different prices ($40 and $45). The only difference was that the more expensive ones had been signed by the master distiller. When I mentioned this the next day to my tour guide at Four Roses, where they had bottles signed by their master distiller with no additional markup, the response was a slack-jawed look of disbelief. In the case of Dickel, it appears that the corporate bean-counters have the authority over such decisions.

The final bottle on the shelf was a Hand Selected Single Barrel offering. It was 103 proof with a 9 year age statement and priced at $99. The tour guide had mentioned that this bottling was available as a 9 year old and a 14 year old. I did a little research after the fact and learned that the Hand Selected Single Barrel program was started in 2013, so at the time the 14 year old and 9 year old bottling would have come from whiskey distilled shortly before and shortly after the Dickel’s lengthy closure (Jan 99 through Sept 03). I also learned that the 14 year old was limited to 50 or 60 barrels. The 9 year old has been an ongoing release (the one at the distillery was bottled in 2015); perhaps the 14 year will become available again by the end of 2017.


If I recall correctly, I was given the option of purchasing either two or four samples after the tour. The Hand Selected Single Barrel wasn’t on offer and I was already pretty familiar with the #8 and the #12, so I tasted the #1 and the Barrel Select. I liked the #1, keeping in mind my above stated opinion of white whiskeys in general, of course. Corn is certainly the driving force of its flavor profile, as one would expect, given Dickel’s mashbill of 84% corn, 8% rye and 8% malted barley.



In my last Dickel post I noted that I was quite fond of my first bottle of #12, which dated to 2007, but a more recent example from 2013 was far less impressive. The former was probably aged 10 to 12 years, while the latter was likely in the 6 to 9 year range. I’ve also sampled a bottled from 2015, and it was essentially the same as the 2013. When I tasted the Barrel Select at the distillery the memories came flooding back; there was the flavor profile of that original bottle of #12 that I knew and loved. It was wonderfully flavored, but smooth, mellow and balanced. The current Barrel Select is said to be aged 10 to 12 years, but I think there is more than just age at play here. I prefer the #8 to the current #12, and according to the research I did the 9 year Single Barrel was generally preferred over the 14 year, which was said to still have a strong showing of the Flintstone’s vitamins / minerality character.



In spite of my less than stellar experience at Dickel, I would still recommend visiting the distillery. If I was in the area again though, I’d make a full day of it. The site of the original Cascade Distillery is close by and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1994. Some physical remains, including the still house foundations and the spring dam can still be seen there. Also nearby, Machine Falls at the Short Springs State Natural Area looks like a great spot if you’re up for a short hike. I’m sure it would be interesting to follow up with a visit to Jack Daniel’s as well, to compare and contrast. All of that being said, if someone at Diageo wants to make amends by sending me a bottle of the 17 year Dickel, I’d be happy to give it a fair and honest review (I actually have no expectation of this happening, but it can’t hurt to throw it out there).

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Whisky Road Trip, Florida Scotch dinner part 4

After tasting through Monkey Shoulder, the Port Cask Finish bottling from Arran, and Kilkerran, Work In Progress 7 - Sherry Wood, we moved on to the final whisky of the latest installment of the Florida Scotch dinner; Kilchoman’s Machir Bay. Although not a prerequisite, something smoky always seems appropriate for the last dram of this event as it accompanies a round of hand rolled cigars.


With distillate flowing for the first time in December of 2005, Kilchoman was the next new distillery to come to life in Scotland after Glengyle. More significantly though, it was the first new distillery on Islay in 124 years.

There are currently eight distilleries producing whisky on Islay. Additionally, 20 others are known to have existed in the past. It’s very likely that there were many others, of which we have no record simply because they would have been small scale, unlicensed, farm distilleries that came and went 200 or more years ago. Even of the 20 that we know about, most of them were established in the first half of the 1800’s and were out of production before the end of that century. There are three exceptions to that generalization. Lochindaal operated from 1829 to 1929, Malt Mill (which was a small but separate distillery within the Lagavulin complex) ran from 1908 to 1960, and Port Ellen went from 1825 to 1983 (but that included being mothballed for a lengthy period, from 1929 to 1966).

The introduction of steam powered “puffer” ships in the late 1800’s, which dramatically improved the commercial transportation links between mainland Scotland and the islands, prompted the building of two new distilleries on Islay, Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain, both of which were established in 1881. It’s very likely that many of the existing distilleries on Islay expanded significantly during this period as well.

Interestingly, Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain were the first two purpose-built commercial distilleries on the island; all of the others had grown organically out of smaller scale, farm-based operations. They were also the last two distilleries built on Islay (ignoring the anomaly that was Malt Mill) until Kilchoman came along nearly a century and a quarter later. The most fascinating part of this story is that while Kilchoman was established as a commercial distillery, its initial concept was that it would only use barley from local farms, which would all be malted at the distillery on traditional floor maltings.

Kilchoman was established by Anthony Wills, who had been in the whisky industry as an independent bottler for eight years. When that business became increasingly difficult as surplus whisky stocks dried up and buying opportunities for independent bottlers became quite scarce, Wills decided that the only way forward in the industry was to start his own distillery. Such an endeavor requires a lot of capital, and luring investors isn’t easy when the necessary aging of the product results in a lengthy timescale before financial returns can be realized. At least today it’s trendy and popular to start a new distillery; I’m sure it was exponentially harder to convince investors that this was a good idea back in 2002, when planning for Kilchoman began.

But Wills prevailed and was able to secure £1million; enough to at least get the distillery constructed. Once he had gotten that far it was easier to shop the idea around than when it was just words on paper. Of course more money was needed to fuel operations and growth, and to date the project has had a total investment of more than £10million.

In the early days of Islay’s distilling history, its remote location and abundant peat resources were its biggest assets. Before the Wash Act of 1823, the British government had excise taxes set so high that most legal distilling wasn’t economically feasible. Barely accessible by the tax men, Islay became a haven for illicit distilling.

When the post World War II boom period was going full swing in the 1960’s, consumer preferences were also changing in favor of milder, more approachable whiskies. That trend was highlighted by the fact that both Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich switched their spirit over from heavily peated to unpeated in the early 1960’s. Islay’s reputation for producing big, bold peat monsters meant that the boom period’s beneficial effects were muted on the island. Port Ellen going back into production in 1966 after a 37 year closure, and Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich adding second sets of stills (1963 and 1975, respectively) were really the only notable expansions of that period.

When the downturn of the 1980’s came along, Islay was hit particularly hard. Port Ellen closed for good in 1983, Ardbeg was closed for most of the decade, and all of the other distilleries limited production, often to just a few days a week. It’s doubtful that anyone could have seen the coming resurgence in the popularity of Islay whisky when the industry began to rebound in the 1990’s. Today all of the island’s distilleries are revered by the many lovers of smoky single malt and Islay is the ultimate destination for many of the enthusiasts who embark on a whisky pilgrimage.

Anthony Wills had the foresight to recognize the importance of this trend and capitalize on it when he chose a location for his new distillery. Just having the word “Islay” on the label draws a lot of attention. The buzz around the first new distillery to be constructed on the island in well over a century drew a lot of media coverage. Being one of eight distilleries on an island that’s a prime destination for touring enthusiasts guarantees a steady stream of visitors.

All of that is irrelevant though, if the whisky isn’t up to snuff. The second smartest thing Wills did (after his choice of location) was hiring Dr. James Swan as a consultant. For the new distillery to be economically viable it would be necessary to start selling whisky when it was relatively young. The goal, which was deftly achieved by Dr. Swan, was to produce a quickly maturing spirit. This was done by designing the equipment and process to make a fruit-forward, gentle spirit and minimize the heavier compounds which require lengthy aging to tame. Long fermentation times, maximizing copper contact and the use of 1st fill casks primarily were the keys to this strategy. The first Kilchoman I tasted was the spring 2011 release, a mix of 4 year old and 3 year old whisky; I was immediately won over.

I mentioned above that the original concept was for Kilchoman to be a complete farm distillery. The realities of the local barley supply and the distillery’s floor malting capacity didn’t quite allow for that. Currently 20% of their barley is from the farm surrounding the distillery and malted in-house. There are five other distilleries in Scotland that malt some, but not all, of their own barley. They all blend that together with the commercially malted barley that makes up the majority of their supply. At Kilchoman the two are kept separate and local barley is only and exclusively used for their 100% Islay bottling. The floor malted barley is peated to 20 ppm and the commercial malt is peated to 50 ppm, further differentiating the two.

Production has grown steadily since spirit first came off the stills in December of 2005. In 2006 50,000 liters (of alcohol) were produced. By 2012 that was up to 110,000 liters. The projected quantity for 2016 is 200,000 liters, and the distillery’s maximum output is estimated to be 250,000 liters unless more stills are added. In November of 2015 Kilchoman purchased the surrounding Rockside Farm, which has been the source of most of their local barley, ensuring that the “farm distillery” concept will continue to be a part of their business model going forward.

As time has marched on, the ages of the various Kilchoman bottlings have slowly been creeping upward. While none of the labels carry age statements, information about their maturation is usually pretty easy to find. When the 100% Islay expression was introduced in 2010 it was a 3 year old. By the spring of 2015 its age had surpassed the 5 year mark. The Vintage releases come out every other year, but they are from distillate produced in successive years, so each is a year older than the one before it; the 2006 Vintage (released in 2011) was a 5 year old, the 2007 Vintage (released in 2013) was a 6 year old, the 2008 Vintage (released in 2015) was a 7 year old, and the 2009 Vintage will be and 8 year old (when it is released in 2017). Loch Gorm, which is their expression aged exclusively in Oloroso Sherry casks, started off as a 5 year old in 2013 and it has now crested the 6 year mark.

According to Wills, most of the core expressions will ultimately end up somewhere in the 8 year old to 12 year old range. He won’t be more precise than that until the whiskies actually get that old and can be properly evaluated.

For the Florida event we went with Machir Bay, which is Kilchoman’s flagship bottling. It was introduced in 2012 as a vatting of 3 year old (60%), 4 year old (35%) and 5 year old (5%), all of which was aged in 1st fill bourbon barrels, with the 4 year old portion finished for an additional 8 weeks in Oloroso Sherry butts. The bottle at hand is from the 2015 release, which is reported to be a 6 year old that spent 5.5 years in 1st fill bourbon barrels and 6 months in Oloroso Sherry casks.

The nose is fragrant with obvious peat smoke, but there’s a mellowness to it; the peat has depth, but isn’t harsh or jarring. Malt character and briny coastal notes round out the aromatics.
In the mouth it is full bodied, with a hint of malty sweetness up front. A big wave of peat smoke quickly rises up and takes center stage. Notes of burning beach grass and smoldering driftwood embers reverberate and linger. There are some interesting complexities, with the dry phenolic character countered by subtle tropical fruit and a touch of freshly cut hay.
It gracefully meanders through the increasingly spice-driven finish before slowly fading off.
This is very nice as it is, but I’m curious to see where it goes as the age edges upward.



An interesting point which I noticed is that the year of the release for Machir Bay was clearly noted on the label and on the box it came in for the first three years (2012, 2013 and 2014). That is no longer the case with the 2015 release, although the year can still be identified by the bottling code that is printed directly on the glass. To me, this signals that the year-to-year changes may now be subtle enough that the information isn’t too important. It also gives them the flexibility to make age changes midway through a calendar year and not have to worry about maturation information being inaccurate.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Whisky Road Trip, Florida Scotch dinner part 3

Continuing on from part 1 and part 2, the dinner’s third whisky was Kilkerran, Work In Progress 7 - Sherry Wood; a product of Campbeltown’s Glengyle distillery. This was Scotland’s next new malt distillery after Arran and as I mentioned previously, there was a time span of almost 10 years between their openings. In the case of Glengyle the location wasn’t chosen because it was exceptionally marketable, although the region’s whiskies do have a small but very passionate following.

The building of a new distillery in Campbeltown was a key step in the process of restoring some of the former glory to what was once the “whisky capital of the world”. Accomplishing that goal would, in turn, raise the profile of the new distillery, advancing its image in a self-fulfilling sort of way.

I’ve already talked about some of the factors that led to the explosive growth in the number of distilleries in Campbeltown. All of that happened between 1823 and 1835, when the total number of active distilleries in the small city peaked at 28. A few fell by the wayside in 1837. Others occasionally came and went through the ensuing decades, with the number of operating distilleries hovering between the mid twenties and the high teens until 1922. Then the real collapse came.

Campbeltown lost 15 distilleries from 1923 through 1928. One other held out until 1934, and then the city was left with just two distilleries; Springbank and Glen Scotia. There were many factors that put Campbeltown’s whisky industry in a weakened state in the latter half of the 19th century. I’ve written abut them elsewhere and those details are beyond the scope of this post, so I’ll simplify things a bit and just say that the post World War I economic downturn was the final nail in the coffin of “Whisky City”.

For a time it looked as if distilling in Campbeltown might end entirely. Glen Scotia was closed from March of 1930 through November of 1933, as was Springbank from some time in 1930 until early in 1936. But the two pressed on, surviving the chaos of World War II and the industry downturn of the 1980’s, even though both were closed for much of that decade.

Understanding how the opening of Glengyle fully ties into the resurgence of Campbeltown requires a look at the history of Springbank and the Mitchell family. The Mitchells first came to the Kintyre peninsula around 1660 as part of a wave of farmers who migrated there from the Lowlands. Several generations later, the Mitchells were at the center of Campbeltown’s distilling revolution. Archibald Mitchell Sr. (1734 – 1818) was a prominent farmer in the area. His son, Archibald Jr., was a maltster around the turn of the century, and is even said to have operated an illicit still on what would eventually become the sight of the Springbank distillery. All five of his children, Hugh, Archibald III (1804 – 1863), John (1811 – 1892), William and Mary, were involved with Campbeltown distilleries.

1825 – Archibald Mitchell III is part of the group that establishes the Rieclachan distillery. Hugh Mitchell later joins them.
1828 – The Springbank distillery is established by William Reid, who is related to the Mitchells by marriage.
1834 – Mary Mitchell is involved in the establishment of Drumore distillery. It appears to have closed in 1837, reopened at an unknown later date, then closed for good in 1847.
1837 – The Reid family suffers financial difficulties and they sell Springbank to John and William Mitchell.
1851 – John Mitchell is part of a group that acquires the Toberanrigh distillery, which was built in 1934. It closes nine years later, in 1860.
1872 – John and William have a falling out after quarrelling about a difference in sheep farming. William leaves Springbank, joining his other brothers at Rieclachan. Later that year he establishes the Glengyle distillery, which opens in 1873. After William’s departure, John brings in his son, Alexander (1853 – 1912), to help him run Springbank. At some point the company name is changed to J & A Mitchell, as it remains in the present day.
1919 – Glengyle is sold and no longer part of the Mitchell family.
1925 – Glengyle closes and all of the distilling equipment is sold off shortly thereafter. The space is later rented to the Campbeltown miniature rifle club, serving as its range for much of the 1930’s.
1934 – Rieclachan closes.
1940 – The Glengyle distillery and brand are sold to the company that owns Glen Scotia. An attempt is made to reopen the distillery, but that is scuttled by World War II.
1957 – The Glengyle buildings are sold again, and another attempt to reopen the distillery fails to come to fruition.
1969 – Springbank acquires the independent bottler Cadenhead’s. This was done to provide consistent work for the staff of their recently opened bottling hall, which is located in a former warehouse of the defunct neighboring Longrow distillery (1824 – 1896).
1970 – The former Glengyle buildings become the depot and sales office of the Kintyre Farmers Cooperative. Eventually all use of the buildings is abandoned.
1973 – Springbank first distills a heavily peated malt (which was double distilled, further differentiating it from the two-and-a-half times distilled Springbank), naming it Longrow. Initially this is done only as an experiment in 1973 and 1974.
1985 – Longrow first released as a 10 year old.
1987 – Distilling of Longrow resumes, with small quantities made in 1987, 1989 and 1990 before it goes into regular production in 1992
1997 – Springbank begins producing Hazelburn, an unpeated, triple distilled malt, which is also named for a former Campbeltown distillery.
2000 – Hedley G. Wright, the Chairman of Springbank and a direct descendent of the Mitchells, buys the former Glengyle buildings and tasks distillery manager Frank McHardy with their restoration and the assembly of a modern distillery within them.
2004 – The first distillation run happens at Glengyle.
2005 – Hazelburn is first released as an 8 year old.
2009 – Kilkerran (Glengyle) single malt is introduced as a limited release 5 year old.

While Springbank has always had a good reputation, it was during the 1990’s that the distillery gained an almost cult-like status, especially in the Japanese market. Glen Scotia was mothballed from 1994 to 2000, but has been producing steadily since reopening after a change of ownership. Along with Springbank regularly making three distinctly different styles of single malt, the addition of a third active distillery to Campbeltown would go a long way in raising the profile of the once mighty region.

On a side note, when researching such things there is a lot of conflicting information regarding Hedley G. Wright’s exact place in the Mitchell family lineage. I think much of the confusion comes from the fact that there were three Archibald Mitchells and many texts speak of Archibald Sr. and Jr., when they are actually talking about Jr. and the 3rd. Also, the name is often written without any corresponding suffix, adding to the ambiguity. I’ve spent more time than I care to admit researching this topic and am confident that I have it properly sorted out. Mr. Wright is the great-great-great-great grandson of Archibald Mitchell Sr., and the great-great-great grandson of Archibald Mitchell Jr. He is the great-great grandson of John Mitchell. That would also make him the great-great-great nephew of Glengyle founder William Mitchell (keep in mind, your grandfather’s brother would be your great uncle, so the number of “greats” is not the same when you go from father to uncle across the same generation). Even the information on the Springbank and Glengyle websites seems inaccurate, but what I’ve laid out here does work with their statement that Mr. Wright is the 5th generation of the Mitchell family to own and manage the Springbank distillery (Archibald Jr. should not be counted; there is only tangential evidence that he operated an illicit still on the site, and that was before Springbank was established).

The resurrection of Glengyle was significant on many levels. Campbeltown has long struggled economically and any new business is a blessing. Surely, part of the motivation behind the project was the shaping of Hedley G. Wright’s legacy, not to mention the family connection coming full circle. Having a third working distillery in town also helped in legitimizing Campbeltown as a recognized distilling region.

Managing this project was also the crowning jewel of the career of Frank McHardy, which ultimately spanned more then 50 years in the whisky industry. While there are many traditional aspects to the production of whisky at Glengyle, the distillery has an efficient layout, utilizing modern mezzanine flooring. Much of the equipment was purchased new, but the malt mill came from Craigellachie (surplus after an upgrade there) and the stills, condensers, spirit safe and receivers all came from Ben Wyvis. This was a malt distillery which was operated on the grounds of the Invergordon grain distillery from 1965 to 1977. Interestingly, Frank McHardy began his career at Invergordon, serving there from 1963 to 1966.

The barley used at Glengyle is all malted on the traditional floor maltings at Springbank (and to the same peating level) and the casks are stored in Springbank’s warehouses. The two distilleries are at the opposite ends of adjoining properties, and the company owns all of the real estate between them. Should future demand necessitate it, a complex of warehouses could be built between the two production facilities. The former floor maltings at Glengyle are still intact, though in need of restoration. This could easily be done if the two distilleries grow beyond the capacity of Springbank’s malting floors.

As noted in the timeline above, the Glengyle brand was sold to the company that owns Glen Scotia in 1940. They sold the buildings in 1957, but kept the brand and used the name on a blended Highland Malt in the 1990’s. That is why the new distillery could be named Glengyle, but the whisky had to have a different name. Kilkerran is a reference to the original settlement led by Saint Kieran and located where Campbeltown stands today.

There have been annual Kilkerran releases since 2009 under the WIP (work in progress) moniker. 2010’s WIP 2 consisted of 18,000 bottles, which seems out of place compared to the 9000 bottles released the year before and each of the two years after. Today we are patiently awaiting the official 12 year old release of Kilkerran, which is coming in August of 2016. But I did come across an interview of Frank McHardy from 2008 where he stated that Kilkerran would come out as an 8 year old in 2012. Perhaps that target was adjusted in 2010 and the size of following two WIP releases scaled back accordingly.

In 2013 the WIP 5 release was split in two; bourbon matured and sherry matured, with 9000 bottles of each produced. That output level was repeated for 2014’s WIP 6. In 2015 the bourbon matured bottling was at cask strength (all other WIP’s were at 46%) with 6000 bottles of it released alongside 12,000 bottles that were sherry cask matured. There was also a single cask (ex-Calvados) bottling of Kilkerran released in 2015 which had been distilled in May of 2006.

The WIP 7 sherry cask matured Kilkerran is the one which I selected for the Scotch dinner. None of the WIP bottles carry age statements, but the whole point of the series is that the bottlings get progressively older. My suspicion / best educated guess is that the whisky used for the WIP releases came from the first two years of Kilkerran’s production, so each subsequent release was older than the one before it, but not a full year older (probably closer to eight months). If I’m correct, that would make the bottle at hand roughly 9 years old, rather than the 11 years that is often assumed.


The nose is beautifully complex. Malty baked goods are the predominate note. Joining the fray are gentle floral aromas, baking spices, Oloroso sherry fruit, a touch of musty oak, and just enough peat smoke to be present and accounted for.
On the palate it is medium to full-bodied. An initial hit of sweetness up front is quickly knocked back by warming, dry spice notes. The sherry fruit is present but muted. Peat smoke, mint and botanical notes become more evident when exhaling through the nose after swallowing.
The flavors jump around a little on the palate and a touch of immaturity shows as it moves through the latter stages of the finish. Don’t get me wrong, this is damn good whisky but it will benefit from a few more years of aging. Now I’m really looking forward to tasting the 12 year old when it is released.



There was still some liquid left in my WIP 2 bottle, so I went back for a sample to compare to the latest release. The nose is less developed, but still has some interesting aromatics. Malty, spicy, grassy, gentle perfume and a touch of peat; all well integrated. It’s a little one dimensional on the palate. There are some nice flavors present, they just don’t evolve much; at least not until the spice notes emerge later on the finish. This is surprisingly well-composed for a less-than-6 year old whisky. That being said, the latest version just has so much more going on, both on the nose and on the palate. The Works in Progress have progressed nicely.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Whisky Road Trip, Florida Scotch dinner part 2

After briefly being distracted by a bottle of Glenfarclas 105 20 year, I’m getting back on track and continuing the coverage of this winter’s Florida Scotch dinner, which began here and should be read before continuing on with this post.

By the luck of coincidence, the order in which I wanted to taste through the evening’s whiskies happened to match the chronological order of the openings of their associated distilleries. So after starting with Monkey Shoulder to represent Kininvie (1990), we moved on to the Port Cask Finish bottling from the Arran distillery (1995).

The distillery is located on the eponymous Isle of Arran. This relatively large (167 square miles) island is situated in the Firth of Clyde (in Scotland a firth is coastal body of water that can range in size from a small inlet to a large bay), which is bound by the Scottish mainland to the east, the Cowal peninsula to the north and the Kintyre peninsula to the west.

In 1993 Harold Currie, a retired Chivas Regal executive, founded the new distillery. Construction began in 1994 and distillation commenced in the summer of 1995. To put the timing into context consider that the Scotch whisky industry suffered through a terrible decade in the 1980’s, with 18 malt distilleries permanently lost. Even though things started to turn around in the 1990’s, the fallout from the downturn wasn’t over and the first half of the decade saw the loss of four more distilleries; Lochside (1992), Pittyvaich (1993), Rosebank (1993) and Littmill (1994).

Yes, two new distilleries did open in 1990, but the Speyside distillery was somewhat of an anomaly having been under construction for nearly three decades and Kininvie had some mitigating circumstances. It was built in a way that utilized much of Balvenie’s existing infrastructure which would minimize investment, and its sole purpose was to supply whisky to existing blends so there was no need for the costly promotion and marketing of a new brand. When the Arran distillery opened it really was a pioneer, and it would be nearly a decade before another new malt distillery went online in Scotland.

The island hadn’t been home to an active distillery for a very long time, but it still had a rich distilling tradition, with more than 50 illicit distilleries having operated there at various times, primarily in the early 1800’s. The only licensed operation on the island ran from 1825 to 1837.

The question of where to locate a new distillery has always been important, although the considerations influencing that decision have changed with time. Historically, the remoteness of Scotland’s islands proved quite useful for hiding from the tax collectors. As the laws were reformed to make legal distilling a more profitable venture, other factors became more important. Local natural resources, transportation infrastructure and technology all played roles.

A combination of factors led to the explosive growth in the number of Campbeltown distilleries in the 1820’s and 1830’s. The list includes a local coal seam, plentiful peat and barley across the Kintyre peninsula, a reliable water source in Crosshill Loch, and a natural harbor which provided a commercial link to Glasgow and London. Another point that is often overlooked is the introduction of steam engines. This new technology allowed the establishment of many distilleries in a dense urban area, something that would not have been possible if they were all powered by waterwheel, as had been the previous tradition.

Distilling was long established on Islay and in Speyside based on their abundant resources, primarily peat on the former and water in the later, but large scale commercial distilling only became viable in these areas with improved transportation infrastructure. In the case of Islay this came in the form of steam powered, shallow draft “puffer” ships and for Speyside it was the penetration of railroads into the remote northern portion of the country. Both of these developments happened in the latter half of the 1800’s.

In the modern era truck transport is king. Any location with good road access (and reliable ferry service in the case of the islands) has commercial distilling potential. Of course a good water source on site is still essential, as well as a connection to the electric grid, but all other resources and finished product can be trucked in and out. Over the last five decades the percentage of malt whisky sold as single malt, rather than in bulk to blenders, has grown steadily. With this shift, the marketability of a distillery’s location has become ever more important.

Clearly the founder of the Arran distillery understood this. If a new distillery were to be located in Speyside, it would be incredibly difficult for it to stand out among the sea of neighboring facilities. By having an island all to itself, Arran immediately established an identity through its unique location. The ability to draw in whisky tourists so they can connect with the home of the brand has definitely become an important part of the equation.

According to the distillery’s web site, its location was chosen for three reasons; the exceptionally pure water source, the relatively warm microclimate that is beneficial to the aging process, and the island’s historical reputation for producing high quality whisky. Beyond that, it would be the only distillery on an island which has many other attributes with appeal to tourists.

Arran is often referred to as “Scotland in miniature”, with its varied geography showcasing many of the features that can be seen around the rest of the country. The island is also home to seven golf courses, three castles, and several prehistoric “standing stone” and “stone circle” sites.

The island can be reached from Glasgow in little more than two hours (one hour driving and one hour on a ferry). From there it’s less than a 30 minute drive to the distillery. The distillery itself is located on the northern end of the island at Lochranza, home to one of the one of the Arran’s golf courses as well as one of its castles. This is also the island’s other ferry access point, from which the Kintyre peninsula can be reached in just 30 minutes. From there the adventurous whisky tourist could head south to Campbeltown, north to Oban or just across the peninsula to Kennacraig, which has ferry service to Islay.

This picturesque distillery is in what I would consider to be the medium size range, with a production level of 750,000 LPA. Most of the distillate is unpeated, but they do produce whisky from barley peated to 20 ppm for four weeks and 50 ppm for two weeks each year.

As a new, independently owned distillery, some younger releases were inevitable in the early years. The first legal whisky was a limited 3 year old bottling in 1998. That was followed by a 4 year old the next year, and a Single Cask bottling vintage dated to 1995 was launched in 2002. A Calvados finished bottling was released in 2003 and a variety of vintage dated bottling and cask finished bottlings came out in the following years.

The official bottling of 10 year Arran was released in 2006, becoming the flagship offering of the distillery’s range. A cask strength 12 year old was added in 2008 as well as a 14 year old in 2010. There were limited releases of 16 and 17 year old in the two years leading up to the official 18 year old bottling being added to the lineup in 2015. That core lineup now includes three wine cask finished bottlings (Sauternes, Amarone and Port), Single Cask Sherry and Bourbon bottlings, and Machrie Moor; an expression made from Arran’s 20 ppm peated malt.

The Port Cask Finish bottling that I selected for the dinner is one that I’ve tasted before, but I was quite excited to revisit it more than three years later. It was recommended to me by a bartender at the Jack Rose Dining Saloon, which says a lot considering the volume of their collection. I recall enjoying it immensely, but that was at the end of a long night of sampling and my hand written tasting notes were barely legible.


The first thing I noticed on the nose was an earthy character (dunnage warehouse, the dirt floored cellar of an old house in New England). Complex stewed berry fruit follows and is joined by aromatics slightly reminiscent of shoe polish.
On the palate it’s full bodied and has a firm embrace. The malty character comes through up front. There’s a nicely balanced interplay of gingerbread cookies, subtle sweetness (somewhere between honey and agave nectar) and the fruit notes of a well-aged tawny port.
As it moves through the finish it becomes drier, with warming spice notes growing in intensity. Eventually the other flavors fade, leaving the pleasant spicy character to its own devices.