Behind the Label tells the back stories of whisky, with a special focus on history and the scientific aspects that are often overlooked. If you have a suggestion for something you’d like us to dig into for Behind the Label, please use our contact form and let us know about it!

Myths & Misconceptions

February 19, 2023 – There are a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding whisky, and every so often, we need to puncture those myths and shed some light on the facts…

For instance, the common perception is that if a whiskey is labeled as “straight,” then it can’t have any coloring or flavoring materials added.

This is where things get tricky…straight Bourbons, straight malt, straight rye, straight wheat, straight corn, and straight rye malt can’t have any coloring or flavorings added to them…

However, according to the TTB’s Beverage Alcohol Manual, “blended” versions of those whiskies (such as “a blend of Straight Bourbons”) can have so-called harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials added to them, as long as they don’t exceed two-point-five percent of the total volume. There’s no requirement to disclose that on the label.   

Here’s another one: there’s a myth that Jameson sales in the U-S account for 70 percent of all Irish Whiskey sales worldwide.

Not quite…and we have data that proves that.

Irish Distillers reported its half-year-financial outlook this week, and said Jameson U-S sales accounted for two-point-five million cases sold during the period. Let’s assume that the second half of the year is just like the first, and about 5 million cases are sold in the U-S during the 2023 fiscal year. Irish Whiskey sales worldwide this year are forecast to reach 12-point-6 million cases according to Euromonitor. That would make Jameson’s U-S sales about 40 percent of all global Irish Whiskey sales.

A large market share, yes…but not 70 percent. 

What are some of your favorite myths about whiskey…share them with us on social media or use our contact form, and we’ll do a truth test again on an upcoming episode.

Links: TTB Beverage Alcohol Manual

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“Star Trek” Economics & Whisky Prices in a Post-Tariff World

Commentary by Mark Gillespie

March 6, 2021 – After the United States reached tentative truces with Great Britain and the European Union this week and suspended its “whisky tariffs,” I started getting questions like this on social media:

“How long before we see whisky prices fall now that the tariffs are gone?”

Before I answer that question, let’s explain just what happened this week. The Biden Administration is still waiting for Senate confirmation of Katherine Tai, President Biden’s nominee to become U.S. Trade Representative. A vote is expected this coming week now that the Senate has completed work on a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 economic relief package. While there is no Senate-confirmed diplomatic in charge of U.S. trade policy, permanent staff in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative have been working with acting leadership on key trade issues, including the aerospace subsidies dispute pitting the U.S. against Great Britain and the European Union that led to the “whisky tariffs.”

The agreements announced this week only suspend for four months the tariffs both sides imposed on each other’s exports following World Trade Organization rulings that both sides illegally subsidized aircraft makers, with the EU (including Great Britain) helping Airbus and the U.S. backing Boeing. Those rulings allowed each side to impose tariffs on goods equivalent to the amount of economic damage caused by the subsidies. In October of 2019, the U.S. chose to levy a 25% tariff on imports of single malt whiskies from Scotland and Northern Ireland, along with other luxury goods from European Union member nations. Last year, Europe (including Great Britain pre-Brexit) imposed its own tariffs on U.S. made spirits and other goods.

This is a different dispute than the one over steel and aluminum in 2017 and 2018 when the Trump Administration slapped tariffs on those imports on “national security” grounds, which led to the EU’s 25% tariff on Bourbon and other American whiskies in June 2018. That tariff remains in effect, and is scheduled to double to 50% in June unless an agreement is reached on steel and aluminum imports.

Now, I know what you’re thinking…

“Mark, you mentioned “Star Trek” in the headline. How does Star Trek figure into all of this, or were you just playing the “clickbait” game?”

Dear reader…I would never toy with you like that!

Quark owned a bar in "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and certainly would never have lowered his whisky prices after the end of tariffs. Image courtesy

Quark owned a bar in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and certainly would never have lowered his whisky prices after the end of tariffs. Image courtesy

In “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” we met the Ferengi for the first time, but it wasn’t until “Deep Space Nine” that Quark and his interstellar bar introduced us to the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition. Of course, the first Ferengi Rule of Acquisition is:

“Once you have their money, you never give it back.”

That’s the simple explanation why U.S. prices for most single malt Scotches won’t likely be come down with an end to the tariffs, but it’s a bit more complex than that.

The “three-tier” system for alcohol distribution in the U.S. plays a key role in our story, since it was designed after the end of Prohibition to maintain independence between whisky makers and the retail tier, including liquor stores, bars, and restaurants. While they can suggest a “recommended retail price” for whiskies, many states actually make it illegal for whisky makers or their regional distributors to dictate prices to retailers. Essentially, most retailers are free to set whatever price they feel their local market will bear – except in states where governments play a role in setting prices.

This becomes important when we look at how the tariffs are actually imposed. It’s not the whisky company in Scotland that was responsible for paying the 25% tariff, but the U.S.-based import company that actually takes delivery of a whisky shipment once it arrives at the border – and pays the tariff based on the wholesale price listed on the shipping invoice. With larger global spirits companies, that importer is often an internal unit, such as Diageo North America, Pernod Ricard USA, and the like. Most of the time, though, the importer is a small independent company that has a contract with distilleries to be the “exclusive” U.S. importer for their whiskies.

For those larger companies, tariff accounting has been more opaque since a company can juggle its finances internally to account for the tariffs and either pass along the entire cost to their regional distributors or absorb it to keep retail prices low. Most of the major whisky makers have not publicly disclosed their policy on tariff accounting for competitive reasons, and it’s a small enough expense that it doesn’t show up on their quarterly financial statements.

On the other hand, small distilleries have been hit much harder by the tariffs. They’re more likely to work with equally small independently-owned importers who make their purchasing decisions with very sharp pencils, and many of those importers have been cutting back on the number of distilleries they work with or reducing the size of their orders because of the cost of the tariffs. One example (and there are many) where there has been a compromise remains Kilchoman Distillery and Impex, with both agreeing early on to split the cost of the tariffs in order to keep retail pricing steady.

When importers gets shipments after they have cleared Customs, they then sends cases of whisky to regional distributors along with an invoice that may or may not reflect the tariffs. As a distributor drops off a case at your local liquor store, the owner will get an invoice that almost certainly includes its increased cost because of the tariffs. The retailer then takes that higher price into account when figuring the final price you’ll see on the shelf, which is how you wind up paying the final cost of the tariffs.

So…why doesn’t an end to the tariffs mean prices will come down?

Had the tariffs only been in place for a few weeks, they wouldn’t have had much of an impact. However, as the trade dispute has dragged on for nearly 18 months, the cost of the tariffs has become “baked in” to pricing across the tiers, and that’s a disincentive to lowering prices. As shipments make their way from Scotland to your local liquor store, it’s become harder to differentiate between cases of a whisky brand in a warehouse that may or may not have been subject to the tariff…especially once new “non-tariff” shipments hit the warehouse.

While economics has its own laws, we can also look to the one of the laws of physics to see how they might work together in this case. Newton’s First Law of Motion tells us that an object will remain at rest unless it is influenced by an outside force. In this case, the Trump Administration’s whisky tariffs acted as a force to send whisky prices rising. A starship in Star Trek will continue along a trajectory once its engines shut off unless gravity interferes with that motion, and in this case, a four-month suspension of the tariffs amounts to turning off the engine. Unless another force – such as a decision to lower prices – comes along, inertia will probably keep whisky prices where they are.

Of course, that decision would violate Ferengi Rule of Acquisition Number One. Since I have friends at all three tiers of the industry who might bristle at being compared to the Ferengi, let’s put it this way.

Are you familiar with the concept of the snowball and Hell?

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The Last Drop’s 1970 Glenrothes Single Malts and a Mystery of Whisky

By Mark Gillespie

July 6, 2020 – Science has helped us figure out a lot of whisky’s secrets over the last couple of decades. Gas chromatographs can show us precisely the proportions of flavor-creating compounds in a sample of “new make” spirit, allowing us to make educated guesses as to how it will mature into whisky over time in an oak barrel. Carbon-dating can tell us whether radioactive particles are present in a bottle of whisky claimed to be from before World War II, and the existence of those isotopes can definitively prove whether that claim is the truth or a fraud.

However, one elemental mystery of whisky may never be solved. In a world full of assembly-line manufacturing where identical products roll off the line to meet our consumer needs, whisky remains the mysterious stranger on the edge of the industrial park. No one knows why we can take seemingly identical casks from the same cooperage and fill them one after another with the same new make spirit, then store those casks next to each other in the same warehouse under identical conditions for the same amount of time – only to find significant differences in the whisky from each cask.

Need proof? Look no further than the three casks of 1970 Glenrothes released by Last Drop Distillers, which was founded with the goal of finding rare parcels of vintage whiskies and other spirits that had languished in the industry’s equivalent of the “Island of Misfit Toys.” The casks they bottle didn’t fit into a blender’s ideal recipe for a whisky for one reason or another; too peaty, perhaps too oily in texture, or the wrong type of wood – so they sat in a corner waiting for years until someone saw their true beauty.

But, before we look at these three whiskies, we need to go back in time almost 50 years.

The windows of The Glenrothes still house are reflected in the stills, which are the same shape today as those used to make The Last Drop's 1970 Glenrothes. File photo ©2020, Mark Gillespie/CaskStrength Media.

The windows of The Glenrothes still house are reflected in the stills, which are the same shape today as those used to make The Last Drop’s 1970 Glenrothes. Photo: Mark Gillespie/CaskStrength Media.

When these casks were filled on December 6, 1970, the Glenrothes Distillery in the Speyside town of Rothes was owned by Highland Distillers. As with many distilleries of that day, all of its whisky was destined for blending use. Cutty Sark and The Famous Grouse were known for using a lot of Glenrothes malt, but it was in high demand by blenders all over Scotland. In fact, the first bottling of Glenrothes as a single malt wouldn’t happen for 17 more years.

The whisky in today’s official distillery bottlings of The Glenrothes is much different than what the distillery produced in 1970. While the floor maltings had been closed several years earlier, its malt had peat levels significantly higher than the unpeated malt in use today. In addition, the distillery also used ex-Bourbon casks much more widely in 1970, while the vast majority of today’s Glenrothes spirit goes into ex-Sherry casks.

All three of The Last Drop 1970 Glenrothes whiskies were matured in ex-Bourbon casks, and are almost perfectly sequenced in number: #10586, #10588, and #10589. If we were discussing any other consumer product, there is no question that we should expect similar whiskies from each cask. While the final fate of Cask #10587 is known only to the Whisky Fairies, the other three casks were kept together for their entire maturation until they wound up with Last Drop Distillers.

The Last Drop 1970 Glenrothes. Image courtesy Last Drop Distillers.

The Last Drop 1970 Glenrothes Cask #10588. Image courtesy Last Drop Distillers.

Cask #10586

Our first clue that each cask is different comes from the bottling strength, since each of the three casks was bottled as it came from the barrel with no dilution. This cask was bottled at 45.3% ABV, while #10588 wound up at 44.1% and #10589 at 45%. That may be a small difference, but again, we’re looking at the mysteries of maturation.

The nose is malty with gentle kisses of peat smoke, vanilla beans, dark chocolate, and touches of dried apricots, mango, and papaya. The taste starts off light and fruity at first, followed by a nice balance of spices, barley sugar, and a hint of smoke. The finish has a whiff of peat smoke, along with chocolate and a lingering touch of spices. Overall, it’s luscious and vibrant with a gentle smokiness. (96 Points)

Cask #10588

While there are similarities in the three casks that can be attributed to the “distillery character,” each one of the three has its own unusual characteristics.  In the case of Cask #10588, the nose is rich with orange marmalade and notes of vanilla beans, Manuka honey, a touch of smoke, and a good maltiness. The taste can be described in one word – wow! There is a great fruity character with apricots and orange peel balanced by touches of oak tannins, vanilla beans, barley sugar, and a hint of spice that lasts through the long finish along with touches of tropical fruits and a hint of oak. (95 Points)

Cask #10589

If you’ve ever had a campfire interrupted by rain, you’re familiar with the smell of smoky, wet wood. That’s the first note I get on the nose of this whisky, along with vanilla, cooked bananas, a hint of sandalwood, and touches of dried fruits. The taste is fruity and vibrant on top with fresh berries and tropical fruits. However, there’s also a dark undertone of oak tannins and smoke balanced by gentle spices underneath that makes this single malt delightfully complex. The finish is very long with gentle spices and touches of fruit and smoke. Outstanding! (96 Points)

This trilogy of single casks completes a three-year series of Glenrothes bottlings by Last Drop Distillers, following their releases of 1968 and 1969 casks in 2018 and 2019 respectively. One additional difference between the three 1970 casks: the “angels’ share” of evaporation affected them differently. #10586 produced 103 bottles, while #10588 only yielded 87 and #10589 just 96 bottles for an overall total of just 286 bottles for the entire world. Apparently, the angels preferred #10588 just a bit more than its siblings – but not much more!

At a recommended retail price of $6,250 USD each, it would cost you at least $18,750 to acquire the entire set…assuming that is, that you’re able to find each of the three bottles at a retailer.

You might have a better chance of finding out what happened to Cask #10587.

Editor’s note: Last Drop Distillers provided WhiskyCast with samples of all three 1970 Glenrothes casks. However, as with all of our content, full editorial control remains with WhiskyCast. 

Links: Last Drop Distillers

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U.S. Tariff Trouble Hits Scotch Whisky Industry

February 7, 2020 – The United States has long been one of the Scotch Whisky industry’s most important markets, but the Trump Administration’s decision to target single malt whiskies from Scotland last October in a 15-year-long trade dispute with the European Union threatens to derail years of investment.

The U.S. imposed a 25% tariff on imports of single malt whiskies from Scotland and Northern Ireland October 18, along with other select European exports. The move came after the U.S. won its case at the World Trade Organization accusing Great Britain and other European companies of providing illegal subsidies to Airbus, and was allowed to impose tariffs on more than $7 billion worth of European goods to compensate for damage to the American economy.

The end result could be significant damage to the Scotch Whisky industry on both sides of the Atlantic. While blended whiskies not subject to the tariff still make up the majority of Scotch Whisky exports to the U.S., the share of single malt exports has been growing each year and accounted for around 25% of the industry’s exports to the U.S. in 2018.

Preliminary 2019 data will be released this coming week when the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States holds its annual economic briefing in New York City on Wednesday. However, Scotch Whisky Association CEO Karen Betts says the tariff has already had a significant impact based on data from October and November.

“The value of Scotch Whisky exports to the United States dropped 26% in October 2019 and 33% in November 2019 on the same period from the year before,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s hard for us without looking at data over a period really to understand what the trends will be, but when we talk to the American spirits industry…now, American whiskey has a 29% drop in exports to the European Union since their tariffs came into effect (in June, 2018), so the figures we’re seeing I don’t think are very far off from what the ultimate impact might be, and we think we’re looking at £100 million ($129.5 million USD) in lost exports to the U.S. over a year,” Betts said.

Diageo, Pernod Ricard, and other major Scotch Whisky producers have been able to withstand the impact of the tariff, largely because their Scotch Whisky portfolios are balanced between single malts and blended whiskies. As a result, smaller distillers and independent bottlers have been hit the hardest, and some have been forced to work with their U.S. importers to absorb the cost of the tariff in order to keep retail prices at pre-tariff levels. Islay’s Kilchoman Distillery and its U.S. importer, ImpEx Beverages, announced their plans to do so shortly after the imposition of the tariff. After our report on this issue during the February 2 episode of WhiskyCast, Glass Revolution Imports partner Raj Sabharwal tweeted new details on his company’s partnership with the independent bottlers Murray McDavid and Blackadder.

A tweet from Glass Revolution Imports partner Raj Sabharwal on the impact of U.S. single malt whisky tariffs. Image courtesy Twitter.

A tweet from Glass Revolution Imports partner Raj Sabharwal on the impact of U.S. single malt whisky tariffs. Image courtesy Twitter.

Other small distillers have not been as fortunate. Speyside Distillery has a $131,000 shipment of its Spey single malt sitting at the distillery after it was cancelled by American importer Quest Brands. Quest founder Ed Kohl told WhiskyCast in an exclusive interview that he was forced to cancel the order after the regional distributors he works with started scaling back on single malt Scotch inventories.

“They’re getting backed up from their retailers, the retailers are backing up and so are the restauranteurs…everybody’s backing up on this stuff because they don’t know what’s going on and they don’t know how long this thing’s going to last,” he said.

Speyside Distillers managing director Patricia Dillon (L) talks with CEO John McDonough and soccer star Michael Owen during a 2015 tour of the distillery. File photo ©2020, Mark Gillespie/CaskStrength Media.

Speyside Distillers managing director Patricia Dillon (L) talks with CEO John McDonough and soccer star Michael Owen during a 2015 tour of the distillery. File photo ©2020, Mark Gillespie/CaskStrength Media.

Speyside Distillers managing director Patricia Dillon is one of the many whisky industry executives reassessing their place in the American market because of the tariff. “When you’re a small company like us, you don’t have the biggest of margins, so if you have a 25 percent tariff…as a company, we’d have great difficulty absorbing that 25%, so long-term at the moment, we’re just trying to reposition ourselves and see what we’d have to do, because at the moment it would be very difficult for us to absorb that 25 percent,” she said.

Industry groups in both Scotland and the U.S. have been lobbying politicians to resolve their larger trade differences and end the whisky tariffs. Distilled Spirits Council CEO Chris Swonger led a joint delegation to meet with White House officials in mid-January to explain the economic hardships the tariffs have caused. In an interview, he said Trump Administration officials are well aware of those hardships, but are holding firm. “According to them, they’re playing long and they believe for national security purposes and a whole variety of purposes that they have to take an aggressive approach and an aggressive posture, and one of the tools they have in their tool belt is tariffs,” he said.

In fact, the Trump Administration is reaching for that tool belt once again. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has proposed to not only not remove the single malt whisky tariff, but potentially raise it to as high as 100 percent and apply it to more types of whiskies from throughout Europe. The latter proposal was originally floated last summer when the administration released a preliminary list of tariff targets in advance of the WTO Airbus ruling, but the final list was scaled back in the hopes that it would bring European Union officials back to negotiations over aircraft subsidies. The EU is waiting for a WTO ruling in a similar case against the U.S. over subsidies to Boeing, and has so far refused to negotiate.

A final decision on whether to expand the U.S. tariff could come at any point, and this week, Diageo emailed U.S. consumers in its “Friends of the Classic Malts” affinity group to urge them to speak out against the tariffs.

An email from Diageo to members of the "Friends of the Classic Malts" urging them to speak out against the U.S. single malt whisky tariff.

An email from Diageo to members of the “Friends of the Classic Malts” urging them to speak out against the U.S. single malt whisky tariff.

The email is part of an industry-wide “Toasts Not Tariffs” campaign led by Spirits United, a partnership between the Distilled Spirits Council and other industry groups that claims 17,000 supporters.

Importer Ed Kohl has nearly five decades of experience in the spirits business, and has seen prices rise and fall. He believes the industry can withstand the current tariff, but if the U.S. follows through on its threat, the industry could be damaged for years to come.

“Forget it, lights out…that’s it, it’s over…no way we’d be able to survive anything like that. Eventually at that point, even the big boys would have to raise prices,” he said, noting that at a  whisky festival last weekend in Omaha, Nebraska, he saw consumers asking to taste rums and other spirits instead of whiskies because the tariff had raised whisky prices out of their range.

“This is very, very, very dangerous, because you’re talking about changing consumer trends,” Kohl said.


Links: Scotch Whisky Association | Quest Brands | Speyside Distillers | Distilled Spirits Council | Spirits United

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The Top Whisky Stories of 2019

By Mark Gillespie

December 30, 2019 – The end of a year always brings with it reflections of the events that shaped the year. While the “year in review” piece is an annual rite for reporters, if one remembers that journalism is what’s always been referred to as the “first draft of history,” then it makes some sense to take a look back.

That said, here are my Top Five stories for the whisky world in 2019. There’s no polling to determine this list – just my gut instincts based on the stories we focused most on at WhiskyCast during the year.

#1: The Politics of Whisky 

Given the number of stories we did on politics and whisky during 2019, this has to be the obvious choice. That’s because the political events of 2019 (and the couple of years leading up to it), have the potential to derail years of consistent growth in whisky sales around the world fueled by consumer demand. 

Kilchoman 2007 Single Sherry Cask. Image courtesy The Whisky Exchange/Speciality Drinks Ltd.The impact of the Trump Administration’s decision to impose a 25% tariff on imports of single malt whiskies from Scotland and Northern Ireland in mid-October really has yet to be determined. By that time, most importers had already received their shipments for the holidays. While Kilchoman and its U.S. importer Impex received much-deserved praise for announcing plans to absorb the cost of the tariff on future shipments, it’s not clear how many other importers will be able to do the same when they start placing new orders after the holidays.

While most Irish Whiskey companies were able to breathe a sigh of relief in October after escaping the initial U.S. tariff, they rightly decided to keep a low profile in the media and not risk poking the bear. A wise move, considering that the ongoing aircraft subsidy battle between the U.S. and the European Union now has the Trump Administration proposing to not only raise the current tariff on whiskies to as high as 100 percent, but is reviving the threat to extend that tariff to all other whiskies from EU member nations. Industry groups will be lobbying both Washington and Brussels in January to ease the tensions that have made whisky collateral damage in the larger trade conflict between the two sides.

What could the potential long-term impact of the U.S. tariff have on whisky imports? We can use the EU’s 25% tariff imposed on American whiskey imports in July of 2018 as an example. Between January and October of 2019, American whiskey exports to Europe fell by 28% compared to the same period in 2018 according to data provided by the Distilled Spirits Council.

Brown-Forman, the largest publicly-traded U.S. whiskey maker, has estimated the cost of the EU tariffs at $125 million annually – and that does not include the tariffs it’s now paying to import the single malts from its three Scottish distilleries into the United States. While Brown-Forman, Beam Suntory, and other major U.S. whiskey makers have the ability to absorb some of those costs, the impact has been largely felt by smaller distillers and importers. They already faced retail pricing disadvantages against larger competitors because of higher production costs, and the EU tariff has either sharply affected or completely eliminated export sales by many smaller U.S. brands. 

Also on the political side…

Congress and the Trump Administration did agree at the last minute to extend for one year the federal excise tax break that primarily benefits small-scale distillers and the tax deduction for “capitalized interest” that allows distillers to deduct the interest they pay on loans secured by their maturing whisky inventory. However, that means the industry will have to spend another year lobbying in Washington to get those changes made permanent and remove the roadblock to long-term stability within the industry. 

#2: Mergers & Acquisitions

The largest deal of the year was Heaven Hill’s purchase of Black Velvet Canadian Whisky from Constellation Brands in August. The deal was valued at $266 million, including the Black Velvet Distillery in Lethbrdge, Alberta. It is the first expansion outside the United States for the Shapira family, and gave the company control of one of the largest-selling Canadian Whisky brands.

Jefferson's Presidential Select 21 Year Old Bourbon. Image courtesy Castle Brands.August also brought Pernod Ricard’s $223 million acquisition of Castle Brands, which produces Jefferson’s Bourbon, Knappogue Castle Irish Whiskey, and other spirits brands. Jefferson’s was the key brand in the deal for Pernod Ricard, which made its third major acquisition of the year in the American Whiskey industry. Pernod Ricard CEO Alexandre Ricard’s bets on continued growth in American Whiskey sales included the purchase of Louisville’s Rabbit Hole Distilling and Firestone and Robertson Distilling in Fort Worth, Texas, with plans to market all three in the premium segment of the whisky market.

It remains to be seen where Knappogue Castle will fit into the company’s long-term plans, since Pernod Ricard’s Irish Distillers unit already dominates the premium segment of the Irish Whiskey market with Redbreast, Powers, and Midleton, while Jameson is the world’s largest-selling Irish Whiskey brand. While there has been no indication that Knappogue Castle might be for sale, it would not be a surprise given the company’s stated desire to focus on premium brands across its portfolio. 

Ricard’s moves have so far helped fight back against criticism from activist shareholder Paul Singer’s Elliott Management. In late 2018, the hedge fund bought a billion-dollar stake in Pernod Ricard and Elliott started making noises about shaking things up at the company. Ricard replaced some of his board members this year, and had already started making other internal changes to boost profit margins. So far, Singer appears to be going along. 

#3: China

Western whisky makers have bent over backwards trying to make inroads into the Chinese market for years. While whisky sales in China continue to grow by double-digit percentages on an annual basis, there are developments worth watching that could have a long-term impact. China’s economy has started to slow down after years of rapid expansion, and it’s not clear what the impact of the ongoing trade dispute with the United States might have on economic growth. 

In addition, Western whiskies will start to see more competition in the coming years from within China. In August, Pernod Ricard broke ground on China’s first malt whisky distillery in Sichuan province. The $150 million dollar project is expected to start production in 2021, with plans to sell its whisky primarily in China’s domestic market. Earlier this month, a Chinese energy firm announced plans to build a malt whisky distillery in Inner Mongolia with help from Scottish firms.

Baiju remains China’s most popular distilled spirit, and a growing domestic whisky market could cut into export sales over time. 

#4: Continued Growth in American Single Malts

More than 200 distilleries are now either selling their own single malt whiskies or maturing them for future sale. This is one of the few areas of the American Whiskey market where major distillers have largely stayed on the sidelines, and that has given small-scale distillers a foothold to compete on their own terms. 

The pot stills at House Spirits Distillery in Portland, Oregon. Photo ©2018, Mark Gillespie/CaskStrength Media.The one thing that could send this category into orbit would be an official definition of “Single Malt” in U.S. federal regulations. When the Treasury Department’s Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) unveiled its proposed re-write of the federal regulations governing whiskies at the end of last year, it did not include a “standard of identity” for single malts, and there hasn’t been one since the regulations were first written in 1935. Instead, “single malts” are lumped in with “malt whisky” and its tolerance for a mash bill of just 51% malted barley along with the requirement for maturation in new charred oak barrels.

American Single Malt distillers have been lobbying the TTB to include a definition more closely aligned with Scotland’s, which requires 100% malted barley and would allow for the use of used barrels as well as new ones. The Title 27 rewrite is in regulatory limbo right now following a public comment period earlier this year, and distillers are hoping that an American Single Malt category could be part of the final package of regulations. 

#5: Growth in “World Whiskies”

Let’s end with a positive note.

We’re still seeing growth in so-called “world whiskies,” those that come from non-traditional whisky-producing nations – essentially everywhere other than Scotland, Ireland, the U.S, and Canada. Sales are still small, and basically amount to a rounding error when overall whisky sales worldwide are calculated, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this argument given the emails I receive regularly asking if I’ve “heard anything about such and such whisky and whether it’s any good” or from emerging distillers asking me to taste and review their whiskies.

The growth of small-scale distilling has expanded the market for distilling equipment in recent years, and that’s helped bring down some of the startup costs for a small-scale distillery. As the initial releases from some of those distilleries start to reach the market, we’re seeing more and more good whiskies from places like Sweden, Germany, Italy, Israel, and Australia…just to name a few.

That can only be a good thing for the world of whisky…

Here’s hoping that 2020 is a year with less political intrigue, economic stability, and of course…more good whiskies for all of us!

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Explaining the Trump Administration’s Whisky Tariff

By Mark Gillespie

October 18, 2019 – We’ve received a lot of questions about the Trump Administration’s decision to impose a 25% tariff on imports of single malt whiskies from Scotland and Northern Ireland, along with liqueurs, wines, and other goods from throughout the European Union. It’s hard to cut through all of the bureaucratic language, so we’ve cranked up the red tape translator to try and answer some of your questions in plain English.

Where did this come from?

We had to use a different translator to put that question into language that can get past profanity blockers.

In 2004, the Bush Administration filed a complaint at the World Trade Organization accusing EU members France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom of violating the trade body’s rules by providing low-interest loans to European aircraft maker Airbus. These “launch aid” loans were used to finance the development of Airbus commercial aircraft that compete with Boeing, and the U.S. argued that those loans were illegal government subsidies.

The European Union responded with a complaint of its own accusing the U.S. of essentially doing the same thing for Boeing in the form of research grants from NASA and the Department of Defense, along with federal and state tax credits, Export-Import Bank financing, and other aid. The two complaints have been working their way through the WTO’s dispute resolution process ever since, and on October 2, a WTO arbitrator ruled in favor of the U.S. on its complaint. The ruling granted the U.S. permission to impose “countermeasures” valued at $7.5 billion to compensate for the impact of the illegal European subsidies on the U.S. economy.

The European Union complaint is still pending at the WTO, and is reported to be about six months behind the U.S complaint. Look for an arbitrator’s ruling siding with the Europeans next spring.

But why single malt whisky, and why only those from Scotland and Northern Ireland?

The Office of the U.S Trade Representative released an initial list of proposed tariffs in July, and that list included all European-made whiskies. By the time the “preliminary list” was released in conjunction with the WTO arbitrator’s ruling, the list had been whittled down to target only single malts that are “products of the United Kingdom from Scotland and Ireland.” Keep in mind that the primary targets for the tariffs are the four countries responsible for the “illegal” subsidies, including the United Kingdom, and the U.S. is the largest single export market for Scotch Whisky by value with £1.03 billion in exports during 2018.

The top export markets for Scotch Whisky during 2018 by volume and value. Graphic ©2019, CaskStrength Media.

Single malts make up about 30% of those exports, and since Scotch Whisky is one of the UK’s largest exports to the United States, it was “low-hanging fruit” for administration officials who wanted to target luxury goods along with other European exports. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, single malt exports will account for about 60% of the overall impact of the tariff on the United Kingdom.

OK, but that doesn’t explain including Northern Ireland while not including Wales and England. Their whiskies are “products of the United Kingdom,” too. What gives?

That’s a fair question, and it’s one we’d like to have an answer for. The impact in Northern Ireland will largely be felt by New Jersey-based Proximo Spirits, which owns the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland’s County Antrim and makes Bushmills and The Sexton whiskies there. Bushmills has three single malt expressions (10, 16, and 21 years old) that it exports to the U.S. along with The Sexton single malt. Company representatives have declined to comment on the tariffs since the announcement earlier this month. There are craft distillers in Northern Ireland that are distilling single malts, but they are not yet exporting to the United States.

As for not including Wales and England on the list, your guess is as good as ours. We have asked the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative for an explanation, but have not received a response. For the record, neither have the industry trade associations in Washington that have been working with the USTR on this issue for months now.

How does Brexit figure into all of this, and will the tariff end when the UK leaves the European Union?

The two are separate issues, but it’s easy to wonder whether that might be the case. While the USTR has not specifically addressed this question, a reading of the final tariff notice in the Federal Register would indicate that there’s no linkage with Brexit. If that notice had said “products of the European Union” instead of “products of the United Kingdom,” then one could make that argument. However, the original WTO complaint from 2004 specifically named the UK, France, Germany, and Spain along with the “European Communities,” since those four EU member nations were responsible for providing the subsidies to Airbus.

Can the European Union respond with more tariffs on Bourbon and other American whiskies?

Technically, no. That’s because the WTO does not allow countries to retaliate when “countermeasures” are approved. This is different from the 25% tariff the European Union imposed in July of 2018 on imports of Bourbons and other American whiskies, which was in retaliation for the tariff the Trump Administration placed on steel and aluminum exports from Europe to the United States. That dispute did not go through the WTO process, but was initiated directly by the Trump Administration on “national security” grounds to protect the domestic steel and aluminum industry.

However…remember that WTO complaint the European Union has pending against the U.S. over its support for Boeing? If the WTO arbitrator finds in Europe’s favor in that case and grants the EU the right to impose “countermeasures,” European leaders have said they will take that opportunity to impose tariffs of their own. At that point, all bets are off. The two sides have been trying to reach a compromise that could resolve the issue, but after 15 years of bickering, there’s a lot of baggage that will need to be sorted out.

What will this do to the price of my favorite single malt?

Let’s be clear for a moment – this is not a 25% tax that will be applied at the cash register when you’re buying a bottle. When a shipment of single malt whisky that’s subject to the tariff arrives at a U.S. port of entry, Customs & Border Protection agents will look at the price on the invoice accompanying the shipment to the U.S. importer. Let’s say a 9-liter case of single malt (12 750ml bottles) has a supplier invoice price of $100 – in this case, CBP would charge the U.S. importer $25 based on the 25% tariff to clear it for entry into the United States.

Now that the importer’s cost for that case is $125, the importer has to decide whether to eat that additional cost or pass it along to the regional distributor. Most of the multinational drinks corporations (Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Beam Suntory, etc.) have their own U.S.-based subsidiaries that serve as their importers, so it’s possible that they could decide to absorb part or all of the tariff costs to keep consumer prices low and protect their market share. In fact, that’s what Brown-Forman did in some European markets last year where it had control of its “route to market” to keep prices for Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve steady.

Most smaller Scotch Whisky producers don’t have that option, since they work with independent importers. They may be able to work with their importers to compensate for the impact of the tariff, but it’s likely that the importers will have to pass along the higher costs to their regional distributors – the companies responsible for supplying retailers, bars, and restaurants. If every link in the chain raises its prices to cover the cost of that $25 tariff…by the time you’re buying your favorite single malt, the 25% tariff could actually cost you much more than that original $25 the importer paid at the port.

Holy $#!%! How soon will I see prices go up?

Depends on where you’re buying your whisky.

Keep in mind that as of this weekend, no single malt whisky on the shelf at any U.S. retailer has actually been hit with this tariff. The tariff will only be applied to any shipment that arrives at a U.S. port of entry starting today (October 18), and since drinks companies traditionally move a lot of product to the U.S. in advance of the holiday shopping season, there’s a lot of whisky in the system that was not subject to the 25% tariff.

That said…there’s nothing to stop a retailer from immediately raising prices for single malts from Scotland and Northern Ireland, and it’s a safe bet that some are already doing just that. Most states do not allow whisky brands and their distributors to actually dictate what prices a retailer can charge, which is why you’ll see terms like “recommended retail price” a lot. It’s the same principle that allows retailers to mark up the price of “Lot B” Old Rip Van Winkle Special Reserve Bourbon from the “recommended” $79.99 to $799.99 a bottle.

In a perfect world, retailers would adjust their prices only when replacing depleted inventory with new bottles that are subject to the tariff. Of course, if it were a perfect world, the politicians would have sorted this out years ago and we wouldn’t be facing higher prices today.

I’m traveling back to the U.S. from Scotland with some single malt whisky. Will I have to pay the tariff?

We checked with U.S. Customs & Border Protection, and an agency spokesperson confirmed that tourists will not have to pay the tariff for what’s technically called an “informal entry” where a traveler arrives at a border crossing with goods acquired outside the country. Tariffs are usually only applied to goods being imported into a country for resale, which is why whisky importing companies with the appropriate federal licenses will have to pay the tariff.

You might still have to pay duty and the federal excise tax on any bottles that exceed the duty-free limit of one liter per person, depending on what else you bought during your trip and how long you were out of the country. However, Customs & Border Protection agents at several different border crossings have told us that they have a certain amount of leeway to waive the duty if it’s a small amount – usually less than $20. It actually costs the government more to process the paperwork for payments that small than the revenue it generates. However, this practice can vary depending on where you’re crossing the border into the U.S., and some CBP stations can be stricter than others. Don’t assume that just because you’ve not had to pay any duty on previous trips means you won’t have to the next time.

I ordered some single malt Scotch from an online retailer in another country, and it’s being shipped now. Will I have to pay the tariff?

Good question. Not all online retailers work the same way, and it may depend on which retailer you’re working with. Technically, individuals aren’t allowed to import alcoholic beverages into the U.S. unless they’re traveling from another country with those specific bottles (see above). Some online retailers work around this by working with a licensed U.S. importer and shipping orders to them (usually combining orders from several customers into one package), with the importer then forwarding the whiskies on to the original purchaser. Those orders would be subject to the tariff, and it’s up to the retailer whether to try and bill you separately for that now. Don’t be surprised if those retailers adjust their pricing on U.S. orders to reflect the tariff.

If the politicians in the U.S. and Europe get their acts together and work out a compromise on the aviation dispute that leads to the tariff being removed, will whisky prices come back down to pre-tariff levels?

Our Magic 8-Ball said “probably not” and rolled under the sofa laughing hysterically.

If you have a question that we haven’t addressed yet, let us know. We’ll add more questions and answers as needed.

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Suspense, Intrigue, and Whisky Fill the Screen in “Four”

April 9, 2019 – It’s not uncommon for whisky makers to team up with actors and filmmakers on a project. The not uncommon result, though, is usually a very expensive commercial for the whisky.

Fortunately, that is not the case with “Four,” a short film directed by Jennifer Sheridan and produced by Platform Presents with funding from Dewar’s. The film was co-written by John Hopkins and Tuppence Middleton, who also stars along with Iwan Rheon, Jack Farthing, Juliet Stevenson, and Nicholas Pinnock in a throwback to the classic “noir” mystery films of the past.

Set in London’s Savoy Hotel, the film focuses on a mysterious brooch that brings together a young couple, a mysterious man, a dowager living at the Savoy, and the hotel manager trying to collect on the dowager’s long-overdue bill. Needless to say, the manager is the only one who isn’t hiding a secret – for most of the film. (No spoilers here.) “Four” is available to view online, and will be screened at a number of film festivals in the coming months.

Embed from Getty Images

“We literally got one thing for our brief, which was the number four, and then we were set free with it. We could run wild and really create whatever we wanted, which is quite a rare thing that you’re given that opportunity and you can completely invent something,” Middleton said in an interview at the premiere of “Four” last Thursday night in New York City. She currently stars in the Netflix series “Sense8,” and this was her first screenwriting project.

“You read scripts every week, and so I had gotten very used to reading something and knowing if I liked it or not and what worked and what didn’t, but hadn’t quite gotten around to the point where I’d finished something in its entirety and then given it to someone and said ‘what do you think’ or ‘would you like to make this?” So, when Bella (Isabella Macpherson), our producer, came to me and said ‘do you fancy giving it a go,” it was like, yes I do and what’s the worst that could happen,” Middleton said with a laugh.

There is a connection to the Dewar’s brand history hidden within the film, as well as a bottle of the 21-year-old Dewar’s Double Double whisky shown in the dowager’s room at the Savoy. The legendary Tommy Dewar, one of the sons of Dewar’s founder John Dewar and well-known for his global travels to promote the brand a century ago, made his home in London at the Savoy Hotel for many years before his death in 1930. Because of that history, the hotel’s current owners were eager to host the cast and crew for several days of filming.

“With consumers thirsty for deeper storytelling, our short film “Four,” a first for Dewar’s, not only demonstrates the brand’s timelessness within the whisky category, but cleverly captures its more premium side,” Dewar’s Global Brand Director Zeenah Vilcassim said. 

The Dewar's "Double Double" range of Scotch Whiskies. Photo ©2019, Mark Gillespie/CaskStrength Media.

The Dewar’s “Double Double” range of Scotch Whiskies.

Dewar’s used the film’s premiere to help launch its new “Double Double” range of blended Scotch whiskies. The “four” reference came from the four-stage aging process Dewar’s Master Blender Stephanie MacLeod used to create the three unique whiskies in the series after researching the company’s archive for inspiration.

“A.J. Cameron, our first Master Blender, blended the malts by their regions, put them back into oak casks and let them set for a while, then blended them with the grain whiskies,” MacLeod said in an interview. She tweaked the process by blending her component malt whiskies and grain whiskies separately, and then letting the two blends marry for a month before bringing them together. After that combination married for a month, each of the three whiskies went into a different type of Sherry cask for a final period of maturation. The 21-year-old version went into Oloroso casks, while the 27-year-old was filled into Palo Cortado casks and the 32-year-old used Pedro Ximenez casks.

While Middleton’s next film project will be the film adaptation of “Downton Abbey,” she also has another project in mind – one that involves her growing love of whisky.

“I’ll take a blending lesson,” she laughed. “We learned when we were talking to Dewar’s about Stephanie, and we thought it was pretty cool that it was a woman in that amazing job, and I’d love to learn more about the process.”

Links: Dewar’s



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Tasting Diageo’s Game of Thrones Single Malts

April 2, 2019 – Let’s admit something from the start. Not once in the first seven seasons of Game of Thrones have we ever seen someone drinking whisky. Wine, beer, mead…yes, but never a whisky. Perhaps if the Khaleesi had used her dragons to heat up a couple of stills, she might have taken back the Seven Kingdoms years ago. Had the Lannisters paid their debts with whisky instead of gold, they might well have never put the Iron Throne in jeopardy. And of course, nowhere do we see a “Maester Distiller.”

Enough of the “what ifs,” though. Diageo’s partnership with HBO on the Game of Thrones Single Malt Scotch Whisky Collection isn’t ground-breaking on its own, but the fact that the range includes single malts from eight different distilleries is. It would have been simpler to design a tie-in package for a couple of existing whiskies and rake in the money, but going to the time and effort to create a range of limited-edition single malts and keep them reasonably priced deserves credit.

Diageo's Game of Thrones Single Malt Scotch Whisky Collection. Image courtesy Diageo.

Diageo’s Game of Thrones Single Malt Scotch Whisky Collection. Image courtesy Diageo.

If you’re an avid Game of Thrones fan, you’ve probably already thought of this question. Eight whiskies? There are Seven Kingdoms. Ahhh, but you’re not giving the men of Castle Black their due, and that’s where we’ll start tasting these whiskies created to celebrate the final season of Game of Thrones.

The Night’s Watch Oban Bay Reserve (43% ABV, RRP $62.99 USD)

The “origin story” for this whisky is based on Oban’s location along the western shores of Scotland at the base of a cliff that overlooks Oban Bay, much like Castle Black sits at the base of The Wall. The whisky itself carries no age statement, but the nose has subtle hints of black cherries, orange marmalade, oak, and a touch of honey in the background. The taste has notes of toasted caramel, hot fudge, a subtle touch of charred oak, and hints of dried fruits. The finish is long and warm with lingering spices, charred oak, and toasted caramel. Score: 93 points.

House Baratheon Royal Lochnagar 12 Year Old (40% ABV, RRP $64.99 USD)

Royal Lochnagar gets its name from Britain’s royal family, and is located near Queen Elizabeth’s Balmoral Estate in the Scottish Highlands. The distillery’s single malts have always been highly regarded, but not as widely available as many whisky lovers would like, and the inclusion of Royal Lochnagar in this range is welcome. The nose has the aroma of a vanilla latté, along with raspberries, peaches, and a hint of oak sawdust. The taste is tart with notes of citrus fruits, crystallized ginger, and vanilla custard. The finish is very long with a citrusy tartness and touches of ginger and oak. Overall, a very juicy and mouthwatering dram. Score: 93 points. 

House Stark Dalwhinnie Winter’s Frost (43% ABV, RRP $39.99 USD)

Of course, the Starks ruled at Winterfell, and as one of the highest distilleries in Scotland, Dalwhinnie has taken advantage of its stark weather changes to add character to its single malts. Here, the nose has notes of honey, figs, peaches, and a hint of vanilla. The taste is crisp and tart with a good balance of dried tree and citrus fruits spices, and a nice maltiness. The finish is long and tart with hints of citrus. Score: 92 points. 

House Tyrell Clynelish Reserve (51.2% ABV, RRP $59.99 USD)

The Tyrells ruled over some of the most fertile, lush farmland in Westeros (or so the story goes), and Clynelish is located in the rolling hills of the Highlands near the sea. The nose is vibrant and fruity with tropical fruits, lemon custard, vanilla pods, and subtle spices. The taste has a good balance of fruitiness and spiciness with touches of mango, pineapple, and vanilla along with peppery baking spices. The finish has lingering fruity notes, a hint of dried flowers, and a touch of sea air that give this whisky a great complexity. Score: 93 points.

House Targaryen Cardhu Gold Reserve (40% ABV, RRP $39.99 USD)

This is one of the few whiskies that’s based on an existing expression in the Diageo portfolio, though the regular Cardhu Gold Reserve is not available in all markets. The nose has notes of red apples, baking spices, and hints of caramel candy and honey. The taste starts off creamy at first, followed by a burst of clove and a fruity tartness underneath with caramel apples and honey. The finish is long with a lingering tartness and a touch of clove. Score: 93 points

House Tully Singleton of Glendullan Select (40% ABV, RRP $29.99 USD)

This whisky has notes of orange marmalade, soft spices, and a hint of honey. The taste has hints of clove, raspberry jam, vanilla cream, and a nice malty touch of barley sugar. The finish is long and malty with lingering touches of clove, berries, and barley sugar. Score: 91 points.

House Greyjoy Talisker Select Reserve (45.8% ABV, RRP $44.99 USD)

The Greyjoy clan ruled the Iron Islands, and this whisky comes from Scotland’s Isle of Mull. The nose is dark and smoky with a nice oakiness,  dark chocolate, campfire smoke, and the aroma of barbecued beef. The taste is spicy with chili powder, white pepper, and a hint of campfire smoke balanced by grilled fruits, toasted caramel, and a hint of honey. The finish is long, complex, and smoky with hints of pipe tobacco and old leather. Excellent! Score: 94 points.

House Lannister Lagavulin 9 Year Old (46% ABV, RRP $64.99 USD)

If you owe someone, this would be a good way to repay the debt, since “a Lannister always pays his debts.” The nose is smoky with barbecue sauce and hints of heather, honey, and brine, along with a touch of dried fruits in the background. The taste is thick, smoky, and peppery with tangy barbecue sauce and tropical fruits that add a nice counterbalance along with hints of honey and toasted vanilla. The finish is long and fades away gently with touches of smoke and spices. Excellent! Score: 94 points.

In addition to the eight whiskies that make up this collection, Diageo also released the special White Walker edition of Johnnie Walker to go along with the final season of Game of Thrones.

As of this writing, we do not know who will wind up sitting on the Iron Throne when the final episode of Game of Thrones airs later this spring. With all of the plot twists between now and then, one may well need a good, stiff drink to help keep things in perspective. One of these whiskies – depending on which House or stillhouse you favor – might just help clear away the confusion.

Editor’s note: Samples of the whiskies were provided by Diageo, which is also a sponsor of WhiskyCast. However, in keeping with our ethical guidelines, all control over the editorial content of this story and our tasting notes remains with WhiskyCast. 

Links: Classic Malts

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The Worst #@*$ Whisky I’ve Ever Tasted!

March 28, 2019 – “What have you done!”

My mouth was puckering, trembling, and shivering all at the same time as a briny, fishy taste with just the barest hints of whisky took control of my palate – and my entire nervous system. My stomach clenched, along with the rest of my body. A few feet away, the distillery manager that presented us with this blind sample at the end of a tasting had a big grin on his face.

“What the hell is this stuff?”

This is the story of that whisky, and how I came to taste it in a prank worthy of an April Fool’s joke.

Klaus Pinkernell never set out to bottle one of the world’s worst whiskies in 2006, but he did want to send a message.

“At that time, it was the beginning of the movement that everyone wanted to do some sort of finishing, and everyone wanted to be the first to do something more strange,” says the owner of two whisky shops bearing his name in Austria and Germany. “I said, OK folks, you call all these things serious even though they are stupid, and I decided to do something even more stupid.”

At this point, we need to backtrack to the early 1990’s.

At the time, Pinkernell was visiting Islay and trying to buy casks of whisky for his private collection. He succeeded in persuading Invergordon Distillers, which owned Bruichladdich Distillery at the time, to sell him some casks that were maturing at the distillery, one of which had recently been filled with new make spirit. Invergordon closed Bruichladdich in 1994, but kept a skeleton crew on hand to oversee the maturation warehouses on site with Pinkernell’s casks and the rest of the distillery’s inventory.

When Mark Reynier and his partners bought the distillery and reopened it in 2001, Pinkernell reached out to Islay legend Jim McEwan, who had come on board as Bruichladdich’s production director. After checking Pinkernell’s casks, McEwan declared the barrels as less than optimal and offered to re-cask the whisky into better-quality ex-Sherry casks. With the help of a couple of Norwegian whisky lovers Pinkernell ran into at the Bowmore Hotel, he and his friends transferred the whisky from cask to cask using an old hand pump.

“It was quite hard work, but we didn’t have to do it because the Norwegians quite enjoyed it,” Pinkernell said with a laugh.

By this time, Pinkernell had opened his whisky shops in Salzburg and Berlin under the Cadenhead’s banner, and had moved the casks from Islay to the warehouses at Springbank Distillery in Campbeltown. With the fifth anniversary of his stores coming up, he wanted to do something memorable – while sending that message at the same time.

Fishky Herring Cask Finish. Photo ©2019, Mark Gillespie/CaskStrength Media.“I invented my private label called Stupid Cask and wanted to do a herring cask finish.”

That’s right…a herring cask finish. While others were trying to find rare wine, rum, and other types of casks to finish their whiskies in, Pinkernell wanted to return to a part of Scotch Whisky history where whiskies were kept in any kind of barrel that could hold liquid…including the briny sea water used to keep herring fresh from port to market.

Trouble is, those days were long past, and herring is transported in large plastic totes instead of barrels, and Pinkernell’s attempts to source a herring cask were unsuccessful.

“I found a fish trader just outside Berlin who was willing to help out, but obviously, he had the fish but no cask.” A cooperage near Berlin just happened to have a freshly-emptied red wine cask, the fish trader filled it with herring fillets, and Pinkernell arranged to get that cask of 14-year-old Bruichladdich moved from Campbeltown to Germany. At the time, it was still legal to export whole casks of single malt whisky from Scotland.  The practice has since been banned, though Pinkernell’s diabolical project had nothing to do with it.

After six months of “seasoning,” the herring and red wine cask was ready to be filled with whisky. At this point, Pinkernell hesitated briefly.

“What if the whole thing works out horribly wrong?”

At this point, asking that question and answering it with the likely reality of ruining an entire cask of vintage single malt whisky worth thousands of dollars might have dissuaded most people from plowing ahead. Klaus Pinkernell is not most people. He decided to only use half of the Bruichladdich cask and keep the rest of the whisky in its original cask.

Six months later, he hand-bottled both casks for the fifth anniversary of the shops. The whisky from the Bruichladdich cask carried a standard Cadenhead’s label, while the whisky from the herring cask bore a label that will live infamously in whisky history.


“I think the thing was quite funny,” Pinkernell said years later. “The idea was to show funny things can be done, and the even better thing is that you could even sample the whisky before the finish and including the finish from the same cask, so you can really see what a finish can do within a couple of months.”

As one might expect, there was a great deal of hyperventilating and clutching of pearls among the whisky purists of that time, and Pinkernell eventually decided to pull his remaining bottles of Fishky off the market. As the legend of Fishky circulated on the Internet, he kept getting inquires about whether any bottles might still be available. Since Fishky was bottled in 200ml bottles, he still had – and has – some for sale through what’s now known as Pinkernell’s Whisky Market.

Fast forward to October of 2014. I was visiting the Inver House distilleries in Scotland with a small group of writers when we did an online Twitter tasting in the conference room at Balblair Distillery in Edderton. Distillery manager John MacDonald had just led us through the Balblair single malt range and we’d all put our smartphones and tablets down when he said something I’ll never forget.

Balblair Distillery manager John MacDonald shortly before the infamous Fishky tasting.

Balblair Distillery manager John MacDonald had a subtle grin on his face shortly before the infamous Fishky tasting.

“I’ve got something else I want you to taste…”

He brought out a tray of Glencairn glasses, and we started nosing them. Briny aroma, but something not out of place in a whisky matured near the ocean. The nose was keeping a secret, though…a secret that became instantly apparent as soon as I took a sip. These are my tasting notes from that night, leading to a score of 40 out of a possible 100 points.

The nose hides the secrets of this whisky well, with notes of malt, brine, and heather. The taste reveals all, though, with sour butyric baby vomit, brine, and stomach acid. The finish is salty, greasy, and nasty with no redeeming qualities.

“You impressed me very much that day, Mark,” John MacDonald said this week in a telephone interview. “You were one of the few people that reacted as I reacted when I tasted it…as you know, there’s a few other people sitting at that table who will remain nameless that were saying this, that, waxing lyrical about it,” he said.”I’ll never forget it, Mark…I’m sorry. It was a bit cruel, but it was for my amusement,” he laughed.

MacDonald doesn’t remember where that bottle of Fishky came from. Klaus Pinkernell knows exactly how it got to Balblair.

“I do remember that I was at Balblair Distillery and I left these bottles there, so the bottle that you had was one that I actually brought to Balblair myself,” he said.

Thanks, Klaus.

Technically, Fishky’s 40-point score is tied for the lowest score I’ve ever given to a whisky. For April Fool’s Day in 2016, Westland Distillery released Inferno, a single malt matured for more than 4 years in a barrel previously used for maturing a well-known and heavily trademarked brand of Louisiana hot pepper sauce. Equally nasty in its own right, but released with a sense of humor – so much so that when I scored it a 40, Westland’s Steve Hawley told me in an email that “we would have been offended with a higher score.”

There’s an argument for tasting bad whiskies, since they help you appreciate the good ones all the more. One sip of Fishky is enough to lock in that appreciation for a lifetime, though.

Links: Pinkernell’s Whisky Market | Balblair



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How Young Can a Whisky Be?

Whisky bottles with age statements. Photo ©2018, Mark Gillespie/CaskStrength Media.

May 6, 2018 – Age statements can tell us how old a whisky is, and in some cases, how young it is.

Let’s start with the easy part. If a whisky has an age statement on it, it must refer to the age of the youngest whisky used in that bottle. In other words, all of the malt and grain whiskies used in a 12-year-old Blended Scotch whisky must be at least 12 years old. However, there is no requirement that a whisky carry an age statement – with one notable exception.

The United States requires that any American-made whiskey matured for less than four years disclose that fact with an age statement on the label. Again, the requirement stipulates that the disclosed age refers to the youngest whiskey in a particular bottle. However, age statements are completely optional for any whisky older than four years old. The law also requires that whiskey be matured in oak barrels, though the specifics vary depending on whether we’re talking about Bourbons, Rye Whiskies, Wheat Whiskies, and Malt Whiskies (which must be aged in new barrels) or other types of whiskies that can be aged in used barrels.

However, that law doesn’t say how long a distiller must mature spirit in a barrel in order to call it whisky in the U.S.  Theoretically, one could fill a brand-new cask with spirit, dump it five minutes later, and legally call it Bourbon – assuming it met all of the other requirements. However, that’s far too inefficient and expensive, since Bourbon barrels can only be used once. It’s also a key reason why the U.S. has that age disclosure requirement in place for anything less than four years old, while almost every other country requires spirit to mature for at least three years before it can legally be called “whisky.” The U.S. does require that any “straight” whisky be matured for at least two years, while “bottled-in-bond” whiskies have to be at least four years old.

Where did those requirements come from, since early distillers weren’t known for their patience in waiting for their whisky to mature? In Scotland and Ireland, the first minimum aging requirement wasn’t imposed until 1915 with the United Kingdom’s Immature Spirits Act and its two-year minimum standard. It didn’t take Parliament that long to raise the bar, with a change to three years imposed a year later, according to Charles MacLean in MacLean’s Miscellany of Whisky.

Canada beat the rest of the world to the punch in 1887, according to Davin de Kergommeaux in Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert. At that time, Canadian law imposed a minimum of one year’s maturation time for whiskies – and it was doubled to two years in 1980. However, the current standard of three years was not enacted until 1974, meaning you might still find vintage bottles of Canadian Whisky that were made under the old requirements.


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