Each week, we bring you the latest whisky news on WhiskyCast. Now, we’ll be bringing it to you as it happens here on our News Updates page!
April 16, 2018 – Gordon & MacPhail has long been one of Scotland’s leading independent whisky bottlers, producing around 300 different bottlings each year under 12 different ranges. 50 years after second-generation scion George Urquhart created the Connoisseurs Choice range, that range will be at the heart of the family-owned company’s portfolio relaunch that will reduce the 12 ranges to just five.
“Going forward, we will be able to basically create a lot more simplicity and use only five ranges to keep our offerings a bit tighter,” said Stephen Rankin, the company’s Director of Prestige and one of the fourth-generation family members leading Gordon & MacPhail. He acknowledged the current portfolio had become confusing for consumers, and the restructuring is intended to eliminate that confusion.
“It’s all about becoming even more meaningful to the consumer, ultimately,” Rankin said in a telephone interview. The Connoisseurs Choice range has largely focused on single malt bottlings from distilleries that are not widely available as distillery-issued bottlings, and will continue that focus with an eye to whisky aficionados. Recommended retail prices will vary by market, but will range depending on the specific whisky from $70 USD to $500 USD.
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Stephen Rankin:
The range will also be the first to use a new bottle and label design that will also be used for the new “Discovery Range” and a new “Discovery Labels” range to be introduced soon. For the Connoisseurs Choice range, gold labels will denote “standard” bottlings, while gray labels will be used for cask-strength bottlings and a red label will be used for whiskies that have been finished in wine or other casks.
The “Discovery Range” will come from Gordon & MacPhail’s extensive inventory of casks from distilleries around Scotland, with labels denoting them as either smoky, ex-Sherry Cask, or ex-Bourbon cask malts. While not describing it as an “entry-level” range, Rankin does acknowledge that it will serve as an introduction to the Gordon & MacPhail portfolio.
“As the consumer comes into whisky, they will begin to understand what style of whisky they begin to like,” said Rankin. “For example, is it that sweeter Bourbon-style maturation that they’re enjoying, is it a richer Sherry-style maturation they’re enjoying, or are they enjoying the smokier components from a whisky? Well, the Discovery Range will actually help people go ‘you know what, I really like that one and I understood it was sweeter, so right, I’m going to try this section here which is Bourbon-matured whiskies.'”
The “Distillery Labels” range will bring together single malts from distilleries Gordon & MacPhail has been bottling under its own labels for many years, such as Linkwood, Mortlach, and the “George & J.G. Smith’s” Glenlivet. The company has agreements with many distilleries to have its own casks filled with new make spirit and matured either at the distillery or in Gordon & MacPhail’s own maturation warehouses in the Elgin area.
Gordon & MacPhail will also be giving its Private Collection range a facelift later this year with new packaging. The Private Collection label is reserved for single cask bottlings that are at least 35 years old and bottled at cask strength, with the most recent example being the 1956 Linkwood released last month. The “Generations” range will continue to be reserved for the oldest whiskies in the company’s inventory, with only four bottlings released since the 2010 debut of that range with a 70-year-old Mortlach. Since then, two 70-year-old Glenlivet casks were released in 2011 and 2012, and a 75-year-old Mortlach cask was released in 2015. No plans have been disclosed for the next release in that series.
Links: Gordon & MacPhail
April 16, 2018 – With Scotch Whisky-related tourism at record highs, Diageo has announced plans to invest £150 million pounds ($214.9 million USD) in upgrades to its visitors centers at 12 malt whisky distilleries around Scotland over the next three years. The project also will include the first-ever brand home for Johnnie Walker to be built in Edinburgh leading up to the brand’s 200th anniversary in 2020.
In a Diageo news release, Global Scotch Whisky Director Cristina Diezhandino said “new generations of consumers around the world are falling in love with Scotch and they want to experience it in the place where it is made and meet the people who make it. This investment will ensure that the people we attract to Scotland from around the world go home as life-long ambassadors for Scotch and for Scotland.”
More than 440,000 visitors stopped at the 12 distilleries in 2017, up 15.2 percent from the previous year. While all 12 distilleries will have upgrades to their visitor facilities, Diageo plans to emphasize what company executives are referring to as the “Four Corners” distilleries: Glenkinchie, Caol Ila, Clynelish, and Cardhu. The Speyside distillery has been referred to as the “home” of Johnnie Walker for many years because of its links to the John Walker & Sons family as the first distillery they purchased from the Cumming family in 1893. However, all four distilleries now contribute a significant amount of their annual production to the various Johnnie Walker expressions, and the expansion plan calls for them to be “linked directly” to the new Johnnie Walker center in Edinburgh. Diageo is likely to draw upon its experience with recent upgrades to the Guinness Storehouse experience in Dublin, which has become one of Ireland’s leading tourist attractions with more than 1.7 million visitors annually.
Specific plans for each distillery, along with a location for the Edinburgh center, were not disclosed in the Diageo announcement. However, the announcement also touted Diageo’s plans to use that facility to expand its “Learning for Life” program aimed at creating hospitality sector jobs for young Scots, which began in 2012 and has helped provide job training for more than 1,000 previously unemployed people. The company will also set up a separate scholarship and mentoring program for young entrepreneurs with a special emphasis on residents of Kilmarnock, which was John Walker’s home town and remained the primary bottling site for Johnnie Walker until the plant was closed in 2010.
In addition to the planned upgrades at the “Four Corners” distilleries, the visitors centers at Lagavulin, Talisker, Royal Lochnagar, Oban, Glen Ord, Dalwhinnie, Blair Athol, and Cragganmore will also be upgraded. There are also plans to open a new visitors center at the Port Ellen Distillery when it reopens after being closed since 1983 along with Brora Distillery. However, since that distillery is directly across the road from Clynelish, it is likely that Brora will share the upgraded facilities with Clynelish.
WhiskyCast has requested interviews with Diageo executives to get more information about the project. This story will be updated with additional details as they become available.
April 13, 2018 – Diageo has unveiled nine of the ten whiskies that will be released later this year in its annual Special Releases series of limited-edition Scotch whiskies. However, two cornerstones of the 18-year-old range are missing from the initial announcement: the venerated Port Ellen and Brora distilleries. While one of them could appear as the final whisky in the 2018 series, which Diageo plans to reveal as a “surprise” closer to the release date, this will be the first time in many years that both distilleries will not be included in the Classic Malts Special Releases series.
“Port Ellen and Brora have become so, so unbelievably rare and precious that what we see is the opportunity to take it out of the Special Releases and really give it its own platform,” said Diageo Global Brand Ambassador Donald Colville in a telephone interview. “We will be doing releases of Port Ellen and Brora throughout the year…we just won’t be doing them under the banner of the Special Releases because they’re almost taking a step away in terms of price, in terms of rarity, in terms of what they are…they’re no longer really in line with what the Special Releases are and always were to be about a range of affordable to expensive single malts, ” he said.
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Donald Colville:
The spirits giant announced plans last October to bring both distilleries back to life after they were closed in 1983 by Diageo predecessor DCL. Port Ellen’s equipment was removed from the Islay distillery, while Brora’s was kept largely intact. Vintage single malts from both distilleries have traditionally been among the rarest and highest-priced releases in the series, with the 2017 Special Releases lineup including the oldest Port Ellen yet, a 37-year-old single malt distilled in 1979, and a 34-year-old Brora from 1982. Colville acknowledged that the reopening of both distilleries gave Diageo executives a chance to re-evaluate their ongoing role in the Special Releases series.
As for the nine whiskies announced today, the oldest is a 48-year-old Carsebridge single grain from yet another one of the distilleries that closed in 1983 during an industry-wide restructuring in the wake of excess inventory and slumping sales. The Lowlands grain distillery had been a fixture in Scotch Whisky history since opening at the turn of the 19th Century, and was one of the six original distilleries that made up DCL.
Caol Ila has been represented in the series several times with a rare unpeated Islay single malt, and will have a 15-year-old unpeated malt this year along with a rare 35-year-old malt bottled at 58.1% ABV. Lagavulin will once again have a 12-year-old bottling, while Talisker will have its youngest age-stated release in many years with an 8-year-old edition. Colville described it as a throwback to when the Walker family and its partners in DCL acquired the distillery in 1916 and started bottling Talisker as an 8-year-old whisky.
Speyside distilleries Inchgower and Pittyvaich will have 27 and 28-year-old whiskies respectively, while a 21-year-old Oban and 14-year-old Singleton of Glen Ord will represent the Highlands.
Pricing and market availability for the nine whiskies announced today was not disclosed, and will be revealed closer to the release this autumn. In the past, not all of the whiskies in the series have been made available in the United States, which requires the use of 750ml bottles while almost all other markets use the European Union standard 700ml bottle size.
Editor’s note: This story was updated following an interview with Diageo’s Donald Colville.
Links: Classic Malts
April 7, 2018 – Four years after releasing its first single malt Swedish whiskies, Box Distillery will be changing its name to High Coast Distillery – for both the facility and its whiskies. The distillery announced its name change in a Swedish-language news release Friday, indicating that concerns raised by John Glaser’s Compass Box Whisky Company over possible confusion between the two companies led to the decision. Box marketing director Jan Groth confirmed the decision in an email Saturday, and issued an English translation of the news release Tuesday.
The new name comes from Box’s location in Adalen on the High Coast of northeastern Sweden. The distillery is located on the banks of the Ångermanälven River in the building that housed the power plant for the old Box AB wooden box factory, which is where the original name came from. According to the Swedish-language news release, the name change will take effect at the distillery’s annual whisky festival scheduled for the weekend of June 30-31, with the first High Coast-branded whiskies to be released this autumn.
The region is one of Sweden’s more popular tourism areas, and the name change is likely to help reinforce the distillery’s connection with the area. Box had already been referring to the High Coast in its promotional material and on some of its labels as “High Coast” whiskies. The distillery’s most recent release, the Quercus II Alba, was unveiled several weeks ago and is now available at retailers in limited amounts.
WhiskyCast featured Box/High Coast in a 2014 episode of WhiskyCast HD:
When reached by email, Compass Box founder John Glaser declined to comment on the Box Distillery claims. Box/High Coast has been more active in the export market, and that may have been responsible for some of Compass Box’s concern over confusion between the two. This story will be updated with more information as necessary.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with additional information.
Links: Box Distillery
April 6, 2018 – For almost as long as Kentucky distillers have opened their doors to visitors, they’ve had to field one question.
“If I buy a bottle here, can you ship it home for me so I don’t have to pack in in my suitcase?”
The answer has always been “no,” since Kentucky state law has always banned distilleries, wineries, and retailers from shipping wines and spirits to consumers outside the Commonwealth. Now, that’s about to change with the passage of legislation this week in Frankfort that will remove most of the restrictions on out-of-state shipments. With some caveats, House Bill 400 will allow distillery and winery visitors to not only have their purchases shipped home, but also join a “bottle of the month club” that lets them receive regular shipments in the future.
“We’re kind of in the same place California was 40 years ago with wine country,” said Kentucky Distillers Association president Eric Gregory. “They had a very active campaign called freethegrapes.org and now 44 states can ship wine, so we developed a campaign called “Bourbon Without Borders” and met over the past year with legislators, the Governor’s office, the ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control Board), and others and said ‘we need to address this and figure out a way to let visitors ship their Bourbons back home,'” he said. Governor Matt Bevin’s office has expressed support for the bill, which can become law without his signature on April 13.
Under the bill, visitors to a Kentucky distillery can legally arrange to have up to 4.5 liters of alcohol (equivalent to six 750ml bottles) shipped to their home each day. Distilleries would also be allowed to create a “Bourbon Club” for their visitors and ship up to 9 liters (equal to 12 750ml bottles) over a 12-month period. However, Gregory notes that visitors from only seven states (Arizona, Hawaii, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Rhode Island) and the District of Columbia will be able to take advantage of the new law at first, since it only applies to states that allow interstate shipments of distilled spirits to their residents and will also allow shipments from their state’s distillers to Kentucky residents.
“Since Kentucky is the birthplace of Bourbon and we create 95 percent of the world’s Bourbon, we knew that we had to kinda be the first domino to fall, and hopefully over the next few years we can convince other states to change their laws and be reciprocal with Kentucky,” Gregory said. The legislation was created in coordination with executives from UPS, which has one of its largest global shipping hubs at Louisville International Airport, and is designed to be a model that other states can follow to open up interstate shipments of alcoholic beverages.
In addition, the legislation now makes it legal for Kentucky retailers to ship whiskies and other distilled spirits to out-of-state customers for the first time. According to industry sources, a handful of retailers had informally offered a shipping option for longtime customers until UPS cracked down in late 2017 by requiring retailers to prove they had legal permission to ship into other states. Now, any licensed retailer will be able to ship to customers in other states that offer reciprocity with Kentucky.
“We’ve got a lot of boutique package stores out there like Chris Zaborowski’s Westport Whiskey & Wine (in Louisville) that do really great private barrel selections and have some interesting bottles there…I believe people will really take advantage of this,” Gregory said. In an email, Zaborowski acknowledged that he had been shipping to established customers until the UPS crackdown and was licensed by UPS to ship alcoholic beverages while “the State turned a blind eye” to out-of-state transactions. “We do hope to return to shipping as soon as we get clarification from UPS,” Zaborowski said in his email. “Overall, I am glad to get some “legal” support for this piece of business.”
The change in state law comes months after Kentucky legalized the sale of vintage whiskies and other spirits by individuals to licensed bars, restaurants, and retailers because of the demand for pre-Prohibition Bourbons and other whiskies no longer available on the market. Justin Sloan, who opened Justins’ House of Bourbon in Lexington with his business partner Justin Thompson in January after the new law took effect, called the passage of House Bill 400 “very big for our state and the industry as a whole.”
“We already have people in the short time we have been opened ask if we could ship because they didn’t want to trust a vintage whiskey in their checked bags. This will allow us to offer customers a club to take advantage of our barrel picks we are doing every month,” he said in an email.
Typically, new laws in Kentucky do not take effect until at least 90 days after the end of a legislative session. However, Gregory noted that House Bill 400’s authors took advantage of a loophole in that requirement by adding language declaring the bill to be “emergency legislation.” That allows it to take effect immediately upon either Governor Bevin’s signature or ten days after it reaches his desk, which would be next Friday. The goal – to have the law in effect in time for the Kentucky Derby on May 5, when thousands of visitors will be in Louisville and likely to visit distilleries in the area, along with visitors expected in June for the KDA-sponsored Kentucky Bourbon Affair.
Both events are likely to mean a lot of business for UPS, since FedEx has even stricter limits on alcohol shipments and it is illegal to ship alcohol through the U.S. Postal Service.
“I’ve already got their (UPS) campaign slogan for them,” Gregory said with a laugh.
“What can brown spirits do for you?”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include the list of states that will be legal to ship to when the new law takes effect.
March 27, 2018 – Whiskey lovers and whiskey makers often argue over how much difference the wood in a barrel can make in the taste of a whiskey. While there’s no set answer, it’s estimated by experts that the wood can be responsible for 70 percent or more of the flavor in a whiskey. During the maturation process, spirit soaks into the wood and extracts flavors created by the breakdown of cellular compounds in the staves, while the wood also removes less desirable flavors from the spirit over time. Rarely, though, do we get a chance to compare the actual differences wood can make in a single whiskey.
Midleton’s Dair Ghaelach “Bluebell Forest” Irish Whiskeys give us the chance to do just that, though. As part of a long-term project to help restore Ireland’s forests, Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard has been working with forestry experts to identify stands of sustainably managed Irish Oak that could be used to make whiskey barrels. The initial “Grinsell’s Wood” 2015 release of Dair Ghaelach used ten specially selected trees to produce barrels that were used to mature the same Midleton single pot still spirit, with the wood from each tree kept separated from the others. At the time, the whiskey from each tree’s barrels was destined for a separate market as well.
Just as with the first release, the wood from each of the six trees felled in the Bluebell Forest on the Castle Blunden Estate in County Kilkenny was kept separate during the coopering process and the whiskies from each tree’s barrels was also kept separately from the others. However, the six bottlings in the Bluebell Forest release are all being distributed globally in limited amounts, making it possible for whiskey lovers to try more than one and see what difference the wood actually makes on the final whiskey.
Here are my tasting notes for all six of the Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest whiskies:
Tree #1: (Bottled at 55.3% ABV)
The nose has hints of lemon zest and butterscotch, along with straw, honey, and soft spices. The taste is tart with lemon pepper, while classic pot still spices of clove, cinnamon, and allspice develop slowly in the background along with touches of vanilla and straw. The finish gently fades away with a nice lingering tartness. Score: 92 points.
Tree #2: (Bottled at 56.2% ABV)
Much different than Tree #1, with a complex and slightly dry nose full of dark fruits, soft oak, honey, brown sugar, straw, and caramel candy. The taste is dark and spicy with notes of plums and raisins at first, followed by a crescendo of pot still spices and background notes of honey, vanilla, red grapes, and apples. The finish is very, very long with mouth-tingling spices that stick to the tongue. Wow! Score: 96 points.
Tree #3: (Bottled at 56.2% ABV)
This one has fresh-cut oak sawdust on the nose, along with honey, caramel candy, soft spices, and a hint of butterscotch candies. The taste starts off dry and oaky, then comes alive with clove, black pepper, cardamom, and allspice while honey, vanilla, straw, and a hint of dark chocolate add complexity. The finish is long – it sits on the tongue for a while and long enough to think about charging it rent! Score: 95 points.
Tree #4: (Bottled at 56.2% ABV)
The nose has notes of pencil shavings, honey, plums, blackberries, and a hint of brandy. The taste is thick and mouthcoating with great pot still spices of clove, black pepper, and allspice balanced by honey, caramel candy, and blackberries in the background. There’s a hint of anise that develops late and sticks around through the long finish with lingering spices, honey, and a soft hint of oak. Wow! Score: 95 points.
Tree #5: (Bottled at 56.3% ABV)
The nose on this bottling is soft and subtle with honey, oak sawdust, butterscotch, and a hint of lemon zest. Spices develop slowly on the palate and build to a peak with clove, white pepper and allspice complemented nicely by honey, linseed oil, and a hint of anise underneath. The spices provide a nice bite with good overall complexity. That spicy bite lasts through the finish with anise, honey, and butterscotch notes underneath. Score: 93 points.
Tree #6: (Bottled at 56.2% ABV)
The nose is very aromatic with hints of pine and cedar balanced nicely by honey, berry cobbler, and muted spices. The taste is mouth-coating, rich, and full of pot still spices that don’t overpower the sweeter notes of honey, butterscotch, straw, and a hint of citrus tartness. The finish has that slight tartness with long, lingering spices. Score: 95 points.
While there’s an overall consistency in many of the flavors between the six Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest bottlings, it’s clear that each of the six trees helped contribute to the final whiskeys by playing up some flavors while downplaying others. Normally, these differences would never make it to the bottle. Not only would those differences have been minimized in blending, but the common practice of coopers to use staves from different trees when making barrels would have effectively negated the influence of a single tree on the whiskey.
That said…I found all six bottlings to be complex, well-rounded, and very, very drinkable. Give me a choice between them, though – and I’d have to pick the whiskies from #2 and #4, but not by very much.
Editor’s note: Thanks to Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard for providing samples of all six Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest bottlings for this story.
Links: Midleton Dair Ghaelach