Wine: internationally, drinking whisky is a style statement
WHENEVER talk turns to economic recovery, someone points to the Scotch whisky industry. Time will tell how sustainable its current progress is but a recent visit to Glendronach, outside Huntly, gave me real optimism.
Enthusiasts will recall that this distillery has passed through several hands in the last 50 years and is now half of the BenRiach operation, presided over by the shrewd but expansive Billy Walker. Both distilleries carefully manage the marriage between innovation and tradition (“keeping the faith”, Walker calls it).
Human judgment, aided by hydrometer rather than microchip, controls the processes; pine and larch washbacks are preferred to stainless steel, and an 80-year-old milling machine is venerated rather than pensioned off. This week also sees the first ‘steeping’ on the new malting floor at BenRiach, in a back-to-the-future development that will make it one of only a handful of distilleries with this operation in-house.
This distillery is famed for ‘sherry’ whisky, where flavour and colour are drawn from casks originally occupied by oloroso or the intensely sweet pedro ximinez. Nowadays, however, former bourbon barrels are also used and a range of wood finishes currently in vogue have been introduced – such as port, sauternes and even virgin oak. The latter uses new American oak, which has a more assertive influence on the liquid because its grain is courser than European versions. It was these less orthodox finishes I sampled first.
I was taken with The Glendronach Virgin Oak Finish 14 Year old (£41.49, The Whisky Exchange), where the result seems sweeter (possibly because of the extra lactones in American oak) and the flavour intensity stepped up a gear mid-palate. The more forceful effect of the wood brings out flavours such as vanilla, spice and possibly banana.
Unsurprisingly, as a wine man, I also greatly enjoyed The Glendronach Tawny Port Finish 15 Year old (£45.99, www.singlemaltsdirect.com) because of its off-dry, dried fruit flavours and long, liquorice and caramelised sugar finish.
In the small batches of single-cask bottlings (another was released this month), I was impressed by an earlier example of The Glendronach Single Cask 1978, with its smoothly elegant style and vibrant touches of chocolate orange that nicely complement its rich sherry base.
But is the industry’s underlying structure as good as its whisky? Well, the capacity needed for the supply side of the equation seems to be in place and demand remains strong and widely spread. The home market, for example, has obvious target groups (women, in particular, and anyone below the average whisky drinkers’ age of 48) while, internationally, drinking whisky is a clear style statement. Not only is it the spirit of choice in mature markets but the aspirational in emerging markets such as the Far East and, increasingly, Africa also regards drinking whisky as the cool thing to do.
Walker also insists things within the industry are in good shape. There is obvious mutual respect between the big boys and niche producers like Glendronach and BenRiach. Both seem comfortable with the role of the other, even on sensitive issues like pricing.
Perhaps I’m naively optimistic but the absence of the Glendronach rooks on my visit helps my case. Allegedly, they only appear to signal bad news – like a sighting of the excise man. Even if the rooks and I are wrong, we can assuage the pain with some great whisky.
2011 Mas de Montagnes Terroirs D’Altitude Blanc Roussillon, France, 13.5 per cent
A lovely white from France’s Midi with hawthorn blossom aromas and a complex range of flavours that include pear, red apple and grapefruit that all ends in a delightful flinty twist. £8.49 (as part of a mixed case of six), Majestic
2007 Caliterra Tributo Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Colchagua, Chile, 14 per cent
From its typical leafy, dark fruit nose to its long, minty finish, this is a class act. Most of the tannin has worked through to give a clear run to the ripe, concentrated plum and bramble fruit, with its appealing undertones of nutmeg. £9.99, Luvians
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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