The Malts, they are a-changing…..and not all for the better

I am a mere hoi palloi amongst malt whisky drinkers. I began on standard was it 10 or 12 year old Macallan and that was a fine tiple in its time, and moved onto Aberlour and other Highland styles from the NE corner. I dont collect whisky, I enjoy it the way it was meant to be enjoyed. I have though an axe to grind. No-Age-Specified malts.

A tour through the Islay Malts, which I used to avoid due to the irritating sasenachs so proud of their bottles of ‘Leapfrog’ , lead me to a very nasty night , an OD on a fine middle aged Bowmore which meant smoke was off the menu for several years due to the matters described by Pavlov, Hughy and Ralph. Now it is back, but I am very glad for the continuing journey through Ben Riach and Glen Dronach county where I happened to live before I took up with anything better than bog standard Glen Morangie. Auchetoshan, far from a Romantic western isle idyll, produces a fine la’land whisky

That whiskies from the stable could vary not just by age was a discovery on a flight somewhere where my boss was tucking in to a wee green bottle of Glen Fiddich. Usually I find the standard product to be a peppery item, a little devoid of true character and living off its’ brand name and three sided green prism. Howevver the ‘export’ at a little stronger 43% was a far superior product, with a richness and depth that left me pleasantly surprised.

Now though things have changed. Malt whisky could one day soon displace blended mash crap whisky in value of sales. But the expansion is driven by greed and the marketing guys and accountants have been able to koibosh the blenders and expert tasters into making a far inferior product.

It started with Macallan. Their wonderful bright flavoured, sweet nectar of years gone by was first hidden away by the oak finish and other releases, and around the late naughties it quietly became a far inferior product at the 10 yo or was it 12 standard product. To my palate it became a nothing whisky with the 18 being an interesting side show, but not the sherry finish perfection of what was a whisky which did what it said on the bottle, it was Macallan. Insiders toldme it was the shortage of not only sherry barrels, due to aunty bertha loosing her taste for the later afternnon tiupple and container-donor, but also good enough sherry barrels to facilitate the economic production of a mid priced 12 yo. All sherry barrels are not created equal and Macallan no doubt found themselves competing for a diminishing supply of the best. They then have an issue. Double the price to keep it the same , or decrease the ahem, user experience. I would have been brand loyal and gone to 80 quid a bottle my self.

Some say that Macallanin Japan is the good ol’ girl we all knew.

Anyway that was then and several standard products like Oban or Dalwhinne have actually improved, and the malt content of some blends seems to be so high that you could , when the palate is otherwise overloaded, satisfy the wee heid mellowness with a double-cheap-skate after that vindaloo.

What grinds my gears is also not the silly brand blended malts of unknown origin. Things like Monkey Shoulder. They are smooth enough, cheap and cheerful. They also have soemthign of much higher valuie to eduicate the pallate. They have a slightly sickly , barley sugar and camphor ‘finger print’. These malt scotches are to my knowledge, mostly no age statement. That means they are based to some extent or not , on a young 3 year old spirit, the minimum legal age for Whisky in the UK. The plot would suddenly thicken. ProfessorPlumb, in the library wiht the barley sugar candle stick.

I only remember it was Bowmore of all wee dear places of pagodas and craftsemen, was out without an age statement as goes the single malt marques. I actually think the taster I go I tasted seemed much better, in terms of concentration and length of taste, than the bottle I took home and opened. Maybe my palate was more in the mood at Glasgow Airport’s tax free.

It seems many more distilleries, or rather their conjumated marketing power dressers, have siezed the concept. Brand by suggesting something almost spiritual rather than branding on the age of the spirit. Where as an earlier gentleman’s agreement that Malts would be only sold over 8 y.o. maybe existed, it has been blown away and single malts are wrapped up in a travesty which is maybe in the direction of a nightmare based upon cutting open the stomach of the golden goose to get the eggs out quicker.

The economics are there, if you can make a pallatable product which in particular, reaches new users, 30 somethings or frequent flyer business folk, or dare I say woman folk, and gets them buying malts. Establishing a franchise with the brand. Buying into the heritage via a short cut fancy brand name on a cheaper product in terms of maturation and all the high costs and risks in that.

Barley sugar. A slightly sickly and a wee bit citrus taste, with a decided camphor or sandal wood note in it. A good sweetness and roundness like what good malts should have. But there you have it, a sickly taste with a little after effect which is not all that pleasant.

What have they manage to achieve? What frankensteins monster will destroy the franchise with loyal, 10 to 12 y.o. Malt whisky-drinkers? Who else will enter the market with 3 y.o. sherry and burbon finished concoctions ?

I don’t quite know what they have got up to in the stills, the nosing and tasting room and the blending buildings. The barley sugar is the fingerprint. I have just opened a bottle of Limited Cask, or Casg Annamh, Aberlour and it is not a bad drop,. It is a dark colour, which is promising, a kind of ruby brown rust, a nice brightness to it. At 48% they are near cask stength for an older whisky with a nice pair of figures on the bottle, like 12 , 15 or 18. It has character and is reminiscent of the stable product, but it has those little notes underlying it.

I would not have bought it myself, it has no age statement. I am no longer buying malts with NAS, unless they are a tenner at the barras. What have they done with Malts ?

Well an insider who is not involved directly with the process of blending or tasting, tells me that those processes concerning no age statement batches have become a more hush hush affair than in years gone by, perhaps asking how it was going with the 12 and maybe being invited in for a dram or just a nose after coffee break. Conspiracy, the smoking gun being locked doors and sealed lips.

I suspect and this is with the disclamier to my palate’s experience of these, that they have found a way to make a 3 year old carrier scotch which blends ‘well’ with select casks of well matured malt. I have heard that some barrels of 18 plus are undrinkable on their own, but used in small amounts add a mystique to the blending process ( very few ‘single’ malts are marketed as single barrel. Rather they are blended at one single distillery from various barrels and on an age-declared malt, the YOUNGEST is that age by law) . We are in effect getting a vodka whisky with some extra flavour in it from good barrels. Rather than dilution per se, we are carrying a good tune on a rather rubbish casio keyboard.

This is actually so far as the sharp suited marketeers are prepared to boast about. That not being tied down to an minimum og age maturation, frees them to make exciting products picking from select flavours in the library of barrels they have to hand. They claim they can then present a better, more intriguing product at the key duty free price point of about 50 -80 euro bucks or so per bottle.

I’d say good luck to them, not for me, but good luck BUT, there are two rather large flies in the ointment. Firstly these sly products eat up shelf space and tasting lines in that key duty free shop, where I buy about half my Malts and most of the higher price ones in that. Secondly someone pointed out on a forum, these hipster facsimilie bottles are stealing from the malts of the future.

What do we mean with this, stealing from the future? Well it has to be said that there MUST be a significant amount of 3 y.o. carrier spirit in these malts, vodka whisky if you like. It means that the margin equation can be worked on in capturing people into the brand, but will those punters become franchised into loyalty and up-buying? Or do they want to have wee orgasms of selling to churn customers wandering like sheep through the globe’s tacky taxless shops?

Back to the future, maybe they plan to have a more expensive 12 y.o. upgrade from these , but surely it is plain and simple economics that you can turn over more from your capital assets pushing out at three years rather than 10 or 12 for your volume product??

Some say that todays 3 yo cast up in a funny name brand NAS, is tommorrows loss from the shelves of 12 yo and up over. I suspect worse, that this carrier spirit is a little different in fact from the product which would be matured to 12 years. Perhaps it is better in some way, a smoother distilliation, more select concanamers, a more careful or longer mashing the ‘wort’??

The answer to this dear distiller, is to let me taste three year old malts, or indeed if it is so good as a standard product, bloody well market it Age Statement on the bottle. What is wrong with following the micro distillers and doing some smoother, light matured Gins instead? Or like classic and new cola, is the whole thing a subetfuge to get more shelf space and more excitement going in duty free and super markets.

I might like it if these new, “ageless” malts could debunk the pseud’s and reveal that the product is good as gold without it needing all those damp, dark days in the bond maturing until it makes the magic number which is in consumer’s minds only a sign of quality and brand equity. Unfortunetly many of us and right proper aficionados have lived with the age declaration and loved its vargieries, and lamented some products sliding while others came with new wonder bottlings like Glen Dronnach 18 yo. Malt whisky has been marketed upon a minimum age per batch and bottle for very good reason, because that is when it is best.

As whisky gets older, beyond 15 and 18, it gets much darker and the chemistry developes in new directions, and in fact I am not all that keen on the 18 plus I have tried which are rather dear and not to my pallette, a bit like Malbec versus a matured Bordeaux, I dont like leather and too much dried fruit in my red wine, I like fresh and bright, and yeah ok, some green pepper corns or some tobacco smoke, but I like a fruit in the body. The same goes for Scotch, I love good 10 to 12 yo, a light inspiring drink which takes me back to mellow moments and the odd flirt in my home land of West Scotland.

On my third dram of Casg Annamh and it doesnt grow on me. It is a fantasy whisky made up as a limited cask, with a good colour, but it is not a true heritage malt,. In fact I prefer their standard 12 yo, but this is different and offers something once a tea spoon of water is in it. But I wouldnt buy it myself not just on principle but because I have tasted enough of these NAS malts to be fed up with it all, and like any cheap product, the after taste soon takes away from the initial flattery on the tongue.

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