When we have enjoyed and learnt about whisk(e)y, sufficient to have some knowledge or now with the rise of social Media, a little experience, a computer and too much time on our hands, we reach the complaining stage which also comes with age in lieu of wisdom.
” When I was a lad… Sixpences, Haig Dimple, Old Crow etc. etc.”
Familiar as I am with both U.S. and U.K whisk(e)y markets, I have noticed the same phenomenon among commentators in both markets and by and large on the same topics; each county drinkers opinions mirroring each other.
The first shared gripe is the creeping demise of Age statements. In Scotland the rise of NAS sees beloved classics disappearing or rumoured to be going, from Highland Park, Bunnahabhain and other classic names the eventual outcome still remains unclear. In the U.S. it is more obvious, Knob Creek 9 year old has become a ‘small batch’ NAS, Elijah Craig the most common benchmark Bourbon is losing its 12 year old age statemeny. Now in the States it is rumoured that many of these NAS versions will still be of the ‘same’ age. Really! So why remove the Age Statement?
Oh, the traditionalist are suspicious of finishes. This depends on your sense of adventure. Scotch is being finished in a wide variety of casks from ‘special’ sherry to Port and Sauternes even, Bourbon finds itself with Port and Brandy finishes. Many consumers have enjoyed these finishes or in some cases the full maturation in these casks. Generally in Scotland this has not been a big gripe but in the U.S. some traditionalists have objected to finishes but more despicable the flavouring of Bourbon with fruits etc. to attract new consumers creating a throwback to when Bourbon was too rough to drink.
In the U.K. a huge complaint is the extraordinarily high prices some brands and most older malts are now attracting. In the U.S. the increased interest in less common, rare expressions has also pushed prices into four figures although not to the extremes which Scotch has reach, the first 6 figure bottles now being sold. There is still sufficient great Scotch and Bourbon which can be sourced to adequately meet the wildest desires of the more frugal consumer.
The next hot topic is chill filtration and colouring. No colouring or additives in Bourbon is permitted at all. Most commercial distilleries chill filter. In the UK over 46% ABV higher does not need filtration. So colouring is a non-issue in America.
Colouring with the A150e additive (Caramel) is allowed in Scotch and extensively used in many whiskies. Colouring is largely used to produce a more marketable product and those who use it claims it does not change the flavour, those who don’t disagree. In the U.S. because it is all matured in single use, first use barrels there is generally more colour taken from high char rated barrels than the barrels reused to produce Scotch.
Many Scotch whiskies use chill filtration. It is claimed by some that this removes the longer chain fatty acids altering the taste for the worse. Some malts specifically state ‘not chill filtered’. In the U.S. the distilled spirit does appear at least to my eye to contain more impurities that benefit appearance from filtration.
It is not my purpose to solve our mutual gripes, for too many the gripes are an integral part of the fun and enjoyment or at least an excuse for another round. I hope to live long enough to enter this phase in my whisky drinking career.
Alcoholic strength is a more common discussion. For those that don’t know Europe sells spirits in ABV value, Alcohol by Volume and 40% ABV is the lowest legal ABV. The U.S. sells in proof. ABV is 50% of American proof, so 50% ABV is 100 proof, not using the term degrees at all. NOTE: To add to the confusion, the U.K. also has a historic proof measure now largely superseded by EU regulation and seldom used. U.K., proof is 1.75 x ABV – just ignore it completely as even the most devious of marketers if they used proof would prefer to exhibit the higher value of American proof, I contend.
The ‘lower’ priced Scotch tends to be bottled at 40 ABV. similarly economic Bourbons were commonly 45% but some have on occasions migrated toward the 40% mark. Historically when U.S. brands reduced the proof from 90 to 80 there was an outcry and they quickly reverted to 90, Yeh! Lower strength in the U.K. equates to more whisky from the barrel and the lowest tax payable as tax action is proportionate to tax collected. Draw your own conclusions.
Many whiskies are bottled at higher ABV and Cask Strength Scotch has a dedicated following along with high strength bottling such as Glenfarclas 105 and the fabulous Aberlour A’Bunadh bottled around the 60% mark. Many NAS expressions also are produced at 50-60% ABV adding to their body and flavour, IMHO
The U.S. tends to produce a larger percentage of high proof whiskey both for historic and marketing reasons. Cask proof covers both Non Age Expressions and single cask expressions. 100 proof is seen as a magical number for taste, value and marketing purposes so it is the lower priced Bourbons and Ryes that are commonly bottled at the 90 proof point, presumably because they sell competitively on price. 40% ABV has become the export norm for these expressions unfortunately as these then match the European minimum point and the whisky sold to compete on price, Boo.
We all object to some of the less authentic marketing statements but generally live happily with it. in the U.S. claims of frontier origins and long departed originators are largely but not universally as false as the dates of origins claimed but we accept these as branding and marketing with a knowing look. In Scotland particularly the origins are more authentic and the history less uninterrupted. Recent marketing efforts invoking Highland roots, mythical creatures and Nordic warriors raise more eyebrows amongst the moaneratti but again whisky drinkers will moan but have learnt to be patient assuming the great will survive and prosper and the poor disappear. If the Whisky remains good there will be no revolt.
A common shared complaint was that in older days whisky was better. Few of us have either the tasting libraries or financial means to buy very old bottles or indeed the taste memory to actually verify these claims. It is easy to ignore that a lot of older whisky was probably poor and hence failed to survive. In America the old pre prohibition whiskey was often supplemented with dubious flavouring and was probably harsh and unpalatable compared to modern whiskey. Who cares anyway as long as the Distilleries manufacture ever improving affordable whisky.
A most interesting shared gripe is against the largest and most successful brands based apparently largely on success alone. In my experience this is more a British than American trait, success being lauded in the U.S. where the old Presbyterian Scots attitudes among Whisky drinkers eschewed it. Glenfiddich suffers unjustified sniping based on its world leadership. Yes, it is a light Speyside (the word incidentally ought to be Strathspey – a minor gripe of mine) but Glenfiddich would not have created the sales it enjoys without being the quality consistent product it undoubtedly is. The same ‘sniffiness’ can be detected among the whiskey geeks for Jack Daniels. It rose to dominance despite not actually styling itself NOT a Bourbon but a Tennessee Whiskey made with a final filtration through a column of maple charcoal giving both sweetness and its unique taste profile. it does in fact qualify as a Bourbon in every respect but choses not to. Of course the irony is that Brown Foreman’s Head Quarters is in Louisville, Kentucky and it is also the producer of the excellent Woodford Reserve the Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. Like Brown Foreman in the UK Diageo also faces jibes but there is no evidence to equate size with any lack of quality as the dominance of Johnnie Walker and the excellence of many of their single malts demonstrate. We just love to have the odd kick at the ‘establishment’ but would mourn their demise. Long may they prosper. I do have Jack Daniels single cask and the Glenfiddich 18 year old on my current wish list.
In the U.S. one last gripe is that anyone can produce Bourbon, just by buying spirit from one of the few big distilleries and having the product matured, bottled then marketed. Only a careful reading of the label and an understanding of the niceties of what is or is not permitted by law in that wording can reveal the process that underlies the whiskey. Most of the several different Mash Bills from most distilleries deliver an excellent product. Bulleit from Diageo is one such product, not distilled for a long time by them but by others. In June 2017 Diageo opened its Shelbyville Bulleit Distillery to manufacture its own product.
Prior to this Bulleit was distilled at the legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery home of the legendary Old Rip Van Winkle( until 2002 when it moved to Buffalo Trace). Stitzel Weller also manufactured Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, and Cabin Still for other companies.
For many years brands changed hands and became disassociated from their original distillery but the market determined what sold and what did not. Other than through blending this feature does not exist other than from Independents who are a market in themselves not directly competing with the main Brands but well worth delving into.
As today is the 4th of July, laying aside our mutual gripes it is probably pertinent to celebrate what we have to celebrate in common. As was famously said the U.K. and the U.S. are two counties divided by a common language, However, we seem to have got over our divided spelling of whisk(e)y and have moved on.
We can celebrate two great global industries generating exports, tax and jobs from humble beginnings.
We celebrate that these are largely rural rooted craft industries manufacturing sustainably a quality product supporting the rural economy yet enjoyed by the wealthiest and poorest in society.
We can celebrate its foundation in great dynasties often with a shared heritage spanning many generations, The Samuels, The Grants and indeed our European neighbours the Beams (Bohms). We must also celebrate a more recent group , that of the Distillery Designers and Master distillers, names like Swan, Lumsden, Lee and Noe spring to mind among a large group increasingly including young women.
We celebrate the dedication and skill of the workforces to producing and developing a quality, consistent and innovative product serving both the mass produced and luxury markets.
We celebrate the dedicated and informed liquor stores, off licenses and specialist whisky retailers and barmen and women globally who advise on or deliver our dram.
We celebrate the passionate consumers and fans, the bloggers, vloggers and podcaster who promote, educate about and enjoy whisky.
We have much to celebrate.
Most of all we celebrate a drink shared and enjoyed with family and friends at the happiest and saddest of times. We celebrate the role that whisky plays in community as that most egalitarian of Ayrshire farmers wrote.
“Freedom and Whisky gang the gither”.
Happy Independence Day to all Americans!