SINGLE MALT SPECIAL OF THE WEEK
22 year old Ledaig
The Tobermory distillery is located on the Isle of Mull in the village which gives it its name. This cask strength bottling from William Cadenhead, is the older name for the distillery. The spirit is very much Island in character: dry, peaty and smokey.
C.B. Hannegan's Single Malt Whiskies
C.B. Hannegan's has on hand at any one time a selection of more than 90 single malts arranged by region. Each one is unique, different from even its closest neighbor. These differences are the result of many variables: the quality of the local water; how long the drying barley is exposed to peat smoke; the shape of the copper still and if it is heated by open flame or steam coils; and finally, how long the spirit is aged, and whether the cask it is aged in is new or has previously held bourbon or sherry or some other spirit.
Regional differences are, in many cases, a thing of the past. Malts are traditionally divided into four categories. Generally speaking, Lowland malts are lighter, more delicate; Island malts are heavy, peaty and dry; Campbeltown's two distilleries produce spirits that are soft with a touch of brine; and Highland malts are richer, more complex. But exceptions abound. The qualities of any region's malts can range from the sweet and delicate to ones that will pop the pennies off a dead man's eyes.
Scotland and Scotch
Few people realize just how much the Scots have affected our lives. They
know little of Scotland beyond bagpipes and kilts, bonnie banks and the
Loch Ness Monster. Our lives are touched daily by inventions such as the
telephone of Alexander Graham Bell and the television of James Logie Baird.
Our cars and bicycles are cushioned by tires invented by John Dunlop and
ride on hard paved roads first perfected by John McAdam. The bicycle itself
was invented by a Scot, Kirkpatrick MacMillan. The Encyclopedia Brittanica
came out of Edinburgh, and even non-readers know of Sherlock Holmes, Long
John Silver and Peter Pan, the creations of Arthur Conan Doyle , Robert
Louis Stevenson and James M. Barrie. Weekend hackers have cause to praise
or curse the Scots for the game of golf. And just about the entire world
sings a song of the Scottish poet Robert Burns at midnight on New Year's
And of course, there is malt whisky. Distillation itself is not native to
Scotland, having most likely been brought over by Irish monks in the middle
ages. But the Scots have so refined it, that Scotch malt whisky has yet to
be duplicated anywhere else in the world.
Whisky reflects the Scottish heritage. For in a land that, despite its
great beauty, can be cruel and inhospitable, whisky has indeed lived up to
its name: Usquaebach -- the water of life.
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- The following article appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, February 25,1997:
Pros Worry That the Macallan May Suffer an Unsavory Fate
By BARRY NEWMAN, Staff Reporter
CRAIGELLACHIE, Scotland -- A few months ago, Highland Distilleries Co., a
midsize Scottish whisky maker, and Suntory Ltd., a big Japanese liquor company, teamed up and bought out Macallan-Glenlivet PLC, an old family-run distiller whose single product is the single-malt whisky, The Macallan.
It wasn't a friendly affair, and it has left a few noses out of joint. The noses belong to The Macallan's "nosers," whose job it was to perfect the whisky by sniffing it. Of six nosers, four were canned, the chief noser included. The spurned nosers departed, much concerned that, without their sensitive schnozzles, a bottle of The Macallan might someday need a revised label: Not The Macallan.
The new owners at HS Distillers Ltd. (a Highland-Suntory blend) say they have no changes planned for The Macallan. All they want to do is multiply sales of 150,000 cases a year by about six, to make it into the biggest-selling malt anywhere. The distillery on a hill above this Speyside village, they say, will make The Macallan the way it has made The Macallan since 1824.
Which is weird. In a quirky trade never far from alchemy, The Macallan is
distinctly strange. Barley, yeast and water go into malt whisky. Fire heats it. The spirit
matures in barrels. By rights, all malts should be equal, yet all are different, many for good reason. The Macallan is more different than many, for no good reason.
Its creators use a peculiar strain of barley, a particular mix of yeast, an unusual
class of barrel, a costly type of fuel, an odd-sized still and a finicky warehouse design.
They have always done so because not doing so doesn't produce The Macallan. They don't know why, only that people who know malt whisky seem to like it. A man passing through Heathrow Airport last year liked The Macallan enough to pick up one 60-year-old bottle of it for $16,000.
It denies logic and defies science, and that is why this takeover troubles the old nosers so. Making whisky, for them, was about mystery and passion, not cost control or market research. They defended The Macallan as a sacred trust, a notion they say bean counters can't understand. To profit from its $280 million takeover, they fear, HS Distillers may try to save a tuppence or two. In time, the whisky may change. The average drinker may not notice, but the nosers will.
"We had something there that's a little precious," says Willie Phillips, The
Macallan's dismissed managing director; at age 57, he is in exile at his home above the
River Lossie, 12 miles away. "Whisky isn't perfume," he says; its creation borders the
Sitting beside him in the living room, Frank Newlands pulls out a handkerchief and blows; the former chief noser has a cold. "We were fanatics," he says. "We thought of nothing but The Macallan." Mr. Newlands, 55, has a new job at a seaweed farm. "I went down to the still the other day," he tells his old boss. "The smell brought it all back to me. The smell was so good it hurt."
The Macallan's new owners supplanted Mr. Newlands with a lad he was training as an eventual successor. David Robertson is 28. He has been "steeped in Macallan tradition," as he says, for less than three years. Mr. Phillips, an accountant, steeped for 22. Mr. Newlands, a seaman, steeped on and off for ten. Both learned smelling by doing.
Mr. Robertson, whose father runs a distillery, went to college for a distilling
degree, then became a management trainee at United Distillers PLC, the Scotch-whisky
octopus owned by Guinness PLC. Mr. Newlands hired him in 1994, in the room at The
Macallan manor house where Mr. Robertson sits now, after lunch on a blustery afternoon.
A whiff of turnip wafts in from the kitchen. An aroma of coffee rises from the pot before him. On a couch opposite, unscented, is Stuart McCaffer, The Macallan's 32-year- old finance director.
"We believe we can take The Macallan on at a faster pace," Mr. McCaffer says. He talks of quick cash from selling more new spirit to distillers who blend it, and of bottling a raw seven-year-old; something The Macallan, usually aged between 10 and 25 years, hasn't inflicted on any palates but Italy's.
"Nothing's really changed," Mr. Robertson says. "That's the philosophy." Says Mr. McCaffer, "We'll be disappointed if we don't become No. 1 in the world."
When the finance man leaves, Mr. Robertson makes a confession: "I'm nervous. My training focused on technology, efficiency, but I learned one thing from Frank: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I see myself as a custodian of The Macallan. At first I thought, och, sure as fate it's going to change. All I can say is that so far, it has not." But with Frank gone, the only nose he can follow is his own.
Smell and the language of smell shape the noser's art. It isn't enough to jot down "tasting notes," as malt drinkers do in the bar at the Craigellachie Hotel: "smooth," "light," "so-so." The noser's lexicon runs from rose, pear-drop and fig through toffee and green tomato, all the way to pencil shaving, iodine, burnt rubber and creosote. A noser can name all the smells mingling in a whisky, restore the missing ones and erase the wrong ones. The aim is to ship the same liquor to the shops, year after year.
A single malt is no less a potpourri than a blend that folds several malts into
cheaper grain whisky. New smells can invade a malt from barley to bottle. Take the casks. The Macallan ages in sherry casks from Spain. Each has a scent: prunes, cloves, bananas. Maybe the oak is older; maybe the staves charred longer. Whatever the reason, the chief noser must pick 100 varied casks, sniff them, and then meld 50 into a batch identical to the one before it.
Here is a tale Mr. Phillips tells to show how the old guard used to defend its casks: A call came in one night from the nearby Tweed Valley Hotel. Someone had ordered The Macallan. It wasn't right. Mr. Phillips hurried to the hotel, and poured another. Not (quite) The Macallan. Nothing was amiss at the distillery, so he and Mr. Newlands drove to their bottling contractor in Glasgow. A bottler pipes whisky into vats, adds water, then pipes it back into casks to "marry." Empty Macallan casks were always on hand for the excess, but the nosers smelled a rat.
Both sniffed 130 empties. Each found 56 strange casks -- the same 56. They
scraped off some markings and discovered that the casks had all been filled, in an earlier pinch, with an alien whisky.
Mr. Phillips ordered the shipment recalled. "It wasn't a danger to health," he says. "It was a danger to reputation."
Such was the power of nosing at The Macallan. And it is a loss of nose power
under Highland-Suntory that would grieve the old nosers most. Not that Mr. Robertson
can't talk the talk or sniff the sniff. On a tour of them distillery, he is all words and smells.
"Wee bit of carbon dioxide," he says, leaning over a mash tun. Lifting the lid of a fermentation tank: "Beery, yeasty, acrid." In the still house: "Fruity, pear-drops," In the cask store: "Spicy, hint of cloves." And swirling a snifter in the nosing room: "Pears, apricots, prunes, raisins, cloves, spicy background, slightly woody. That's The Macallan."
And if it weren't? At The Macallan of yore, a nosing panel -- now made up of
three warehousemen -- rightfully overruled the chief noser if ever a hint of marzipan
poisoned the pear-drops. In the shadow of the layoffs, would the panelists challenge the boss today? Under the pressure of commerce, would the new chief noser let them?
Mr. Robertson insists he would. The old nosers think not. "Unless you toe the line, you don't get on," Frank Newlands says. "I know I'm not the kind of person they'd want." He stands in Willie Phillips's dining room for a late-morning sniff. After months away from the still, Mr. Newlands is just a tippler now. His nose is forgetting its vocabulary. Mr. Phillips hands him a glass of The Glenlivet. Mr. Newlands sniffs and says, "A good one." A Longmorn: "Not unpleasant." Then a deep-amber dram to test blind. Mr. Newlands sniffs deeply. "The more you nose, the better it gets."
"Frank," says Mr. Phillips, "put it into words."
The old noser sniffs again. "Och," he says. "It's The Macallan."
- I would still love to hear other opinions on this matter. Please feel free to E-Mail me
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Web Sites of Related Interest
- Edinburgh Malt Whisky Tour. A treasure trove of information on all things pertaining to malt whisky.
- Web 13, an Edinburgh Cybercafe with entertainment listings, Scottish newspapers and magazines.
- Edinburgh Virtual Bus Tour. Take a bus ride through the streets of the capitol city.
- A complete source for cask strength bottlings,Preiss Imports has thumbnail bios of distilleries along with extensive descriptions of their offerings.
- The Islay Whisky page is a complete guide to the eight distilleries on the Isle and has a good page of links.
- A Scottish Reference Page with lists of Scottish events throughout the country, a clan finder with more than 65 clans listed, and clan and geneology bulletin boards.
- The Celebrator beer magazine. One of, if not THE best magazine dealing with regional, micro-brewing.
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