Reader Questions

This unscheduled post is a response to reader Eric’s comments and questions on this week’s post, Older is Not Always Better. I decided to do a new article rather than squash my responses into the comments section. Thanks for the great thought-provoking comments, Eric! I’ve included his text in italics with my responses inline:

Eric: Scotchnoob, I have been into whiskey for about a year and have probably seriously tasted (as in taken down notes and thought carefully about what I was doing) almost fifty scotches, so I’m more than a novice, but less than an expert. Nevertheless, I find that there are a lot of pieces of conventional wisdom floating around out there that I find myself unable to buy into, and I’m wondering about the degree to which this is a matter of my inexperience of my own personal taste. Here is what I have noticed:

I can’t bring myself to care all that much about the size or industrial nature of the distillery. I know most people prefer small “craft” distilleries, but I just haven’t been able to see any relationship between how high tech, industrial, or large a distillery is and how much I like the whisky. I can see the appeal of wanting to support tradition and variety, but am I failing to notice some inverse relationship between industrial scale and quality of whisky?

SN: Industrial size is a bit relative, in terms of whisky, even the smaller outfits are still large industrial (often computerized) factories. That said, when you take whisky scale to the extreme (most blended scotches, for example, or the biggest single malts like Glenfiddich 12 and Glenlivet 12), there does seem to be a drop in overall quality. The inverse is not always true: small scale does not automatically mean more quality. I do enjoy supporting small craft distilleries, such as Lost Spirits in CA and Ryan & Wood in MA, because I feel a personal connection to them. I wouldn’t enjoy their products, though, if they didn’t have the quality to justify their price. Some other examples of craft quality are GlenDronach 12 over Macallan 12, Kilchoman Machir Bay over anything under 12 years from Islay, and Edradour, which makes some of the best sherried whisky I’ve had.

Eric: I can’t share the whisky community’s dislike of chill filtration. Since I’ve never tasted a chill filtered and unfiltered version of the same whisky, I can’t say whether the process eliminates desirable flavors, undesirable flavors, or doesn’t change anything I would notice. Again, I haven’t noticed any relationship between how much I enjoy a whisky and whether it’s chill filtered. The only objection I can muster to the practice is that it sounds expensive and adds to the production costs in ways that are passed on to me as the consumer.

SN: This is a good point. The whisky industry seems baffled by the community’s preference for non-chill-filtered whisky and has been largely resistant to eliminating it, which is why non-chill-filtration has become one of the hallmarks of ‘craft’. This has a much bigger effect in colder climates (like the UK) where unfiltered whisky becomes cloudy when the temperature drops low enough. The compounds removed are more likely to affect texture, not taste, and definitely not aroma. My first “Ah Hah” moment came with my first glass of Springbank 10. The viscosity of that dram speaks volumes about non-chill-filtration. On the other hand, I’ve never had chill-filtered Springbank to compare (it doesn’t exist). A counterpoint: Bunnahabhain 12 used to be chill-filtered and switched to a new recipe that upped the ABV and ceased filtering. I dislike the new version, but I can’t say if it’s the lack of filtration or some other change in the recipe.

Eric: I don’t care about E150A. Again, I haven’t noticed a relationship between whether this chemical is added and my enjoyment of the whiskey. From what I understand, it’s added in such small quantities that most people can’t tell it’s there. As with distilleries being “craft” I can see the desire not to subject whisky to unnecessary processing, but I can’t see this factor influencing my purchase decisions.

SN: Supposedly when E150a is dispersed in commonly-used concentrations throughout a 700ml or 750ml bottle of whisky, it is undetectable. Master of Malt did an interesting article about this once: Can You Taste Caramel E150a in Whisky? For me, this has more to do with perceived brand deceit than flavor. If they have to color it then what are they covering up? I’ve had plenty of very pale whiskies of excellent quality. On the other hand, read my Loch Dhu review. I heartily believe that my experience there was in part due to extreme overuse of E150a to achieve a black color. For a more extreme variation on the theme, do some Googling on boisé in Cognac.

Eric: On the other hand, some pieces of conventional wisdom I have found hold water for me:

Older tends to be better. I’ve never had a whisky where I preferred the younger over the older version. I know they’re out there, I just haven’t run into that yet.

SN: In the article which engendered this discussion I point to at least one experience for me that invalidated “older is better” – the G&M Macallan 35 I had was not as good as OB Macallan 18. I prefer Glenfiddich 15 to Glenfiddich 18, mostly because of the cask treatment. I usually prefer younger peated malts (Corryvreckan, Laphroaig 10) to their older equivalents, which seem to have duller peat characteristics in favor of oak notes. Although not scotch, it’s widely said that Pappy Van Winkle 15 year-old bourbon is superior to its 20-year and 23-year siblings, due to over-oaking. In the vast majority of cases between the ages of 10 and 21, though, older is still better. That’s the conclusion I reached in my post.

Eric: I like single malts far more than blends. I have found my attempts to dive into and appreciate blends for any complexity to result in a crash in the shallow end of the pool. I have found blends nice for mixing or enjoying in social situations where I’m not paying much attention to what I’m drinking. But I have found even 18 year old Chivas Regal to be less complex and interesting than single malts half the price.

SN: I agree. Despite an effort to disprove this maxim to myself, I’ve found that cheap blends are usually worthless and expensive blends are never superior to their equivalently-priced single malts. Even the acclaimed Ballantine’s 17 I found to be “just pretty good”, not better than singles of the same price. Exceptions: Bank Note is very enjoyable for practically no money, making it the best value in my cabinet, and Great King Street: Artist’s Blend is so tasty and has such great texture that it blows away (in my opinion) single malts at the $40 price point.

Eric: Typical descriptions of the differences between bourbon and sherry casks match up exactly with my experiences and I find that I share the conventional preference for sherry casks (as far as I can tell, people preferring sherry cask flavors outnumber those who prefer bourbon cask flavors). This was one of the first things I noticed about single malts and it should be readily apparent even to someone who hasn’t had much whiskey before.

SN: Yes, I believe most people prefer sherry aging to bourbon aging (with the exception of the peat lovers). I think this is because sherry imparts more total flavor and aroma than ex-bourbon does, perhaps because sherry compounds embedded in wood are released more easily, or perhaps because Spanish and French oak are more reactive than American. Either way, long-aged whisky tends to be in non-reactive barrels, the majority of which are ex-bourbon, which means that the more complex whiskies tend to be short-aged in smaller barrels or utilize new oak, or use freshly-emptied sherry casks. It should be noted that a fourth- or fifth-refill sherry cask will taste more or less like a refill bourbon cask, so the refill count is actually quite important, and rarely disclosed.

Eric: Do you find yourself disagreeing strongly with these sentiments. Is there an area where you feel you disagree with conventional wisdom?

SN: Conventional wisdom is a shifting target. Also, the sentiments that appear in whisky blogs, among whisky aficionados at tastings, and on whisky forums are very different from the expectations and preconceptions of the average consumer, bar patron, or whisky noob. Many Americans will swear that scotch is “too smoky”, which may be either because they were once forced to smell a peated dram, because some of the big-name blends have a small peated component, or because they’re confusing “dryness” (as in lacking sweetness) with smokiness. Conventional wisdom advocates avoiding ice with single-malt, which I agree with. I’ve never had an iced whisky that I preferred over the same whisky neat, even with blends and bourbons. Modern whisky aficionados have a love affair with heavily-peated scotch such as Bruichladdich Octomore and Ardbeg Supernova. I find that there is an upper limit on the peat that I can enjoy in a scotch, and I prefer well-balanced peat to blow-your-head-off peat. Finally, some whisky people will tell you that the price doesn’t matter, only the quality and your own enjoyment of the spirit. I disagree with that – I find more enjoyment in the discovery of a whisky that tastes better than its price indicates, than I do in dropping a huge chunk of change on a “special occasion” whisky. There is, however, a place for both in my cabinet.

Thanks for the questions!

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  • Thanks for the long and thoughtful response!

    Many Americans will swear that scotch is “too smoky”

    This reminds me of a big pet peeve I have. Every time I hear someone describe peat smoke as the difference between Scotch and Irish whiskies, I want to scream. I once recently heard an Irish pub owner in my town (who owns the Two Gingers brand of Irish whiskey and should know better) say that peat is the difference between the two countries’ whiskies. You’ll hear that nonsense repeated in places like this too:

    This bothers me because I think it turns a lot of people off drinking Scotch whisky – they think “oh I hate that peat flavor” and they won’t touch any Scotch as a result because people keep telling them they will all taste like peat. The fact that peated whisky is fashionable at the moment probably contributes to this misconception. Dislike of peat as a matter of personal taste is perfectly legitimate and I’d hate to think that people are deterred from enjoying the great unpeated whiskies due to this misconception. On a cold day peated whisky is very nice in my opinion, but if all Scotch tasted like Aardbeg or Laphroaig, I wouldn’t be anywhere near as interested in it as a drink category as I am.

    Thanks again for the response!

  • To the comment regarding people’s misconception about peat…I manage a cigar bar and recently I had a guest tell me he didn’t like Buffalo Trace Bourbon because it was “too peaty”. I explained that there is in fact NO peat in bourbon and that he probably disliked the spicy flavors of the bourbon due to the higher rye content in the mix as opposed to wheat such as in Makers Mark.

  • “I think this is because sherry imparts more total flavor and aroma than ex-bourbon does, perhaps because sherry compounds embedded in wood are released more easily, or perhaps because Spanish and French oak are more reactive than American.”

    New-make spirit that is to become bourbon goes into a new barrel at a much higher proof (ABV) than wine that is to become sherry goes into a new cask. The higher the alcohol content the more that is drawn out of the wood into the liquid. Therefore, an ex-bourbon barrel will have less wood flavor left to add to whisky than an ex-sherry cask of the same age.

  • One other thing I would add – the only Scotch whisky region that I notice is Islay – and that’s only because of the peat. As far as the other regions go, I don’t really sense any commonalities among whiskies within the same region. I’m pretty convinced that the regions have more to do with marketing than the taste of the whisky itself.

    • Even Islay as a “region” doesn’t mean all the distilleries on the island produce the same flavor profile. Most of the whisky produced by Bunnahabhain in non-peated and is thus very different from that produced by the others on the island.

      • My own hypothesis is that the regions exist to prompt you to buy more whisky – try one from each region! It’s like making scotch into Pokemon.