What's New With Whisky?
We’re at an interesting place in the world of whisky. Now that it’s finally found a larger, more diverse audience, brands are struggling to keep up with demand. “Demand” refers not only to a sense of volume and producing enough product to go around, but also to a brand’s ability to offer popular categories. Several new whiskies have hit the market recently, and each in their own way reflects emerging trends. The best news? The words "shine" and "moon" won't appear anywhere in the same sentence, except this one. Rye - The Next Chapter: Rye is still a thing, though a slightly different thing than it was a few years ago. The mature releases are instantly snatched up by rabid rye fans. New American craft distilleries are cranking out really young ones that have barely come in contact with wood, hoping people will buy them anyway, and often at inflated prices to recover production costs. Then there are the well established brands who had yet to jump into the rye pool, knowing if they did, it better be good.
Enter Woodford Reserve Rye! Master Distiller Chris Morris has been working on it since 2006, which is pretty much when the rye boom started. Most ryes on the market tend to have a high rye mash bill, at about 80% or more. This one is only 53% rye, resulting in a more sophisticated, subtle experience. Instead of whack-a-mole style spices attacking the palate, the spices are warm and soothing, mixing with cereal sweet and earthy flavors. It’s just starting to roll out now. 45.2% ABV, $37.99. See the complete flavor breakdown on Distillerhere.
Cognac casks: Giving whisky a second maturation in fancy barrels is nothing new. There’s been a whole lot of sherry and wine cask maturing happening for ages, pardon the pun. However, used barrels that once held Cognac have been a rarity till now. Part of the reason is clunkiness - they aren’t the same size as standard bourbon barrels, which is what the majority of whisky slumbers in till it’s time to move to a new resting place, and it's a tricky transition. Another reason is price and availability.
Deanston 18 Year Old Cognac Cask finish Scotch is exclusive to the US market, with only 2,640 bottles available. Master Distiller Ian MacMillan spent some time at Hine Cognac distillery in Grand Champagne and selected the barrels there. He then went back to the Scottish Highlands and gave Deanston 12 Year, aged in ex-bourbon barrels, 6 more years of maturity with a French accent. The result is a deeply rich, gingery, chocolatey malt. 46.3% ABV, non chill-filtered, $159.
No age statement: As we reported last year, an increasing number of brands are rolling out new expressions of whisky, especially Scotch, without a declared age, because the older malts are becoming more rare and expensive to release. These usually carry a Gaelic name that refers to some historic incident at the distillery or surroundings or provenance - perhaps hoping to distract drinkers into not caring about how old the youngest whisky in the blend is. The brands will often tell you this whisky is “a tribute to the days when the distillery___.” Not that these whiskies are necessarily bad. Many of them are quite good. But with so many of them hitting shelves, it will be interesting to see if regulations beyond how to pronounce things in Gaelic will be put in place to educate consumers more about what’s in the bottle.
Bunnahabhain Ceòbanach (pronounced “kyaw-bin-och”) will become part of the distillery’s core range starting this month, with only about 4,200 bottles released in the US. Located on the peaty shores of Islay, Bunnahabhain has been the rare local exception, producing all their whiskies without drying the barley on peat smoke (the only peat flavors come from the local water) since the 1960s. Ceòbanach, which means “smoky mist” brings back their old peated style, which is delicately handled by fermenting local barley in stills kept separate from the others so as not to taint the rest of the range. It’s surprisingly light in color and weight, but has great depth of flavor on the palate, with sweet, briny smoke wafting round a citrusy base. 46.3% ABV, non chill-filtered, $84.99. See full tasting notes at Distiller here.
Old Brands, New Recipe and Packaging: Coke isn’t the only beverage that’s suffered a failed rollout with a new recipe. That happened to a lot of whisky, especially blends, which faded from the marketplace by the 1980s when disappointed customers abandoned them in favor of single malts or other items that didn’t go changing on them. Now those old brands are coming back, and the good news is new owners are wise to the fact that consumers want the original versions.
Black Bottle Scotch, which for a time was coming to us in, of all things, a green bottle, is back in black! It’s also back to an approximation of the product that was originally released in the late 1880s by the Graham Brothers, who first found success as tea importers and blenders in Aberdeen. When they entered the Scotch game, they created a slightly smoky, aromatic whisky to resemble their favorite robust tea. The green bottle version had less character, meant to satisfy what marketers assumed was a call for milder flavors. However, master blender (Ian MacMillan again!) understands that making something that actually tastes like something has wider appeal. This rich, spicy, flavorful dram even has enough flavor to satisfy single malt snobs, and is priced perfectly for cocktails. 40% ABV, $24.99.
Hopped Whiskey: There are beer drinkers who won’t drink whiskey. Whiskey drinkers who won’t drink beer. Now there’s something for everyone, but will consumers go for it?
Darek Bell, Master Distiller of Tennessee’s Corsair, loves to steer whiskey in every direction it can go, experimenting with different mash bills and finishes. In his series of hopped whiskeys, he experimented by taking the same malted barley, but infusing it with different types of hops, which were placed in the vapor basket during fermentation. There are currently four new ones out - Citra Double IPA, Galaxy, Centennial and Mosaic, named for the hops used. I do think these taste more like beer than whiskey, but I enjoyed sipping them. The Galaxy was especially gingery and grapefruit citrusy, and would be amazing on the rocks with some spicy Asian food. All are at 46% ABV, $59.99
Whisky Live is taking place in New York City on February 25th and Washington, DC March 7th (readers use code WLSCOTCH for a 20% discount!). There will also be a Whiskies and Spirits Conference held in New York on the 24th. It will be interesting to see what topics are covered at these events, and of course taste new products! The fascinating thing about whisky is that it’s constantly changing and adapting, as much as parts of it will always stay the same. Can there possibly be anything new to bring to the table? Stay tuned!