Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a small luncheon with Richard Paterson (aka The Nose), the Master Blender for Whyte & Mackay. We were there to talk about and taste Scotch whisky from The Dalmore, which is owned by Whyte & Mackay.
I don't usually go to these things, but my friend Lori invited me and I've been meaning to learn a bit more about Scotch, so I went. It was a lot of fun, and The Nose is a very entertaining host.
Here are some highlights:
- What we tried - The Dalmore 12, the Gran Reserva, The Dalmore 15, and King Alexander III. Interestingly, all of these are made from the same distillate - the variations come from the duration of aging and type of wood used, and in the blending, which The Nose oversees. The Nose favors a wide range of casks - across these whiskys, they use sherry casks (and butts), used Madeira, marsala, bourbon, wine and other barrels, as well as first-fill oak . Someone in the know once said that 70% of a whisk(e)y's flavor comes from the wood, so these choices obviously have a big impact on the flavors.
- What I tried - I (and only I, at this lunch anyway), got to try the Dalmore 50, aged 50 years. It supposedly retails for $1,500 for 100 ml, so it was a rare treat indeed. Despite it's age, it was not overly woody - it had great depth and complexity, and a very long, rich finish. Loved it. Not sure I'd pay $1,500 for 100 ml, but was grateful to get to try it and won't soon forget it. Interestingly, the next day, I got a notice that Glenfiddich is also releasing a50-year old Scotch for $16,000 a bottle (not sure what size of bottle). Guess super-aged spirits are the new thing in the Scotch world.
- Tasting Technique - The Nose's tasting technique is completely different from the other whisky expert with whom I have sampled. In fact, I think the two might come to blows over it if they were to talk about it in person. The Nose does NOT want you to warm up the spirit, and is open to adding a few drops of water where appropriate. They agree on nosing with each nostril, and moving the spirit around, but have different approaches about what to do with the spirit in your mouth as well. This sounds like a great opportunity for me to practice my technique at home, me thinks.
- The Nose showed us a cool trick that I hadn't seen before. Fill a glass 2/3 with water. Then put a handkerchief or napkin (clean, please) on top of the glass. Poke your finger through a couple of times, to get the napkin wet. Then, pour whisky on top, slowly. Pull the napkin out quickly, like you would for that trick when you remove the tablecloth and leave the dishes behind. The whisky will be left floating on top. The Nose said you could even insert a straw and drink the water first, and it would stay separated. I'm sure this is just a trick with the densities, but it was cool nonetheless. I'm totally going to use that one.
I used to be in HR, so I always keep an eye out for labor/employment stuff in the liquor industry. Lately, the ongoing recession is being blamed for significant cuts at some of the world's largest Scotch producers. At the Dalmore lunch, one of the topics that came up was the plant closures and resulting layoffs that Diageo (owner of Johnnie Walker, among others) is implementing. The decision has been covered widely in the drinks press, and there have been a number of protests against the actions, as well as analyst reports that it's not really due to the recession (the whisky industry has continued growing, after all). It's a tough situation, because the Scotch industry is so entrenched in some of the small towns where the plants are located, in both the history and the economy. However, with the consolidation in the liquor industry, most of the brands are owned by a global conglomerate like Diageo, which will continually seek to streamline, optimize and consolidate it's operations across business groups and brands, especially in a tough economy.
At the time, Whyte & Mackay had not yet announced their own layoffs, which were announced this week. Interestingly, they made a profit last year, and not an insubstantial one (£25.6m pretax profits over 18 months). Yet they are still being hit with cuts. Sounds a little like big-firm politics to me - sometimes the big conglomerates have to offset losses in another area with costs from a profitable business unit, which is especially frustrating to the individuals in that unit.
From the scuttlebutt following these announcements, additional layoffs and closures may happen in the Scotch world. Guess we'll just have to wait and see, and sip, in the meantime.