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Benromach Château Cissac Bordeaux Wood Finish 2010

Benromach Cissac

Let’s get one thing straight. Barley is a plant. It is affected by the place in which it grows in exactly the same way as other plants are. Honestly, the fact that I even have to write that beggars belief. I feel I’m about to start waxing Shylockian; “hath not barley seeds? Leaves? Mitochondrial genomes?

There is a long-cultivated falsehood; a wilfully blinkered faux conviction; that whisky’s flavour begins with malting. You hear it on tours: “our three ingredients are water, yeast and malted barley”. You hear it propagated by industry bods who surely know better. And you hear it unto death from twitterati yes-folk angling for a few more samples and a job.

For starters, if it were true, it wouldn’t matter whether you had malted barley or any other grain. And the fabulous malted rye from Kyrö would be a titanic waste of time, effort and money.

But far more disingenuous and prevalent is the suggestion that malting irons out all of the differences in barley. That, once malted, it doesn’t matter what variety the barley was, it doesn’t matter how good the barley was, and it certainly doesn’t matter where the barley was grown. “Oh lump it all in,” they say, “it’s not as important to whisky as the grapes are to wine.”

Nonsense. Whisky – or, at least, single malt Scotch whisky – is made from barley. Barley is exactly as important to single malt Scotch as grapes are to wine. It is the ingredient. Without barley, none of the flavours of single malt whisky are possible. That’s why brandy matured in sherry casks doesn’t taste like single malt. Why single malt aged in virgin oak doesn’t taste like bourbon. Why rum, matured in the same casks, sent through the same stills, fermented with the same yeasts, as a single malt, doesn’t taste even remotely similar.

Barley is the first, the last, and everything in the middle. When you buy a bottle of single malt Scotch whisky you are buying a bottle of barley. Barley which has been on a unique journey. Which has been shaped and abetted in particular ways to unfold through long pupation into bewildering panoplies of flavour. But barley nonetheless. Without barley, single malt whisky is nothing. Full stop.

Let’s not patronise ourselves by talking about flavour in scurrilous, easy-sipping, juvenile percentages. “Sixty percent is cask, twenty per cent is yeast, yarda yarda”. Whisky isn’t Tetris. It’s not flavour by Lego brick layers. You don’t pile the taste of casks on top of the taste of spirit; itself on top of the taste of yeast and the taste of malt. They’re all woven together into one harmony; flavour by reaction, by process, by augmentation. But the fulcrum, the focus and the facilitator is barley. If you put anything else into the cask, the still, the washback, the mash tun, the malt barn, your spirit would come out tasting differently. No matter how you distilled it and no matter how long you aged it for.

That you can plonk a glass of Lagavulin and a glass of Langatun in front of any novice drinker and have them recognise both as single malt whisky is purely down to barley. It is whisky’s wonder and crowning glory. It is the absolute, mind-boggling triumph of a cheap, workaday peasant grain, sown in the grim, sodden north where grapes didn’t properly ripen.

And if you can taste that single malt is made from barley, then it follows that you can taste whether the barley was good or bad. Malting isn’t some Karl Marx process of arable equalisation. Good barley, malted well, equals better malted barley than bad barley, malted well. And if the conditions in two fields differ, then so will the rates at which their barley ripens and grows. So will their state, flavour and chemical makeup at their times of harvest – however subtle those differences may be. And if two different-tasting things are then treated in precisely the same way, they will inevitably emerge at the other end tasting … well … it’s not brain surgery.

And that’s simply dealing with differences between two separate fields. Which, if they lie next to each other, are likely (though not certain) to be slight. But if we look at the difference in a farm’s harvest across two separate vintages; vintages in which water and sunlight might have varied wildly; in which frost and hail might have stolen half of the crop and buggered up the rest; in which storms might have raged all through April, or July might have produced a heatwave, or a plague of locusts might have been sent by Horus, or Blossom the cow might have stampeded through the barleyfield, off her nut on Farmer Bogswill’s secret other planting … well, it just isn’t all going to taste the same after a few days of dummy germination and some drying out, is it?

Talk to people at any distillery genuinely interested in transparency, and they’ll tell you that the taste of malted barley varies according to harvest. I happen to know, for example, certainly in a particular part of Britain, that the 2013 harvest wasn’t too clever. Which, given the state of the 2013 grape harvest in France, doesn’t surprise me.

Conventional vintages, of the sort used on wine labels, can make a difference to malted barley. And, if they can make a difference to malted barley, then they can make a difference to malt whisky. But most distilleries couldn’t care less, because it’s almost impossible to implement on a really large scale, and difficult to explain to a standard-issue consumer even if it wasn’t. Much easier just to spaff out a story about a few hairy axe-murderers.

The reason for this polemic, as you’ll have guessed from the header, is that Benromach have launched a new iteration of their Château Cissac-finished whisky, and they’ve labelled it by vintage. But, in this instance, the vintage (I believe) refers simply to the year the barley was slung through the stills. Which is of some interest, from an archivist point of view, particularly since this 2010 edition follows on from last year’s 2009, but doesn’t (I feel) give me as much information to hang my hat on as a wine-style vintage would. As Mark has said before in his excellent review of a pair of Old Pulteneys.

And before anyone starts tutting about wine being compared to whisky, I should point out that vintage-labelled cognacs also refer to the date of harvest. And nobody seems to have a problem with that. Whisky is just another spirit made entirely from a natural, agricultural product. Would it kill us to care a bit more about that product itself?

On the plus side, Benromach is a cracking distillery, as we have frequently attested, and there’s plenty of pertinent information that I can tell you about this new expression. It’s slightly peated, in line with the distillery style, and spent most of its life in first fill ex-bourbon before being decanted into barrels from Bordeaux’s Château Cissac for another two years. That’s a decent length of finish in my book; banging on the door of double maturation. Although the difference is becoming increasingly semantic. It has been bottled at 45%, and it’ll set you back £47 or thereabouts. (Which is £8 dearer than the 2009 was, and I’m not at all sure why.)

2010, incidentally, was an absolutely fabulous vintage for Bordeaux, and since I’m up to my grapes in wine revision at the moment, I thought it’d be fun to do a tasting note for Château Cissac itself too. Just cos. But the merchant I ordered from mucked up and sent me the gopping 2013 instead. As an inveterate lazybones I couldn’t be bothered to send it back, and in a roundabout, masochistic way, being irritated at getting the 2013 rather proves my point as regards the pertinence of vintages-by-harvest. A similar mixup between Benromachs 2009 and 2010 would only really irritate completionists.

(Still, as a wine merchant myself, that’ll teach me to order outside of company…)

Benromach Château Cissac Bordeaux Wood Finish 2010 – Review

Colour: Burnished gold with onion-skin rim.

On the nose: Classically modern Benromach nose of fusty dunnage, coalsmoke, vanilla sponge and soft orchard fruits. Less rounded than the 10 year old, but the aromas are clearer, with more crispness of definition. A touch of dark cherry and strawberry lace completes it.

In the mouth: Palate’s not as chunky in body as you’d expect, but again the flavours are well defined. Robust highland fare; coal, driftwood, vanilla. Spiced with nutmeg and chocolate. Nice, without being mind-blowing. A smatter of cherry, but it’s not as fruity; certainly not as sticky as the 10 year old. Cranberry and rose petals float amidst the smoke.

Score: 6/10

Château Cissac 2013 – Review

Colour: Deep ruby

On the nose: Not especially developed, but the first flush of youth is behind it. There’s a certain herbaceous smokiness; dried oregano in front of some rather wimpy black fruit. Underripe blackcurrants. A flutter of graphite. Medium intensity.

In the mouth: Pretty austere, this; tannins are astringent and rather viciously drying; fruit is lacklustre. More red on the palate than black. Sour cherries and raspberry. A little pepper. There’s no plumpness to the body nor generosity to the flavours. Again, there’s no real development; not much complexity. But there’s nothing to suggest that the wine has any further mileage in the tank. I’ve had Cissac from other vintages before, and thought it was cracking. But the 2013, for the money, is miserly and thin. Compared to the competition at the same price, it’s one to leave on the shelf.

Score: Wine/10 

Conclusions

Vintages by distillation are only properly interesting if there was a major upheaval at the distillery that year, resulting in a dramatic change of spirit character. Insofar as I can tell, business between 2009 and 2010 ran a smooth course at Benromach. Which, obviously, is jolly good news for Benromach fans, but makes it rather difficult to understand what difference a year makes.

We don’t even know at what stage of the year this whisky was distilled. It is entirely conceivable (although, I concede, supremely unlikely) that they distilled the whisky for the 2009 edition the week before New Year’s Day, and then bashed out the 2010 as they got over their Hogmanay hangovers.

None of which means that this whisky is necessarily “bad”.  It isn’t. It’s more or less fine. Quite nice, even. It just means that vintage-dating by distillation doesn’t really tell us terribly much. And I’m also not sure why it’s almost a tenner more than last year. Especially since there’s still plenty of the 2009 knocking about. I’d save the best part of £20 and get the 10 year old, personally.

Both are better than the ’13 Cissac, mind you. Them’s the breaks when it comes to vintage-by-harvest. But that, of course, is why it’s interesting.

Sample sent to Malt on behalf of Benromach. But we retain our right to give an honest appraisal and to go off on one about vintages.

 

CategoriesSingle Malt
Adam Wells
Adam Wells

Lover of all things whisk(e)y, with or without the “e”. Uses up all his holiday visiting distilleries. Gets shouted at at events for using the spittoon. Also scribbles for the British Bourbon Society, and spends his actual working hours writing about wine.

  1. Taylor
    Taylor says:

    Another instant classic, thanks Adam. Nearly pished myself at the “wine/10” score.

    To bring up an incredibly small point of order: the distillation was done in 2010, but are we sure the Château Cissac casks were from that same vintage? Or, indeed, all from the same vintage?

    As you point out, wine vintages tend to be better or worse. Though it would be impossible to do on any scale, it would be interesting to know if the quality of a whisky finished in casks from the superlative 2010 Bordeaux vintage would be better than a whisky finished in casks from the dilute 2013 vintage?

    More an intellectual digression from me than any criticism of what is, in total, a glorious piece of writing.

    1. Adam Wells
      Adam Wells says:

      Cheers Taylor.

      Ooh, intriguing point. Of course not all of the Cissac casks are new when they hold the wine; I believe 60% are reused oak, and therefore have a couple of vintages-worth of claret sloshing around the staves.

      Getting really nerdy, Cissac’s aged for 15 months before bottling. So the most recent vintage that this 2010 could have been housed in would be 2014. Which was an OK year. Of course, if that’s the case, then last year’s 2009 likely did its stretch in the very 2013 barrels that housed the distinctly average red scrawled up above. And, were they to release a 2011 next year, it could have been housed in barrels that formerly held the very decent 2015.

      This is all wonkish conjecture, of course, however fun it is to speculate over. But, as ever, you raise a thought-provoking point!

      Cheers

      Adam

  2. Joe says:

    So, tell us, what is the cabernet sauvignon of barley? Of riesling, syrah or cinsault?
    Grapes are fruits, not cereals.
    And a great wine without wood is a great wine when a whisky without wood is not even whisky… Must be a reason why…probably because the main ingredient is not that interesting….

    1. Adam Wells
      Adam Wells says:

      Morning Joe!

      Firstly, thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. And I like your idiosyncratic shout-out to Cinsault.

      To your question: there are over 10,000 different strains of barley, which puts it a nose ahead of even wine grapes. Particular research is being done by Waterford Distillery in Ireland, and also at Oregon University by people like Professor Pat Hayes. http://oregonprogress.oregonstate.edu/winter-2013/bringing-barley-back

      The majority of barley varieties over the last century have been bred explicitly for yield, to feed a growing population, and at the inevitable expense of compounds that generate flavour. If you look back through the last 100 years you’ll find a litany of barley varieties that were shouldered out of the way by a higher-yielding successor. Including, but not limited to, Plumage Archer, Chariot and Golden Promise. (Indeed such importance did Macallan once place upon the Golden Promise variety that it was one of their highly trumpeted “Six Brand Pillars”. Once the quantities that Macallan needed to produce made the low-yielding Golden Promise variety impracticable, it was quietly disposed of, and slipped off the pillars. And it’s worth noting that modern Macallan isn’t a patch on what it used to be. (Although barley is only one of the reasons for that.)) You can also find several whiskis made with Bere Barley, as it’s one of the few varieties that can grow successfully in challenging Hebridean and Orkney Island conditions. (Though it’s a bugger to harvest, and has shocking yields, which is why whiskies made from it are rather rare – though often excellent.)

      I’m afraid that I take umbrage with your suggestion that cereal is uninteresting. And so, I suspect, would the drinkers of beer and the eaters of bread. Not only is cereal our most fundamental foodstuff, but its cultivation was what ultimately ended mankind’s hunter-gatherer cycle and enabled us to build civilisations. Cereal is fascinating on both a sensory and intellectual level.

      Your point also suggests that there is no such thing as decent base/new make spirit. I utterly refute that. There is excellent base/new-make spirit; that is why there is also excellent whisky. I guarantee that you would not like to drink pure alcohol fermented in oak. Certainly there are producers who cut/hack off corners when it comes to their spirit, largely in the twin names of yield and efficiency, but you can absolutely taste that when you sip their new make next to the new make of a producer who cares about such things as long fermentations, particular yeast strains, wort management and good oak.

      But all of that is merely to augment the ingredient: barley. None of the flavours that you enjoy in a single malt are possible without barley, just as none of the flavours you enjoy in a bourbon are possible without a corn-based mashbill, none of the flavours you enjoy in mezcal are possible without agave and none of the flavours you enjoy in wine are possible without grapes. Change the ingredient and you change the drink entirely. And, I dare say, you’d find you liked it less. And perhaps then you’d think twice about calling barley uninteresting!

      That was almost an article in itself! Sorry for going on, but it was a very good question and it deserved a thorough answer. Hopefully that addresses your queries.

      Thanks so much again for reading and engaging – it really is hugely appreciated.

      All the best

      Adam

      1. Adam Wells
        Adam Wells says:

        *typed too fast for my brain to keep up.

        Fifth paragraph of my reply should, of course, have read “pure alcohol matured in oak”. Not “pure alcohol fermented in oak”.

        Coffee clearly not quite kicked in yet …

    2. Mark says:

      Joe, I can’t really add much to Adam’s response, except for: if you like wood so much, why don’t you just put water in there? Or neutral spirit? And drink it after 10 years?

      Because it would taste shit.

  3. Joe says:

    Hi Adam, I am not convinced at all despite all the words you used, all the lines you wrote. Very interesting !! but barley stay barley, and beer, may it be ipa, pils or triple is only interesting when hops are added or thanks to the malting process (stout…). Once again, what is the cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir or chardonnay (cinsault…) in terms of barley ?? Barley is not an overwhelming ingredient in itself or you could answer this question. Beer, whisky, in both cases you need something more than barley to make the final product interesting. Not the same with wine.
    However I really like you like my quote of cinsault, I too think it’s a grape that deserve more respect an attention. That’s what I liked the most in your message ;-))
    Hi Mark, one thing you got wrong and one right : wrong : I don’t like wood, that’s why I said a great (or even any good) wine don’t need wood! I like wine, not wood. I also like whisky and beer but wine… well, obviously a bit more … and one right thing : yeah you don’t have much to add !;-)

    I like your reviews despite my comments, keep on trying to promote good whiskies and keep on having personnal opinions and pissing off people.

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