At the Whiskybase Gathering, whisky is aplenty, but so is the goodwill and generosity of others. Some complete strangers and others fans from afar; it’s a vibe that is contagious and of pandemic proportions within the venue.
One of the more surprising encounters I had was with Anatoliy from the Ukraine, who wanted to pass on his congratulations on my Instagram channel and also what we’re doing here at MALT. He wasn’t alone in either sentiment, but his passion and enthusiasm were noticeable. As was his generosity, by handing over a trio of nicely boxed samples from the independent bottler, Scyfion, which he’s involved in.
There is very little information online around their releases or set-up, albeit a website is on the cards very soon. Sensing the opportunity for another entry in our rolling independent bottler interview series, a plan was hatched and Anatoliy was kind enough to give us some insight into this venture and whisky in the Ukraine.
MALT: Can you give us an introduction to Scyfion and how you became interested in whisky?
Scyfion: It starts from the love to Scotch whisky, traditions, history, production process, collecting and opening bottles to share with a friends! Every tasting hosted by Corvin pub in Odessa with presentation of whisky line up by Ruslan Zamoskovniy (our co-owner) was an opening of really new and different feelings and emotions.
The idea to mature whisky in Ukrainian wine cask first appeared in 2004, but realization has come in 2008 with our first release of Glen Karadag. Imperial matured in Koktebel Madeira cask. Glen Karadag is a symbiosis of Celtic word Glen – valley the area of the whisky birth, and Crimean-Tataric word Karadag – black mountain the area of vine birth. The experiment was successful and in Whisky bible we gained 90 points.
We decided to continue, but with another name more suitable for the ambitions to experiment with the different casks in our huge country and even abroad. So the Scyfion was born it’s a combination of Scythian (it’s how the Greeks call our country) and Fion – wine in celtic language.
MALT: What is the whisky scene like in Odessa and the Ukraine?
Scyfion: Odessa it’s a beautiful city on the Black sea shore. We have a huge society of whisky lovers and aficionados here, as well in other cities like Kiev, Kharkov, Lvov, Ternopol, Cherkassi. At that time, 26 of October The Whisky dram fest opening its doors.
MALT: Are there any distilleries in the Ukraine distilling whisky?
Scyfion: We have no distilleries in Ukraine, it’s prohibited to make a grain spirit in our country, the monopoly belongs to state company, which makes the grain rectificicate for vodka basis. But we believe this situation will change in future.
MALT: Are you seeing more whisky in the Ukraine now and is it an expensive purchase?
Scyfion: Ukraine represents itself like a huge alcohol market. The whisky nowadays increases its place in it. A lot of people are drinking inexpensive blends and it becomes more popular among modern youth to drink whisky instead of vodka. But there are still overwhelming majority for whom it’s too expensive to drink whisky often, though there is layer of people who can afford to spend few thousands dollars monthly. On the shelves of supermarkets prices start from 20$ for the blend and 30-40$ for the ordinary single malt whisky.
We are trying to popularize our passion for whisky, through the people. To tell its history and its place in life of Scotland. About its components, the water, the barley, casks, ancient distilleries and their fates. And first of all, about its taste. Enabling to feel this magic made by the people. We believe we have a great future for whisky in Ukraine.
MALT: Each of these releases features a unique – what I presume – is a cask finish? Are you able to confirm the duration of the finishes?
Scyfion: The all casks used for the finishes are unique and for the first time used for the whisky maturation. So, it is always an experiment, and every time we realize by the tasting of samples that it is the perfect time for whisky to be bottled. Sometimes the finish lasts 1 year, sometimes 3 years. The point is to save the whisky profile and to show the cask influence in perfect balance. And everytime we are stating on the labels the period of finish in each release. Transparency rules!
MALT: The casks themselves are very unique and seemingly regional. Can you provide any background on these casks and why they were selected?
Scyfion: We wanted to start our work with a regional casks, because of their uniqueness so we became the pioneers in that aspect. Every cask represents the culture of winemaking of its region, and they are not only from Ukraine, for example;
Troyanda Zakarpatya it’s fortified rose wine from a Traminer grapes – represents traditions of Zakarpatye redion;
Cerna Troyanda – special experiment to create a wine using ancient formula;
Armenian Pomegranate – wine made of three grades of Pomegranate, the symbols of Armenia;
Muscat Dneprovskiy – sort of Muscat grape bred in Ukraine.
MALT: You seem to have access to an amazing array of local wine casks? Do you have good relationships with the producers? Are these casks easy to come by and are they expensive?
Scyfion: We do have good relationships with some winemakers, but not all of them using casks to mature their wines. It’s always a challenge to find a good cask from good wine. Some of the winemakers are just using their cask for decoration and don’t want to sell them, it’s a pity but they are firm in their weird decisions. The huge wineries are re-using their casks for grappa, or brandy maturation. As well, we have lost a huge source from Crimea wineries, because of current situation with this area. But there are still free minded people in this industry, who also are thirsty for the experiments and a few times we were even presented with the casks. And we feedback to them with whisky bottles being matured in their casks. The most expensive Ukrainian cask cost us 500$; plus the logistics costs from 400-600€ for one cask.
MALT: How do you go about matching the wine cask to the existing whisky? Does the team have a detailed knowledge of wine to enable this?
Scyfion: We travel a lot for searching interesting wines, then we try them, if they fit our tastes we are trying to buy a cask. Then we are waiting for the whisky samples and trying to match them ideally. We do not have any detailed knowledge of wine, it’s always an experiment. As well we are developing self education in the wine aspect with our own experience and feelings.
MALT: How much these bottles cost and are you exporting to any markets outside of the Ukraine?
Scyfion: The prices range is from 80$-150$, all depends on the age of whisky and the logistics of the casks to Scotland and bottles to Ukraine. From 2020 we will start to sell in EU and Asia.
MALT: Have you released any other whiskies apart from this trio?
Scyfion: For that moment we have 18 releases in our portfolio:
Imperial Crimean madeira cask 14yo, Mannochmore Muscat Dneprovskiy 16yo, Mortlach Odesskoe Chernoe 19yo, Linkwood Troyanda Zakarpatya 19yo, Auchroisk Cherniy Doctor 20yo, Benrinnes Artaniya 20yo, Craigellachie Pomegranate porto 9yo, Bunnahabhain Pastoral 10yo, Laphroaig 12yo, Speyburn Muscat 10yo, Mortlach Cerna troyanda 13yo, Highland Park firkin sherry 12yo, Macdaff Pino noire 11yo, Linkwood Madras 17yo, Tobermory Sherry 11yo, Craigellachie Kagor 11yo, Glen Moray Areni Noir 12yo, Benrinnes Pomegranate 13yo and a Westport Bashta 23yo.
MALT: You seem to have more freedom to try these unusual casks compared to bottlers here in the UK. Do you have any personal favourites from your releases and why?
Scyfion: At the first look it seems more freedom, but the SWA rules limiting space for the maneuvers. As well it’s always hard to find a pearl from big and not always high quality selection.
Our releases they are like children for us, we put in them our hearts, souls and minds. The most significant and beloved for us, is the first quartet, but all the releases were made with love and a lot of efforts were invested in them. And it’s always a pleasure when they are highly rated by whisky lovers.
MALT: Can you talk a little about the artwork selected for these releases?
Scyfion: Every label dedicates to historical moment, legend or tradition of the region or country of origin of the cask. For example, the Battle of Avaraira between Armenians and Persians on Benrinnes Pomegranate cask label. We are trying to investigate all historical aspects to show the most significant moment.
MALT: What do you have lined up in terms of future whiskies?
Scyfion: In the near future we are expecting of very interesting releases like Glentauchers in Saperavi cask, Royal Brackla in Moscatel Naranja and few 20+ years from Tormore in Shustoff brandy cask and Odesskoe chernoe casks. Also we have bought casks in the brand new distilleries like Dornoch, Ardnahoe, Strathearn and Annandale.
MALT: How difficult is it to source and bottle casks for the Ukraine?
Scyfion: It’s pretty difficult for us, but we do love whisky and what we are doing, so we are keen to continue with passion!!
MALT: Was this your first time to the Whiskybase Gathering in Rotterdam and what did you think of the event?
Scyfion: It was my first time on the Whiskybase Gathering! And I’m full of positive emotions and impressions!!! Perfectly organized with fantastic scope and range of whiskies!! And first of all the people! Kind, welcoming, deeply involved in whisky! We will do our best to be there with a stand on next year.
Scyfion Benrinnes 2006 – review
Finished in a pomegranate Armenian wine cask, bottled in 2019 at 50% strength.
Color: new copper.
On the nose: some sherry aspects with redberries, leather, hazelnuts, strawberry jam and brandy elements. Rusty nails and apricots. Adding water reveals weetabix, lemon oil and cinnamon.
In the mouth: oranges, tobacco, shortbread and lemon peel. Ashy on the finish and a nice texture. There’s also ginger and bark, water showcases black peppery, cardamon and mace.
Scyfion Linkwood 1997 – review
Finished in a Troyandazakarpattya cask, bottled in 2016 at 46% strength.
On the nose: plenty of homemade marmalade and ginger, kumquat, honey then, the sweetie division with Refreshers and those Drumstick lollies. Black pepper oatcakes, figs, cinnamon, orange sherbet, red liquorice, a touch of smoke and cloves. Water reveals more orange notes and smoke.
In the mouth: not as sweet as expected although it does revive on the finish with tannis and liquorice once again. Hints of Irn Bru, apricots, walnuts and not much progression it much be said. Adding a drop of water brings out a clay-like, clammy nature and orange chocolate.
Scyfion Mortlach 2005 – review
Finished in a Tryonda wine cask, bottled in 2016 at 46% strength.
Color: honey flapjack.
On the nose: quite a tropical arrival, tobacco, coconut, lime, rum fudge and golden syrup. Lemons, plenty of sugar, heather, banana and honey with orange peel. Adding water unlocks nuttiness and popcorn.
In the mouth: honey, raspberries and a clay-like dynamic once more followed by tobacco. Sunflower oil, apricots, pineapple, peaches and marzipan. Adding water, things become jammy, lemon curd, vanilla custard, figs and tannins on the finish.
Let’s start with the Linkwood shall we? A great learning experience to try an unusual cask. In fact, this applies to each of the releases; new experiences. The new oak certainly brought sweetness and spices to the experience, but I’m left querying where is the Linkwood? 18-19 years of age isn’t to be ignored or glossed over by a cask. A solid wine cask finish, even if the balance has swung slightly in favour of the cask.
The Mortlach was extremely interesting. Pretty much, 99% of everything I’ve had from this distillery is sherry cask. The ex-bourbon cask indie releases are dismissed by many, but show another angle. The wine cask finish stands up well to the spirit itself. I felt it is an example that grows upon you given time and with the addition of some water. The same applies to the Benrinnes, which is well paired with the Troyanda wine cask. A fun combination that delivers – who would have thought a pomegranate wine cask eh? It just goes to show you what is possible given a chance and I’m up for trying a few more!
Overall, a refreshing surprise and it just goes to show you that whisky is indeed worldwide and breaking down boundaries.