Malt is not known to be a fan of lists, but today I’m going to present more of an early Christmas wish list for the whisky scene.
It’s been 10 years already since I first took whisky (and spirits) seriously. During this period, I’ve realized that, despite being presented as the most prestigious and cleanest of spirit categories, whisky has plenty of dirt and shenanigans that are being passed around as facts. An example would be Elijah Craig being touted as the “father of bourbon.”
Aside from this, the conversations around whisky haven’t really progressed. Quoting Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead or Alive song, “It’s all the same. Only the names will change.” In this case only the names have changed. What do I mean?
10 years ago, bottling at 46% ABV, non-chill filtering, and no added coloring were starting to get championed. After 10 years, it’s still the same. The only difference is that as other less popular brands have become more mainstream, other smaller brands take their places. The Undertaker has since retired and has recently been inducted into the WWE’s Hall of Fame. Rum has slowly been rising out of the hell hole brand marketing and lazy journalists have put it into through highlighting each country’s unique heritage, and getting deep into the productions processes such as fermentation times and distillation techniques. Why isn’t whisky doing more of this?
The first topic I want to tackle is one of the tales being passed around in whisky. It’s a popular notion that Aeneas Coffey was the first to invent the continuous still. This is not true, according to Richard Seale. Most will know him as the main person responsible for making Foursquare rum what it is now, but fewer know him as a walking and talking history book. I’m fortunate to have met him in person and be his Facebook friend. On his personal Facebook he sometimes writes about random but very comprehensive topics. The information on this article is only a fraction of his post last year.
In case you’re wondering what the words of a rum distiller have to do with whisky: the answer is that continuous stills are used in every spirit category. Grain whisky, most Armagnac, a lot of Calvados, vodka, most gin, a lot of rum, most bourbon and rye come from continuous stills, which are sometimes referred to as column stills.
Aeneas Coffey, who was an Irish Inspector of Excise until he retired in 1824, only patented his first continuous still in 1830. It was in 1813 that the first genuine continuous still was patented by Jean-Baptiste Cellier-Blumenthal. In 1828, Robert Stein patented a continuous still. This would be the first licensed continuous still to be used in Scotland at Cameronbridge in 1830.
The second topic is my disappointment in the scene for not progressing past bottling at 46% ABV, non-chill filtering, and no added color. Despite information being more easily available online and the starting of openly geeky whisky producers such as Wilderness Trail, there’s still this massive hard-on for only barrels and barrel aging.
I can understand the lack of education about this from the big brands, but I’m surprised and annoyed that the independent or “independent” whisky Youtubers and bloggers aren’t educating their fans on important pre-barrel aging steps such as fermentation, types of stills, and condensers. Yes, whisky being bottled with the magic trifecta is a mark of quality, but that’s not all there is to it at making great whisky.
I know it’s not an easy topic. But if someone like me – who isn’t getting paid to discuss whisky (and spirits) through avenues like Patreon supporters or Youtube superchats – can learn and discuss this, why can’t the ones being paid to do this do so? Yes, I now work with an importer. But much of what I know, I learned before I became part of the industry. It’s what got me the opportunity.
Plenty of these online whisky personalities boast of how they’re about educating their community. Can it really be considered an education when all you’ve been talking about are the same things, but just shifting between brands for a few years? I’d liken this to a teacher who has been teaching one lesson plan to one class for years.
Words and phrases like “be more adventurous” or “explore more” or “go out of your comfort zone” are being thrown around by these personalities. How come they aren’t practicing what they preach? Yes, they’re responsible for the rising popularity of more small brands. But why not, in their own words, explore more and discuss topics they’re not too familiar with?
I wonder if these personalities are afraid that if they start talking about the more unfamiliar technical aspects of whisky production they’re going to lose viewership. While it’s plausible, I don’t think that will be the case. Their community is pretty vocal about being thankful for education and awareness. If they’re worried about this, then aren’t they, technically, being biased with the information they’re giving out?
The word for that isn’t education. I hope they realize that, if they don’t educate their respective communities on these topics, who else is going to? The big brands surely won’t. They’re only likely to start discussing more technical aspects of whisky production if there’s a clamor for it. If the community is not asking for these to be discussed, it’s only because they don’t know the significance of the pre-aging aspects of whisky production.
How are more enthusiasts going to know why Mortlach, a Speyside single malt, has this meaty and heavy flavor while most of the other Speyside single malts are lighter and cleaner in flavor? The answer isn’t because the IBs are bottled at at least 46%, NCF, and no added coloring. A lot of other Speyside single malts are bottled like that. It’s because Mortlach uses worm tub condensers.
Aside from being small, how are enthusiasts going to know why new distilleries can make a better whisky than the bigger ones despite just bottling young whisky? What are the hallmarks that make a true craft distiller different from a crap distiller? One of the answers would be using better raw materials, longer fermentation, and slower distillation. It’s not just because of a better cask management program and being bottled at 46%, NCF, and no added coloring.
When I first took whisky seriously, so few were interested in the magic trifecta and the justification for giving NAS single malts a chance. But now, it’s all the rage. If the independent advocates are indeed just looking for the easy answers, then whisky is truly doomed and they’re partly to blame. Shouldn’t seeking out these types of information be some sort of thrill of the hunt? Just like there’s an excitement in seeking new brands to try?
Hopefully, the community looks at this in a rational way and not as an attack. I just want more of the whisky community to learn more, so they are able to distinguish different whisky better. As a result, I hope that this call out will make more enthusiasts less susceptible to being fooled by marketing and influencers. Looking at the bright side: at least most consumers now know that the Nikka Coffey Malt isn’t whisky made from coffee!
Nikka Coffey Malt – Review
45% ABV. £60.95 from The Whisky Exchange. USD $78.99 from Total Wine. USD $100 locally. Purchased this bottle in Tokyo in 2017 for USD $50.
Color: Lager beer.
On the nose: The first thing I notice is the sharp ethanol punch. But it quickly goes away. Behind it is a sharp and mixed aroma made up of coffee, barley, honey, vanilla, cinnamon, and burnt caramel. These are consistent but the intensity lightens up the longer I smell this in one go. A bit of cloves come out at the end.
In the mouth: This doesn’t have the initial sharpness of the nose, but the ethanol bite and pepperiness lasts longer. Like on the nose, I get one taste made up of honey, coffee, unsweetened coffee jelly, vanilla, burnt caramel, toffee, and cinnamon. After it are subtle flashes of nutmeg, cloves and coconut sugar syrup.
It’s been a long while since I tasted this neat. This has become my once-in-a-while whisky for a Japanese highball. I now remember why a lot of drinkers love this. You get everything at the front. There’s nothing unpleasant about this. All the flavors are familiar as well. So, whether you’re taking your time with this or just drinking this as a shot, you’re pretty much getting the full package.
Aside from having just pleasant flavors, this doesn’t have a watery texture. I get a bit of oiliness in the middle and back. Despite the payload of flavors coming out at the front, I wouldn’t call this light and boring, either. This just lacks the complexity for me to rate it higher.
(at current prices; 6/10 at the price I bought it for)
I love both the Coffey Malt and Grain, and they can be had for a relatively low price in Singapore compared to overseas and other Japanese bottles (around US$73 WITH all taxes and duties included).
I once went to a Nikka tasting session two years ago and these remained my favorite out of all the core bottlings there.
Your summary echoes my thoughts: It does nothing wrong, overall flavorful and pleasant, just not complex.
Thanks for the comment, KC. I love both of the Nikka Coffeys as well. But I felt like the Grain was more like a bourbon so I’d use mine more in cocktails that call for bourbon.
I’m glad you agree with my summary. Cheers.
I think you make a good point here on what passes as whisky education, and I would love to see more of what you suggest. Maybe it won’t come from the people already set-up/established with their place in the whisky-tube or blogging world, but I certainly think this is an area that deserves or you could even say needs to be filled.
Hi Marc, thanks for the comment. It would be very interesting to see someone new that will fill this gap. Whoever it will be, it’ll take a lot more time for them to get a strong following since the topic of his discussions isn’t a popular one.
Interesting write-up. Coffey stills always bring up a “chicken and egg” question for me. There are so many blended whiskies from all over the world that I find unpleasant because of the ethanol (read: vodka-like) bitterness that pops out front or mars the finish. I rarely find this note in a pot still malt whisky or in a bourbon (which sometimes uses continuous stills or doublers, but is aged in virgin oak). So the question becomes: Does whisky from a Coffey still contain an inherent bitterness or is the bitterness due to continuous still whisky being relegated to aging in tired (read: overused) casks far too often?
I haven’t had vodka in a long long time but I don’t remember tasting any bitterness from it. It’s mostly some sort of a really light and dry creamy taste. But I’m not saying you’re wrong since all taste and smell things differently.
I’ve learned that a soapy bitterness can be created when a spirit is diluted too fast. A lot of the grain whisky used for blends leave the still in the area of 90% abv. But never over 95% abv. (Distilling over this proof is considered making a neutral spirit regardless of raw material). The grain whisky is diluted to, I assume around 60% to 70% abv, before being barrel aged. After aging and being blended with single malt, it’s diluted again. Since most of the blends we see come from the big companies, it’s safe to say that they instantly dilute their blends and create this bitterness.
Also, try reading an EH Taylor dilution experiment I did here a while ago.
Tired casks can also surely be a culprit. With brands being tightlipped about their grain distilleries, it’s really hard to know how each of them handle their cask management. Even STR has its limits.
It might also depend on the still and the distiller. Pot and column stills is the easy but inaccurate dichotomy of stills. It should be batch and continuous. All pot stills and some column stills (see Armagnac and Martinique creole stills) can batch distill. But columns stills are more popular for continuous distilling.
With the distiller, I’ve heard that too quick of a distillation can result in off-flavors. But so few industry people talk about this and so few of the reading materials I have even cover this. So this is mostly speculation. But maybe this bitterness you’re getting from the fast distillation?
Not to insult you, but while were thinking hard on this, is it possible that it’s just your personal palate? Similar to the genetic thing about some people getting a soapy taste when having cilantro.