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Category Archives: Whisky
Barrel-strength malt whisky isn’t “a dram for the feint hearted”, declares a recent Scotch Malt Whisky Society press release. I’m sure they meant faint hearted. But we get their drift. We could also add that making, maturing and marketing luxury goods, like malt whisky, isn’t for faint-of-heart businesses. Success requires loads of capital, patience, global reach and unique marketing skills.
Successful marketers of luxury goods make us feel good about paying big bucks for their glamorous brands. They have to bring in enough money to cover the real cost of production and marketing, plus a nice mark-up for themselves and acceptable profit margins for everyone in the distribution chain. In the case of single-malt whisky, production might involve maturation in oak barrels for a decade or more before blending and bottling.
In simple terms, this means a malt whisky producer carries the costs of production, storage and maintenance for ten years or more before receiving a cent. But it takes considerable market power – and powerful brand marketing – to achieve a good return on investment.
Good marketers follow consumer tastes but also head off in new directions, taking consumers with them. A colourful example of this in recent years was The Glenmorangie Company’s acquisition of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
Glenmorangie, a distiller of Highland Malt Whisky, is part of luxury goods company, LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy). The company makes and markets, as well as Louis Vuitton luggage, many of the world’s great wine and spirit brands, including Moet and Chandon and Veuve Clicquot Champagnes and Hennessy Cognac. Its southern hemisphere wineries include Domain Chandon and Cape Mentelle in Australia and Cloudy Bay, New Zealand.
Glenmorangie’s purchase of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society steps away from the beaten path. It picks up on a growing consumer taste for small-production specialties, generally with strong regional appeal. But the society’s operations seem disconnected from the Glenmorangie brand.
The society, with 26 thousand members globally (1,500 in Australia), formed 30 years ago. Society Ambassador, Georgie Bell, said during a recent visit to Canberra, the society grew from a group of Edinburgh malt enthusiasts, led by Pip Hill. The story goes that in the late seventies, with little single-malt whisky on the market, Hill sourced a single barrel from a Speyside producer and decanted it to gallon jars with a group of like-minded friends.
The group grew by word of mouth and in 1983 became a society, dedicated to sourcing and bottling individual casks of malt whisky. Bell says the society now has 15 branches in 18 countries (one branch for the Benelux countries and one for Australia-New Zealand).
She says the society selects and bottles individual barrels of whisky from 129 distilleries, principally in Scotland, but also from two in Ireland, one in Wales and two in Japan.
An enthusiastic 24 year-old, Bell taught herself to like whisky while working in an Edinburgh cocktail bar as a uni student. She submitted a final-year dissertation on the geography of whisky, based on a case study of the island of Islay and how its identity stems mainly from its whisky production.
Bell attended the society’s Canberra tasting at Regatta point, following events in Canada, the USA, Sydney and Melbourne. She jetted off to open the new Mumbai branch the next morning.
Over three single-cask malts before the Canberra tasting, Bell talked of a new image for malt whisky – a shift away from cigar-smoking, middle-aged blokes. (Though a bloke, Drew McKinnie, heads up the local branch).
Bell describes a significant women and whisky movement emerging in the UK. And she attributes whisky’s appeal to the collection of flavours it presents – seeing strong parallels to perfume, another of her interests.
The three whiskies we compare vary amazingly from one another. They’re to be served at the society tasting with matching entrees prepared by chef, Michael Shilling.
The society’s whisk labels feature two numbers – one representing the distillery, the other the cask number – and cryptic descriptor. For example, we tasted 121.57, described as “bittersweet symphony”. By going to whiskyportal.com I learned that 121 is the number for the Island of Arran Distillery. This is a pale, comparatively delicate whisky with attractive citrus character. Go easy, though, as 55.4 per cent alcohol.
The second whisky, 35.78 “Praline and flat Coca Cola” (from the Glen Moray Distillery, 58.5 per cent alcohol) had been matured for 14 years in sherry casks. It was, in a way, like sherry on steroids, with a rich, delicious caramel-like malt flavour pushing through the sherry-like overlay, with a spicy, oaky aftertaste.
The third whisky, 53.174, “Sumptuous barbecue on the Machair”, combined strong, smokey, peatey aromas (derived from drying the malted barley with peat smoke) with tangy sea-spray character. This 64.2-per-cent-alcohol dram came from the Caol Ila Distillery, Islay.
The society sells its whiskies to members only. However, you can become a member by paying a joining fee and annual subs or, far more palatably, by attending one its quarterly tastings, known as outturns, and purchasing whisky – details at smws.com.au
Prices of whiskies in the current release vary from $150 to $680 a bottle. If you’re visiting Melbourne, several are on tasting at the Whisky and Alement bar, Russell Street.
Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2013 First published 27 March 2013 in The Canberra Times and goodfood.com.au
The late Douglas Lamb, wine merchant and bon vivant, delighted in serving Cognac balloons of single malt whisky to dinner guests. The power of suggestion being so great, few twigged to Lamb’s little trick. Indeed, they often congratulated Lamb on a fine Cognac selection.
Presumably Lamb served one of the less peaty malts, perhaps The Macallan, from Speyside. But whatever it was, guests appreciated the beauty, purity and complexity of a double-distilled, cask-aged spirit.
They’re characteristics shared by good malt whisky and Cognac, a fine grape brandy. Side by side, though, they’re quite unlike and I’m sure Lamb’s guests adjusted their brains, and taste buds, when the bottle appeared.
In Lamb’s day “single malt” generally meant whisky from one of Scotland’s renowned producing regions – Campbelltown, the Highlands, Speyside, the Lowlands and the islands of Arran, Jura, Mull, Orkney, Skye and Islay.
These areas all produce distinctive malts. And even within the regions flavours vary from maker to maker. Some of the important variables are the water and level of peat influence in it, the type of malted barley, its level of toasting and whether it’s been influenced by peat smoke, the type of barrel used for maturation, the length of maturation and the location of the barrel warehouse – proximity to the sea, for example, can add a tangy note.
If the focus remains mainly on Scotch single malts, today’s enthusiasts cast their tastes more widely. For example, among the 73 malts ranked by the Malt Whisky Society of Australia in August, there were 18 from Australia and one, Yamazaki, from Japan. Surprisingly, there were none from Ireland.
These enthusiasts, though, remain well ahead of the general market as you’ll find if you seek an Australian malt in Canberra. Some have made their way here. Jim Murphy, for example, briefly carried Melbourne’s Bakery Hill, but staff at the Fyshwick Market’s outlet say there’s been no demand since selling their stock of two bottles. Jim Murphy currently offers 23 single malts, including Japan’s Moutai, at Fyshwick and an “additional 10 to 15 at the airport shop”.
Dan Murphy, the Woolworth’s-owned chain currently offers no Australian malts. But Luke Grima, group business manager for spirits and ready-to-drinks, says they’ll be ranging a few soon. Tim Carroll, spirits and ready-to-drinks category manager from rival Coles, says their Vintage Cellars outlets have two on range – Limeburners, from the Great Southern Distillery in Albany, Western Australia, and Bakery Hill, from Melbourne.
Grima reports market growth in the last year for malts at Dan Murphy of 15 per cent, though it remains a niche in relation to the total whisky market. He says the group’s buying is based on consumer demand and market trends and they offer a base of 70 products. But, he writes Grima, “we encourage feedback from store managers and customers and have a process where they can request products. We would then source for them”.
Likewise Coles buying for its Liquorland, 1st Choice and Vintage Cellars stores is centrally managed. The Vintage Cellars stores, says Carroll, are obliged to carry a range of 50 malts, but managers have some discretion to carry more to meet local demand.
The limited malt offerings of most retailers and even of the bigger, high turnover chains, simply reflects demand in the general population. It simply isn’t profitable for these retailers to tie up money in stock that sits there gathering dust.
This, of course, opens the door for niche operators, generally knowledgeable enthusiasts. Look, for example, at what Plonk, Fyshwick markets, has achieved with craft beer over the last few years. Enthusiasts flock there every weekend because the shop offers about 700 different beers, always offer something new and always provides something to taste. It succeeds by concentrating enthusiasts in one outlet. Canberra probably couldn’t support two Plonks.
Resident beer expert, Dan Rayner, says Plonk expects to achieve a similar result with malt whisky when they move to bigger premises in the new section at the market. And they have Australian malts in sight as well as the Scotch classics.
In the meantime, to explore Australian malt, it’s perhaps best to hop online and check out the individual websites for Hollyers Road Distillery (Burnie Tasmania), Nant Distillery (Bothwell, Tasmania), Sullivan’s Cove (Tasmania Distillery, Hobart), Lark Distillery (Hobart), Bakery Hill Distillery (Melbourne), Timboon Railway Shed (Timboon, Victoria) and Smiths (part of Yalumba, Angaston, South Australia). They should be able to point you to stockists, or to sell direct.
For other malts, your local store might be able to order in as there are many importers, especially of Scotch malts.
It’s also worth checking www.singlemalt.com.au – a comparatively new direct seller, sourcing some whiskies direct and others from established importers. A press release from the owners, Brad Wright and Andy Anderson, says they’re currently importing 100 cases a month and heading off shortly to find more. It also says they offer whiskies from Australia, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, India and Ireland.
The website, however, offers only 58 malts and the five from Australia come from just two distillers – which points to a business in the making, rather than one that’s arrived, and perhaps a step or two behind its press release. It does, however, offer interesting details of each whisky.
Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010