There’s been a schism around experimentation in Scotch Malt whisky for much longer than I’ve been drinking it. In one camp, those who vehemently stand by Scotch single malt being the preserve of imperative traditional methods that safeguard the future quality and integrity of the spirit. In the other, those who believe that the way forward is one of flexibility and in some cases challenging the underlying rules around what whisky is and how it’s produced. The truth of the matter, like so many things, lies somewhere in the middle-ground – an industry protected by laws, but not fettered by them – of innovation for true advancement, rather than innovation simply for innovation’s sake.
To those outside of whisky-geek circles, Glen Moray is often thought of as a bulk producer of inexpensive single malt whiskies. A fine thing, but perhaps far from the cutting-edge of whisky innovation. But, dig a little deeper in to Glen Moray and you’ll see the true depth of innovation taking place in its warehouses – sometimes to the point of opening eyes and asking questions which raise the heckles of Scotch traditionalists.
Visitors to Glen Moray invariably get a taster of Distillery Manager Graham Coull’s fondness for experimentation. Coull has tucked away a raft of interesting and unusual expressions in Glen Moray’s warehouses – utilising a wide array of uncommon casks and finishing techniques. These often find their way into the highly popular distillery bottle your own (BYO) handfills in the visitor centre – offering some interesting (and sometimes left-field) takes on the Glen Moray style and perhaps a taste of what might become part of a future mainstream release.
When I visited Glen Moray last year, across the many unfamiliar casks in the warehouse, one in particular stood out – Glen Moray finished in a cider cask. The distillery has been working with East Lothian based Thistly Cross since 2013, experimenting with the effects that cider influence has on whisky maturation. One of these casks found their way into the distillery’s BYO slot (selling out rather quickly as one might expect), but others slumbered in the packed warehouses whilst Coull sampled the ongoing effects on Glen Moray’s spirit.
In the latter part of 2017, the fruits of Coull’s cider experimentation became more widely available in the form of the Glen Moray Cider Cask Project – part of a new ‘Elgin Curiosity’ range from the distillery. The announcement was met with some apparent consternation, and questions arising over the legality (under current SWA rules) of the utilisation of ‘cider casks’ for the maturation of Scotch malt whisky. The disquiet in essence stemmed from a concern that cider casks, do not have ‘sufficient evidence for traditional use’. Whilst ex-bourbon, fortified wines (sherry, port etc) and grape brandies all appear on the SWA approved list as casks which have a long established history with being matured in traditional oak casks, cider does not. Coull responded to this unease, by indicating that, similarly to whisky matured in beer casks, the Thistly Cross cider casks were in fact created in direct partnership with Glen Moray – the distillery provided ex-whisky casks to the cider maker to allow them to create a whisky-finished cider – they were then returned to Glen Moray for utilisation in the creation of a cider-finished whisky. These type of barrel exchanges are far from unique – indeed, one of my favourites – Chichibu IPA Finish offers a similar experimental story of cross-pollination.
2000 bottles of the Cider Cask Project have been produced (again being finished in casks that previously held Thistly Cross cider) as a limited edition UK release available at 46.3% ABV and for £52.95 from the Whisky Exchange.
But, whilst folks are right to question the unusual, and the unique (this being an industry first), a default negative position around industry experimentation seems to me to be rather counter-productive. Far from breaking with long-established traditions, Glen Moray have sought to explore innovation through collaboration – to enhance whisky’s natural flavour creatively, but still with a keen eye on skill and craft. This does not represent a radical shift in production or maturation methods, nor an abandonment of values and reassurances of quality as some of the naysayers may have you believe. Likewise, it does not signify that whisky is at risk of having its DNA and roots uplifted for a Wild West future without a traditionally-based grounding. Rather, it is a small incremental step towards continuing to explore the diversity of what’s possible from a versatile spirit.
There’s a perception that the long-established rules of Scotch put Scottish distilleries behind the curve when it comes to innovation – this is both mistaken, and a mistake to reinforce through procrastination. Progression and advancement is required across the global industry – and that means sharing ideas, sharing resources, collaborating and being prepared to consider pushing the envelope. Experimentation within a science-setting is used to test existing theories and/or new hypotheses – it provides evidence that helps ground our understanding. Whisky should be no different – avoiding and censoring experimentation simply for the sake of tradition risks limiting the future knowledge of the industry and its ability to adapt from insight and learning. If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got.
Nose: In no real surprise – apples. But, more interestingly, there’s plenty of gradation of apple here – toffee apples, apple crumble, Jolly Rancher candy (green apple), and outright cider itself – part light and estery, part west coast scrumpy. Garden orchard fruitiness continues with a big vein of ripe pear and pear sorbet enlivened with icing sugar and baking spices. Running throughout, sweetness from golden syrup, and some ex-bourbon desiccated coconut and lightly toasted oats. Reduction introduces rolled pastry and flan cases whilst also adding a slight chalkiness.
Taste: The arrival delivers a similar baskets of fruits as the nose – but the cider influence is less discernible – ripe apple and pear both drizzled with lemon juice to prevent browning, and lemon sherbet to add some zing. Toffee sauce and split vanilla pods are joined by bakery flavours of biscuits, choux pastry and bready buns. In the back-palate, white pepper tingles alongside sweet oak and breakfast cereals. Water unleashes plenty of honey sweetness as well as lemon drops and simple syrup.
Finish: Medium in length with sweet orchard fruits and a fading touch of earthiness.
Glen Moray Cider Cask Project is lively, fresh and fruit-forward. The cider influence certainly seems palpable on the nose, whereas it’s expressed more mutedly on the palate – But, I can’t help but feel how much of this is pre-conditioning….whilst apples are far from an uncommon tasting note, does their detectable prevalence here increase when knowing this has spent time in a cider cask? Quite possibly! Nevertheless, I find this to both well-made, and also importantly, quite sympathetic to Glen Moray’s underlying spirit. It’s also worth noting that like most of this distillery’s output, the price-point is exceedingly reasonable for the current market conditions.
But don't take our word for it..
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