Hidden in plain sight
Posted 10 July 2020 by Matt / In Group Tastings
If you think that keeping track of your burgeoning bottle collection is complicated – imagine having to manage a distillery inventory of hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands (or more) casks. Unlike your bottles, this ‘collection’ is not a set point in time, but a continually maturing, changing and growing asset. It’s an artist’s palette which is never quite the same month-to-month or year-to-year – and your ability to create a particular painting, in a particular style is constantly being put under pressure – especially if you’re trying to portray the same composition time and time again.
Whilst most of you are likely raising your hands eager to get into what you see as a booze-based sweetshop, inventory management is far from a full-time, paid dramming session (though there are certainly times). Before distillery stock management software, or even spreadsheets - keeping tabs on a growing morass of maturing spirit (with only pen and paper to hand) was likely quite the miserable experience. Now matter the size of the inventory – tracking, recording and noting is a fundamental task. Nowhere in whisky would someone enter a warehouse point to an unknown cask and say “I want that one”. Everything is a carefully considered decision – based on the inherent qualities of the matured spirit – it’s suitability for a particular purpose – and the hole that bottling it will leave in the remaining stock.
Every cask disgorged is one less of that type to play with in the future. And in the case of some distilleries and some venerated casks – these decisions are not taken likely.
Whilst the bulk of many inventories might be found in the humble ex-bourbon cask, even then, the variances possible from this wood type are myriad. Some will prove exceptional and go onto be single casks or distillery handfills – and some will prove to be exactly what they were intended to be – a consistent base with which to craft a larger, married, end product. Knowing which is a vital task. As is knowing when.
But alongside the ‘bulk’ cask type, most distilleries hold stock of what they might consider to be ‘experimental’ casks – little used woods, or woods used in unusual ways or conditions. Whilst these more infrequent cask fills can be utilised to provide punters with exciting new spins and limited edition releases – they’re also a test bed – particularly for younger distilleries, who as a matter of course, need to explore how their developing spirit adapts to particular wood types and precursor liquids. You don't know until you know....and really, you never truly *know*. They are also simply a fun thing to mess about with – distillery people love tests and try-outs. Throughout the world there are warehouses hidding some some exceedingly weird things in them.
However, for all the marketing guff about unearthing long lost casks in sections of warehouses that apparently no one has dared venture for decades (again) – inventory management really doesn’t work like this. Least of all for tax purposes. Assessing the developing qualities, conditions and liquid volumes remaining within an inventory is a full-time occupation. And it’s where blenders earn their reputations. Knowing what paints are available allows the artist to either mix up the colours they require, or to consider painting in an altogether different medium. Finding a random stash of exceptional oil paints once used by Picasso happens exactly never - but finding said oil paints have changed over time in their consistency and quality - that's a different story - and one which neccessitates continous attention. Whilst warehouses, particularly those owned by the largest distilleries, might be vast – nowadays if anything is hidden, it's largely hidden in plain sight.
Today’s couplet of related reviews proves interesting from an inventory perspective – because the different cask selections were, out of necessity, borne from two different people, with two different approaches and levels of knowledge of the distillery’s available stock.
We’ve already written about Glen Moray’s first Elgin Curiosity Collection bottling – the controversial (bafflingly so) Cider Cask Project - today we’ll bring our account up to date with reviews of the follow-up Rhum Agricole and recently released Madeira matured Projects. The former was created by Graham Coull, 14 years at Glen Moray and now ensconced over in Dingle Distillery, Ireland. The later was conceived by Kirstie McCallum, who for the past nine months, has been Head of Whisky Creation for the Elgin-based distillery.
Whilst Coull took the reigns of both Glen Moray’s distilling and blending as Distillery Manager and Master Distiller, McCallum as Head of Whisky Creation (Master Blender) is focussed firmly on the later. But not only will their approaches to whisky selection and creation vary – so too does their level of knowledge of the existing distillery inventory. The Rhum Agricole Cask Finish Project was filled, matured and bottled under Coull’s watchful eye - But McCallum, having recently joined the distillery from Distell has not had quite anywhere near as long embedded into the fabric of the distillery and it’s maturing stock. That's simply a factor of time. She’s likely spent much (most!) of her past nine months diligently building up a full knowledge of both the variances possible across the Glen Moray spirit, but also rationalising the different volumes of different casks types that are readily available for bottling. The 'tough job' adage feels appropriate - but in reality, it really is. It's a grueling and near endless pursuit that might have a beginning, but doesn't neccessarily have an end.
Bottle Name: Glen Moray Rhum Agricole Cask Finish Project
Distillery: Glen Moray
The second of Glen Moray’s Elgin Curiosity Collection offers up a rum finished Speyside whisky – but as opposed to the much better-known molasses-based spirit – this expressions utilises rhum agricole which is produced from sugarcane juice. The style originated in the French Caribbean – particularly Martinque where there are presently 14 distilleries producing agricole under the AOC designation.
The Project started its life in American oak ex-bourbon casks before being finished for two years in rhum agricole casks from St. James distillery which was founded in 1765 in Saint-Pierre by Reverend Father Edmund Lefebure. If you’re looking for the rhum used to finish this Glen Moray you’ll be able to pick up a bottle of the St James XO blend of 6-10 year old rums for £43.25 from the Whisky Exchange. The Rhum Aricole Project itself consists of 3060 bottles at 46.3% ABV – yours for the sum of £52.95 from the same retailer.
Nose: Fresh and lightly tropical with notes of pineapple cube and foam bananas alongside estery pear drops and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. A buttery biscuit base is joined by stringy caramel whilst dusty vanilla and compact, dried berries sit with desiccated coconut and toasted golden barley. Dilution expresses greater orchard character and brings a grassy note of freshly cut lawn and honeysuckle.
Taste: The underlying texture of the spirit translates well with an arrival of butterscotch and piquant ginger spiced buns that leads into sweet pineapple tempered by sour cherries and lime zest. The backbone is malt-driven with Alpen and toasted breakfast cereals served alongside vanilla-imbued shortbread and singed toffee. Water relaxes the cask influence and spicing adding chopped almonds and candy necklaces.
Finish: Medium in length with ginger and pepperiness leading off, before a fade into oat crackers and orchard fruit salad.
Glen Moray’s sophomore Curiosity bottling ticks the experimental box as one would expect – I’m not presently aware of any other agricole finished Scotch whisky on the market. Lighter in sweetness than many other rum finished whiskies, but without the emblematic vegetalness that you’ll find in many agricole rums, the collaboration works for me, offering a well-balanced, fresh and interesting whisky. That said, I don’t think this will be opening the doors to a sea of agricole imbued single malts – it does remain a curiosity.
Bottle Name: Glen Moray Madeira Cask Project
Distillery: Glen Moray
The latest Glen Moray Curiosity sees new Head of Whisky Creation Kirstie McCallum pick up where Graham Coull left off which an expression which from the outset doesn’t sound quite as experimental at the two previous editions. Whilst madeira is not a frequent cask fill there are plenty of examples of madeira matured whisky that have been produced over the last few years. However, look under the hood and you’ll see that this Glen Moray edition *is* a little different – madeira’s use for maturation is principally as a finishing cask. Here, in the third Glen Moray Curiosity we see its utilised for a rather rare full-term maturation.
Originally filled on 26th May 2006 and left to mature in the distillery’s No.1 warehouse, the small selection of madeira hogsheads which have been used to create this latest Cask Project was left to mature for 13 years and 10 month in the famous Portuguese fortified wine produced on the island of the same name.
1468 bottles have been created at an ABV of 46.3%. You can pick one up for £61.95 from The Whisky Exchange.
Nose: Immediately expressive of toffee and bubbling pan sugars. Cardamom poached pears lead into freshly fallen leaves, greenhouse vines and high percentage cocoa solid chocolate before the underlying maltiness of the spirit takes hold with oatcakes, digestive biscuits and brown bread. The addition of water reveals a creamy core with fudge and butterscotch alongside hedgerow berries and pancake batter.
Taste: Syrupy on the arrival with the natural weight of the spirit evident. Blackberries and underripe plum are macerated together with pear slices in a rich tincture of liquorice and cinnamon sticks. Dark chocolate is one more on the menu – served alongside a cup of freshly made espresso and a slice of ginger cake. Reduction softens this up with plenty more bakery in the form of Viennese swirls and custard creams.
Finish: Medium to long with persistent ginger and nutmeg spicing.
Somewhat surprisingly, the full-term madeira maturation of this latest Glen Moray Elgin Curiosity Cask Project has not resulted in a whisky which entirely reflects the underlying sweetness of the fortified wine. Yes there is a rich syrupiness and notes of berries and chocolate etc – but, these are unexpectedly restrained given the length maturation within the wood type. An after-dinner whisky yes – but one which still have plenty of vibrancy and kick as opposed to the saccharine opulence which one might expect. I like it. But I don’t love it.