Posted 24 February 2021 by Matt / In Group Tastings
Over the past year I’ve been cooking a wider variety of recipes – digging into some of my two-decade old cookery school tomes, scouring the shelves for new ways to use tried and tested ingredients and ordering all sorts of unusual ingredients via the Internet. I’d love to say that this was to achieve a more balanced diet – but the reality has been invariably comfort food-based - an attempt to stave off both location and palate boredom. Nevertheless, this variance has been welcomed – but as is often the case with new recipes – some have been more successful than others. And it’s here that a parallel can be drawn to the art of whisky production – many distilleries, particularly as part of their commissioning processes, experiment with their recipes. But very few of these investigations make it outside of the distillery. Some are only produced for short periods of time – and then sadly, or in some cases not, are consigned to the dustbin of distilling history.
There’s a large number of distilleries that produce one single, consistent spirt style – day in, day out. Ingredients and their processing are identically sourced and utilised, and the resulting distillate is often casked in a mainstay of wood types (invariably ex-bourbon or ex-sherry). But equally, there are a substantive number of distilleries who split their production schedules, crafting two, three or even more (Loch Lomond <cough>) distinctively individual types of spirit. And there are some who are still tinkering behind the scenes with the variables of distillation that we might yet see the results of in years to come.
The number of ways to modify the profile of a distillate are almost endless – even without utilising a new plant. Different grains, sparging times, yeast strains and inoculation levels, fermentation times, spirit charge levels, distillation heat and length of run and variation in spirit cuts <deep breath>. All of these and many more have tolerances for variation – some narrow, some quite broad. And whilst some will produce indetectable changes in the spirit profile, others will result in a dramatically altered final product. And yes, butterfly effects can absolutely exist in whisky production – variables are rarely altered all at once.
But perhaps the most common adjustable when it comes to producing a commercially differentiated spirit is that of the utilisation of peated barley. Whilst it’s easy to roll off lists of distilleries who operate purely unpeated or purely peated production cycles – it’s equally easy to reel off a list of sites who do both.
For some, their peated production is a very small part of their annual cycle – a few runs a year through to a few weeks dedicated to the style. For others, the split is somewhat more equitable. However, it is worth noting that a distillery who is producing both unpeated and peated malt doesn’t just switch over the grain delivery and then carry on as if nothing else has changed. With the fundamental differentiation between the biological and chemical properties of air-dried and peat-dried barley, both downstream adjustments to production process and a mindful cleaning regime are required.
Tweaks to every stage of the production process might well be needed – and certainly will have been trailed in order to fully understand how a peated run needs to differ in its conception and processing. In some cases the modification required is minimal – in others, widely altered temperatures, times and spirit cut points might well be desirable to ensure that the profile of the peated distillate is just as finely specified as its unsmoked relative.
The reasons for distilleries producing both unpeated and peated styles are fairly obvious – the different distillates broaden consumer appeal (and blending opportunities) and allow for a greater variance in the pallete of spirits and cask types held at the distillery which can then be used to craft a final whisky. But also, the variance will often come down to the Master Distiller and their predilections for different whisky styles.
Conversely, many sites don’t feel any particular calling to this type of production – either historically or because they feel that the loss of production when changing styles – both in terms of clean down and particularly in terms of irreplaceable production of the primary spirit (if you’re producing one thing, you’re creating it at the expense of another), which will likely be a core business concern.
Regardless of those who do, and those who don’t – when distilleries produce alternative distillate styles they all need to ‘work’. Either as a separate strand to the distilleries main output, or as a significant component to more complex amalgamations. There are countless examples of styles and experiments that have been filled under ‘B for bin’ – some before they’ve even left the distillery – others after several years on the market. Some are consigned to history in the same way that dead distilleries will never re-produce in the same manner – even if they’re reconstructed for modern times. Others are passing phases – the Ardbeg Blasdas of this world. But whatever the outcome the end result should be something of a non-identical twin – a spirit whose character and style feels in keeping with the distillery it was created at, but that also possesses individualistic traits that mark it out for its own inherent qualities.
Today’s unpeated/peated twosome comes from the Highlands in the form of an Edradour and its peated twin – Ballechin produced as exclusives released at the same time by The Whisky Exchange. Not content with the similarities ending there, the duo both come matured in sherry casks – something of a backbone for distillery owners Signatory. Interestingly, my preferences as far as these two styles is concerned would often be for sherried Edradour, but ex-bourbon Ballechin – but whilst the casks utilised here are not identical – one is 1st fill, the other refill – it is nevertheless always interesting to taste both of these distillates side-by-side.
Bottle Name: Edradour 2008 TWE Exclusive
The Whisky Exchange’s latest Edradour is part of a duet, released alongside it’s peated sibling – Ballechin. Both have been given a full-term sherry maturation, with the Edradour matured for 11 year in 1st fill oloroso sherry before being bottled in May of last year (taken a little time to get to market this one). The cask (#372) was disgorged to produce 709 bottles – they’re available from the TWE website for £79.95.
Nose: Compact, dense sherry with an immediate deep intensity. Chocolate covered cherries and blackberry gateaux are joined by a prominent earthiness from damp cellars and forest mushrooms. Richness is never too far away with run-soaked raisins and bread and butter pudding sprinkled liberally with brown sugar and baking spice. Dilution expresses overcooked caramel and resinous oak alongside macerated raspberries.
Taste: Unexpected. An altogether lighter affair. Sticky raisins and plump sultanas join plum pudding, whilst crunchy, crisp toffee apples and dulce de leche are livened with crystalline ginger. Fruit loaf is expressed in the mid-palate – whilst peppery oak spice and charred staves are offset with sherried sweetness and a trickle of balsamic sharpness. Reduction reveals additional softness with redcurrant jelly, red cherry compote and gingernut biscuits.
Finish: Medium in length and spice-focussed – an earthy amalgamation of ginger, cinnamon alongside dark, bitter chocolate.
On paper and in nose, TWE’s 2008 Edradour is a fathomless sherrybomb (we’ve seen such things from them and this distillery before). However, on the palate and particularly when diluted, this spirit offers far more restraint and less sledgehammering than one might have initially expected. Nevertheless, sherry is still very much the order of the day here, and things get a touch too sweet for me in places. Your mileage may of course vary depending on your sweet tooth – buy now and save for Christmas 2021?
Review sample provided by The Whisky Exchange
Bottle Name: Ballechin 2005 TWE Exclusive
The flip side of TWE’s Edradour double-act is this 14 year old Ballechin – matured since August 2005 in a second fill sherry hogshead (#158). Bottled in August last year and producing 296 bottles – these are available from The Whisky Exchange for £94.95.
Nose: Sack cloth, hessian and old plasterers sheeting present a fabric-forward opening, before clays, putties and shingle offer an alluvial counterpoint. Running throughout – metholated fruits – blackberry eucalyptus and Halls Cherry – set against a dry dainty smoke that presents someway between burnt paper and unwound electrical tape. As you do. The addition of water provides a left-field excursion – ozone, leaf mulch and cider vinegar alongside a swipe of antiseptic cream.
Taste: Immediate syrupy fruits with icing sugar-dusted raspberries and cherry and blackberry preserve. Blackjack chews offer aniseed whilst more mentholated couth sweets provide a medicinal freshness. At the heart of the whisky is an oily/creamy core – akin to a smoked smooth, chocolate creama. Bringing up the rear – a packet of XXX mints. Reduction expresses cherry cordial alongside herbal notes of fir cones and rosemary, with a creamy centre of mint buttercream.
Finish: Medium to long with dried grasses and reeds alongside sticky sweet fruits and minty freshness.
The Whisky Exchange’s Ballechin 2005 is an agreeable journey through a diverse selection of aromas and flavours – some powerful, some just passing motes – but there’s certainly a preponderance throughout for minty sherry. It drinks well both at bottling strength and when brought down with a touch a water – not losing its structure but gaining more vegetalness at the same time. However, to my palate the straddle across leafy/mintiness and syrupy sherry is not always as tuneful as I’d like – and personally I’d rather this whisky chose one of those two directions and stuck to it.