Meeting Donn & Willie from 'The Exceptional'

Don Sutcliffe and Willie Phillips

Don Sutcliffe and Willie Phillips

 The ‘Exceptional’ blends are getting a reputation for being just that. Colin Hampden-White meets the two that make the three in the range.

There is a lot of whisky in the world: excellent malts, delicious blends and a growing number of grain whiskies. So why would anyone try and create another one, let alone three? Thankfully, two men decided they wanted to because their creations are not only very good and complement the existing whiskies on the market, but they also have a blend that in many people’s opinion is one of the best in the world.

These whiskies are known under “The Exceptional” brand. For once, the name does describe the contents in the bottle. Made by the Craft Distillers company, these whiskies are the result of a collaboration between two men from very different whisky backgrounds. Don Sutcliffe was a whisky marketing man, working on the west coast of America, and Willie Phillips was managing director of a whisky distillery for 23 years. They met both working on the Macallan brand 25 years ago when they struck up a strong friendship, which has lasted well beyond retirement. They had always wanted to work on a project together so, with access to some of the finest whiskies on the planet and with the help of Master Blender Bill Arthur, they started to develop The Exceptional brand. The three whiskies they have are all blends: a blended grain, malt and a complete blend of grain and malt.

Who’s behind The Exceptional?

Don and Willie are very different characters. When Don is excited about the whisky he creates, the descriptors are, as you might expect from someone from the USA, exuberant. Willie, on the other hand, is a little more laid back in his praise, describing the grain blend as “not bad” and The Exceptional Blend as “good”. After a few drams, however, his real thoughts on the blend come through and he describes it as “probably the best blend he has tasted”. So, in reality, a “not bad” from Willie is a “pretty bloody good” for most of us. It’s this drive for excellence that shows in the whisky. Once in full flow talking about their creations, both Don and Willie are clearly very proud of the liquid and excited about getting as many people as possible to try it.

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The blends

These blends are all small-batch bottlings simply because the whiskies they draw from are very mature and, in some cases, very rare, with some of the casks even coming from closed distilleries. All the whiskies, once blended, are left in first-fill oloroso casks to marry before bottling at 43% abv.

For batch two, the grain blend included whiskies from the Loch Lomond and North British distilleries, but also a cask of 33-year-old wheat whisky from the Carsebridge distillery, which closed in 1983. The blended malt included whiskies from Glenfarclas, Ben Nevis, Allt A’ Bhainne, Auchroisk, Glenallachie,Westport, Speyside, Macallan and three great Speyside distilleries whose names we can’t divulge. Many of these whiskies are more than 20 years old. The Exceptional Blend uses a mixture of the casks used in the blended grain and the blended malt.

A different kind of blend

These small-batches whiskies are unlike most blends. Because of the rarity of the casks and the different whiskies sourced for each blend, they are not made to be consistent year in, year out. The blends will change with each batch. If the quality of the blends can be kept and the flavours remain as good as their previous batches, then their existing reputation and already loyal followers can only grow.

The Blend has been earning a great reputation among all sectors of whisky drinkers. Whisky writers Charlie MacLean and Greg Dillon both said it was “one of the best blends I’ve tried”, distiller Lora Hemy considered it “the best blend I’ve tried in many, many years” and thought the blended malt “has elegance as well as power and depth”.  She added, having tasted the blended malt, “This is probably the best blended malt I have tried”. These glowing references to the whiskies were all given before the cost had been revealed, and it is the price point of this range of whiskies that is as impressive as the whiskies themselves. There are many very good blended whiskies on the market – the private collection by Johnnie Walker is frequently lauded and is a fabulous blend created in different styles every year; it retails for in excess of £500. There are famous blends, such as Blue Label and Royal Salute, which are nearer the £200 mark. This makes it all the more remarkable to find such high-quality and drinkable blends in The Exceptional whiskies at a little over £80.

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These whiskies bring the world of rare flavour within reach of almost all whisky drinkers. With that thought, these whiskies will, as time goes forward, sell increasingly quickly. One can only hope that Don and Willie are able to continue to source great casks so that they can keep up with the demand, or at least resist price increases beyond those of the casks they have to buy as they see the secondary market values of their whiskies increase.

Creating this small-batch blended whisky is a far cry from the past when Don and Willie were responsible for a lot more liquid and the brands were household names. If the quality of the whisky was the guide, then The Exceptional whiskies would create as much of a buzz. Let’s hope there’s enough to go around.

By Colin Hampden-White

Deanston: Creators of organic whisky

In recent times, a few distilleries have been making whisky with organic barley. Benromach have an expression from 2010 which they bottled this year. Laphroaig bottled one for the Highgrove estate and Bruichladdie have an organic whisky from 2009. There is even a distillery which has only just opened which is 100% organic, the Ncn’ean distillery. But there is a distillery which has been thinking about and producing organic whisky for longer than all of these. Deanston has a 15 year old organic whisky, which means they started making organic whisky as long ago as 2003 when whisky was only just starting to grow in popularity in the way it is today.

To make organic whisky, the barley or course must be organic which is more expensive. The casks also must be organic, the casks have to be scrapped and charred deep enough so that the spirit doesn’t come into contact with an non organic material, and the easiest way to make sure of this is to use virgin oak casks, so Deanston finish the organic spirit in virgin oak casks so give the spirit extra sweetness. Virgin oak casks are made from American oak which have not previously held any other liquid before the new make spirit is placed in them. Lastly, and by far the most difficult part of the process is the cleansing of the distillery itself. To be certified as an organic whisky, the spirit can not be created in the stills if a non organic run of spirit has been passed through them. The easiest way to manage this is to make organic spirit directly after the distillery has been cleaned during its maintenance period. Usually over the Christmas period. But they make organic whisky at other times of year which impacts on the main production. Asking Dr Kirsty McCallum, Deanston’s master blender why they make organic whisky, she tells me there are two reasons. The distillery was founded in 1967 by entrepreneurs and creating organic whisky continues this entrepreneurial spirit going, but mainly it is because it tastes good. It has a slightly different character than their other whiskies, being more floral and delicate.

Ideally, Deanston would like to have their organic barely grown in the local area giving the whisky an even stronger sense of place. One thing is for certain though, if they manage to create such a whisky, it is going to be delicious.

By Colin Hampden-White

The Balvenie Distillery

Rainbow over Balvenie distillery

Rainbow over Balvenie distillery

I remember being told an anecdote about the late great Michael Jackson, no not that one. The beer and whisky one.

He was on a press trip with a few journalists to an unnamed distillery which the whole group had at some point visited before. Within the group there were new journalists, seasoned journalists and all were wondering about not really listening to the distillery manager giving his usual talk about his distillery, Except Michael, who followed the distillery manager intently with pen and note book to hand. This status quo existed for the whole visit right through to the still rooms and onto the warehouses.

Someone asked Michael how many times he had been to the distillery, to which he answered “at least half a dozen times”. He was then asked “surely you don’t need to take notes, you must know all about it already”? To which Michael answered: “I always learn something new, for example I didn’t know the distillery was to be expanded, the wash still has had major repairs so it has taken time to regain the consistency, and they are experimenting with certain wood finishes which may be released next year”.  The rest of the group looked decidedly sheepish.

So I set forth with my metaphorical notebook (my digital recorder), cameras and a keen interest for at least my sixth visit to Balvenie distillery. What was new to learn about Balvenie? I could wax lyrical about the history, the start of the distillery and development, the struggles and successes and the forging forward through the modern age. But for that I suggest any number of books.  What I learnt was golden. David isn’t just a fountain of whisky knowledge, having been at Balvenie for so long, he has a view on the passing of recent history like nobody else I’ve met there. The people, the distillery and the innovation of the whisky. Twenty five years ago David started the Double Wood, which most of us now know as finishing or extra maturation, but it started with David. Some time ago he finished some whisky in a cask which previously held peated whisky, something he has revived, and interestingly so have a few other brands recently.

Inside one of the warehouses at Balvenie

Inside one of the warehouses at Balvenie

What started twenty five years ago now has three expressions. A twelve year old, a seventeen, and recently released to celebrate the 25th anniversary, a 25 year old. Fully matured in American oak casks and then finished for three months in Spanish oak ex-oloroso Sherry casks, this whisky has great smoothness and balance. David Stewart said “the final liquid has a lovely combination of sweetness and spice, with candied orange, layers of brown sugar and sweet dried fruits”.

The spirit was laid down in 1993, when the first Doublewood was released, and is bottled at 43% abv.

The Balvenie have also released an expression of the 12 year old with a commemorative label to celebrate the anniversary.

By Colin -Hampden-White

Norton Balvenie: Craft Whisky

Balvenie Distillery

Balvenie Distillery

Craft is talked about a great deal these days, not only in making whisky, but in the making of anything. The world of luxury is all about objects and entities that have been made with craft, though “craft” itself is hard to define. Over the summer I visited Norton motorcycles in Donington with three of the craftsmen from the Balvenie distillery: distiller, Ian Millar, copper smith, Denis Macbain and cooper Ian McDonald. All owned motorbikes in their earlier years and Denis even owned a Norton.

Norton very nearly ceased to exist. It was founded in 1898 and in 2008, Stuart Garner bought the company, saving it from a very uncertain future. Stuart likes motorcycles, and used to watch the British Championships at Donington Park, next door to where he has based Norton. He remembers watching the Norton JPS bikes racing, the cheers and the Union Jacks waving. Stuart might like motorcycles, but he loves Norton.


Stuart Garner, owner of Norton Motorcycles, outside his home Donnington Hall

Stuart Garner, owner of Norton Motorcycles, outside his home Donnington Hall

Stuart grew up in Barrow-on-Trent and left Chellaston School aged sixteen without the burden of any qualifications. Stuart remembers his parents were incredibly disappointed. His brother was at university, but academia did not appeal to him. He preferred to be outdoors or playing snooker. It wasn’t long before he got into bikes and was scrambling. He held down a job as a gamekeeper for a few years, but was sacked eventually. It wasn’t until his girlfriend’s father insisted he have a job if he was going to take his daughter out, that he got a job in fireworks business, courtesy of that vexed parent.  By saving money and earning extra mending bikes, Stuart began his own fireworks business and by his early twenties the company was valued at £1 million. It was clear Stuart had an entrepreneurial spirit coupled with a head for business.

Stuart’s fireworks business grew into one of Britain’s leading pyrotechnics firms. He also became a partner in the firm that regularly made frames for Norton bikes. He learned that the Norton trade name was owned by an American investment banker called Ollie Curme.

Ollie’s company suffered badly in the 2008 crash, so when he was looking to sell the Norton brand he asked whether Stuart would be interested. The call was on a Monday and the offer would be alive until the Friday, at which time he would be selling it to a clothing consortium. Stuart recounts that Ollie said, “If you agree to make bikes, we’ll shake on the deal.” Ollie himself was a biker and didn’t want to see it become just a clothing brand. So Stuart jumped on a plane that night and was in his office the following morning. Due diligence was conducted on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday, they signed the deal. Stuart wasn’t at all sure about buying the Norton name. There were no bikes, no facilities to make them, just a few CDs with the engineering drawings.

Mick Colley works on a new bike

Mick Colley works on a new bike

Stuart took on the biggest challenge of his career and by 2010 Norton was up and running again. It’s taken a supreme effort with Stuart working 100 hours a week – ‘I still do’ he states – and putting in extraordinary hours to ensure his bikes are, as far as possible, British-made. In addition, these bikes are all handmade. The frames are no longer made by an external company; they are welded and put together at Donington. Building a Norton motorcycle takes a huge amount of craft.

This was clear when the two Ians and Denis made their visit to the Norton factory. Ian McDonald gave a demonstration of how to raise a cask. The level of appreciation for this skilful craft from the Norton mechanics showed they understood straightaway why a cooper’s apprenticeship takes four years.

Denis toured the area of the factory devoted to welding. Now Denis has had well over fifty years at Balvenie as a copper smith, so his welding skills are pretty sharp. However, welding copper and aluminium are slightly different skills and with guidance from Bobby Teahan, Denis got to grips with the discrete techniques. The mutual appreciation between the old master and the younger specialist was clear to see.

Denis McBain with Bobby Teahan

Denis McBain with Bobby Teahan

Consistency must be one of the most impressive parts of the process. Although each bike is hand-built, the end result is as consistent as the every other item. Each bike might have its own quirk, design difference or bespoke quality and it was clear how much Ian Millar appreciated the consistency of engineering, akin to perfecting the whisky-making process to achieve consistent new make spirit. The spirit may well possess bespoke elements after maturation, being matured in Sherry, bourbon, Port or even Madeira casks, but the spirit must be consistent in the first instance. It is what makes Balvenie’s whisky dependable in the same way the unfailing engineering makes a motorcycle a Norton.

The three men in whose company I shared the visit to Norton comprehend the effort it has taken to revive the Norton brand. They understand the level of skill required to create something special. Denis McBain started working at William Grant & Sons aged 16 in 1958. Although he officially retired in 2008, he is still very much a part of their story. He has become a living legend, an emissary for the brands, and occasionally makes a copper dog. His working life spanned over fifty years, time spent honing his skill as a copper smith.

In 1969 Ian McDonald also started work aged 16, in the cooperage at William Grants. He completed a five year apprenticeship, refining his cask-making skills over the next forty years. He is now the head cooper, passing on these skills to future generations.

Ian McDonald demonstrates raising a cask

Ian McDonald demonstrates raising a cask

Ian Millar didn’t join William Grant & Sons until 1998, and was the distillery manager for both Glenfiddich and Balvenie. Before joining the company, Ian had worked for thirteen other distilleries in a number of technical and production roles and has well over forty years’ experience in distilling.

These three men, even though they have many years of experience still see the similarities in skill levels needed to create the motorcycle brand they all love and the whisky they all make.

Perhaps a craftsman appreciates the work of another more than other folk. Either way, the many years’ experience of all three men allowed them to perceive the similarities in skill required to create both the motorcycle brand they all love and the whisky they all make.

A historic Norton

A historic Norton

There are other similarities between the two brands. Stuart says that there is a certain type of person who buys a Norton. A Honda buyer, for example, will be interested in the numbers. How much, how fast, how many miles between services. When a person buys a Norton they are interested in the brand, the lifestyle. They are investing in an authentic, tangible brand experience. The same can be said of Balvenie, where there is a perceptible brand experience that has nothing to do with the strength of the whisky, its age or maturation process. These things are separate from the whisky itself. Neither of the two brands is owned by a faceless corporation. Stuart is as much a prominent figurehead for the brand he owns as the family who owns Balvenie. Similarly Kirsten Grant Miekle, sixth generation of the William Grant’s family, has reinvigorated the Balvenie brand in London and is now in the USA, promoting their whisky to an audience searching for something special.

The brand owners both have the same view about craft. There are very specialised skills each brands requires in its creation. These skills take time to perfect and consistency to allow their brands to thrive. Craft doesn’t have to be a scale issue. It is not simply small scale or limited by quantity, it is defined by skill, care and attention to detail. These qualities and disciplines allow the character of these much-loved brands to come to life.

Hogsheads at Balvenie

Hogsheads at Balvenie

By Colin Hampden-White 

A look at Aerstone Whisky: On Land and Sea

Aerstone is a new brand from William Grant and Sons, where the consumer is in charge.

Having asked consumers what was important to them when deciding on buying a whisky, age was a strong reason to buy. When also asked about the issues with buying whisky, the consumer feedback was that they found the category confusing. Single Malt Whisky is sold predominantly by distillery or region, but rarely by simply how it tastes. They also found there were two main flavour profiles consumers tended to like. Smooth and easy to drink whisky and richer more smoky whisky.

By creating a whisky brand with these two distinct whiskies, William Grant and Sons have made choosing whisky easier. The first whisky, Sea Cask, is as it says on the bottle, smooth and easy. Beyond this there is a subtle salted caramel flavour giving the whisky depth and complexity. Land Cask, as it says on the bottle is rich and smoky, with extra complexity coming from dried fruit flavours and touches of toffee and chocolate.

The Sea Cask bottle has the mineral flavour as logically one would expect a whisky matured by the sea to be salty. This isn’t exactly the case as many whiskies matured away from the sea have a salty flavour, but for a consumer this connection makes sense even if not strictly true, and therefore makes the buying decision easier. In the same manner the Land Cask logically is smoky as peat, the fuel for drying the barley, makes the barley and in turn the whisky smoky, and earthy, and is earth itself.

Both of these whiskies are ten years old. They start off with the same spirit and it is the way in which the whisky is matured which gives them their particular characteristics. These whiskies are to be retailed for the first twelve months by Tesco at a retail price of around £30 making these aged spirits accessible to most consumers.

By Colin Hampden-White

The colours of Johnnie Walker

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Johnnie Walker is synonymous with blended Scotch whisky. Being the worlds best selling blend, it takes up quite a bit of space on the shelves. There are many different expressions depending on where it is being sold, for example the Voyager series can be found in Travel Retail. There have been additions to the core range such as Double Black and Island Green. But all of these have been born from red and black label born in 1909. The whisky had Cardhu as the main malt component. Today these whiskies are a complex blend of grain and up to around forty single malts to give them there signature flavour profiles. The colored labels are a flavour code which has held strong and remained consistent for many years.

Red label has always been a whisky made to either be drunk by itself, but more often than not with a simple mixer such as soda water or ginger ale. The whisky has a spicy flavour profile which is well matched for long satisfying and freshly flavoured drinks.

Black label has always been a hugely complex whisky, with lots of caramel, vanilla mixed with soft spices and a little wood smoke in the background. It’s not a peaty whisky, but has enough smoke to keep it interesting and lively on the palate. Black label can be drunk any way you want, and is certainly of a quality to be drunk on its own. The whiskies inside the bottle are all at least twelve years old.

Green label was added to the fold in 1997. Originally called Pure Malt, it was renamed Green Label in 2004. There is very little smoke at all in Green label. It is made with malt whisky only and has a sweeter more honied flavour profile and is exceptionally smooth.

Gold label was also introduced in 1997, and although had no age statement, the whiskies are around the eighteen year mark. Like Green, Gold has a sweeter flavour profile, with vanilla and caramel being dominant, but there are also more complex and subtle flavours of heather honey and blossom.

Blue label was introduced In 1992 and is Johnnie Walker’s premium blend. Having no age statement, it is blended to recreate the character of blends made at the turn of the 20th century, and although the whisky has some young whisky in the blend, there are also some very old whiskies in the blend too, giving flavours of sandalwood, and linseed oil which are often present in older whiskies.

These five whiskies are the core of the Johnnie Walker range, and additions to this series started to evolve in 2011 with Double Black and Platinum and from then the other variations began to be produced.

Black label is the go to whisky for many whisky professionals, myself included. It is complex and smooth and extremely versatile. It makes fabulous highballs, is great in an Old Fashioned, and is still excellent on its own, with water or ice.

Johnnie Walker Red Label 70cl Bottle

Johnnie Walker Black Label Blended Scotch Whisky, 70cl

Johnnie Walker Green Label 15 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky, 70 cl

Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve Premium Blended Scotch Whisky, 70 cl

Johnnie Walker Blue Label Blended Scotch Whisky, 70 cl

By Colin Hampden-White

Craigellachie's 'uncollectable' whisky

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Craigellachie distillery has bottled its oldest expression of whisky at 51 years old. Continuing the prime number tradition of modern Craigellachie, the 51 year old whisky is eighteen years older than the previous expression. But, Craigellachie 51 is not bottled in a fancy crystal decanter and it doesn’t have a silly price tag. In fact, this whisky is going to be free.

Over the next 12 months Craigellachie 51, is being made available for whisky lovers at special tastings around the USA having visited three other markets around the world already.

Global Ambassador Georgie Bell comments: “We wanted to do the unthinkable. We wanted to make a typically collectable Scotch more accessible.”

Adding “We want to give as many people as we can, the chance to try this incredible whisky, because how often does a whisky of this age and calibre actually get tasted?”

Malt Master, Stephanie Macleod said “51 years encased in oak is an extraordinary length of time. Starting life in 1962 as an aggressive beast, the whisky over five decades has developed a softer side yet still retains the distinct umami, muscular note that Craigellachie is known for.”

Craigellachie distillery is situated in the heart of Speyside. It stands on a rock overlooking the confluence of the rivers Fiddich and Spey. Speyside whiskies are known to be fruity and floral but Craigellachie is different in style this with its rich and robust character.

Constructed by two whisky icons: Peter Mackie and Alexander Edward, it began production in 1891, when its whisky was first described as “old-fashioned”.

Sticking to tradition is a hallmark of the distillery, hence the continued use of old-fashioned worm tubs to cool its spirit and its own oil-fired malt. These help to give extra flavour and create a muscular character. With this robust spirit, there are greater possibilities for long aged whisky.

The core portfolio comprises four Craigellachie single malts: the 13 Years Old, 17 Years Old, 23 Years Old and 33 Years Old. The whiskies have won numerous awards, including “World’s Best Single Malt Whisky” at the World Whiskies Awards for the 31 year old. To have a chance of tasting something even older, head off to the website and get your name in the running.

By Colin Hampden-White

 

 

Ardbeg An Oa

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Ardbeg An Oa 46.6%

There have been no new constant expressions from Arbeg for nearly a decade, so the anticipation for An Oa was pretty high, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Not as full on as Uigeadail but with more of a punch then the ten, this is a great addition to the line up.

Nose: Nutty with sweet tobacco leaf mix with confected sweets covering a base citrus of lemon and blood orange. Butterscotch and a little fudge bring more sweetness.

Palate: There is still plenty of peat to keep the core Ardbeg fans happy, but the overall mouth feel is quite light and delicate. Cigars and chocolate mix with fudge and limes giving good complexity and balance.

Finish: The smoke lingers on and becomes slightly ashy, but there is fudgy sweetness right alongside the smoke up until the end. The final flavours are not drying or spicy, but sweet and smoky.

Ardbeg Ten Years Old Gift Box, 70 cl

CHW