Biondi-Santi: Father of Brunello

I recently traveled to Italy for 25 days to eat, drink, look at art and engage in other epicurean pursuits.  I spent seven days in Tuscany, partly in Florence and the rest wandering around the Tuscan countryside. I took two day trips to the heart of Tuscany to visit the hilltop town of Montalcino in search of the esteemed Brunello di Montalcino, the king of wines made from the sangiovese grape.

View of Montalcino countryside.

View of Montalcino countryside

At the top of my list was Biondi-Santi, the winery credited with the invention of Brunello di Montalcino and an icon among Italian wines. The first vintage from this historic property purportedly dates from 1865, made under the auspices of founder Clemente Santi. His grandson Ferruccio took over the property in the late 1800’s and began clonal selection to isolate the best possible vines to create a complex, full-bodied wine. Ferruccio’s pioneering work developing the ‘sangiovese grosso’ clone and his uncompromising adherence to the strictest quality standards earned him the title of  ‘inventor of Brunello’. Ferruccio’s first vintage of true Brunello was 1888, of which the estate still has two bottles remaining. Ferruccio’s son Tancredi ran the estate from 1917 until his death in 1970, overseeing the replanting of the vineyards and a continued rise in quality of the wines. Tancredi’s son Franco managed Il Greppo from 1970 until his recent death at age 91. The property is now under the ownership of Jacopo Biondi-Santi, the sixth generation to operate the estate.

Tenuta Il Greppo

Villa Greppo

The striking old farmhouse of Villa Greppo lies at the end of a long tree-lined drive and is the first thing visible upon arriving at the estate. The estate sits at the top of a promontory with stunning views of the surrounding countryside from three sides. We met our guide, a tri-lingual Russian girl named Yana, who was extremely knowledgeable, passionate, and thrilled to be working as such an heralded estate. Yana took us around the villa and into the winery.

The Biondi-Santi wines.

The Biondi-Santi wines

Yana explained to us that Biondi-Santi produces five wines: (shown above from left to right) the Rosso di Montalcino, the Rosso di Montalcino ‘Fascia Rosso’, the Brunello Annata, the Brunello Riserva, and a rosato di sangiovese not pictured. All of the wines are made from 100% sangiovese grosso, the distinctive clone of sangiovese that creates intense wines with incredible depth and longevity.  Below is a little information regarding the differences between the wines.

Rosato: aged 18 months in stainless steel.

Rosso di Montalcino: made from 5-10 year old vines and aged 12 months in neutral Slavonian oak casks.

Rosso di Montalcino ‘Fascia Rosso': the ‘red stripe’ label is used for the rosso in years where the Brunello wines are not considered sufficient quality to be bottled on their own and so are blended into the rosso. This technique creates a far superior rosso in those years. The rosso is aged 12 months in neutral Slavonian oak casks.

Brunello di Montalcino Annata: produced from vines between 10 – 25 years of age. The wine is aged 36 months in neutral Slavonian casks and has a 20 – 40 year aging potential.

Brunello di Montalcino Riserva:  made from vines at least 25 years old and some as old as 80 years. Aged 36 months in neutral Slavonian casks and can supposedly be bottle aged for over 100 years.

Epoxy-lined concrete fermentation tanks.

Resin-lined concrete fermentation tanks

The wines are fermented in resin-lined concrete tanks with the exception of the riservas which are fermented in neutral wooden vats. After pressing, the lots are stored in the concrete tanks to undergo malolactic fermentation until the following spring at which point they are transferred to barrels. I noticed that every property I visited in Tuscany left the wine in vat during the duration of malolactic fermentation. In Napa, the majority of producers barrel down shortly after primary fermentation is complete and the wine undergoes malo in barrel over the winter. When I asked the Italian vintners why they prefer the wines to undergo malo in vat versus barrel they replied “that is how it it is done”.

Slavonian oak casks.

Slavonian oak casks

There isn’t one stave of new oak to be found anywhere at Biondi-Santi. The barrels on the right side of the above picture are over 100 years old.

The production at Biondi-Santi totals roughly 6,500 cases annually, with only around 800 of the riserva produced only in the best years. The estate also produces about 250 cases of olive oil per year as well.

The Wines

Rosso and Annata.

Rosso and Annata

Biondi-Santi poured only two wines during my visit, the Rosso di Montalcino and the Brunello Annata. This is understandable considering the Riserva ranges from $450 – $850.

2009 Rosso di Montalcino: This wine exudes a pale, brilliant sheen, glimmering in the light. The color is closer to pinot than to cabernet.  The wine exhibits red fruit, rose petals, and earth on the palate. It is a lovely example of sangiovese at an attractive price point. This wine can be found in the states for around $50-60.

2007 Brunello Annata: Again, the brilliant garnet color of this wine catches the eye. Aromas of cherry, mushroom, and minerals. Firm tannin, soaring acidity, with sour cherry, rhubarb, flint, and tar character on the palate. The annata has far greater depth, intensity and length than the rosso and shows well even though it is a very young wine at the moment. I can see this wine aging for 20-30 years, easily. It is truly a classic sangiovese. The annata retails for about $120 – 150.

View of Montalcino leaving Biondi-Santi.

View of Montalcino leaving Biondi-Santi

Montalcino is an amazingly picturesque flashback to the medieval era. I look forward to returning, hopefully for a longer time so I can taste at more properties. Thank you to the team at Biondi-Santi for the wonderful experience.

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Cimarossa: The Red Hilltop

Recently we headed over to Cimarossa (pronounced chim-ah-ROW-sah) to see the lovely Lisa Pratt, Cimarossa’s hospitality director. After arriving we left our car behind in the little parking area and boarded the Polaris, which took us up the steep trails to get to the Cimarossa house to taste the wines.

The Polaris

Darla, Angela and I in the Polaris

The house is perched at the absolute apex of the hilltop, with beautiful views of the surrounding vineyards and the craggy peaks of Howell Mountain. As we warmed up inside the little house, Lisa told us the story of the property.

Cimarossa began as the Napa Valley retreat of Dino Dina, a Genovese scientist who founded his own biotech firm. Dino purchased the 60 acre property atop Howell Mountain in 1997 which as the time was serving as a horse ranch. Shortly after he planted 15 acres of vines which make up Cimarossa’s three vineyards today. The first vintage was released in 2003, made by Sean Capiaux in O’Shaughnessy’s facility next door. Today, the wine is made at Laird by Mia Klein, who has made the wine since 2007. The total production at Cimarossa ranges between 600 and 1,100 cases annually, all produced from their Howell Mountain estate vineyards.

Cimarossa also produces an intense, complex olive oil from 1,200 olive trees of five different varieties planted on the property. The olives are all harvested the second week of November and pressed together to create a ‘field blend’ oil. The oil is available for tasting as well and is by far my favorite olive oil in the valley.

The Cimarossa House

The Cimarossa House

Lisa has created an incredible tasting experience at Cimarossa. Tasting inside the hilltop house surrounded by beautiful vineyards was incredibly charming, especially with the rain beating down outside. The setting makes for an intimate experience, where one can really take the time to learn about the wines with a small group.

Inside Cimarossa House

Inside the Cimarossa House

The aerial shot below provides a visual aid to assist in understanding the Cimarossa terroir. Each of the vineyards, Riva di Ponente (1), Riva di Levante (2), and Rian (3) all possess different soil characteristics and different sun exposures. Rian is the lowest elevation vineyard, planted on a porous rock cap, whereas Levante is loamy clay and Ponente is white, ashy soil. Cimarossa’s property abuts that of O’Shaughnessy, visible in the picture below (4).

Aerial view of Cimarossa vineyards.

Aerial view of Cimarossa vineyards.

Cimarossa’s vineyard site rises from 1,600 feet to 2,200 feet, one of the highest elevations on Howell Mountain.

Cimarossa Vineyard

Cimarossa’s Rian Vineyard

Rive di Cimarossa 2007

Rive de Cimarossa 2007

Rive di Cimarossa 2007

The Rive di Cimarossa is composed of 100% cabernet sauvignon, sourced from 10 vineyard blocks across the three vineyards. The wine is aged in 60% new French oak for 22 months. The wine is rich, lush, and dense, with soft, fine-textured tannin.

The Rive di Cimarossa 2007 retails for $70.

Rive di Cimarossa 2008

Rive di Cimarossa 2008

Rive di Cimarossa 2008

Also 100% cabernet, aged for 22 months in 60% new French oak. Again, fine-textured tannin, ripe black fruit, baking spice. Quite rich and ripe without being overly so.

Riva di Levante 2009

Rive di Levante 2009

Riva di Levante 2009

The name is Italian for ‘eastern bank’. 100% cabernet sauvignon, aged for 22 months in 40% new French oak. This wine is a great example of a well-balanced mountain cabernet – firm but velvety tannin, dense and brooding black fruit, a streak of acidity providing lift, and a light touch of new oak to frame the wine.

Riva di Ponente 2009

Rive di Ponente 2009

Riva di Ponente 2009

The name means ‘western bank’. 100% cabernet sauvignon, aged for 22 months in 40% new French oak. While still balanced, I felt this wine was more ripe and a little softer than the Levante, perhaps from the intense afternoon sun exposure on the western side of the hill.

Overall the wines showed very well for me  – they are varietally true and are great examples of some of the best Howell Mountain has to offer. Next time you’re in Napa, head up to Howell Mountain and check this place out. Make sure you call ahead as they are appointment only. If you’re visiting Napa in July-October make sure you call at least a month in advance.

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Dunn Vineyards: A Howell Mountain Classic

I’ve been holding off visiting wineries for the months of October and November as they are the busiest time for Napa wineries between harvest and the influx of visitors. The valley is flooded with oenophiles, booking smaller wineries to capacity for weeks. Now that the cold and rainy season is upon us and harvest is complete, I’ve resumed my mission to visit all of the bonded wineries on Howell Mountain, where I live. This week I set off for Dunn Vineyards with my tasting partners, my girlfriend and a sommelier friend.

Napa Valley fog from Howell Mt.

Napa Valley fog from Howell Mt.

Dunn is a landmark of Howell Mountain. Randy Dunn, the eponymous proprietor, studied entomology at UC Davis before switching to enology/viticulture after making some wine with a professor for fun. Graduating in 1975, Dunn became winemaker at Caymus in 1979, the same year he purchased the original 14 acre property on Howell. 1979 was also the first vintage of Dunn, made from the five acres of cabernet vines planted on the property. The vineyards sit at roughly 2,000 feet in elevation. Dunn’s vineyard soil is volcanic, with iron-rich red clay and tufa limestone.

Dunn was involved with the creation of the Howell Mountain appellation in 1983, the first sub-appellation within the Napa AVA. In 1985, Dunn left Caymus to pursue the operation of his winery full time. Today the estate is roughly 200 acres, with 35 planted to vine. Cabernet sauvignon is planted to 25 acres, with the remaining to petite syrah, syrah, and some sangiovese that the Dunns make into wine for personal consumption.

Dunn winery structure & vats

Dunn winery structure & vats

Randy’s vivacious daughter Kristina met us as we arrived, her dog Roscoe tagging along by her side. She led us past the crush pad, through a row of gleaming stainless steel fermentation tanks and into the cave. Inside the cave, Kristina described the production process for the wine. The fruit is hand-harvested and brought to the crush pad. The clusters are destemmed and the grapes crushed, put into the stainless steel fermentation vats, and inoculated with Prise de Mousse. The fermenting juice receives five pumpovers per day, each ten minutes in duration. After fermentation, the wine is pressed and the free run and press wine are blended. Malolactic fermentation is started in tank and then the wine is transferred to barrel for the remainder of the ML fermentation and subsequent barrel aging. The wine is aged for 30 months in 85% new French oak and racked every six months. After aging, the finished wine is blended, sterile filtered, and bottled in June two and a half years after the harvest.

DSCN5317

Dunn makes two wines, the Napa Valley cabernet and the Howell Mountain cabernet, each from 100% cabernet sauvignon. The Howell cab was the original wine first made in 1979, coming entirely from the estate vineyards on the mountain. The Napa cab was first made in 1982 with purchased fruit from the Coombsville area comprising the majority of the blend, with the remainder from the Howell property. As the Dunns have aquired more land and planted additional vineyards, the majority of the Napa cab is now made from estate fruit, with the minority from purchased fruit. Randy’s son Mike uses the petite syrah on the property for his own label, Retro, whose first vintage was 2003.

The fruit for the Howell Mt cab comes from the oldest vines on the property, in the Trailer and Park Muscadine vineyards, planted in the early 1970’s and 1991, respectively. The fruit for the Napa cab comes from the younger Lake vineyard, planted in 2000, and the remainder is purchased from a vineyard in Coombsville. Dunn makes about 3,000 cases of the Howell cab and 1,000 of the Napa.  The neck of each bottle of the Howell Mt cab is hand-dipped in hot, bright red wax, the ‘least favorite job in the winery’ according to Kristina.

Me, Randy Dunn, and Kristina Dunn

Me, Randy Dunn, and Kristina Dunn

Dunn’s wines belong to a fast-diminishing old-guard of winemaking style in today’s Napa valley. Dunn is one of the few properties making wines that are meant to age for the long haul, rarely seen in modern wines where early consumption and instant gratification rule the day. There are a few holdouts such as Mayacamas Vineyards, Corison, Philip Togni, Heitz, and others who are still making wines that can age. Randy Dunn, like Kathy Corison, detests the elevated alcohol levels present in many mainstream Napa wines.

To understand the Dunn wines, I think it helps to understand a little about the history of Napa winemaking style. In the 60s and 70s, Napa winemakers were imitating Bordeaux style wines, one of the reasons the Napa and Bordeaux wines were pretty much equally favored by the French judges in The 1976 Paris Tasting. The fruit was picked several weeks earlier than today, resulting in lower alcohol, higher acid, and less ripe tannin. These wines could age; there are wines from the 50s and 60s that are still drinking beautifully. I tasted a Heitz 1968 Martha’s Vineyards at the Rutherford Dust tasting two years ago that was in beautiful condition, a dead ringer for old Bordeaux at its peak. In the early 90s, many wineries began making wine in a style that was more approachable young. Winemakers harvested the fruit later, resulting in wines with higher alcohol, lower acidity, softer tannin, and ripe, sometimes even jammy fruit character. Most of these wines are not for cellaring for longer than 6-8 years.

Dunn is having none of it. They are a family passionate about making wine according to their vision; that of a wine with lower alcohol and higher acidity that rewards the drinker after years of aging. So few wineries still make wine this way that when all of the old California wine from the 60s, 70s, 80s, and early 90s, is gone, that’ll be it.

Tasting at Dunn is how I imagine it used to be back in the 1970’s. You sit at the dining room with the family and they pour the wines. It felt very neighborly, especially considering I live only 1.2 miles from the spot where I was sitting and tasting.

Many thanks to Kristina and Randy Dunn for their hospitality!

Let’s talk about the wines.

2006 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon

IMG_0966

Six years old, this wine is immense. Rich and mouthfilling, the wine is loaded with big tannin and streaked with lively acidity. This is a powerful wine with balance; concentrated without being overripe or overextracted. If you like big, young tannin, you’ll find the wine approachable after an hour or more in the decanter. The wine would seriously reward 15-18 years in the cellar, however, becoming a silky, savory treasure.

2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon

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Huge, of course. Intense, powerful blackberry, cassis, and blueberry fruit with an underlying mineral component and even more muscular, tightly-wound tannin than the Napa cab.  The intensity of the wine, the fine-textured tannin, the acidity, and the subtle hint of oak all meld together harmoniously. This is a wine for the long haul, I project it will last 25-30 years.

2007 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon

IMG_0965

2007 was pretty much a blockbuster vintage for everyone across the valley, and this wine is no exception. A bit richer and juicier than the 2006, although the tannin and acidity are just as present. A bit more approachable young, but still would last 25 years in the cellar.

2000 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon

Dunn 2000

This bottle came from my cellar, I purchased it on auction. For twelve years old, the rim show only the slightest hint of bricking. On the nose it is earth, pasture, cooked black cherries, and a little baking spice. One of my tasters described it as having “old world character infused with California sunshine”, which I think is apt. On the palate the wine is showing slightly mellowed, rich tannin, bright acidity, with forest floor and cooked fruit flavors. The 2000 Howell has many years of life left where it will continue to evolve and mature.

1989 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon

1989 Dunn Napa

This 89 Napa also came from my cellar. At 23 years old, this wine is 5-8 years past its peak but still enjoyable. Clearly bricking rim tending toward orange, with leather, forest floor, and rhubarb on the nose. Dried berry fruit, tobacco leaf, and earth on the palate. This wine has a wonderful silky texture, so light and yet so aromatic and intense in flavor.

1988 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon

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Another one from my cellar, recently purchased from auction. The other day I was looking through my wine cellar and I noticed what looked like red wine reduction seeping through a crack in the wax. I peeled the wax back, touched the cork, and it started sinking into the bottle. I realized I had to drink it right then and there, so I gently worked the prongs of the ah-so down into the neck and barely got the cork out. It was disintegrating, like wet cardboard. I fully expected the wine to be undrinkable, but it was actually pretty decent. The wine exhibited a brick red color, silky texture, and resolved tannins, with an extremely foresty, earthy, but clean nose, along with a steak-saucy flavor I get from overaged wines. This bottle is probably 5-8 years past its prime.

1985 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon

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Also from my cellar, this wine stole the show. At 27 years of age, the wine still showed considerable power and a fair amount of unresolved tannin. Intense red hue, with a slightly bricking rim. The wine was redolent with bottle age character:  leather, dried leaves, cigar box, and dried black fruits. What an elegant and well-balanced wine. Quite a treat.

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Chinaco Añejo: The Taste of Taumalipas

Chinaco is the only distillery licensed to produce tequila in the state of Taumalipas. Most tequila comes from Jalisco, a province on the west coast of Mexico 500 miles to the southwest of Taumalipas. Blue Weber Agave is grown in the Taumalipas highlands 500 – 5,000 feet above sea level, 40 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Chinaco reached the United States in 1983 and quickly became one of the first luxury brands of tequila. The añejo is made from 100% blue weber agave and double distilled. It is aged for thirty months in a combination of English oak, French oak, used Scotch and used Bourbon casks.

Chinaco Añejo

Let’s get right down to it.

To the eye, the spirit is pale gold in the glass.

On the nose, I get rich aromas of oak, butterscotch, toffee, ripe pear, baked apple, vanilla, and a just the faintest hint of earthy agave.

Chinaco is one of the first añejos I ever tasted, and at the time I thought it was damn good. Seven years later, I feel that this tequila has an incredible amount of whiskey character compared to other añejos I’ve had. The rich oak and caramel component is so intense it masks the fresh, earthy agave flavor I love so much in tequila. Compared to the Destileria Morales 1921 añejo or the 4 Copas añejo which both rage with agave character, the Chinaco doesn’t deliver. It’s still a tasty beverage, if a bit one-dimensional and heavy on the wood. The spirit is full-bodied with a rich, oily texture and a bit of wood tannin. Makes for a pleasant drinking experience even if it isn’t the most balanced spirit. Knock $15 off the price and we have a deal.

Price: $50 / 750ml

Alcohol: 40% ABV

Rating: B

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Spirits Appreciation 101: Glassware, Accessories, and Tasting Technique

Before we get into the tasting of spirits, I’d like to write a bit about proper glassware. The two most common vessels used for drinking spirits, the brandy snifter and the rocks glass, are actually the two worst choices for spirits. Both of these glasses have a wide surface area that allows alcohol to vaporize easily, resulting in a high-octane nose that masks much of the beautiful aroma of fine spirits.

I learned about this when I was working at the Ritz-Carlton and one of my reps arranged a visit from a master Cognac blender. The man had brought samples with him and asked for a few tasting glasses. I came out with two snifters and he snorted at me derisively in a manner only a Frenchman can. He proceeded to lecture me on why snifters are the worst for Cognac, and pulled out a few of his own glasses. We compared the nose of the Cognac between his tulip glasses and my snifters. It made a world of difference: nosing the tulip glasses yielded cooked fruits, caramel, spice. The snifter yielded an overwhelming, burning alcohol sensation. I retired the snifters then and there and purchased tulip glasses for serving neat spirits.

Riedel tulip glasses on Amazon

Riedel Tulip Glasses

I recommend the above glasses over the Riedel single malt whisky glasses,  as the latter do not have stems. I use the tulips for every single neat spirit I drink and serve.

The Riedel polishing cloth is also another must have. Lint-free, just wet it and polish. It works better then anything else out there. I use them at home as well as taking them with me everywhere I do events. There is nothing worse than having to polish glasses with someone’s terrycloth towels. Lint city.

Now that we have the proper equipment to taste, let’s go through the steps. Pour a small 1/2 – 1 oz pour in your tulip glass.

Step 1: The Eye

Tilt the glass at a 45° angle against a backdrop of white paper. Is the spirit clear? Amber? Mahogany? Inspect color and clarity.

Proper sighting technique for spirits

Step 2: The Nose

Hold the glass at an angle in front of your nose. Swirl, and let the spirit waft up to you.  Does the spirit spell like fruit? Flowers? Caramel and spice? Are the aromas intense or barely there? Do you detect multiple aromas or is the spirit one-dimensional?

When smelling a spirit, I feel I get the best impression by holding my mouth open slightly and inhaling through the nose with a series of short sniffs, then exhaling out the mouth. I give it a few sniffs, then move the glass away for a few breaths of fresh air before revisiting my glass.

Step 3: The Palate

Taste a small sip of the spirit. Roll it around your tongue. Pay attention not only to the flavors, but the texture as well. Is the spirit clean and lively? Rich and oily? How prominent is the alcohol? Do the flavors evolve and change after a few seconds in the mouth? As the spirit mixes with your saliva, the flavors will intensify.

If you are tasting a series of spirits professionally, it is prudent to spit in order to stay sharp. Imbibing alcohol numbs the sense of taste and smell before you begin to notice its effects, so spitting is necessary if you want a reliable impression of a number of spirits in a tasting. If you’re just having fun, feel free to drink up. Are you left with a clean, delicious finish without any off flavors? Notice how long the taste lingers. Many fine spirits have long, lingering finishes in which the flavors continue to change.

The most important thing when tasting spirits is to clear your mind and really focus on the flavor and texture you’re experiencing in the present moment. Pay attention to what you taste and smell. It takes practice to build the pathways in your brain that connect the area that processes smell and the areas that allow you to verbalize what you’re smelling. As you practice, you’ll feel yourself getting better at recognizing scents.

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A Brief Introduction to the Making of Scotch Whisky

Scotch, the uisge beatha of old, is a beguiling beverage. The ingredients may be simple; single malt scotch is made with only barley, water, and yeast, but the flavors present in the whiskies of each region of Scotland are shaped by centuries of history and tradition.

The five regions of Scotland are displayed on the map below. They are the Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, Campbeltown, and Islay (pronounced EYE-lah). There are a few distilleries scattered around the various Scottish isles of Mull, Jura, Lewis, Skye, Arran, and Orkney as well. The whiskies from these regions taste remarkably different depending on the water source, the production process, the shape of the still used for distillation, the barrel aging regimen, and many other factors.

To make Scotch whisky, barley grains are germinated in a process known as malting. ‘Single malt’ refers to a whisky made from only one type of grain, in this case barley. During the ‘malting’ process, the sprouting barley seedlings release enzymes that convert the starch in each barley grain into fermentable sugars. When the desired sugar is achieved in the grains, the malted barley must be dried to kill the seedlings in order to preserve the sugar. The fuel used to dry the malted barley and kill the germinating seeding can greatly affect the flavor of the whisky, depending on whether the malt is dried using hot air from a coal fire or smoke from burning peat moss. Peat is an organic substance, the remains of sphagnum moss and other plant material that has decayed and compacted over thousands of years in peat bogs and marshes. It has been used as an alternative fuel source in many parts of the world throughout history. The pungent, campfire-like smoke yielded from peat fires was used in the past to dry barley malt in remote areas of Scotland where coal was scarce. The smoky, peaty flavor profile of the resulting whiskies became part of the traditional style in those regions. Only a minority of malt destined for scotch is dried using peat smoke today, the remainder being dried with flavorless hot air. Peat character in the finished whiskies vary depending on the ratio of hot air to peat smoke used to dry the malt, ranging from the slightest smoky hint to a raging campfire character.

Cutting Peat

Once the malting and drying has been completed, the barley is finely ground and mixed with water to create a sugar-rich liquid suitable for fermentation just like in the brewing process. Yeast converts the sugar in the mixture into alcohol, resulting in a product containing 5-7% alcohol. This product is then distilled to concentrate the alcohol.

Distillation works by slowly heating a fermented liquid containing alcohol inside a closed copper still. Alcohol boils at 172°F, whereas water boils at 212°F. By keeping the temperature of the liquid between the two boiling points, the alcohol in the liquid boils off  and the water remains. The alcohol vapor travels up the neck of the still, where the shape of the still narrows and bends downward at an acute angle. The alcohol vapor condenses back into a liquid, where it collects in a holding vessel.  The first pass through the still yields a product containing about 20% alcohol by volume, and the second pass further concentrates the alcohol to a level of 60-75%.  The more passes through the still the more concentrated the alcohol becomes, although the product becomes less and less flavorful. If you were to continue redistilling the resulting whisky you would eventually end up with pure ethanol, which is what we know as vodka. Scotch retains such intense flavor because it is distilled to a lower strength. More of the original fermented substances other than just pure alcohol are retained.

Glenmorangie Stills

After distillation, the ‘new make’ whisky is stored in oak casks for a minimum of three years by law. Most are aged for much longer, from 12 years up to 20, 30 and even 50 years. As the whisky lies quiet and untouched in barrel for years, it takes on color and flavor from the wood. Barreling is one of the primary sources of flavor in a whisky. Used Sherry barrels from Spain used to be the primary source of wood for Scotch whisky aging, but lagging demand for Sherry has reduced the number of used barrels available to Scotch producers. Today only 7% of Scotch is aged in Sherry wood, which is highly prized for imparting a rich flavor and deep amber color to the whisky. The remaining Scotch is aged in used Bourbon barrels, which yield a leaner character to the whisky.

The master distiller constantly monitors the stocks of whisky aging in barrel, tasting the contents of each barrel periodically. Individual lots of whisky aren’t distilled with a set age in mind; instead, the decision that a barrel of whisky is done aging is determined by tasting. Wood has variation like any other natural product. As a result, the same whisky aged in two barrels will taste remarkably different as the years pass.

Barrels at Springbank, in Campbeltown

The final step is creating the blends. Distilleries generally issue bottlings with age statements on the label, 8 year, 20 year, and the like. The whisky blender has a ‘house style’ in mind when creating each blend of barrels that make up a distillery’s set of products. He will blend hundreds of barrels of different ages together to create a product with a consistent taste year in and year out. The age statement on the label is the age of the youngest whisky present in the blend. For example, a 12 year whisky may be composed of mostly 12 year old barrels with a small percentage of older barrels included to increase the complexity and character of the blend.

Balvenie lineup

People always ask me if older whiskies are better by default. Some feel that way, but I disagree. Younger whiskies have a different character than older ones, just as Scotch aged in Sherry cask is different from Scotch aged in Bourbon cask. It depends on your personal preference. I like variety, so my whiskies run the gamut of age. Sometimes I want the fresh, lively character of younger whisky, other times I crave the intense dark fruit, caramel, and toffee of an older malt.

Here are links to two great books I recommend if you’re looking to learn a bit more. The Michael Jackson book (bet you didn’t know Michael Jackson was also a Scotch expert) is the definitive guide to single malt. He gives thorough instruction of how to taste Scotch, an overview of the regions and history, and detailed notes on over 1,000 single malt bottlings.

Michael Jackson: Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch

The following book by F. Paul Pacult is about the history of Glenlivet and Chivas Regal. It paints an enthralling picture of the history of Scotch over the last 450 years up to present day.

F. Paul Pacult: A Double Scotch- How Chivas and The Glenlivet Became Global Icons

Hopefully you found this intro to Scotch making elucidating. Keep posted for reviews to come!

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