Monthly Archives: February 2015

Colour By Numbers – A Lagavulin Case Study

You will sometimes hear whisky being referred to as ‘liquid gold’. This is mainly due to the value associated with it, but it also obviously refers to the various shades of golden beauty that the liquid can have. In spite of this however, when whisky is being made, the ‘new spirit’ that is created from the distillation process is actually colourless. In fact, you cannot call it ‘whisky’ unless it has been in a barrel for 3 years, and it is this aging process and the interaction with the wooden barrels that gives whisky its distinctive colour.

Auchentoshan's Spirit

Auchentoshan – 0, 1 & 2 Years Old

Clearly, the longer that the liquid is in the barrel, the more time it has in contact with the wood and the more of the wood’s qualities therefore infuse into the whisky. Put simply, the older the whisky, the darker it gets. WU were lucky enough to go to a warehouse tasting at Lagavulin where local legend and distillery hero Iain Macarthur (a.k.a. “Pinky”) entertained us and took us through a selection of drams taken fresh from the barrel, from which we could really see the effects of aging on their wonderful whisky.

First up was the ‘new make’ spirit that was fresh from the still that day. At a fairly astronomical 68% ABV we expected this to blow our heads off, but surprisingly it didn’t – though it still packed a punch! Perfectly colourless, you could essentially just taste the barley and the distillery’s distinctive peat once you got past the alcoholic burn. Not something that you should have every day at 10.30 am!

WU meet "Pinky"

WU meet “Pinky”

The second dram was a 9 year old from the barrel, and the barley taste was still there but it almost felt like it had more of an alcohol burn, despite ‘only’ being 58% ABV. Not surprisingly, the whisky had taken on the colour and tastes of the barrel, but was still relatively light gold in colour compared to the staple Lagavulin 16.

The third sample was straight from the barrel after 11 years, and the liquid was a touch darker again in colour. This dram had developed quite a sweet taste from the wood and a noticeably smoother finish to its predecessors but still packed quite the punch.

Lagavulin Warehouse Tasting

Lagavulin Warehouse Tasting

Next up was a 15 year old – one year away from the distillery’s core output – and it had really taken on caramel notes from the wood, matching the sweetness with a softer finish, but still delivering lots of smoke and peat. This dram was now at that rich, deep gold colour that Lagavulin is known for.

Last but not least, we skipped a few years and had a dram of a 31 year old Lagavulin. Now this was a real treat for us, and whilst the value of the dram isn’t known as it is fairly unique and only available from the distillery, the estimate was that each dram would be worth £100-£150. Interestingly, the colour of the liquid itself hadn’t actually deepened that much compared to the 15 year old and whilst it still had an obvious woody taste and sweetness, it was mysteriously returning back to that original barley taste that we had first encountered in the new distillate.

Barrel Chair

Barrel Chair

Oddly, the interaction between the spirit and its wooden surroundings can actually vary from barrel to barrel. So much so that two barrels containing the same base liquid, which have been made from the same wood and have been aged over the same period of time, can produce two entirely different coloured end results. To combat this, some distilleries choose to add a caramel to get a uniform colour, so that customers ‘see’ the same product time after time and whilst this may be disappointing for some purists (and is even denied by some distilleries), it is essentially drawn from necessity to keep the buyers happy. What this goes to show is that whilst whisky-making it is not an exact science, there is still some truth behind saying that it is colour by numbers.

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Book Review – 101 Whiskies To Try Before You Die (Revised Edition) by Ian Buxton

101 Whiskies To Try Before You Die

101 Whiskies To Try Before You Die

Having originally bought the first edition of this book as a gift for someone a few years back and then having continually referred back to it thereafter, I was lucky enough to have had the latest edition bought for me in return this Christmas. From the start then, you can tell that I’m a fan.

The book itself is an interesting guide to whisky and has a similar message to that of whisky unplugged, ie it’s not all about the most expensive whiskies in the world, but rather, it’s about the variety and tasting them for yourself and making your own opinions.

The premise of the book is that it is a list of 101 whiskies from around the world that are reasonably affordable and would form the good basis of any self-respecting whisky drinker’s knowledge and back-catalogue. The 101 aren’t ranked in any way, rather, they are listed alphabetically. Similarly, the book does not offer a scoring system or rating but simply talks about the taste and gives a little blurb about its history and the distillery. It does offer Mr Buxton’s own tasting notes though and leaves a welcome blank section inviting the reader to fill in their own notes.

One way in which the book does grade the whiskies however is by their average purchase price, and there is a handy little colour grading that identifies the cost of what is being reviewed, with bottles over £150 being the highest band and accordingly highlighted in red.

The foreword of the book appropriately sets the tone for the compendium, with the author’s own mission statement and references to his experience within the industry and certain key players and names. Ian Buxton has a comedic and tongue-in-cheek style of writing that offers a few chuckles but also clearly demonstrates his passion and knowledge on the subject of whisky, its creation and its market.

Having compared the book’s current two editions, there were roughly 20 whiskies from the first edition that were dropped and replaced for the second, which shows that a) this is a well considered list to begin with, and b) that the whisky world is evolving, which can only be good news for us whiskyphiles.

Overall, it’s a great little read, and a handy reference book and, as a hardback, has accompanied me and survived on several tastings to date. Furthermore it appears to have spawned at least two other similar books from the author (101 World Whiskies… and 101 Legendary Whiskies…), which I’ll be sure to stock my shelves with in due course.

101 Whiskies on Amazon


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