By far, the majority of whisky consumed globally is in the form of blends. Leaving aside the traditional American whiskies for the moment, the greatest exposure that the average spirits drinker has to whisky is to blended scotch.
There are two components to the ubiquitous brands such as J&B, Bells, Johnny Walker, Vat 69 and a host of others: malted barley and grain spirit. Malted barley is exactly that, barley which has been malted, fermented and distilled to form single malt. There are currently numerous single malts available on the market, although approximately 90% of all single malts end up being used as part of blends. The second component is grain whisky. Malt is generally distilled through a copper pot still, grain whisky is usually wheat or corn distilled through a continuous Coffey still. The malt distilleries are generally pretty, with the copper pots gleaming away; they make for lovely pictures at the visitor centre. The average whisky drinker can name at least half a dozen malt distilleries without thinking too hard. Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, Balvenie and even Ardberg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig slide easily off the tongue. The largest malt distillery is Glenfiddich (14 million litres per annum) and the smallest Abhainn Dearg (20,000 litres per annum).
The average blend contains 20% to 35% malt, the balance made up of grain. Grain by itself is generally difficult to find as a bottled whisky, it has only recently found favour amongst enthusiasts for its extremely delicate and sweet character. The industrial distilleries such as North British (capacity around 64 million litres per annum), Invergordon (40 million litres per annum), Girvan (15 million litres per annum) and Cameronbridge (100 million litres per annum) turn out vast quantities of spirit and are not much to look at. This is whisky production on an enormous scale, and yet the average consumer would be hard pressed to even recognise any of the names of the grain distilleries in Scotland (only seven of which are operating; Caledonian and others are closed). It is interesting that the very backbone of blended whiskies has such an obscure profile.
The perception amongst “malt people” generally (there are exceptions!) is that blended whisky is grossly inferior. Nothing could be further from the truth, and some of the releases of 2016 have once again firmly debunked this myth.
One of the great pioneers of modern blended whisky, John Glaser of the Compass Box Whisky Company, has been quietly releasing excellent blended whiskies over the last 15- years. Catering to all economic levels of the whisky buying public, Compass Box has become synonymous with innovation, quality and challenging what some perceive to be double standards within the Scotch whisky industry. These challenges are the subject of another day’s discussion, the focus of this piece is on the resurgence and innovation in blended whiskies that I have encountered this year. The stalwarts of the Compass Box blended range are the Great King Street editions; light, delicate and uplifting on the one hand as in the Artist’s Blend, and in the Glasgow Blend some fruity, punchy smoke. Interestingly, the Glasgow Blend inverts the usual malt/grain ratio, and is only 34% grain. The Compass Box release which had everybody’s attention this year was The Circus, a blend of three marrying cask refill sherry butts and a portion of malt whisky from Benrinnes, the latter comprising 15.4% of the total blend from a first-fill sherry butt. The balance is of unknown age, and comprises “old parcels of blended scotch and blended grain which had been pre-aged in casks for many years” (Compass Box Fact Sheet). The limited edition of 2 490 bottles sold out almost immediately, and has achieved a level of desirability almost akin to that of the previous cult classic from Compass Box, The General. The General was a very limited run of similar provenance to the The Circus, but has a different, more sherry cask profile. If one were to rank blends, The General and The Circus would surely be of the best ever produced.
Whilst The Circus may have packed up its tent and left town, there are odd bottles still to be found on auction and a slice of the vision of John Glaser can be found in the rest of the Compass Box range, inter alia at Whisky Brother and Wild About Whisky.
The second, and more significant, release of blended whisky in 2016 which has whisky circles paying great attention is the Three Ships 15 Year Old Pinotage Cask. The James Sedgwick Distillery (JSD) has featured in this column before, with the release last year of the memorable 10-year-old Pedro Ximenez Cask Single Malt (PX). At the time, the PX was a landmark whisky, taking the name Three Ships from good quality blended everyday drinking whisky to the rarefied atmosphere of highly desired and collectable malt. Being only the third 10-year-old release in the history of JSD at that time, it was also the first South African PX finished single malt. Things changed dramatically in October 2016 when Andy Watts proved that not only can JSD produce spectacular single malt, as well as outstanding award winning single grain (Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky is one of the few commercially, and consistently available, exceptional grain whiskies in the world) but also a stellar blend.
JSD is unique in that it is one of the few distilleries in the world which runs both pot stills (single malt) and column stills (grain whisky). One of the few others to run both types of stills is Loch Lomond in Scotland. Earlier in the year Checkers Liquor launched a new range of whiskies from Loch Lomond, along with its sister distillery, Glen Scotia, in South Africa. Having sampled these at the launch, it is clear that these two previously little-known distilleries are turning out good product and are priced very affordably.
The Three Ships 15 Year Old Pinotage Cask is unique in the world, in that it is a blended whisky which has been finished in casks that previously held the South African-only wine varietal Pinotage. In my limited experience of the whisky world, I have yet to encounter a blended whisky that has been finished in a wine cask. There are many, many, many versions of wine cask finished single malt whiskies. By way of example Longrow (by Springbank) has finished peated single malt in Australian Shiraz casks, Cabernet casks, Pinot Noir casks and it seems the next release will be finished in Malbec.
The latest Three Ships 15 Year Old has a complexity unlike any other, the Pinotage influence creating a balanced and remarkably unique blend. The whisky is the result of years of innovation and experimentation at JSD, the malt component being a 10-year-old which was re-vatted in rinsed Pinotage casks in July 2011. The grain component is a 15-year-old which had been re-vatted in May 2014, the Pinotage casks also having been rinsed after being emptied. Approximately eight-months before bottling, more 15-year-old grain filled two freshly emptied Pinotage casks with no rinse. As is evident on the palate, this is a whisky of deep complexity and showcases the different levels of time in cask as well as the effect of the wood on the spirit. Before bottling, the whisky was barrier filtered at five microns, without chill filtration. There is a slight haze when you look at it in the glass, the addition of ice or water brings on more of the haze. Only 4 000 bottles of this outstanding whisky have been produced, some are available at OR Tambo International Airport Travel Retail, others have been sold through retail outlets. JSD now has a Visitor’s Centre and bottles are available there.
During the process of maturation in oak casks, a certain amount of whisky is lost due to evaporation; known as the Angel’s Share. In Scotland this is approximately 2% per annum, South Africa, with its warmer climate, experiences a loss in the Cape of approximately 4% per annum. The interaction with spirit, cask, temperature and humidity proceeds at a far faster rate than Scotland or Japan, and hence South African whiskies such as Bain’s and Three Ships are older tasting than their age suggests. Whilst the whisky may be 15-years-old, in terms of accelerated maturation, one is looking at a figure closer to mid-20’s in terms of flavour profile.
In the glass you can see a treat is on its way; rich, coppery-red colour. On the nose the Dram has an abundance of tropical fruit, sweetness, sultanas, bananas and berries with a hint of sherbet. The underlying current of the Pinotage gives a pleasant wine-laden hint – I could sit sniffing this all day! On the palate the grains predominate initially, lush and tropical once again, sweet ripe fruits with hints of sultanas and raisins lurking amongst light elements of fizzy lemon and coconut. The mouthfeel is incredible, the accelerated maturation leaving the spirit soft and buttery in the mouth. The malt aspect carries a strong finish through after the sweetness of the grain, all-in-all an extremely harmonious and rewarding experience. A blend which defies convention and by far the best South African whisky I have ever had, The Three Ships 15 Year Old Pinotage Cask is a contender for a spot in the top 10 blends of all time.
If you are lucky enough to find one, buy it, open it and enjoy!
Theo is a Director of ENSafrica, Africa’s largest law firm. https://www.ensafrica.com
This article first appeared in Without Prejudice, http://www.withoutprejudice.co.za