What’s up in the world of whiskey right now? A trip to Tales of the Cocktail provided the perfect opportunity to check in on the pulse of the industry and a few clear trends emerged right off the bat:
– The continued growth and prominence of leading American craft distilleries. Also, brands transitioning from non distiller producers (NDPs) to fully-fledged distilleries.
– All things barrel-finishing, with new types of oak and used casks, and a range of aging processes being put to use.
– The demand for super premium, high-end bottlings, and exclusive and rare whiskeys, is at the forefront. This includes the big boys of bourbon, as well as the Scotch and Japanese whisky powerhouses.
Starting with the American craft scene, there were new releases aplenty. This includes pours offered up at official tasting rooms and seminars as well as discussions and drams over dinner.
In terms of NDPs transitioning to putting out their own juice, High West is a perfect example. Most of their range on the market remains fully or mostly sourced whiskey, however, their new Valley Tan Utah Whiskey is distilled at their facility. Distilled from a wheated mash-bill, Valley Tan is aged for a minimum of one year in both new and used barrels.
Also exciting for American whiskey is the new offering from Seattle’s Westland Distillery. Westland’s Garryana, uses a Pacific Northwest oak variety known as Quercus Garryana, an unusual type to use for whiskey. This oak provides darker, richer and spicier notes than more common American oak (Quercus Alba) would. The first edition was aged for 30 months and bottled at a cask strength of 56.2% ABV.
GRAINS AND GRAPES
Coming soon from Hillrock Estate Distillery is their Sauternes-cask finished whiskey. It is their latest rendition of their Double Cask Rye. Sauternes is a sweet, white French wine, and is certainly not a staple of the whiskey aging world. It’s a 100% rye whiskey and joins a lineup of previous cask-finishes for their Double Cask, such as Pedro Ximenez and Madeira.
While not officially present at Tales of the Cocktail, there was talk of the new release from Belle Meade. Their Bourbon Cognac cask finish hits home on both points: Nelson’s Green Brier is transitioning from NDP to distillery, and this release showcases another unique cask finish. Bottled at 45.2%, this sourced expression contains high-rye bourbon aged for between six and nine years. It is finished in French Limousin oak casks which held Fine Champagne XO Cognacs.
OLD DOGS, NEW TRICKS
Switching to larger American producers, and showcasing both the cask-finishing and premium trends, is the Maker’s Mark Private Select program. With Private Select, retailers or bars purchase a barrel and select their own unique cask finishing.
It builds on the success of Maker’s 46, which uses a very specific type of stave inserted into the barrel for a finishing process. With Private Select though, there are five different types of staves which can be selected for the process, filling a total of 10 stave slots within the barrel. That means there’s over 1,000 unique outcomes.
The stave types include the Maker’s 46 staves, as well as the following:
“Baked American Pure 2” offers more lignins and vanillins
“Seared French Cuvee” utilizes a quick radiant-heat process. produces buttery notes and a viscous mouth feel,
“Roasted French Mocha” uses extreme convection-heat that almost causes the staves to catch fire. produces dark chocolate and cocoa powder notes
“Toasted French Spice” touch of smoke and baking spices
The staves are used for a 9-week finishing process in cool weather conditions. And with that massive range of outcomes, the resulting selections from participants has been just as varied. “Preferences are all over the map,” says Maker’s Mark COO, Rob Samuels, as consumers have relished the customization and control they have of the process. Suggested pricing for Private Select bottles is $69.99.
Super premium was the name of the game for other major American brands as well. Look no further than the stellar Knob Creek 2001 Release. It’s a 14 year, 100-proof limited edition, the first such offering under the Knob Creek range. It sells for $129.99 and will be released in a series of three batches. Also on display was Booker’s Rye, bottled at a beastly 136.2 proof and aged for over 13 years. It sells for $299.99. Both of these releases are a tribute to Booker Noe, founder of Beam’s Small Batch Bourbon Collection.
SCOTCH FOR HIGH ROLLERS
Switching to Scotch, Macallan is no stranger to super premium. Showcased at Tales of the Cocktail was the now complete four-piece 1824 Masters Series, all offered in glitzy crystal decanters. The range includes Rare Cask, $300; Reflexion, $1,400; No. 6, $4,000; and M, $5,000.
The Diageo Special Release portfolio was displayed in full force during a special dinner. With bottles procured by Ewan Morgan, the national director of Diageo’s Masters of Whisky. The attendees relished the releases.
The range included the 15th Port Ellen release, a 32 year old from 1983, Brora 37 year, from 1977, The Cally 40 year, Dailuaine 34 year, and Clynelish Select Reserve. The Cally 40, a grain whisky, was a surprise and quite impressive with its velvety mouthfeel, and vanilla/toffee dominant palate.
Dr. Nick Morgan of Diageo described The Brora 37 as, “an accident of weather,”. An Islay drought in 1968 led to a need to produce peated Scotch from another maritime, seaside distillery. Brora was called into service in 1969 and continued to use peat, albeit in decreasing levels, until its closure in 1983 – sadly, the same year that Port Ellen was shuttered. Clynelish is now located on the site of the former Brora Distillery.
JAPANESE: HIGH DEMAND AND HIGHBALLS
Of course, high-end Japanese whiskies have never been in greater demand. At the Beam Suntory Hotel at Tales of the Cocktail, the event showcased the best their portfolio had to offer. Among them were impossible to find Japanese gems from Suntory: Hibiki 21 and Yamazaki 18.
But it’s not only these exquisite, expensive Japanese whiskies which are highly sought in the market today. In fact, both of the major Japanese producers, Suntory and Nikka, were displaying other wares as well.
From the Suntory folks their latest, Suntory Toki, was up for offer. It is a 43% ABV blend which was first unveiled at the start of the summer of 2016. It’s a light, crisp whisky meant to be deployed in craft cocktails or the ubiquitous Japanese Highball. Priced at $40, it serves as an entry-level, affordable introduction to the world of Japanese whisky.
From Nikka their latest release in the U.S. is their Coffey Malt which builds on the runaway success of their Coffey Grain. Coffey Malt is a dram worthy of sipping neat, but it’s also still an accessible buy at $74.99.
After all the hubbub over Nikka’s decision to pull many of their international releases off the market due to supply issues, it’s a welcome sight to see a new release from the Japanese producer. Nikka Coffey Malt is distilled from a 100% malted barley mash-bill, from their continuous column, or Coffey, still.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
Finally, being at Tales, one cannot help but notice that another trend has taken place beyond the brands. It’s occurring instead with the consumers and the bartenders. People, and not just the guys and gals writing stories like this, are geeking out over all things whiskey. From phenol levels and cask finishes to whiskey terroir, it is all up for discussion. The public wants to try more types of whiskey, and from more places around the world, which showcase different and unique traits.
Folks are craving more knowledge, and access to that knowledge. And the more people dig, the more they’re able to find. While there’s no better place to cram whiskey knowledge than at a Tales seminar showcasing some of the industry’s finest whiskey minds, by all means, open up your Distiller app and geek out and learn right here with us by comparing flavor profiles of similar whiskeys, tracking personal preferences, and getting hands-on with your own tasting notes. Passion is all about getting hands-on with a hobby or interest, and there’s no better example of that than pouring up a dram of some fine whiskey and settling in for a “lesson”.
If you’re in the mood to go whiskey hunting, you’ve come to the right place!