Thursday, 17 May 2012

My Journey to The Glenrothes, Day Six

Today is the sixth day of my journey to The Glenrothes Distillery in the Speyside district of northern Scotland. In case you haven't seen it yet, here is a video produced by The Glenrothes featuring my winning entry.

Over the course of the past five days I've described to you what I've learned about the creation of single malt whisky: fresh, unpeated spring water and malted barley are combined to extract the sugars from the barley, yeast is added to ferment the resultant liquid, which is then distilled to produce the spirit, which is placed into casks and stored in the warehouse to allow the wood to interact with the spirit to create the end result: whisky.

What I've said is a great oversimplification of a rather complex process. Each new batch of whisky is subject to the decisions of the malt master before it is committed to its casks. The malt master is the creative genius who is in charge of the design process, so to speak, of each new Glenrothes vintage. He begins with new spirit and must calculate all the variables available to him in his choice of casks in which to store it. For example, for the 1995 vintage the malt master chose to place some of the batch in new American sherry oak casks, which he knew would produce a distinctive flavour of butterscotch, some in new Spanish sherry oak casks, which would produce flavours of spice and dried fruit, and the rest in refill casks that might lend subtle notes in their own right. The result is a whisky that I find very pleasant to smell and taste.

However, do not make the mistake of thinking I'm suddenly a whisky connoisseur. Far from it. Today Ronnie Cox put us through a practical demonstration that for me was informative, instructive, and embarrassing. Experts who know what they're doing "nose" whisky the same way that wine experts nose fine wines, which is to say they pour a small amount into a tulip glass or nosing glass that has a very narrow opening at the top and then smell the aroma to identify its various component parts, or notes. Ronnie gave us several exercises to test the sensitivity of our noses, and I didn't do very well. It's possible that my sense of smell was much better developed when I was young, but I find now that I have a very difficult time identifying aromas. I notice the dominant ones, but I can't put a word to them. In addition, the alcohol fumes attacked my nasal passages and sinuses and made them all but useless in short order. The experts will add water while nosing whisky to reduce the alcohol and bring out the various scents lying underneath, but for me it was no good. I might as well just take my nose off and put it into my pocket until the exercise is finished for all the use it is to me.

I fared a little better when it's time to taste. A very small sip was enough for me to sense whether I like a particular iteration of whisky or not. I can get the basic flavour notes such as butterscotch, vanilla, leather or tobacco, but more subtle flavour notes are just beyond my reach.

We were then allowed to assess three samples from the batch that will become the 2012 vintage. It was an interesting experience because although I have absolutely no expertise I was able to identify very quickly which of the three I preferred after nosing and tasting them. The first sample I didn't like right away, although others did. It had what I thought was a grassiness that I didn't like. Ruben said he detected an influence of the oak and liked this particular one. The second sample I liked quite well. The third I found had a bit too much of a sherry-like strongness that didn't appeal. I went back to the second and still liked it. I went back to the first and still didn't like it, immediately upon smelling and tasting it. Once more I tried the third one, to make sure, and settled on the second sample.

What does this mean? I've been assured that experts can be fooled in blind tests, or at least misled, and that experts will regularly disagree on whether or not they like a particular "expression" or vintage of whisky. To me, today's exercise proved to me that despite my inability to explain my preferences in concrete terms, whisky appreciation is very much a personal experience. The idea is not to be right or wrong, but to spend time considering how the whisky smells and tastes and to react honestly to it.

Tomorrow, alas, is my last day in Scotland. In the morning we'll experience the bottling process with the expression that we've chosen, then say our goodbyes and jump on an airplane to travel back home. While I'm sitting in the airport waiting for my connections, if I'm not asleep, I'll tell you a little more about the incredibly wonderful people I met, the food I enjoyed, and the fun I had while here as guests of Berry Brothers and Rudd, owners of The Glenrothes brand.

Goodnight for now, everyone!


  1. I thought I was the only one who had such a strong reaction to the smell of alcohol. Sounds like you're having a great time. And it's all great material for a book.

  2. Yes, Lan, I learned belatedly that i should be very careful when nosing whisky! Not a good idea to shove your nose right in there!

    The great thing was that people were constantly suggesting story ideas to me, and several of them were really good. I could be busy for the next five years, easily!