Thursday, December 16, 2010

Indistinct Drams

I was seriously considering whether or not to post this because the underlying theme of the entry can be misinterpreted as snobbish. Since I have been buying, drinking, and consuming Scotch whisky over the past five years, I have noticed that several distilleries have established themselves as classic Scotch impostors. I feel that I should bring these impostors to the public's attention.

Like buying Spam instead of pork loin from the butcher, or using mouthwash instead of brushing, several Scotches have become unjustifiably common and (dare I say) trendy as alternatives to established and reliable drams. Of course, I would prefer a glass of any single malt over a glass of blended Scotch, but it deeply concerns me when I continue to see Glenlivet on restaurant menus, and Aberlour being featured at the the liquor store. Before you dismiss these sentiments as superficial and unnecessarily critical observations from an indulgent North American nerd, please skim through the follow case studies to see where I am coming from.

Oban is one of my favourite whiskies due to its perfect balance of peat and sweet, and to its briny finish. Diageo Distilleries, which owns Oban Distillery, designated Oban as the representative West Coast Highlands whisky, and it is known around the world for its regionally-specific flavour. However, it is pricey at $120 per bottle, so many people opt for the bland and forgettable Old Pulteney. At $80 per bottle for their standard 12-year-old, Old Pulteney has made a name for itself by mimicking Oban. From its seaside location at the northern tip of Scotland to its nostalgia-drenched marketing, Old Pulteney tries very hard to act like an historical and unique whisky. However, its bankruptcy-riddled past and atypical Highland characteristics reveal that it is only an average malt exploiting the idiosyncratic finish and established features of Oban. Old Pulteney is owned by Inver House, which is a Scottish-owned company, but it just cannot compete with the almighty Oban.

Glenfiddich, the top selling single malt in the world, is a spirit that appears in every bar and restaurant as a Speyside malt. As the Coca-cola of the Scotch world, Glenfiddich relies on product placement and ubiquity to garner fans and deceive those in search of an exceptional Speyside whisky. Chill-filtering, mass distilling, and flavour-enhancing distillation techniques produce a weak spirit, and Glenfiddich (along with Glenlivet) totally lacks the leather-and-dried-fruit sophistication of distinctive Speyside Scotches such as Glenrothes. Glenfiddich is a copycat whisky that uses drink menus and  transnational advertising campaigns to slink into the throats of unsuspecting imbibers hoping to experience a multifaceted Speyside malt.

To reiterate, any single malt is a good single malt. However, the "classic Scotch impostors" out there, such as Old Pulteney and Glenfiddich, will rob you of the ethereal taste sensations that can be generated by consuming Scotches such as Oban and Glenrothes.  

* keywords: "Scotch blog", "Vancouver blog", "Alex Dawkins"

1 comment:

  1. First of all, I follow you on your arguments, ABCD, and will always choose to veer on the "snobby side" (read: the full flavored and interesting side) of single malt Scotch, just as I do with beer (and other wonderful things). But, as far as the technical merits of chill filtering go, I do not view it as a bad thing. In fact, if I could, I would be using filtration equipment in the brewery right now...

    Chill filtering gets a bad rap by association with the Glenfiddichs and Anheuser-Buschs of the world, who turn out flavorless, lowest common denominator products (but, who also do it very well, with great technical merit and efficiency). Chill filtering is actually a good thing, and in my professional opinion, has no negative impact on flavor if practiced properly. Think of it like this: you put a lot of work into your organic garden, and grow amazing, full flavored, beautiful, pest and disease free produce. When you bring it to the table to feed your friends, however, it is covered in dirt because you never bothered to wash it. So, if you put the effort into making a great product, why not make it look and taste its best by washing off the dirt and crap?

    Obviously, from a personal taste point, Budweiser and Glenfiddich are never going to create the same joy in our hearts and bellies that Oban or Deschutes Abyss will, but that's no reason to ignore the technical benefits of chill filtering. To summarize, you can start with a great product and chill filter as appropriate to make it really shine; or start with a bad/OK/decent product and chill filter to highlight its shortcomings.