Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
We were delighted to be able to spend some quality time with Douglas Cook of Benriach / Glendronach / Glenglassaugh at TIBS and we asked him about the special bottlings for the BarShow. We started with the Glendronach 2002 Sauternes Hogshead (10yo, #2534, 55.1%abv).
Douglas: A sauternes-finished single cask is actually quite unusual for Glendronach. At Glendronach, we tend to only use sherry casks for the maturation of our whisky. However, we do have a small quantity of bourbon, port and sauternes casks, and we use those casks for finishing. In this case, what we’ve done is: we’ve used a bourbon cask for nine years and finished it in a sauternes cask for about one year. So it’s actually one of the younger Glendronach bottlings we’ve ever done.
Nonjatta: It seems like there are a lot of ex-bourbon cask Glendronachs from 2002 around. What happened in 2002?
Douglas: It’s an important date because between 1996 and 2002, the distillery was mothballed. Production commenced again in 2002 and the new owners started to fill bourbon casks. That’s just part of the history of the distillery. Over time, however, as the new owners since 2008, we’ve started to re-rack – to fill sherry casks with some of those ex-bourbon casks. I suppose the whisky evolves a little bit, but we want to bring it back to the origins of sherry cask maturation. Today, actually, to find a bourbon cask from 2002 is quite hard. I honestly think there’s only a handful of them left. Sometimes my customers are interested in buying one and I speak with our director and am informed there are actually very few available to sell because they’ve been re-racked into sherry already.
In this case, what we looked for was something slightly different. We didn’t want to go down the road of sherry. We wanted to show the Glendronach spirit with a different type of maturation. So it was quite unique to have a Glendronach Sauternes 10yo.
Douglas: Well, the core product we have is a 14yo and it’s been in sauternes longer, probably closer to about 18 months to 2 years. It really depends on the cask in the batch. But in the case of the single cask bottling we’ve done for Japan, it was much shorter, so there’s only a hint of sauternes. The bourbon is much more dominant than the sauternes. It just gives you that slight grape aroma, which – obviously – comes from the sauternes.
Nonjatta: Since 2008, is wood policy at Glendronach exclusively ex-sherry, or are there other – more unusual and/or experimental – things in the works as well?
Douglas: To be honest, it’s really sherry casks. We have regular delivery of sherry casks from Jerez in the south of Spain – Pedro Ximinez puncheons and Oloroso butts, generally – so we’re trying to keep Glendronach sherry-based, as simple as possible, really, just concentrating on sherry maturation. However, that’s an expensive decision to make because it’s about 600 GBP for a good quality sherry butt. I suppose, in a way, a lot of other distilleries would choose to use more bourbon but we recognize the importance of keeping Glendronach’s traditional style.
Nonjatta: Here in Japan – as elsewhere – whisky enthusiasts are very keen on 1971 and 1972 Glendronachs. Are there many casks from the early 70s left?
Douglas: I wouldn’t say many. There are still quite a few available, but because we want to conserve those for future releases, we’ve actually had to take the unpopular decision of slowing down the sales of single casks of those. It’s about being cruel to be kind. Many people would like to buy them now, and the reality is we could easily sell them with all the emerging markets that are very keen to buy these old vintages, but we’d rather sacrifice those sales now so that we can satisfy our customers worldwide with future limited releases. We can’t really think about one market alone – we’ve got to think about everyone and that’s why we’ve taken that decision.
Nonjatta: Moving on to the Benriach for the BarShow – a 1985 hogshead (27yo, #3091, 42.2%abv) – I guess you’re also trying to conserve your casks from the 70s at that distillery.
Douglas: With Benriach, we were looking at certain vintages and, over the years, Benriach 1976 has become iconic. However, we feel that’s it actually unfair to a lot of the other vintages – to the 90s, or even younger, say 2000. So, I’ve been encouraging all our customers to look at vintages which are maybe not so well known, like the 80s. And in the 80s, we’ve got a variety of interesting casks. We selected quite a lot of samples from the distillery and the option in the case of the TIBS bottling was to go for something that was very classic Speyside, classic Benriach. It was not so much tropical fruits, but more light fruits, like apples; it also has those lovely sweet honey notes and sweet oak spices as opposed to the typical 1976 pineapple and passionfruit. We wanted to give Japanese whisky lovers the chance to experience a Benriach from a completely different era, a different period of its history but also very classic Speyside.
At Benriach, I suppose we’re a lot more progressive and innovative in terms of the styles of whisky that we create, compared with Glendronach. We have the peated range, of course, we have wood finishes, we have peated wood finishes, triple distillation, and so on. With Benriach we have quite a variety of styles, but we noticed the Japanese consumers actually like the classic styles and this was a chance to bring a new vintage to the market, which was less known than the older ones.
Nonjatta: Is this a worldwide strategy, taking attention away from the legendary 70s?
Douglas: Well, we have to do that. We still want to satisfy the consumer’s demand for single cask vintages, but once the 70s are gone, they’re gone. That’s part of it – I wouldn’t deny that. But actually, we find that consumers sometimes don’t give other vintages a chance because they’ve heard that one vintage is particularly good. And actually, it’s not like in wine; it’s more related to the cask and there are so many different factors. It was partly my influence, as well. I really wanted the customers to stop thinking about just vintages and actually think about the whisky, even if it’s from a year that’s not iconic. And that’s really what I would like people to appreciate.