The Four Cornerstones of Presentation
Back when I was just beginning my whisky journey, I would have loved a simple guide to help decipher the descriptors of a whisky label.
When browsing for a new bottle, it’s good to be able to look past the distillery or brand, the type of cask or the style. Certainly, it’s good to see beyond the packaging, the marketing tag lines and blurb.
In an effort to help which whisky step to take next, listed here are four simple ‘cornerstones of presentation’ – four indicators designed to tell you as much about the attitude of the producer and the intended scope of the whisky as possible. Hopefully, this can help the whisky enthusiast step-up their whisky game a little without getting caught out on the value front.
The good news is that now anyone can do a little digital pondering first – at home, on the move, wherever – taking advice and doing a little of your own research along the way. It’s an enjoyable exercise, but the bad news is that there’s a lot of untempered and subjective opinion out there. Just look at the review section of any online retailer to realise how subjective things are!
For sure, a sanity-check system to help reduce the risk when buying a new bottle can only be a good thing. It could be online, at the supermarket, in a specialist or even as you travel through an airport. I’ve rarely bought a bottle and wished I hadn’t, but it has happened. Upon reflection, if I’d put this little guide into practice I’d have avoided some of the ‘duds’ that have survived a little too long in my whisky collection, simply through diminished enjoyment. So, what if we could add a little objectivity to what’s otherwise a very subjective thing?
In this spirit, summarised below is a short, mental ‘ABCD’ you can carry with you as you seek out your next whisky experience. There are no guarantees of course, but I assure you this could help you discover quality in situations where reliable guidance or sound knowledge may be found wanting. I think this is also useful for whisky enjoyment in a very general sense, that is, understanding what you’re drinking as you ponder the information directly in front of you – on the label.
In my opinion, in Scotch single malt whisky, there are four indicators of quality which can guide you. Whisky aficionados typically look for these pointers to give an idea of what’s in the bottle, well in advance of sampling. This ‘presentation’ can guide you on the intent and attitude of the producer at the time of bottling.
A) Age Statement
B) Bottling Strength
All of these come with degrees of controversy and personal opinion. I’ll attempt to stay objective.
= Age Statement
If an age is displayed on any bottle of Scotch whisky, it denotes the youngest component used in its make up. Even in the case of a single malt, where multiple casks may be vatted together to produce a bottling, the age must refer to the youngest cask used. It is widely accepted that age does not guarantee that a whisky will be better. However, as consumers we have received years of industry programming about age and its importance.
So, in modern times as we find single malts are in higher demand and mature stocks can be stretched more than in the past, it can perhaps prove difficult for a producer to maintain a core range with age statements. Add into this a general shortage of good quality wood for maturation, and also a valiant effort to innovate and explore new expressions and styles by experimenting with other types of oak cask. From these dynamics we find waves of new editions and among them we witness a proliferation of what’s known as ‘NAS’, or ‘No Age Statement’, whiskies. It’s by no means a new concept, but there’s a lot more of them around.
We are led to understand that by not being beholden to a minimum age, producers are liberated and free to use whatever casks they feel are ‘ready’ enough to produce whatever style – or price point – they desire.
In many cases whisky folk are, often quite rightly, frustrated with this slew of NAS whiskies and generally feed back that they are inferior. Clearly, it’s like anything else; judge the dram on your own experience of it rather than the provision, or lack, of its age statement. Glenmorangie Signet, Aberlour A’bunadh, Laphroaig Quarter Cask and Ardbeg Uigeadail are all examples that NAS can be done well. Glenlivet’s Founder’s Reserve, Longmorn’s Distillers Choice and Macallan’s 1824 series, among others, are less so (oops – personal opinion sneaking in).
If you find yourself reviewing a bottle without an age statement, I would first try to ask – why? Is it produced to achieve a certain profile, style or objective? – or simply a certain price point? Is there a possibility it’s a cynical bottling in fancy packaging with a hiked price point simply due to the addition of words such as ‘limited’ or ‘special’ edition? Even with compelling reasoning either from a sales person or the producers own marketing I would proceed much in the same way I would with an independent bottling – try first. Keep an open mind and judge on the experience.
Personally, while I’m open minded about the practice, on balance I am still reassured by an age statement.
= Bottling Strength
Legally, Scotch whisky must be bottled at 40% ABV (alcohol by volume) minimum. The vast majority of product is sold as such; in blends and higher volume malts globally. However, single malts are often sold with higher strengths, often up to and beyond 60% ABV for cask strength styles.
You may well be happily enjoying your drams as poured at 40%, or even less with a little added water. However, even if this is the case I guarantee, in time, you will come to prefer certain styles at higher strengths. A slightly higher ABV can bring texture and flavour that can be drowned out and lost at lower strengths. Certainly, you are presented with the flexibility to add water and modify to your preference when it’s bottled stronger. This is why aficionados love cask strength styles; it’s a purer experience. There’s nothing like trying a whisky straight from the wood. Cask strength whiskies are the closest we get (outside of VIP distillery tours with a duty paid section of the warehouse) to try whisky in its purest state.
In all honesty I find this (together with ‘C’) one of the clearest signals indicating a serious whisky. If a producer presents their standard drams at higher ABV’s (e.g. 46%) it shows who their target audience may be; the ‘appreciators’ as opposed to the ‘drinkers’. This added confidence in the whisky is a good thing. If you find the higher alcohol a little overpowering – you can add a little water. Just add a few drops or, at most, teaspoonfuls at a time until you know where your enjoyment is at. Do this carefully – it’s very difficult to recover a drowned dram.
Also, consider the strength when comparing prices. Not watered down, it’s likely to be more expensive if offered at a higher ABV.
Some refer to this as ‘polishing’ and it’s connected in some ways to bottling strength. The process of chill-filtration is required on mass-produced whisky, bottled less than 46%, to avoid cloudiness. In a cold environment (or when poured over ice) naturally occurring proteins, fatty acids and esters solidify to cause clouding of the whisky. To people who don’t understand this natural occurrence, it is viewed as a quality flaw in the product. As a consequence, many whiskies are returned to shops and brands can lose loyalty due to this lack of understanding.
To overcome this, producers chill the whisky prior to bottling to around freezing and force the liquid through filters. While the mechanical element of this process removes matter and sediment from the casks etc, the chilling also removes these solidified natural elements. Many, including myself, believe this negatively affects the flavour and texture.
It’s reassuring when a bottle displays the term “non-chill filtered” or “un-chill filtered”. From this you can determine that, while the liquid has gone through a mechanical filter, they have not chilled it and the flavour and texture should remain intact. Again, it’s seen a positive statement of confidence by the producer and another step towards consumer education.
For whiskies bottled higher than 46% chill-filtration is redundant for shelf display; the higher alcohol content avoids the cloudiness occurring. However, it can still occur in the glass with chilled water or ice.
Yes, dye. Colouring. In whisky. I remember my shock at this discovery.
The additive used to colour whisky is E150a; spirit caramel. A naturally derived super-concentrated substance that requires only a drop or two to dramatically alter the colour of the liquid. This is what gives Coke its blackish appearance.
In whisky it is argued that, being an organic product (by ‘organic’ I refer to the living matter element rather than the production process – although there are some organically produced whiskies to try!) which will display inconsistencies between batches. Add to this the complication of maturing the whisky inside an organic (oak) vessel with its own inherent inconsistencies and you have a scenario where there is clearly scope for colour variation that can be difficult to iron out simply by vatting casks/batches.
In order to meet consumer expectation it is permissible to add natural colouring. This will artificially engineer a darker colour to help achieve consistency over batches. Okay, fine – the pesky uneducated consumer again. However, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see how that permission could be cynically employed to sell a product to an audience (most, if not all, of us?) who buy with our eyes.
Apart from the obvious risk of deception, the argument against is that it negatively affects the taste and that, despite its use in tiny quantities and being derived from sugars, it can leave a bitter flavour in the spirit.
Of all of these cornerstones, this is perhaps the trickiest to discover from a label. Of course, you can assume that any label where the term “Natural Colour” has not been displayed has indeed had colouring added, but that’s not always the case. You can research and ask a question directly but one of the best places to start would be a very interesting experiment undertaken by the Malt Maniacs a while ago which, while being inconclusive, was certainly eye-opening. It’s certainly a good place to go to allow you to not get too caught up in the practice – such to prevent you from just enjoying your whisky.
Generally, if a producer is confident in the product and targeting it to an audience of appreciation, they won’t add colouring.
It’s good to bear this ABCD in mind when you’re browsing, but I feel I also need to reinforce – it’s purely a guide.
Taking any of these things too seriously could impact on the enjoyment, which is what whisky is all about.
As an example, for years my ‘favourite’ staple whisky has been Lagavulin 16, it’s not the best whisky I’ve tasted of course, but for various reasons it remains my favourite. If I apply these 4 checks to this wonderful dram – it falls scarily short. Lagavulin 16 has a clear age statement, and while it’s bottled at 43% ABV – about right for most folk – that’s only good enough to score it a half point on Bottling strength. But it is definitely polished and dyed and therefore only scores 1.5 out of a potential 4 for quality of presentation. Yet, I love it so.
So, in summary, it’ll be more common that these four points are not met, yet it doesn’t necessarily mean the product lacks quality. This little bite of knowledge will mean you’re armed with more discernment and, while you shouldn’t insist on it, if you can find a bottle that checks all of these cornerstones – great! – you’ve very likely found yourself a really well presented, high quality treat. Enjoy!