Thursday, 1 July 2010

#382 - Advance Planning for Bottling?

Gmail has made my on-line life a lot easier in recent years, but the amount of E-mail traffic I receive can still be overwhelming at times. So, it's not unusual for a message to 'slip between the cracks' every now and then. 

Fortunately, you don't have to clean out your inbox regularly with 7471 megabytes of storage space at your disposal, so I often stumble across those missed messages a few weeks or even months later. My most recent stumble was this morning when I discovered the message below from Jeff Borowitz. It concerns an interesting topic that may not have been explicitly discussed on M-Madness or M-Maniacs before;

"Hi Johannes, I found your site tremendously informative -- thanks!  I'm a doctoral student in economics at the University of Maryland, and I'm interested in potentially applying some economic theory to the decision of when to bottle whiskeys. I did have another question about the business decisions that go into the maturation and bottling process which I couldn't figure out from your Beginner's Guide. My question is whether distillers plan to mature a particular group of casks for 12 years, another group for 18 years, etc?  Or do they simply mature everything for 12 years, and then make a business decision about how much to bottle this year and how much to keep back towards making older bottles? To rephrase the question, after distillation takes place, are there some batches of whiskey that are planned to be aged for certain amounts of time?  And if so, how often do these plans change after more than a decade? Thanks so much for your help!  Your site is fantastic. Best, Jeff Borowitz."

Hah! That's a very interesting question from Jeff! 
I'm a romantic at heart, so whenever I'm daydreaming about Scotland (which I do more often than average I think), I still like to paint a mental picture of a few lucky Scottish distillery workers that get to sample the contents of each maturing cask of malt whisky on a regular basis. Sadly enough, that rosy view may not reflect the reality in most modern Scotch malt whisky distilleries any more. Especially the contents of casks that are destined to be used in blends may never even be tasted before they are vatted together.

In fact, 'Wood Management' (making sure that you have enough casks of the required variety to hold the freshly distilled spirit) is a very important topic these days. This suggests that the 'fate' of many casks can be predicted with a fair degree of certainty when the cask is filled. Still, I'd like to think there is room to deviate from the rules when an exceptional cask is discovered. However, at this point all this is pure speculation. So, I decided it was time to give my fellow malt maniacs a chance to share their thoughts on the question...

Olivier: "Very interesting question indeed. He, or we, should ask it to the distillers… My guess is that the price of the older whiskies includes the extra financial cost of keep stocks longer + loss to the angel’s share + gain of image if selling an older whisky. However, market prices do not always allow such price adjustments, especially when some very young whiskies < 12yo sell at a high price. It is hard to imagine today what the market will be in 21 years for a 21yo! I’m sure they change the rules as they go along… IMHO. Or the question is: are they making an 18yo or + because they can’t sell all their 12yo? I guess  that we see so many 30+ yo whiskies today because of the difficult times distilleries experienced in the 1970s and 1980s…"

Patrick: "At first thought and in my opinion, when they distilled they don't presume the evolution, it's only after some years that they take the decision to bottle some cask and give the other a further maturation. This general rule shouldn't apply for sherry cask unless they are used to "enhance the whisky"."

Davin: "Maniacs, someone once said: "If all the accountants in the world were lined up
end to end that would be a good thing." Same goes for economists, and in whisky this is doubly true. My guesses:  when the batches are large, differences among casks get
evened out.  Likely there are specific barrels set aside to be aged for predetermined periods, but adjusments may be made along the way. Some age statements, particularly new ones, are based on available inventory.  Same with lack of age statements."

Louis: "I am quite sure that all of the larger distilleries keep a constant eye on their inventory and market conditions. After being burned by the 18 year old malt shortage in the early 2000's, they absolutely need to know what's going on. Also, computers make this easy, they can project the yield at different ages at the click of a mouse. When the new spirit goes into the barrel, they should have a reasonable guess at what the breakdown will be down the road, but also have the flexibility to change directions mid-course. Lets us also not forget that the most of the output of many distilleries goes for blending, so they are only looking at three years for some of it. Slainte."

Lawrence: "I’ll wager they start out with one plan and then change course as the market fluctuates, the way the spirit is maturing and if their finances go south they’ll sell as much as they can now as a 10yo (or whatever the case may be). Then they kick themselves 3 years later. I also assume that Diageo and Springbank or Loch Lomond behave quite differently. And as a curious aside Dewar Rattray / Stronachie has come out of the closetwith Stronachie / Benrinnes (the worst kept secret in the whisky world). Regards, and HAPPY CANADA everybody!" 

Serge: "Well, I doubt they wouldn't know that the malt will be bottled early when using first fill bourbon, for instance. I seem to recall that first fill bourbon casks are usually prepared with grain when used for long-term maturation. In short, very active casks (flavour-packed ones) maybe be used for short maturation only, on purpose. Or for older whisky 'rejuvenation' of course (finishing). But I may well be completely wrong here. It's just that in the wording 'wood management', there's also 'management', which is the art of planning things (isn't it?). Santé." 

Craig: "Hi all. I know it might be naïve or disingenuous, but my understanding was that there were a multiple (a couple at least) of different types of filled barrels. Most distilleries were blending focussed so under the law the make needed to be matured for 3 yrs. In the malt/branded whiskies, the early selection of barrels depended on whether they were likely to be selected for blending or were selected for ‘further maturation’ to become single malts. I find it most credible that the people marshalling the casks get a say, but I might be wrong!" 

Well, thanks to these useful additions from the other maniacs I now have a somewhat clearer picture of the 'modus operandi' of most distillers. So, the consensus seems to be that most of the wood management is carefully planned out in advance these days. In other words, most of the whisky industry has chosen the 'technocratic' perspective that considers the production of whisky a science (or perhaps a craft) rather than an art. Well, I suppose the risks and interests are so large these days that it's only logical that most of the Scotch whisky industry tries to minimise the role of coincidence in the production process. Before Louis accuses me of grumpiness again, I'd like to point out that I fully appreciate that the rationalisation and uniformisation of the production process has had some notable benefits - like the fact that REALLY BAD WHISKY is rarer now than it was in the 1990's. Unfortunately, that goes for the extremes on the other end of the spectrum as well. Oh, and I've been ungrumpified about something else too - I'm happy that A. D. Rattray now openly admit that Stronachie is actually produced at the Benrinnes distillery.

I think I'll let this topic simmer inside of my brain for a while now... 
I'll leave you with two links on topics I've been discussing with a few friends recently; My beloved old DAF 66 car that I used to drive around in during the late 1980's (just before I moved to Amsterdam and discovered single malt whisky) and a compilation of footage of a favourite national Dutch pastime in those years: racing those DAF cars backwards!
Sweet drams...