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Whisky News, March 2008

by Gavin D Smith

Taxing Times

The Scotch whisky industry has reacted with disappointment and anger at Chancellor Alistair Darling's budget duty hike. The rise - which is six per cent above the current level of inflation - adds a total of 59 pence to the price of a bottle of whisky. Gavin Hewitt, chief executive of industry watchdog the Scotch Whisky Association, says "A tax rise is a blow to international competitiveness when the industry has been investing significantly to meet growing global demand for Scotch whisky. It sets a damaging precedent that export markets may follow." One industry veteran who wishes to remain anonymous declares "Blair and Darling pretend that this is morally justifiable because it will cut binge drinking and
drink-related anti-social behaviour. I don't know about where you live, but in my town none of the youths fighting and vandalising property on a Friday and Saturday night are carrying bottles of Macallan. It's just about using duty as a blunt weapon to raise revenue to help paper over past financial incompetence." The first duty rise imposed on Scotch whisky in a decade may be just the start of rising whisky prices, attributable to a number of factors. Firstly, global demand for Scotch whisky is currently very high, which is likely to encourage distillers to raise prices, especially for premium offerings. Secondly, distillers are paying considerably more for their raw materials, with grain prices having risen by as much as 130 per cent since 2005, while energy costs have also soared, affecting everything from the expense of running stills to transport and glass manufacture. Ten per cent year on year price increases to the consumer have been predicted, with many of the best-regarded 'standard' single malts selling for more than 30 a bottle next year.

Crafty Choice

   When it comes to the annual release of The Balvenie Vintage Cask, William Grant & Sons Ltd has developed a habit of involving a number of people from varying backgrounds in the cask selection process, along with 'malt master' David Stewart. This time around, craftsmen at the distillery in Dufftown brought a collective 200 years of experience to the task. Eric Stephen (warehouseman), Richard Anderson (cooper), George Garrick (maltman), Bill Duncan (mashman) and Dennis McBain (coppersmith) worked with Stewart to choose just two casks, destined to be bottled later this year as The Balvenie Vintage Cask for 2008. Some 460 bottles are expected to be released, with a retail price of 400 per bottle. After nosing and tasting samples from a range of casks in excess of 30 years of age, casks 6568 and 6570 were finally chosen, and Dennis McBain says "Selecting a vintage cask is an honour and a great responsibility. It's not something that distillery craftsmen usually get to do - put all our combined whisky knowledge to the test in this way, and we enjoyed the challenge." The chosen
casks were laid down in 1976, a year before the birth of the youngest selector, cooper Richard Anderson. They were singled out for their characteristic Balvenie honey notes and rich, fruity, vanilla sweetness. David Stewart says that "The craftsmen have chosen what I believe is an exceptional single malt. The Balvenie Vintage Cask is one of the most sought after of limited release bottlings and previous Vintage Casks have collected top industry awards and been purchased by collectors and enthusiasts around the world." See April's 'Whisky of the Month' for our assessment of the distillery's latest offering - The Balvenie Signature.

Mulling it Over

This month sees a radical shake-up of Burn Stewart's Tobermory single malt, with redesigned packaging intended to present a more premium image for the present 10-year-old expression, while the whisky itself will also be 'tweaked.' Additionally, a 15-year-old variant is to be introduced. "It's the only distillery on Mull," says Burn Stewart MD Fraser Thornton, "and we think it could achieve a brand recognition like Highland Park." Whisky-pages will bring you our reaction to the new Tobermory line up once we have had the opportunity to sample the whiskies in question.

Lagavulin Strikes a Chord

   An oak cask from Diageo's Lagavulin distillery on Islay has been used in the construction of three hand-crafted guitars. The special edition guitars have been built by long-established Italian bass and guitar maker and whisky lover, Andrea Ballarin, whose firm Manne Guitars was founded in 1987, in Schio, north-eastern Italy. According to a Diageo spokesperson, "The cask was donated by the distillery, and arrived in the Manne workshop earlier this year still drenched with the complex peat-smoke aromas that are the hallmark of this single
malt. The weight and rigidity of the cask oak, so different from the standard guitar materials, posed several technical challenges for Andrea and his team." Apparently, the ends of the cask were carefully dried, treated and sanded and became the backs of the guitar bodies, preserving much of the distinctive distillery identification markings. Meanwhile, the curved staves were flattened and glued together to form the tops and bodies of the guitars. Andrea Ballarin was careful to preserve some of the distinctive charring marks from the inside surface of the staves. Two guitars and one bass have been built from the one whisky cask, and the two guitars incorporate the cask heads, while the bass is made entirely from the oak staves. The guitars have been finished with an oxidised patina and typical rust marks from the hoops of the barrel, and the wood was finally treated with a preparation containing some Lagavulin Distillers Edition from 2007. This ensures that the guitars will always preserve some of their native Lagavulin fragrance. Andrea Ballarin had visited Lagavulin distillery in 2007 during the annual Islay Festival of Malt and Music. He says that "Tasting a great whisky is a creative experience that incorporates the world of flavours and tastes, and leads us to memories and sensations. These, like music, are something that transcend words and explanations - they are both universal languages, both complex and at the same time deeply simple. You just have to feel it!" Diageo's global marketing director for the Classic Malts Selection, Nick Morgan, is a keen blues aficionado, and he acquired an empty Lagavulin cask for Ballarin and had it delivered to Italy. Clearly mindful of the thousands of potential begging letters that could pile up on his desk, Morgan notes "We don't want to make a habit of this, but we thought that Andrea's craft-driven approach to making guitars, with deep respect for the materials and an affectionate use of traditional hand-working skills, was a perfect reflection of the way that Lagavulin, and our other single malts, are made. He also makes very beautiful guitars!" In due course, two of the guitars will be put on sale, while the third will go 'home' to Lagavulin in time for this year's Islay Festival next month. (See May's Whisky News for further Festival details).

Eyewitness Whisky

One of the latest publications for the whisky-lover's bookshelf comes from Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness Companions series. Whisky is a handy-sized reference book which embraces whiskies from all over the world and features excellent illustrations, as well as text by many leading international whisky writers. Chapters are devoted to all principal whisky-producing countries, featuring leading brands with brief but informative tasting notes. Dave Broom, Tom Bruce-Gardyne, Ian Buxton and Gavin D Smith are major contributors, while Charlie MacLean has acted as editor-in-chief. At £12.95 this volume represents excellent value and is a must for all whisky lovers, though many readers would doubtless like to see the names of the relevant contributors credited at the head of each chapter, rather than just hidden away on page 287! The amount of information packed into this small book is truly impressive. Available from all good bookshops, or buy from Amazon for £8.57)

Dates for Your Diary

   This month sees the staging of a number of prestigious whisky festivals around the world. The Whisky Fair in Limburg, Germany on 26/27th and Whisky Live in Strasbourg, France on 28th are joined by the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival runs from 1st to 5th May, featuring a wide range
of master classes, musical events, dinners and distillery visits, starting with the sell-out Opening Dinner and Dance at Glen Grant distillery in Rothes on Thursday 1st. Festival-goers will get the opportunity to visit some intriguing distilleries not usually open to the public, including Allt a Bhainne, Benrinnes, Dailuaine, Glenburgie, Mortlach, Tamnavulin and Tormore. Whisky-pages' very own Gavin D Smith will be hosting a talk/tasting focusing on the phenomenon of peated Speyside whiskies in the Whisky Museum, Dufftown at 3pm on Saturday 3rd May. For further details of the Festival programme see and

And Finally...

Waste Not

A team of researchers based at Aberdeen University has developed a device by the name of DRAM (Device for the Remediation and Attenuation of Multiple Pollutants, since you ask) using a by-product of the distillation process to clean contaminated water and ground. The researchers are understandably reluctant to divulge the exact nature of the by-product in question, describing it as a natural, sustainable and organic substance that is formed early on in the distillation process. They have worked with material donated by Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown, and trials on the Scottish west coast have shown a 99 per cent
success rate. A 300,000 grant from Scottish Enterprise has funded the development of DRAM, and the three researchers responsible for its creation are considering forming a commercial venture to exploit their discovery. One of them is Dr Graeme Paton, who says "The clean-up of contaminated groundwater is an absolutely massive global market. The technology has the potential to put Scotland at the forefront for remediation technologies." Last month it was whisky as a basis for motor fuel, now it's whisky as international pollution fighter. Next thing, we'll be drinking it as well...

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