Generally try to keep my article delivery down to once a week, but this topic was of such vast significance to me, that I couldn’t let another week to go by. It’s not very often that we get an extreme media blitz on the topic of single malts. This week’s press release on a specialized finishing taking place in Germany drove so much media buzz I had to address it. I want to focus on finishing and help you understand what it is. Then we will go back and review this novelty that’s taking place in Germany.
Finishing for shelf space
Anyone that has read my article on single malts (and now for those of you who have not) understands that 70% of the taste in any matured whiskey comes from the wood in the barrel. We need to have a better understanding of the barrel if we really want to have a better understanding of whiskey.
First and foremost, the use of barrels was a commonplace in Europe for transport of goods and liquids. This use of wood for transport became a tool that would transform the whiskey market forever. Whiskey in its raw form is fiery, and clear as water. Once in a barrel magic starts to happen. The juice takes on the color of the barrel and the barrel starts to release wood sugars into the whiskey. This process alone won’t make for great whiskey. Time (and lots of it) is one of the mitigating factors in excellent flavors in a whiskey. Early sailors traveling to the New World had a vast amount of time. Their precious cargo contained barrels of alcohol that would’ve been used to disinfect the water on the long trip to the colonies. These barrels of alcohol were becoming a very young version of the whiskey we know today. This knowledge spread through the whiskey manufacturers back in Great Britain as well as the New World, and became a standard to wood-age product.
For a long time barrel maturation in Europe was provided by European oak. In the United States during the boom of Bourbon production, a law was passed that allowed American producers to use their barrel one time. The Scott’s, always being one of to save a nickel, started to purchase these barrels from America to mature their scotch in. In the last few years Scotch manufacturers have started a new trend called finishing. What finishing entails is taking your aged oak barrel scotch and moving it to a non oak barrel, such as a port wine barrel, sherry wine cask, European oak barrel, and French oak to name but a few. What this does to the whiskey is to impart flavors from different types of wood, and wood sugars changed by the original product. These non-traditional barrels are dried, broken down and shipped to Scotland. The Coopers in Scotland rebuild the barrels to the distillery specifications. One of the reasons why distillers acquired the act of finishing was the ability to make very creative products.
The unspoken agenda of product-marketing was to gobble up shelf space. At the end of the day, shelf space is the most precious commodity an alcohol manufacturer has. This is a direct billboard to purchasing consumers. If a Scotch company has five different types of whiskeys in a myriad of ages and finishes, you as the consumer are more likely to view those products because of the large amount of shelf space they take up. From my perspective this gives you as a consumer more choices of interesting and creative products to choose from, while still funneling money back to the same distillery, a win-win situation for producer and consumer.
Germany, the land of opportunity
This brings me to the most interesting article I’ve read in the last few months. Germans are crazy about Scotch whiskey; they consume tons of Islay whiskeys each year. Two German bartenders (Gspirts) started their own alcohol firm to provide for the demand. This isn’t odd in the commodities market where supply and demand are king, (BUT) getting a Hungarian Playboy model to donate her bosoms as an odd human scotch finish is.
Yes, I said that correctly. This single woman, Varga Alexa, has allowed two men to dump thousands of liters of single malt over her breasts and then bottle up the results. Now, the man in me wants to buy a bottle because it’s a crazy novelty, the connoisseur in me is disgusted with this apparent publicity stunt.
It was not long ago that vodka producers made quality products without novelty and stood by a rigorous form of tradition. Today finding a vodka without some type of novelty attached to it is next to impossible. You might say that the heart and soul of vodka died when marketing companies attached novelty gimmicks to something that had no need for it. I am concerned for the future of the single malt market as it may also be in jeopardy. I pray (for my own sanity) this is a one and done publicity stunt and producers will return to churning out quality spirits.
Also, for anyone thinking of buying a bottle, it’s just going to taste like Scotch. Last time I checked, wood gives whiskey 70% of its taste, not body sweat and perspiration.