After 4 years of serious whisky tasting, on the back of 50 years experience I now feel ‘qualified’ to declare my position on integrity bottling. If you are asking yourself – what is Geoff talking about? I will clarify what I mean by ‘integrity bottling’.
An integrity bottling in my view, largely adapted from the thoughts of Ralfy Mitchell who I respect enormously is that whisky be:
Sold in 70cl bottles (or 75 or 1 litre)
Bottled at more than 40% ABV
non chill filtered
Carry an age statement
Let me address each of these in turn including whether each of these is a deal breaker or not for me!
My arithmetic (calculator) can work out how much I am paying against the UK standard 70cl bottle price. This criteria does not really bother me. I once ran a poll and most whisky fan voters preferred 70cl bottles. I would like to see more whisky in 20cl bottles to let me sample a wider range of whiskies for my money, but that is just me. My usual whisky shelf is all 70cl bottles plus a 1 Litre Glenfarclas 105 being a good value option of a favourite whisky of mine. the distillery failed to confirm whether or not it was chill filtered or natural colour. Mmm!
I generally prefer 70cl but I do buy 50cl from time to time (Boutiquey whisky). Bottle size is not a deal breaker for me.
I prefer my whisky abv determined by the distillers opinion of the optimum strength to deliver taste and aroma. My strong suspicion is that 40% is solely related to cost (and tax). Yes, I do expect stronger abv giving me the chance to add water if I wish. In the interests of transparency I have two whiskies on my shelf recently at 40% abv. Cragganmore is great at 40% IMHO (but fails on other criteria), I also like Glenfiddich 18, also 40% it would be better at 46% and non chill filtered natural colour and the choice is sometimes available. I buy it when I can. Both of these are coming off my whisky standard shelf as neither are natural colour or non chill filtered.
If I did set a number myself it would be 46% minimum. I do not expect to have any 40% abv whiskies on my shelf in future except for the blend I allow myself. For clarity I have no issue with colour or filtering on blends given the huge market for these .
So, 40% abv as I move on is a deal breaker for me.
Non Chill Filtered
I have no doubt that whisky gives better mouthfeel, delivery and flavour without chill filtration.
I do understand why the mass market does it.
I know there have been VERY isolated incidents (one I know about) where the long chain fatty acids came out of solution and could not allegedly be reabsorbed and wholesalers refused the entire deliveries. I believe this was a single incident, where a container lay for a protracted period in the depths of the Canadian winter. More likely a stroppy wholesaler refused to accept the delivery. In normal circumstances any haze or cloudiness quickly clears and the taste is never impaired. Give me taste over appearance every time. I actually quite like haze. There is a second type of flocculation which is actually when crystals of calcium oxalate crystals form. This is irreversible and nothing to do with filtration.
This lie has been perpetuated in the industry for many years accompanied by the dubious claim that blind tasters cannot tell the difference. By all means educate consumers but do not punish the entire consumer base.
I notice that I can detect far more aromas and flavours in non chill filtered expressions. I personally believe that these same aromas and flavours also exist in the chill filtered equivalent. It is, I believe, the case that the better body in non chill filtered expressions appears to deliver these aromas and flavours much more distinctly along with greatly improved mouthfeel. My tasting notes on non chill filtered expressions tend to identify many more aromas and flavours.
Some producers do a ‘coarse’ filtering which removes debris like bugs and splinters of wood, with which I have absolutely no issue – (the coarse filtration not tde bugs!).
On my whisky shelf permanently are about 12/15 non chill filtered expressions. The three exceptions are all of course from Diageo, ubiquitous filterers and colour adders, in the form of Cragganmore 12, Talisker 18 and Lagavulin 16. All would be much better non chill filtered. In time if other suppliers offer integrity alternatives of equal quality I will change. As only 16 distilleries currently have worm tubs, this poses a challenge to me. The header picture on this article is my current shelf – I do not know how the Glenfiddich IPA slipped in thee it is certainly chill filtered and will be instantly removed !
99% of consumers don’t really care, I know. Many who I have informed of this at my public tastings have cared quite a bit, believing `scotch whisky to be 100% natural and untampered with.
There are other Diageo brands I would have on my shelf, were they non chill filtered – e.g Mortlach, Daluaine, Talisker and Clynelish so I buy them from independents who do not chill filter or add colour. After writing this, I have replaced the Cragganmore 12 with Darkness 8 year old which is an Atom Brands whisky and is actually a Mortlach, giving me better abv, natural colour, non chill filtration and worm tubs and a great sherried dram. I may have to keep finding alternatives when stocks run out. Springbank is the obvious candidate.
I do see market movement here. I think the industry could at least offer non chill filtered versions of their whiskies at 14 years and over.
Chill filtration is a deal breaker for me from now on.
If I owned a company which sold millions of bottles of 10-year-old whisky globally at an economic price, I would most probably add colour as well to ensure a consistent product.
Let me qualify this i mean tiny amounts of colour so as not to even hint at influencing flavour. Not colour added to darken the whisky making it appear more expensive.
Why not use better barrels or just restrict colouring to blends or even add the colour at the start of the process of maturing to allow better integration into the final spirit rather than at the bottling stage – another Ralfy suggestion to give credit where it is due.
It would take no time at all to turn the market to buying all whisky at natural colour. Just do it please.
That is my view but TBH it is not a deal breaker for me. But as the public become more educated it will I believe increasingly force natural colour to be the norm.
It is simply bad practice in a product that prides itself on being natural agricultural, unadulterated quality.
I drink plenty Non Age Statement whiskies. I enjoy the expert blending from the master distiller. BUT – why the lack of transparency? If it is 7 years then say so. If it is 4 that is fine if you say so.
Why make it a secret?
Is your objective to pass off younger whisky as something older? That would be very strange and frankly dishonest. Ardbeg Wee Beastie 5 year old is on my shelf, when the 10 year old is not. It meets every criteria. Fans flock for special edition 8 year old whisky. For new distilleries non age statement is a lifeline and these have also tended toward non chill filtration and natural colour which is great if they are also transparent about their product age.
Whisky drinkers are increasingly understanding that younger whiskies have a great deal to offer. If I see 3 years on a bottle I am not put off. I have tasted poor three-year-old whisky but this is a reflection on the cask as much as anything. A strong straw character is typical of young immature whisky. A good new make, matured three years in a good cask can be a wonderous experience. I had some cask samples from Lindores Abbey distillery recently every one was truly magnificent. The distillery was designed to produce good young whisky. These samples were three years old but were some of the best whisky I have tasted this year. I would gladly have bought a bottle of any of the three.
Lindores first release has been well received but does not bear an age statement nor is it stated if it is natural colour on non chill filtered. It is 46% and at both a reasonable price and widely and fairly distributed. Not taking the natural colour ncf route is a mystery to me.
I will give preference to age statement whiskies but will have at least one NAS on my shelf in the form of my Glenfarclas 105 which most people agree is about 6 years old. No one confuses it for the 10,15, 18, 21, 25 or 30 so write 6 on the label please.
Some would argue that only taste matters. If it tastes good why bother about these criteria? It matters because we want to know what we are buying. It matters as well because we care about the industry and believe these criteria show it at its best. I for one know that I pay more for my whisky to meet these criteria and am happy I get value.
I would award an integrity whisky certification award to all of the following which is my best attempt at a comprehensive list of Scottish Integrity distilleries. Look. out for Ralphy and Roy of Aquavite fame’s forthcoming Online Scotch Whisky Awards which you can follow at oswa.co.uk
Here is my best effort at identifying those Scottish distilleries which currently meet my criteria.
Glenglasssugh (no current age statements yet)
Kilchomon (they do not do age statements buy hey ho, their whisky is fabulous)
Wolfburn ( too young to do age statements but some great integrity bottling on all other counts)
Independents also bottle natural colour non chill filtered. This is a great way to enjoy malts how the distiller intended from those brands which do not issue integrity bottlings in their core ranges.
Not a bad list at all. This list contains many superstar distilleries, if they can do it everyone can. There must be about 60 different expressions from these distilleries so no shortage of whisky to enjoy as it was intended. I even noticed William Grant releasing an integrity bottling of the GlenLivet 12 Illicit Still recently.
Other distilleries meet us half way. Beam Suntory at Laphroaig, Ardmore and Auchentoshan do have some NCF, natural colour sometime age statement whiskies all over 40% giving us the chance to enjoy their products at their best – for that thank you – we appreciate your approach. It is ironic that amongst tastings of indy editions Ardmore frequently comes out top. If they produced an integrity core range I suspect it would become a cult classic. Even Pernod Ricard produce some editions that are non chill filtered although these are few and far between and often non age statement cask strength editions. Whyte and Mackay have anti-bribery and ante human trafficking policies. Very commendable but how about a product quality policy!
The rest of you and in particular Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Whyte and MacKay please give this more thought. Why would you deny us your products at its best. I personally love several Diageo expressions and must source them increasingly from independents. Why would you not deliver Clynelish, Daluaine, Cragganmore, Glekinchie, Talisker, Mortlach, at their best possible quality? They are all awesome whiskies which would benefit from integrity bottling in terms of quality. I know that Brown Foreman are reconsidering their recent decision to chill filter GlenDronach after considerable online pressure from fans.
The rapidly growing English and Irish quality whisky market is often taking the natural colour non chill filtered approach and producing some excellent products. Lakes, Cotswalds, The One, Bimber, Teeling, Waterford, Redbreast, Dingle are all taking the industry in this direction and leaving scotch behind rapidly. Of course the independents all produce natural colour non chill filtered expressions but at a price.
To marketing departments – I recently told a large group of my whisky buying friends:
‘Scotch whisky, almost universally has colour added and some of the body filtered out’. They were completely horrified. They were unaware of this calumny. They believed that as Scotch whisky is sold on the basis of being a natural honest quality product – this surely could not be permitted. Possibly some overseas whiskies might indulge in such dubious practices.
This is what the general whisky purchasing public think – if they are made aware.
The internet allows us to publicise such practices and we will at least promote those who deserve to be promoted for their integrity bottling.
Worse still as our smaller distillery groups are swallowed up by big market players, they will be forced to chill filter and to add colour. Time is running out.