LMDW Selections – whisky




Discover the wonderful Aberlours bottled for La Maison du Whisky


Discover the interview of Rachel Barrie, master distiller at Benriach & Glendronach

Rachel Barrie

In September 2019, La Maison du Whisky invited Rachel Barrie, Master Blender for Glendronach, Benriach and Glenglassaugh, to a tasting of old whiskies from distilleries she is responsible for and to talk about the single casks from Glendronach and Benriach selected by La Maison du Whisky this year. Elegant yet relaxed… erudite yet instructive… Dr Barrie shared her views on whisky, the industry and tasting.

LMDW: Rachel Barrie, thank you for being with us today. Your official job is master blender, yet, it seems that you are highly involved in the fermentation and the distillation processes. So how would you define your job? 

RACHEL BARRIE: I would say I am a “whisky maker”, in every meanings. I have to understand everything that makes the character of each distillery. The ingredients, the environment, the process, the technicals aspects… I also have to understand every single new make when it gets out of the still, to understand how it behaves. In every meanings of “assemblage” you are focusing on flavours. At every step of the way, from water to microflore, malt, yeasts, processes, types of fermentation, everything. All of those are a part of flavours’ creation.

A master blender focuses on flavours, not on the alcohol making, which is the job of the distillery manager.

LMDW: How do you manage to switch between the personality of Glendronach, Benriach’s, and your own tastes and preferences when it comes to whisky making?

Both distilleries are really close to my heart. My first taste of whisky was a Glendronach, because it was my father’s favorite. And then I tried Benriach when I was 16. By the time, I used to glide around the distillery. I remember the landscape, with such a sky! It was very smooth… The location of Benriach is between the sea and the mountains, and the climate is certainly more like Barcelona than the rest of Scotland: very sunny. The area itself creates a really balanced character. When you walk into the distillery, it smells like an old church.

In the whisky, you can smell orange, lemon but also the creaminess of the malt. I like to think of a patisserie because you have the citrus and the creaminess, but also a little bit of spices at the end.

Glendronach’s new make has already dark fruit notes. So you get the bramble, even in the new make It is like a bramble fruit, with deep notes of chocolate. That’s why the sherry cask fits so well with Glendronach. Those spanish oaks are big, robust, solide… maturation is very slow, but very intense and gives that great texture.

LMDW: Let’s have a dram of the Benriach 33yo 1976, selected by La Maison du Whisky, 51,6%, 70cl

A single cask has to be unique, to have a distinctive character. He has to tell a story, and always to have a great balance of taste. This one is aged of 33 years old. The label doesn’t mention the type of cask or the precise date of distillation… Pretty unusual because it is really important: there are a lot of differences between seasons. For example, in May, you have the malting season, and then in June, the air feels full of floral and fruity notes. In Autumn, there are influences of harvest. So when it goes into a cask, sometimes, the differences can be amplified during maturation. That is why I like to know the date… It can give you more information, like what was happening that day. For consumers, it is good to have a perception. The whole experience is made of tasting, the bottle and the label.

*She smells*

Oh, it’s beautiful! Definitely huge fruits, beetroot, banana, some melon, some green fruits and the creaminess of the malt and… honey!  This is really Benriach!

*She tastes*

Very tropical on the palet, the pineapple come up on the palate, even after 33 years. We still have stock like that in the warehouse. I think our new versions can become like this one. It may not be identical because everything is changing in the world. I’m always changing for example, is an evolution!

Year after year, the flavours comes up, you will have more nectarine, melon…

But it is really difficult to decide how many times the bottle will last, you need to experiment.

*She looks at the Benriach 19yo 1994, selected by La Maison du Whisky, 53%, 70cl*

This one is 25 years old.

*She smells*

There is waxiness and sweetness. And again, a good balance between the fruits and the creaminess of the malt. I’m still getting a lot of pear, some apple and caramel. This is really surprising because i recognised peat, but also a waxiness aspect. First, I didn’t recognise a Benriach but then, the pear is so individual… You need to go to Speyside to get this taste, no other peated whisky can create that.

So we actually get vanilla, cream, the wax from the peat and a lot of honey and fruits. Over long time, the whisky is still the same, these elements stay unchanged.

*She looks at Glendronach *

This one can be interesting because I’ve never tried it.

None of this are fraudulent? (Laugh)

*She Starts with Glendronach 8yo, Teacher’s Bottling, rotation early 80’s, 40%, 75cl*

This is an italian bottling. It’s 8 years old but we don’t have information about the type of cask. The strength is 43%. What a treat, green bottle, very interesting. Nice colour in the glass, but is it natural? I’m not sure. We can feel the oxidation and the rancio that you get from old bottle.

*she tastes*

I would say a lot of sherry cask… The bramble, the finish, the dark fruits, the red fruits…This 1970 bottle is interesting because during the 70’s they stopped peat, so here we have this Glendronach peated.

*She looks at the Glendronach 12yo 1963, Ruffino Import, 43%, 75cl*

This is a really old bottle, it’s another Italian one. This is probably not representative. It’s maybe just a representation of a small part of the stock.

The fruitiness is here, but is not as I really like it, the maturation can change everything. The aromas of the fruits and the body is like tobacco and leather. To be honest, this one is not really my type of Glendronach. The Glendronach, for me, is elegant, fruity and robust. That’s why the quality of the sherry casks is so important.

Here you have fruits and the elegance but the body is missing, it’s not enough robust. I miss the warm.

This is interesting because I noticed there is more oxidation in green bottles. Probably because of the light…

Now, let’s taste some versions selected by LMDW in 2019:

1. Benriach 12 yo 2007 Peated Sherry PX 

So this one was distilled in February 2007. This is interesting because the peated malt distillation always happens between the end of September and March. Distillation date is really important for a single cask because every single cask is different. That’s the beauty of each individual cask.

This one is highly peated. Yet, there is a final touch of vanilla, really sweet. It makes all the complexity of that version: it smells like ice cream. There is a sweet smoke, very creamy, it’s like being in a Caledonian forest, full of pines. We have a very good balance between the distillate, the malt, and the smoke.

This one is 58.2%. That’s pretty high, but still sweet. I can get fruits, pear, orange, lemon, citrus, vanilla… This is a classic Benriach in a peated cask. Fun fact: some people smell coconut and some other just can’t. They usually only smell vanilla. It depends on some connections in the nose.

2. Glendronach 12 yo 2007 Pedro Ximenez 

This one was distilled in June 2007. The sherry cask is very intense. It tastes similar to a Merlot wine. We can feel the figues, candy fruits, some notes of chocolate and then the warm of ginger bread. The taste feels stronger and stronger on the palate, robust, fruity… this is like a crescendo. It’s beautiful! This one tells the story of Glendronach.

3. Glendronach 26 yo de 1993 Pedro Ximenez

This one is 26 years old. Glendronach needs to be aged at least for 10 years, because it is going to be more robust year after year. It takes time because of that. But for me the most important is not only the time or the weather… it is the full “terroir”. This one is incredibly oily. Here you can find the dark ruby that changes in the light, like a dark sunset. This one has a remarquable colour, over time Glendronach develops a lot of red. We feel a lot of fruits, bramble but also walnuts, dark chocolate… This taste is only possible with Spanish oak. The PX is fantastic because you get the dark fruit. 26 years old is the perfect age: after 15 years, you get mint oxidation and dark chocolate, but after 21 years, spice and dark fruits appear.


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Discover the interview of Steven Cameron, Ambassador at Gordon & MacPhail, about the range Connoisseurs Choice

Gordon & MacPhail

Amongst the various independent bottler ranges on the market, Gordon & Macphail’s Connoisseurs Choice indisputably commands respect. And for good reason. It was one of the first, in 1968, to bottle single malts. We take a look back at 50 years of history with Steven Cameron, formerly of La Maison du Whisky and today brand ambassador for Gordon & MacPhail.

LMDW : Gordon & MacPhail has been around since 1895. What did it do before it bottled single malts?

STEVEN CAMERON: Gordon & MacPhail was originally a delicatessen that sold lots of different products, like cured meats, cheese, coffee, tea and wine. As was the custom for most wine sellers at the time, G&M also produced a variety of blends. The delicatessen is still going and Elgin locals still buy their cheese here!

LMDW: Created in 1968, the Connoisseurs Choice range was a pioneering initiative in the bottling of single malts. Who was George Urquhart?

SC: George Urquhart, or ‘Mr George’ as he was known here, was a member of the second generation of the Urquhart family which had run Gordon & MacPhail since 1915. He joined the business in 1933 to work alongside his father, John Urquhart. During his apprenticeship, George U. became very interested in the art of maturation and understanding the interaction between the spirit and the cask. A keen defender of single malts, he played a vital role in the development of their popularity in an era in which blended scotches were the norm.

LMDW: The Distillery Labels range already existed at the time. What did the Connoisseurs Choice range bring to the table?

SC: The Distillery Labels were licensed bottlings produced with the permission of the owners of these distilleries, who approved and sometimes even provided the labels. This meant that Gordon & MacPhail’s bottlings were almost official versions, as the distilleries did not themselves bottle any single malts. When it was created in 1968, Connoiseurs Choice focused on other distilleries sporadically releasing single malts.

LMDW: Gordon & MacPhail stood out from other bottlers by aging new-make spirit in its own casks. Can you tell us more about this practice?

SC: This is something G&M has always done, and today almost all of our casks are filled specially for us. Of course, these contracts have changed a lot since 1895, as properties have changed hands and the industry has developed, and although we now bottle from more distilleries than in the past, we still find a way to acquire more casks every year.

LMDW: How does Gordon & MacPhail still have access to more renowned closed distilleries than any other independent bottler?

SC: Thanks to the approach taken by the Urquhart family since it took over in 1915, our warehouses still contain casks from many distilleries that are now closed, which we continue to bottle from time to time. This year, for example, we revealed single malts from the Coleburn, Caperdonich and Dallas Dhu distilleries. Who knows what next year holds in store? Moreover, thanks to our long-dating, strong relationships, we are lucky enough to be one of the only independent bottles authorized to fill casks from certain distilleries and use their name on the label.

LMDW: What makes the bottlings from the Connoisseurs Choice range different from G&M’s other ranges today?

SC: We are very proud of the Connoissuers Choice range as, through its heritage, it represents the family’s devotion to single malts over four generations. Most of the bottlings in the range are now single casks, which allows us to really highlight our work to select casks based on the distillery’s character for each whisky. As is implied by the name, this range is aimed primarily at connoisseurs, who will be able to explore the aromatic profiles of a wide variety of distilleries in a range of vintages and cask types. The focus is really on the individuality of each cask and blend, rather than the consistency sought for the Distillery Label bottlings.

LMDW: What are the main expressions that have helped build the reputation of the Connoisseurs Choice range?

SC: Many of them were amongst the first bottlings produced, such as Talisker, Glendronach and Oban, all distilled in the 1950s. Though it might seem strange today, remember that these distilleries were little known at the time! You’ll also have heard of a series of Ardbeg 1974 bottled in the 1990s. All of these bottlings are now highly sought-after and sell for huge sums at auctions.

LMDW: Do you have a personal favourite in the range, old or new?

SC: We recently released a Brackla 1995 (refill sherry butt, 50.6%) which I think is absolutely stunning! It shows a perfect example of balance between the distillery’s fresh, herbaceous character and the subtle influence of the sherry butt. Neither dominates, and, for me, both find the perfect balance.

LMDW: The Connoisseurs choice range has changed a lot over 50 years. What were the major developments and what are the unalterable foundations that have remained since its creation?

SC: For a start, the design has gone through lots of different phases (“black labels”, “brown labels”, “map labels”, etc.). We have also moved from small batch bottling at 40% to 43%, then 46% and finally primarily cask strength single casks. Last year we also incorporated our wine cask finishes into the range. Lots of things have changed, really, but the quality has remained the same since 1968.

LMDW: When it was first created, the Connoisseurs Choice range was revolutionary. Today it is a classic. How do you maintain its innovative style 50 years on?

SC: By always adapting to market expectations. For a long time we were criticized by some enthusiasts for our 40% bottlings, which were said to “age badly” due to their low ABV. Completely updating the range last year was a huge turning point for us, with a deliberate transition to cask strength bottlings at a minimum degree of 45%, which was a very welcome move for many.

LMDW: This year, La Maison du Whisky has selected two Islay expressions, a Caol Ila 14 Year Old 2004 and a Bunnahabhain 30 Year Old 1989. Tell us a little about them and how they represent the range…

SC: I think they are both perfect reflections of our expertise in whisky maturation. The Caol Ila 2004 has been aged in a refill sherry hogshead, which gives it a wonderful richness without it being dominated by the peat. The Bunnahabhain 1989 (refill hogshead) is full of exotic fruit, with a hint of beeswax. It’s an absolute delight!

LMDW: Today, independent bottler ranges seem to be mostly designed for connoisseurs. What needs to be done to make them more popular with less expert enthusiasts?

SC: That was definitely the case for a long time but things are changing. For example, last year we launched the Discovery range. With the aim of creating more accessible and readily understandable single malts, the range is divided into three categories, bourbon maturation, sherry maturation and peated. They can be easily identified by their colour code, so enthusiasts can navigate through and try a variety of distilleries at a more accessible price.


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