Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Something unique: A single-variety whisky

Here's a whisky for wine lovers: A Scotch made from a single variety of barley.

Such a whisky has existed before; apparently Glengoyne and Macallan made single-variety Scotches in the 1970s. Credit Pernod Ricard, which owns The Glenlivet, with figuring out that today's wine geeks would respond positively to something that whisky drinkers might not find all that special.

Barley for Scotch is farmed completely differently than grapes for wine. Some wine grape varieties, such as Gamay, Muscat, Riesling and Shiraz, are centuries old. Moreover, some clones of specific strains of say, Pinot Noir, may also be hundreds of years old.

In contrast, a variety of barley rarely lasts more than a decade before pests begin to elude its natural defenses, making it cost-ineffective to farm. Because the flavor characteristics of Scotch come from so much more than the barley -- there's the water, the malting process, the type of barrels, the length of aging -- it's not worth figuring out how to defend any particular variety from the natural process of evolution. Barley farmers want volume and potential alcohol; flavor subtleties can come later.

There are families in Germany and Portugal that haven't changed grape varieties on their farms since before the United States was founded, while in contrast there might not be a farm in Scotland growing the same barley variety it was just 20 years ago.

Thus there won't be any new bottlings of The Glenlivet Nadurra Triumph 1991 ($70; buy it online here.) The variety of barley, Triumph, hasn't been farmed for more than 15 years.

"Triumph was a big bold barley," says The Glenlivet's master distiller Alan Winchester. "It was a plump barley with a lot of starch. It was a lovely grain. Farmers liked growing it."

So why did they stop?

"It went out of use because it had a dormancy problem" that complicated the malting process, Winchester said. "We had to keep big stocks of it."

"Yield is always very important to a distiller," added Alan Greig, director of brand education for The Glenlivet. "We used to get 380 liters (of whisky) to a ton (of barley). Now we have newer varieties that get 420 liters to a ton."

Winchester and his team noticed, when the distillery prepared last year to bottle some barrels aged 18 years, that all were made from Triumph. So rather than simply issue another batch of 18-year-old whisky, the distillery came out with a vintage, single-variety Scotch.

I tasted this whisky in the context of a group of other releases from The Glenlivet, including two that were considerably more expensive: Founders Reserve and the 1973 Cellar Collection. Maybe it's the wine geek in me, but I loved the Triumph best by a large margin.

Rich aromas of apple, peach and caramel enticed me to take a taste before adding a wee drop of water. That's not the best way to enjoy it, and not only because it's 48% alcohol (probably cask strength, though I can't confirm that). However, I'm glad I did because the apple and caramel flavors changed dramatically when I did add some H2O.

With water, the Scotch became much lighter and livelier, with aromas and flavors of orange biscuits, lemon and fresh orange blossoms. I tasted ginger biscuits on the very smooth finish. For me, this Scotch is a Triumph. (Ba-dam-ding!)

Folks at The Glenlivet love to point out that Scotch whisky as an industry became legit two years after King George IV, on an 1822 reconciliation visit to Edinburgh, asked for a glass of Glenlivet whisky. But Glenlivet is a region, not just a brand, so that's akin to President Obama asking for a glass of Russian River Valley Chardonnay. Nonetheless, The Glenlivet was the 1st legal distillery in Speyside; that's why it's legally called "The Glenlivet."

I wonder if King George were around today what would happen if he were to ask for a glass of Triumph. Many whiskies -- not just The Glenlivet -- made in the late '80s and early '90s were made from this barley. But this is the only one to confirm that it's 100% Triumph.

Greig says there weren't many bottles of this made, and he expects them to disappear from shelves in the next year or two. After that, we may never knowingly taste Triumph again. Imagine if that were the case for Pinot Noir or Shiraz. I'd be crying into my Gallo Hearty Burgundy.

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