...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The 1997 Clynelish vintage?

If, like me, you're a frequenter of Whiskyfun, you may have noticed Serge referring to specific years of specific distilleries as if they were of a vintage, like wine.  Many of the vintages he references are far beyond my whisky budget (specifically those of the early '70s).  But there is one vintage that, for now, remains within reach: 1997 Clynelish.

Now, can distilleries have good vintages and bad vintages, like wine regions?  The overwhelming response I've read is: NO.  For wine, grape growth and sugar content are directly affected by climate.  Barley can also be affected by the weather, but a whisky is also greatly influenced by spirit cuts, yeast strains, oak casks, the former contents of those casks, and maturation conditions.  Also, compared to fermentation, the distillation process is less gradual, more violent, turning all of the sugars into alcohol.  In wine, some of the sugars from the grape juice remain in their simple sugar form, allowing much more of the grape characteristics to influence the final nose and palate.

The wine industry and its peripheral businesses are all about the grapes.  On the other hand, as discussed previously, almost no one in the whisky industry talks about their barley.  Couldn't there be some barley crops that are better than others, yielding better sugars for distillation?  Well, maybe, but the barley for Scotch whiskys aren't sourced from one region.  Bordeaux wine comes from grapes grown in Bordeaux, Champagne from Champagne.  A lot of barley for Scotch whisky is sourced from outside the country, sometimes from as far as Russia -- possibly a reason for the hush-hush attitude by the industry about their barley.  So, except in rare cases, the grain for your favorite single malt's origin isn't necessarily from one consistent locale.  Thus the climate probably doesn't influence the final product in a consistent manner.

But, what if there are unusually large proportions of good independently bottled whisky coming from one distillery in one particular year?  Different bottlers, different casks, different warehouses, all resulting in consistently good stuff?

I still think that starting with great distillate is one of the keys to a good single malt.  That's why we all have our favorite distilleries.  The fermentation time, the yeast, where the cuts are made, and the still shapes result in a product we reach for first in the stores.  Yet things change, whisky changes.  Distillery managers, processes, yeast strands, barley sources, and ownership change.  Isn't it possible that some years are better than others?

Serge likes Clynelish distilled in 1997 (see here, here, herehere, and here to name just a few). Mr. Valentin knows more about whisky that most of us, and probably more so than a number of professional spirits writers.  Two of the original PLOWED members recently expressed to me their love of that same vintage as well.  So I thought I'd give a few indie '97 Clynelishes a try.  The good news is there seems to be a good amount of that vintage to be found at European retailers.  Much more than the '98s or '96s.  Was Diageo feeling particularly generous that year?  Did they overproduce?

I first tried a pair of '97 Clynelishes -- from James Macarthur and Exclusive Malts -- at group tastings in Orange Country.  The first was bottled at 45%, the other was single cask, cask strength.  Both were very very good.  That inspired me to go out and buy a bottle of a different indie '97 blindly (from a US retailer!).  That one was also of considerable quality.  Since that one was at cask strength, I then bought single cask samples for three other indie bottlers.

Four recent 1997 Clynelishes, all bottled by independents, all at full strength.  Let's see what happens...