The second Masterclass I attended at the Finest Spirits Festival 2016 (click here for Masterclass number one in English) was held by Karen Fullerton of Glenmorangie. Five fine Whiskys were sitting on the table, waiting to be nosed and tasted. But before we were allowed to start, Karen told us some interesting facts about Glenmorangie. They have the highest stills in Scotland. Their height is sixteen feet, ten inches and a quarter. I just thought „Like a giraffe“ when Karen used the exact same reference. Then we started tasting, the first Whisky was „The Original“, a standard Whisky from the distillery. A very nice and wee Dram!
In the early 80’s Glenmorangie started to invest – around 30m pounds (in today’s value) – into wood and cask management research. It was well invested money as they still use (and will continue to use) the knowledge they gained from that research. „The Original“ we just tasted is aged in 1st and 2nd fill ex-Bourbon casks. Another part for building the sweetness into the Whisky is the usage of slowly growing wood. It is more porous than the „normal“ growing wood and the bigger pores are – as some other factors – the reason behind the sweetness of that Whisky (and some other too). After cutting the trees needed for the casks, the wood has to rest and air-dry for at least 24 months. Of course this is also a factor – as the used water (later more) and the extreme height of the pot stills are – you have to take into account for producing „THE“ taste of Glenmorangie. After drying, the newly made cask is filled with Bourbon, for at least four years. After that long period it is time for the cask to come to Scotland. There it will be filled only twice, both times with the New Make (with 69% abv) designated to become the „The Original“ (or the Milsean, later more…). The relatively high abv (normally you use 63,5%) is accountable for the floral and fruity (apple!) notes, as Karen explains.
Next Whisky: „Private Edition Milsean“. Milsean is Gaelic and means „sweet things“ and should be a reference to what you can expect from that Whisky. You might call the Milsean the great brother of the „The Original“ because of the similarities during maturation. After maturing in 1st and 2nd fill ex-Bourbon casks, some of the Whisky has to move from these casks to toasted baroque casks (for around two and a half years). If you want to know, the difference between „charred“ and „toasted“ is how deep the flames penetrate the oak. The second method is much more intense, meaning the flames penetrate deeper layers of the oak and more of the sugar in the oak is caramelised. After the maturation is over, the Whiskys from the three different cask types are „vat married“ for 6 additional months. But that’s not the only thing that takes it’s time at Glenmorangie.
Another important factor at the Whisky making process is water. Glenmorangie has its own water well. Some say it has an influence on the Whisky, some don’t believe that. I’m one of the former one. Because of the geological structure in Scotland and around Glenmorangie in particular, the water also takes its time till it transforms from rain to the water Glenmorangie uses. It is also a quite hard water, a big disadvantage you might think. Wrong, as Karen points out, while we’re sipping the „Glenmorangie 18yo“. The yeast used by Glenmorangie loves the minerals in that hard Scottish mountain water. The 18yo Whisky is made of Whisky matured for 15 years in ex-Bourbon casks. After 15 years about 30% is transferred to ex-Oloroso casks. Then, after 3 more years, while the remaining 70% remained for the additional three years in their ex-Bourbon casks, they are married and bottled.
Whisky number four – the „Glenmorangie Signet“ – was definitely the highlight of that Masterclass. This fine Whisky is blended from Whiskys ranging from ten to 35 years. As you might have guessed, Glenmorangie has no problem to tell their fans how old the used Whiskys are, just like some other distilleries. What’s so special – besides the age – of that Whisky? Well, first of the used malt. Around a fourth of the needed malt isn’t kiln-dried as usually but rather roasted at 220°C. Because of that, the malt get’s very dark – I was thinking „Coffee beans“ – and you introduce coffee and chocolate notes into the malt. They call it „chocolate malt“ – go figure why. But there are some problems with this process. Glenmorangie can produce around 410 litres of pure alcohol per ton malt. From the chocolate malt only 320 litres can be produced. But the decrease in alcohol is an increase in taste, as Karen points out. The other problem: not only the malt is roasted, so are the enzymes in the malt. For that reason only around 25% chocolate malt is used, the rest is „normal“ malt with working enzymes. The second speciality are the used casks, Glenmorangie calls them „Design casks“. For these casks only slow growing oaks older than 50 years are used. Guess how many casks they can produce from such a tree. Well, the answer is two. The four used casks types are: virgin American oak, 1st and 2nd fill ex-Bourbon and Spanish oak casks. That and the other things mentioned, are the reasons, why that Whisky is a little bit more expensive, but also has his distinctive nose and palate.
That’s it for that Masterclass. But wait, didn’t you write about having five Whisky in from of you, someone might say. You are correct! The last Whisky was a surprise, as this Whisky isn’t available to the public. It was a cask sample from a 2003 distilled New Make. That makes it a 13 year old Whisky with 59,1% abv. A typical cask strength Whisky, but that’s the nature of cask samples. The cask was heavily toasted and therefore – as I mentioned above – there is lots of caramelized sugar in the oak. With that kind of Whisky (cask strength) it is always a good idea to use some drops of water – after trying it neat. There are no plans for bottling this fine Whisky at the moment as Karen told us, but I suspect that this Whisky will be available sooner or later in a very nicely composed Whisky.