Our Master Distiller and Production Director Jim McEwan explains why he decided to increase some of our whisky to 50% ABV:
“The decision to increase the strength of our barley exploration series single malts is the result of a six-year study analysing the flavours and aromatics of Islay barley at 46% and at 50% ABV.
“For the study I chose Islay barley because I know exactly which farms it comes from year on year; these local terroirs are identifiable – we know the farmers, the conditions, the lie of the land, so we can monitor the characteristics of the spirit with as much consistency as possible.
“We believe that our raw ingredients are absolutely paramount. To really showcase the quality of our barley and the beautiful spirit it produces, we need to capture it in its prime. The test proved beyond doubt that at 50% the flavours from the spirit are more evident, particularly the barley notes, which are not dominated by the oak at this age. The viscosity is richer, being less dilute, and it’s this richness that holds the components together until the strength of the oak takes on that task as the whisky gets older.
“Our oak policy is second to none – I personally source the very best the world has to offer. It has to be. From its birth the spirit has been moving in and out of the oak staves, contracting and expanding with temperature changes; this is particularly marked during the warmer months, when the alcohol drives deep into heart of the oak, giving an unfortunate evaporation loss of 2% each year – the famous Angels’ Share.
“It’s during this annual journey into the oak that the spirit mellows, the colour changes, along with the flavours and the aromatics. The flavour-rich oils created during production are absorbed into the oak staves and the spirit drives deep into the heart of the cask absorbing its flavours; in exchange, the cask absorbs the oils and this goes on throughout the maturation period. As it gives so does it take.
“In my 50 years working with casks I have watched many mature, just as I have my children, and I believe that when we want to capture as many of the natural oils as we can we bottle the spirit when it is younger and richer, since it’s the oil from the barley that give the richness to the palate, the aromatics to the olfactory senses and a finish that is extended way beyond that of a chill filtered whisky. There is a complexity quite different to older, more oak influenced whiskies.
“At this age and strength, the soft green fruits from our gentle, slow trickle distillation shine through and combine beautifully with the sweet breakfast notes from the toasted barley; that extra 4% alcohol plays a significant role in the identification of these flavours. The oaky flavours are mild and really play a supporting role – allowing the barley character to shine – giving a gentle crème brûlée, vanilla pod sweetness with little traces of smoke and a hint of Bourbon left by the previous occupant of the cask. The flavours are all very identifiable which is absolutely vital – without the stronger influence of the oak we would find any “off notes” in the spirit straight away. There is nowhere to hide.
“Simply put, by bottling at 50% ABV we retain more of the most essential compounds in the bottle. We want the provenance of our barley, this most essential raw material, to shine. Add the magic of Hebridean alchemy, true craftsmanship provided by people whose skills have been handed down from their forefathers, and we get something incredibly rare and special.
“Without a doubt, hand crafted, non chill filtered, non coloured, young single malts really shine at 50%. It was worth the wait. Now we know and we hope you can enjoy and taste the difference with us.