Sunday, September 7, 2014

Four Top World Grain Whiskys Head to Head

A few weeks ago I gave a rave review to Suntory's Chita grain whisky in a blog post about the Hibiki 17 and 21 launch this fall.  I wrote: "Tasted head to head with Nikka Coffey Grain (45%) and Greenore 15 (43%) (the subject of an upcoming post) the Chita was definitely more intense and richly flavored. And while all 3 were delicious, the Chita took the grouping hands down. A really special and very tasty set of flavors."

Coffey Still at Kilbeggan - from the old B. Daly
Distillery at Tullamore. Planned to be restored.
(photo courtesy of wikipedia)
In the intervening period I had my 50th birthday (the celebration of which involved a lovely tasting of whiskies either distilled or bottled in 1964 - the subject of a future post, no doubt).  One of the bottles opened was a nice 1964 Invergordon from Scott's Selection which made it into the follow-up tasting for this formal review. It seemed right to have a Scottish grain on board.  

Grain whisky is malt whisky's less respected but more widely consumed little sister.  Much of the grain whisky produced ends up as the major component of blended Scotch whisky.  It's not often been sold by itself outside the UK until recently.  Even in the UK until recently there were only a handful of single grains widely available, such as Cameron Brig.  Some blended grains have been around in recent years, such as the Snow Grouse version of Famous Grouse.  John Glaser opened a lot of whisky enthusiast's eyes with his Compass Box Hedonism product.  Recently a number of other single grain have begun to trickle in, like the trio photographed above (granted the Invergordon is a UK bottling, others like it are available in the US, and the Chita is completely unavailable outside of Japan).  Irish grain whisky for decades meant Midleton, which sold it to Bushmills for Bush White and used it in its own blends.  Single grain Irish is a new thing.  Japan has also only recently come to selling single grain whisky - and it's apparent that they excel at it.  Bain's Cape Mountain grain whisky in South Africa is well regarded (and will be reviewed soon).  This is a major growth area recently and it's full of promise.

Unlike malt whisky the grain in grain whisky isn't sprouted (or malted) to release sugars.  It's made from a variety of grains, usually whatever is cheapest - which is usually corn.  Wheat is common too.  Grain whisky is distilled differently from malt too - in column stills which use fractional distillation to achieve much higher proof than malt whisky - or Bourbon, by the way, which shares the column still for the "beer still" phase but usually uses a pot still doubler or "thumper" for a second phase of distillation.  Like industrial alcohol plants, grain whisky distilleries can distill all the way to vodka levels in a single column, although hold back from 1-3% below vodka levels in practice to leave just enough flavor compounds to read as whisky.  Aneaas Coffey's original column was a two column affair, with linked beer and spirit columns, like the ones seen here at Kilbeggan distillery (where the Greenore grain whiskey reviewed here is produced, BTW).  David Havelin of the fascinating blog "Liquid Irish" had a lot of fascinating things to say about these stills at Kilbeggan:

"These columns came from the old B. Daly distillery in Tullamore, whose distilling assets Cooley bought. The big news is that Cooley has firm plans to get them running again.

Cooley already has a column still in Louth pumping out grain spirit. The raw material there is about 90% maize, 10% malted barley. The Kilbeggan grain spirit will be all barley, with a high percentage of malt. I assume some will be blended with Kilbeggan's pot still-produced whiskey but I'd put money on a new standalone grain whiskey to complement the existing Greenore, if the results are at all palatable.

Cooley has investigated the history of this Coffey still. Nothing is certain, but it was likely made by John Dore & Co in London in 1910. Destined for India, the still was commandeered by the British government for making fuel during World War I. Things get a little hazy at this point. The still might have spent the inter-war years in Czechoslovakia but by 1940 or 1941 it had fetched up in Tullamore.

It's not known for sure if it was used there. In fact its presence was kept rather quiet, perhaps because of the stigma attached to the use of the non-traditional Coffey still in Ireland.

It's quite a historical piece of industrial equipment because John Dore & Co is the direct successor to Aeneas Coffey's original company. John Dore worked for Coffey & Sons and took over operations in 1872. Happily, John Dore & Co is still in business and has cast its eye over the Kilbeggan stills. They found the original Indian order for the still in their records. The company will make replacements for some copper parts pilfered after Tullamore closed."

Havelin had indicated that Cooley planned to restore those stills and get them back into operation.  However, Cooley sold out to Beam.  Camper English of Alcademics visited Kilbeggan in February of 2014 and the Coffey Stills are still outside with the old giant pot stills.  So, obviously the plans to restore them have been put on hold.
Nikka puts a graphic of their old  traditional style Coffey still on the back label of their Nikka Coffey Grain whisky product's bottle which states it was imported from Scotland in 1963.

The graphic on the Nikka back label looks a lot like this old etching which appears to be from from the 19th century which appeared on  Teemu Strengell's great blog post about the history and science of fractional distillation and the development of the column still (highly recommended reading).  The post is called "History of the Column Still"   Teemu Strengell's history mentions the antecedents and the technical aspects of the column still's distillery, as well as some details about early adoption:

"The column still was much more efficient compared to the traditional pot still, producing higher proof (usually 86-95% ABV) spirit about ten times more in volume compared to medium sized pot still distillery. Since the malting, heating and maintenance costs were a fraction of those of a malt distillery, the column still grain spirit cost about 50-70% less compared to pot still malt whisky, even if the set-up costs were included. The northern Britons were not used to the light column still whisky and at the beginning large quantities were sold to rectifiers and gin distillers, who spiced the spirit and sold it as gin or imitation brandy or cognac. As shown in the figure below, the English rectifiers and distillers quickly adopted the Coffey still, but the more traditionalist Irish and Scots remained loyal to the pot still at least to some extent."

The other day Billy Abbot wrote a lovely blog post about Haig Club Single Grain Whisky on The Whisky Exchange Blog.  That interesting exercise in branding is made at Cameronbridge.  He made a number of good observations which apply to grain whisky in general.

"Grain distilleries are not the romantic, picture-postcard sites you often find in Scotland. They are very much industrial plants, and while some, myself included, may find such things beautiful, they are often not considered to be anything but factories. This is slightly unfair, as they produce a lot of whisky, and consistency of quality is of paramount importance." 
"After fermentation, the now alcoholic liquid is pumped through to the stills and distilled to 93.8%, described as ‘very low strength’ compared to the legal maximum of 94.8%. This keeps some of the grain’s flavour rather than pushing it to be a neutral spirit. The spirit itself is a lot more flavoursome than you’d expect from tales of new-make grain spirit, with a distinctive character."

The high proof output of grain whisky's column still production, rather like the triple distillation used in Irish and Lowland Scottish whisky, produces a spirit with a different character - so light and gentle that it was originally sold for gin.  This lightness is apparent in the high end products tasted below.
Chita Single Grain Whisky from Suntory
When you look up Chita Single Grain whisky on Google, one of the first hits is a fantastic guest post by a mysterious Japanese woman named Momoco on Draper Price's excellent Whiskey Detectives blog.  In the post  Momoco pays the distillery a visit (impressive, as it is not open to the public), and takes photographs of the incredibly industrial looking facility.
The Whiskey Detectives piece also offers many more photographs, tasting notes, and a discussion of the Japanese water & whisky drink mizuwari.  I'm grateful for the peek into the Sungrain Chita Distillery complex.

So, the purpose of this look was to confirm my earlier assessment that Chita is really something special.  It's also a further orientation into the nature of grain whisky with its properties of lightness, sweetness, density of mouth feel and herbal notes.

Chita Grain - 17 years old 55% abv 

This sample from the Suntory Hibiki launch - the special version only available at Yamazaki distillery tour bar - sporting extra age and higher proof.  "Chita Whisky is made by the Chita Distillery in the Sun Grain complex, a division of Suntory Brands. Located in Port Nagoya in a seaside industrial zone"

Availability only in Japan.

Color: gold

Nose: sunflower, honey, dust, vanilla, creamy custard, and some distant notes of red bean and sawn oak..

Palate:  lush sweet vanilla cream opening with creme broulle custard.  Light and elegant mouth feel.  Butter and creme broulle with some herbal aspects of sunflower and gorse.  The sweetness becomes incense-intense on expansion, waxing in buttery Scotch-malt highland flavors which open into rich malty and white oak.  The finish is moderately long and lightly herbal.  Just beautiful grain whisky - stunning and intense and as fully flavored as any grain whiskies under 30 years I've tried.

91  *****

Chita Grain 12 years old 43% 

I was able to put this head to head with a small sample (a "drample" in Suntory US West Coast brand ambassador Neyah White's parlance) received from the voluble and elegant Mr. White.  The sample was too small to formally review, but a number of comments can be made.  While the stock 43% Chita has less vivid intensity, the signature flavors of buttered popcorn, salted caramel, and creme broulle were clearly in evidence.  This stuff is just absolutely freakin' delicious.

89 *****

Nikka Coffey Grain 45% abv

"With the purchase in 1963 of its two Coffey stills, Nikka can now offer in addition to its single grain a whisky with an atypical profile: theNikka Coffey Malt, a malt whisky distilled in column stills."a non-aged single grain mainly composed of corn and distilled with two "Coffey stills" transferred in 1999 from Nishinomiya to Miyagikyo."

Color - slightly richer darker gold
Nose:  gently sweet, honeyed with a bit of creaminess and vanilla floral but also slightly herbal with a hint of nettles and distant mint.  
Palate: light and gentle with honey and pale malt, creamy vanilla bean custard sauce on the opening.  Darker caramel flavors come in with rich oak and honey cakes on the expansion.  A moderately long finish with oak and lingering caramel sweetness growing increasingly herbal as it tails off.  Air turns it more mellow and custardy.  There's some oil on the mouth feel.  Lovely, beautiful, tasty stuff.

87  ****

Greenore 15 Year Old Single Grain 43% abv.

Greenore is Cooley/Beam's single grain whiskey brand.  The standard expression is an 8 year old.  I tried that at an Astoria Whiskey Society tasting and felt it was a little light for my tastes.  I chose the limited edition 15 year old version when I came across it at Shopper's Vineyard because I figured it would have more intense flavors.  It does to a small extent.

Grain used: corn
Color - slightly paler yellow gold
Nose: gentle floral honey, slight whisps of modeling clay, distant dried flowers.  Soft, elegant, sweet and lightly floral.  
Palate: Sweet and floral on the opening with vanilla, herbal cut flowers, a gentle phenolic quality that is hard to pin down.  A faint vinyl bandaid note.   The mouth feel is unexpectedly firm and oily up front.  The expansion brings in honey cakes and some lumberyard oak.  There is squeaky tannin in the mouth feel towards the finish which is lingeringly sweet and in the end whisper soft and gentle with plenty of spicy oak tannins and that phenolic quality riding to the finish.  With air a beguiling sweetness emerges and some lovely minty notes.  As it progresses through the leisurely dram it becomes downright delicious.

86 ****

Invergordon Scott's Selection 1964-2012 (48 yo) 42.3% natural cask strength. 

Invergordon is a modern industrial alcohol production facility in the far northern Scottish Highlands.  Built in 1960, it is now owned by White and Mackay.  A smaller column still there produces grain whisky for White and Mackay's blends and, apparently, some barrels make it out to independent bottlers like Scott's.

Color:  light amber.
Nose:  cream caramel, old books, dried black figs, dried pressed flowers, an old cabinet drawer
Palate: lightly sweet on entry with treacle and rapeseed oil and caramel corn flavors.  The mouth feel is thin and light.  The expansion brings some dilute old sherry and some far off herbal bitters.  At the turn there are are some squeaky tannin on the palate, but surprisingly little oak flavor.  This must have been a tired refill sherry butt, or was managed through one.  Water does very little for or against this one.  Perfectly pleasant sipping, but a bit tired and faded compared to my expectations.  However in head to head tasting, the darker sherry flavors bring a depth and richness to this grain whiskey which stand up well.  It might not be outstanding compared to other hyper-mature grains I've had recently, but it doesn't suffer the comparison here at all.

87 ****

As an aside, and to defend Scottish honor, let me share an informal tasting that Malt Maniac Peter Silver did with me a little while back.  He had a small sample shared with him by Krishna Nukala at a recent visit.

Girvan 1964-2012 The Whisky Agency 49.5% 

487 bottles from a sherry butt. 

Color: dark amber
Nose: rich sherry and oak with some vegetal (artichoke) notes.
Palate:  rich sherry, fig, black raisin, and rancio.  Delicato cornflower sweetness on opening.  Oak comes on strong on the turn.  Tannins and spice on the finish - but an astonishingly lack of oakiness for the age (rather like the Invergordon).  
(not scored - but clearly in the 90s).  This shows that mature Scottish grain whiskies can be utterly exquisite.  

The Girvan 45 yo 1965 The Clan Denny (Douglas Liang) 47.3% I tasted back in August 2012 was also absolutely stunning and memorable (hmmm... Girvan, perhaps).  The point is that Scottish grain can operate at the highest levels with the right bottling.


On the topic of my earlier infatuation with Chita, my scores speak eloquently of how much I enjoy Chita's grain whisky, even in the face of still competition.  It's my sincere hope that Suntory will choose to produce some for the US market some day.  It took the field in this tasting.  It's also a confirmation that the simple presence of "grain whisky" isn't what makes a blended whisky good or bad or better than a single malt or not.  It's the quality of that grain whisky.   Single grain whiskies clearly have a different flavor signature from malt whiskies (or other column distilled grain whiskies like Bourbon).  Light, sweet, delicate while sometimes dense and oily, with herbal notes and surprising aspects.  They take aging well.  Definitely an area worth further exploration.

This is the diagram of a Coffey still that everyone uses...

Friday, September 5, 2014

Balcones Distilling's Investors Threaten To Dump Founder, Genius Master Distiller, Chip Tate.

Left to right: Winston C. Edwards, Chip Tate, Patrick Donehue, and Noell Michaels
enjoying Balcones Vth Anniversary Crooked Bourbon at LeDu's in New York in better days.

The whisky blogosphere is abuzz with the news that a restraining order has been passed against Chip Tate, master distiller of Balcones, to keep him out of the new 65,000 square food distillery Tate was building in downtown Waco.

Mark Gillespie posted the news on WhiskyCast:
Chuck Cowdery broke the news on Facebook.  And Clay Risen's Mash Notes put up a blog post too:

All of these notices are based on a piece by Tommy Witherspoon in the Waco Tribune, with colorful details taken out a court document, like Chip apparently wishing he had put a couple of caps into board chief Greg Allen: "'I should have put two in his chest,” referring to shooting Allen after their conversations about Tate’s actions"... A reason why is hinted at in this passage from the Waco Trib piece:Also in connection to the parties’ disputes, Tate has made statements pointing out how the distillery is full of combustible items and how easy it would be for the distillery to be destroyed by a fire and that it would be better for it to be destroyed than for anyone other than him to run it,” the petition states."

The latter threat strongly implies that Chip was angry that Greg Allen threatened to get rid of him at the helm of Balcones and replace him.  Balcones is Chip Tate's life's work.  The details of the argument may yet come out.  All we have so far is what the Waco Trib scraped from the court documents - and they only tell the board's side.  I would caution everyone not to believe these allegations without some skepticism.  They are part of a legal battle and just because an interested party alleged them doesn't make them necessarily true.  In any case, those are some very strong words, but as Clay Risen wrote yesterday:

"’ll say this: No one who has met him should be surprised that he would say such things, but equally so, no one would expect them to be anything but words. Some people are very passionate about what they do, and they don’t hold back when something gets in the way of their work. Tate is one of those guys."

Mike Rockafellow
Who is Greg Allen?  Greg Scott Allen is the former CEO of Advance Foods of Enid Oklahoma - which merged with Pierre Foods in 2010 to form AdvancePierre under new CEO William Toler.  Advance Foods was originally started by Greg's father, Paul Allen.  His partner in the business was David L. McLaughlin. According to this 2005 article:

"The Allen and McLaughlin families that owned Advance Foods now hold minority stakes in AdvancePierre."

So Greg Allen, Mark Allen, Paul Allen, and Rob McLaughlin were bought out of their large food processing company and found themselves with capital and spare time.  They picked up Chip Tate's Balcones distillery expansion project - an excellent opportunity.  It appears, however that they are trying to manage Chip Tate like an employee.  Anyone who knows Chip knows that he's an impresario of spirits production.  He's a perfectionist and an artist:  a rare genius prodigy in the field of American whiskey.  He clearly cannot be governed in the usual business way and it's a mistake to try.

Other people involved in the project mentioned in the Balcones' press release announcing the ground breaking of the new distillery (and one other - not mentioned - as found on Linkedin are:)

Mike Rockafellow  Owner, TBC Enterprises, Inc
Keith Bellenger - Chief Operating Officer Balcones
Noell Michaels - Charlottesville VA, formerly of Bold Rock Hard Cider,
Hawker Beechcraft Corporation,
The Maple Ridge Group
Patrick Donehue Oklahoma city Tax Director First United Bank

On Chuck Cowdery's FaceBook post the reaction from the Craft distilling world and whiskey enthusiasts was predictably pro-Chip.  Jackie Summers, the creator of the hibiscus and spice tincture Sorel opened the comments simply with "NO CHIP = NO BALCONES."

Dozens of others said similar things.  Late in the evening I amplified, writing:  "I, too, stand with Chip. Chip is the heart and soul of not just Balcones but everything that is right about Craft distilling. No one sweats every detail and works so hard to produce fine art in the mash, barrel, bottle and glass. I know Chip bent over backwards to arrange a deal where it was clear, up front, that things would be done HIS way. The investors need to get out of the way and let him lead. I told Noell Michaels and Pat Donahue as much last time I saw them. Get on board and let the Chip express run free. That's the only way the investors will reap their reward. Did the Pope lock Michelangelo out of the Sistine Chapel when the ceiling was half finished? Chip is making art. Let the Artist create!

...sorry if I'm over the top... I've been drinking excellent whisky tonight and the news is devastating. I've been counting on this project to bring sweet Balcones juice to my cabinet and America's. This isn't just about my pining desire for Rumble Cask Reserve, Brimstone, True Blue, and Texas Single Malt... but also about America's need to drink this true Texas nectar. This is about patriotism, Goddamnit!"

I remember when Chip was setting up the deal with the investors.  We had a couple of phone conversations.  Chip was very careful and didn't say much, but he emphasized that he was looking for a group who would let him lead the project with minimal interference.  Chip intensely valued his independence and ability to operate Balcones his way.  But, like other small businesses gripped with sudden success, he lacked the capital to adequately grow.  This is particularly true in whisky distilling because the capital needs of building a new distillery are so steep and the time to recoup so long.  Clearly there's been a breakdown in communication here and that's a shame.  I know this is a situation that Chip feared even before the deal was struck.

Chip talked personally with me about trying to find the "right group" of investors who wouldn't try to take over the company or push him into doing things in a way that he didn't think was best. Somewhere in this mess there was a difference of opinion about how Balcones was to be set up and Chip's worst fear was realized. Then his angry reaction ended up in court papers.  I KNOW this didn't stem from a lack of clarity on Chips part going in.

Chip Tate isn't just a distiller.  He's a genius who builds his own stills, develops completely new mash bills and ground breaking unique products.  As I once wrote: Chip Tate is a "Mad Geeky Genius".

No matter what the actual details of the legal proceeding and arguments actually are, it's crystal clear that Chip Tate is the heart and essence of Balcones and the investors would do well to put aside their pride and understand that Chip Tate, like Michaelangelo is a great artist that needs latitude.  Posterity will not remember Tate's business meeting attendance even if he has been hotheaded and tempermental.  It will remember whether America's top Craft whiskey's expansion project succeeds or fails.  This needs to get resolved and they need to patch it up with Chip because the project can't be done right by anyone else.

Previous articles about Chip Tate and Balcones whiskies on The Coopered Tot:

Chip Tate's Mad Geeky Genius

The Illuminating and Unsung Batch Evolution of Balcones Texas Single Malt

Tasting special unreleased casks of Balcones with Chip Tate and AllisonPatel at The Brandy Library

Balcones True Blue - a floral citrus blue corn eau-de-vie with kicking dusty Texas terroir.

Smoked Whisky: Balcones Brimstone and Corsair Triple Smoke

Rumble Cask Reserve is a delicious rarity that defies categorization

Update:  The court papers relating to the restraining order are posted and analyzed on the blog here: