Last month I made a post I wasn’t planning to about confusions about Glendronach’s prized single cask releases. You can read it and how/why I came to write it here. Long story short: the term “single cask” probably rarely means what you think it means. This may have been the most read of any post I’ve made in the year (almost) since my blog went live. It’s no real big surprise why: Glendronach is a rising star distillery among geeks, and geeks love discovering “dirty secrets” of the industry–as I’ve said a number of times in a number of places, most of us actually know very little about what goes on at the production level in the Scotch industry. The outrage that my post sparked, at least for a day or two (and, for a change, not directed at me) had its source, I think, in the fact that the “dirty secret” being revealed is connected directly to the chief source of Glendronach’s growing cult status among geeks: the cachet of the single cask. I’d like to possibly annoy you about that today.
Before I get to that though, let me finally post the follow-up I promised in the days after I made the initial post. I must warn that it is not very exciting, though in its own way it may be revealing.
As you might recall, if you slogged through the entire thing, the original post came about very quickly. Conversations on Ruben’s blog and on WhiskyWhiskyWhisky led me to email the distillery; the distillery responded almost immediately; I sent them another email asking for clarifications; they responded to that email almost immediately; it took an hour or so to type the whole thing up and another 15 minutes or so to edit it, and I hit post. In the deluge of comments (and emails and private messages elsewhere) that came in from fellow geeks it became immediately apparent that there were a few grey areas in what Glendronach had told me. The two major ones it seemed to me were these:
1) Does this mean the same practice takes place at BenRiach as well?
2) Is it really the case, as I was told, that when dumping two casks for further maturation into the “single cask” referred to on the label Glendronach do not ever mix bourbon and sherry casks. At least two people informed me that they had on previous occasions been told otherwise by distillery representatives re specific casks.
I therefore emailed the person at the distillery I had heard from again and asked these questions and also whether Glendronach would not consider being more transparent on their labels. After all, in the case of BenRiach many casks are noted as being “finishes”, and then there are distilleries like Ben Nevis who provide much greater detail on exactly the same kind of thing (enlarge the image at left to see for yourself–this is from the little booklet thingy hanging around the neck of one of their “single cask” releases from 1984–no possibility of confusion for/of a careful consumer here).
Once again, I received an email almost immediately. This time, however, it was very brief and informed me only that they did not have time to continue to answer my “never-ending” questions. Now, personally, I don’t think three emails over a period of five days either is or threatens to be “never-ending” but that’s just me. (And you might say that from the speed with which all my emails were responded to it doesn’t seem either that the gent was so very busy with other things –but that would be rude and you should be ashamed of yourself.) It’s possible the distillery decided to curtail the transparency in the face of what they may have feared was a p.r. disaster in the making; it may be that they see it as a non-issue (and very probably far from unique to them) that they did not need to address time and energy to. Whatever the reason, I remain grateful to my correspondent for the candour of his first two emails.
So, there you have it: I have no further bombshells to drop on this subject–if that’s all you’re interested in, stop reading now.
From the non-reply that was the distillery’s third email I think you can reasonably conclude two things:
1) There is no guarantee that your “single oloroso/PX cask” of Glendronach does not contain spirit that was previously matured in a bourbon cask.
2) Your prized Benriach single casks, even when they do not mention “finishes”, may well also be the product of multiple casks vatted together in a single cask prior to bottling.
If the distillery did in fact curtail its responses with a view to not keeping the discussion going and turning it into a bigger controversy, they called it correctly: after a week or so of excitement most of us have moved on to new “controversies”: Mortlach pricing and bottle design, Tennessee whisky legalese etc. etc..
I did receive an email or three from people who noted among other things their surprise/disappointment over the fact that I did not seem more outraged. So let me briefly address that here.
It’s true, I was not very outraged, not at Glendronach at any rate. For two reasons (and I’m repeating myself here): first, this seems to me likely to be widespread industry practice and I didn’t think Glendronach is trying to pull a fast one; and second, I don’t buy Glendronach single casks because I believe and cherish the singleness of their single casks as I’d taken the term to mean, but because I like their whisky. So I don’t feel particularly cheated. I do think there needs to be industry-wide regulation of terms that consumers and the English language understand in ways other than distilleries apparently do, but there are so many areas that need greater transparency and/or regulation (“cask strength” anyone?) that it seemed disproportionate to get overly exercised about this one.
As I’ve been thinking more about this though–and now I begin to get to what I really wanted to talk about in this post–I do wonder if this labeling loophole through which Glendronach (and probably plenty of others) have been filling their “single casks” does not in fact take advantage of the fact that to the majority of those who purchase these bottles their allure very much lies in the common sense meaning of the term “single cask”. That is to say, this term confers a kind of limited exclusivity, suggests a more unique/un-replicable experience, and promises a more “organic” and pristine experience (the contents of a single cask, untouched by blenders, not smoothed out by vatting etc.); all allusions that would not be promised, at least not as strongly, by labeling them “small batch” or something else along those lines.
And it may be easier to sell a large number of seemingly unique and expensive “single casks” than a large number of batch releases. As at least one person noted in the comments on the previous post, either here on the Malt Maniacs Facebook page, if you’re not actually getting a single cask why not just buy the Parliament instead? It does seem that a number of people have been buying these thinking they were getting single casks that were in fact truly single from source to bottle–I heard from people who own bottles from as many as 45 of these “single casks”. It is very understandable if they may now not be very happy to discover otherwise.
In other words, what I am wondering about is the allure of the term “single cask”. Are we drawn to the idea of the “single cask”, as I suggested above, because it represents a product that is purer, that has not been tinkered with? Is it because in an industry that produces and is predicated on the production of vast quantities of replicable whisky from year to year the notion of the “single cask” presents a more authentic alternative? If I am right about this and if I am right that distilleries (or their owners) know this then the situation, while certainly not illegal, does seem unethical. If that’s the case though I would have expected this “revelation” to spark far more and far more sustained outrage–and it doesn’t seem to have.
So am I wrong? Or do most geeks not really care very much about these issues one way or the other? Is it that we like the idea of being outraged over something or the other every other week more than the actual issues? Or is it the case that we secretly know that the appeal of the “single cask” is quixotic and we’d rather hold on to the illusion that it allows us of being connoisseurs of a craft rather than purchasers of products made in vast volumes in factories?
I throw all these questions open to you. If you’ve made it this far, do write in below.