Does Distillery Character Exist?

Casks
Prominent in the shared language of whisky geeks is the idea of “distillery character”. It comes up often in reviews, including mine. See, for example, my review of a very old Teaninich where I say that some old whiskies seem “more like examples of “fruity distillates put into refill bourbon wood for a very long time” rather than exemplars of distillery character”; or my review of a port-matured Benromach where I note that not having tried very many Benromachs “I can’t really speak to distillery character”; elsewhere in a review of a port-matured Springbank I put the term in scare quotes that clarify nothing, suggesting that due to Springbank’s approach to double maturation their “distillery character” always comes through in their whiskies of the type. And these are only some of my recent reviews in which I use the term. All of this would suggest that I believe in distillery character. But in fact I don’t. Or rather I don’t really know what it is I, or other people, mean when I/they refer to “distillery character” or if there’s any consistency in how we do it.

There are some clues in the usages above, even if in a negative sense. In the case of the port-finished/double-matured whiskies distillery character would appear to be something that is in danger of being masked by (wine) finishes/maturation. This sense appears even in my reviews of malts from sherry casks: as in the notion in this review of a Clynelish, that “[t]he spirit is overwhelmed by the sherry”. Lest you think it’s only idiots like me who say things like this, let me note that the Malt Maniacs Awards used to (may still do) include a category for “natural cask” where natural cask, in the words of Serge V. encompassed, “anything that’s not sherry (mainly first fill) or other wine treated/finished”. From these kinds of usages it would appear that distillery character is something that is found in bourbon cask whisky, the essential nature/natural state of a malt that is at risk of disappearing in more overbearing casks (even though the results may be excellent).

But in the case of the very old Teaninich it would appear to be something that emanates from a source other than any kind of cask at all: here it is wood influence of any kind plus time that might take a malt away from its distillery character. (I’m focusing on the language of my own reviews so as to avoid the impression that I am critiquing something that only other people do; but I think the kinds of tendencies I’m pointing to in my own reviews are quite representative.) Putting all this together we might say that distillery character is something that originates in the distillate (which would seem to be obvious, but hold that thought) and is preserved and/or re-emerges after maturation in casks that don’t overwhelm it either through over-active/overbearing wood or simply via extended time spent in them. In other words, distillery character is something that’s already there in the spirit and it’s merely a question of whether it survives into the bottle.

There are some problems though with this seemingly commonsensical understanding. First of all, let’s get the sherry and overbearing cask argument out of the way. The easiest way to dispose of this is to point to the case of distilleries that age their spirit overwhelmingly in sherry casks. If sherry casks mask distillery character than how do we determine distillery character in Macallan or Glenfarclas? It seems quite obvious that in those cases when we talk about distillery character we are talking very much about characteristics that come from sherry casks rather than the distillate. Indeed, the arguments many had against the Fine Oak line was exactly that it didn’t fit the sherried Macallan profile.

Next, if distillery character is something intrinsic to the distillate and in danger of being overwhelmed by wood and time then you might expect to encounter it most obviously in very young malts (finally, an argument for NAS!). But the qualities of very young malts, their greater proximity to the new make state is not something that is prized by very many people. Whisky, we all agree, is something that emerges precisely through wood and time and the additions and subtractions they provide. Getting further away in time from the origin is for most of us a good thing. It would then appear that distillery character emerges through maturation and does not precede it. For some distilleries you might say it emerges at a particular age range through maturation in a particular wood and for other distilleries at different ages in different woods. So, Laphroaig, say, one could argue sees its distillery character formed in the early teens in bourbon casks, and to the extent to which older expressions or sherried expressions express these characteristics we would say they maintain the distillery character. Problem solved? Not quite.

First of all, to stick with the example above, it would be rather arbitrary to claim the characteristics of young teenaged Laphroaig over the characteristics of Laphroaig in its late teens or twenties as being the truly representative characteristics, the markers of distillery character. All we’d be doing is stating a preference: I like what bourbon cask Laphroaig generally tastes like from 10-14 years of age and so I insist that Laphroaig can only be quintessentially Laphroaig if it demonstrates these characteristics. Secondly, could this preference itself have been set by the fact that the default Laphroaig for most people is the 10 yo? This is the one we start with and it becomes our yardstick. Aha, you might say, but there’s a reason the default Laphroaig is a 10 yo and it’s because the distillery knows that that’s when it’s distillery character is fully formed. Yeah, but the distillery also releases so many expressions that are younger and which are recognized as being quintessentially Laphroaig. Are these just precocious casks? Maybe, but I’d point to something else instead.

And I’ll get to it by noting first that despite all our romantic talk of distillery character and the subtle distinctions between the products of different distilleries, it seems to me that the vast majority of Scottish malts are anonymous and substitutable for each other. This may seem like a blasphemous thing to say but the fact is it would not make sense for them to not be: they’re mostly intended for blending and most distilleries are tasked with producing not something unique but something of a type. If every malt was truly idiosyncratic blenders would have a much harder job. And it is indeed blenders that we have to thank for the thing we think of as distillery character.  I mean here not the people who compose blended whisky but the blenders who compose single malts. (Keep in mind that the vast majority of single malt whisky is the product of vatting many, many casks together.)

Just as the makers of blended whiskies are working with recipes so are the blenders who produce single malt whisky. It is they, I suggest, who produce distillery character. Working with casks of different ages, wood types and characters they compose a profile that we think of as always having been intrinsic to the spirit. Just think of the large numbers of independent single cask releases you’ve had that were not very similar to the more familiar official releases or did not contain their supposedly intrinsic characteristics: I sometimes think that finding wax in Clynelish is a matter of believing it’s there; and anyone who has had a number of single bourbon cask Highland Parks knows that they often have characteristics that don’t show up at all in the official sherried releases (which is what we think of when we think of Highland Park’s distillery character).

Distilleries have a lot of casks in their warehouses: yes, they all contain spirit that has been distilled in stills that are shaped and run in certain ways but once it goes into the casks the process through which it become whisky (age and wood) produces quite a large spectrum of characteristics (you only need to drink a lot of independent releases to know this is true). Consider also the random assemblage of just the large fraction of bourbon casks: some first fill, some second fill, some nth refill; some that previously held peated whisky, some that didn’t; some that came from American distilleries that produce higher rye bourbon and some that produce lower rye bourbon etc. etc. The blender’s art takes all this variable, raw material and produces from it (variations on) a profile which becomes part of their brand’s identity. (This is part of why so many distilleries are ambivalent at best about independent bottlers: random single casks chip away at the identity the distillery profile seeks to assert.)

What we think of as distillery character, I want to say, is actually a profile that has been created by a master blender working with casks that at the far points of the spectrum are very far apart from each other (and in the wider bands may not even be that far away from casks sitting in some other distillery’s warehouse). Sometimes you can see this process happening before your eyes, when a distillery that was hitherto known largely through independent single cask releases suddenly gets released officially. Take Mortlach, for instance. Until the new official releases showed up most of us would have said that Mortlach produced a whisky marked by a sulphury, meaty character (and this was backed up by the old Flora & Fauna release, albeit in a milder form). But the reviews of the new official line suggest that the distillery is going for a smoother, milder spirit. Does this mean they’re suppressing distillery character? Or could it mean that they’re actually creating a different distillery character?

I’ve already given my answer: distillery character is made, not in the still, not even in the cask, but in the blender’s vat.

Over to you.

10 thoughts on “Does Distillery Character Exist?

  1. “in the wider bands may not even be that far away from casks sitting in some other distillery’s warehouse”

    Suggesting the experiment of master distillers swapping stocks for a day to see how close to their own style they can make the other’s whiskey — for, say, a hundred bottle festival run. There might be one distillery in Scotland who’d be willing to give it a go, at the cost of showing the hocum behind much whiskey marketing, but I don’t know whether there’s two.

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  2. The old nature vs nurture debate. I would contend that the product of each still has a unique DNA, but they are all in the same family (most having Mr Forsyth as a father), and many will be hard to tell apart to outsiders. (Fill in your own racist analogy here.) Thus the upbringing will be most important, and may seem all-important to some. I suggest you go to Scotland, tour a whole pile of distilleries, and demand to sample new make from each before you make a definitive judgment.

    (Hmmm, the still is like a womb, so I guess Mr Forsyth is the mother. Or maybe the grandfather. Have I stretched this analogy too far yet?)

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    • I guess I would say that I don’t know that if the differences in “distillery character” in the final product map onto the differences in character of the new makes.

      My point is not that there are no real differences between what is made (at any stage) in different distilleries: merely that the final product, which is what we are almost always talking about, is made at the blending stage. If the the product coming off the still determined this character so thoroughly we’d expect to find it more consistently in every cask; but the experience of drinking a lot of single casks belies this. I’m suggesting the master blenders create distillery character by choosing the casks that exhibit the characteristics they want to foreground and leaving out the casks that don’t. So it’s not merely a matter of nature vs. nurture; it’s also a matter of selection.

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  3. Hi.
    Just to briefly chime in (I’m more of a forum than a blog whisky person… so I might not be back, I just wanted to leave a thought).

    I do think there is a distillery character, generally speaking, and the good/strong ones you can always recognize… i.e. Springbank post 1990 mineral-ness / a certain lighter-flint note (my blind guess rate for Springbanks/Longrows/Kilerrans is pretty high as the last years blind tastings have shown… :D) is one example that comes to mind, no matter if from bourbon/sherry/wine casks.
    Same with Bowmores’ 1960s period (similar to 1992 – 2002 ish which I find very distinct notes, yet here only from bourbon / non-sherry casks, which no one else has and across a wide range of OBs & IBs), Tomatins 60s were very very different to the mid70s, both of which are quite distinct, Littlemills from the late80s/90s (bad example… as there’s not much else in terms of available vintages/eras from Littlemill…). etc. There’s quite a few reliable markers for some distilleries, but these shift over the decades as we all know.

    I do agree though that it is getting harder to recognize/learn a distilleries character these days, but that has more to do with facts of modern whisky production (same maltings companies used, same industrial yeasts, same owners, same efficiency measures, same computerizations….) and many whisky producers output has become interchangeable / indistinguishable imo.
    As a practical example, for me it’s been years since I could tell apart the standard expressions from Islay’s south coast (plus Caol Ila)… they all (with a slight exception for Lagavulin still, potentially due to age difference to the other 2 standards) have become rather indistinguishable from each other.
    If you were to compare the same distilleries’ output from the 70s, there is rather big differences…
    So, shame on the producers/distillers for not being able to make their spirit speak for itself anymore (in far too many cases…)!
    c.

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  4. Pingback: My Annoying Opinions: Destilleriecharakter - gibt es den? - WhiskyExperts

  5. Hi there,

    I would think it all depends on how you define distillery character.

    A „distillery“ is (or should be) malting milling mashing distilling cask filling maturation – no? That means if you look at a distillery as a whole you could only speak of a distillery character if the production process is standard from milling to aging new spirit in the same kind of cask for a standard period of time.

    In this sense you can define a distillery character for Caol Ila much more easily than in other distilleries.
    Most Caol Ila is filled into refill bourbon barrels. So for me part of the distillery character of Caol Ila malt is the light colour the lack of sherry influences and the smokey-peaty drying vanilla aromas.

    Seeing distillery character as result of a distillery as an entity it is easy to describe the distillery character of contemporary GlenDronachs – shery sherry sherry. GlenDronachs from bourbon barrels would be the odd ones out.

    What sense would it make to speak of distillery character in malts like GlenDronach and not refer to the over sherriedness most GlenDronachs boast? Which the derive from the casks?

    You do speak of the influences of different barrels in your musings, though.
    This would mean to take only the new make into account for the definiton of a true distillery charater where no cask influence has occured. No we are not talking about whisky anymore.

    And the reason for any kind of blending is to level out individuality not to underline it. So yes, the product of a master blender say a 12yo standard OB can define the distillery character of a distillery in the sense that it is a construction of how the master blender defines the character of the whisky his distillery puts out.
    But is a construction the true character?

    And yet I would concur that there is a certain Laphroaig-ness about all Laphroig a feeling of Bowmore-ness about any Bowmore and so on – you get my meaning.

    I would answer the original question with a yes, there is such a thing as distillery character but it is hard to find and not really relevant to enjoy whisky. It is a can of worms and a totally irrelevant question. 8-)

    Greetings
    kallaskander

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    • kallaskander writes “I would answer the original question with a yes, there is such a thing as distillery character but it is hard to find…” This is a legitimate conclusion, IMO, and it supports the idea that most often when a reviewer/blogger/salesperson refers to “distillery character” it is an oversimplification if not BS.

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  6. I’d argue that distillery character isn’t best expressed by original bottlings. That’s entirely down to blenders, but not really the best jumping-off point to compare distilleries.

    When I speak of distillery character, I generally mean the difference between comparable single casks – peated bourbon casks in the low teens, for example. Laphroaig, Caol Ila, peated Bunnahabhain – all have quite a different profile despite sharing so many traits.

    I’ve had official releases that I think have steered too far in the direction of being mild and forgettable instead of embracing the differences. I’ve yet to try the new Mortlachs, but if what you say is true then I think they dropped the ball there.

    The sherried malts are an interesting case, because while sherry is still core to their identity, I don’t think they come out in the same way. I don’t know how interchangeable sherry casks ultimately are, but GlenDronach, Glenfarclas, Mortlach and Macallan all come out rather differently from sherry casks of similar ages.

    It’s also true that distillery character has been reduced by the standardization of the production process, both consciously to ease blending and as a result of profit maximization.

    I believe in distillery character, but I don’t think the OBs are the best place to look for it.

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    • That’s an interesting perspective but I have a very different take. To take your first set of examples, while I agree that Bunnahabhain’s peated malt is very different in profile from the other Islays, I have done numerous blind tastings of indie bourbon cask Laphroaigs, Caol Ilas, Ardbegs and Lagavulins and been very hard pressed to tell them apart (and these were bottles from my own collection, which I had tasted many times before). It’s with the OB versions that I can most clearly tell the differences.

      But again, my point is not that there are no differences; it is that these differences are constructed in the act of selecting and blending casks for release that fit a desired official profile. So “distillery character” exists but as a constructed thing in most cases. This is why Glendronach, Glenfarclas and Macallan come out differently (Mortlach is a different story because of a very specific production quirk meant to produce a meaty spirit). And Glendronach’s coming out differently may merely be a function of the extensive re-racking regimen they do (yet another instance, if true, of character being created). But take even these distilleries’ raw, young sherry monsters: do you feel confident that you could tell the Glenafarclas 105, Macallan CS and Aberlour A’bunadh apart in a blind test, by the way? I don’t.

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