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.