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A Chat with Brendan McCarron from Glenmorangie

Brendan McCarron, Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks at The Glenmorangie Company

WhiskyGeeks is fortunate to get a chance to speak with Brendan McCarron, the Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks at the Glenmorangie Company, during our DFS event. As the heir apparent to whisky legend, Dr Bill Lumsen, Brendan has plenty to work on. He joins the company five years ago and started work with the whisky creation team alongside Dr Bill.

Brendan’s Whisky History

Brendan hails from Glasgow, Scotland. As a chemical engineering graduate, he started his career in the whisky industry in 2006 when he joined Diageo. After three years, Brendan began work as the distillery manager at Oban. Two years later, he left for “Peatland” – Islay, where he worked with Lagavulin, Caol Ila and of course, Port Ellen.

Port Ellen is a malting facility where Brendan got to work with the maltsers on different requirements. Making smoky malted barley was probably one of his favourite thing to do! The smoky malted barley was also the reason that Brendan got to know Dr Bill Lumsen. After ten years of working as a distillery manager, Brendan decided to change his direction and joined The Glenmorangie Company as part of their whisky creation team.

Brendan’s Unique Journey

Brendan has a fantastic whisky journey from the day he joined the industry in 2006. He is probably one of the very few people in Scotland who has worked on all aspects of whisky making. From designing a brand-new distillery (building it!) to malting, distilling and maturing whisky, Brendan has done it all. These experiences at the various distilleries and malting houses have shaped Brendan’s knowledge and expertise along the way. Additionally, he also went out of his way to acquire theoretical knowledge through his pursuit of books, courses and degrees. All of these add to his practical experience and give him a well-rounded education in whisky making.

Glenmorangie and its whiskies

Glenmorangie Whiskies (Picture Credit: Glenmorangie.com)

We had a short chat with Brendan on the different exciting whiskies that are coming shortly. We understood that there is a 25-year-old whisky released, but so far, we have yet to see it land in Singapore. It may be soon, but we do not know when.

The exciting part of the chat is, of course, the single cask #1399, that we tasted during the DFS tie-up event that we did on 22 June 2019. It is part of their latest project to launch exclusive single casks for specific countries. Making its debut as a travel retail exclusive bottle is naturally the best way for a brand to market a rare single cask bottling in Singapore considering the sheer volume of people passing through our airport!

Glenmorangie’s Affairs with Wood

Wood has always been the talk for Glenmorangie. We know that they used exceptional “designer” oak casks for some of their limited edition whiskies. We asked Brendan about these casks.

The creative team at the distillery involves itself in the creation of the oak casks from the start. Their research led them to the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, USA, where they found slow-growing wood that suits the spirit of Glenmorangie. To bring the effects of the slow-growth wood further, the team discovered the trees in the Mark Twain National Forest, where the oak trees grow slowly and develop the porous nature that the Glenmorangie team needs for its whiskies.

The Making of Artisan American White Oak Casks

An Oak Cask (Photo Credit: Glenmorangie.com)

The entire process of making these oak casks started with the identification of specific trees within the Mark Twain National Forest. These trees are cut and then air-dried for two years for maximum effects. Air-drying not only reduces astringency and improves the wood’s permeability; it also enhances the soft and rich flavours of the Glenmorangie whiskies.

These tight-grained but porous wood are then made into casks. The casks will be heavily toasted and then lighted charred for the distillery’s needs. The cooperage then fills bourbon whisky in the casks for precisely four years. It is like clockwork. Once four years is up, the casks are ready for shipment to the Scottish Highlands. The whole process takes six years to complete. Such dedication to oak casks is impressive, and we salute the team for going through with this process.

Designer Wood Casks for Limited Edition Whiskies

Some of the designer wood casks hold the core range of the whiskies from Glenmorangie; others hold limited edition whiskies. One of the famous limited edition is the Glenmorangie Astar. Our team got the chance to taste the Astar at another event held at The Exciseman on 1st July, where Brendan gave a presentation to both trade and consumer alike. We will speak of that another time.

Due to the higher porosity of the cask, the whisky soaks better into the wood, extracting flavours that the distillery is after. The distillery also uses these designer casks only twice for maturation purposes. Brendan explained that the casks are no longer suitable after two uses, and they usually sell the majority of these casks. Some get left behind for experiments, and a small number of them go to Ardbeg.

Are Flat-Packing Barrels still a Cost-Saving Practise?

We asked Brendan some essential financial questions as well, that affects production. In the past, some distilleries broke up the ex-bourbon barrels they bought and flat pack them before shipping to Scotland. Once the vessel landed, the distilleries brought the staves to a cooperage and rebuilt the casks. The practice affected the quality of the casks, and the whiskies matured in such casks become a debatable topic.

According to Brendan, this practice is hardly used in Scotland’s distilleries today. The discovery that they do not save cost by doing so was one of the significant factors. However, the debate on the practice that MAY have affected production was probably the main factor that led to the abolishment.

The abolishment, unfortunately, led to a reduction of hogshead as most hogsheads are rebuilt from standard barrels. While this is a loss to the whisky industry, we must remember that cost is always a factor for end-consumers because higher cost equates to higher prices!

The Truth about Virgin Oak Casks

Some distilleries are making use of virgin oak casks to mature some of their whiskies. We even know of new distilleries that make use of virgin oak maturation to reduce the number of years needed to produce delicious whisky. Glenmorangie uses virgin oak casks as well, and we wanted to know what Brendan thinks about them. He thinks, that virgin oak casks may prove to be too strong an influence on Glenmorangie’s new make spirits. The virgin oak casks may hide the fruity notes of Glenmorangie and make it “un-Glenmorangie”. Brendan prefers to do finishes with virgin oak casks instead.

It is of interest to know that Glenmorangie does a lot of wood finishes to bring flavours to their whiskies. For example, the distillery finished the Lasanta in Oloroso and PX sherry cask, the Quinta Ruban in Ruby Port Pipes and the Nectar D’òr in Sauternes casks.

Factors that Affects the Choices of Cask Finishes

Brendan explained that they do not know all the elements of influences when the creative team chooses the cask finishes. They know for a fact that the spirit of Glenmorangie works well with Port and Sauternes casks finishes. Unfortunately, they do not know the reaction to all the casks in the world. Therefore, it is much of a trial and error for the team when they are choosing the cask finishes. By selecting items of interest which the team thinks would work with the spirit, they came up with various experiments of different finishing casks. The availability of the casks is also crucial, as they need enough casks to complete a new finishing experiment.

Brendan mentioned that the team also takes the opportunity when it comes knocking. If their suppliers offer casks which they have not tried before, they may take a few of the casks to create new experiments. Some experiments will succeed while others may not. Part of the fun is finding out if it works. For those of you who are curious, the casks that don’t work are not thrown away! The team reracks the “unworkable” casks into sherry or ex-bourbon casks to “reset” them. Usually, the age of the whisky will also help to rectify any issues that the team finds.

Brendan Wants YOU to Know This!

Brendan, the whisky expert

We thought that we have enough technical talk, so we asked Brendan what the one thing that he would like the whisky community to know is. The answer is not surprising. Brendan wants everyone to know that a single malt whisky comes from a SINGLE whisky distillery. It is one of the most misunderstood terms in the whisky industry. Many whisky drinkers confused single malt whisky and single cask whisky. Brendan shares his frustrations at how he always get that same question – “How is the whisky still a single malt whisky when you blend all these casks to create it?”

To set the record straight, Brendan shares that a single malt whisky can be a “blend” of 15 casks from the SAME distillery. As long as the whisky is made from malted barley and is not blended with whisky from another distillery, it is a single malt whisky.

What You Can Do If You Want to Work for a Whisky Distillery

Most of our younger folks here would probably be keen to work for a whisky distillery. We ask Brendan what we need to do if we want to work for a distillery. Here is his advice.

Get a science-related degree if you want to be on the distilling team. Chemical engineering or chemistry is a good start. Otherwise, biochemistry is helpful too. There are, however, many ways to get involved. You can still work in the industry even if you have a business degree. You can join the distillery in sales or marketing with it. Nonetheless, you will still need the passion and love for whisky before you can comfortably stay in the industry.

Do not despair if you do not have any of those. Brendan said that having experience is equally vital if you are not Scottish and want to work in Scotland. He started in pharmaceutical and the knowledge he gained there translated into his next job with Diageo. Working in a brewery also helps because that involves two stages of the whisky distillation. Ultimately, the potential candidate needs to be open and adaptable. When you combine the passion for whisky and your openness to adapt, you will be able to make headway into the career that you want. Start with a job that you can do and learn from there. You will never know where that will take you!

 

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A Visit to Pernod Ricard’s Office Bar

The new Reception at Pernod Ricard Singapore

Geek Flora and Geek Choc visited Pernod Ricard Singapore recently for a drink with their Assistant Brand Community Manager, Denis English. It was our first time to the office bar, and we were excited to find out how it looks like. When we reached the office lobby, we found Denis patiently waiting for us outside the office! That was a great welcome!

The Walk to the Bar

Denis walked us into the office, and the first thing that greeted us was the magnificent reception that you see at the top of this post. We understand that Pernod Ricard renovated the office and they have just recently reopened the bar as well. At one corner of the large reception area, there is a sofa with some splendid posters. This is the waiting area.

Pernod Ricard’s Waiting Area

 

Check out the posters. They are gorgeous!

We turned into a corridor where there is a wall filled with their products. There is a selection of fine wines, cognac, whiskies, gins, vodka, tequila and rum. Here’s a picture to show you how the wall looks like.

 

The Whisky_Cognac Wall

Pernod Ricard’s Office Bar

This beautiful corridor leads to a vast, open space that house the Pernod Ricard’s office bar. This is how it looks.

Denis behind the bar counter

Pernod Ricard uses the bar for training within the company and industry. Denis shared that the company trains bartenders, bar owners, bar managers and their trade partners in the bar. Of course, employees have access to the bar and they can “drop-by” after work for a drink or two.

Besides the bar counter, there is an open area that can hold up to say about 30 people by our judgement.

Appealing Open Area in the bar

The office bar is a good place for employees to relax after a hard day’s work with some whiskies, cognac or gin. The bar is well-stocked, and there are various delicious blended and single malts that we spy from our seats at the counter. We spent a long time here to understand more about the whisky range of Pernod Ricard and of course, chatting about whiskies!

The Tasting Session

Denis filled the evening with lovely whiskies and his generosity as we sample drinks after drinks. We started with two special bottlings of the Chivas Regal – the Extra and the Mizunara. We then moved on to the Royal Salute 21 Years, Ballantine’s and the single malts.

The range of whiskies we tasted

The Chivas Range

Those of you who know me (Geek Flora) personally will know that I am not a huge fan of the Mizunara cask as I am not fond of incense in my whisky. The Chivas Regal Mizunara is of course, not something I am so keen to try. It is finished in Mizunara casks for three to six months, so I am wary of the incense notes when I nose it. Interestedly, the incense here is fragrant and well, not so intense! I get the vanilla more than the incense. You could say that it is a welcoming change, but it is still not as outstanding as the Chivas Regal Extra.

Now, the Chivas Regal Extra is made up of mostly sherry-cask whiskies. That shows up quickly in the nose and palate where sherry notes and caramel fight for the limelight. Although it is a 40% blended whisky, it holds up to the test when we leave the whisky in the glass to air. After about 45 minutes of airing in a Glencairn glass, the whisky opens up beautifully with deep sherry notes, caramel, hints of vanilla and gentle spice. It does not taste like a 40% anymore. It is fantastic! What is even better is the fact that the whisky costs only SGD$85. Perfect for a party, don’t you think so?

The Royal Salute 21 Years is a famous expression that many whisky drinkers enjoy. It is easy to drink and looks royal sitting in those ceramic decanters. We had more than just a sip of the Royal Salute 21 years and enjoyed the oily, sweet palate as the whisky slid gently down the throat.

The Ballantine’s 17 Years Old

We want to highlight the Ballantine’s 17 Years Old here because it is not a popular brand in Singapore. It is well-loved in Taiwan, and our Taiwanese friends love the brand. We requested to have a taste of it, and Denis generously opened a new bottle just for us to try.

Ballantine’s is spicier than the Chivas, which makes us think that the blend is likely to contain more whiskies aged in ex-bourbon casks. There is also a possibility of having some rye in it. The flavours are also more prominent. Slightly grassy, with green fruits such as apples, pears and even some grapes in it. Even the finish is longer than the Chivas, with dry sweetness leading all the way till the end.

The Single Malts

Pernod Ricard carries many single malts that go into their blends. Some of the single malts include The Glenlivet, Aberlour, Strathisla, Allt-a-Bhainne and Braeval. Glen Keith, Longmorn, Glenburgie and Glentauchers are also part of their portfolio. With so many single malts under their belt, Pernod Ricard’s position as the second largest company of wine and spirit in the world is not at all surprising.

We tried the Aberlour 12 and the Stathisla 12. Interestedly, we had tried whiskies from both distilleries before, but never an official bottling. It was a perfect chance for us to try them out indeed!

The Aberlour 12 is delicious with plenty of sherry and caramel notes. What is unique about this expression is the grape notes that I picked up on the palate, almost like red wine. We found out later that this expression is not the usual 12 years old, but one of the limited editions. Talk about it being a special one!

The Strathisla 12 has more bourbon influence, and the oak is stronger too. Perhaps the distillate is lighter and takes in more influence from the cask. Nonetheless, it was a lovely dram that speaks of creamy vanilla, mild oak and a little spice.

A Tour around the Office

After some drams, Denis invited us for a tour around the office. They have themed meeting rooms which impressed us very much with the beautiful decorations and practical use of the various items within the rooms. They have a Perrier Jouet room, a Chivas Room, a Monkey 47 Room, a Jameson Room and a secret Martell Room! Outside the rooms, there is also an open area where employees can discuss matters over a cup of coffee or a game played in a sandpit!

Open Area and Sandpit

 

Perrier Jouet Room

 

Monkey 47 Gin Room

 

Jameson Room

 

Display at the Martell Secret Room

It was a pity that I failed to take a full picture of the secret Martell room, but well, it was a thrill to find it! Haha!

The Last Drop before Leaving

As we headed back to the bar to pick up our things, Denis found an open bottle of the Chivas Royal Salute – The Polo Collection. As it is a special edition, Denis invited us to sit down again for a taste of it. It is different from the usual Royal Salute. The Polo Collection has a spicy tinge to it and opens up a delicate, floral flavour. The nose is perfumey and gentle, almost like a soft touch from a rose petal.

Royal Salute Polo Collection

It was time to say goodbye after the last drop as the night was deepening. We bid good night to Denis and thank him for the wonderful evening. We look forward to seeing Denis again and hope to work with him in future!

As for you, our dear readers, we hope to bring you some superb deals from Pernod Ricard too!

 

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The Good Old Fettercairn Distillery

The Fettercairn Distillery (Picture Credits: www.panoramio.com)

Fettercairn distillery is situated in the Grampian foothills in the Howe of Mearns. Fettercairn means “the foot of the mountain” in Gaelic and reflects the ideal location for a whisky distillery. Natural ingredients are aplenty for the distillery – ice-clear Grampian mountain spring water and barley growing from the fertile soil surrounding the distillery allows this distillery to create stunning whiskies from its stills and barrels.

History of Fettercairn Distillery

The history of Fettercairn is as complex as most of the distilleries found in the region. Alexander Ramsay, the owner of the Fasque estate, founded Fettercairn in 1825 by converting a corn mill into the distillery. He lost his wealth in a few short years and sold everything to Sir John Gladstone. His son was the four-time British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. The distillery remained with the Gladstone family until 1923 and was mainly run by tenants. Thereafter, the distillery was almost mothballed by new owners Ross & Coulter (1923-1927) and James Mann (1927-1939) before it was sold to Associated Scottish Distillers (ASD), the Scotch arm of National Distillers of America in 1939.

ASD closed in 1954 and the distillery was sold to a private owner – Mr Tom Scott Sutherland. Finally, in 1971, it was bought by Tomintoul-Glenlivet and both distilleries joined the Whyte & Mackay umbrella in 1973. It remains with the company since.

The Emblems of Fettercairn Distillery

The emblems of Fettercairn (Picture Credits: www.tripadvisor.com)

Some emblems of Scotch whisky distilleries have a history behind them, and Fettercarin’s is no exception. The unicorn in the Fettercairn logo is part of Alexander Ramsay’s clan crest. The unicorn represents purity and strength and is also a symbol of Scotland since the reign of King Robert III.

The huge, red sandstone archway that stands at the entrance to Fettercairn is another symbol. It was built to commemorate the visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1861.

Whiskies from Fettercairn

Fettercairn has an interesting whisky range. It mainly contributes to Whyte & Mackey’s blends but is also bottled as a single malt. The Fettercairn label gains some popularity since 2009 when more efforts are put into single malt bottling. Currently, the Fettercairn Fasque and the Fettercairn Fior are available as official bottlings.

The distillery also has older bottles such as the Fettercairn 875 which was produced in the 1970s for the Italian market. Such bottles are rare and hard to come by in present day.

Fettercairn Distillery Today

Fettercairn continues to be one of the many distilleries that contribute most of its whisky into blends. While we believe that the fate of the distillery may continue as such, there is a chance that more of its whiskies may make its way into single malt bottling in the future.