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‘I have a couple dozen experiments going on at any one time,’ shrugs John Glaser, as a table of enthralled whisky enthusiasts look on, ears bent forwards, eyes barely blinking. Compass Box’s whisky maker is known for challenging the establishment, seeing how far he can push the regulations – while staying within them – and exploring the whisky landscape to its furthest echelons. Right now, at The Whisky Show at London’s Old Billingsgate, his latest invention has an entire room dazed in wonderment and fixed on a bottle he’s had stashed in an old plastic supermarket Bag for Life.
‘Oh, this is just something I’ve been working on for a few years,’ he says, pulling out the bottle which is labelled simply, but ominously, as ‘Project Overlord’. It sounds like a special bottling on order for Darth Vader, though I hear he’s a bigger fan of gin, particularly Sip-Sith.
In the glass it’s like freshly-pressed apple juice, all bitter skin and sour pulp, a fresh fruity sweetness with a softly spiced backbone – think golden crumble topping laced with a pinch of cinnamon and clove. It’s remarkable; there’s no Scotch on earth with such an intense apple character as this. I suspect other spirits at play here.
‘History buffs will understand what this is,’ Glaser beams. Overlord is a reference to Operation Overlord, the codename for the Battle of Normandy that launched with the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944. D-Day. The French region is also renowned for its apple orchards, and in more modern times, calvados producer Distillerie Dupont.
Project Overlord: John Glaser introduces an apple-forward Scotch-calvados blend
Project Overlord then is a blend of 50% Dupont calvados with Scotch matured in Spice Tree casks, and Sherried malt whisky from Benrinnes. It’s an absolute delight, but likely will never be a product released onto shelf. ‘There’s never really much demand for this kind of thing,’ Glaser shrugs. ‘It’s just something I’ve been tinkering with in my office.’ Shame. This would make a killer Highball or Hot Toddy.
I’ve been listening so intently that I almost forget to sound the horn that signals the end of the session. This is Whisky Speed Dating, a fast-paced event featuring five whisky experts and the ‘innovative, interesting’ bottles they were requested to bring. Held on the show’s trade day, each legend has 10 minutes at a table to talk about their bottle, and answer any questions guests might have before moving on to the next cluster of eager faces. It’s a fun, intimate hour of discovery and learning, and not just for the guests. I’m scribbling away in my notebook so fast I’m forgetting my hosting duties.
Each legend has brought something unique. Ashok Chokalingam from India’s Amrut distillery whips out a bottle of Naarangi (meaning orange in Hindi), a three-year-old single malt given a second maturation in orange-infused Sherry casks for a further three years. The result is an intense, Sherried whisky with deep sweet orange notes. Under EU regulations, adding anything to whisky aside from caramel colour and water disqualifies it from being a whisky. However Amrut has devised an ingenious way to imbue rich orange notes into its malt without angering the suits in Brussels.
Meanwhile, Roger Melander, distillery manager and blender for Sweden’s Box distillery, is showing off the first expression in its new Quercus range, a series of single malts aged in different species of oak. This first edition, Robur, is matured for around four years in ex-Bourbon barrels, and given an intense flash-finish in virgin 40-litre Swedish robur oak casks for seven months. Robur is a species common to much of Europe, particularly in Burgundy and Limousin where it’s used by the wine and Cognac industries. It’s naturally high in tannins and wood spice, though curiously the Swedish variety, which grows as far north as Stockholm, imparts more clove characteristics than its southern cousins.
Box Quercus I Robur is shipping around the world right now, and will be followed next year by further expressions finished in American alba (white oak) and Hungarian petraea. With such pronounced differences between French, Hungarian and Swedish oak, and indeed varieties too, could we soon see a cask’s provenance further refined beyond the traditional catch-all of American or European oak?
Oak exploration: Could Box distillery's work with various oak species influence the global whisky industry?
We’re beginning to nerd out now. Conversations turn to wood treatment, specifically the temperature the late Dr Jim Swan specified oak be toasted to in his proprietary STR process (between 140-180C, in case you’re wondering). Ian Chang, Kavalan’s master blender, explains how important the process is to the Taiwan distillery’s signature style. Meanwhile, Diageo ambassador Colin Dunn reveals why Golden Promise is no longer widely utilised as a barley variety by Scotch distillers (it’s prone to disease), and why a fantastically rich and chewy 38-year-old Linkwood is still regarded by blenders as ‘not ready’. It will likely be blended away into Johnnie Walker Blue Label in a few years time, much to the table’s dismay. ‘Unfortunately my company doesn’t bottle single casks,’ Dunn informs his dates.
Whisky festivals may be a microcosm for the general whisky landscape, but this one room represents a snapshot of what the future holds in terms of whisky innovation and diversity. These are just a handful of the producers working within or outwith the regulations to discover new ways to enhance whisky’s natural flavour. Nothing is forced here; the quality of the liquid is testament to the skill and creativity of these distillers and blenders.
Orange whisky: Amrut Naraangi uses a unique method of imbueing flavour into whisky without added ingredients
Speed Dating over, the whisky experts gather – unprompted – to sample each other’s bottles, speaking in excited tones about methods used, swapping ideas and nodding with passionate understanding. Around 30 years ago these guys wouldn’t have been allowed to talk to each other, their company’s processes and blenders’ skills kept strictly secret from the competition. Perhaps in a way, it’s this freedom to discuss and share ideas that have helped spur on the wave of innovation in whisky, not just in Scotland but also, to a greater extent, around the world.
Back on the exhibition floor are even further examples of innovation: Nikka’s Coffey Malt, Glenfiddich Winter Storm, a malt finished in Canadian icewine casks, the first English rye whisky, Norfolk Malt ‘N’ Rye (35% rye, 65% barley mash). Compass Box’s Glaser may be juggling several experiments at once, but if every forward-thinking producer across the world does the same, and continues to share knowledge, the next generation of whisky drinkers have a lot to be excited about.
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In depth 29 September 2016
No industry appetite for change, says John Glaser – but he still believes that change will come.