A who’s who of Scotch whisky is on hand to answer this most challenging of questions.
If you’ve got a hundred quid or so to spend on a bottle of wine (hey, you never know), I can recommend the recently released Sassicaia 2015, which to these taste buds at least is the best vintage for some years.
Sassicaia is a ‘Super Tuscan’, as you may know, if you’re (a) a fan of Italian wine; (b) Dr Bill Lumsden; or (c) remember Glenmorangie’s Artein Private Edition bottling from 2012, which was finished by (b) in ex-Sassicaia casks.
There’s no formal definition of Super Tuscan, but the tag generally applies to a small number of Italian wines, created from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, that thumbed their noses at the winemaking rules of the day, blending international grape varieties (with or without the native Sangiovese) and rejecting conformity in the name of quality.
In so doing, they elevated Tuscan winemaking by several degrees, led to rule changes and swapped often insipid wines for something altogether bolder and finer.
Even though Sassicaia celebrates its 50th birthday this year, the wine was being made privately a generation before. In the 1930s, when Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta bought the Tenuta San Guido estate, nestling in the hills near the Tuscan coast, there were no vines there at all.
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More fond of Claret than Chianti, the Marchese looked at the stony soil, noted the similarity to Bordeaux and decided to plant some Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc just to see what might happen.
The resultant wine, which he enjoyed drinking and found to age well, remained a strictly private affair until it was commercialised in 1968. Since then, stellar vintages like 1985 (and, perhaps, 2015) have secured its apotheosis into the fine wine pantheon.
Sassicaia also effectively created a new winemaking region in what was once mosquito-ridden marshland: Bolgheri. Others followed its lead, and the likes of Ornellaia, Ca’Marcanda and Guado al Tasso have shown that Sassicaia’s success was no fluke.
Nobody goes to the trouble of planting a vineyard entirely on a whim, but the Marchese had no way of knowing that his slightly crazy idea of transplanting Bordeaux to coastal Tuscany would work. It could – should, according to conventional wisdom at the time – have been an utter failure.
The Marchese probably didn’t care too much, because this was a personal project and he had little to lose. He was, in other words, in the privileged position of having the licence to get it wrong.
The great innovators of whisky have long understood this way of thinking, especially in the area of cask maturation. ‘We tried other spirits like brandy, and they didn’t work for us… We tried a number of wines – maybe not always the right wines. They didn’t really work for us.’ That was David Stewart MBE, speaking last year.
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‘I was sampling [the whisky] every month after about eight months – once, way back, I mucked up a product by leaving it in the wine casks for too long.’ That’s Lumsden, discussing the making of last year’s Private Edition, Glenmorangie Bacalta, and comparing it to an earlier, ill-fated project.
Both Stewart and Lumsden are relaxed enough – and secure enough in their status as great whisky creators – to admit that things go wrong, not least because they understand that innovation is inextricably linked to trial and error.
Two other aspects are important here: having an understanding boss who won’t go nuclear every time something doesn’t work out; and having the wisdom to know when to bottle, and when to blend away.
Both elements will be vital to today’s new generation of whisky makers, who are more eager than ever to push the creative envelope and embrace a brave new world of flavour innovation.
When they get it wrong, they’ll need to find the courage to admit it, learn from it, and move on. Sometimes deciding what not to bottle is the trickiest part of all.
Midleton master distiller Brian Nation summed up this philosophy when discussing the Jameson plant’s new micro-distillery last October. He said: ‘We’ve had some stuff that doesn’t work, or stuff that we thought would work quicker, and it hasn’t, and we’re just giving it a little bit more time – but that’s all part of the whole innovation and experimentation.
‘In the micro-distillery… we will be able to make more mistakes, on a more regular basis, in order to find the right way.’
Long may that philosophy continue.
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