They're taking off the gloves in the whiskey wars, if what I saw at the recent annual Whisky Live event in New York City was any indicator.
The event, one of a dozen or so held around the globe each year under sponsorship of the influential U.K. magazine Whisky, brings together acolytes of various whiskies from Scotland, Ireland, Japan and the United States.
Rather than simply pushing their familiar lineup of brands, each year we're seeing more and more limited-edition distillations and new sub-genre niche products.
And, the long-reigning big boys are becoming targets as well. Just ask Brian Dvoret.
He's the national sales executive and self-proclaimed "company Scotch geek" for The Speyside, maker of an excellent 12-year-old single highland malt he challenges all to compare directly to the competition's Johnnie Walker Blue Label, one of the superstars of blended Scotches retailing in the $180 range for the 750-milliliter bottle.
"Go ahead, just try Speyside then go try the Blue and come back and tell me what you think," Dvoret boomed to all comers at Whisky Live.
Johnnie Walker Red Label, Black Label, Gold Label and even Green Label are more accessible pricewise than Blue Label. It is, in the words of its makers, "our rarest blend … created from the rarest and most expensive whiskies in the world."
In fact, the company's explains its process this way: "(It) recreates the flavors of the Walkers' early whiskies (of the 1820s) … Every single component has been handpicked from exclusive distilleries, some of which are no longer in existence. As soon as they're discovered, they're set aside for Blue Label and matured until their absolute peak — no matter how long that may take."
Blue Label truly has an old style set of characteristics, and since it is a blend of 16 or so whiskies it is difficult to pinpoint the heart of it even though it is widely known to be Royal Lochnagar, a rare malt.
It is at once nutty, pungent and peppery, with floral notes in the nose and initial hit on the palate as well. The traditional smokiness, accompanied by clear notes of caramel and vanilla, help make it a complex offering that is obviously superior in overall character to most others in its price range.
Taking Dvoret's challenge, I also tried The Speyside's King's Crest 25 Year Old Blended Scotch, priced like Blue Label upwards of $200 a bottle.
I found it a worthy competitor, perhaps even superior in the peaty, hazlenut flavors that removed all traces of any unpleasant heat.
But one couldn't spend too much time on any one or two styles. There were American bourbons, Japanese Scotches, Irish whiskies and other temptations to sample.
A few highlights and news notes gleaned from wandering the aisles in between trips to a lavish buffet and a break to listen to a Scottish folk/pop/fusion/rock band:
— A representative for The Famous Grouse, asked if best-selling author W.E.B. Griffin (40 million copies of 35 novels in print worldwide) is on the distiller's payroll since he frequently makes mention of the Scotch in his novels, replied: "You can't imagine how many times we're asked that. As best I have been able to find out, he's just a fan of the brand and has no other connection to it."
— Michter's, the adventuresome American distiller, not only had its entire line of bourbons and whiskies out for sampling, its representatives also shared word that the company is planning to release an extremely limited collection — 300 bottles of each — of 25-year-old bourbon and 25-year-old rye in time for Father's Day in June.
— Even though purists might insist Scotch whisky can be made only in Scotland, the huge Japanese distiller Suntory was pushing its Yamazaki and winning over visitors to its pouring table with excellent 12- and 18-year-old single malts. They are produced using copper pot stills and a process the company calls "mostly peat free." Both expressions are full bodied, coppery gold liquids. The 12 is replete with wood, malt, honey and fruit notes; the 18 sweeter, with elements of strawberry, honey and toffee.
— Jameson's newest Irish whiskey expressions, released in the past few weeks, do the brand proud. The Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve, which I sampled some time ago for my "Tasting Notes" (dowdtastingnotes.com), goes for a hefty $250, with only 1,000 bottles available in the limited-edition U.S. release. The Jameson Gold, at a more approachable $60, is a blend of cask-matured old Jameson whiskies.
(William M. Dowd covers the world of beverages at BillDowd.com.)
c.2008 Hearst Newspapers