Whisky Brand Confusion: When Is It a Different Scotch Distillery?
Whisky Brand Confusion: When Is It a Different Scotch Distillery?
The new Macallan Distillery will look quite different…
In 2013 a new brand was launched by William Grant (owners of Glenfiddich and Balvenie distilleries) called Kininvie. You may see its little 35cl bottles in duty free shops. The 17 year old is the cheapest version of this whisky and it will cost you around £80 for that half bottle, £160 equivalent for a full UK bottle size.
Where does this rare and expensive whisky come from? Grants claims it is from Kininvie Distillery. Only sold in minute quantities as a single malt, this mysterious Speyside whisky mostly goes into Monkey Shoulder and Grant’s basic blended whiskies.
If you research this distillery though, you’ll find that in 1990 Grant had need of more malt whisky. To cope with this, it expanded Balvenie. It added 3 wash stills and 3 spirits stills in a building just behind the Balvenie distillery. The mash was mashed and wort fermented in the normal Balvenie distillery buildings and piped over the wall.
Because the whisky can be made slightly differently at the Kininvie stillhouse to that of Balvenie, the little whisky that was sold as a single malt was known as Hazelwood, until recently when it was rebranded as Kininvie. Even more confusingly, Grant has now brought out a blended whisky called Hazelwood.
This stillhouse is a logical extension of what Japanese distilleries and more modern Scotch distilleries have been doing: Producing different whisky styles from the same distillery to give you more options, particularly if you don’t have lots of distilleries. The most obvious example is to produce both peated and unpeated whiskies from the same distillery. Such as Ledaig and Tobermory, Tomintoul and Old Ballantruan, among many others. Much more modern and adaptable super distilleries have also been developed, such as Diageo’s Roseisle and Grant’s Ailsa Bay. However, none of these claim to have whiskies from different distilleries, just different brands produced from the same distilleries.
I would argue that Kininvie is not a different distillery to Balvenie. It shares equipment in the same buildings, and the one building that houses its own stills is not far enough away from the main site. Some would disagree with me however, because Kininvie does have some of its own equipment within the Balvenie distillery and the character of the spirit is different enough.
You may remember from the Scottish film The Angel’s Share, the plot revolves around a rare whisky called Malt Mill. This distillery was actually a replica of Laphroaig, built inside Lagavulin. It shared Lagavulin’s mash tun but had its own fermentation tanks and stills. But is Malt Mill a different distillery? Many seem to think so, with huge amounts of effort and money spent finding even a few drops of the precious stuff. (A miniature was sold at auction recently for a few thousand pounds. Yes, a 50ml bottle.) But again, I would argue not, having the same mash tun and being in the same building as Lagavulin makes all Malt Mill Lagavulin, no matter how different the spirit was.
Another great example is Mannochmore, a distillery built in 1971 on the grounds of Glenlossie distillery. It had its own mash tun and fermenting tanks, but it is still within the same complex as another distillery. Are these two brands made at the same distillery? Diageo doesn’t seem to think so, as it has sold whisky from the two separately for years, but the point remains. In this instance, I would say that Mannochmore is a different distillery as it has all of its own equipment, despite being within the same complex.
More examples include Clynelish and Brora (closed 1983), Linkwood ‘A’ (closed in 1985) and Linkwood ‘B,’ and Glendullan ‘Old’ (closed 1985) and ‘New.’ These three were all examples of a distillery expanding by building a new distillery next to the old one, running them simultaneously for a while then shutting down the original. Why don’t we see Linkwood ‘A’ and ‘Old’ Glendullan going for crazy money like Brora? At first, I had no idea. The principle was the same and they all closed around the same time. Then I realised Brora had been renamed, partly because of a high peating level being used in the early ’70s, so it was treated as a different distillery. The casks were labelled ‘Brora.’ Linkwood and Glendullan were never that lucky. Despite having brand new distilleries (with new equipment and therefore different characters) they were not renamed and so never entered the history books as rare and collectable whiskies. It is funny though that Brora was treated as a different distillery, while Linkwood ‘A’ and ‘Old’ Glendullan were not.
Then we have the opposite question: When does a distillery stop being the original? For me, the best example of this is the recent building work at Macallan. They have invested a huge amount of money in building a massive brand new distillery on the Macallan estate. When the new site goes online (they were running tests at the distillery as of November) the two old distilleries will be shut down, unless they are needed in the future. Separating the two old distilleries and the new one is about the same distance as the distance between the Glenfiddich and Balvenie distilleries down the road. Essentially, Macallan has three distilleries on the same ‘site.’ Even though the new distillery is modelled completely on the old, I think you could make the argument that the new Macallan distillery is exactly that, a new distillery.
And what about when a distillery is completely rebuilt, so that it bears little resemblance to that of before? Should it be considered a different distillery? You have Dalmunach distillery, built on the same site as Imperial, a totally different distillery with new equipment. But equally, now you have Ardmore without its old direct fired stills, Scapa with halved fermentation times, and Benrinnes without partial triple distillation. These things were part of the core personality of those malts. Now, they are different and perhaps the whiskies will never be quite the same again.
The message here is to always be questioning of what the industry is telling you. Should you spend a lot of money on Kininvie because Grant tells you it’s from a different distillery? Perhaps not. Should you trust that Macallan’s new distillery will make exactly the same as the old? Well, we’ll have to wait and see…
It seems to me that if the distillery uses the same water and ages the spirit in the same location, the variations we’re talking about are “expressions” of the same distillery. A great example is Bunnahavhain on Islay. Their claim to fame was that they were the only unpeated whisky on Islay. Of course, with the boom in demand and the increase in cutthroat competition, they have brought out something north of a dozen “expressions,” some with varying levels of peat. Certainly, they could choose to rename their peated spirits, but anyone willing to pay £100 for a bottle is also going to see through that.
The boom in Scotch whisky demand means there is simply less of that nice 15 year old spirit available at a decent price. Distilleries are getting creative to maintain the illusion of quality (and taste profile) whilst using younger and sometimes inferior whiskies – looking at YOU Glenfarclas…your 105 used to be sublime but now it’s a bitter, characterless dram better suited for cleaning car parts than the £60 a bottle you want for it. Even the venerable old standards like Laphroaig have gone the route of the “expression,” albeit with varying results. And who can forget the master of the “expression,’ Glenmorangie, whose brilliance at turning their reputation for an unremarkable ten year old into a market leader in offering some really nice, if expensive, “expressions” that are now selling at four times that price. Ardbeg has had such success, they too have headed into land of expressions, although I’d argue the Uigeadail is still the best.
The point is only that each distillery is coping with the exploding Scotch whisky demand in its own way. Some just up the price (hello Aberlour), others go all in on expressions (we see you Balvenie), and some lose their mojo (Glenfarclas…heavy sigh as I fondly recall my once favorite whisky). The key is to read the tasting reviews, understand the profile of the region where the whisky is made, try a lot different whiskies – who knew Old Pulteney was that good – and ultimately drink what you like. (As my glance finds that unopened bottle of Glenmorangie Signet sitting there..)
More, much more, regulations, er, protections are needed. Left alone, without regulation, or left alone to self regulate, (yeah right), most industries, including the beverage industry, will screw us all to no end. Who’s to say the youngest whisky in a 12 y/o bottling is so? What? Because “they” said so? I don’t think so. Who’s on the lookout? Nobody – that’s who. Whisky compliance officers, from the government, are needed. Where do I sign up?
I have had this axe 50 years, only replaced the haft 4 times and the head twice.
Same story with every product now- what is a “Brand”? Iused to mean the people that built the company and who worked there put their heart and soul into the product and the business. Maybe not always, but a good brand meant they did, or at least someone did. Maybe the business was passed down in a family, and they actually cared about it. Brands now are connected to nothing, bought,sold, BS.