August 2012 Fla

Highland Fling

By: Richard Carleton Hacker

Part of the Pernod Ricard family, Strathisla, which dates from 1786, is the oldest operating distillery in the Scottish Highlands. The distillates from its two wash stills and two spirit stills are slightly different but are vatted to produce Strathisla’s distinctive flavor for its single malt, and blends such as Royal Salute 21 Year Old.

A few years ago, I wrote an article for the San Francisco Chronicle predicting a shortage of single malt Scotch whisky. It soon came to pass, due to demand outstripping the supply of cellared barrels. Eventually the industry recovered, but now U.S. Scotch whisky consumption is again rising, with afterburner impetus from Asian and Russian markets.

The result is a lot of excitement in the normally placid Scottish Highlands, as industry giant Pernod Ricard—makers of such iconic brands as Chivas Regal, Royal Salute and Ballantine’s—has embarked upon a $62,400,000 expansion of its distilleries. And according to Christian Porta, Chairman and Chief Executive of Chivas Bros., there is even a possibility a new distillery might be built to add to the 13 it already owns.

A few months ago, when I toured Scotland’s Speyside region with Chivas Bros. Master Blender Colin Scott, I saw firsthand Pernod Ricard’s plan to increase Scotch whisky production by 25 percent within a year. For example, the Glen Keith distillery—mothballed since 1999—was being refurbished and its six pot stills readied for production beginning next spring. Over at Glenlivet, a new stone and glass stillhouse showcased six new copper pot stills that duplicate the pinched-waist shape of the eight older stills to maintain the whisky’s signature fruity-floral flavors. This brings Glenlivet’s total number of stills to fourteen, almost doubling output.

“Having created a whisky, and then having to maintain it, that’s the real art of blending,” says Colin Scott, Chivas Bros. Master Blender.

And although Aberlour’s blackened stone facade hasn’t changed since the 19th century, workers were busily refurbishing the warehouses. Speaking of which, visiting Malcolmburn Bond, one of 300 bonded Chivas Bros. warehouses, I learned the conglomerate owns 85% of the world’s Scotch whiskies aged 21 years and older. This will no doubt be increased with additional expansions of their other distilleries, including Longmorn, Glenallachie, Glentauchers and Tormore. But is all this whisky really needed?

“Single malts are like people you meet at a party,” said Scott as we strolled along the banks of the River Isla on our way to Strathisla distillery. “They are good by themselves, but some are really good in a group of people. Those are the ones that work best for blending.”

That means, with the ongoing demand for singe malts and blends, Pernod Ricard is going to have one of the best-attended parties in Scotland.

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