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Posted by:May 19th 2006, 08:58:35 pm
Fig Tree News Teamhttp://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/05/18/WIGG0ISROP1.DTL

New Scotch, without the bagpipes
- W. Blake Gray, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2006

Scotch whisky has long been considered a drink men discover before they die -- usually, not too many years before.

Part of the reason is physiological: Research suggests young adults' taste buds aren't ready for Scotch's bitter flavors.

But Scotch also has an image problem. Consider the music connections: Cognac and hip-hop. Rum and dub. Vodka and electronica.

Scotch and bagpipes.

Two innovative companies in Scotland -- one founded by an American -- are determined to break the stereotype of Scotch as a tipple worthy of spending one's Social Security check on. And they're not afraid of upsetting the Scotch establishment.

The Scotch Whisky Association disapproves of both Compass Box Crafted Whiskies and Jon, Mark & Robbo's Easy Drinking Whisky Co., Ltd.: the former for using toasted wooden staves to flavor a yet-unreleased product, and the latter for (horrors!) blending Irish and Scotch malt whiskies in one product.

"If the whisky tastes good, why shouldn't we be able to do that?" says distiller Dave "Robbo" Robertson, formerly a master distiller at the Macallan. "We've got a little bit of baggage, because Scotch is the drink that your father or grandfather drank."

There's a good reason for that. In a seminar last summer at Copia in Napa, Yale University professor of otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat research) Linda Bartoshuk -- best-known for her work with "supertasters" -- said the reason older people enjoy Scotch is that we all gradually lose the ability to taste bitter things as we age.

The four basic flavors

But Scotch doesn't have to be bitter. Robertson, 37, says that every whisky, not just Scotch, contains four basic flavors: sweet, spicy, smoky and fruity.

Yet while vodkas and rums proudly boast their flavors on the label, Scotch labels give a novice consumer no idea of what the whisky will taste like.

That revelation gave Robertson and his partners Jon and Mark Geary the idea for their line of three unmistakably different whiskies: The Smooth Sweeter One, The Smokey Peaty One and The Rich Spicy One. All cost $30, and all deliver the flavors they promise.

"People demand more than they did 15-20 years ago," Robertson says. "They won't settle for a big brand with a big marketing campaign."

Compass Box founder and whisky maker John Glaser, 42, knows all about Scotch marketing; the Minnesota native was a global marketing director for Johnnie Walker.

"The idea was to make Johnnie Walker seem cool," Glaser says. "But the model has completely changed from people like your father who had a brand and stuck with it. Today, people want choice. They want experimentation. Every year, people come up to me and say, 'What's new?' "

Glaser answers with his line of four whiskies named Asyla ($34), Hedonism ($75), Eleuthera ($46) and the Peat Monster ($44).

The use of clever names with no clear pecking order is part of a revolution Glaser and Robertson are leading.

Though their products are competitors, they are not rivals. They met me in the lobby of a downtown San Francisco hotel early on a recent morning and each poured out samples of his products. Both showed an appreciation for the other man's work, and once they started talking, they finished each other's thoughts.

With most Scotches, there's a progression of quality and exclusivity that is supposed to correspond directly to price. Johnnie Walker Black costs more and tastes better than Johnnie Walker Red. Bowmore 25-year-old costs more and tastes better than Bowmore 12-year-old. There are exceptions, such as Glenmorangie's range of Scotches aged in different types of barrels, but most distilleries establish a clear pecking order.

With Compass Box and Jon, Mark and Robbo's whiskies, the best one is the one you like best. In fact, Glaser admits that his favorite of his own whiskies -- the light and delicate Asyla -- is the hardest to sell.

"It's the one people understand the least," he says. "That's my aperitif whisky. If I had to go to a desert island with one whisky, that would be it. One day, before I die, people will get this whisky. But typically in Scotch whisky, people like big, bold flavors that hit you over the head."

Bold best-seller

Enter the Peat Monster, Glaser's best-seller.

"If you asked me five years ago, I would have said I would never make a whisky in that style," he says. "But you gotta give the people what they want."

Indeed, the Peat Monster is very peaty -- though not as much as Robbo's The Smokey Peaty One.

Peat, incidentally, is best described as coal in its infancy. Swamp vegetation decomposes and partially carbonizes into a soft, moist muck that can be dried out and used as fuel. Peat burns faster than coal, and was used for heating in Scotland in ancient times.

For the past few centuries, peat has been an important part of Scotch whisky production, used for everything from heating the still to the crucial step where it imparts its flavor -- when damp, germinating barley is dried over a peat fire. ("Malting" means the process of germination, during which the barley secretes an enzyme that allows its starches to convert to sugar for fermentation. That's where the term "single malt" comes from.)

Peat grows slowly

A layer of peat grows only about 1 mm per year, so the industry is beginning to worry about peat shortages in the future, and to investigate other methods of giving Scotch a smoky character. But these two Scotches use the real thing.

I'm a peat fan; my favorite single malt is the Talisker from the Isle of Skye, a Scotch renowned for its peatiness. So naturally, I liked the deliberately peaty styles offered by Compass Box and Jon, Mark and Robbo. The latter was smokier, while with the Compass Box, I felt like I could smell and taste the very earth of Scotland.

However, I was surprised that each company offered a style I liked even better. For Jon, Mark and Robbo, it was the Rich Spicy One, which had peat in the nose along with honey, seaweed, black pepper and cornflakes. On the palate, it delivers plenty of the promised spice -- my mouth tingled with black pepper and cinnamon. When the tingling stopped, I tasted honey, almonds, smoke, seaweed and whole wheat bread.

Among Compass Box's lineup, I most liked Hedonism -- maybe because it smells almost like wine. It smells primarily of honey and molasses, but with notes of berries, cigar tobacco, vanilla and honeydew melon. On the palate, it's very rich and sweet, though the sharp bite of alcohol lurks just beneath.

I sipped all these whiskies neat, but you can add a wee drop of water if you like.

Hedonism is unusual in that it's a 100-percent grain whisky. This means it's made from raw grain (wheat or corn) rather than malted barley. While single malts get most of the attention given to Scotch, the great majority of Scotch whiskies are actually a blend of grain and malt. Glaser says his company is the only one making a 100-percent grain Scotch.

"I always tried to get Johnnie Walker to make an old-grain whisky," he says. Now he makes it himself.

Or rather, he assembles it himself. Both Glaser and Robertson are something like negociants in Burgundy: they buy casks of whisky they like from distilleries all over Scotland and blend them in ways they find appealing. This is not unique, though the end products they are trying to achieve are.

Both are fanatic about the importance of the wooden casks used to age the whiskies. Much of the flavor of Scotch comes from the wood.

"Sixty to 80 percent of the smooth, sweeter style is from the barrels we choose," Robertson says. "We don't add flavors to whisky. We use the natural flavors of the barrels."

Robertson is a fan of Spanish oak and likes Scotch aged in used Sherry barrels for its spiciness. Glaser prefers whisky aged in used Bourbon barrels.

"The vanilla character American oak gives is quite good," he says. "The richness, softness and sweetness on the palate of our whisky is driven by our wood regime. And also by the distilleries we choose."

A winemaker wannabe

If Glaser sounds like a winemaker, it's because that was his original choice of career.

"My dream of being a winemaker fizzled after I realized how much science I was going to have to learn and how many people would be ahead of me," he says. "I wasn't a Scotch drinker. I only drank wine."

He worked for a year at Domaine Bruno Clair in France's Burgundy region, and for two years at Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena.

"I was sort of a marketing factotum, but I hung around the cellars a lot," he says.

When Johnnie Walker hired him, he says, "I went over there expecting to see Johnnie Walker belched out of a factory in Glasgow. Instead, it was produced in small malt whisky distilleries spread across bucolic Scotland."

Now a convert, Glaser says, "I tell people that inside every wine person is a Scotch whisky person waiting to get out.

"I get accused in Scotland all the time of making whisky in a style that's 'new world.' I thought, we can make whisky taste better than we thought it can."

Robertson agrees.

"You're competing for share of throat," he says. "There's only so much stuff you can pour you're your throat. People are drinking less in volume, but they're drinking better. I see people who want to enjoy what they're drinking."

And they're not willing to wait until retirement age to do it.

E-mail W. Blake Gray at wbgray@sfchronicle.com.

URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2006/05/18/WIGG0ISROP1.DTL

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