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E-pistle 2007/019 – Ask an Anorak: Cask Fondling

E-pistle 2007/019 – Ask an Anorak: Cask Fondling

After I published my ‘Cask Fondling Phenomenon’ E-pistle in MM#100 I received many responses from both ‘our audience’ and ‘the industry’. For a while I feared that I was the only one with some (possibly paranoid) concerns about the ‘mist’ that sometimes surrounds particular single cask or ‘semi-single cask’ bottlings.

I’ve also already received some disturbing ‘case studies’ from people within the industry who seem to be happy that we now write about this topic on our site. But – and here’s the catch – NONE of them wants to be quoted on the topic. Why? Well, let’s face it – the whisky business is still a BUSINESS and they don’t really want to ‘throw rocks through their own windows’, so to speak. FYI, below is a message I received from one ‘anonymous source’.

”In general I do think this topic deserves some debate – especially when handled too excessively. For me, being a collector myself, it’s quite annoying “having” to go for one  whisky appearing in two or three different phenotypes. On the other hand, there are suppliers selling big lots bulk-wise so everyone can buy, let’s say 1-50 liters of Glen  Dingleberry at the same time. Needless to say the labels will all be different from each other and sometimes even bottle shapes will vary. There is no legal obligation  to state the precise ABV so this allows the bottlers to “play” around a bit, too. There are established bottlers out there selling smaller numbers of bottles (< cask or sometimes even < half a cask) when requested.

The remainders will be released under their own labels or alternatively put together with a sister cask and sold as “single malt”. Technically, they are not doing anything (legally) wrong. So what should we think about this phenomenon? Clearly no one wanst one whisky to be labeled with 3 different or why not even 30-100 different (then we’ll be discussing the personalisation label problem) papers. But where’s the limit and why? What is the (moral) common sense to come back to? No easy subject, I have to admit. And one that was always discussed controversially amongst collectors (for example, Signatory Vintage already did this from the very beginning, i.e. with bottling an identical whisky under A) Dun Eideann, B) Signatory Vintage, C) diluted as “Sailing Ship series” and D) for the Scotch Single Malt Circle). Many more examples to find.

Nobody can say how far one could go. There is also an English company that does not buy unlabeled whisky in small numbers, but simply buys retail bottles (such as Rare Malts or Scott’s Selection), removes the original labels and applies its own instead. I must say I dislike this very much. But:

A) – is this different than buying unlabeled stuff from the producer and applying your own labels and…
B) – if the answer is yes, then why (especially when the labeled stuff comes directly from the producer, too)? From what point on?

Maybe there is a need to find a definition of what’s morally “correct” and what is rather unacceptable. This could be a good task for the Malt Maniacs – to generate such a definition.”

Wow… Coming up with such a definition wouldn’t be easy – we’re not the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).
But then again, it’s not likely that this is a battle the SWA would be willing to fight.
Well, let’s ask the maniacs about it then…
Johannes – Hi maniacs, I’ve received quite a few responses from ‘the industry’ about the cask fondling phenomenon.
It seems I’m not quite as paranoid as I first thought – of if I am, at least I’m not the only one… Any other input?

Pit – Hi guys, here’s my 2 pence in the ‘cask fondling’ debate. I think the cask-fondling phenomenon has become quite common – I could add cases of incidents. However, I think one should distinguish between the driving idea behind this practice. Should it be for making more money and selling the same cask twice (eg to collectors), it is shameless. But if a small whisky-club or group wants to have a club-whisky, it cannot take 400 bottles … and here fondling is OK.  In both cases, it should be mentioned on the label somehow.
But I will dream on 😉

Johannes – Agreed, Peter! I wouldn’t have so much of a problem with it if all the information was available.
I’d like to know WHO did WHAT to WHICH cask and WHEN – but often indeed this information is kept ‘vague’ or even hidden.
So, I guess the big question would be determining the conditions under which ‘cask fondling’ is a good thing…

Bert – Another example is Longmorn 22yo 1969/1991 (61%, G&M for Intertrade, Highlander label, Turatello Import) together with Longmorn 1969/1991 (61%, G&M Cask white label). Further on what Pit is stating: indeed, cask fondling is a great solution for smaller clubs wanting an own club bottle. On the other hand, I don’t think it ‘s really about selling the cask twice to collectors, a cask that is good will sell automatically (the example I mention above happens to be a GREAT dram), and there won’t be many collectors for a mediocre to bad cask ;-).
Another example with an Ardbeg imported by Dugas (1975/2002, 46,2%, cask 4701).
Half of this cask was for Clan des Grands Malts (club of Dugas), and half was for ‘société Dugas’.
Same cask, two destinations … I don’t think Dugas wanted to make big Money by doing this.

I personally think it’s more about a ‘shared investment’, so that one person (or company) wouldn’t have to pay all costs, taxes and expenses. I fully agree they should mention on the label if the cask has been brought out under two labels, but indeed …
Small chances this will ever come true.

Johannes – Well, well, well…. You SEEM to be making a good argument, Bert – but I notice some ‘sleight of words’ 😉
I agree that cask fondling is ‘a great solution for smaller clubs wanting an own club bottle‘ as you say. But let’s face it, wanting your own name on a bottle is sort of a vanity project after all – especially if there are ‘other’ bottles available that contain the very same whisky. If ‘your own unique bottling’ is presented in a way that suggests you have ‘your own unique whisky’, I feel we’re already treading into murky waters. But OK, I can see how I’m too much of a cynic to fully appreciate the charms of having your own club bottling. No problems if it doesn’t put the bottlers of that bottling on a slippery slope with regards to being completely open about it.

But that’s quibbling… I have bigger concerns with your argument ‘a cask that is good will sell automatically‘.
Quite possibly, but as we’ve learned over the years, not all casks are good. And I don’t agree with you that all collectors try to avoid bad or mediocre casks – some collectors don’t even drink whisky!  But again, I could be a little too ‘fundamentalist’ for my own good here – in the grander scheme of things the more that some people pay for crap whiskies, the less I’ll have to pay for the remaining good ones. Again, no problems if it’s just about a ‘shared investment’ – my worries start when people have to start ‘bending the truth’ to pass a whisky off as more unique than it actually is. I seem to recall a recent event where a ‘special bottling’ of ONE bottling was made.

If the rest of the cask was dumped in the drain or consumed on the day of bottling, I would indeed consider that a VERY special bottle.
If the contents of the same cask were used days, weeks or months later for another ‘special’ bottling?
Not quite so much…

Robert – Just thought I should add an example of exactly what Bert is talking about.
My own society here just a few weeks ago bottled an excellent bourbon casked (#1340) Highland Park 23yo, our first bottling!
This could never have been done if we were to have bought the whole cask, instead we bought half (228 bottles) and the rest is bottled for RMW by G&M where it is now for sale at RMW (well, in fact it has run out I saw just now, a pity!). We shouldn’t forget that the vast majority of whisky drinkers out there are in if for the pure fun of it. And having society, festival, shop, etc bottlings are indeed very fun (at least I think so) and I think it’s quite hard to argue that such endeavours should be forced to buy whole casks just to avoid some future possible discussions regarding who, why, when, how, if, when, by whom, for whom, insert-your-own-reason-code-here questions etc.
Oh well. I fail to see that the fondling cask “problem” in 95% of the cases is really a problem, that’s just all :).

Johannes – Very good points, Robert, and in the examples that you & Bert mentioned I have no ‘fundamentalist’ problems with it.
It seems you know ALL there is to know about these casks and all bottles that came from it. So no ‘problems’ there as far as I’m concerned. I just worry about cases where not all the information is made available to the public. So, Robert, I don’t think I ever called the practice a PROBLEM – I carefully chose the word ‘phenomenon’. I guess most of you were already aware that this happened on quite a large scale, but it was new to me so I wanted to find out how the other maniacs felt about it. As I wrote in my article, I haven’t actually quite made up my own mind yet. So, any other perspectives?

Robert – Okay, my apologies. I won’t question the fact this is a phenomenon! 🙂

Serge – Well, I’m somewhat between you two.
I see no problem with ‘cask splitting’ when it’s between two very separate entities (clubs, bottlers, whatever) – except when we make fools our ourselves by rating both very differently ;-). On the other hand, it’s more a problem when a single bottler sells the same cask under two different labels of his own, especially collector’s malts such as Port Ellen. It’s somehow the same when Springbank sells the same Hazelburn under different labels, the aim being obviously to load the collectors. One question we could ask ourselves: why would ‘some’ bother with tweaking ABV’s, hiding cask #’s (or even vintages!) if it’s such a ‘clean’ operation? Because they WANT (need?) to hide it. On the other hand, people who do that a lot, like Jack Wieber, do that most often with utterly great whiskies and frankly, I think we’d better get mislead and buy twice the same great Longmorn 1972 than buy two crappy Glenwhatevers that are actually very different.
Well, some split casks, some split hairs ;-).

Michel – As Robert I have less fundamental problems with the phenomenon of fondled casks.
My club did a very good Benriach. We never had the finances to buy the whole cask so a split had to happen.
Exception was we got our own club back label and so we were able to come up with a nive bottle for a reasonable amount of money.

As with different labels from the same bottler. Well, if I have a certain infrastructure with brand A in country B, or when brand C just doesn’t work in country D, (label design, difficult to pronounce brand name or a brand name suggesting funny things in local language… that kind of things) is it wrong to use the brand (name/label) that does work? I think this practice has become visible because of our abilities to buy our bottles from any place on this planet any time we want. It’s no longer an exception to have lots of bottles over here in Europe that were intended for the Japanese market only. So… there we go.

I do strongly oppose against milking the collectors/drinkers by marketing the same cask under different labels in the same market and agree some information should be mentioned about the whereabouts of the cask and it’s bottlers or labels. Just as Pit I demand the right of freedom to dream! Yet some bottles just put a smile on my face. The Port Ellen 22yo from Whisky Doris and the Port Ellen 23yo from Jack Wieber. One can almost hear the negotiations between the two. “Well, we can share this cask but you have to wait with bottling it for just a few weeks because we can have a 22 years and a 23 years from the same cask!” Crafty Bastards! :-))

Lawrence – It is fun to have your own club bottling (as I know from our our small effort with Ben Nevis) and Robert is correct, if it wasn’t for being able to share a cask, it would not have happened for a lot of clubs. But as Serge pointed out the danger for the ‘raters’ is giving two different scores. In any case I’m quite sure the practice is here to stay and has been going on for quite a while.

Bert – Doesn’t this say something about ‘scoring’ a whisky?
There are SO many things that can influence a score: the line up, time of the day, state of mind, VERY important: do you give a whisky enough time ;-), … that it is very possible that one scores the same whisky differently when tasting it again later. I wonder if there would be maniacs who have the same score for the samples in the awards vs earlier scores on those same whiskies.

Serge – Hi Bert, You’re so right, and that’s the whole point of the Matrix / Monitor – only averages are ‘solid’ (4 ratings needed).
Indeed, there are varying ratings from the maniacs. That happened at the awards (vs same malts tasted earlier indeed) but also when some maniacs send me ‘new’ malts/ratings and sometimes forgot they already tasted one or two. Scores can widely diverge. BUT it’s the exception. The usual ‘variance’ is of +/- 2 points. I should add that the way some Maniacs label their malts varies more widely than their scores ;-)))

Johannes – Indeed, I agree with Bert & Serge; there are MANY influences that could push a score up or down; weather, moods, environment, preceding dram, food, etc. I have to admit that for that very same reason I still prefer to score whiskies ‘by the bottle’ to scoring ‘by the sample’. Influences that play a role during one session are ‘averaged out’ if you try a dram six or seven times. But I think that would be a topic for an entirely different AaA discussion: how to create the PERFECT tasting conditions… Or maybe that already came up in an earlier discussion? Bugger, I need to get to work on that index of discussions for the new ‘Bar‘ section…
So let’s push this discussion back on track or wrap it up…
Any fresh comments / insights w.r.t. ‘cask fondling’?

Ulf – A few reflections. It is great with the opportunity to ‘share’ casks.
However I insist that it should be under controlled and agreed circumstances like all parties involved disclose the information that ‘this is n’th tranche of cask y which generated z bottles under this label’. This makes it clear that the other ones are just label versions. For me this is the gentlemanship of ways, and only way, to do it. All manipulations like bottling a half part one side of a calendar year and the rest on the other side claiming this is two distinct different whiskies, tweaking ABV’s, hiding the fact that this is just a tranche of a cask etc. is simply dishonest. I could use stronger wordings but stop by this.

Regarding the worries, mentioned by someone, that there is a risk to score the same substance stemming from two or several tranches from the same cask differently, then don’t worry. I am pretty sure that all of you score the identical whisky served blind differently during the course of time. I haven’t seen, so far, a wine or whisky taster who is consistent in his or her opinion over time. With one exception, Australia’s first Master of Wine Michael Hill-Smith. He has, like musicians perfect ear, the perfect palate and memory bank. I am not ruling out that we do have members blessed likewise. A simple lackmus test; how many identified the doubled sample included in the last MM massive tastings?

Johannes – Phew! I’m very glad that I’m not the only ‘concerned citizen’, Ulf!
I was feeling that I might have out-anoraked the other anoraks on this topic 😉
But, Robert, Bert and Lawrence make good points as well… Indeed, I guess it’s just like Pit said: it’s the ‘intention’ that counts…
I know that many maniacs have far better noses and palates than me, but I’m happy to report that in the case of this year’s sneaky ‘double’ sample I actually arrived at the same score for both bottlings; 87 points. It think that was pretty close to the ultimate average in the end as well. But, like all jurors I had my fair share of weird scores as well – and tasted a Tobermory from Wilson & Morgan that I scored in the 80’s at a festival below 70 during the blind tastings.

Davin – Hi All, Just coming in now at the end and will add some somewhat cynical comments:
Someone said there are so many things that affect the score. Well there shouldn’t be if you take scoring seriously.
First, if you are serious about it you won’t score whiskies after eating a load of spicy food.  Second you will seek a neutral environment, third you will use a reference malt, fourth you will prepare your palate, fifth you will give the whisky time to develop in the glass, and so on.  If you are tasting at a show that’s one thing, but you can still control many variables.  If you are tasting for the Awards you should control all the variables you can.  Of course there will be minor variations among tasting sessions, and our use of averages nicely flattens these out, but if you are just whipping the malts down to get scores and build your mileage then those scores are bogus anyway.

I agree that some club bottlings really are vanity bottlings. If people want to see their name on a bottle and can’t afford to buy a cask, why not just buy a few REALLY good bottles, soak the labels off and apply your own?  In fact each club member could have his own favourite malt bottled.  The ultimate club bottling, everyone is happy, and quality is guaranteed!  If you are bottling to learn about and experience the bottling process that’s one thing, but if it’s an ego trip, why not go all the way? If you can only afford half a cask and decide to split it with someone, why on earth would you use separate labels except to fool people or out of vanity?

Bert – After reading your post, I started to think one shouldn’t try to be holier than the Pope, Davin.
Let me explain. I can imagine it’s fun to have a club bottling. Something you selected together with your members.
Something from your own. Do you call this vanity? Frankly, I would really like the idea, and I wouldn’t care if people would call this vanity. If a club can’t handle (pay) a whole cask, I can easily imagine that people would share a cask to realise this own club-bottle.
Is this to fool people? No. Is this vanity ??? I wouldn’t call it like that.

What percentage of the whisky-loving community will ever even notice this, have a problem with this???
Us whisky-lunatics are 0,00000XX% of this community, try to realise that. Do you really think it’s always about ‘fooling’ people?
I’m afraid we are making this a LOT bigger than it is.

Further, I actually support what Michel was writing earlier: what if some titles or names are unpronounceable in one or other language/country, what if a word means something totally different in two different languages/countries? An example: the word ‘Pute’ means ‘Turkey’ (the animal) in German, but means ‘whore’ in French. Can you imagine when I was working for a German company in a former live, putting turkey products labeled ‘pute’ on a French buyer’s desk ??? Was good fun !!! Some bottles with different labels are even being released in other parts of the world for this reason, see what I mean? I simply mean we shouldn’t dramatise, but also look at other possible reasons. Not everybody is fundamentally bad, sometimes there are reasons that really are reasons to work with different labels.

Johannes – Well, there you go again with your sophistry, Bert… 😉
I don’t think Davin or anybody else ever suggested anything remotely like ‘it’s always about fooling people‘.
So, either YOU are the one trying to fool people here, Bert – or you should read the messages more carefully 😉
That being said, perhaps I should stress once more that I’m not AGAINST the practice (yet). As I wrote earlier I just never given it much thought and I only became aware of potential shenanigans recently. And then I started thinking, and a few questions popped up.
Nothing wrong with questions, is there?

Robert – Ho! I just looked up vanity in an attempt to try to understand what Davin is talking about.
One definition is: “A bathroom cabinet in which a sink is mounted.”
Another is: “Emptiness; unsubstantialness; unrealness; falsity”

Somehow I hope that the first definition is what Davin refers to as the other definition sounds incredibly harsh.
So many people, including myself and probably most of the Maniacs too (who has by the way been talking about our own bottling for so long) find few things more fun than selecting a cask for bottling. To just let go of this concept because one simply cannot afford a whole cask sounds like an incredible strange, in lack of a more diplomatic word, “phenomenon” to me.

I fail to see what’s so horrible about bottling part of a cask. And what is really the reasoning behind trying to (futily) *demand* that people who do it should tell the consumer *why* they’ve done it? These guys can do almost anything they want and if they are in it for the money, then fine! I doubt many in the whisky industry is in the business for  charity. And what’s so wrong about bottling half a cask now, and the rest a year later? That should just be interesting, to see if something has happened if nothing else. Aye? No?
Is there even one decidly “wrong” (what’s wrong by the way?) or outright deceptive fondling out there?
Oh well, I’ll just sip my questionable bottling of wonderful Highland Park…

Johannes – Well, Robert – that’s a fairly sharp response to Davin’s legitimate questions..
It seems that Bert and yourself get edgy by the mere fact that we think this ‘phenomenon’ deserves discussion.
Well, I still think it does, I’m afraid. I can certainly understand that those who have done their own club bottling feel ‘protective’ about it as if it were their own little baby. Don’t worry, we’re not trying to kill your baby!

As for ‘vanity’… On www.dictionary.com it says ‘excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements, etc.‘.
I think Davin had a meaning in mind somewhere in between the two ‘extremes’ you mentioned… Of course, being brought up as a Dutch protestant, I was always taught that ‘vanity’ (in this case: too much interest & pride in outward appearances) wasn’t a good thing. I’d hate to sound like a reactionary old fart, but I think some comments are a tad naive. On one end you seem to have little problems with the fact that some bottlers try to ‘hide’ some details of the history of a bottling if it suits them, but later on you suggest that it could be interesting to see what happens to the ‘other half’ of the cask that’s bottled later. Yes, it could – if you actually knew about it! That is my main point (and I think Davin’s as well) – IF you knew the full history of the whisky in a bottle, THEN you could learn something about it. However, when part of the story is left out or misrepresented, you could learn ‘wrong’ things about the interaction between a whisky and a cask…

So, I wouldn’t want to ‘demand’ anything from any bottler – where did you get that idea?
However, I also reserve the right not to buy any bottles where I suspect something ‘strange’ might have happened to it that prevents me from learning anything from that bottle. I still haven’t decided that I’m AGAINST cask fondling, but I want to KNOW about it when it happens, so I can actually learn from the experience. After all, it was just about drinking nice whisky, an Highland Park OB would do as well.
Yes, I would strongly encourage ‘full disclosure’ as a policy but obviously any bottler or club is free to do whatever they want.
We’re not the SWA or hostage takers, so we’re not in any position to make ‘demands’.

As far as the ‘own Malt Maniacs bottling’ we’ve indeed discussed in the past is concerned…
I guess I’m the naive one now, but the thought of sharing ‘our’ selected cask with somebody else simply never even crossed my mind. For me having ‘our own single cask bottling’ automatically meant that we would choose and bottle that whole cask ourselves. That would be an interesting project, but (for me personally) I’d lose most of my interest if we’d have to produce a ‘half a single cask bottling’ – in my mind that wouldn’t make it UNIQUE enough anymore. To me, still trying to get such a bottling made would indeed be ‘vanity’…

But that’s just my personal opinion.
Malt Maniacs is all about sharing different perspectives on our mutual passion, so we should feel free to disagree.

Robert – Hm, Well, I too agree that we should feel free to disagree which is what I thought I did by posting that.
I probably mistook Davin’s message as I found it was quite harsh – but I misunderstood most certainly. As was my message it seems.
It was not meant as harsh nor naive and I’m certainly not edgy – at tops confused but that is my normal state so I seldom recognize that state anymore anyway 🙂

Regarding “demand” of full cask history on the labels I thought that was just what was asked for in this whole thread.
But I misunderstood that too then. *I* don’t need this information, but I don’t think I’m naive just because of that, or if I am then, so be it. I fully accept that the bottlers want to make money and experiment (I have not high feelings for tradition when it comes to anything really). I still haven’t seen any “problematic” fondled bottlings out there.. it happens and to me it’s OK, I guess that’s what I’ve been trying to say all the time (strongly influenced by myself being involved in several cask fondling experiments also via the Scandinavian Whisky Society which I could write lots about). Damn, I write too many words.

And finally about choosing ones own cask. It’s still a single cask to me regardless if you leave some of the spirits still in there or send it elsewhere. You’ve still gone through the process of selecting it, owning it, drinking it etc. All the joy is still there, well to me it is at least!
Well, as I seem to continously misunderstand this discussion I’ll gracefully (?) withdraw myself from it.
No hard feelings…

Johannes – Hey, hey – no problems with ‘cutting edge’ discussions, Robert. Please continue to share your perspective.
We don’t all have to agree on a certain topic – but debate should never be avoided. Please don’t feel ‘personally attacked’ when some of us place some modest question marks with SOME fondled cask. We should be able to discuss everything uninhibited and try to present the information (all different perspectives) as clearly as possible, so the readers should be able to make up their own mind. Your position (as I understand it) ‘I don’t need to know the answers‘ is perfectly legitimate – but I think a position like ‘don’t ask the questions‘ isn’t.

As I already said, I have no problems with the phenomenon IF it all happens in the open.
In that case, consumers can decide for themselves if they want to invest in a particular bottle.
Anyway, let’s see what other responses we receive.

Davin – You make excellent points Robert; please continue to contribute.
My points were extreme just for the purpose of making a point and not meant to offend.
I also have participated in club bottlings and know there is much to be learned from going through the exercise.
We also get to buy really excellent whisky quite inexpensively.  We make a deal with a retailer to take any bottles we can’t sell so the whole cask is bottled with the same label and has the retailer’s name and ours on it. We also call it a vanity bottling as a self-depricating joke.

Vanity manufacturing is big business over here.  When I was in the record business I pressed some really crappy records because some band or another that could not get a record deal paid me to manufacture crap for them.  Now, with the internet and other new technology that makes manufacturing very easy, this is no longer called vanity pressing, it is called self-production and there are lots of really good acts who choose to do it.

There is also an industry the publishes (or should I say prints) utter crap books for people who want to stroke their own ego or establish themselves as experts by being able to say they have written a book. There are a couple of whisky books on the market right now that are vanity books, also known as self-published.  One in particular just repeats the crap that is written on promo material from the distilleries yet calls itself a guide for newbies.  This is ego, out of control and done by someone who is vain enough to waste trees without contributing to the literature.

When it comes to bottling whisky, I think that people should be doing so in order to get good whisky cheap, or to get good whisky to market or to make money, but not just so they can make themselves feel important.  To me it is just ego to bottle a few bottles out of a cask just so you can see the name of your club on a label, even though the identical whisky is going into other bottles with a different name. There is a business in Scotland that specializes in “putting your name” on bottles of whisky.  They don’t even tell you what whisky it is.  Well, if its a special bottling to promote some business, or event, or a wedding souvenir, or something I can hold my nose and accept it, but if it is labelling just to see your name on a whisky bottling – well I think that is vain.  Vain means excessively proud or conceited, especially about one’s own attributes.  In a sense it also means boastful.

Now, I’ll end here as I have to find some Black Bowmores.
I am going to open 3 or 4 of them, add two drops of Bowmore 17 put in my own corks and capsules, soak off the labels and add my own, then submit them to various competitions (and Jim Murray).  Then I’ll put the one or two that remain for sale on e-Bay and make a killing.
Just joking!!  ;-)).

Please Robert (and others) if I seem a bit harsh stick to your points. Your opinions are just as valid as mine.
I just tend to state the extreme for rhetorical purposes.  Do what ever you want.
If you are having fun with your whisky who cares what someone else thinks?
Especially an old fart like me.

Michel – Well, I do think this ‘phenomenon’ deserves discussion and with some interest I see we are splitting up into two groups.
One group sees it as an academical problem and the other has, or better, uses it as a practical parameter or sheet laid on today’s whisky market. I seem to be ripped apart having a strong feel for the high moral ethic approach as, at the same time, I do understand the more ‘realistic’ approach of the business as well. But I can’t keep myself from thinking the following: Do I have a right, as a Neerlandais, to judge label information coming from a bottle which is exclusively marketed for i.e. the Italian or Japanese market in comparison to a Dutch or French label of the same whisky or cask? Was I, in marketing terms, supposed to buy that certain bottle in the first place?

That’s what I tried to say earlier. The use of internet shops, world wide, has made the ‘local approach’ visible.
I think a globalisation of label information on single cask bottlings is not far away, or at least a more widespread discussion about this matter is needed and will take place in a forseeable future, just because the consumer is using different tools to get what he wants – the whisky industry, or better the independants still have to react on that change. Hopefully…

As for ‘local market label variants’ or ‘shared casks’ or ‘stage bottled casks’ the case, for me, is much more subtle.
The ‘local label variants’ gives me a very bad taste, so that’s cleared up. Altough some exceptions excist. Some bottlers are just not that very popular. For me Hart Brothers had to many up and downs to receive a full hearted confidence. I realise this is the wrong state of mind… But to have more confidence in a Wieber label (tough this is fainting….) and thus trying what was once an official HB bottle provided a second chance for the whisky and me me think about HB again. Tight corners I know, yet for me this is a part of reality I can’t deny…

The ‘shared cask’ – between two completely different companies – is more difficult.
If I was to come across a wonderful cask and I didn’t have the funds to buy the whole I would try to get me some sponsors.
One certain Port Ellen jumps to mind. Shared between the SSMC and Wiebers. I have a feel Wiebers sponsored the SSMC to buy that cask, enableling SSMC to provide their members with a very nice PE for a reasonable price while the non-SSMC crowd had to deal with a huge price for the Wiebers bottle. Bear with me… The SSMC / Wiebers case is just hypothesis and pure speculation! It’s just an example that jumped into my mind since I almost laid my hands on the SSMC bottle and the seller knowing that I already had the Wiebers bottle, pointed out both bottlings are identical. It shows what CAN happen outside an otherwise completely harmless and innocent ‘deal’…

Is it fair? No…
Is it leaning towards fascism – you’re not a member of our club so go away and get ripped off, we don’t care? Almost…
Can we prevent this practice? I’m afraid we can’t… Do we want to prevent this practice? Here’s where I, for myself fail to come up with a solid opinion. A lot comes down to the fact whisky clubs want to DO something for their members, offer a very pragmatic reason to be paying member of a certain club. A club bottling for a low price might provide the perfect reason. Is this vanity? Perhaps…

Perhaps we’re too f**cked up with our passion and forget the fact the ‘Joe Average of whisky drinking’ couldn’t care less…
He (or she) just wants to enjoy his/her dram.

‘Stage bottled casks’ are risky to me. There’s no control or what so-ever and the whole practice seems to be very freud-sensitive.
If there’s case of cask wich is bottled half at CS and th other half is dilluted to 5 or 6% ABV lower due to dilluting… I must confess I got really paranoïd when Serge suggested this practice earlier on in this discussion. It calls for an urgue to develop a very, very precise definition of ‘Cask Strength’. No room for interpretation or what so ever! Untill that definition exists we can only accept the practice and we can respond by not buying anything from that company, or just plainly accept it happens and hope the best of that what is in the bottle.
A example of where suggested fondling has taken place:

Clynelish 32yo 1971 (55.5%, Jack & Jack Auld Distillers, Cask #2704)
Clynelish 32yo 1971/2002 (54.2%, Premier Malt, Cask #2704)

Once both in the Montor where the PM received more points compared to the J&J.
Perhaps more oxygen in the cask did good work, or diluting it ‘just’, was what the spirit needed…
I’m happy not being a judge in this matter…

In my opinion it comes down to this. The industry provides a tool (fantasy labels, cask fondling and gawd knows what more).
This tool is harmless in itself. It can become harmfull in the hands of a reseller, not giving us information which should come with a certain bottle. Also this tool can become harmfull if we, the happy consumers, don’t pay attention to the bottles we buy. Essentially, I feel a large portion of responsibility is in our own hands. It’s good to have this discussion! It’s evenly good to realise publication on MM might hopefully develop an ‘awareness’ on the buyer’s side as well as a critical note pointed towards the industry or re-sellers…

Finally I’ve made my point, no matter if it adds up or completely fails to do anything in this discussion… 🙂

Davin – I agree with what Bert said earlier.  I am sure it is fun to have club bottlings because I was just tasting one from about 7 or 8 years ago and it is special and it still gives a thrill to know how much work and travel and expense went in to selecting the cask and how truly brilliant the whisky tastes all these years later.  I have another different one tucked away to celebrate a special anniversary in 2016.  I think there is a lot to be learned doing your own bottling.  My objection is to having several labels for the same whisky and pretending each is different.  As I say, on our labels we have our name and the name of the retailer who buys and re-sells all we can’t afford.  However, since this is a hobby and the objective is to have fun, I agree we should not worry a whole lot about what other people (such as the Pope) might think.

There have long been bottlings made specially for specific courntries. I don’t see how this means separate labels for parts of the same cask.  Labelling laws are such that in Canada many distributors just add a bilingual label to whisky that has an English label on it.  In some cases they put the lael over top of the old one, but usually they just add an second lable to the back, side or above/below the original.  I still think the label should be used to describe the whisky and if people are just going to buy a few bottles to put their own name on them it’s really no different than soaking the labels off existing bottlings and adding their own label.

What percentage of the whisky buying public will even taste malt whisky?
But, the fact remains that among malt aficionados, more and more people are noticing and commenting on cask fondling.
So people DO notice.

Johannes – Hi maniacs, I hope Davin’s reply put Robert at easy a bit.
But remember we’re MANIACS – and sometimes we get a bit mad about the things we’re passionate about.
We believe in discussing all things fair and square – but in all openness and based on solid arguments. That’s really the MAIN problem here. There are no angels or devils in the whisky business – but a LOT of ‘shades of grey’. The more ‘mystery’, the more chances people at the darker side of grey have of doing stuff they might otherwise not have if they felt it was ‘policed’. You are completely legitimate in feeling this situation doesn’t need ‘policing’, but you appeared to be saying ‘The maniacs should not ‘police’ this’.
In those cases you’re bound to get some strong responses 😉

But ‘I feel your pain’, Robert 😉
Just to let you know we’re not completely paranoid, I’ll forward you some ‘anonymous case sudies’…
Maybe THAT will finally convince you that SOME people (a small minority, I’m sure) have less than 100% pure motives.
If, after reading those stories you still feel we should not pay attention to this, so be it. For me, removing labels from bottles and replacing them with your own claiming that it’s your ‘own’ bottling is simply ridiculous, but if people want to buy those bottles: fine by me…
At least the readers of MM can now make up their own minds about the phenomenon – at least there’s some ‘awareness’.

And as far as I’m concerned that means our main goal has been achieved. So, theoretically we could wrap up this discussion…
However, Pit just informed me about a case of ‘finishing’ that’s so extreme that it sort of fits with the theme for the day…

Pit – In Germany, there is the first Herring Finish around… of course, a Laddie, but by a private guy (Klaus Pinkernell).
I still hope it was a joke. The whisky was finished in two casks: Lagrein wine and Herring!

Johannes – Blasted!!! I’ve been joking about but secretly playing with the idea for years now.
I imagine the brine and fishy aroma’s could be great, but was also worried about a possible oily taste or smell.
So, that was sort of a ‘double finish’, right? Maybe even a first for Bruichladdich?

Lex – As to the herring finish, I can hear the frowns of the SWA moving into place!

Ulf – I talked to Klaus, the ‘master mind’ behind the Herring finishing.
Launch is on March 1st. The version is available at his Berlin shop only.
No advance orders taken. Possibility to order, if anything is left, from March 5. Another odd experiment; Some years ago I was given a bottle of a simple and ill-reputed blended very young whisky ‘The Statesman’. I was told it was the record keeper, volume-wise, when it comes to whisky smuggled into Sweden. Now, down the line one of the handlers got the idea to improve the bottled content, meaning elevate smokiness. Earlier in life this guy had came across a bottle of Tequila that contained the not so uncommon gimmick ‘the Tequila worm’. To be eaten by the one who gets the last serving. Inspired by this he stuffed small smoked eels in Statesman  bottles and re-labeled them with Chivas Regal look-a-like labels where ‘Regal’ was replaced with ‘RÖGÅL), Swedish for Smoked eel. I have my bottle intact, dare not sample it. Perhaps I’ll donate it to be admired and swallowed at a greater Malt Maniac function.

Martine – I would not like to get the last serving, Ulf !!!

Johannes – WOW!!!  I LOVE smoked eel, Ulf! (And Davin has developed a taste as well, or at least he politely pretends 😉
If I’m at the opening at a Malt Maniacs function I’ll most certainly give it a try!

Davin – Yes Johannes,  My taste for smoke eel is real – many thanks.
However, whatever that stuff is they serve plane-side at Schipol is something else (airline food maybe?).
Ulf – what other goodies do you have up your sleeve?  I suspect MANY.  Very excited here.  Ardbeggeddon begins in 24 hours & I’m praying the doctor delivers a certain French Maniac!

Lex – As en expat Dutchie, smoked eel is probably the one food item I miss the most from Holland (raw herring being the other one). Yes, you can get a form of smoked eel here in the UK, but it’s not the same as the Dutch stuff and it’s no comparison ….
So yes, I would most definitely give your Rogal a try, Ulf!

Michel – Bweee, smoked eel… Is this because of your ‘Close To The IJselmeer Roots’, Johannes?
For the non-Dutch: The IJselmeer is a ‘lake’, well, more a closed sea-arm actualy, eel-afficinado’s feel the best quality eel is coming from. More precise: the vilages of Spakenburg and Elburg that is. Elburg is not too far away from a place Johannes calls ‘The Woods’ I believe…

Johannes – Quite right, Michel! The father from a friend of mine grew up in Harderwijk and he was the last in a long line of fishermen. He still went eel fishing and smoking regularly as a hobby in the weekends and then dropped by our place to drop off a few kilo’s of freshly smoked eel. Delicious!  Perhaps that’s where my preference for Islay malts comes from.

In fact, this sort of hooks into Krishna’s recent E-pistle about ‘Indian’ tastes in whisky. I wonder if the preference for Islay malts in many ‘nordic countries’ (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Germany, Holland, etc.) comes from the fact that we almost all have some heavily smoked fish or meat dishes in our ‘cuisine’…  I still feel there’s a sort of ‘border’ running through Europe with the Northerners appreciating the heavy aroma’s a little more and the ‘Southerners’ like the French and Italians going more for complexity and subtle flavours… Anyone care to comment on that? Hey, this could be our first ‘Ask an Anorak’ discussion this year – an excuse to ‘open the bar’…

Michel – Ha Harderwijk… That was a strong third choice.
I tought it would ‘politicly’ more ‘safe’ to mention Spakenburg and Elburg becauce of their heavy errmm… Eel-culture.
Sometimes close to facism to my taste… I certainy agree with your hypothesis about taste prefference in the North or South.
The North European having a slight prefference to heavier tastes.

Ulf had an interesting point when sipping Olivier’s wines, wich are rich and voloptious stating that more austere en acidic styled wines are more appreciated in the Scandinavian countries because of their Protestant background. Almost punisheing themselves for drinking excellent wine. I payed some attention at a few winetastings, trying to have a peek at the hosts wine cellar and Ulf is quite right I must say. Of all the Protestant hosts, the cellar reflected a more austere style of wines, (I tried to focus on the whites), where the Catholics had a far richer, sweeter reflection. This, ofcourse, can be an utter coincidence or I was hopelessly trying to confirm Ulf’s story…

I feel a lot comes down to the availability of ingredients in the kitchen.
The more choices the more appreciation for a more complex taste. History can also have its impact. Being part of a old trade route might influence a national cuisine as a colonial history can have its influences. Indische Rijsttafel (the officious Dutch National Dish) made Dutch appreciate hot, spicy food a bit more than i.e. the Germans, or what about the English and their National Dish: Curry? The Belgiums were very lucky to be influenced by the French for so long. Scandinavians are somewhat unlucky. Iron ore and pine wood not being the most eatable things on this planet and they seem to be stuck up with reindeer and dried and/or smoke fish…
Or smoked eel pressure marinated in a bottle containg a blend… 🙂

Being an atheist/metropolist might be the best ‘state of mind’ to fully explore the wonders of aroma!

Olivier – Hummmm, Austere and acidic doesn’t sound pleasurable to me!
Maybe northerners are too mean to buy good wines or maybe they need something close to battery acid to digest those smoked fat eels… but anyway, Michel, the way you left the winery in your cute little car, I could’ve swore that you changed religion…

Johannes – Haha! Well, that’s an interesting turn of the thread. Michel!
Indeed, ‘the woods’ are just a dozen miles from Harderwijk – in the old days you could still see ‘the coast’ and the town of Harderwijk from a nearby hill. It’s smack in the middle of the ‘bible belt’ of Holland and my dear old grandmother used to call all the ‘polders’ in the west ‘devil’s land’ because of the liberal customs and the fact that the land wasn’t made by god…

By the way, thanks to the blessings of Wikipedia information about ‘De Veluwe’ is now also available in English.
Not even that – it’s available in the local ‘Low Saxon’ dialect as well!  What is the world coming to…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veluwe
http://nds-nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veluwe

Well – Krishna experienced the area when we dropped by there in September and barely made it out alive 😉

Davin – Johannes: What, Johannes?  They thought you were chickens??  😉
And what of Canadians raised on moose meat, salmon, pancakes, potatoes, and maple syrup, Michel?  😉
I really think Krishna hit on something very interesting – and I notice even in Michael Jackson’s books that he has descriptors I never even heard of.  Michel, I really liked that wasabe bit you and Serge put together.  We really should revive or expand that project.  One big major benefit of having an international team!

Johannes – Er, yes, I agree with Davin on Krishna’s E-pistle…
It was published on WF in 2006 but I’ve pulled this into our 2007 pages because it fits in nicely with some recent discussions and upcoming projects… So, I’ll publish it as one of the first ‘official E-pistles of 2007… And interesting you should mention chickens, Davin… ‘The Woods’ is actually smack inbetween Harderwijk (famous for its smoked eel and dolphins) and Barneveld (famous for its chickens). The other Dutchmen on the team can vouch for the fact that it’s known as ‘kiependarp’ – village of the chickens…

Ulf – Ok Johannes, you, Davin and Alex are in. Possibly Robert too, he comes fom a district in Sweden which is famous for the best smoked eel version in Scandianvia ‘Flat-Smoked Eel from Vastervik’ (the eel is de-boned before smoking and sliced thinnly like smoked salmon). And do I have to say that standard Lagavulin 16yo is a good chaser? For the unitiated, outside Scandinavia eel (and herring) is prepared by students of our culinary traditions (;-). . . (Perhaps I am starting a blaze…)

I subscribe to this hypothesis indeed, and have used it as an analogy/explanation at tasting session in Scandinavia since the beginning of (my) time. Talking about ‘cuisine borders’ running across (western) Europe; there is the recognized olive oil versus butter border running from approx. Dijon westward to Bordeaux.

Michel – Ha! Now, I’m was only mentioning my concept about Europe! What about the differences between Canada, the Good Ol’ US of A and why not? South America! Enlighten us… Please! You know how much I envy you for living in the Mecca of Maple Syrup!!! (still have to try the las two tins. A nasty cold an Chritmas preventing me to have them at the table for scrootenizing!) I was under the impression a lot of the MM were already on their way producing writings about national taste markers? If not.. It’s about time!
Have a load of goodies at Ardbeggeddon, Davin! You lucky B***** :-))

Johannes – Yep, very best wishes to Davin for Ardbeggeddon – and to Serge if his flu lets him leave Alsace.
And speaking of Alsace… Actually, Olivier, I still have a nice little liter pack of wine here that I had planned to bring to Alsace last year. And it’d good wine too – the box says ‘qualitätswein’ – it’s called Peter Mertes Liebfraumilch Rheinhessen. I think the price was just 2,99 Euro’s – which makes it cheaper than beer with an ABV of 8,5%! And you get some free sulfites with it as well 😉

Robert – Ho! Now this was an interesting discussion.
I feel the need to brag a little. Where I am originally from (The Åland Islands), an archipelago between Finland and Sweden, we have loads of eels around. Usually we fish these only 10m from the quay where my home is. These freaks of nature can be really huge and usually they spend a day or so alive even after their heads are cut off. After cooking these in our own smokers (or whatever these devices should be called) it’s indescribably tasty stuff. There is some great fishing there too by the way. My brother got 17 (!!!!) pikes only this weekend during 6 hours of fishing.. not every early January you can fish there though, weird weather these days.

Perhaps we should all meet up there and drink Ulfs Rögål and stuff us filled with smoked eels, fish and game while enjoying a wood fired real Finnish sauna some day? I dare you to stay in there longer than I, hehe 🙂

Johannes – this was an interesting discussion, Robert?
I’d like to think it still is! But I guess you’re right… We started this discussion almost 10,000 pixels ago and have drifted quite a bit off topic in the process. I don’t think we have reached a ‘collective’ conclusion about cask fondling we all agree on, but at least some readers of MM might start to ask questions regarding some bottles or casks with ‘odd’ data – like a weird case of Arran we’ve recently investigated.

One of our readers pointed us towards the site of one ‘Uisge Beatha’ society in Holland.
(So, not the ‘Usquebaugh Society’, that’s yet another club in Holland.)  On their websites they discussed a cask of Arran whisky that was sold for 40 shares @ 27,50 Euro’s. So, that’s a grand total of 1100 Euro’s for a cask of whisky – not spirit – and they didn’t mention anything about storage and taxes that can easily double or even triple the price of a cask. Even if it were a cask of 3yo whisky that seems a tad cheap, but on the website they gave the impression that they wanted to let the cask mature for ten or twelve years. Ever vigilant, foreign correspondent Joep van Drunen sent a message to the club, politely inquiring about the cask of Arran in question. In response he received not one but two fuming flames from a member of the society. The messages contained a lot of hot air sprinkled with abuse, but not any actual answers to our main question: do they really sell casks of Arran whisky for 1100 Euro’s and – if so – can we get some?
The agitated tone of the messages and lack of proper answers only made us more itchy…

Fortunately, a board member of the society contacted us later and explained things in a more civilised manner.
The bottom line is that all members of the society know about the taxes and other stuff, so they won’t be unpleasantly surprised when the day of bottling arrives and they have to pay twice or thrice the original price of their ‘share’. So, this case doesn’t seem like a repeat of the ‘cask futures’ scheme of the early 1990’s where some people lost their life savings in dodgy ‘investments’. What’s more, the ‘cask shares’ are only available to members of the society. So, no danger to ‘the general public’ there. I guess it’s something the maniacs could get worked up over if a whisky web shop offered ‘cask shares’ like that without providing all the financial consequences, but they’re a private club.
So, good luck to them and let’s hope the Arran they make today is just as good as the stuff they made a decade ago 😉

In fact – that little episode puts the whole ‘cask fondling’ phenomenon into perspective.
OK, so maybe the ‘route’ of a cask isn’t always as transparent as we’d like, but at least those who choose a matured cask for bottling (with our without fondling) have the chance to sample the product beforehand, so they know what they’re buying. If you invest in a cask of fresh spirit you never know how it’s going to turn out. Of course, that could make it more interesting and exciting too. Getting samples of your own cask each year to see how it matures should be both fun AND educational.

But a bit of a gamble as well…