Drinking scotch with a Scottish master distiller

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There's a reason that you should check your work e-mail at 8:45 in the evening.

It's because you just might catch something like a Coaltrain Wine and Spirits newsletter that happened to go out just minutes before, inviting "Coaltrain customers who enjoy great scotch" to a free scotch tasting at the Blue Star with master blender and head of distilleries Ian MacMilllan from Scotland's Burn Stewart Distillers.

That's a tasting of 12 scotches, including 10, 12, 15, 25 and 30-year-old scotches, with a few appetizers included, for free, to the first responders to the limited seats. (No surprise they ended up with a 20-person wait list during the work hours of 3 to 5 p.m. on a Wednesday.)

scotch tasting Coaltrain Blue Star Burn Stewart
  • Matthew Schniper
  • If only every placemat put before you came with 12 scotch samplings ...

Yes, now would be a good time to take a moment and sign up for Coaltrain's newsletter, here.

Anyhoo, I attended this past Wednesday, and it was unsurprisingly mega awesome.

Like, sample a $350 bottle of scotch for free awesome. (Not that that one ended up being near the top of my personal sampling list, oddly.)

So please allow me to share some photos, notes and advice from Mr. MacMillan, plus some audio I captured with him. Forgive the background noise and informal interview style amid the chatter, but it's worth listening to just to appreciate his accent.

First, a quick slideshow for full visuals.

Next, here's MacMillan explaining in layman's terms how scotch is made, with a brief comparison to beer-making.

And here's a slightly longer clip (around five minutes) with MacMillan talking about what's exciting in the scotch world; his process of "un-chill filtering" which results in a more natural scotch; blending; and a rise in women and younger people drinking scotch:

scotch tasting Coaltrain Blue Star Burn Stewart
  • Matthew Schniper
  • In these bottles sits almost $1,200 (retail) of high-end scotch.

Now to some notes:
You can read more on Burn Stewart on their website, but to summarize, they operate three distilleries: Deanston, Tobermory and Bunnahabhain.

Ian MacMillan is six months away from becoming a true master distiller, which is a title granted at the 40-year mark — so he's no rookie. He is one of six judges on an international panel and was introduced to us as "one of the top palates in the world."

He's been at Burn Stewart for 21 years, and introduced himself to us as "a real traditionalist — I believe scotch should be produced, distilled and drank traditionally."

MacMillan spoke briefly on the finer points of each distillery, including Deanston's continued reliance on water turbines that generate all of its electricity, making it the only distillery in Scotland that's self sufficient in that way. Everything at each of Burn Stewart's distilleries is still done manually, versus automated, and regarding computers' use in blending, MacMillan said, "That for me destroys the myth of what scotch whisky is and what it stands for as a hand-crafted product — you’ll never find that in any of the distilleries I operate."

He then discussed his personal fight with his own marketing team, to get them to yield to his desire to not chill-filter his scotches — a fight he won, whose repercussions were implemented across the whole company.

scotch tasting Coaltrain Blue Star Burn Stewart
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Master blender Ian MacMillan wears the smile of a Scotsman who picked a fight and won.

It goes like this: after selecting "the best" barley to make malt whisky, carefully distilling, and selecting the best casks for aging, he then takes the aged whiskies and blends them, preparing them to be bottled. Before he won the fight, those whiskies were then turned over to a bottling hall manager, who would promptly cool the liquids to 32 degrees and then force them through a fine mesh filter.

That process would remove a lot of the "oily compounds that would congeal" and reveal a diluted product that would "glisten in the bottle, remain clear on the shelf and not get cloudy when you added water," explained MacMillan. "But it's not natural — it's purely cosmetic."

MacMillan says he'd run his hand over the filter afterward and "the aroma would knock you over," — basically, a lot of the good stuff was being left behind. "It would give it more aroma, texture, color and flavor," he said, noting how other companies have to add caramel to the end product to re-balance color.

The marketing team finally relented, and thus Burn Stewart's products are now "un-chill filtered."

So the take-away message: "When you're drinking malt whisky, cloudy means you've got the real thing."

scotch Coaltrain Blue Star Ian MacMillan Burn Stewart
  • Matthew Schniper
  • As with most fine drinks, it's nice to sample the nose first for an olfactory experience. With all the scotches under 25 years, a couple of drops of water is recommended to open them up and slightly dilute the alcohol.

Now to the actual tasting and my favorites of these highly awarded scotches:
If you're in the market for a basic blended scotch, the Scottish Leader is perfectly fine, but the Gordon Graham's Black Bottle Blended is far better, for only a few bucks more.

Between 1879 and 1995, it was only sold in Scotland, and MacMillan calls it a "more robust blend."

Gov Vaughan, with Chips Distributing/Classic Wines, calls it the "most underrated scotch in the U.S." considering its price point, which makes me personally liken it to the Maker's 46 of the bourbon world.

You can pick up a bottle at Coaltrain for $22.99 (as opposed to say, the $289.99 Deanston 30-year we sampled).

And regarding blends vs. single malts, MacMillan had the following to say:

My belief is if it wasn’t for the advent of blended whisky, that scotch whisky itself would never have progressed much beyond a cottage industry. Because the whisky that was made in those early days was far too powerful, it was very oily and very smoky — it wasn’t until the first master blender, a man named Andrew Usher, used the lighter style grain whiskies and blended them with the very rich style malt whiskys to make the first blends that scotch became worldwide famous.

He added that single malts have only been around for about 40 years, and that 93 percent of the whisky sold worldwide is still blended.

Between the Deanston Virgin Oak ($31.99), 12-year ($54.99) and aforementioned 30-year, I'm a bigger fan of the Virgin Oak, made with Kentucky casks (by a supplier who only supplies Deanston and Heaven Hill).

It is a sweeter scotch, with a sweetness rating of 8 and peatiness rating of only 1 (versus that Black Bottle blend that's a 7 on the sweetness scale and 5 on peatiness). That means you're going to taste virtually no smoke but detect more of the fruit notes and the "honey, sweet vanilla and gingerbread overtones" that MacMillan says is characteristic of Deanston brands.

The 12-year actually has the same sweet/peat ratio and the 30-year only loses one point on sweetness. To appreciate its price (which, frankly, I wouldn't pay based on how good the other scotches are for a fraction of that cost) you must understand the angel's share, which refers to all the product lost to evaporation over the years. What's left after three decades in the barrel is much less than what went in — plus, high-rollin' people dig spending big money on old shit, best I can understand. Hence: old port wine at auction.

I'm very glad to have had the opportunity to try the 30-year, and it was interesting to pick up the sweet dessert wine nose on it, which comes from two final years being finished in used sherry casks. But there was a strong earthiness present (not a peatiness, but earthiness) that a co-taster described as "mushroom-y." To some, that was off-putting.

The Tobermory 10 ($48.99) and 15 ($134.99) are both quite nice, and the 15 is a big award winner, but my favorite from that distillery is the fantastic Ledaig 10-year ($54.99).

Here, the peatiness (smoky flavor) jumps to a chart-topping 9 (versus the 1 in the Deanston brands) while the sweetness hangs at a 6.

If you listen to the above audio clips, you'll understand where that smoke flavor comes from. The quick synopsis is that back in the day, barley was dried above peat fires and the smoke flavor would be infused into the grain. Now, with brands that have low peatiness, they're dried with propane heat that doesn't impart any smoke.

If you like the smoky scotches, the Ledaig might be king, but MacMillan's newly released (in the U.S.) Bunnahabhain Toiteach Single Malt ($89.99) is also a smoky beast and a real treat — probably the most interesting scotch I tasted with the most amazing nose.

scotch Coaltrain Blue Star Ian MacMillan Burn Stewart
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Fight smoke with smoke: in this case, smoked peaches to complement the peatiness of the scotches.

Take a whiff and it smells just like a smoldering campfire — it transported my memory to driving through the Romanian countryside one summer and smelling all the farmers burning the previous harvest's shriveled corn stalks and debris in their fields to prepare for the next planting.

MacMilllan created the Toiteach (Gaelic for "smoky") in an attempt to reproduce Bunnahabhain of pre-1963, the "old-style" which would intentionally capture the peat-smoke for aroma and flavor. The challenge, he said, was having no guide to go by in terms of old product to sample. So this is his best attempt at paying homage.

The Bunnahabhain 12 ($59.99) and 25 ($349.99) weren't super distinguishable to many of the tasters at my table, though MacMillan described the 25 as being "creamier."

Especially considering the vast difference in price, I think you know which bottle I'd recommend buying. (Sorry, Mr. MacMillan and crew.) Both are pretty wonderful, though.

Lastly, for our "dessert" pour, we received Mrs. Walker's Drumgray Highland Cream Liqueur ($26.99), which I'll go ahead and dub Baileys Killer.

MacMillan and the reps from Chips and Classic described it as the most awarded cream liqueur in the world, so much so that after many years of winning the top honors (at an unspecified contest), they weren't allowed to enter anymore, instead receiving the blanket "most accoladed" award.

It's made with Deanston 5-year single malt mixed with Scottish double cream, and it's triple homogenized so that it won't separate at all. It's almost as sweet as Baileys, but not in the same cloying way — it feels just a touch more sophisticated as an ice cream topper or sipper on the rocks.

One final note: the food photos you are seeing in the above slideshow are items that Blue Star chef Andrew Sherrill thought would pair nicely with the big, smoky scotches.

They are: a smoked peach Bruschetta plate, blue crab Hawaiian fish cakes with a jerk sauce and spicy chicken and blue cheese cigars.

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