Prologue – Enigma
Recently someone pointed me to the fact that Jim Murray mentioned “postage stamps” in his three-page rant about sulphured sherry casks in the 2013 Whisky Bible, and suggested that this might actually be a take on me. Quite surprised I read the passage, and it says:
“People who set themselves up as experts must take into account the responsibility that holds. And if they are not up to the job it would be better for all if they said nothing and stuck to writing about some other aspects of the industry. Or postage stamps.”
As you may already know, I earn my living be selling collectable postage stamps. If this was indeed a take on me, it certainly would fit – if justified. Well, who knows for sure? We will try to find out, if Jim Murray is up to the job just a little later.
Searching The Whisky Bible For Sulphur
Having read the sulphur rant in its entirety, I felt that I could not leave this uncommented, even if it’s been a few months now since it was published.
To make sure I am not misunderstood here, let me take a moment to explain my personal view on sulphur from sherry casks.
- I can detect it, but I suspect I am in the lower 50% regarding sensitivity.
- Sometimes I really like the additional flavours that sulphured sherry casks contribute.
- Sometimes I don’t mind, but acknowledge that the whisky might have been better without sulphur.
- Sometimes I don’t like it at all.
So I guess it is fair to say that I am not a sulphur blockhead, and I actually do appreciate that Jim Murray has put forward this issue. It is the way he did it that makes me feel very uncomfortable.
“We are facing crisis time. This is no longer an occasional problem, it’s rampant.”
The most striking passage of Jim Murray’s rant calls sulphured sherry casks a “rampant” problem of the entire Scotch whisky industry. If this is not about the odd “tainted” bottling, sulphur must be detectable in a broad range of standard bottles. What else could he mean by “rampant” then?
So I decided to buy the 2013 edition of the Whisky Bible and look for mentions of sulphury notes in those standard bottlings, from top down with regard to sales. Obviously the list of bottlings is far from complete, but I tried to select the most important ones. The bottles shown here should make up a significant and representative portion of global sales of Scotch blends and single malts. Blends first:
- Johnnie Walker: Red (87.5): no. Black (95.5): no. Gold Reserve (91.5): no. Platinum (88): no. Blue (88): no.
- Ballantine’s: Finest (96): no. 12 yo (87): no. 17 yo (97.5): no.
- Chivas Regal: 12 yo (83.5): no. 18 yo (73): yes. 25 yo (95): no.
- Famous Grouse: Regular (89): no. Gold Reserve (90): no.
- Grant’s: 12 yo (89.5): no. Ale Cask (88.5): no. 15 yo (85): no. 25 yo (95.5): no.
- Bell’s: Original (91): no. 8 yo (85): no.
- Cutty Sark: Regular (78): no. Black (83): no. 12 yo (92): no. 15 yo (82): yes. 18 yo (88): no. 25 yo (91): no.
- Dewar’s: White Label (78.5): no. 12 yo (84): yes. 18 yo (93): no.
- Teacher’s: Highland Cream (90): no. 12 yo (85.5): no. 25 yo (96.5): no.
- Whyte & Mackay: Special (84.5): no. 13 yo (92): no. 19 yo (84.5): no. 22 yo (87): no
3 mentions of sulphur in 35 bottlings of the most popular blend brands.
Now let’s move on to the single malts, starting with the top selling brands and some sherried mainstays (obvious pure bourbon cask bottlings are omitted):
- Glenfiddich: 12 yo (85.5): no. 15 yo (94.5): no. 18 yo (95): no. 21 yo (86): no. (93.5): no
- Glenlivet: 12 yo (79.5): no. 15 yo (95): no. 18 yo (91): no. Archive 21 yo (86.5/87.5, two batches): no.
- Glenmorangie: 10 yo (94): no. Lasanta (68.5): yes. Quinta Ruban (92): no. Sonnalta PX (96.5): no. 18 yo (91): no. 25 yo (95): no.
- Macallan: 10 yo sherry (91): no. 10 yo Fine Oak (90): no. 12 yo sherry (93): no. 12 yo Fine Oak (95.5): no. 15 yo Fine Oak (79.5): yes. 17 yo Fine Oak (82): no. 18 yo sherry (87): No. 18 yo Fine Oak (94.5): no. 25 yo Fine Oak (90): no.
- Aberlour: 10 yo (87.5): no. 12 yo (88): no. 15 yo sherry finish (91): no. 16 yo (94.5): no. 18 yo (91): no. A’bunadh: 2 of 16 batches tasted.
- Glenfarclas: 105 (95.5): no. 10 yo (80): no. 12 yo (94): no. 15 yo (85.5): yes. 17 yo (93): no. 21 yo (83): no. 25 yo (84): yes.
- Glendronach: 8 yo (86.5): no. 12 yo Original (86.5): no. 15 yo Revival (88.5): no. 18 yo Allardice (83.5): no. 21 yo (91.5): no.
- Bowmore: 12 yo (91): no. 15 yo Darkest (83): yes. 15 yo Mariner (79): no. 15 yo Laimrig (92): no. 18 yo (79): no. 25 yo (86): no.
- Laphroaig: Triple Wood (86): no. PX Cask (96): no. 18 yo (94): no.
- Lagavulin: 16 yo (95): no. Distillers Edition 1991/2007 (83): no.
- Talisker: 10 yo (93): no. Distillers Edition 1993/2007 (90.5): no.
- Bunnahabhain: 12 yo (85.5): no. 18 yo (93.5): no. 25 yo (94): no.
- Cardhu: 12 yo (83): no.
- Auchentoshan: 12 yo (91.5): no. 21 yo (93): no. Three Wood (76): no. 1998 sherry (81.5): yes.
- Dalmore: 12 yo (90): no. 15 yo (83.5): no. 18 yo (76.5): no. 21 yo (87): no.
- Highland Park: 12 yo (78): unclear. 15 yo (85): no. 18 yo (95.5): no. 21 yo (82.5): yes. 25 yo (96): no
- Springbank: 10 yo (89.5): no. 10 yo 100 Proof (86): no. 15 yo (88.5): no. 18 yo (90.5): no.
8 out of 76 major single malt bottlings are tainted by sulphur according to Jim Murray. I am sure that adding more distilleries and more bottlings would not change the picture very much.
Yes, sulphur is indeed a problem, and especially small batch or single sherry cask bottlings carry a certain risk of being affected by it. And even though I have no major personal problems with sulphured bottlings, I would prefer a world without sulphured sherry casks to one where every sherry cask is sulphured.
But by opening wide-angle shrapnel fire against the entire Scotch whisky industry and by making the sulphur problem sound like the biggest catastrophe in the whisky business since the 1980s distillery mass extinction, I don’t believe Jim Murray has helped the cause. The reactions of the whisky industry to this blanket accusations were bordering on ignorance. Maybe a more balanced approach would have been more efficient.
Epilogue – The Duality Of Sulphur In Whisky
Very much at the end of the rant Jim Murray writes:
“There is a reason why pot stills [...] are made out of copper. It is because that metal, above all others, clarifies the spirit of sulphur compounds. [...] So what is the point of banging on about the beautiful copper stills [...], if they then go and put their precious new make into a butt of brimstone…?”
This statement contains a major flaw, I’m afraid. It is like comparing apples and oranges.
First of all, when we talk about sulphur in whisky, we don’t mean elemental sulphur. This yellow substance is actually odorless and tasteless. It is sulphur present in a lot of different compounds that causes the typical aromas, and sulphur is involved in a lot of strongly flavoured organic substances like for example garlic or rotten eggs because it is present in some proteins.
In whisky we have to differentiate between sulphur that is already present in the newmake spirit and sulphur that is brought into the whisky by sherry casks that had been treated with sulphur candles for disinfection.
Burning sulphur candles inside a sherry cask emits sulphur dioxide which reacts with the wine and the wood to form aromatic (read: smelly) compounds. Here the infamous “gundowder”, “firecracker” and “struck matches” aromas are created. This is not really surprising given the fact that gunpowder contains both sulphur and elemental carbon, and carbon is present in charred or toasted casks in abundance, even when they have contained liquid after treatment. I think it is safe to assume that there is a lot of funky chemistry going on with the interplay of sulphur, cask wood and wine.
The natural sulphur compounds in the spirit are entirely different from that. They are essentially proteins that are present both in the grain and in the yeast and that may recombine during fermentation or distillation. It is true that copper stills are used to eliminate sulphur. But the elimination is not complete, and the amount of sulphur in the final spirit greatly depends on the setup and operation of the still.
With peated malt, some sulphur may also be added during malting. But this creates different aromas again. I have not come across a newmake yet that smelled or tasted of anything we would associate with a sulphured sherry cask.
Furthermore it would be wrong to suggest that all distilleries try to minimize sulphur in the spirit. Some actually try to maximize it within their setup because they desire to produce a sulphury spirit. Good examples for such distilleries are Mortlach and Benrinnes whose whiskies are highly sought after by blenders because of their rich and somewhat ‘meaty’ character. Spirit sulphur can be maximized by
- Shorter distillation time
- Using worm tubs or steel condensers instead of copper condensers
- Minimizing breaks between distillation runs or filling the stills with water for longer rests (sulphur reduction works best with oxidised copper; these procedures try to prevent the copper from oxidising).
To sum it up, spirit sulphur and cask sulphur are two completely different beasts, and to a certain extent spirit sulphur is even a desired feature. To simply say “distillers try to get rid of sulphur in the sprit but bring it back with the cask” entirely neglects these facts.
The question of course is now: Does Jim Murray know about the difference between spirit and cask sulphur or not? Either way is not really satisfying, I have to say.
If he knows the difference, this can only mean that he deliberately ignored it to manufacture a misleading argument in order to support his position.
If he does not know the difference, he may not be such a great expert after all. Then he should better refrain from advising other writers to shut up because of insufficient knowledge.