Where Is The Rampant Sulphur, Mr. Murray?

by Oliver Klimek on January 31, 2013

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.

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Gal Granov January 31, 2013 at 3:56 pm

u think he meant you oliver? ;)

god almighty Jim?

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Steffen Bräuner January 31, 2013 at 4:01 pm

“”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.”

That was actually something I said about Jim Murray.

Steffen

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Gal Granov January 31, 2013 at 4:05 pm

well said Steffen .

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Sjoerd de Haan-Kramer January 31, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Funny enough, apart from Chivas Regal and Glenmorangie, the editions with sulphur in the tasting notes are not even the lowest scoring ones.

11 out of above 111 bottlings containing sulphur, and only in two cases the sulphur was bad enough to make it the lowest scoring whisky of the distillery/brand according to Mr. Murray.

In my book that makes it a 2 out of 111 score in which said sulphur appears to be a problem. Not really rampant, is it?

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Jordan January 31, 2013 at 5:41 pm

It’s also interesting that he picks out Glenmorangie since they’ve specifically said that they don’t use sulphur candles (see 11:00 in the first video): http://www.jewmalt.com/day-2-–-video-tasting-with-glenmorangie’s-global-ambassador-david-blackmore-tasting-the-“lasanta”/

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Oliver Klimek January 31, 2013 at 5:47 pm

It may be a batch thing and not everything industry officials say must be 100% exact. But I agree that some of JM’s findings are a bit odd to me too.

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Norbert January 31, 2013 at 5:29 pm

Sic gloria transit mundi…:)

Nice and elegant article Oliver !

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two-bit cowboy January 31, 2013 at 6:07 pm

Terrific piece, Oliver. Thanks for the detailed analysis.

I was happy to see Jim also didn’t note sulfur in any of my beloved Arran sherry matured whiskies. The sky isn’t falling after all.

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Keith January 31, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Is he being sponsored / paid for to attend Finest Spirits Munich Whisky Festival again this year?
If so I just may have to take a day’s holiday to come along and grab a ringside seat for the “sul-fight”.

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Ryan January 31, 2013 at 6:42 pm

Oliver, nice thorough piece as always. I don’t have enough tasting experience to make a big statement one way or another, but my only experience is with a Glenfarclas 10 that I had, and I swore at the time that it was peated, but learned later that it is not. This is because of the distinct ashy quality that it had, which I now must conclude is sulphur. Also since then, I had an experience where I accidentally got bleach on some metal components that resulted in sulfur dioxide gas, and made me realize just how much like “smoke” sulfur really is. Anyway, although part of me actually likes the addition of that ashiness to the Glenfarclas (the same way I like peat smoke), another part of me thought it detracted from the whisky because unlike peat, it was much more drying and harsh in the mouth. Indeed, it was not a whisky that I would purchase again.

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Oliver Klimek January 31, 2013 at 6:48 pm

I agree that most Glenfarclases have a kind of ashy element, especially on the finish. But that is not sulphur, I strongly suspect it to be barrel char.

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Ryan January 31, 2013 at 6:59 pm

Interesting. Well, I’d say that among all whisky-drinkers worldwide, I’m probably in one of the upper-tiers in terms of enthusiasm and knowledge (though maybe not compared to most Dramming.com readers), but I wouldn’t know a sulfured whisky if it hit me in the mouth.

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Graham Watson February 21, 2013 at 10:49 pm

According to the official Glenfarclas tasting notes, the 10yo has a “delicate smokiness” – a characteristic not often acknowledged according to George Grant.

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sku January 31, 2013 at 9:53 pm

Great post, and you should wear Murray’s criticisms as a badge of honor.

That being said, I’m actually very sulphur sensitive and too much of it can ruin a whisky for me, so I’m sympathetic to Murray’s concern. Sure he does it in a crusading way, but hey, he’s got to make news. Of course, as you note, the problem really comes out in single casks, not standard expressions.

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Jason Pyle January 31, 2013 at 9:59 pm

Oliver, first I have rarely commented on your site but I want to applaud your work. I subscribe to about 15 whiskey blogs via RSS feed. Yours is one of them. Your tasting notes are pure and clean and simple. And I mean all of that in the best way.

I have personally felt Mr. Murray to be a far more opportunistic reviewer than any blogger that does this for the purity of it. I myself have a little site where I discuss and review American Whiskey. I can honestly tell you that on routine basis I taste whiskeys that Murray loves and say to myself, “there is no way he tasted this whiskey I am drinking based on his notes and if he did he has no clue.” For example take a look at 2011/2012(cant remember which) bible where he notes the prevalence of rye present in an older Van Winkle, which as we know is wheated and absent rye. What he has tasted is the older wood spices which can fool the palate. But it is not rye.

While we cannot know if he meant you, the coincidence is interesting. And your post outlines some of the absurdity we get from Murray. The world is quick to recognize experts. Jim was born with no advantage to pick out aromas and flavors in whiskey in spite of what he might think.

Keep doing what you do!

Jason

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Oliver Klimek January 31, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Thank you for your comment, Jason. You may have noticed that I have not touched the subject of JM’s scoring here and in the ‘testosterone’ post. I could have turned that into a trilogy, but I won’t. Enough is enough, this is not a Jim Murray bashing blog. Three years ago I wrote about his scoring system in an article called “bible lessons” which scratches the surface… I can only say that the correlation of his scores with mine is random.

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Sjoerd de Haan-Kramer January 31, 2013 at 10:30 pm

On the subject of sulphur in the flavour of whisky. I find the burnt matches bit quite appealing every now and then, but sometimes the sulphur outs itself more in a ‘cooking water for green beans’ way, which is utterly appealing. I found this, for some reason, in a BenRiach Authenticus 21 year old a few years ago.

Also, I believe I am in the bottom 25 percent of capacity to smell or taste sulphur. Quite practical because I don’t notice the rampant problem so much.

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Jordan January 31, 2013 at 10:39 pm

Can’t say I’ve ever noticed it either. But I also must not be sensitive to it. I’ve worked in research laboratories with lots of organic thiols around (beta-mercapoethanol, thiophenol, etc.) and they didn’t particularly bother me.

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Sjoerd de Haan-Kramer February 1, 2013 at 10:22 am

I said appealing. I meant appalling.

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Whiskylassie February 1, 2013 at 2:37 pm

For those who are SMWS members, there is a fantastic article in October 2012’s edition written by Dr. Bill Lumdsen who also emulates the fact that there is natural sulfur compounds found in whisky (they occur during fermentation). This is completely different than sulfur taint. Natural sulfur compounds add a savoury component to the whisky like a baked egg custard: Rich, almost “meaty” and quite satisfying, whereas the artificial sulfur really smells of struck matches, flints, or extreme bitterness/sour. (NOT ROTTEN EGGS)

With regards to their cask management policy, Glenmorangie stipulates 0% sulphur treatment. So, how then is it possible that Mr. Murray found the dreaded “sulphur” compound in some of their whiskies?

Because, like Oliver stated: He simply may not know the difference.

After meeting him a few weeks ago I was not star struck, worse I was grossly disappointed. Not only in the man, but the “methods”….

Thank you Oliver for taking the time to explain, accurately the “sulphur” rampage!

Johanne

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Jan van den Ende February 2, 2013 at 8:52 pm

Hey Oliver, First time I’ve looked at your site actually. Congrats! Very nice! Very good article about Jim Murray and Sulphur. I actually started writing Tasting Notes after I bought the 2011 Whisky Bible and found that I almost never agree with Jim’s opinion. Which is quite okay of course as everybody is entitled to his/her own opinion. But I did start to wonder about his intrinsic whisky qualities after having given such a high note to the Grant’s Family Reserve Blend which I found close to bad. I did not buy any more Bibles so I haven’t read his article on Sulphur. But I agree with you that it’s certainly not a plague. I have come across the struck matches/cooked rotten vegetables a couple of times in sherried drams but not yet in a way I would consider it to be an industry problem. It could become one though if and when not sufficient good quality sherry casks would be available to the whisky industry because of the decreasing demand for sherry. Because I could imagine that Sulphur would be more dominating in casks that were used many times for maturing whisky. But for the time being we shouln’t be worried of Jim. He should be worried about us. And if you are the Stamp man he’s mentioning, he obviously already is!

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Peat February 3, 2013 at 12:46 pm

Over the past few months I’ve become a bit acquainted with the writings of both yourself and your self-important attacker, and had already decided that he was not one that I was at all interested in listening to.
You, Oliver, on the other hand, are completely real display a humble confidence that I find most refreshing in a world of idiots like JM and others who threaten to kill if they catch someone holding a glass in a manner that doesn’t fit with their inclinations.
Whisky for all and freedom from snobbery is my wish, and your site is one of the best.

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Ruth February 6, 2013 at 10:33 pm

It’s interesting that Malt Advocate has just made Glenmorangie Pride 1981 its Highland Single Malt of the year. Jim Murray gives it 77.5 and has one of the longest entries in his book denouncing the sulphur in it and also those critics unable to ‘nose’ sulphur, comparing them to wine critics who can’t detect corked wine.

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Jim Murray February 21, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Yes, I do know the difference between different sources of sulphur aromas. Indeed, I train people in the industry how to distinguish between them. Yes, I stand by every single word I have written in the Whisky Bible. And no, the postage stamp comment didn’t refer to you as prior to having this blog pointed out to me I had never heard of you.

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Oliver Klimek February 21, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Thank you for setting this straight.

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TF February 21, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Perhaps Jim can elucidate, for those of us who are confused, why, when he professes to hate sulphur so much, he has in the past given such high scores to such notably sulphury drams as Talisker 20yo, Lagavulin 21yo and Laphroaig 27yo?

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Yossi February 21, 2013 at 4:40 pm

One of the better pieces written in a while, Oli. Great analysis. The comments are great too and very happy that Mr. Murray has chimed in. Looking forward to reading more of the conversations!

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politicalidiot February 27, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Getting pissed on by Jim Murray is indeed a badge if honor. He is a big fish in a microscopic world. Hilarious how much of an ego maniac he is. Congrats on pissing him off Oliver.

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Mark July 26, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Good to see Mr Murray not getting it all his own way.

Out of interest, is there an easy reference anywhere as to which whiskies have been stored in sherry casks? SOmetimes it is not always easy to get that info from the bottle or indeed the distillers site. For example, Springbank states that the 10 year old is matured mostly in bourbon casks but doesn’t actually say what else.

Thanks and nice site!

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Oliver Klimek July 28, 2013 at 7:19 pm

Most standard bottlings are a mix of sherry and bourbon casks with the proportions usually being undisclosed. It it’s pure sherry maturation it is usually mentioned.

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Erlend Brandsdal August 4, 2013 at 5:41 pm

I realy enjoyed this article and the comments was great fun. I think a lot of people is sick and tired of mr Murrays egosentric, bully behaviour. I was at a tasting held by Jim. He started by bully people around, everything they did was wrong. Grown men who have been whiskylovers for decades sat there in confusion and anger. It was the worst tasting i ever took part in! Then he startet to talk about soccer for half an hour. Me and my mate just left…

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Peat August 7, 2013 at 8:16 am

The tasting probably would have been a ringing success if any of the people that Murray was rude to had been running the event rather than having to listen to the blowhard run his mouth.

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Raphael September 5, 2014 at 1:20 pm

One slightly delayed comment in this ‘Super Premium Blog': Sulfur is a huge problem, Mr. Murray’s ‘rant’ in Whisky Bible 2013 is spot-on. It seems to me as though this article is trying to give Mr. Murray a terrible slagging off, rather than anything else. And who is being smug ? Collecting stamps ? He must be referring to me ! Yes, thank you Mr. Murray for setting it straight.

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