Sunday, November 25, 2018

blowing smoke up your aerse

In a sad echo of the fate of many polar explorers throughout history, the Shackleton has failed to survive the winter - or, to be strictly accurate, failed even to survive the autumn, since by most people's reckoning winter doesn't start until December 1st at the earliest. I don't want to get into an argument about it, but there it is.

Aerstone is, like the Shackleton, a fairly new thing. Unlike the Shackleton, though, this is a single malt rather than a blended malt. It's produced by Grant's, a major player in the blended whisky market but also as owners of Glenfiddich responsible for the biggest-selling single malt whisky in the world and also, arguably, through their marketing decision to push Glenfiddich single malt whisky as a premium product in the 1960s and 1970s, largely responsible for the single malt boom which has followed. Note that this particular Grant family are, as far as I know, unrelated to the Grant family who founded the Glen Grant distillery.

It's not completely clear from the website, for reasons we'll come to in a moment, but all the available evidence suggests this is distilled in Grant's own distillery in Girvan, where they make a lot of grain whisky for their blends, but also the Ailsa Bay single malt. It comes in two versions - the one I've got here is called Land Cask and there is one called Sea Cask. Supposedly Land Cask is smoky whereas Sea Cask is less so and benefits from being matured in warehouses in close proximity to the sea.

As with the Shackleton you can get more than a whiff of high-concept marketing bollocks here. The claim being made for Aerstone is that the simple binary choice available "simplifies" the whisky experience in some way. And maybe it does for the average punter who just wants something nice for the cupboard in case someone comes round and wants a glass of whisky. My requirements are not complex either, mind you: I just want a clear statement of where the whisky that's in the bottle was distilled, what sort of casks it's been in, how old it is and some sort of guidance as to flavour, most importantly the sort of peat/smoke content involved. The problem here can be illustrated by these two articles from the same well-established whisky website, one claiming that the Aerstone whiskies are "both sourced from unspecified distilleries" and the other claiming that "both expressions are distilled at the Ailsa Bay distillery in Ayrshire". The second is correct, I think, but the wider points made in the second article are valid, principally that this doesn't really simplify things and may in fact do the opposite. Of course it's important to remember that the bottom line here isn't simplification, it's sales.

As regards the flavour claims made for the two whiskies, I'm very sceptical of claims made that whisky matured in warehouses near the sea acquires some sort of salty tang off the sea air. I'm really not sure that I see how this would work. It's a claim often made for Old Pulteney, for instance, which is perfectly lovely whisky, but while I note that I did use the word "salty" when I tried it I'm far from convinced that a) that had anything to do with the location of the cask storage facility or b) I could identify it as definitively more "salty" than any other random whisky in a blind taste test. The linked article above also makes the good point that for seasoned whisky-buyers having the one labelled "Sea Cask" be the non-smoky one is a bit counter-intuitive, most smoky whisky being the product of coastal or island distilleries (most famously those on Islay).

But, at the end of the day, Brian, it's just some pleasantly tangy brown liquid that you drink and either like the taste of or don't. Moreover, both Aerstones are currently on offer for £20 at Tesco, a full tenner off the price quoted in this "ten best single malts" article.

It'd be a pretty poor show if a whisky marketed as simple and straightforward didn't do what it said on the tin, and this is indeed quite smoky. Nearest points of comparison are probably the Ardmore and the Islay Glen Marnoch. It's less fishy and vegetably than the Ledaig, less rich and sweet than the Lagavulin, and less beefy than the Bowmore. Thoroughly nice and quaffable, though, and any reservations I may have about it are purely based on my impatience with marketing bullshit rather than the taste.

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