Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Cadenhead’s in Japan: a barside chat with Mark Watt

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Last week, Mark Watt of Cadenhead’s was over in Japan to introduce his new range of whiskies. We pulled him aside for a little chat and started by asking him about the structure of the new range.
Mark: The core of our range is ‘small batch’ and we’re really talking small batch here – 2 or 3 casks maximum. We’ve got small batch at cask-strength (square bottles) and small batch at 46% (dumpy bottles). There will be a single cask range, too, but the packaging is not ready yet. That’s going to be the square bottle but a little bit more gold. I’ve not seen the final designs yet... in Campbeltown, we’re on a different speed of time, you know. I was in the job for 281 days before I sold a bottle – and they were happy! Things take time.

Nonjatta: You’ve also got the ‘Creations’ range: blended malts (black label) and blends (white label). Are they your creations?

Mark: They are now. The first one was a vatted Islay malt and that was done by Frank McHardy. That’s a simple ABC recipe – Ardbeg, Bowmore and Caol Ila – and it was just three casks. They were vatted together 4 or 5 years ago and then returned to cask for marrying. The other ‘Creation’ is one I did. It’s a blend of 4 casks: a Mortlach sherry butt, a Bruichladdich bourbon hogshead, a Cameronbridge barrel and an Invergordon sherry hogshead. They were vatted together and left to marry for 8 months in sherry wood before bottling. It’s good fun being allowed to do this, but one of the things doing small batch blends with a small number of casks is: there’s nowhere to hide. Each of your components has got to be good. If you’re doing a vatting of 50 or 100 casks, you can lose a couple of casks in the vatting, but if you put a bad cask into a vatting of 3 or 4 casks, that’s 25-30% of your final product. That’s very important to stress: when we’re picking casks for these ‘Creations’, it’s whisky we would happily bottle in its own right.

Nonjatta: Unlike most independent bottlers, your range is spearheaded by small batch rather than single casks.

Mark: Yes, well, we’ve got 9 shops in Europe and we’re in 23 markets so far – we’ll probably go to 24, 25 and then stop at that – we’re not interested in world domination. And when we do a single cask – like the Glenfiddich 40 that’s coming out soon – there’s only going to be about 27 cases coming out of that. So you can’t keep people happy a lot of the time with single casks. Doing small batch releases – again, 2 or 3 casks – allows each market to get a more decent allocation. That’s the kind of thinking behind it. But also, it allows us to do things like we’ve done with the Craigellachie, which was a sherry hoggie and a bourbon hoggie married together, so you can play with the flavours a little bit.

Nonjatta: It’s good to see the Cadenhead’s bottles on the shelves again in Japan, because for a while there, it seemed like Cadenhead’s was gone.

Mark: It’s funny, because out here it feels like it was gone for a while… and you know, it’s great that I’m getting a lot of praise for putting out these amazing casks, but we’ve been bottling them all the time anyway! It’s just because we were only selling them to our shops and because it was kind of insular that no one was really speaking about them. I was brought in to start up the Cadenhead’s international range and the shops will be getting some of this stuff, but the majority is for export markets. We’ve been off the radar for too long, but we needed to do this, because we’ve got a phenomenal amount of stock…

Nonjatta: Let’s talk a little bit about that. Do you have a fairly good spread?

Mark: We’ve got stock from 102 different distilleries ranging in age from 2 to nearly 50 years old. We don’t have everything – unfortunately, we’ve bottled all our Lagavulin and Talisker in the past – but we’ve got plenty of other things to choose from. We’ve also got quite a bit of grain whisky. We don’t have any sort of 12 or 16 year old grain – it’s all either much older or much younger – but we’re buying stuff all the time. We’re lucky because when parcels of older stock come onto the market, we can buy them but we don’t have to bottle them immediately. We’re quite happy to buy stuff and then sit on it until we feel it’s ready to be bottled.

Nonjatta: When you started going through the stock, did you come across anything that you thought was really quite special?

Mark: Plenty of things, yes. Just to give you one example: we’ve got a 1966 Glenlossie and you know ‘old bottle effect’ flavour? Well, it’s got that but it’s still in the cask! Bizarrely, when I was researching that, I came across Serge Valentin’s notes for the sister cask that had been bottled about 10 years ago, and he also said: this has ‘old bottle effect’ but it’s new! I thought that was very interesting.

Nonjatta: Will there be any exclusive bottlings for specific markets – Japan maybe?

Mark: We’re starting to do some exclusive bottlings and Japan is getting quite a few. There’s one on order from the guys at Shinanoya and another one for Bar Campbelltoun Loch. And once I get back home from this trip, I’m going to be working with the Japanese importer to get some special things for them. But with every exclusive bottling we do, the shops in Europe will get a couple of bottles each so that fans elsewhere get a chance to try these whiskies too.

Nonjatta: The response to your first ‘Small Batch’ releases and ‘Creations’ has been phenomenal. Is it tempting to increase the output?

Mark: It’s true, things are going really well and we’re actually putting in a second bottling line at Cadenhead’s – that is to say, at Springbank distillery – to get everything bottled. Springbank production is up; Cadenhead’s production is up; Kilkerran is now on board, so there’s more stuff being bottled. We were looking at getting a new bottling line and – this is typical for Campbeltown! – we had trouble getting one that was slow enough! We managed to find one, though, so we’re on track. That being said, we don’t want to put out too much all at once. We’re looking to do about 4 ‘Small Batch’ bottlings at cask strength a year, with each bottling consisting of probably 2 or 3 single casks, and maybe 6 bottlings at 46%. And then, maybe twice a year, we’ll do the ‘Creations’. We don’t want to put out all the crown jewels at once. Besides, we’re not in a hurry. You know, you’re only as good as your worst bottling.

Nonjatta will be reporting on special Cadenhead’s bottlings for the Japanese market, so stay tuned... as always.

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