Are Leaded Crystal Decanters Dangerous?

Chris asked a very important question in our post about why do people put scotch in decanters. He wanted to know why I suggested lead free crystal decanters instead of leaded crystal decanters, which are often heavier and sparklier (is that a word?). Leaded decanters are beautiful but they have one drawback – lead.

Is lead really dangerous? Only if you store the whisky, or other spirits or liquids, in the decanter for longer periods of time. The lead can leach into the spirit and ingesting it is not safe. According to The Nibble, the leaching of lead is must faster than you’d guess.

Researches stored port wine in lead crystal decanters and detected 89 micrograms (per liter) after 2 days and 2,000 – 5,000 micrograms after four months. White wine doubled its lead content within an hour and tripled within four. Brandy stored in lead crystal had around 20,000 micrograms of lead after five years.

The EPA’s lead standard in drinking water is a mere 50 micrograms per liter.

The Nibble says that it’s safe to use leaded crystal while you eat – to decant into (but not store), to drink out of, and to serve out of. The key is that you cannot store anything in them or you’ll run the risk of exposing yourself to lead.

Personally, I’m happy to skip it. Why expose yourself in the first place?

Scotch Whisky Naming Conventions

Look at enough bottles of Scotch whisky and you’ll start seeing the same words over and over again. How many distilleries have “glen” in their name? Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Glengoyne, Glenfarclas, Glen Grant… you get the idea. Many of the distillers have names that describe where they’re located, which is why glen (which means valley in Gaelic) is so prevalent in so many names.

I started looking for common syllables in distillery names and come up with this short list.

  • Ben: It’s Scottish for mountain.
  • Burn: It’s Gaelic for fresh water but it’s also the name for a watercourse, artificial or natural, from large streams to small rivers.
  • Cairn: It’s a man-made pile of stones.
  • Dhu: The sgian-dubh, or skean dhu, is a small single edged knife that’s part of traditional Scottish Highland dress.
  • Duff: Duff is a surname
  • Glen: Gleann, and thus Glen, is Scottish for Valley with a river and is typically narrower and deep.
  • Knock: It’s another term for clock.
  • Loch: Loch is the term used for a lake or an inlet (Loch Ness? Lake Ness).
  • Strath: It’s a large valley that usually has a river and is wide and shallow.

I found it kind of fun to see what the origins of some of those syllables. For example, I thought it was interesting that there were different terms for a valley. You have strath for wide and shallow valleys and glen for narrow and deep valleys. Were there any that surprised you?

Wood Finishes

One of my favorite Scotches is The Balvenie’s 12 year old DoubleWood. It spends most of its live in a traditional oak whisky cask and then spends a little vacation in a Spanish oak sherry cask. It spends a little time first with bourbon and then with some sherry. It seems that a lot of whisky producers are starting to offer wood finishes as a way to add a bit of variety and spice to their selection (according to Wikipedia, the late 1990s was when they started doing this… but I wasn’t old enough to appreciate it!). While I doubt the DoubleWood was the first, it’s certainly the one I appreciate most often (I also enjoy their PortWood, but as a 21 year old Scotch, it’s not something to enjoy every single day!).

Oak Cask

All scotches spend most of their life maturing in an oak cask that once held either bourbon or sherry. The Macallan, for example, relaxes in an American Oak cask that once matured Jim Beam bourbon. The oak itself can be of the American variety or the French variety, with each imparting different characteristics as a result of the tightness of the grain. By Scottish law, all Scotch must be matured for a minimum of three years and one day in order to be called Scotch whisky.

Here are the various wood finishes you might expect to see (notice how many of them finish in casks that once held sweet wines?):

  • Sauternes: It is a dessert wine from the Sauternais region (which is in Bordeaux) of France. Glenmorangie Nectar D’or is finished in a Sauternais cask.
  • Madeira: Madeira is a fortified Portuguese wine (port) made on the Madeira Islands, an archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean. The Balvenie as a 17 year that’s finished in a Madeira cask.
  • Moscatel: Moscatel is a variety of grape and it’s used to make Muscat wine (port). The Arran Malt has a whisky that is finished in Moscatel de Setúbal wine cask (many distillers offer this, include Edradour, Benriach, and others.
  • Tawny Port: Tawny Port is a type of port using the Solera process.
  • Virgin Oak: Take a cask that was designed to hold bourbon or sherry and skip the bourbon or sherry. The Balvenie New Wood, 17 years, is an example of this.
  • Oloroso: A type of sherry, Glenmorangie Lasanta is finished in Oloroso Sherry casks from Jerez, Spain.

The above list is by no means a comprehensive list of all the finishes out there but it’s probably a good start. Note the absence of any Islays… their smokier character probably doesn’t lend itself to finishing.

Islay vs. Speyside Scotch

It’s very difficult to mass categorize the wonderful spirits of Scotland’s myriad collection of distilleries but if one were forced two, the easiest buckets to put them in are based on smokiness. On one side, we have the heavily “peated,” smokey stylings of Scotch produced on the island of Islay. On the other, we have absolutely no smoke and no peat and the most popular area for that is a toss up between the Highland region and Speyside.
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Cask Strength Bottles to Display Bottling Date & Batch

I received an email from Laphroaig about two weeks explaining a new Scotch Whisky Association rule that requires all cask strength single malt Scotch whiskies to display a bottling date and batch number on each bottle. Laphroaig used to bottle all their cask strengths at 55.5% ABV but with the new rules, they’ll be bottling each batch individually with varying strengths and expressions. Since the cask strengths will no longer be blends of several casks, each will have slightly more distinction from bottling to bottling.

I’m not entirely sure why the rules were changed but it’ll certainly add a small little twist to each, here are the stats of Batch #1 of Laphroaig’s Cask Strength:
Batch 1 Facts
ABV: 57.8%/115.6 proof
Batch Date: February 2007
Tasting Notes: A full blast of massive peat smoke and seashore salt leads to a fading sweetness at the finish.
Batch Quantity: 5,100 bottles