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Monday, 14 April 2014

The Eagle Has (Finally) Landed? Arran 17 Year Old

Here at Caskstrength, we have a distinct soft spot for the Arran distillery. 

Back in 2011, when we decided to embark on our epic journey into the A-Z of Whisk(e)y, we began with A for Arran- a particularly fine 14 year old expression in our opinion, which quickly sold out.  

The Arran itself was deliciously light in character, full of orchard fruit, caramel malt and zest. When looking at the range of Arrans available We wouldn't hesitate to recommend the 10 year old to anyone looking to experience a single malt for the very first time (a steal at around £30) and the 14 year old continues to develop the distinctly fruity softness to another degree. 

In fact, we came to associate Arran with the flavours of summer, despite there being a host of other more robust offerings including a host of sherry and wine finishes available, alongside the lighted peated Machrie Moor and the spicy, slightly spirity Devil's Punch Bowl. 

The distillery's newest offering, a 17 year old, is the oldest expression to date (continuing the countdown to next year's 18 year old, after the official release of a 16 year old last year) and marks another turning point in the its very own spirited journey.  But rather than focus on the full fat, buttery rich sweetness of first fill bourbon to give all those lovely light summery notes, this release is made up from sherry hogsheads.    

So where does it fit into the canon of current releases?

Well, the good(ish) news is that it isn't a million miles from any of the previous ones...

Arran - 17 Year Old -  46% - RRP £65

Nose: Undeniably sweet from the get go, with a clean malty cereal note, tangy orange zest, a hint of golden syrup, some hazelnuts and a little liquorice. It isn't the most complex 17 year old you're likely to encounter and shares a lot of the hallmarks with the distillery's younger expressions.  

Palate: Slightly sharp initially, but with a return of the orange zest, a little spiced sugar syrup, more chopped nuts, fragrant marzipan and green apple. Given time, the orchard fruits we have come to expect develop with soft white peaches and pears coming to the fore. Again, it isn't the boldest palate you'll encounter, but it is certainly in-keeping with the Arran we have grown to love.

Finish: Slightly short, with lingering chopped hazelnuts and a touch of liquorice.  

Overall: Anyone hanging on for Arran's ascent into the realms of deep, dark complexity will be sorely disappointed. But in our opinion, that is unlikely to happen any time soon. The distillery has set its stall out as a characteristically light, easy drinking whisky and, wait for it... they have easily achieved this again with the 17 year old. For the price, you are getting a very dependable and well made whisky (given the cost of the numerous No Age Statement whiskies out there).  It may lack the bold touches other distilleries achieve at this age but with spring definitely joyfully bounding around like a puppy full of penny sweets, whiskies like this most certainly come into their own.  

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Blend It Like Beckham - The New Haig Club Grain Whisky

Well, sometimes prophecies do come true it seems.

In January, we looked into our crystal whisky glass and thought long and hard about what was going to happen in the whisky world.

Our first prediction was that the world of grain whisky would get a lot more popular with several major players entering the market place with new products.

Our second prediction was that there would be the unveiling of a huge celebrity endorsement whisky.  At that point, the waters went cloudy and we couldn't quite make out just whose face was disappearing back into the haze -  but they looked familiar, fairly handsome and in possession of a decent haircut.

Today it seems that both of these predictions have proved to come true.

The whisky world has entered another realm of celebrity with the announcement of Haig Club -  a brand new grain whisky partnership between Diageo and none other than football's favourite son, David Beckham.

Beckham and his manager, the show business mogul Simon Fuller are familiar to millions around the globe so make no mistake, this is quite a big deal. What is surprising, but equally very pleasing, is that the whisky in question is a grain; the bedrock of any blended whisky and the spirit that really drives the Scotch  business forward. Without it, the world domination of whisky simply wouldn't have occurred. Brands like Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, Cutty Sark and any of the many other ubiquitous blends would not be welcoming sights in back bars from Alaska to Zurich.

So why Haig Club?

Well, the Haig family has a long seated presence in the grain whisky world. The Haig family are arguably the first distillers of Scotch whisky on record, dating back to 1655.  In 1824, John Haig established the Cameronbridge distillery, which has now become one of Scotland's largest grain distilleries producing around 120 million litres of spirit every year.  From Smirnoff vodka- to Gordon's and Tanqueray gin, through to a host of blended whiskies you will have tried, the large proportion of the grain spirit within these famous brands is made at the Cameronbridge distillery.

Haig is the name on another hugely successful blend - Dimple, which for all those Breaking Bad fans, was Walter White's favourite tipple of choice, shortly before cooking up a bad-ass batch of Crystal Meth.

Now it seems that Haig has reinvented itself again -  this time with a new global icon at the helm.

David Beckham and his team of business advisors have clearly entered the whisky market at the right time, given its continued global expansion. With the Far East becoming more switched on to Scotch whisky of all kinds (premium single malts and blended whiskies) and also South America (particularly Brazil) developing a healthy appetite for whisky, it is undoubtedly hot property. But the fact that Haig Club is solely a grain whisky is doubly clever. Unlike malt whisky, grain has a softer profile, lighter in style, making it easy to mix and certainly easier on the palate than heavier, more robustly flavoured whiskies.

Until recently, when William Grant & Sons released their Girvan series of whiskies (essentially becoming pioneers in opening up a new grain whisky market) there was little consistency around grain whiskies, with most coming from independent sources: some were excellent, some were truly terrible. Grain whisky has clearly always been an untapped resource and now it all lots set to change once again from being a team player within the confines of a blend, to becoming a real star player on its own (sorry, we couldn't resist that)

The new Haig Club whisky won't carry an age statement and will be made from three distinct styles of casks: refill - used whisky casks, rejuvenated casks (which give a greater level of spiciness to the flavour) and first fill bourbon casks. With grain whisky intended to be easy to mix with pretty much anything:  from soda, tonic, lemonade and cola, it is not going to be as complex and structured as a single malt - but that's the point. At the moment, there is no RRP, but the whisky will be released later this year, so we shall see if it will come with a price tag as lofty as a premiership transfer fee.

We were invited to try an advanced sample of Haig Club a few months ago and here's our tasting notes:

Haig Club - Grain Whisky -  40% 

Nose: Fresh coconut, milk chocolate, rich Madagascan vanilla, chopped hazelnuts, honeycomb and a hit of banoffee pie and a little fresh pine aroma too.

Palate: Coconut, pineapple and banana come to the fore, backed with a delicate undertone of blackcurrant, a hint of raspberry and more fresh vanilla. This is a sunny tropical fruit salad of a whisky, but there is a solid foundation of oak underneath.

Finish: Milk chocolate truffles, more coconut and a hint of oak-led spice which gives some real uplift to the finish

Overall: This is not a flighty, flavourless grain but one which has taken on a good balance of both tropical fruits on the top end (giving a mouth-watering flavour) yet with a strong foundation of vanilla and spice. No doubt, it will be a real game changer, like the man who has lent his name to the project. 

Friday, 4 April 2014

Cheap As Chips: Cadenhead's 1973 Glenfiddich and 1976 Dalmore Single Malt Scotch Whiskies

Those of you who have read this site for a while will remember back to my 30th birthday. In the years leading up to it, I had assembled a collection of bottles from the year of my birth, 1979. Doing so wasn't too difficult (this was in the days when one could purchase a bottle of 1979 Port Ellen from an indie bottler for under £100, and an OB for little over that) and the army of drams which were opened on my celebration day would grace any high end hotel nowadays.

I'm not one of those people who perpetually complain about the price of whisky rising. I understand that it is a finite product and if demand rises, so will prices. Doing so, is like complaining about the current house prices in certain parts of London. 20 years ago, I could have probably afforded to live in, say, Notting Hill. But not these days. Do I complain? No, I just go and live somewhere that is nice and affordable. Move on. Literally.

The price of a bottle of whisky is not determined just by the demand for mature stocks, however. As discussed in a post from last week about the possible shortage of casks coming over from America (legislation tbc), cash-flow plays a major part, too. If more money is needed now to lay stocks down for the future, then you'll more than likely see an uplift in the cost of your beloved dram.

All of this is going to have an effect on whiskies from the year of my birth, 1979 especially when people like me actually go and open the damn things. More so, any Scotch from the 1970’s seems to have seen a fairly hefty price hike in the last few years and my thoughts go out to you if you were born in the 60's, 50's or, god forbid, the 1940s and you’re looking to purchase birthday bottles! My advice would be: stockpile now if you want something to drink on your special birthday in the future.

However, there is hope! The indie bottler often rides to the rescue of those indeed of a rare, old dram and we feature a few of them on this site every so often. But one bottler who we hardly ever talk about (in fact, I don't think we ever do) is Cadenhead’s.

The last time we had a wee drop from these chaps was down in Campbeltown after a visit to Springbank distillery. They have a shop locally and sell some quite astonishing stuff at exceptionally low prices. I used to frequent their shop in London's Covent Garden (before rent price hikes forced them out to Marylebone- see what they did there? When faced with a price hike, they just moved on...) but have sadly not taken the time out to check out their new London store.

Silly me.

Why? Because of bottling such as this:

Cadenhead's 43 yo Glenlivet
I discovered this wee treat behind the bar at the Royal Oak  pub in Dufftown a few weeks ago. Not many people have whisky dating back this far. And not many sell it for well under £200 a bottle. Yeah, you heard: under £200 a bottle.

So, what do Candenhead’s have in store for future release? Well, one of them is their most expensive bottling ever, a 41 year old Glenfiddich from 1973 which comes, as Brand Ambassdor Mark Watt excitedly tells me "in a cardboard box!" and is a single cask which yielded just 96 bottles, retailing for £450.

Glenfiddich - 1973 – 41 Years Old – Wm. Cadenhead – 96 bottles only - 43.1% abv

Nose: A complex nose of sandalwood, petrichor, old diesel locomotives, school desks and furniture polish. This is like sticking your nose into a 1960's ercol cabinet. Some orange peel, fig, angostura bitters... this would be brilliant in an Old Fashioned.  

Palate: Rich and oily, it starts off with apricot jam, dark chocolate-dipped candied orange, some more sandalwood, cinnamon sticks and ginger. Rich and mouthfilling, this could have been dry and woody, but it is as refreshing as a dewy walk through an autumnal wood at dawn.
Finish: Apricots, old armagnac and a hint of menthol.

Overall: Rich with great woody notes, a full body and lots of fresh fruits. Fantastic.

Alongside this release is a single cask 37 year old Dalmore, retailing at an astonishing £170.

Dalmore - 1976 – 37 Years Old – Wm. Cadenhead - 150 – 46.4% abv

Nose: Brandy butter, rich clotted cream, some marzipan and toasted almonds give way to the oak, which takes a while to lift from the glass, but once it does it provides a good spicy topline, finally resting on fresh pine needles.

Palate: Vanilla again, rounded with cinnamon and green apple, which quickly develops into toffee apple and light, runny honey. The palate also has an element of watermelon and pear drop sweets. Some custard notes, too.

Finish: Rhubarb and custard sweets.

Overall: A great dram at a stella price, this is all about the vanilla, cinnamon spice and rhubarb & custard.

So, if you look hard enough, you'll find the odd bottle out there which is extremely good value for a well aged product. Just keep your eyes peeled.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Liquid Football: Ardbeg AuriVerdes Single Malt Scotch Whisky Review

Rather like Christmas seemingly coming earlier every year (FYI ONLY 267 shopping days to go folks!) the attention on Brazil being this summer's most desirable media/product tie-in nation has well and truly begun in advance of the big event. 

Only last night did we witness the first domino falling in the commercial build up to the World Cup, with Budweiser producing an 'emotional' (their words, Lynn, not mine) black and white TV advert around the passion of football. As the official beer of the World Cup, Bud have produced some limited edition bottles clad in gold, which, will no doubt taste every bit as interesting as their current product.

But brushing aside the cynicism, there are a brace of other drinks companies who have also seized the opportunity to use the summer blockbuster as a launchpad for new products - and both of them look a lot more interesting to us.

Ballantine's have ventured into the flavoured whisky market with their newly released 'Brasil': a low ABV spirit drink (so not a whisky at all, being both flavoured and bottled at 35% abv) which is flavoured with Brazilian lime peel. Expect to see a full review on here soon, in a special feature on flavoured whiskies.

Next up comes a late entry on the team sheet, this time from Islay.

What is arguably the worst kept secret in whisky right now, Ardbeg is releasing AuriVerdes at the end of May, a limited edition bottling in homage to the summer football spectacle, but actually marking their very own celebration of Ardbeg Day, an annual event in the distillery's calendar on the 31st May, coinciding with the hugely popular Feis Ile. Expect football themed high jinks if you're heading to Islay and the Ardbeg Open Day.

A Possible Photo from Ardbeg Day 2014

So what of the liquid itself?

Well aside from the very shiny gold bottle (the regular release will be in traditional 'Verdes' green) the news is that the Ardbeg whisky creation team has been busy experimenting with freshly toasted new cask ends. With the whisky drawn from bourbon casks, the toasted ends give the 'classic' Ardbeg notes a new dimension...

Ardbeg AuriVerdes - Ardbeg Day Bottling - 49.9% -Outturn TBC 

Nose: Hot, with some distinct Ardbeg smokiness (sweet cure bacon), alongside a little dry spiciness, a big waft of vanilla pipe tobacco, expresso coffee, a touch of ginger and an injection of some lighter citrus zest -  fresh lemon and lime. It's powerful, but with a light touch alongside -  think Didier Drogba... 

Palate: More classic Ardbeg fullness, the smoke turning a little more medicinal, with greener notes (fresh orchard fruit) and something a little more savoury - sweet potato perhaps? There is a youthful zestiness at play too but the mouthfeel is superb, with more smoked meat, vanilla and a candied sweetness -  the 10 year old is a good reference point, but it has a little more depth alongside.  

Finish: Surprisingly dry, with a lingering oaky spice, some sooty residue and a last-gasp citrus bite. 

Overall: Another Ardbeg that offers a real star quality. For those who were fans of the likes of Alligator and Ardbog, this fits nicely into the extended family.  Enough of a team player, by not straying too far from the 10 year old, whilst also in possession of a few maverick tendancies.   

For more football fun, click here:

Friday, 28 March 2014

The Great Tennessee Whiskey Debate: Jack Daniel's Old No.7 Review

I have a new favourite spot of an evening to sit and write. It is outside one of my new local pubs. Having recently moved house, I have had an opportunity to explore the array of local ale houses, on a mission to work out which shall eventually become my (second) home.

At present, my chosen haunt is a classic English freehouse: yards from Windsor Castle, it is steeped in history, has real ale on tap and, more importantly, has Lagavulin 16 on an optic (on an optic!!).

Handily, along with two open fires inside, it also sports a small group of outdoor tables, allowing for a large glass of whisky and a cigar as the spring evenings start to turn into long summer ones.

Sitting, as I am tonight, enjoying a glass of Laga and a Monte Open Junior, I am alone in the half-light of the evening, due to a slight cold snap which has taken hold in the south of England.

However, the pub inside is rammed and as I sit here, the sounds of the gathered masses indoors, muffled by the thick Edwardian walls of the establishment, bleeds into the open air. It is a sound of convivial jolliness, people enjoying themselves, relishing their conversations as they nestle their chosen drinks for the evening.

As the conversation flows, I can still make out parts of chitter-chatter, threads of debate as the words mix into the night air along with my cigar smoke.

For someone who is passionate about whisky, of all types, I'm always looking at the global impact of the spirit and the hot topics of conversation around it. Having recently visited the U.S. to discover more about bourbon production and American white oak casks, I was able to dip into the current hot topic of conversation which is bubbling away Stateside. Like someone popping into the bar to place their next order and accidentally getting caught up in the chat, being back in the UK is like being back outside the pub, listening to the debate from afar; slightly muffled by the walls of distance.

The conversation in question comprises two main parts and it all starts around a legislation passed in 2013 to define what Tennessee whiskey really is.

It was the Tennessee General Assembly which created a designation for whiskey produced in the State, drawing up a rule which says that Tennessee whiskey can be made only of "fermented mash comprised of at least 51 percent corn, aged in new barrels of charred oak, filtered through charcoal and bottled at 40 percent alcohol (80 percent proof), or higher, by volume".

Now, those of you who know whiskey, will realise that this sounds a lot like the way the Tennessee stalwart Jack Daniel’s is made.

Jack Daniel’s – No.7 – Tennessee Whiskey – 40% abv

Nose: Sliced green apples dusted with cinnamon. Vanilla and light toasted oak notes. Fire-charred marshmallows and a hint of hazelnut. Not strong, which makes this more of the mixer that we know it as, rather than a sipping bourbon. 

Palate: At first a plesant palate of hazelnut and fig, with a touch of toasted almond; but it becomes slightly 'plastic' over time in the mouth. Once this subsides red apples and more fig appear backed with spices and air dried, salt cured ham.

Finish: Spices; vanilla and cinnamon. Medium in lenght.

Overall: Nothing wrong with this whiskey, it is just a little weak and a little over spiced. Want vanilla coke? Drink JD & Coke. It is a classic, afterall.

Essentially, what this ruling has done is to ring-fence a specific production method, one that happens to be the same one used by Jack Daniel’s, for any product which wants to call itself ‘Tennessee whiskey’; something I find rather strange because if you have a product which has a uniqueness in the process, why would you want other producers to have to conform to that standard? Celebrate what it is that makes your product different from others; give yourself a USP. Vodka producers are looking for one all the time. If your USP becomes legislation, it is no longer a USP. Look at Kim Jong Un’s hair cut. Distinctive. A brand. His brand. That is, until he gets all the other men in North Korea to have the samestyle... then it becomes just a hair cut; the same as everyone else’s.

This legislation has caused somewhat of an upset between some of the other producers in the State, particularly the Diageo-owned George Dickel, which calls itself ‘Tennessee whisky’ and who oppose the move to set in stone the process of production.

It has all started to get rather complicated and has seen much debate in the corridors of power in Tennessee, to the extent that just this week, following a debate, it has been decided to refer the matter to a Summer Study review.

If you really want to, you can watch all 15 mins or so of amendment 14041 being proposed in the General Assembly, here (about 2 hours in). You should, as I’m going to come back to it in a moment.

So, why should there be any concern to us, the humble whisky drinker, agnostic as to where our matured spirit comes from (be it Scotland, Ireland, any number of States in the USA, Japan, or indeed elsewhere), but just loving the spirit we call ‘whisky’?

Well, because there is one key rule in the production of American whiskey, be it bourbon from Kentucky, bourbon from elsewhere in America, or Tennessee whisk(e)y which is the use of new American oak barrels.

In the above link, the chaps in Tennessee are discussing what gives a product the right to be labelled ‘Tennessee whiskey’ and they hit on an interesting point, when Rep. Bill Sanderson, proposing the amendment says, referring to some Crown whiskey he has in his car:

“We can make quality Tennessee whiskey by using used barrels.”

Later in the debate, Rep. Curry Todd underlines the issue of wood, by saying:

“This is all about barrels.”

Now, let’s focus on Scotland for a moment: Scottish distillers, from small indie operations through to the major distillers who base their business on blended malts (where the millions of litres of new make grain spirit produced each year is often filled into First Fill, or 'used' American oak barrels) will be looking nervously over their shoulder to see if there is not only a change to the production methods of the spirit that can be called Tennessee whisky, but also the maturation process in America, too.

And a small change from the use of ‘new oak’ to simply ‘oak’, will have a huge effect in Scotland, Ireland, Japan and other whisky-making counties, as much as it will in Kentucky or Tennessee. With American oak casks becoming harder to source anyway, a change in legislation towards the use of barrels more than once could cause somewhat of a bottle-neck to those distilleries outside of American looking for used American white oak in which to mature their spirit.

As a result of this possible restriction in the supply of casks from the US to the rest of the whisky-producing world, the price of casks is sure to go only one way: up. And if the cost of goods to the producers increase, you’ll more than likely see this reflected in the price of the bottle on the shelf.

If I were a distiller, I’d be keeping a close eye on the proceedings in the American States’ Committee houses on this subject. And as a whisky drinker with a limited budget, I’d relish today’s prices because tomorrow’s may not be quite so pleasing.