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Monday, 1 September 2014

The A.L.S. Challenge (that's Ardbeg's Latest Supernova)

Miniature collectors mob the Ardbeg Promo Bus,
in search of a 2014 Supernova. 
'Hello Neil, my name is F*******'

Started the random Facebook message, as I was idly playing with my phone last Saturday. 

'Can you help me for obtain these mini only for bloggers please?' was the next, slightly garbled line.  
Fortunately, it was accompanied with a picture of a small miniature Ardbeg bottle, a sample of the latest  release from the Islay distillery -  Supernova.  

'Can you obtain one for me please?'  

'Please Neil.'  

'Help me friend.'  

'Please my friend.' 

'I'm desperate for obtain these mini for my collection minis whisky.'

'Is it possible obtain please?'


By now I was starting to get a little irritated and slightly unnerved by the persistence of said collector, but also, my sense of playful deviousness began to kick in.  I wondered how far and to what lengths this chap would be willing to go to get hold of a bottle.  

What proceeded was another 38 direct messages, increasing in desperation every time.  

'I Suplicate' (sic)

'I'm desperate'

'please my friend, help me'.

When I finally fired off what I thought would end the conversation, it only got worse:

'Sorry, F*******, it is not for sale -  I shall be opening it for review later today.' 

'You know any person in Ardbeg?'



'Accept 150€?'

Having realised I had kicked the proverbial hornets nest, I decided to beat a hasty retreat. 

Now I daren't open my Facebook Messenger application for fear of how many more notes I may have received.

The smoky jewel, which attracted
so much unwanted attention.
What's highly surprising here is that no where had I previously published any notification that I even had a bottle, let alone that I would be daft enough to offer it for sale.
You see, Ardbeg have decided to follow the music industry's response to a similar scenario - which I am particularly familiar with.

On the side of the bottle is a sticker with what looks like a unique code. In my previous days as an A&R executive at Warner Brothers, we used to individually number each promo record to specific journalists (even going as far as to digitally 'watermark' each copy) so if in the event the promo made its way onto Ebay, or worse, onto the file sharing sites before it was released, it could be traced back to the culprit. 

I suppose one could simply peel off the sticker here, if one so desired (pretty lame 'security tag' Ardbeg, if this was your intension) but it is the concept itself of security tagging whisky promos that I find even more unnerving.

Is there such an inherent distrust of whisky reviewers these days? If that's the case, would it not be better to simply send out unsealed plain sample bottles, with no collectable value? 

in any case, let's just remind ourselves of some of the language used in the previous conversation:

'I suplicate' (sic) 
'I'm desperate'... 

Have we really reached a time in the whisky business where certain brands are no longer whisky companies; once selling a high quality, world class spirit to enthusiasts, Bon Vivants and social drinkers - now effectively becoming limited edition promo art dealers?  

I have no doubt that collecting is indeed a joy for the collector. I happen to have a collection of vintage Star Wars figures as a reminder of my childhood enthusiasm for the films (yes - I know it's slightly sad to admit this.) But when something scarce and highly desirable comes onto the market, people begin to display an almost addict-like level of desperation if they don't get what they want. Surely, that type of collecting really has no appeal at all. It certainly doesn't to me.  

With serial whisky collectors - particularly miniature collectors it seems, the liquid is no longer important; the simple ownership and possible residual value of the bottle (full and untasted of course) becoming the sole, all consuming pleasure factor. 

So here is my challenge to the whisky business and other writers/bloggers and journalists, (should you see fit to disclose your professional credentials): 

Let's call it the ALS* Challenge (*Ardbeg's Latest Supernova)

If you have been sent a bottle of this miniature- and you know who you are -  I challenge you to:

1. Open it.
2. Review it.
3. Publicly dispose of the bottle in the most imaginative way possible.

Hey presto. No Supernova miniatures to appear on auction sites and then make their way to dusty cabinets at absurd prices.

No more preposterously pleading messages on Facebook.

No more - 'well, can I just have the empty bottle then...' 

Oliver Klimek, who writes the very witty Dramming has already started the ball rolling with shattering precision, using a mallet. 

Now let's see what you can come up with...

Here's my attempt: Alas -  I started filming just after the damn thing decided to shatter, but you get the idea.... It's not like I have another one to destroy for a second take...

  So what of the whisky itself? Arguably more important than any of the above frippery.

Well, it's a real surprise.

Dr Bill Lumsden attempts the ALS Challenge. 
Ardbeg - Supernova - 2014 Edition - 55%

Nose: Surprisingly floral, with fresh pine, sweet golden syrup and a slight touch of medicinal peat.  It has a waft of youth about it, but not overpowering.  

Palate: Ok, there's the smoke.  It isn't monstrous, like the original version (that, or maybe my palate has become immune to heavily peated whiskies now) but there is an abundance of coal dust, more freshly sawn pine, a sweet candy floss note, some melted butter and white pepper. The youthfulness is there to see, but even at this strength, it is not total overkill on the palate.  That said, it is a smoky whisky in the extreme.  

Finish: A lingering dryness coats the tongue, with the dusty embers from a bonfire leaving their mark on the palate. You'll be tasting it for a fair old time, that's for sure. 

Overall: I think we once used an analogy about heavily peated whiskies being the hot curries of the whisky world:  Yes, it's all well and good trying to be a Vindaloo or a Faal, but when there's little substance (other than burn) underneath, what's the point?
Here, there's all the fun of the fair (and by that I mean one which has recently caught fire and burned to the ground) but there is some balance and method to the madness too.  

You can read what we said about the old Supernova here.

F******* -  this is for you.  If you do happen to get your mitts on a bottle- just open it FFS.  Maybe even get some friends round... if you have any.   

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Competition Time: Win a chance to Choose the Next Overeem Release!

As our regular readers well know, we like to cheer people up on gloomy days -  especially ones following a particularly tasty bank holiday break (despite the incessant rain here in South London)
This time round, we have a corking opportunity for you:  Ever fancied actually having a say in the next release that a distillery puts out?  Well, short of sending in a boring questionnaire to a brand, citing what you like or dislike, or making a ranting phone call, telling a distiller to stop making NAS whisky (true apparently) , we're giving you just that opportunity!

Casey and Jane really needs your help in choosing
the next single cask bottling 

The marvellous folk at the Old Hobart distillery in Tasmania are wonderful whisky makers, but are sometimes a little indecisive. Alongside his truly excellent sherry and port cask releases, Head Distiller and distillery owner Casey Overeem has - for the first time - filled a small number of specially re-sized bourbon casks with his wonderful single malt. The trouble is they all taste superb, so he's having a little trouble to decide which one to release first in the UK... that's where you come in.
WHAT CAN I WIN? Well... here you go.
Casey and co are offering one lucky winner a unique opportunity to join a select panel of whisky experts at a Central London location (travel within the UK will be covered) in late September to decide which is the very best from three different single casks. The selected cask will then be bottled and released exclusively in the UK later in 2015. Just 50 bottles of the 60% ABV bourbon cask release will be available and in addition to having your say as to which cask is finally bottled, you'll also receive a special personalised bottle of whisky taken from the chosen cask.
2 runners-up will also each win a bottle of Overeem Sherry Cask 43% for their efforts.

Hello... Tell me more...

HOW DO I ENTER? All you have to do is write a Tasting Note that Casey himself would be proud of...
The person with the best tasting note, as chosen by Casey, will win. The whisky they want you to document is the Overeem Sherry Cask 43%. Its huge rich, fruity and spicy notes have proved a hit with single malt fans all over the globe. All you need to do is take inspiration from the whisky itself and tell the guys what you think it tastes like by 10pm on Thursday 18th September (winner to be announced on Friday 19th September).
If you don't happen to have this expression to hand and don't fancy purchasing a whole bottle (you really should though, it's superb) you can of course grab yourself a 3cl sample dram from the product page on the Master of Malt website:  Here's our review for reference... no cheating please... ;-)

Overeem Single Malt Whisky -  Old Hobart Distillery -  Sherry Cask Matured - 43%

Nose: Immediately, this is very inviting and open, with notes of spiced apple pie, vanilla ice cream some perfumed notes and a slight vegetative note (boiled sweet potato.) Given time some sweet, plump raisins come to the fore, alongside a little dustiness and some cracked black pepper. Extremely rich and complex, all said and done.  

Palate: Wonderfully spicy and sweet, with star anise, clove and cinnamon dusted apples coating the palate, alongside some dried fruits (apricot and date), soft caramel and some vibrant blood orange notes.  Balanced and very impressive indeed for a youthful whisky. 

Finish: Lingering notes of dark chocolate, orange zest and toasted malt give this a luxurious and very lengthy finish.

Overall:  What a flying start.  Make no mistake, this is high quality whisky making and what's clear is the care and attention that has gone into pulling this expression together.  Highly recommended if you're a fan of big, bold sherry monsters. 

1. Enter your tasting note in the User Review section of the Product Page, at Master Of Malt (link here) including a twitter handle so they can get in touch with you if you win.
2. Enter your tasting note in the blog comments section at Master Of Malt, ensuring that you enter an email address in the field provided.
3. Enter your tasting note in a Comment on our Caskstrength Facebook page or the Master Of Malt Facebook page.
4. If social media isn't your sort of thing, then simply just send us your tasting note at info(at)Caskstrength(dot)Net

Usual T's & C's apply:  You must be able to attend the tasting panel in late September (date TBC very soon) and if travelling from outside of the UK, make your own way here.  Oh- and be over the legal drinking age in your country of residence.  

Good luck and get those thinking/drinking trilbies on.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Merry Christmas from Springbank. In August! : Spirit Of Freedom 30 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky

It is yet another Friday on the global procession towards Christmas. For those of you who work in or around retail, you’ll be aware that around this time business start to propose their Xmas line ups to the world, in preparation for those magazines who need a good long run up at events such as this.

Thankfully, running a website means that we don’t have to write about anything until the very last moment it is required- but our other print outlets in the media, such as magazines and books, do require a fair amount of notice, so it is nice to see the odd email popping into our inbox with a nod in the direction to how we can help you spend your gifting pounds in December and I’m sure you’ll hear more about those from us, on here (and other places) when the chill reality sets in and the snow begins to fall.

However, in with some of the more Christmas-facing press releases and emails, there are often ones about products which have suddenly, without warning, appeared on a shelf somewhere. Traditionally a silly season for news (of all kinds- John Lennon 40 Year Old Scotch whisky anyone?!) it can often be hard to pick out the good from the bad, or the good from the mad.

Here at we do receive press samples for review, sometimes for this site, sometime for books we are writing, or contributing to, and sometimes for articles we may be writing elsewhere or discussions we might be involve in. And of course we also buy booze- lots of it. A fair amount of brandy, gin, absinthe, rum, aquavit and other great potables were purchased as research (yes, research...) for our forthcoming book, but nothing gets us more excited, our wallets out faster, than an exciting new whisky purchase.

And last week that is exactly what happened, when I heard about a new release from J & A Mitchell, the chaps behind Springbank Distillery and Wm Cadenheads, when they announced a very limited edition (2014 bottles) 30 Year Old blended Scotch whisky.

All apparently exactly 30 years old (so all from 1984) and constructed from 75% malt and 25% grain, the chaps down in Campbeltown are known for having some exceptional old casks hidden away. So, what price on this 30 year old Scotch... just £75. Yeah, £75.

Spirit of Freedom – 30 Years Old - Blended Scotch Whisky – 2014 bottles only - 46% abv – 70cl - £72.95 here and £74.20 here

Nose: A strong vanilla and fennel note rises with a butter back bone and just a delicate hint of smoke. Walnuts and honey mix well, to give some sandlewood. Peaches and green apple too and a hint of pine. Sea salt. This smells like a blend of old- those great value ones from the 1970’s and 1980’s you can pick up for such great value at auction sites nowadays.

Palate:  Very, very drinkable at its bottled strength, it sits on the palate with a good dollop of oil and pineapple juice. A hint of coal dust in the background, gives a great foundation to tropical fruits and big butterscotch from the grain. A classic blend.

Finish: Oddly, probably the best bit (quite a feat given the nose and palate) with juicy fruit tropical chewing gum, more pineapple, honey, syrup and cinnamon spices with just a hint of that coal dust again.

Overall: For £75 you just can’t go wrong. Not at all.

At this price, you can drink this neat by the fireside, in preparation for Christmas, or you can run headlong in the opposite direction and, while there is still some sunshine left in the sky, dodge the gathering clouds, head out to your garden and drink this in a simply stunning highball.

What, with a 30 year old blended Scotch whisky?” I hear you cry?!

Yup. With a 30 year old blended Scotch whisky. Happy Christmas!

Friday, 1 August 2014

I Can See Clearly Now: Kininvie 23 Years Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky

It was exactly one year ago today that I found myself hopping up to Scotland to take part in the Ardbeg Islay Half Marathon.

As you would expect from an event held on an island in the Inner Hebrides, in the 140 minutes it took me to complete the course I experienced pretty much every type of element known to man, save for a snow storm. From hail to bright sunshine, I have never seen such a variety of weather in just one morning.

Preparing for such an onslaught of elements required some pretty decent kit and I’d purchased some good trainers, comfortable running kit and a pair of Oakley sunglasses. My saving grace, the sunspecs were vital to keeping me going, as post-shower when the sun burst violently from behind the clouds, the glare from the roads would have been unbearable without the aid of the dark glasses.

On returning home and having invested not only in the running kit, but in the training time as well, I decided that it would be wise, what with all this professional drinking and suchlike, to maintain a healthy balance of drams and training: the odd half marathon to balance out the regular half measure of whisky. The ultimate ‘half and half’, if you will.

However, there was one improvement which needed to be made to my kit, correcting a error I had made in the lead-up to the Islay Half.

Being a proud spectacle wearer, when I took ownership of my Oakley sunglasses I didn’t have the lenses replaced with prescription ones. This meant that, as wonderful as the scenery of Islay is, I was unable to take in much of it and to really enjoy it. It literally passed me by in a blur. If I was going to do more running, I at least wanted to see where I was going!

And so I spent some of my 'hard-earned' on having the lenses replaced in my running glasses and it has improved my exercise experience immeasurably as I’m now able to enjoy the varying vistas of my weekly runs.

My vision has been enhanced by greater clarity and added perspective and it certainly helps to be able to see something in clear relation to something else.

When judging or critiquing single malt whisky, it also helps to have comparisons. Each distillery has a unique flavour profile which is carried through the core expressions and should be evident in the new make through to the mature product. Doing a range tasting, especially with a distillery’s ‘entry level’ products, is important as it can put into perspective both the flavour development of whisky in older (or in this day and age of No Age Statements- more expensive) expressions and also highlight how different cask-types work with the new make spirit to develop certain flavour elements.

So it is always slightly confusing when you encounter whisky from a distillery for the first time, and even more confusing when you have nothing to compare it to.

And this is where I find myself today, faced with a sample of Kininvie 23 Year Old. I have, once, had some Kininvie. It was supplied to me in form an ‘under-the-table’ sample at a whisky event. But it was one of those ‘drink and enjoy’ moments, not one for notes or scribblings, so (as whisky is designed to be) it was lost to the memory of time.

But not to worry, for the chance to try something new is always exciting and the parameters by which one should measure the quality of a dram, unaware of the distillery’s character, profile or range, remain unchanged: is there balance, complexity and an overall ability to hold itself in the crowded marketplace that is single malt Scotch whisky at the moment. 

Let’s find out:

Kininvie 23 Years Old – Batch 2 – 42.6% abv

Note: I have a small sample but this will come in a 35cl bottle when released in the UK. The bottle pictured is Batch 1.

Nose: Initial hit of banana (mid-ripeness), jute bag and rum cake. The sweetness develops in to fresh orange juice and pear drops with a backdrop of fresh leather. It’s quite a complex nose and really quite unique: if you gave me this blind it would be hard to guess what it was, other than being a Speyside dram.  Going back to the nose after a while it shows apple and blackberry pie with custard, plus a fair whack of vanilla.

Palate: Sweet tea at first, then a hit of dried apricot and raisins followed by red apple slices and some leather notes. Creme brulee with a summer fruit coulis then appear. The balance of red fruits and vanilla is excellent, with just a hint of spice to counterbalance the sweetness.  

Finish: Oak, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg on the death with a lasting zest of lime, thyme and some fresh mint.

Overall: This is quite an unusual dram, bouncing between vanilla sweetness and rich red fruits... but the balance works. It isn’t out of kilter but neither is this a sherry bomb nor a delicate bourbon barrel baby. I think I’d like to see how this would take in just the latter, with bigger vanillin and charred oak spice.

Not a bad start to the Kininvie journey and I’m looking forward to seeing how this might compare to other styles of whisky coming from the same distillery as well as to see how Kininvie’s core DNA differs from that of the other single malts (Glenfiddich, Balvenie) produced on the same site in Dufftown. Until such time, I’m running blind, but (as I was on Islay) running happy.