Saturday, 28 August 2010
Thursday, 26 August 2010
HP fans, be afraid. Be very afraid, for the Saga that rocked Orkney nearly 10 centuries ago has returned once again to haunt us... and fortunately enlighten our palates.
Wednesday, 25 August 2010
Monday, 23 August 2010
Fridays are always a frantic time over at Caskstrength towers. The once clear dining room table is by and large reduced to a state of annihilation. Bottles sit half drunk, last night's sampling Glencairns need washing up and piles of notes/ press releases and general marketing gumph need filing in the circular file.
Sunday, 22 August 2010
We woke on Day 2 of our brief trip to Arran to a wonderful view of the coastline from the attic room of our B&B. The previous evening was spent munching fish and chips in the restaurant of a nearby hotel, drinking the local Arran Ale (a pint of Squirrel anyone?) and playing “guess the dram” with a selection of whiskies from the bar. And what better way to awake than to a view of the northern Arran coastline and a full cooked breakfast!
Our first appointment (aside from the eggs and bacon) was a distillery tour. Arran is the third most visited distillery in Scotland. A remarkable achievement for an island distillery and it highlights the enormous possibilities of this venture. A specially built cafe-cum-art gallery, The Eagles Nest houses the distillery shop and a small tasting room where tours start. We were lucky enough to taken on our tour by distillery manager James MacTaggart, an Ilach who spent over 30 years working at Bowmore before making the short hop across from Islay to head up the production at Arran. From the Eagles Nest, James took us across some fields to the local stream which runs down from Loch na Davie,where all of the distillery’s water is sourced from. With only three ingredients, the water source is always a point of pride for any distillery and this small brook which feeds Arran is clean, clear and beautiful.
James, playing the Malt 'Timpani'!
From here we made our way, via the barley store (with its ingenious weight system of measurement) and mill into the heart of the distillery itself. A small operation, Arran is producing 750,000 litres per year and has just two stills housed alongside the single mash tun and washbacks in one main space. Brewing had just begun again after a 3-week break but sadly the distillation was still a day or so away, so no chance to try a cheeky white dram! We did get to try a glass of '2nd Water' from the Underback - wow! Warm, sweet, and malty. You could bottle this stuff as a health tonic...
However, our next trip was into the warehouses. Arran has the facility to store some of their production at the distillery site and a new warehouse was recently added, where each cask is individually slotted to allow for easy access to all casks. Fortunately for us, James needed to check the progress of one of their earliest casks, from 1995 and oh!... how fortuitous for us that we happened to be there too.
Arran – Cask Sample – Filled 1995 – Ex 1st fill Bourbon Cask - 52%
Nose: Incredible fruit, vanilla and fudge notes. The colour of the whisky (deep amber) indicates the level of quality wood the distillery is using and it shows. With water, a real hidden depth begins to unravel from within the glass. Dark chocolate notes, into creamy white chocolate, nutmeg spices and spicy /malty rye notes all come to the fore.
Palate: An Incredibly oily mouthfeel, with lemon zest, more rich vanilla, big bourbon influence and a lighter malt note developing on the death. Despite the brilliance of the cask, the distillery character has so much room to breathe.
Finish: Drying spiced notes, sweet chocolate and a touch of pepper/salt.
Overall: With casks like this at their disposal, it is no wonder why the 14yo has matured into such an interesting beast. It all bodes incredibly well for the future and the proposed 18yo expression, which we can't wait to try. It's probably some way off yet though!
As we gazed longingly around the warehouse (including a future king's cask!), James came back with something very interesting indeed. A wee sample of peated Arran whisky. Utterly delicious, it certainly isn’t Arran’s intention to take on its island neighbours on the other side of Campbeltown, as their core distillery character is now flourishing under the 10 and 14 year old banners, but this will add another interesting profile to their growing portfolio of excellent fringe bottlings, when it’s eventually released -watch this space.
You can pick up two different single cask bottles in the distillery shop (and online) – one bourbon cask, one sherry cask, both in the region of 200 bottles only for the utterly amazing price of around £45. Value for money? You can bet your bottom dollar on it!
Our time at Arran was drawing to a close and, after a cheese and ham sandwich back in the Eagles Nest and some wonderful stories from James about his experiences in the business, it was time to head back to the CalMac ferry port and our train home to London.
Waving goodbye to another magical Scottish island, we grabbed a map and started planning our trip back. It’s frighteningly easy from Glasgow to access this island, which makes it such an attractive visitors destination. Now tourists have another great reason to visit: the whisky.
A huge thanks to everyone at Arran Distillery for making our trip so wonderful.
Friday, 20 August 2010
A visit to a new distillery always fills us with such trepidation and excitement. What are we to expect? Do they do things differently? And more importantly, what will we get to try??
Isle Of Arran - 10 yo – (50% refill sherry 25% fresh sherry 25% fresh bourbon) 46%
Nose: Light and zesty, fruit sherbet, vanilla custard, absolutely no nose prickle. With water, the fruitiness (fresh crisp green apples) comes through in abundance.
Palate: Sherry makes itself apparent, a hint of dry vermouth, but still maintaining the vanilla sweetness. Some gentle spices, mix with a gentle maltiness.
Finish: Very fresh, green beans and more light notes. Some salted capers with water.
Overall: Absolutely wonderful. Light, and perfectly summery. Although this shares a lot with the classic Lowland style of whisky making it is refreshingly different, giving Arran its own regionality. (£32)
Next up- the brand new 14yo release, which was so new, the distillery shop was still waiting for its allocation!!
Isle of Arran - 14yo – 46%
Nose: Summer pudding!! Fresh strawberries, mint, malty bread, raspberries, and vanilla. Given time, some banana toffee and fresh apricots emerge. With water, even more vanilla custard.
Palate: A rich mouthfeel, Crème Brulee, licorice, a little pepper, but backed up by the fresh fruit.
Finish: Slightly salty/briney, but then back into the fruits – hints of green banana and a little creaminess. Surprisingly lengthy for a light style.
Overall: Another cracker, with more sweet fruity goodness. This bottling highlights just how well the whisky is maturing. Stay tuned for an 18yo in the future!! (£38)
After a couple of cask samples including a single cask sherry bottling, (much drier, but still retaining that wonderful fresh fruit and vanilla) and a Calvados cask (baked apples, butter and spice... think Tarte Tatin) it was time to sample the distillery's prized Anniversary bottling. And after the 2 previous drams, our expectations were running high! The casks used to produce this bottling were 3 of the very first casks in the distillery's inventory, specially selected by James for their exceptional balance.
Isle Of Arran - 15yo Anniversary bottling– 600 bottles from a vatting of 3, 1st fill Bourbon casks– 51.4% – (Heaven Hill Casks) - Released at the 2010 Arran Distillery open day
Nose: Pannacotta time! A sensational vanilla and summer fruits nose. Absolutely beautiful. Fresh, vibrant, yet with incredible balance. With water, a hint of waxiness (ala Clynelish, but not as huge) and a peppery rye note. Clearly, the casks which went into this bottling were absolutely top draw indeed.
Palate: Rich, malty, very complex, the bourbon influence is devastatingly apparent. Cinnamon, coconut, that wonderful vanilla, mint and then some milk chocolate.
Finish: The fruit and fresh bourbon notes give a spiciness which lingers for a few minutes. This is 'second dram stuff', without a doubt!!
Overall: If you can, get a bottle of this now- there are only a handful left, but it is undoubtedly a landmark bottling for the distillery- some of the oldest casks of the distillery stocks have gone into this and it is a true time capsule for the rise and rise of Arran's wonderful whisky making. (Only available from the distillery in person, or via mail order here) (£95)
Part 2 of our Arran trip will be posted shortly, where we got a chance to see the distillery at work, as well as a behind-the-scenes tour of the warehouses and the faint whiff of a familiar friend at work...
Thursday, 19 August 2010
There are some old fashioned sayings that definitely have a place in today’s society. If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It certainly springs to mind. How many great things have been tinkered with in recent times, to the point that all the quirks and decency are engineered out. Consider the disastrous American versions of 'Fawlty Towers' and the marginally better 'The Office'. Both series tried to muscle their way into our homes, using brute force instead of the subtlety and wit of the originals.
Also consider first class train travel. The once great way to travel the land in the elegance and comfort of your own compartment, serviced by polite, well dressed waitresses, has now been replaced with rude staff in ill-fitting nylon jackets, serving re-heated crap. Where did it all go wrong?
Progress. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.
So when we were told that a new formulation of one of the world’s best selling blended whiskies was going to hit the shelves, we were a little dubious. Why bother? Johnnie Walker’s Black Label sells an astonishing 14.3 million cases a year around the world and is unmistakable, from Bangor to Baghdad.
Double Black is the new more heavily peated take on Black Label. So far it has been trialled across several international Duty Free shops, including Bangkok, Dubai, Beirut, New York JFK, Singapore and Sydney. As well as more heavily peated west coast Island whiskies bringing up the flavour, the blend will also contain whisky from heavily charred casks, presumably for a richer fruitiness. One of the main differences is of course that there is no age statement on this bottling, unlike the original weighing in at 12yo.
Good marketing speak then, but clearly, the liquid inside is what counts here. It's only fair to put this up against its the original and see which expression slugs it out...
Johnnie Walker – Black Label – 12 yo - 40%
Nose: Soft brown sugar, stewed banana, light malty notes, with a touch of Caol Ila’esque smoke and light vanilla aromas.
Palate: Very vanillery on the first sip, followed by butter notes, fresh green apples and cereals.
Finish: The palate melts into milky chocolate, with green shoots and grassy undertones as it dries.
Overall: Well, you can’t really argue with this. It has balance, sweetness, smoke and a rich mouthfeel. It sips well on its own, with ice and makes a superb Whisky Sour. Sometimes, it’s hard to see the wood for the trees when it comes to immensely popular whiskies, but this is just an unpretentious and well made blend.
Johnnie Walker – Black Label - Double Black -NAS - 40%
Nose: Cereal notes, vanilla ice cream, stone fruits (plums and damsons) Peach Melba and then the peat smoke- mostly a sweet pinewood smoke. It is certainly a heavier peating level, but it is not there to dominate, balancing with everything else with ease.
Palate: Ah, there’s the peat, followed by a big spicy dollop of licorice, dark Java coffee, malt extract and spicy dark chocolate dessert.
Finish: A slightly bitter dark chocolate note starts to develop, but leads into a very lengthy and spicy undertone. The peat is still there, but again stands guard over all the other drying flavours rather than leading the offensive across your tongue.
Overall: A tough call between these two. The regular Black Label has for many, defined what a blended whisky should do in your glass. It can dance the tango, whilst swimming the channel. What I’m trying to say is that it’s a definitive all-rounder. Double Black offers more in terms of bold flavours. It is a bigger, more muscular whisky and as a result, probably won’t appeal to the absolute diehard BL drinkers. But for those looking for a touch more excitement and flavour, without travelling too far from the original, this might just be the ticket.
Saturday, 14 August 2010
Distillery character is a wonderful thing. Perhaps it is best exemplified by the moment when you pour a large dram and the mind starts to race and the tastebuds to go into overdrive.
I suppose you could say that distillery character gives you a 6th sense before opening a bottle. It is the standard which you have come to expect- Citrus notes... Check... Cereals... Check... chocolate/fudge... Check...
Peat... Hang on!!!
Some distilleries like to experiment and play with our senses a bit. You know, throw in a few curved balls. Sometimes they work, adding to (and in many cases) enhancing the already stand out distillery character, but sometimes these experiments mask out and undermine everything that the distillery has worked hard to build up over time.
On Wednesday, we got a great opportunity to see the former of these principles executed to perfection.
To us, Balvenie have always felt like they're slightly in the shadow of their giant and highly successful sister, Glenfiddich but have revelled in not having such a high profile image to keep up. As a result, their bottlings, from the classic Signature through to the 21yo Portwood finish have always hit the high notes without even trying. To go back to exam times, they're the slightly laid back, yet highly gifted sibling, who just turns up and achieves top marks, whereas Glenfiddich have been studying and cramming for months.
Both great distilleries, yet in very different ways.
Master Distiller and Whisky Creator David Stewart apparently does his experimenting in Cellar 24- and it is in this warehouse that their newest limited release, The Peated Cask was born.
We got to meet with Dr Andrew Forrester, who to demonstrate this new bottling had decided to bring an ENTIRE MALTING FLOOR to London and invited the assembled audience to come up and play around in it.
That certainly got our attention. Malt Angel anyone? Our thoughts travelled to a slightly crazed Brian Wilson, playing a vast sandpit he had built inside his LA home, whilst the Beach Boys went off on tour...Not sure we'd be allowed to convert the ground floor of Caskstrength Towers into a malting floor though.
Andrew explained that in 2001 the distillery bought some heavily peated malt to experiment with, explaining that they wanted to explore the maturation process of a 'peated Balvenie' using fresh bourbon casks. It is not the first time that the distillery had experimented with peat, producing the extremely limited Islay Cask bottling.
After a time, the whisky was emptied and the casks were used to essentially finish a fully (17yo) matured Balvenie. But the results on their own masked that wonderful distillery character with too much smoke. However David stewart had another trick up his sleeve. At same time, he transferred some 17yo into totally fresh bourbon casks to gain some extra fruity character. A marriage between the 2 seemed to do the trick and The Peated Cask bottling was complete- essentially a marriage of 2 finishes!! An industry first- from the distillery that bought you the original concept of Doublewood.
So did the experiment work??
Well first, to get our senses in tune with the original distillery character, Andrew gave us a dram of Signature to try first:
Balvenie - Signature - Batch 3 - 43% Vol
As many of you will know- this is a whisky aged around 12 years, matured in 3 types of cask 1st fill Bourbon, refill Bourbon and Oloroso sherry butts. We have done notes on this before, so compare and contrast here.
Nose: Dark orange fruits, fudge notes and slight wafts of cinnamon spice and honey.
Palate: Cereal notes on the initial sip, slightly malty, with a touch of molasses bitter-sweetness. Then the citrus notes from return (Grapefruit), along with spice (there is definitely an element of cinnamon in here)
Finish: Lingering spices and drying notes with a sharp citrus bite.
Overall: A great starting point, which serves to highlight the emerging character Balvenie has.
It was then time to try the limited release Peated Cask... and a slight sense of the unknown!
Balvenie - Peated Cask- 17yo- 43% - Around 3000 bottles for the UK
Nose: Spices, licorice notes, a small amount of quite delicate smoke and fresh citrus notes. With time, a little smoked meat starts to develop.
Palate: Very sweet, cereal notes, then the vanilla from the fresh bourbon comes through in waves mixed with citrus notes. And Bang- there's the peat! It's not a particularly medicinal style peat, but has a much more ash-like quality to it. But the importance is that it doesn't dominate the whisky.
Finish: The peat develops, as does the vanilla lightness, giving slightly floral notes right on the death.Overall: A brilliant display of how to put on a balancing act. The lightness and richer notes of classic Balvenie are enhanced by the slight addition of smoke, giving you a dram, which scores highly again for quality and innovation. Well done Mr Stewart.
Wednesday, 11 August 2010
Many of you may remember that Joel, the other half of Caskstrength last year celebrated his 30th birthday in style at London's SMWS, with a whole host of whiskies from his birth year of 1979.
Being that bit older (my birthday is in 1975) I am less inclined to feel celebratory about the impending prospect of my next milestone birthday being the big 40. However, I am feeling a little better considering just how many great whiskies were made in 1975. So rather than wait until 39 years and 10 months to start collecting for the inevitable party, (hey, hope Mrs Caskstrength is reading this) i've begun my stockpiling now, whilst they're still relatively reasonably priced.
A couple of months ago we reviewed a particularly great Berry Bros Glenlossie from 1975, which is absolutely on the list. I've also rooted out a superb Linlithgow from the Murray McDavid Mission range, notes of which will feature on our Warehouse shortly.
Last week, I was lucky enough to try a really cracking array of handsome devils from '75, courtesy of Master Of Malt's 'Drinks By The Dram' collection. Anyone considering a similar project to myself, would be wise to see what they have on offer from certain years- it's a great way to effectively try before you buy and avoid any disappointment when all your assembled party guests are anxiously waiting for you to pop the cork on your prized selection!!
Imagine the scene, as you take your first sip from a bottle you've been waiting 5 years to try...
'Oh. It's a little bit bitter and woody'. To which your irritating uncle (who somehow gained an invite to the party) will no doubt quip 'Get used to it, now you're 40!...it's all down hill from here, son...'
3 drams which caught my attention are listed below... Did they have the WOW factor? Or are they reaching for the Viagra and a pair of slippers....
Glenfarclas - The Family Cask Series - 1975 - 51.4%
Nose: Big healthy dose of sherrywood for this oldie, folks, but not overly drying. There’s perhaps a slightly fruity aged cognac note, combined with a touch of menthol and some chocolate covered raisins.
Palate: Dark sugar, treacle and then prunes, figs and those chocolate covered raisins all come to the fore. There is a slight dustiness, but no real hint of over-oaking here.
Finish: The figs lead into a slightly spicy Christmas pudding note, giving the finish a wonderful warming length indeed.
Overall: A great example of Glenfarclas at its best. The cask selection for this age is superb and I’ll certainly be considering this for the party!
Ardbeg -1975 - 43% bottled in 1999
Nose: Dessicated coconut, dry wine notes, herb/fern notes, very medicinal peated notes classic swimming pool notes, sweet red berries and fresh cream. Superb nose, similar to the '77 but perhaps a bit sweeter and fruity.
Palate: Slight notes of wet cardboard/chewed paper, hints of pepper and a little licorice, quality chocolates, dry chardonnay notes and some iodine peatiness. It is a little thinner than the nose would suggest, and quite dusty.
Finish: The dusty notes linger with some of the lightweight peat, milk chocolate and a dusting of cocoa coating the palate. It shows sign of age now and is certainly a different beast to anything produced by the distillery in the last 20 years.
Overall: The nose displays some solid character, giving you a wonderful insight into the distillery character 4 decades ago. Sadly, on the palate it isn't as brilliant as perhaps the 1977 or the superb 1974 single cask bottlings, losing something through its weakness in strength.
Glenrothes – 32 yo – Distilled in December 1975 - refill Hogshead - Old Malt Cask (Douglas Laing) 50%
Nose: A definite note of initial waxiness, demerera sugar, ripe pears and clean, malty cereal notes.
Palate: The fruit really develops across the palate, with more of the pear developing into some tropical fruit flavours. Further in, lingering wax notes emerge, with a slightly rum like sweetness.
Finish: Pleasant spice note develops as the palate dries, more of the rum like fruity-sweetness, with a cedary woodiness developing on the death.
Overall: Very good and drinkable indeed. This bottling has managed to grow old gracefully, retaining some of its more youthful character, whilst maturing and softening nicely.
All the above whiskies are available from www.masterofmalt.com