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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

BiG Award Shortlist 2011 is here!


Well here we are once again, the back end of the year with winter well and truly gripping tighter than an uptight python. Despite the relatively austere year which seems to have encircled the globe, the whisky business remains as upbeat and buoyant as ever and judging by the releases we've experienced, one of the best in taking whisky of all kinds to unprecedented heights.

So it gives us great pleasure to announce the 2011 BiG Award short list.

By way of a short recap, here at Caskstrength we don't like faffing around. In our opinion, modern day whisky awards tend to be dominated by too many categories, sub categories and sub, sub categories, rendering them pretty pointless to the general public and... achingly dull to read about.

So why not get the ten best whiskies released in a calendar year in one room, with a panel of like-minded imbibers and choose one overall winner, or... Best in Glass. The major caveat is that every short listed entry must be available to order from a regular or specialist retailer. No festival bottlings, club/society-only releases or international exclusives fit the bill. This is the 4th year the award has run, with previous winners impressing and delighting in equal measures.


And so here we are today. The Albannach in Trafalgar Square is our generous host venue. Our panel of highly experienced judges/imbibers is assembled, the 10 whiskies poured and all is good. Apart from the fact that we haven't told you what the drams are yet!

So without further ado, here we go, in no particular order...


Ardbeg Alligator (committee release reviewed here)

We'll be reporting the details of the winning whisky tomorrow along with comments from our judging panel.

Congratulations to the shortlisted 10 whiskies!!



Friday, 25 November 2011

Vintage Trouble


Since our time visiting the superb Highland Park distillery on Orkney, two more expressions from their Orcadian Vintages selection have cropped up. Like the original 1964 and 1968 and then the magnificent 1970, this brace of vintages were matured in differing cask types, with the older 1971 vintage maturing in Spanish oak and the 1976 American oak. The result is two distinctly different whiskies, but each with something to say for themselves.

Joel and I often argue about seminal bands or records and with a remarkable amount of symmetry, these vintages represent two distinctly important events of musical significance.

1971 saw the very first 'proper' Glastonbury Festival launch, with David Bowie headlining. Personally speaking, I kind of wish Michael Eavis left it there, as every experience I have had of this festival has been one of feeling fleeced, cold, pissed off and very wet. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, but it's impossible to successfully operate a Corby Trouser Press at an event like this; I should have known from the moment I saw the swathes of tie-dye that it wasn't really for me...


Any how, one significant event which occurred later that year was the release of Led Zeppelin's opus - IV - the one with the symbols on. As it's Friday and i'm super excited about breaking out a brand new guitar i've just purchased, I decided to blast out 'Rock and Roll', whilst reviewing this - perhaps the equivalent of Led Zeppelin IV in the catalogue of other Orcadian Vintages?
Highland Park - Orcadian Vintage - 1971 - 46.9%

Nose: An instant mossy/earthy note hits first, then into some burnt caramel notes, a soft fragrant peat, powder paints, dried strawberries with vanilla cheesecake, toasted pecan nuts and a drying oak, no, actually more leafy. Think about going for a walk this sunday in a wood, strewn with oak leaves and you'll get the picture. Given time, the strawberry and vanillas come to the fore.

Palate: Powerful, with some initial sweetness, then earthy tones, some cigar-like spice, rich caramels and lingering fresh vanilla pod. Not sure why, but the last few whiskies i've reviewed have really given this fresh vanilla pod note!! Maybe I have some stuck betwixt my incisors. The sherry notes are muted, but there is so much complexity going on, this is a whisky you have to take a step back from to get your head around. With water, it all becomes a lot clearer; the viscosity opens up, golden syrup comes through, alongside an unmistakable HP smoke, a tart blackberry fruitiness, some aromatic vermouth and some clean sweet malt.

Finish: A very herbaceous note lingers, some distinct Oloroso/Palo Cortado sherry dryness, alongside the sweet cereal and vanilla.

Overall: Unquestionably a whisky of quality, but it makes you work to find it. This is more 'The Battle Of Evermore' than 'When The Levee Breaks' or 'Rock and Roll'. When you do fall under its spell, you'll be lost in a fruity/peaty abyss for a long time.


Next up, the 1976. I was one year old when this whisky was made and judging from the now fading pictures my parents took of my birthday that year, it was hellishly hot. Our lawn was completely brown, counterpointing the dark blue of my father's denim flairs and the cream cheesecloth shirt they had fitted me in for some reason. 1976 was also the year that the Sex Pistols played one of their seminal shows at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Halls, where they were proclaimed to be the saviours of British music by some and the spawn of the devil by the establishment.

U2 also began their tentative steps towards superstardom in the same year, although it took them a little longer to get to the point... Will the 1976 Orcadian Vintage cut through like the the abrasive chords of Anarchy in the UK, or wash over the palate like The U2's chiming, echo soaked I Will Follow.

Highland Park - Orcadian Vintage - 1976 - 49.1%

Nose: Quite a contrast to the 1971. Initial notes of butter scotch, peanut brittle, fragrant talcum powder, some very gentle peat and light sweet vanilla notes. It's not as brooding as the '71, with hints of zest developing as the glass warms up. With water, the floral notes positively explode from the glass - lilies, rose notes and scented candles. Lovely stuff indeed.

Palate: Hot initially, but then some lovely candied cherries, sweet vanilla, coconut creams (macaroons) the return of the floral peat, which really intensifies as the palate dries. It is particularly buttery too, with some sweet milk chocolate notes creeping in at the last minute. With water, the palate becomes a little blurred, not quite as direct, but the sweetness and fruity cherries very much remain the driving force. Whereas, the 1971 needed a little water for some real direction, this is absolutely sensational with only the merest hint of the stuff.

Finish: Cherry sherbet and coconut linger, with a little prickle of lemon zest.

Overall: Stunning for a multitude of different reasons to the 1971. This is bright, very direct, with all the hallmarks of the younger expressions of Highland Park.

Both chalk and cheese really, but fortunately, I love street art and Ploughman's lunches...



Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Vats All Folks!

Regulation ties, Regulation shoes,
Those regulation fools
With the regulation rules.
Just keep on breakin' the rules
C'mon get ready to rule
Just keep on breakin' the rules

It seems very apt that you join us tonight and find us quoting the lyrics of a band, who to so many represented throwing off the shackles of oppressive authority: be it at work, at home or a higher power indeed. As straight down the line as they may be, AC/DC were unquestionably operating on a no frills, no bullshit policy.


The world of music is full of rule breakers - some with a genuine agenda to challenge convention and authority for the greater good - remember Rage Against The Machine? Gigs pulled by the authorities, peaceful protests ending in police tear gas dispersion tactics and tense stand-offs with politicians. In 2009, they even held off the full frontal assault from the dark-forces-of-the-bland-and-the-mediocre in claiming the Christmas no.1 from The X Factor.

Of course the whisky world is full of folks who challenge convention and probably occasionally break the rules, but we're probably not at the tear gas stage yet.

Artisinal whisky makers Compass Box notoriously clashed with 'The Man' - i.e, the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association) when Spice Tree was deemed to be 'illegal'. The following is an extract from the the Compass Box website, which brilliantly points out how absurd the whole episode was:

'Working with friends like the famous Dr. Jim Swan, I borrowed a technique commonly used by winemakers and I began experimenting with secondary maturation of whisky in casks with new oak barrel inserts inside them. I was effectively using a quality of oak that is never used in Scotch whisky.The results were extraordinary! Why, I began wondering, are the winemakers getting all the good wood? Why don’t we use this kind of oak to mature Scotch whisky?

Well, we did. And this is where “The Spice Tree” came from. Our inaugural batch of just over 4,000 bottles was sold out in five weeks (we thought it would last five months!) And our second batch, released in April 2006 was entirely pre-sold to our importers before we bottled it!

However, the SWA did not like it. I tried to explain to them that we had studied the law and believed that what we were doing was well within it, not to mention a positive quality step forward for the industry. “Quality,” I was told by the SWA, “is completely irrelevant.” They had their interpretation of the law, which held that what we were doing was not “traditional”, so that was the end of the story, as far as they were concerned.

Not much we could do at that point, with a gun, (figuratively speaking) pointed at our head.'


Of course the rest is history and Spice Tree is still in production, (yay!) albeit with a different and apparently 'agreeable' technique.

But that's not the end of the story, concerning da rules. back in 2009, Parliament decided to take out Statutory Instrument 2890 - The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009.

The rules are far too long-winded to go into detail with here, so for another brilliant explanation from Compass Box's John Glaser, click here:

What we will tell you is that from 23rd November (today) the term Vatted Malt and Vatted Grain (ie a vatting of different single malts or grain whiskies) has been deemed illegal to use on the label of a whisky bottle. The new permissible phrase is as follows:

'Blended Malt Scotch Whisky' or 'Blended Grain Scotch Whisky'.

Now, we know what you're thinking. 'Isn't this awfully like Blended Scotch Whisky and therefore, more confusing than using Vatted Malt?
The SWA's argument is that the phrase 'Vatted' is not something understood by the consumer, which we can't really argue with, but clearly this leads to a predicament, especially if your company makes both blended whiskies and blended malts.



So last night, to mourn the 'passing' of the term vatted, we found ourselves standing alongside a small gaggle of folks in the middle of Westminster Bridge, overlooking the House Of Commons. At precisely 11.59pm, Mr John Glaser conducted the very last 'legal' vatting of whisky for us to enjoy. A rather excellent vatting, sorry, blend (them's the rules now) of some rather old Speyside and Islay malts. Sublime stuff indeed - subtle smoke, fruits and sherry cask spice. Luckily John had set his watch via Big Ben time, so no need for the SWA to set their strategically poised snipers and rabid hounds loose on the assembled crowd, should the vatting have accidentally taken place at 12.01am.


The gathering was also the 'launch' for Compass Box's newest creations- Last Vatted Grain and Last Vatted Malt, of course bottled just before the ban came into place.

Despite the cold London air playing havoc with our nosing ability, here's our thoughts:


Compass Box - The Last Vatted Malt - 1,323 bottles - 53.7% -Single malts from Speyside and Islay

Nose: Huge dried fruit notes, some oaky dryness and a big waft of spice hit first, then a gentle sooty peat, which can only be classic old Caol Ila, although you didn't hear it from us. Perfect for a night like this.

Palate: The spiced fruits coat the tongue first, then the peat develops- but it so wonderfully soft, it just washes over with a gentle wave. This is seriously good Caol Ila in here, that's for sure. Fabulous.

Finish: Lingering wood spices, a hint of Creme Caramel and the remnants of the peat.

Overall: Every time, you have to hand it to Mr Glaser. To pick these casks and then vat them, (sorry, blend them) with such precision is a work of alchemy.

Next up: the last ever vatting of grain. We're told this came together from a mixture of '65 Invergordon, '79 Carsebridge, '91 Port Dundas and '97 Cameronbridge, all from first fill American oak, so you begin to get an idea of how exciting this is going to be.


The Last Vatted Grain - 297 bottles - 46% - various grain whiskies

Nose: Oh Hallelujah! It's like walking into a tropical fruit market. Mango, meets sweet pineapple, fat vanilla pods washed in bourbon, creamy cereal and slightly charred blood oranges.

Palate: The tour around the fruit market continues its stroll along the tongue - ripe pineapple, green bananas, vanilla custard tarts, and a little lingering nutmeg. Wonderful, light and beautifully balanced.

Finish: The creaminess of the nose returns to the finish and your mouth is left with the feeling of a midnight feast of crunchy nut cornflakes. Pretty damn accurate considering the time.

Overall: Again, a mastery of the vatter's, (sorry blender's) art bought to life for an all-too-short run of bottlings. If you can locate this - buy it now, treasure it for a moment as a relic of the past, then open it, whilst listening to I Fought The Law - whichever version you prefer; in our case the Dead Kennedys...

Monday, 21 November 2011

Aldi Want For Christmas Is You


Sometimes there are places which you never go to. You don’t even know anyone who does. But then all of a sudden, you meet a series of folk who have been there, or are going there.

Kazakhstan is an example of this. One week, nothing: never heard of anyone who has been there. The next, there are like five people in a row who have been out on holiday or business. What’s that all about?

I believe this is what Malcolm Gladwell calls ‘The Tipping Point’, described in his book of the same name as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors [sic] spread like viruses do." so what better way to push your business towards a tipping point, than with a good old PR stunt...

The idea of a ‘lost leader’ in Supermarkets, a cheap product to draw people in, in the hope that while you’ve got the shopper there, they might also buy a loaf of bread, a can of beans and some pork cylinders for supper, is nothing new. It’s just another form of advertising spend for the Supermarket, as it is making such great profit on the other items, that they can afford a small loss on the product originally on offer.

And so to Aldi. A shop that needs to reach its tipping point. A bunch of, actually quite good, TV adverts has seen this once unknown German Discount Supermarket battling against Lidl to become the go-to discount store in times of recession and economic uncertainty. With 450 stores in the UK (Lidl trumps it with 580) it needs to drive footfall towards its doors in the run up to the biggest shopping time of the year, Christmas.

What better way to whip the whisky world in to a frenzy than to knock out some old liquid at, what can only be described as, an unbelievable price. Try these on for size: a 24 year old single malt for £29.99. But, more amazing than that, a 40 Year Old Single Malt Scotch for... £49.99

£49.99. Yeah, that’s right. £49.99.

Now, I know what most of you are thinking “Honestly, you’d have to pay me to go in to an Aldi. It’s the Mos Eisley of supermarkets, drenched in the stench of humanity.” and you’d be right. I popped in to one last week just to prepare myself for the inevitable trip in for a bottle of 40 Year Old and it wasn’t a fun experience. It was like being in a Wes Anderson movie, if Wes Anderson had a crystal meth problem. Less Every Little Helps and more Care In The Community. Less Jamie Oliver, more Ronald McDonald. Less Waitrose, more Waiting For Godot...

But we should really put the medium of the sale to one side for a moment. It’s a shop, it’s going to be selling whisky at a knock-down price and making it available to the masses. What can be wrong with that? Nothing, so long as the whisky is good. So let’s find out if it is:

Glen Marnoch – 24 Year old Single Malt – 70cl – 40% abv (£29.99 from Aldi)

Nose: wet cardboard, steamed veg, Bovril, toasted brown bread.

Palate: Some green banana, a hint of tinned pineapple, sweet tea. But really sweet tea. This is one of the sweetest drams I’ve ever tasted. Once the sweetness hits, and it is not a good, brown sugar sweetness, it’s an artificial sweetener saccharine-style flavour, you don’t get much more out of it.

Finish: Copper and liquorice with a touch of salted caramel give way to damp wood and wet leaves, post-autumn.

Overall: Pretty one dimensional and to be honest, pretty poor. I just can’t get the saccharine flavour out of my mouth and I’m not a fan of very sweet whisky. Not a bottling for me, even at £29.99


Glenbridge – 40 Year Old Speyside Single Malt Whisky – 70cl - 40% abv (£49.99 from Aldi)

Nose: A hint of smoke, some orange peel, marmalade / dry jaffa cake notes. New leather and wax jacket, but the overriding tone is dried orange peel.

Palate: Warming, oily palate of cough sweets, orange again (the middle of a jaffa cake), some wood tones, fresh figs, melon wrapped in param ham and a wee bit of coffee.

Finish: The orange lingers, developing in to cherry sweets and cracked black pepper. This whisky has been matured in European Oak Sherry casks and this really hits through on the finish, adding spices to the stewed fruits of the palate.

Overall: In a word, this stuff is very tasty. Take the age statement off this and it would still be a cracking drink for £49.99. Stick it on, and you have an absolute steal of a whisky. Warning, it does fall apart a little with water.


In summary, the 40 is great, esp at the price they’re knocking it out at. But sadly the 24 Years Old really isn’t that great. The biggest question is why? Why are Aldi doing this? Are they hoping to lure in people who wouldn’t normally shop there, pre-Xmas or are they wanting to reward their loyal customer base with a steal of a whisky?

Either way, with only 3000 bottles across 450 stores, we'll all be pretty lucky if we get hold of one. And so it is that I wish you good luck, yet at the same time apologise in advance for my elbows in your face, as the shutter on my local Aldi rises for the sale.

Friday, 18 November 2011

A little bit of Jazz...


Isn't it great when someone completely misunderstands you, but the resulting conversation is far better for it?

Earlier this week, I was having lunch in London at a rather nice new steak restaurant with a fellow drinks writer, discussing what they had coming up and their plans for 2012. I have just received a copy of the new Cutty Sark book, which I was fortunate to contribute a chapter to and I was explaining about a new writing opportunity, which I was very excited about. I have become Food & Drink Editor for a tasty publication called The Mayfair Magazine, which focuses on working and living in the upper echelons of one of London's most famous postcodes. Of course, It is a relatively alien lifestyle to a South London oik like me, but it is fun to see sit and observe just how the other half live. And judging by the quality of the steak they seem to frequently enjoy, very well indeed.

All this talk of Mayfair Magazine, led my colleague to develop a slightly confused, coupled with an ever-so-slight twinge of mirth on their face. "Mayfair Magazine?" he exclaimed. "Wow - you dirty devil, you! last time I saw that mag was underneath my dad's bed, back in the 80's."
Now at this point, I was looking confused. Then it struck me (being a little slow) that there was of course a slightly less 'salubrious' publication with a similar name, which featured a very different kind of steak dinner, if you follow me. Part of me wanted to say that I had turned my back on drinks and gone into writing about soft porn, but I really couldn't keep a straight face. Needless to say, the rest of the dinner conversation descended into schoolboy humour, which seemed to amuse our waiter so much, that he accidentally dropped Bearnaise sauce all down my sleeve.

Mayfair Magazine... and Mayfair Magazine

So here I am, mistakenly writing for a 'Jazz' mag. It's the sort of thing I want to cheekily tell my father about, just to see if he knowingly raises an eyebrow, then rushes upstairs to see what he might have forgotten about under the bed.

Speaking of Jazz - music not porn, we ran a short preview a few months ago about the Islay Jazz Festival, this year sponsored by Lagavulin. By all accounts, the event was again a rip roaring success, with acts like Viktoria Tolstoy, Otis Grand and Mario Caribe drawing crowds of Jazzheads from all over the world to enjoy some funky time signatures and a few drams of peaty perfection.


One of the highlights for us was the fact that for the first time, Lagavulin had bottled an exclusive Jazz Festival bottling, which was only available during the event. There hasn't been a great deal of info about the bottling out there, but we were recently lucky enough to track a bottle down. So tonight, I sit comfortably on my sofa, the strains of Coltrane's 'Live At Birdland' in the background and an open bottle of Lagavulin Jazz Festival single cask in front of me. I suspect this may be a long evening.


Lagavulin - Single Cask - Especially bottled to celebrate the Islay Jazz Festival 2011 - Date Cask - 355 - filled 8/2/1993 -bottled 2011 - Bodega sherry cask - 55.4%

Nose: Huge hit of wood smoke, followed by classic Lagavulin carbolic soap notes, linseed oil, dark tobacco (cigar notes) bittersweet hard caramel, some nice sugary cereal notes (think brown sugar covered Crunchy Nut Cornflakes) and a deft hint of oak. Nothing drying, but bold and definitely full pelt, in-your -face Lagavulin. It has real similarities to the Distillery Only bottling, which Lagavulin released last year, as well as the 2007 Feis Ile single cask bottling but this is more complex and robust. Sensational stuff.

Palate: Here goes nothing... A huge palate, which is conquered first by the medicinal blast of peat, but then the subtlety of the 16yo comes to the fore- sweet malt, toffee notes, some woody, fireside notes and a hint hint of vanilla pod, dipped in Oloroso sherry. With water, it becomes sublime, the peat calming down, letting the sweet cereal take the driving seat, with some more gentle vanilla pipe tobacco and golden syrup.

Finish: Lengthy medicinal notes, backed with the return of the wood smoke and some oaky dryness.

Overall: A magnificent bottling indeed and as with the large majority of the Feis Ile limited releases, some terrific cask selection from Pinkie and the team at Lagavulin. At 12 years, this distillery bottles some of its finest whisky, at 16 years it becomes wonderfully refined and rounded and with an extra couple of years in the cask, it shows an even greater level of complexity. As our friend Louis Balfour would say.... 'Nice'....



Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Best of the Beatles


Travelling has always been a large part of my life. From midnight drives back to London from a gig at the Night & Day in Manchester, to hour-long tube journeys on a Monday morning, my companion on these trips has consistently been my iPod.

Always rammed full of music, certain tunes mark certain travels like a souvenir from a particular destination. Two weeks in the States in 2003, taking in the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas followed with a trip to LA, was sound tracked by Tegan & Sarah’s If It Was You album. Whenever this record comes on my iPod, I’m transported straight back to the corner of 6th and Red River, stood outside Emo’s waiting for a friend to help me christen the day with a cold bottle of Modelo before hitting a bunch of shows.

In a similar way, every time I get on a flight and the seatbelt signs are turned off, the very first record I stick on is The Postal Service’s excellent (and only) album Give Up. If you’ve not heard it, this record is a real low-fi treat and the tracks Such Great Heights and Recycled Air are the perfect accompaniment to flying.

Writing about Scotch for various publications, and not living in Scotland, means I’m still doing my fair share of travelling and the journey from London to Aberdeen / Inverness / Glasgow / Edinburgh is now a well trodden path.

Travelling is always a chore and I don’t know anyone who actually really likes airports, train stations or long car trips. But like any journey in life, it’s the destination that is key. However, one positive is that during ‘travel time’ you are afforded the chance to read books and listen to music. A rarity in today’s world, where every waking hour seems to be filled in some way or another.

One extra joy is the ability on a long journey, to explore a range of an artist’s repertoire. If ever I’m looking to find out about a new (to me) act, I will never, ever default to their Best Of..., but always try and find an album which best represents their output, warts and all, and then listen around those to previous / future releases. Thus, the time travelling to Scotland and back affords this rare pleasure.

When looking at the output of a distillery, the same is true. It is not very often you get the chance to sit down with a flight of whiskies from one distillery to assess and explore their range, let alone have the time, space and peace to enjoy this experience.

Thankfully, on a recent trip to Speyside, I was invited to sit and try the range from The Macallan. Situated on a 370 acre estate, just by the River Spey (the distillery has a beat on the Spey and their own Ghillie), sandwiched between Rothes and Craigellachie, with neighbouring distilleries poking above the trees whichever way you look, this couldn’t be further away from my regular drinking den in South London. These guys have one of the world’s greatest fishing rivers at the end of their garden. At the end of mine is a rusty baked bean can and an empty box of condoms which seems to have blown in on the London winds. I think I know where I’d rather be to sit down with a dram or two...

The tasting was preceded by a tour of their Visitor Centre. A fantastic piece of work which is both educational and entertaining, focusing enough on science without becoming too nerdy, yet providing show-and-tell aspects without wanting to be The Science Museum. The Macallan currently runs 21 stills (two spirit stills for every wash still) which were upgraded and expanded in 2009. The highlight of the tour, strangely, is the end. Not because it was over! But because of this:

What on earth is that? Well, good people of the internet, this is a cask of whisky hidden under the floorboards. Now, I’ve always had a desire to build my own house (I’m a sucker for Grand Designs) but this has just raised the stakes to another level. Amazing stuff:

The Macallan – Alec’s Hidden Dram – 11 Years Old - ~60% abv

Nose: Well, it was very cold (the first flourish of snow was going on outside) so it didn’t give a great deal away, except for some rich Christmas cake notes and a hint of gingerbread.

Palate: Very rich and oily, with strawberry jam, some plum chutney and a dollop of malt loaf. With water, it opened up to reveal some mint notes and hint of red boiled sweet.

Finish: Rich and oily with a hint of liquorice and truffles.

Overall: Very nice, cask strength Macallan. Hiding casks under floorboards is the way forward!


As the tour ended, it was time to move on from hidden casks (the first time I’ve ever had Floorboard Finish!) to standard bottlings. The Macallan have two styles of regular expressions: Fine Oak, which is a mixture of three types of cask (American Oak ex-Bourbon, Spanish Oak ex-Sherry and American Oak ex-Sherry) and Sherry Oak, matured in... yup! Sherry Oak! But first up, it’s New Make:


The Macallan – New Make – 71% abv

Nose: Very fruity, sweet. Gooseberries, apples and candy floss.

Palate: Strawberry laces and candyfloss again.

Finish: Short, creamy and sharp.

Overall: A very characterful new make.

The new make was good, but as usual I prefer my sprit with some cask maturation, so onwards to some actual whisky...

The Macallan – 12 Year Old – Sherry Oak – 40% abv

Nose: Some dried fruit, mainly vanilla, strawberry ice cream with a very subtle hint of ginger and some apricot dusted with cinnamon.

Palate: A delicate palate with the sherry tones really hitting through (Christmas cake, etc). There is a lot of similarities between the palate on this, and nosing a used sherry cask; quite dry but full of flavour.

Finish: Very sweet, coffee with vanilla syrup in.

Overall: A really good standard expression of the The Macallan which isn’t ground breaking but should encourage consumers to upscale in the range.

The Macallan – 15 Years Old – Fine Oak – 43% abv

Nose: White grapes, rose water and cut grass. The Spanish sherry influence is tamed by that of the white oak (American oak) just rounding off the spices.

Palate: Orange blossom, vanilla and cinnamon. The missing spices now appear and the sherry becomes more prominent on the palate.

Finish: Milk Chocolate with hazelnuts, some dried fruit. A woody dryness at the back of the palate and some dry white wine.

Overall: The Fine Oak series seems to have filled a gap of taking the edge off from The Macallan for those who aren’t so keen on a big sherry hit, and it has succeed as this is a very drinkable 15 Year Old.

The Macallan – 18 Years Old – Sherry Oak – 1991 release – 43% abv

Nose: The aromas really just jump out of the glass on this one, with some amazing hits of ginger, chocolate and cinnamon. Massive and very appealing.

Palate: A rich and unctuous palate of ginger bread / ginger cake, some dry wood spices, cooking apples and muscovado sugar.

Finish: Very dry with heavy weight flavours of Christmas cake and cigar casing that lasts for a good length of time.

Overall: This really is a very pleasurable whisky to drink and you can see why it is so popular. 18 Years Old feels like a good age for The Macallan as it really starts to develop its character. If this wasn’t £80 a bottle, I’d drink a lot more of it.

The Macallan – 21 Years Old – Fine Oak – 43% abv

Nose: A very light, yet complex nose of tropical fruit juice, vanilla and pine resin.

Palate: Vanilla ice cream, orange cream chocolates and a hint of crunchy nut cornflakes with fresh, full cream milk.

Finish: A hint of spices, the overriding flavour is cream ├ęclair...

Overall: Yet again, an example of how the Fine Oak provides something just a bit different. It’s Macallan, just turned down a bit. Everything is there, but it doesn’t shout at you as much as the Sherry Oak does.

The Macallan – 30 Years Old - Fine Oak – 43% abv

Nose: Tropical fruits (again), black bananas, real vanilla pods, cherry drops.

Palate: Big oak hit, which you don’t expect from the nose. Hold it on the palate and the cherry drops really amplify and develop in to strawberries topped with balsamic vinegar.

Finish: A tiny hint of wood smoke, it is a robust finish with juniper tones to it.

Overall: This whisky really is very complex, jumping from cherry to juniper, from big oak tones to strawberries, but it is remarkably well balanced too. At this age, I think it helps to have a portion of American Oak in the mix, to take the edge off what could be a whisky with too much extravagance if it were exclusively from Sherry Oak.


A superb experience, visiting Scotland is always a real pleasure. Sitting in quiet, surrounded by very little other than neighbouring distilleries, taking time to really relax with a dram is the very best way to enhance the qualities of the liquid. Thankfully, I can close my curtains from the trash at the end of my garden and I’m overlooked by my neighbouring distillery (Central London’s only one, making Beefeater Gin) and if I close my eyes, really close them hard, I can be wherever I want to be. Until the loud reggae music come drifting over from the flat opposite that is... it's probably The Best Of Bob Marley. *sigh*

Saturday, 12 November 2011

A Dram for Seth.


Today, I remembered very vividly a conversation I had about 6 years ago with a South London Estate Agent, when moving house from the chaotic streets of Camden in the north of the city, to the leafy suburbs of Dulwich.
'Oh, it's basically baby central round these parts,' she jovially pointed out, as we passed by scores of young couples out for a walk with their prams and push chairs, all aglow with contentment and pride.

If i'm honest, at the time, I really didn't get the 'baby thing'. All I wanted was some peace and quiet; somewhere away from music venues, tourists and occasional knife-wielding drugged up nutters, complete with 12" scars, running down the length of their chests. Camden was a playground for those in pursuit of a more hedonistic lifestyle and I was most definitely done with that.

Since then, South London and the surrounding suburbs have claimed quite a few more of our great friends, eager to settle down and plan their lives together. And I am definitely getting a little broody.

The 2nd of November was a very special day for two particular friends of Caskstrength - Jonny and Melda Simon. Baby Seth Simon was born and today, I popped round to see the little fella, now just 10 days old. Like his dad, he has lots of hair and in the years to come he'll no doubt develop his father's razor sharp wit, as well as a discerning palate for single malts, fine dining and music.

To celebrate, I grabbed something from the Caskstrength cabinet, which I'd been itching to open. A couple of years back, I picked up a Coopers Choice Highland Park, distilled in 1981 and bottled in 2008. Having tried a small sample at the Whisky Shop in Dufftown, I remember it being a real cracker, so to uncork it and raise a glass to another little cracker feels like the order of the day.


Highland Park - Coopers Choice - Distilled 1981 - Bottled 2008 - 26 yo - 46%

Nose: Incredibly light and zesty on the nose. I suspect that the cask must be a 2nd or 3rd fill, but it is all the better for it, as aromas of coconut, sliced vanilla pods, a faint waft of aromatic, floral smoke and plums fill the nostrils. Given time, blackcurrant notes a hint of oak and freshly baked bread come to the fore.

Palate: Very oily on the palate, with that classic HP blackcurrant 'n smoke coating the tongue. Golden syrup notes, tinned peaches and tinned sweetened cream also arrive after a few seconds, alongside a malty note and a hint of herbal tea and Manuka honey.

Finish: Drying oak notes, with a lingering but light aromatic smoke, some iodine notes and lemon zest.

Overall: Oily, fruity, floral and deliciously smoky. A fine example of an independently bottled HP. The oak is definitely there, but fortunately, all the other great hallmarks of this Orkney powerhouse outweigh any criticism.

As Jonny and I pop outside to smoke a brace of celebratory cigars and sink another dram, I raise a glass to little Seth. The HP has excelled, working brilliantly with the Backwoods Originals we're smoking (and their wonderful sweet vanilla smoke) and it is a privilege to spend time with a great mate, who is going to make an excellent dad. Well done guys and hopefully we'll be back here with another freshly cracked bottle in 18 years time for Seth to try.



Friday, 11 November 2011

Game, Set and Batch


As the end of the year approaches, drinks companies are finally showing their hand with releases designed to satisfy the market moving into Christmas.

One aspect of bottling which various distilleries have been embracing recently is the idea of batches.

As (hopefully) the malt-ready consumer becomes more educated about their purchases, it is great to see certain distilleries celebrate inconsistency in their bottlings by means of a batch number.

In Speyside, The Balvenie are letting us all know which issue of Signature we’re slugging back (thankfully, batch two onwards is far more drinkable than batch one; very much their Star Wars to the largely forgotten THX 1138. Let’s hope there isn’t a Howard The Duck lurking around the corner).

Howard The Duck. What the F**K was George Lucas thinking?

Over on Islay, Laphroaig have been at it for a couple of years with their Cask Strength 10 Year Old and now their relatively peaty neighbour, Bowmore are well on the road to success with Tempest, who saw their third batch launched recently.

Batch Two was a huge fav of ours, making it into our Best In Glass list of the top ten whiskies released in 2010, as well landing the gong of Best Islay Single Malt 2011 at the World Whisky Awards. So the third release has a lot to live up to.

With Batch Two maintaining its status as a really excellent bottling, we were intrigued to compare the two releases side-by-side to see which should take the crown as THE Bowmore in our cabinet. So we sat down with a dram of each to decide…

Bowmore Tempest - 10 years old - BATCH TWO - 56%

Nose: Woody, with pronounced sweet maple/vanilla notes, butterscotch and hints of sweet sherry. The smoke is sweet, like burning freshly sawn pine. Indeed, there is a distinctly resinous note to this batch. Given time in the glass, the whisky develops a fruit crumble-like note and the vanilla becomes more pronounced. With water, the fruit and a huge citrus burst jump from the glass, with some orange blossom in tow. Lovely stuff.

Palate: Sweet, with candied apple sweets, toffee apple, lemon zest and a slightly peppery/prickly spice. The smoke is delicate and bacon-like, with slight charred/coal-dust notes.

Finish: Lingering soft, sweet smoke notes and an air of creamy toffee helps to complete a complex and well- developed dram.

Overall: This batch really shines on every level; it has enough smoke to satisfy the devotees, but the fruit, vanilla and zest, balance the overall picture fantastically well. High marks indeed.

Bowmore - Tempest – 10 Years Old – BATCH THREE - 55.6% abv

Note: The first thing to say is that batch three is noticeably lighter than batch two. The smoke on the nose of batch two is dustier and comes across as older, less energetic and more relaxed.

Nose: Coal dust smoke (a la Caol Ila) Cream soda and lemon zest, with a hint of lemon meringue pie on the nose. Some cut grass, butterscotch and white flowers.

Palate: Very sweet with smoked chedder and white sugar. With water, the palate develops a lovely elderflower note which grows in volume, so the addition of a few drops is a real must. Some blackberry cordial notes begin to develop too.

Finish: The smoke lingers leaving butterscotch and elderflower wine.

Overall: Batch three is much more akin to the Caol Ila Moch or Port Askaig 17, but without their confidence and assured nature. If batch two has the lolloping attitude of an old Labrador, batch three has the exuberant energy of a golden retriever puppy but without the experience. For us, it’s Batch two all the way...

So there you have it. Batch three is a solid whisky, but it doesn’t quite punch the weight of the previous batch which is richer, more assured and possesses a greater complexity.