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Saturday, 25 February 2012

You Put A Spell On Me: Springbank - Rundlets & Kilderkins whisky



One of the great things about living in London is the shopping. There are so many small boutiques to uncover, from Portabello Road to Brick Lane, I often find myself wandering parts of town previously undiscovered by me and stumbling upon beautiful little shops selling niche items to a customer-base smaller than the queue for package holidays in Afghanistan.


One such shop which I came across in East London last week, is the brilliantly named ‘The Duke of Uke’. The Uke, as it is known to its hardcore customer base, sells all and anything to do with... ukeles. Brilliant.

If I had a fistful of wishes to make come true, one would be for the mythical street of Diagon Alley from the Harry Potter books to come to life. Hidden behind The Leaky Cauldron pub on the Charing Cross Road, Diagon Alley is home to all sorts of emporiums, restaurants and bazaars; an area of London where you can purchase anything from giant spiders to shrunken heads.

Akin to the real word Saville Row which boast outfitters with names such as Gieves & Hawkes, Diagon Alley is home to establishments like wizarding joke shop Gambol & Japes, Borgin & Burkes (which sells the interestingly named ‘Hand of Glory’) and bookshop Flourish & Blott’s.

Named Rundlets & Kilderkins, the new release from Springbank distillery feels like it should have a place on this very street. Yet this odd title is designed to tell you all you need to know about the hooch inside the bottle. For this edition of Springbank, distilled in November 2001 and bottled in January 2012, the whisky has been matured for the full term in small 60 and 80 litre casks. Magic!

As a result, just 9,000 of these bottle have been made available and come in the classic Springbank bottle but with a twist: the front label is a metal, copper-esque embossed shield.

Springbank - Rundlets & Kilderkins – 10 Years Old – 9000 bottles – 49.4% abv - £57ish

Nose: A hot start which develops in to Custard Cream biscuits followed by green grass, milk chocolate and toffee. The classic Springbank foundations of light brine, salt and some smoke are there.

Palate: Buttery and oily, the rich mouthfeel carries the falvours around the palate with ease. A slight hint of burnt sugar leads to soft red apples (toffee apples?) all underpinned with some light smoke and salt.

Finish: red jam tarts and digestive biscuits.

Overall: I tried this in the whisky exchange shop and immediately bought a bottle. Springbank is a distillery I don’t buy or drink enough of but this release, at this price is a real winner. Well worth a punt. It’ll cast a spell on you, for sure.


One hopes that Springbank continue with projects like this, as it has really paid off. Maybe their next experiment should be casks made from old broom sticks...

Friday, 17 February 2012

St Practice Day: win some Jameson Irish Whiskey


It is fast approaching that time of year once again when the Irish throw one, huge global party. Forget the pints being thrown back on St Patrick’s Day, for here at Caskstrength HQ we’re all about the whiskey. With the posh new ‘Single Pot Still’ bottlings such as Green Spot, Redbreast and Powers John’s Lane all coming out of the Midleton Distillery in County Cork, Irish whiskey is undergoing somewhat of a revival. Latest figures show Irish whiskey sales flying at an all time high and leading the assault is the cousin of these posh new offerings, the Captain of the team, the flagship for the Emerald Isle... Jameson Irish Whiskey.

Last year we attended their knees-up bash at the Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day. A fantastic event from start to finish, the whole atmosphere embraced the Irish spirit in more ways than one.

This year will see a similar affair take place in the city, on 16th March 2012, representing the convivial and community-minded aspect of whiskey, which seems to come so easily to those making Jameson. Being exactly a month away from St Patrick's Day itself, this gives us a wonderful opportunity to do three things on the site:

Firstly, we have very kindly been given FIVE special edition bottles Jameson Irish Whiskey to give away to five of our readers. All you have to do is answer this cheeky little question:

Which leaf used to celebrate Ireland and St Patrick’s Day?

A. Maple leaf / B. Ivy leaf / C. Shamrock / D. Oak leaf

Send your answer in on an email to:

jameson@caskstrength.net

The closing date is 12pm GMT on the 15th March 2012. The usual T&C’s apply and you MUST be over the legal drinking age in your country to enter. Please also include your name, age and address - them's the rules.

Secondly, we couldn’t offer up a whiskey without writing some tasting notes on it, so you know exactly what you’re in line to potentially win. Here are our thoughts on this market-leading Irish whiskey:

Jameson Blended Irish Whiskey – NAS - 40% abv

Nose: Aromas of toasted marshmallow, light lemon zest and toasted wood underpin some delicate sherry notes all backed with a light-hearted spice top line.

Palate: Slight herbal and mint tones mix well with freshly cracked hazelnuts and some cinnamon, but a smooth vanilla base gives this blend the idea palate for sipping on or partnering with stronger flavours.

Finish: Short and immediate, this dram gets straight to the point of being easy and an all-rounder in the flavour department.

Overall: A great whiskey to get started on in the Jameson range, this liquid is versatile in cocktails too.

Which leads us on to our third and final bag of fun. As mentioned above, Jameson goes well in cocktails, so we’ve been playing in the labs at Caskstrength HQ to come up with a refreshing St Patrick’s Day cocktail that is easy to make at home, especially if you get to practice today- St Practice Day! Our concoction is a simple Mint Julep with an Irish twist.

Mint Julep - Dublin Style.

You’ll need: a handful of fresh mint leaves, sugar syrup (Monin Pure Cane Sugar Syrup is good, or you can easily make your own), Jameson Irish Whiskey, some Green Chartreuse and lots of crushed ice.

To make the drink, pull some of the mint leaves from the bunch, putting them in to a cup with ice on top. Muddle the leaves to release their flavour and aroma. To this, add 40ml of Jameson Irish Whiskey, 10ml of sugar syrup and 5ml of green chartreuse. Add more ice and stir. Garnish with a sprig of mint clapped between the hands to release the aroma and serve in a tin cup from the freezer. Simple and delicious, to-be-sure-to-be-sure-to-be-sure!


Monday, 13 February 2012

A Right Ol' Witch Of A Whisky



As drinking stories go, they seldom come more shrouded in folklore than the wonderfully eerie tale of Tam o' Shanter - a classic Burns poem dating back to the late 18th Century. It paints a torrid picture of the drinking classes in Ayr around the time and showcases Burns' incredible sense of imagination as the hero of the piece, Tam, witnesses a vision of hellish proportions on his way home from the pub. One of the classic scenes in the poem is of Tam and his horse Meg narrowly escaping the terrifying clutches of the witch Nannie Dee wearing her 'Cutty Sark' or short shirt. Tam fortunately escaped, with Meg losing part of her modesty...

The fearsome Nannie Dee, holding the majority of Meg's tail.

It was of course this image of the witch in her Cutty Sark, which became the figurehead of the famous Tea Clipper ship, which was adopted by Berry Bros when creating the Cutty Sark blended whisky back in the early 1920s. Like the ship, the whisky conquered the globe becoming one of the most popular blends ever produced.
Today, the blend is in the hands of the Edrington Group and there are big plans afoot to once again relaunch the iconic yellow label on the whisky loving public across the world.

The first release in this 'new era' harks right back to the original story of Tam o' Shanter. A brand new 25 year old blend, put together by master blender, Kirsteen Campbell comes in a beautifully packaged bottle and wooden box, featuring images from the tale. But it's not only the whisky, which looks to excite there senses here. It is the inclusion of book containing some truly stunning illustrations of the whole Tam o' Shanter poem, created by Alexander Goudie, considered by many to be one of Scotland's finest artists. The original book, long since out of print is a real rarity to find and the reprint has been lovingly reprinted.

Limited to 5000 bottles, Cutty Sark Tam o' Shanter has no doubt captured our attention and has got the whisky community talking about the potential of blends again, which we wholeheartedly salute.

So what of the liquid itself? Does it match up to the beauty of its enclosure?? Let's find out...

Cutty Sark - Tam o' Shanter blend -25 Year Old - 46.5% - Limited to 5,000 bottles

Nose: Sweet lord. This is rich. Notes of sponge cake, vanilla, ripe plums, aged leather sofas, some very aromatic spices (think cedar wood and star anise), ginger biscuits and hazel nuts. Superbly balanced and fully demanding of your attention.

Palate: An explosion of aged oak, vanilla, liquorice, wafts of light smoke, more hazel nut notes, some rich Oloroso sherry and some aromatic vermouth flavours. Bold, but extremely easily drinking. Some super casks must have gone into this.

Finish: Lingering fruity notes and oaky vanilla dominate, with tingling spice right on the death.

Overall: A masterpiece of blending, which highlights just how much this iconic blend has been missed, despite never really going away. With whiskies like this, watch Cutty Sark sail away with your palate.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Double Diamond: Diamond Jubilee Blended Whisky by John Walker & Sons

This year sees London play host to two major festivals of celebration. Firstly, the Olympics is coming to town. Much has been made of this, the benefits to the city and the knock-on effect to the country’s economy. Personally, I’ve got an open mind about it. With a staggering 1 million extra people, not including athletes and media, set to add their weight to an already creaking public transport system, it may be an apt time for me to take some distillery trips north of the border. Or an easyJet flight to somewhere with a beach and good weather. Let’s wait and see.

The second big event happening across the UK, yet most definitely with a London focus, will be the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Royalist or otherwise, you won’t be able to escape some of the fabulous flag-waving events (as Banksy so eloquently put it “People who enjoy waving flags don’t deserve to have one.”) to mark 60 years of the Queen’s ascension to the throne. Whatever your position on the Royal Family, 60 years is one hell of a stretch for any Monarch.

To mark the occasion, there have already been a couple of whiskies released, with no doubt more offerings to come from other distillers. (Answers in an email for those predications to ‘OpportunistWhiskySales@caskstrength.net’)


First up is an independent bottling, the Gordon & McPhail 60 Year Old Glen Grant single malt. Released at just under £8,000 only 85 bottles have been released for the world (come on, you might as well make it 60). Each comes in a handmade wooden box and takes 3 – 4 weeks to arrive, as individual cases are crafted to order. Just send mine sans-box and let’s get cracking on the liquid...!

The second release this week sees the team at Johnnie Walker put together something really quite astonishing, on all levels: ‘The Diamond Jubilee by John Walker & Sons’.

Johnnie Walker Master Blender Jim Beveridge and his apprentice Matthew Crow were tasked with the job of putting together a blended whisky to celebrate this Royal occasion. What better way to do this, than to choose whiskies for the blend which were all distilled in 1952.

For most blends, this would be the end of the story, but with this release, it is just the beginning...

The whiskies chosen were carefully blended together and then married in two firkin casks made from oak grown on the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk.

Those of you who are whisky geeks like us will know about the importance of wood maturation in maturing whisky. There are really only two types of oak used for maturation: North American oak (Quercus Alba) and Spanish oak (Quercus Robur). The main difference between the two is that Spanish oak tends to be more porous and absorb a greater amount of the liquid which the barrel previously held (often Sherry), where as North American oak doesn’t retain as much of its previous occupant (bourbon whiskey).

However, it is not always a fact that a Spanish oak barrel has contained Sherry and American oak housed bourbon. In Macallan’s Fine Oak series, for example, three maturation styles are used: spirit matured in American oak casks that once held bourbon, Spanish oak casks that once held Sherry and American oak casks seasoned with Sherry. Each of these gives off a different colour and flavour to the whisky, but both the Quercus Alba and the Quercus Robur are trusted materials within the whisky business and the majority of whisky in Scotland is matured in barrels made from these oak types.

But not this rare whisky. No, Sir. The team took the huge risk of placing their precious liquid in to two bespoke English oak (Quercus Albion, perhaps?) barrels. This point, after that of blending whiskies from 1952, is the second reason why the Diamond Jubilee by John Walker & Sons is something out-of-the-ordinary. Using English oak was a real unknown for the team at Johnnie Walker, so to keep the massive impact of fresh oak to a minimum, the barrels were first hand charred and then seasoned with Pedro Ximenez sherry and again with an old, vintage grain whisky. Once ready, the blend was left to marry in the casks from October to December 2011.

With these unusual English oak cask lying in state at the Royal Lochnagar distillery on the borders of the Queen’s Balmoral Estate, the final mix of the blend from the casks was apparently only chosen last Friday (3rd Feb 2012) before being bottled at the distillery just this Monday (6th Feb 2012).

So that’s the whisky covered. Well, sort of. How does it taste? Good question, and here is the answer:

Diamond Jubilee by John Walker & Sons – 1952 – 42.5% abv – Limited to 60 bottles

Nose: Everything you want in a blended whisky; orange cream chocolates, tinned fruit syrup, green grass from the grains, with a backdrop of rich blackcurrant and heather.

Palate: A very gentle whisky, with notes of mango chutney, oak, sweetened Earl Grey tea and a hint of some delicate, almost coal-dust smoke. The palate gives maltiness in the middle of the tongue and a sweet, grain texture to the side. Very well balanced.

Finish: Warm and spicy with some chamois leather, lemon meringue pie and grapefruit juice, all backed with a delicate, mossy smoke.

Overall: A very well constructed blend. I have had 60 year -old whiskies before, but all of them single malts, so it is unfair to draw a direct comparison to those. (One wouldn’t compare the mixed doubles final at Wimbledon to the Mens’ or Ladies’ singles finals. In the same way, one must admire the liquid here purely from a blending perspective.) However, I would say that this is one of the finest blends I have had and it is very, if not dangerously, drinkable (I expected it to be much heavier for its age). So if you do ever buy one and open it, then be prepared to make your way through it pretty quick sharp!

Herein lies the sticking point. This whisky will set you back a cool £100,000 (not including VAT). But, as good as the whisky in the bottle is and as well as the blend has been constructed, this price isn’t just about the hooch.

For the blend itself is housed in something quite, quite magnificent; what can only be described as a cabinet of the highest quality, design and craftsmanship, engaging many other Royal Warrant Holders, as John Walker & Sons are themselves, in the design and production of each one.

The cabinet was built by Royal Warrant holders N.E.J. Stevenson using timber from both the Balmoral and Sandringham Estates.

Inside the cabinet is a book with calligraphy by Royal Warrant Holder Sally Mangum, each one individually bound by bookbinder Laura West. A set of glasses from Cumbria Crystal, engraved by Royal Warrant Holder Philip Lawson Johnston, sit either side of the bottle. And then there is the bottle itself...

Made using crystal glass by Baccarat of France, the diamond-shaped decanter sits on six radial legs, one for each decade of the Queen’s reign. The collar of the decanter is fashioned from solid silver, set with a half-carat diamond, made and engraved by Royal Warrant holders Hamilton & Inches in Scotland, this final piece sets off the entire presentation in truly regal manner.

Without counting the craftsmen involved in coopering the barrels for the royal ‘marriage’ and the blenders at John Walker & Sons, you’re already looking at seven highly skilled craftspeople to put together what must surely be the most impressive presentation for a whisky, blended or otherwise, ever made.

And the purpose of all this, aside from celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee? All of the profits from the sales of these bottles will be donated to QEST, The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, who

“provide scholarships to preserve rare skills and enable talented craftsmen and women to achieve greater levels of excellence“

This might be lost on some people. But not on my housemate, Ruth Anthony who gained a scholarship from QEST and now makes a living both teaching and practicing as an engraver in London.

I don’t, and sadly never will, have a bottle of this fantastic blended whisky in my house. But I have something much more valuable; a close friend who is proud of her ancient skill. Something, which without the aid of QEST, may not have been nurtured and developed, losing yet another craftswoman to the world of mass production.

So £100,000 might seem a lot but this release aims to raise over £1 million for QEST and, as a charity for which I see the tangible results of every day, it gets my full support.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Adventureland: The Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 3


"I wish this was my record collection"

Aside from football, the first real hobby I remember getting in to was record collecting. The first ever 7” I bought, an early version of Supergrass’ Mansize Rooster on Backbeat Records, mesmerised me. Green vinyl in a psychedelic disco bag, the record appeared so beautiful, like a piece of artwork, that it kick-started a hobby which has lasted through to the present day.

The temptation when collecting records is to become a ‘completist’, seeking out every single release by a certain artist, from their first single on a local indie label through to their latest major label affair, all the while trying to find that allusive Japanese 7” with the spelling mistake in the label copy.

I remember one occasion when the debut album from Supergrass, I Should Coco, was released. A certain number of the 12” editions came with a very limited edition 7”. Having fallen in love with my local heroes from the debut release mentioned above and being well on the road to owning their entire output (even the scarce singles on Nude Records, under the name The Jennifers), I wanted one, nay, MUST HAVE one of these limited editions.

Being only young and without gainful part-time employment, I took to washing cars in the local area to raise the funds needed to buy the album. When the Monday of release came around, I was to be found in the queue outside Oxford’s Virgin Megastore (RIP) beaming with pride at the record I was about to purchase.

My attitude towards rarities such as this has changed little over the years, yet now my focus is on a different product, whisky. As I search avidly for interesting and unusual bottles, I have ended up in early-morning queues outside many different distilleries and shops (from what now seems like an annual queue at a rain soaked Lagavulin during Feis Ile, to a cold December morning outside Aldi) all in search of 'that' elusive bottle to crack open and try.

Of course, writing this site as well as penning articles for various publications, we are often sent samples of whisky or invited on distillery trips and to launch events, some of which we review on this site (Serge at whiskyfun.com has written a great piece on receiving and reviewing samples, which you can read here, a view to which we wholeheartedly subscribe) and in the greater scheme of what is approaching our fifth year of writing caskstrength.net, this is a relatively new development. Despite this however, the excitement of seeking out that rare bottle of whisky, being able to taste it and share the liquid inside with friends is still a real joy (see ‘Best Man’s Lagavulin’). No different really to sitting down with your buddies and enjoying the previously unheard b-sides on your favourite bands 300- only debut 7” over a couple of beers.

However, buying whisky is not a cheap pastime and like a good holiday, each spend is carefully considered. The latest whisky adventure I have taken my wallet on, is a hunt for The Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 3. The first releases, Batch 1, was only available for those doing the distillery tour in Speyside and when I found myself in Dufftown at the start of 2011 I was eager to participate in their show-around. Firstly, I’d never had a complete tour of The Balvenie before and secondly it enabled me to purchase a bottle of Tun 1401 Batch 1 from their shop at the end, having tried a sample at the 2010 Whisky Show in London. Not a cheap exercise, made even more expensive by the purchase of a bottle of Balvenie Rose Batch 2 at the same time (my sincere apologies goes out to HSBC Bank), notes of which were quickly written up.

Batch 2 was a slightly different affair. Widely distributed in the UK, finding a bottle at a retailer which wasn’t sold out on pre-order was tricky. I was lucky enough to secure a bottle from Milroy’s Of Soho after a tip off from a friend that they had some in stock. I was keen to get a bottle as I already knew about the quality of the liquid having tasted some at the distillery on a previous visit as well as at a ‘twitter tasting’ with other whisky writers, bloggers and retailers late last year.

It was during this tasting that I heard whispers of a Batch 3 release. With my appetite whetted from Batch 1 and Batch 2, this was not a bottle I was going to let slip off my radar, and so the hunt began...

In my research, I found out that Batch 3 was to be a US-only release. “This must be a simple job”, I thought. “Loads of retailers in the US will stock this. One must be able to ship a bottle to the UK.”

Wrong.

Only 1800 bottles of this edition was spread thinly across the 50 states. I found a couple of retailers selling bottles, with prices ranging wildly from $350 (Park Av Liquor) to $209 (Merwins), but none, not one of these retailers would ship to the UK.

Booo.

It was at this stage I resorted to ‘plan b’: emailing a list of friends in the US who might be able to make the purchase for me, receive the package and then forward on to the UK. My first attempt, a friend visiting NYC over Christmas, failed when they were unable to visit any retailer open during the holiday period.

Negative.

But the second avenue yielded success! A good friend living on the Eastern side of the States was able to receive a bottle and subsequently forward it on to me. International trade, it seems, is alive and well... if you know someone who lives in the country of release, that is!

Whoop!

The Balvenie – Tun 1401 – Batch 3 – 50.3% abv

A vatting of 7 bourbon casks and 3 sherry casks ranging from 1967 to 1989

Nose: Strong character of digestive biscuits dipped in sherry, some freshly cut red apples, a hint of cherry juice and watermelon and the classic Balvenie runny honey.

Palate: Perfectly drinkable at its bottled strength, this is certainly a Balvenie given away by a mouthwatering honey tone. This edition carried blackberry leaf and lots of great wood spices which, over time in the mouth, develop from a sweet, nutty note to woodier, drying tones with a hint of liquorice.

Finish: Dry with a big spicy hit, yet this mellows over time in the glass but is certainly warming. More of a winter dram, than a summer dram.

Overall: This expression seems to carry more dry oak tones and comes across woodier and spicier than batch 2 and batch 1. Given a choice of recent releases, I’d aim for the Craftsman’s Reserve Number 1: The Cooper over this, but certainly these editions are an exercise in how one distillery can produce differing characteristics in their finished products using a variety of casks from various years.


It’s been a pretty arduous adventure securing this bottle and it has been interesting to round off the list of Tun 1401s so far. Let’s hope the series doesn't go on too long, as it could lead me on a wild goose chase. Especially when batch 7 comes out, exclusively available in Hogwarts. For time being however, we’ll try and keep the search going, the tasting notes logged and the whisky shared...

I’m off to dig out my old Supergrass 7”’s for an extended listening session, while sipping on a large dram of the Tun 1401 batch 2. For research purposes, you understand? I Should Coco!





Friday, 3 February 2012

Braving The Elements



Next week, Caskstrength are off to Helsinki for the second annual Uisge Festival - Finland's first dedicated whisky festival. We'll be doing a talk on cask finishes so hopefully there will be plenty of discussion points - and some decent drams to analyse!

In preparation for the sub-zero temperatures and snow, we've bought some new clothing: Boots with big laces and thick soles (the Berlin brogues 'debacle' is still firmly in our mind), as well as some decent cardigans (somewhere in-between Val Doonican and Starsky) and new hats. As fur is a little bit non-pc, we went for the soft option of an ear hat, rather than this rather startlingly dressed gentleman!!


And rather like filling your car with anti-freeze, we're topping up the blood levels with whisky, so we don't freeze internally.

Fortunately, a brace of samples from BenRiach has just arrived, so without further ado, time to start warming!!

Benriach - 17yo - Rioja Cask Finish 46%

Nose: Fruit sherbet, whisky steeped raisins, dried cherries, a little waft of liquorice and some mint.

Palate: Ooh! A very nice balance between sweetened liquorice, some clove/all spice and more of the steeped raisins. Some thick malt extract notes develop, alongside a touch of burnt orange, but all in all, rather nice indeed.

Finish: Lingering notes of the raisin and dried cherry.

Overall: Surprising, as we have tried a few wine finishes recently and with the exception of Glenmorangie's Artein they were all quite sub -standard. This really works though - with enough of a balance between malt and sweetness to satisfy even the most demanding of palates.

next up: a heavily peated madeira cask bottling...

BenRiach - 13yo - Heavily Peated Madeira Cask - 46%

Nose: A blast of young peat on the first nosing- confirms the name of this whisky, without question. Some tweed, woollen notes develop and a deft sweetness, but the peat is without a doubt the domineering force here.

Palate: As expected, some bonfire-like smoke washes over the tongue, but brings with it notes of strawberries and cream, some dark toffee and a hint of Java coffee. There is more depth than the nose, but minus the slightly sweet fruit notes, you'd be hard pressed to tell this was matured in a madeira cask.

Finish: lingering sweetness and an ashy peaty coating.

Overall: Straight, direct and luscious peat. Elements of sweetness too, but one for the peat hounds out there for sure.

We'll bring you a couple more of these over the next few days - thus completing our warming preparation for chilly Finland! Stay tuned...