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Sunday, 29 July 2012

Advance To Bowmore




After the recent announcement of the sale of Bruichladdich distillery by the independent owners to French company Remi for somewhere in the region of £58 million, it seemed only apt that this was the same week in which my edition of the newly launched board game Monopoly: The Islay Edition arrived in the post. 

Someone call Remy Cointreau chief executive Jean-Marie Labord, as he could have saved a few quid and bought the site for M220 ('M' being the unit of currency used in this game, which is sure to outlast the Euro...) had he rolled the required number on the enclosed dice.

Monopoly is a difficult and challenging game; the temptation is to buy everything you land on, but they real key is to build up your portfolio, expand your property empire and bankrupt the other players: true capitalism played out in the comfort of your own home.

Along the way, you must avoid pitfalls such as the 'Chance' cards, which can be rewarding or damaging. Such realistic aspects as 'Your Whisky Cask Matures. Collect M150.' and 'Caught Speeding On The Low Road. Fined M15' feature in this edition. Sadly, there is no card which reads 'Sold Distillery To The French: Collect M58m'...

If you were to look at the prime property portfolios on this board, you'd be quickly drawn towards the top end of the square, for this is where you will find the three 'Kildalton Distilleries' of Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig as well as Bowmore town and Bridgend, occupying the spaces more commonly know to me as Mayfair and Park Lane.

However, getting there with money in the bank will be difficult; try not buying Bruichladdich, Caol Ila or Kilchoman if you land on them, or even hovering up the four lighthouses which adorn each side of the board... but if you do make it there with cash to spare, you'll be rewarded with a property of your very own. But not just any property: a distillery. On Islay. And at current market prices, I'd get ready to retire. Especially if you can build a hotel there as well... just think of the rent. This calls for a special bottling. Someone get Bruichladdich on the 'phone...

But it seems that this last week has been all about Islay. Not only the news of the sale of 'laddie and the arrival of my Islay Monopoly set, but Bowmore have added another vintage release to their current crop.

Last month we reviewed their newly released 1964 Fino Cask, of which just 72 bottles have been produced, which really was (and bloody well should be at the price) an utterly fantastic whisky. However, if £8,000 is a little bit out of your price range, then the new 1985 offering may tickle your fancy at £300. Only 747 bottles have been produced, being drawn from both sherry and bourbon casks, and it has been bottled at the natural strength of 52.3% abv




Bowmore - 1985 Vintage - 747 bottles only - 52.3% abv

Nose: Quite a lot of sea-salt and smoke, this reminds me more of a Talisker than a Bowmore. But as it beings to settle in the glass, the smoke and salt dissipate to give way to freshly cut pine, orange peel and some hints of mango. This is more robust than other Bowmore's I've had of this age.

Palate: Delicious and oily, the smoke, spices and mango hit the palate hard, exploding with flavour. Backed up with some great rich tea biscuit and big elements of malt. Some brandy butter tones too. With water, minty elements come more into the mix with the pine flavours being pushed into the finish.

Finish: Without water, this Bowmore has a long and slightly 'sandy' finish to it.  With water, the mint and pine linger on the palate.

Overall: A really sold release from Bowmore which does a good job showcasing the peaty, salty elements but doesn't give enough room for the classic tropical fruits to come to life. Recent releases such as the Fino (obvs, for £8k) and the Tempest (yes, please for £40) showcase this unique side of Bowmore very well indeed. Save up for the fino (!), or buy a case of Tempest, would be my advice.

Playing monopoly as a child gave me a very basic understanding of London as a City, but having now lived here, in a central location, for more than 12 years, it feels like home, even if we are 'renting it out' to Coca Cola and Co at the moment to stage the Greatest Advert In The World.
Yesterday saw a low-key celebration of a very small area of this great city: Leather Lane, a road which runs through Hatton Gardens, the 'jewellery district' of London and is home to some fantastic producers of artisanal food and drink who put on an event for the public to experience their wares.

Taking part were top coffee experts Coffee Smiths Collective who run the excellent Department Of Coffee And Social Affairs, doing coffee tastings and the chaps from the Craft Beer Company hosting a small beer tasting. Food was provided by Pieminister, the masters of pies and a whisky element by The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, who themselves were showcasing a newly released Bowmore:



SMWS - 3.187 'Camphor Muscle Oil and Russian Caramel' - 14 Years Old - Ex-Sherry Butt refill - Distilled 25th Sept 1997 - 608 bottles only - 57.2% abv

Nose: Well, the name gives away the nose on this! Rich caramel and salt fly from the glass with over-ripe red fruits and some mango, but mango chutney this time. A hint of apple juice at the death.

Palate: Without water this gives of a big rich tone of lapsang souchong tea, salt and dark cocoa. With water, the whole thing settles right down to reveal the syrup notes from tinned pineapple, as well as some oak spice and black tea. It can take quite a lot of water and still give excellent flavours.

Finish: Long and warming, this is packed with flavour; exactly how I like my whisky. Complex but balanced.

Overall: I liked it so much, I bought a bottle. Winner.

As the evenings begin to draw in, it seem only right to be re-stocking the cabinet with some  excellent, warming Islay whiskies. Last week I added both a Laphroaig 18 and Caol Ila 18 to my stash and this week, the SMWS Bowmore above.

There now must be only one thing for it: order in some more Witney blankets, nip down JJ Fox to rejuvenate the humidor and then invite a load of people over for a game of Islay monopoly.


Everyone needs to bring a bottle from Islay so we can charge rents as drams... there might even be a sneaky adjustment to the Chance Cards  ('You Have One Won First Place In The Feis Ile Nosing Competition. Reward: A Dram Of Your Choice From Around The Table') to keep everyone busy... 


Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Wemyss Medal Table


Ok, so we're one day off now, weather looks great, Boris has just given a suitably rousing, but slightly xenophobic speech at Hyde Park and we got the first gob-smacking, hum-dinging mistake out the way with the Korean flag f**k up.  Having been down to see the Olympic torch relay hit my manor on Tuesday, to witness the reaction it got from the usually cynical South Londoners, I think the Olympics and Team GB are going to be a huge success.

But what to drink?

Is there a gold, silver and bronze line up of booze out there, to enjoy in times of triumph - and perhaps a commiseration dram to lift one's spirits when diving sensation Tom Daley comes 6th, due to suffering fatigue from all his pre-Olympics media commitments.

Of course it is completely subjective, but here at Caskstrength, we've worked out a little drinking game to mirror the actual games themselves.

In-keeping with the actual medals table, we'll be trying to consume beverages produced by the top ten medal winning nations during the next two weeks.  Now as you will see below, this immediately presents us with a continent-sized problem.  Looking at the huge success of China in the 2008 Beijing games, I think we'll mostly be drinking shochu for a fortnight.  However, we've come up with a strategy to combat this, due to the lack of  readily available domestic Chinese spirit in the Caskstrength office. As whisky is now hugely popular in China, and often consumed with green tea, we'll use this as our oriental caveat. 


So Russia...erm...vodka?


 And South Korea?... Oh forget it. What a bloody stupid idea this was.


Joking aside, we will be bringing you whiskies from a few international nations over the Olympic period and, when we can be bothered, a fun, national-themed cocktail too.  Tonight though, we'll start with our first offering in the shape of a trio of excellent new releases from indie bottlers, Wemyss (or to apply the ludicrous-Olympics-theme-we've-mistakenly-saddled-ourselves- with, 'Team GB')

We last featured a batch of their interestingly titled releases last year and in that time, the world seems to have gone a little bit gaga for their flavoursome offerings.  This current batch is in keeping with the creative naming policy, working on dessert themes.  So seeing as my supper of tuna and lime fishcakes, steamed anya potatoes and peas has now gone down, I might as well prepare for afters...


Wemyss - Campbeltown -  Glen Scotia - 1991 - 'Strawberry Ganache' - 46%

Nose: Waxy notes, dark honey, malt extract, floor polish, honey comb and dark chocolate. It's very rich, malty and heavy- more Black Forest Gateau, than a ganache.  

Palate:  A lovely silky, oily mouthfeel, giving notes of woody sherry, cinnamon bark, black treacle and tobacco.  Given a bit of time, mint humbugs and rum-soaked raisins coat the whole of the mouth.  

Finish: Lengthy, malty, bittersweet and heavyweight. In fact, as heavy as an olympic medal, no doubt.  

Overall: If this were a medal, colour wise, it has to be bronze, but don't let the colour influence your decision- this is a top step of the podium whisky. Superb.

                                     

Wemyss -  Highland -  Clynelish - 1997 - 'Fresh Fruit Sorbet' - 46%  

Nose: Wow, now we've finished our ganache (or gateau) it's on to a palate cleansing fruit salad and what a bowl of loveliness we have here.  Papaya, blood orange, fresh strawberry, lavender, parma violet, fruit sherbet and freshly cut red apple.  There's also a waft of cedarwood if you dig deep enough.

Palate: Quite hot, but then an explosion of fruitiness on the tongue, tinned peaches and cream, mango, raspberries, more sherbet (citrus this time) and American original chewing gum (think Hubba Bubba or Bazooka Joes)

Finish: The fruit notes linger, with a touch of green apple peel, giving way to some lighter liquorice spiciness. Not hugely lengthy, but pleasant and very summery. 

Overall:  Unusually fruity for a Clynelish, lacking some of the waxy notes one would ordinarily expect, but making up for the absence with that stonking fruit bowl effect. Golden in colour, but perhaps running a close second or silver to the Glen Scotia. 

Our final contestant is the youngest of the trio, coming from the Lowlands.  Will it be Usain Bolt on a good day... or a 2012 Daley Thompson comeback?  Let's find out.


Wemyss - Lowland - Auchentoshan - 1998 -  'Lemon Sorbet' - 46%

Nose: Unusual at first, sappy pine freshness, pea shoots and clean linen all spring to attention off the bat.  Given time, some pencil shavings, followed by a touch of basil start to develop. It's hard to pin this one down and it is a little closed.  A drop of water brings out some more mineral-like notes and some cherry sherbet.

Palate: Sweet, with a touch of vanilla, more cherry sherbet but quite short in the character department, compared to the other two. A touch of pepper rounds out the experience.

Finish: Short, with notes of vanilla again.

Overall: The weakest of the three releases, this has moments where it tries to grab your attention, but is just a little too polite, compared to the might of the Glen Scotia and the fruity charm of the Clynelish.  

To stick with the Olympic theme (sorry) the Auchentoshan is probably a little way off being selected for Team GB, needing more time to find its feet, whereas the Glen Scotia is the already experienced  gold medal shoe-in Sir Chris Hoy and the Clynelish a confident, talented and very feminine Jessica Ennis

Promise i'll stop now.  Let's hope the lighting of the opening ceremony Olympic flame goes more smoothly than this shocking fire lighting attempt:









Monday, 23 July 2012

Les Bruichladdich



Well, it's official. After the chatter on Twitter, the following press release was sent to us by Mark Reynier about the sale of Bruichladdich to Rémy Cointreau: 


Rémy Cointreau UK Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Rémy Cointreau Group has agreed to acquire Bruichladdich Distillery Company Limited, the Islay single malt
Scotch whisky distiller.

The transaction marks the group’s first move into the premium single malt Scotch whisky market, a category experiencing strong growth all over the world, especially in the very high-end segment. This deal sustains Rémy Cointreau’s long term value strategy, geared to investing into international premium spirits with strong “savoir-faire”.
Bruichladdich, the progressive Hebridean distiller, was purchased in December 2000 by Mark Reynier and a group of private investors who resurrected the Victorian distillery developing it in to an exciting brand with worldwide acclaim.

Total transaction value amounts to £58m, comprising of £48m for the acquisition of the entire
share capital of Bruichladdich and estimated debt of £10m that Rémy Cointreau will assume.
Jean-Marie Laborde, Chief Executive Officer of Rémy Cointreau said:

“The acquisition of Bruichladdich, a renowned Islay single malt with a rich and exciting heritage, is a great opportunity to enrich our high-end portfolio of brands and to confirm our strategy in the spirits luxury segment. We expect Bruichladdich to sit proudly alongside our other brands and we look forward to working closely with Bruichladdich’s experienced and passionate management team”.

Sir John Mactaggart, Chairman of Bruichladdich declared:
“This is an excellent transaction for Bruichladdich, the Islay community and a wonderful
opportunity for the company to reach its full potential, under the stewardship of Rémy Cointreau with their strong distribution network and their experienced brand development. I’m confident that Bruichladdich will establish itself as one of the Scotch whisky industry’s best known and acclaimed premium brands.”

Completion of the transaction is expected to occur within 6 weeks.'

So where does this the distillery now?  Well, in pretty good hands actually.  According to Chairman Sir John MacTaggart, 'I am particularly pleased Rémy Cointreau will be retaining the existing staff and will continue to keep Bruichladdich as an Islay-based business. Although they are a quoted company, Rémy Cointreau are still a family controlled business, founded nearly 300 years ago.'

We asked Mark Reynier for an update on his own situation and haven't heard anything back as of yet, but no doubt, the industry would be a poorer place without him.  

What about the whisky?  Well, we suspect that there won't be any fundamental changes here -  why would Rémy tinker with the formula? Let's hope not, in any case. 

Some people have been particularly critical about this sale - but let's not forget that ten years ago, the team of investors took a distillery in desperate need of attention, turning the business around into a 55,000 case enterprise. We've not always been a fan of the distillery releases, but there's no mistaking that the recent milestone Ten Year Old has left the distillery in a fine place. 

Good luck to the team and we look forward to the new expressions, which will no doubt be popping out in the future.


Thursday, 19 July 2012

Casks Of Glory


A few weeks ago, we bought you news of a brace of brand new Johnnie Walker bottlings which have now hit the shelves across the globe.  Gone now is the old style 18 year-old Centenary Gold Label (although retailers still have stocks available, so grab a bottle whilst you can) replaced by the un-aged Gold Label and the spanking new Platinum Label, which introduces the same age statement of 18 years to this differently formulated blend.   Both new releases fair extremely well in our opinion, especially the Platinum, which could very easily slake our thirst for the dearly departed Centenary edition (you'll be sorely missed...)  

Now it seems the Striding Man has been furiously pacing about again and rather than resting on his laurels, has been at it again with yet another new release -  this time an addition to the Blue Label family.

The Casks Edition is a duty free only release, hitting airports across Asia, Europe, South America, the Middle East and Australia.  Bottled at 55.8% the blend is another Jim Beveridge special, which aims to highlight a more powerful, robust nuances in whisky making that individual casks can bring to the party. Released in small batches (although we don't know of what size)  the price is not that far off the price of the regular Blue Label, ($300 for a litre bottle) so for those Blue Label fans with that hung-ho holiday spirit passing through a major airport, this looks like an attractive bottle to take to one's poolside retreat. 


So what is it like?  Where does it sit next to the new releases and indeed- the regular edition of Blue Label??
Not the official bottle shot

Johnnie Walker Blue Label - The Casks Edition - 55.8%

Nose: Ooh. Big, bold and quite mossy on the first nosing. Very spicy, with notes of garam masala, peppers, dried ginger, a hint of smoke (less than I expected), then moist fruit cake, with a vanilla cream butter icing. Given some long lingering wafts, notes of spiced apple come to the fore, alongside sponge fingers dipped in Oloroso sherry.  With water, white pepper and some toffee apple notes develop, alongside a weighty dry sherry.  As a JW, this is certainly a big meaty fellow, like the striding man has been in training for a forthcoming athletic spectacle perhaps? 

Palate: Undiluted, the palate is fiery and untamed at first, as one would expect with a cask strength whisky, but soon the heat dies away to reveal a gingery, spicy side, steeped in touches of classic JW golden syrup, sponge cake, cinnamon apple strudel and a touch of vanilla pipe tobacco.  With water, the stewed apple, golden syrup and spice (liquorice this time) develop.  As July days go, it's a bit nippy around the drinking halls of Caskstrength towers and this is working through from within to revivify me. 

Finish: Lingering dry spice notes, with just the faintest smoke and sweetness in cake form.

Overall: For fans of JW in general it won't come as a surprise that this whisky is exquisitely put together.  Less smoke than the Gold and Black Labels, with a heavier slant towards sherry casks,  whatever Mr Beveridge has to play with in his blending rooms is clearly superb and this JW edition just highlights why his understanding of the striding man is becoming almost like a 6th sense.  

Monday, 16 July 2012

King Of Spain




While Neil was given some time off from whisky duties to concentrate on becoming a father for the first time, I decided to take the Caskstrength Creative office away for a week to somewhere dry and hot. They say that 'today's rain is tomorrow's whisky', which is great in the long run, but this current batch of bad weather isn't, in the parlance of the local hostelry in South London, pissing down, but more like Mother Nature has decided to change her colostomy bag over London. Very slowly.

And indeed at this time, 'London Welcomes The World' for the 2012 Olympics. What joy!  But also what better time to leave then when everyone is arriving on our soaked soil (or, defaulting to South London pub parlance again, to 'sod off from our sodden sod') and to head for somewhere where the summer has actually arrived and not got lost in the post.

So it was that last week I found myself in Eastern Spain, somewhere down the coast from Valencia but, thankfully, not as far as Benidorm. A glorious part of the world, it could not have been further from the dour English weather, with blue skies, rolling beaches and warm seas. But the differences don't just stop there...

Spain, and most of Continental Europe, have somehow developed a much more, erm, adult attitude to the UK when it comes to the art of imbibing. Drink has become intrinsically woven to the general pattern and architecture of their cultures, highlighted by the ease of which one can purchase booze, the mythically low-cost of all types of alcoholic beverages but also, importantly, balanced out with a fantastic selection of non-alcoholic drinks such as the excellent San Miguel 0% 'larger', which are neither bland nor carrying the stigma that these drinks have in the UK, where zero percent beers will get you the same look as being a man reading Fifty Shades of Grey on the tube.

But it really is the prices which left me floored when visiting firstly the local supermarket (70cl's of Beefeater for basically £9, anyone?) and more specifically the local bodegas. That's right, in the brilliantly named Vall de Pop, where I was staying, each village seemed to have its own local source of good red wine priced at around 90c a litre, sherry at around 2 euro a litre and the local speciality, Moscatel for a wallet-busting 3 euro a litre. Just don't forget to turn up with an empty bottle, or they'll charge you 90c again for a nice glass bottle to take it home in...

Now, I love sherry. And I love whisky. So, going as I was to the home of sherry, it would have been daft of me to take any along. But I did opt to hit my local whisky shop, The Whisky Exchange, to pick up a bottle of something for the trip and what better option that a bottle of Nikka From The Barrel. 50cl of high strength, top notch whisky for somewhere around £25, which is both perfect for sipping neat after dinner with cigar or, post beach, to turn in to a refreshing mizuwari or highball.

This malt, some Beefeater for the freezer compartment (I took hip flask of Noilly Prat along with me- who doesn't want a mid-afternoon Martini by the pool?) both complimented with a bottle of chilled, local sherry, provided the perfect drinks cabinet for the duration. Each of these drinks has their place, their personality and their own flavour profile for the right time and feeling in the heat of a Spanish afternoon. Pure bliss.

But jump back with me to the England. Home of such great drinks as cider, real ale and gin; wonderful gifts we have given to the world. Gin, heavily influenced by the Dutch, we have taken and lovingly refined before sending out such world-famous brands as Gordon's, Beefeater and Tanqueray for the rest of the planet to enjoy. And real ale: well, thankfully that doesn't travel. So we keep most of it here to drink ourselves.

Recently, however there have been a few English companies having a go at replicating foreign spirits. Chase distillery started making a vodka, and very good it is too. The sparkling wines from producers such as Chapel Down  have been well received and then there are the whisky boys, the leaders being St George's doing malt (peated and unpeated) which have seen some rave reviews.

But, much like Arsen Wenger, taking a team from playing mainly the offside rule through an evolution whereby they now play a silky-smooth passing game, these foreign experiments are  not always a success.

For some reason, someone at St George's distillery in Norfolk has decided to launch  what they are calling simply 'St George's Pedro Ximenez'.  Bottled at 19% abv, they have taken some of the Pedro Ximenez from the sherry casks they use to mature their single malt whisky, added some of the said single malt to it and left it in the casks to continue maturing. According their website "We believe that the resulting drink is a wonderful fortified wine, that makes a superb drink for many occasions"

Well, they're totally wrong:



St George's Distillery - St George's Pedro Ximenez - 19% abv

Nose: This smells terrible; like a jacket left on a train by a soon-to-be-dead alcoholic. The whisky is so out of balance with the sherry tones, it's untrue. The red fruits you would expect are rotting and the malt element ends up smelling sweaty and farty.

Palate: Good job I have a spittoon ready. This oily giant hits the mouth with all the gusto of a badly made jam roly poly covered in the cheapest form of low cocoa dark chocolate. Fatty, oily and thoroughly unappealing. Why?

Finish: A little bit of red summer fruits, but it is soon gone and replaced with Potters Cough Remover, self doubt and disappointment.

Overall: No. Don't even go there. Not even for £18.

This goes to show that not all experiments are good and just because it's gone in to a bottle, doesn't make it drinkable. St George's should stick to making whisky (most of which is fantastic), which they know they're good at, and stop fannying about with European crap. Get back to playing long ball and leave the passing game to the Spanish.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

A Rumble In Penge

The Ridley nursery barely had room for a cot

Surprisingly, my first week of self-imposed paternity leave has been incredibly easy going (famous last words)  Little Lois Ridley, now seven days old has been sleeping and feeding well (with the occasional grizzle) and in-between naps, I have found the time to not only re-catalogue my whiskies, but to also compose a soothing baby sound track in the style of the great early 60's electro pioneer and wizard musician, Raymond Scott.  

Analogue soundscapes await baby Lois.  
Digging out my ancient Korg MS10 analogue synth, a Watkins Copicat tape echo and other antique sonic gizmos, I have been trying to tap into a soundscape that transfixes a baby, stimulating their ears, yet soothing them at the same time.











Scott released several masterpiece long players (which you can still get hold of) including a suite of recordings in 1964 designed to help parents bring their new babies into the world. 'Soothing Sounds For Baby' was released in collaboration with the Gesell Institute of Human Development and you can check the various recordings out here:  and here.

So far, my own project has had some success, albeit making the composer fall asleep several times at the keyboard, which I take to mean the principles also apply to big babies, like my good self.

If you happen to be passing Caskstrength Towers any time soon and hear some outer-worldly sounds, rumbles and sophoric drones emanating from the nursery, you'll know i'm at work, or have just hit the keyboard randomly in a heavy slumber.

Speaking of rumblings, several kinds have reached us at Caskstrength this week.  Firstly the news that Bruichladdich looks to be up for sale and that Cognac giants Remy Martin are in advanced discussions with the distillery owners.  Whether this means more cognac finishes is anyone's guess, but it demonstrates the significant position the Islay distillery are in after ten years of hard work building up their somewhat formidable reputation.

Secondly a brand new 'Rumble' has just hit our desks.  Balcones distillery, the Texas-based craft operation lovingly run by Chip Tate are becoming well known for their experiments in flavour, casting the net wide when it comes to new ways to produce innovative spirit.  This version of Rumble follows on from the one we were first bowled over by at Whisky Live London back in March.

For those of you who aren't familiar with this genre defying spirit, have a glance at our review here.  Rumble falls between the categories entirely -  in fact, as Chip likes to call it - the 'Spirit of Texas' is not a whisky (as it contains no cereal and is made predominantly from sugar) but is not technically a rum either, as its other key ingredients are wildflower honey and Mission figs. So it's somewhere in-between mead, brandy, rum and whisky -  the latter comparison coming from the already formidable woody complexity it has gained, despite its tender age.

This new batch of Rumble will hopefully be available in the UK shortly through a well-known retailer and well worth seeking out if you fancy a step in the direction of the deep south... it's not quite The Dukes Of Hazzard but it sure do taste purdy...



Balcones -  Rumble -  Cask Reserve -  Batch RCR12-1 - 58.1%      

Nose: Beguiling stuff. At first some sweet brown sugar, followed by chopped hazelnuts, vanilla pipe tobacco, dried coconut, milky coffee and chocolate covered dairy fudge.  It could so easily be a well aged whisky, but just has something different up its sleeve. Make no mistake, this is hot and needs a little dash of water to calm it down, but when you do, furniture polish, dried figs, rich Oloroso sherry, brittle caramel and something slightly mossy hit the nose to great effect.  

Palate: Very sweet at first- think over-muscovado sugared espresso and you're close.  With time on the palate, the coffee notes increase, alongside some brandy/Armagnac dryness, more vanilla and an anise/clove backdrop.  Again, the addition of water really broadens the palate, but make no mistake, this is powerful stuff. 

Finish:  The sweetness gives way to lingering coffee, with woody spices and dark honey.

Overall:  I really don't know where to place Rumble.  It performs so well as neither a rum, whisky or brandy, yet has the desirable qualities of all of these in abundance.  It is a beast of a drink and will catch a few people out on the palate, but it has opened up a wealth of possibilities in the cocktail world and as a sensational sipper.  Chip, hats off again for your latest rumblings.... 

Monday, 9 July 2012

A Blast From The Past... For A Star Of The Future

Howdy.  As Harrison swans off on his holidays for a week to a Spanish Castle (to no doubt enjoy the hospitality of the local señoritas and their flagons of Rioja) Ridley here is left holding the baby.

And this time, I mean literally holding the baby.  On the 4th July, at three minutes past two in the afternoon, Miss Lois Emmeline Bullus-Ridley was born at the Princess Royal University Hospital in Kent.  

My impending fatherhood had previously got me thinking about some of life's decisions... the following might have been at the tail end of the list.

Will fatherhood mean i'll have to exchange my Teutonic Torpedo (aka a late 80's Mercedes 230e) for a sensible (but ultimately tedious) 'People Carrier'?



I've since grown fearful every time I see a Vauxhall Meriva and literally start screaming at the sound of nearby Fiat Multipla coughing into life.

Will fatherhood mean that one's wardrobe suddenly becomes 'infused' with all manner of bodily fluids?

But perhaps even more pertinently, which whisky should I reach for, from the newly constructed walk-in, baby proof cabinet, to celebrate our wonderful and perfectly formed arrival?

The last poser really got me floundering.  For a little while i've been picking up some nice bits and bobs where ever I happened to find them. A recently acquired bottle of Port Ellen 6th Release was earmarked for 'special occasions', but the bottle i'd really been itching to uncork was an ancient Laphroaig.

Originally released in 2000, Laphroaig  30 year old has no doubt become the stuff of legend amongst peaty purists.  A 75cl bottle was released for the American market with a regular 70cl bottling (at 43%) released into Europe.  Whilst on a shopping trip down to Canary Wharf about 18 months ago, I chanced upon a bottle of this rarity in a local Waitrose -  for the incredible price of £110!  Surely one of the bargains of the century.  I eagerly ran to the tills with sweaty hands and vowed to open this in celebration of a significant milestone.

So on the evening of the 4th July, the date that the Higgs boson particle was discovered - arguably the most important scientific breakthrough of the 21st century, I duly celebrated the most significant and profound event in my life to date.

Does a great whisky taste even greater when it has a purpose, a destination and more importantly, a reason to be opened and shared with friends?

Undoubtedly.


Slainte, Lois.  As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, an aim in life is the only fortune worth finding.



Thursday, 5 July 2012

Ex-Sample




There aren't many houses in the UK where you'd happily pick up a small sample bottle of amber coloured liquid, pop the top off and give it a good hearty sniff before pouring into a glass and swigging away; certainly not at my elderly relatives houses, that's for use.

Thankfully, unlike my sister-in-law, I'm not a doctor in the Churchill Hospital's renal unit who has chosen to bring work home with them, but a professional in an altogether more gentle industry, that of spirits, and more specifically whisk(e)y.

Keeping track of samples is a pretty straight forward business: usually when one arrives it is marked up clearly on the bottle with all the relevant information (distillery name, working title, age statement or otherwise, ABV and any other interesting information, if they can fit it on) and once lined up neatly on my writing desk, they form an orderly queue waiting to be reviewed, like British OAP's waiting in line at the Post Office to collect their weekly pension.

However, the orderly queue can go from Home Counties Post Office to the first four rows of a Take That concert with ease, when disrupted by samples we've drawn from our bottles or taken out of friend's stashes as often these can go unlabeled, with my brain thinking “I’ll remember what’s in there” and then totally forgetting.

Fail.

And so it is that over time, my writing desk has filled up with small sample bottles, the contents of which I have no idea. Trying them turns in to some sort of whisky Russian roulette...


These, however are my new best friend: 

A sharpie on a key ring. Whoever invented this should be given a medal. Or at least a bottle of nice whisky!

Thankfully, at the moment my samples are hideously well organised. I seem to have learnt my lesson, due to being recently shocked by one truly awful sample (more to come later in the week) that I’d taken from a friend after being shocked and appalled by something they’d made me try. So bad was it, that I thought I just had to write about it. But utterly violet was how I felt when I opened the blank sample last week and I vowed never again to leave a bottle unlabelled on my desk. 

There are just two unlabelled samples currently on my desk and I know what is in each of the bottles: one is a Murray McDavid Port Ellen, the other is a 20 Year Old Lagavulin (independent  bottling from 'The Syndicate') but I don’t know which bottle contains which whisk. However, when I took the samples from the original bottles, I deliberately used two differently shaped sample bottles and had the presence of mind to take a photo of each of the wee vessels next to its ‘daddy’.

So I've decided to try them blind, writing notes on them without any more information that I already have, before revealing to myself which whisky is which... now, let's give them both a go:



Sample One:

Nose: A wonderfully rich peat smoke rises from the glass, backed with some sherry tones, raisins and brown sugar. The slightly earthy, almost farmyard tones give away that this must be the Lagavulin, but there is always a chance it isn't!

Palate: Classic rich Islay on the palate with some tropical fruits, almost Bowmore like, which give way to dark chocolate, some sweet rum tones all underpinned with a big hit of mossy peat smoke and warehouse floor.

Finish: Pure oak and strawberry jam. Very, very nice but maybe slightly too much wood?

Overall: A really wonderful dram of great complexity but incredible smoothness.




Sample Two:

Nose: Ahhhhh... chamois leather, grapefruit and peat. Surely a Port Ellen?! In fact, I'd put my house on it. But with this there is some additional sweetness, like a clear apple juice or very sweet tea over the top. Interesting.

Palate: Hummm... Slightly salty, this doesn't give too much on the palate other than smoked white grape juice and some slight tones of white bread and almost a hay-like note (the smell of hay in a flavour!). Strange.

Finish: Sweet spices and white grape juice again. Slightly bitter.

Overall: clearly a Port Ellen on the nose, but a very odd beast on the palate. The delicate tones which hideaway underneath Port Ellen smoke seem to have been rounded off and sweetened down; not what I'd want from this distillery, but it certainly would appeal to some palates. Almost like a Port Ellen b-side remix


And so, which is which? Well, it was all a little too obvious on the nose and it turns out that the big, rich tones of Sample One is indeed:



Lagavulin - 'The Syndicate's Bottling' - 20 Years Old - Distilled 03.09.1990 / Bottled 22.09.10 - Cask No. 4395 - 48.1% abv


and Sample Two revealed all, with the Port Ellen being finished in Chateau D'Yquem Casks...



Port Ellen - Murray McDavid Mission Series - Distilled 1982 / Bottled 2009 - Chateau D'Yquem Cask Finish - 1175 bottles - 48.6% abv

Well, if this was whisky speed dating, I'd certainly be looking for the 'phone number of Sample One. Sample Two I'll leave to find love elsewhere.

The moral of this story? Always carry a Sharpie with you... if nothing else, so you can do this sort of thing:



Monday, 2 July 2012

Best of Blends




We've done quite a bit on caskstrength.net recently about blended whisky and the worldwide appeal of this section of the whisky market.

One of the biggest differences between the single malts that we all love and blended Scotch whisky, is the proliferation of brand names across the sector. Each and every blend is made to it's own unique recipe; a little of bit of this and a little bit of that means even just 1% difference between blends can lead to a change in flavour and therefore a new brand or expression within a series. And with over a hundred working malt distilleries and seven grain distilleries in Scotland alone, there are almost unlimited ways to construct a blend.

The result is that the world is awash with blended whisky. A quick search shows that respected online retailer, The WhiskyExchange, lists over 252 items in their ‘Blended Scotch Whisky’ section with the cheapest full bottle of Scotch down at £11.95 and the most expensive way up there with any good single malt at £150,000 for a bottle of Royal Salute 45 Year Old.

Now, there are plenty of blends that our UK-based readers will have heard of: Johnnie Walker, Bells, Teachers, Chivas Brothers but there are also a lot of blends which sell very well around the world, which you may not have heard of, or realised their value in specific areas of the globe. Dimple, Windsor and 100 Pipers are just a few examples of blends that sell well around the world, but you might not be fully aware of, if you live in the UK or certain parts of Europe. Black Dog, for example, sold around 1m bottles in India in 2009, more than the entire single malt category did in that year, but have you ever seen a bottle...? It is brands such as these who seemingly quietly (or not so in the case of a brands like J&B or White Horse) go about their business selling oddles of bottles and help to financially support the continued growth of the single malt sector. Note: Johnnie Walker is estimated to have sold 18 million 9 litre cases in 2011. That’s quite a lot of Scotch!

A lot of these blends just aren’t available in the UK market but are heavily promoted in the countries where they have taken a foothold over the past century (or however long they’ve been sold in that market), and so it was fantastic to sit down with Maureen Robinson, one of the Master Blenders at Diageo, to try some of their best selling blends which are either unavailable in the UK market, or are expressions which we would usually never really look at (eg. Bells).

The afternoon session was to encompass nine different Diageo blends from 6 different brands with the express purpose of nosing and tasting the blends to see how they differ and to look at the key flavour profile within each expression.

However, there are issues with approaching a blended whisky from a nosing / tasting angle, as you would a single malt. Many of the brands which sell so well around the world are not poured in to a nosing glass, with a drop of water added and savoured in the same way a premium single malt would be.

No, sir! 

Most are poured into a long glass or a small tumbler and missed with anything from green tea to coke to ginger ale, sometimes even dropped into pints of beer... each to their own, I guess. But if the sales of these products helps to keep the single malt market alive, then it has my full support and backing. When I worked at Island Records, every sale of a Sugababes or Mika album just helped us to have more money to release another PJ Harvey record or sign an Amy Winehouse... as such, I have only noted nose and palate on these blends.

We kicked off with a whisky which I have long wanted to try: Windsor. Mainly available in the Far East (Korea is the key market), Windsor was launched only back in 1996 and has a range which covers a 12 years old, 17 years old, 21 years old, Reserve and XR. Apparently the 17 year old has a luminous label which glows in the dark!

Windsor – 12 Years Old – 40% abv

Nose: Apples, spices and apricots. A hint of Ikea warehouse, too. Woody spices and a touch of honey. Sweet and well balanced.

Palate: A nice hit of vanilla and smooth green apple flavours, this whisky gives fruits and malt, along with toasted brown bread. With a dash of water chocolate orange, cloves and minute amount of smoke.


Second up was the fourth best selling blended whisky in the world, J&B. Named after it’s earliest developers, the wine importers and wholesalers Justerini and Brooks, this whisky was founded way back in 1749 and is styled as a ‘party whisky’ in the brands key markets of Spain, France, South Africa, United States and Portugal. The range includes some oddly named whiskies such as ‘Jet’ and ‘Exception’...



J&B – Reserve  (15 years old) – 40% abv

Nose: Ginger, spices, brown sugar, lemons, limes and oranges. some vintage smoke, subtle banana notes and green apples.

Palate: Vanilla creams and orange again. Very light and mixable. Would go well with ginger ale. Given time in the glass, a little dash of liquorice and rich toffee. 


The third whisky we tried was one which seem ubiquitous in the UK market, Bells. Key markets for this blend include the UK, South Africa, the Nordics, Spain and Brazil.  Established in 1825 by Arthur Bell, the regular expression of this whisky used to be an 8 years old, but has recently become and No Age Statement (and a different configuration from the 8 years old, according to Maureen). The range includes Bell's Original, Bell's Special Reserve (UK only), and those lovely (!) Bell's Decanters, of which one is released each Christmas and have something of a collectors following.



Bells – Original – 40% abv

NoseVery spicy, green banana, fruit and some smoke. Sharp, but a surprising amount of creaminess a little further in.  This would surprise a few folks if they were to nose it blind. 

PalateClassic blended whisky with the vanillas from the grain underpinning the smoke and fruit of the malt. A little thinner than the others tried, but not bad at all. Undoubtably designed for mixing with something longer and sweeter.  



Fourth on our tasting mat was a whisky I have never encountered before: Old Parr. The obvious reason for never having come across this blend is that the key markets for this whisky are Japan, Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela. Not a regular visitor to any of these countries, this was a real treat to try a blend with such a strong foothold in these markets. The range is quite extensive with 12, 15 and 18 years old expressions. Legend has it that Thomas Parr (known as "Old Par") was Britain's oldest man, at 152 years of age. I’ll have what he’s having, please...


Old Parr – Original (12 Years Old) – 43% abv

Nose: Malty and smoky. Simple but appealing. Given time, strawberries, woody spice, subtle smoke and bran. A little floral soap with water. 

Palate: Rich fruits with a big oaky hit. Quite a complex blend this - the smoke is defined and quite bold, alongside sponge cake and buttery vanilla.  


Phew... we’re only four whiskies in to this mammouth tasting of 9 different blends. At this point, we were going to try a whisky which Neil and I hold in high regard, having tried some of the older expressions from the 1950’s and 1960’s which we absolutely loved, but we’d not had a chance to try a ‘contemporary’ bottling for a while. White Horse is famed for using a large proportion of Lagavulin whisky (the distillery was one of the ‘White Horse Distilleries’ and sported a large white horse painted on the roof of one of the warehouses back in the mid 1900’s). Sold predominantly in Japan, Brazil, Greece, Great Britain, Africa and The United States, this brand was launched in1890 and has 1900, 12 Years Old and ‘Logan’ as the key expressions in the range.



White Horse – Fine Old – 40% abv

Nose: Complex fruit and green veg, rhubarb crumble. Some stewed plums and a dash of smoke further in. 

Palate: Initially notes of bitter orange, lemon zest and smoke. Peaches and cream and some light malt notes. As the palate dries, some sooty notes. 



White Horse – Logan (12 Years Old) – 43% abv

Nose: Rich and smoky, but also very mellow with big sherry tones. Some rubbery notes and burnt sugar, with a pronounced sootiness within the smoke. 

Palate: Sherry and fruits, this gives off a 'fizzy' mouthfeel. Odd but likeable. Rich, oily and rather 'grown up'. 


The final three whiskies were all from the same portfolio, Buchanan’s. Founded in 1884 by James Buchanan, this whisky has found a foothold within the Latin community, being most popular in Venezuela, United States, Mexico and Colombia. The range includes Buchanan's Red Seal, Buchanan's Deluxe 12 year old (think barley sugar, hints of medicinal smoke and honey -  oily and rich) Buchanan's Special Reserve 18 year old (fantastically waxy, with notes of sweetened cream, stewed fruit, sandalwood and liquorice) and Royal Household, only available in Japan and rare as hen's teeth in the UK.  One would imagine your friendly local specialist retailer beginning with 'Wh' and finishing with 'isky Exchange' might be able to help, should you want to seek one out.



Buchanan's – Royal Household – 40% abv

Nose: Deep aromas of smoke, spices and sherry underpinned with vanillas. Further in -tangerines, some vintage peat , sugary wine gums. Really excellent.

Palate: Iron bru, red wine as the malt and grains working well to give excellent complexity but also real balance. Very rich, rounded and complex.  Extraordinary that we don't get this in the UK - a great shame!


The tasting was a real treat and served to highlight the different flavour profiles between different blends, the art of blending and construction of these whiskies, as well as creating lineage within a certain brand, making sure that the key aspects of flavour profile are maintained throughout the range.

Some of these blends were excellent, to the point where you’d wonder if a hardened single malt drinker would be able to recognise it as a blend (the Royal Household and the Windsor getting special mentions in this field). But overall, this was an excellent example of the diverse properties of a category which provides huge income in to the Scotch whisky industry and gives most single malt whisky distilleries a reason to exists. 


Far from being an sector of the whisky market to be sneered at, blends should be celebrated for their flavours; if you haven’t got a bottle of blended whisky at home, make sure you go out and get a couple, you may well be surprised at what you taste.