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Tuesday, 24 December 2013

God Jul fra CaskStrength! Clynelish Single Malt Scotch Whisky And Something A Little Different



It's Christmas Eve! God Jul to all our Scandinavian readers. We hope you have something special in your glass.

Each year, when Christmas rolls around, I like to choose something special to have over the festive period.

Last year, my choice was a Highland Park 21 year old and the year before, the Harrison tipple was a single cask Glendronach.

This year, I find myself not in my native Oxford, but up in the Highlands of Scotland.

With snow forecast and not a huge amount of options other than a Tesco locally, I took a trip to the nearby town of Pitlochry to the quite fabulous Drinkmonger store.

It was there that I discovered an excellent selection of bottles, many from the indie bottler and local lads Signatory, with one bottle catching my eye: a single cask Clynelish.



Clynelish – Signatory - 1995 / 2013 (21.12.95 / 11.04.2013) – cask #12796 – bottle 130 of 859 – 43% abv - £55.00

Nose: Pickled herring, roast chestnut, a hint of Seville orange, jasmine tea, vanilla, toffee.

Palate: Tobacco, some light sooty notes, dark chocolate, cherry lips, rich and oily with some light green veg and ‘the herb’ as they say in South London.

Finish: More of the skunk tones with light vanilla.

Overall: Well... I wouldn’t have chosen a bad one for the Xmas factor, would I?! Honestly, a CRACKER for the price.


But this year, to get me through Christmas in foreign lands, one bottle wasn't nearly enough. 

No, Sir!

This year, I also took a momento with me, picked up on one of the CaskStrength trips of the year.

It was in the first half of 2013 that saw Neil and I head out to Gascony for a research trip to visit the brandy-producing region of Armagnac; one of many trips taken this year to help us write a forthcoming book, due out in 2014. More on that later next year.

A little tip for all you whisky-lovers out there: if you happen to visit the Armagnac region, don't do what I did and take just a suitcase (or what Neil did and take a tiny suitcase). Why? Because you'll want to buy, buy, buy...

Having totally exceeded my easyJet baggage limit, mainly with bottles of 1979 vintage (all for the price of a good blended Scotch), I have been carefully choosing which bottles to open over the course of the year... one was cracked on my birthday a couple of weeks ago. And the another just yesterday.



Castarede - Bas-Armagnac – 1979 Vintage – 40% abv

Nose: Grenadine, cherry (black), toffee, big hit of oak and some almonds, a hit of antique shop and big Christmas Cake. Right at the death, warming Bovril.

Palate: Dried orange, candied cherries, marzipan, fresh coffee (black, again), liquorice root.

Finish: Massive powered cocoa and granulated brown sugar; white tea. Mint.

Overall: Yes, a very good example of a vintage Armagnac. Not the greatest I’ve ever had, but certainly challenge for it. A lovely counterpoint to the light and refreshing Clynelish.


Two totally different beasts of spirits; one grain, one grape. One delicate and light, one rich and fruity. And both for well under £100!

So whatever you choose to dram in Christmas with, just make sure that you leave something good for Santa when he arrives, for when everone has retired to bed, as I'm sure whatever has been left out will magically disappear... Enjoy!


Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Battle of the Scotch: Lidl vs Aldi



Ahhh... we're bombarded with Christmas adverts at this time of year, trying to sell us everything from shaving products through to the ubiquitous seasonal canap├ęs.

But instead of choosing just one supermarket and nailing your colours to the mast, these days the power is in the hands of the (mobile) shopper.

Having lauded the whisky selection currently available in Waitrose, with 'big name' brands such as Highland Park and The Balvenie at "prices you'd be made to ignore" (picture Saul Goodman-esque advert with giant neon stars flying into view) there are, of course, alternatives... if you're prepared to take a wee gamble.

Of course, with the Scotch Whisky Regulations keeping a tight hold on what can (and cannot) be labelled as ‘Scotch’, it’s not so much of a gamble when buying a bottle with those six letter on; certainly not as much of a gamble as buying a ‘meat pie’ at a lower league football ground. Ahhh... the Saturday ritual of the mystery meat pie. Like Russian roulette with meat and pastry.

So, where can you spend your chips in this casino of flavour, this saloon of Scotch? Well, as you would expect with Waitrose, you’ll get a brand name. But at Lidl and Aldi you’ll hear the call “Gentlemen, place your bets!

These two cut price supermarkets have, over the past few years, engaged in something of a price war on Scotch and this Christmas, Aldi have taken the bold step of selling a 30 Year Old blended whisky under the title Glen Orrin. Well priced at £54.99, how does it taste?



Glen Orrin – 30 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky – 40% abv – 70cl - £54.99 at Aldi

Nose: A hint of smoke is backed with juicy fruit chewing gum, runny honey and figs. It gives a well balanced and tempting aroma, over time developing into travel sweets, milk cholcate and malted milk biscuits.

Palate: Delicate and easy drinking, it would be nice if this were at a little higher strength as it is a touch watery on the palate, although this would mean fewer bottles and a reduced opportunity for the punter to buy (as well as more money in Her Madge’s pocket from revenue). It is a very easy drink and this has been well constructed with some good old Scotch whiskies in the mix. Honey and vanilla would be the key touchstones here.

Finish: More vanilla, with a touch of dream topping and some smoke.

Overall: Yes, a very good whisky for the money. I’d wager that you’d be better off with two bottles of HP12 from Waitrose, however for the money.


At the other end of the scale, a trip down to Lidl to pick up some of their excellent red wine to sup over the Christmas period found me purchasing a bottle of their Abrachan NAS triple matured blended malt Scotch whisky. Matured in ex-Bourbon, Sherry and Tawny Port pipes, coming in at just £17 it was always going to find its way into my trolley. So, let’s find out if a NAS at £17 blended malt can compete with a sub-£55 30 year old blend...



Abrachan – Triple Matured Blended Malt – 42% abv - 70cl - £17.99 at Lidl

Nose: Well, this isn’t old. It gives spirit, caramel and some flapjack notes. The port sits at the front of the aromas while the vanilla is there, if not a little lost, sandwiched by the sherry on the bottom end. Not the worst blend I’ve ever nosed- far from it... it is a lower, entry level blended malt but for £17 what did I expect from the nose? For the money, it does a very good job indeed.

Palate: A big flavour of malty goodness, this is polar opposite of the smoky beast from Aldi. The sherry and port flavours take the driving seat, fighting a little but after time they calm down, to make way for the spice and vanilla from the bourbon casks. Well balanced? Not quite. Complex? Yes. £17? So far, so good.

Finish: Spices, cardamom, a hint of Bovril meatiness, but that is no bad thing for a NAS whisky as it gives it body and counterbalances the spirit notes of the nose.

Overall: At £17, you can’t go wrong. Far from the greatest whisky on earth, it certainly represents value for money. Where else can you pick up a blended malt for £17 these days?



So there you have it. One good whisky at 30 years old and one excellent whisky for £17 (please consider that statement in conjunction with its price point). In a league table, I’d still take the brand names at Waitrose over the gambles at Aldi and Lidl, but if your wallet has less than £20 in it, then a bottle of the Lidl blend will see you nicely through to the New Year. But if you can afford it, follow Heston to your local Waitrose.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Daily Bulleit(in)


Sometimes you just need to shut the front door, turn your phone off and draw the curtains -  a sure sign that you're in full on 'Do Not Disturb' mode.  

Today was such a day. Braving the Christmas rush on Oxford Street (seemingly all my present ideas had been exhausted from a blast of online shopping over the previous weekend) I had a list of must-buys - i.e. 'if you don't get these, you're in serious trouble.' (Mrs Ridley) The pressure was on and my two fall back options were department stores John Lewis and Debenhams.  Both seem like havens for lost souls like me; vast palaces of gift ideas for people with desperate, blank looks on their faces, the fear of returning with a pair of too-small slippers weighing heavily on one's mind.  

'What if she already has this?'  'Is the colour right?'  'Does she even like Turkish Delight?'  All questions that lashed my cerebral processing ability into submission - to the point that I completely wandered past the well-stocked drinks section in John Lewis, without even giving it a second look.  

I emerged, blinking, broken and laden with crockery, slippers that looked too big, boxes of sweets and cookery books from chefs that I personally detest. But I had emerged victorious. My list was complete, the recipients of my six large shopping bags of presents unwittingly safe and content for another year.  

Stopping at Berry Bros & Rudd on the way home to place my festive wine order made things feel a lot better (a case of their Extraordinary Claret, a smattering of Sancerre and a cache of Chablis), but the weight of the bags were beginning to take its toll and by the time I eventually arrived at my front door through the fine drizzle that had descended, I was truly shattered -  and need of three things:  

A large whisk(e)y 

My wonderful Bose Soundlink Mini (if you don't own one of these, get on it - they're amazing, especially coupled with a Spotify account) 

And bizarrely, an bag of Cadbury's giant chocolate buttons.  Quite why, I honestly don't know, but they seemed enormously comforting to a chilly, aching, slightly damp confused man. 




As for the whisk(e)y - several options immediately emerged: dive into the brace of old White Horse blends that Caskstrength just won in an auction, a wee sample of Bowmore's stupendous 50 year old or a miniature of Auchentoshan 1975 that had arrived this morning.  (All will be reviewed before the festive period is complete...)

No today, I needed a spicy, warming shot to the system that not only delivers a big flavour but also something rousing, dry and complex. Something to curl up to and revisit the perfect vocal pairing of Ray LaMontagne -  an artist who I fell in love with several years ago and a man whose voice and captivating delivery can stop just about any one in their tracks.  Tonight, as a thunderstorm passes over head, I pour a full-bodied-yet-smooth glass of rye whiskey.  Take it away, Mr Tom Bulleit.

Bulleit has an amazing story to tell, for those who don't already know it.  Changing careers from the legal profession, Tom Bulleit had a desire to follow in his great, great grandfather Augustus' steps and start a bourbon company. He tracked down a recipe of his ancestor and began experimenting with a mash bill containing a particularly high rye content (around 28%, which to the uninitiated may not seem like a lot, but the spicy flavour of rye goes a very long way indeed.)

Tom decided that his love of rye needed to go a step further and recently he produced his very first straight rye. Throwing together 95% rye to 5% malted barley his intentions were to develop something with a classic peppery backbone that might have been served by Augustus, but with an up-front smoothness. Guess what... He succeeded.

Bulleit - Small Batch Frontier Rye Whiskey - 45%  

Nose: An effortless peppery note, slightly toasted rye bread, creamy vanilla custard, stewed banana notes and a deft touch of orchard fruit. Dig deeper and you'll find an earthy tobacco note and dark cocoa powder.  

Palate: The higher strength (Bulleit was previously bottled at 40%) really carries the delivery of spicy peppercorns, hints of clove, flamed orange zest, more of the chubby vanilla pods and a dash of menthol-infused dark chocolate.  If I could be bothered to get off the sofa and head to my home bar, I could be enjoying this in a blinding Manhattan. But I suddenly feel VERY comfortable - just as Michael Kiwanuka's breathtaking 'Home Again' album drifts out of the Soundlink. I think i'll save that option for another day. 

Finish: Lingering notes of white pepper, vanilla and a thick sweet oaky richness, laden with vanilla.

Overall: If you don't own a bottle of rye in your whisk(e)y arsenal, you need a remedy as soon as humanly possible. Rye is a wonderfully complex spirit, full of husky dry complexity and devilish spice  and Bulleit's recipe is undoubtedly a whiskey of extremely high calibre.












Monday, 16 December 2013

Xmas Rated Prices - Highland Park 12 Year Old and The Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask Single Malt Scotch Whiskies



Christmas is a time for... well, drinking whisky. But more than that, it is a time for buying whisky, with many shops and supermarkets discounting core range offerings.

And we aren’t going to complain with that. In fact, as much as there have been some premium purchases at Caskstrength Towers this year, there are always bargains to be had.

In a week where Chelsea footballer and Egland captain John Terry, on something mental like £150,000 per week, is spotted shopping in PoundLand, we know all too well, coming from a music business background, that a ‘bargain’ is too often associated with, erm, stock that doesn’t sell. The bargain bin is the last place you want an album or a DVD to end up. However, when it comes to whisky, we’ll always take a bargain.

This week, as the Christmas shopping began to get into full swing, I found myself in my local Waitrose.

Having developed a partnership with uber-chef Heston Blumenthal over the past few years, which included sell-out items such as a Christmas Pudding with a hidden candied orange in the middle, so popular that in their first year they ended up on eBay for up to £200, the supermarket doesn’t shirk away from playing in the premium arena.

However, despite it’s ‘#middleclass’ appeal, Waitrose is not afraid of a bargain. Both of us have picked up some excellent items over the years in Waitrose, with a Port Ellen 3rd release at a shade over £100 and a Laphroaig 30 Years Old at around £150 as two examples of great whisky-steals!

But it doesn’t have to be all top-end whisky; no Sir. In fact, this week there was an opportunity at Waitrose to start a whisky cabinet with just two statement whiskies, for less than £60. If you don’t live in the UK, or near a Waitrose, look away now.

The first bottle is a stalwart of the whisky fraternity; one which people hail often as turning point for them in their journey to discovering peat and, once in, will graduate up to their sublime 18 year old offering. The whisky in question is Highland Park 12 Years Old, which 

Waitrose has on sale for just £24.68 for 70cl. I'll repeat that: £24.68p.


Highland Park – 12 Years Old – Single Malt Whisky – 70cl – 40% abv

Nose: a delicate waft of peat comes out of the glass, but this is not turned up to 11, but sitting comfortably at about a 6 or a 7. This allows complimentary aromas of sweet honey, crunchie bar (honey comb and milk chocolate), freshly cut grass and some menthol to sit on a bed of light peat; the opposite way around to most smoky malts.

Palate: vanilla peat is the first flavour to come through with light orange cream, dark chocolate this time and some elements of parma violets. A good slug of malted milk / maltesers  and that delicate peat again at the death.

Finish: sweet with a peaty roundness.

Overall: probably the introduction to smoky whisky which doesn’t drag you down a dark alleyway and mug your taste buds, but takes it out for dinner for an eloquent chat.

Now, if you choose to fork out twenty five of you hear earned pounds on the HP12, you’ll have one of the trinity of great Scotch expressions that you need for the foundations of a good whisky cabinet. The third and final piece of the jigsaw is a cracking blend, but we’ll come to that in another post in a few days time, with the missing link being, of course, a great non-peated whisky, from the Lowlands, Highlands or Speyside region of Scotland.

And again, Waitrose is the place to turn for a true bargain here.

It’s no secret that we have a love for The Balvenie 12 Year Old Doublewood and I don’t know many people who don’t love, love, love this easy drinking dram. But at the moment,  forget the 12 year old as The Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14 Year Old is on sale for £33 at Waitrose.

£33. 

Considering the 12 year old Doublewood is £32 and this older expression is over £10 more at other whisky-specific outlets, this really is an absolute steal.



The Balvenie – 14 Years Old – Caribbean Cask – 43% abv

Nose: So, this whisky has been ‘finished’ in rum casks, hence the name... and this fact is immediately obvious as a huge sweetness rises from the glass; but not an ordinary saccharine sweet. This is very much a darker, molasses-based sweetness that you’d find in a Navy Rum. Rich and enticing, this is about as sweet as whisky gets without being sickly or false.

Palate: the flavour delivers exactly what the nose promises: strong, malty, sweet tones that saddle strong Navy rums with a mix of the more elderly Armagnacs I’ve tried. Very bold, yet balanced, this really is a step up from the 12 Year Old Doublewood, but be warned, if you like a full-on American oak influenced heavy vanilla palate, this isn’t for you. The vanilla is there, but this is old, rich, real Madagascan vanilla sweetened with heavy brown sugar.

Finish: a wonderfully rich, smooth finish which, again, leans towards an old French brandy than a teenage Scotch.

Overall: For under £35? Are you having a laugh? Do what I did and buy, buy, buy.

So there you have it; great Scotch does not have to be expensive and if you’re one of those muttering about age statements disappearing and the price of Scotch rising, here are two great examples of single malts which will quite rightly prove you wrong!

Of course, you could always go for the best December bargain of all, and order one of the few bottles of 3D Whisky left...

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Rise Of English Whisky


Funny old business, whisky making. So steeped in tradition, proud values and time-honoured recipes and practices.  Yet on the other hand, so vibrant, challenging and bubbling with creativity. Well some of it. 

Recently we've seen a massive growth in craft distilling in the US, so much so that to a point, the whole 'craft' thing has somewhat 'Jumped the Shark', (look it up if you're not familiar with this phrase) with a new whisk(e)y seemingly being created every week by a micro distiller.  These 'whiskies' are seldom whisk(e)y but just spirit, rested in oak and fired out the door to try and nail down the spiralling costs that running a distillery presents.  

However some distillers, like the magnificent Balcones, Tuthilltown and Corsair have taken their time, experimented in the right way and diversified their businesses to offer genuinely different products that have captured the attention of a very crowded market place, now gaining international reputations and - importantly, distribution.     

But the same thing hasn't really kicked off here in the UK -  yet. 

Last week saw the very first spirit run from London's newest craft distillery, The London Distillery Company in Battersea, which has been producing a gin for the past year to supplement the business plan of actually creating a new spirit from scratch. Finally, after months of wrangling, HMRC granted LDC a license to distil the first malt spirit in the capital -  the first in over a century, since the Lea Valley Distillery closed in 1910.  

What does this all mean? Well, the precedent has now been set for other would-be distillers to follow suite and similarly create something from scratch. Rather than the dusty, leather-bound rule book being ripped up, it has just been re-published in a handy, wipe clean paperback size, which seems to be a good thing.  

In a little under three years and a day now, we'll be able to clearly see whether the LDC has achieved its objectives and made a single malt whisky as brilliant as that produced by, let's say, Kilchoman on Islay, or more appropriately, St George's in Norfolk especially after such a short time. Until then, let's applaud someone for moving things forward and boldly opening the doors on so many distilling possibilities. 

Of course, an English whisky is nothing new.  As mentioned above, St George's in Norfolk have been distilling successfully since 2006.  Then in 2010 came the Adnams Brewery, who only last week released their very first 'whisky'- two in fact.  

Adnams have taken a great position in the new emerging sphere of English whisky, by applying their brewing prowess (which spans some 140 years) and coupling it with brand new distilling technology. With stills that look like they have been lifted from the pages of a Jules Verne novel, Jonathan Adnams, Head Distiller John McCarthy and his team have already successfully built a formidable distilling reputation with several very creative recipes: Oak aged vodka matured in French oak, Spirit Of Broadside, using the classic Broadside ale and now a brace of 'actual' whiskies:  a traditional single malt matured in French oak and a triple grain, using East Anglian barley, wheat and oats, which is then matured in American oak.

Only 20 casks have been produced in this first batch (dating back to a fill date of November 2010), but the results are impressive indeed -  at least when it comes to the triple grain, which we have been lucky enough to sample.


Adnams -  Triple Grain Whisky  - Three Years Old - 43%

Nose: An initial spirit note gives way after a few seconds in the glass revealing some slightly sweet boiled vegetable notes, vanilla, golden syrup, porridge oats, gingerbread and rich dark chocolate.  It's slightly unusual at first, then the true picture of the recipe comes to life.  

Palate: The malty notes from the nose develop into malted chocolate milkshake, creamy oak, a hint of white pepper and caramelised peaches. The influence of the oats is very noticeable here and the lingering sweet cereal really shifts this up a gear. 

Finish: The malt notes deliver a slightly spicy note as the palate dries, with a return of the oak and the vanilla.  

Overall: Undeniably youthful, but cleverly delivered. This triple grain has balance, emerging complexity and a personality all of its own and we can't wait to see where it develops with more time in cask. If the single malt (which we haven't tried) can replicate this potential, then the category of 'English whisky' is very much alive, full of vitality and growing in stature by the day. The gauntlet has been thrown down to all.  Who will pick it up next? 

Look out next week for a review of The One, the UK's first 'British Whisky'... Intrigued? So are we. 



Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Blimey... Did That Just Happen?

Wow, the month has surely shifted on. Only a second ago, we were sitting in our office, enjoying a brace of old blended Scotch whiskies we had won in an auction, lamenting the time it had taken for us to post anything meaningful on Caskstrength. Then suddenly it was the middle of December.  
Take into account two house moves, several hundred whiskies to sell and a lot of other nonsense - and you realise that all of one's good intensions have simply vanished into thin air.

Needless to say, that we return within a month where Scotch whisky has already faced three fairly major discussion points.

The whisky elves wait for a comment from JM  
First up and we find Best PR Campaign Of The Month#1 in full swing. Yes, the vibrant, yet choice words of whisky writer Jim Murray, who this week apparently claimed that Kentucky was producing better whiskies than the ones coming from Scotland, or words to that effect.

Journalists across Fleet Street were poised over their keyboards looking for the killer headline. Was this the end of Scotland's dominance in the whisky world, its mighty crown lying tarnished amongst some mythical whiffy sherry casks? Or was it simply just a well chosen sentence from the adroit Murray, in an attempt to give some much needed Christmas spice to his latest edition of The Whisky Bible, of which one assumes he has a warehouse-full ready to ship as stocking fillers.   
Either way, people chatted, tongues clacked, keyboards rattled and Twots Twitted, all somewhat having the desired effect, we imagine.  Effortless PR at its very best. 

Seriously, most people who own a bottle of bourbon and a single malt Scotch whisky will be able to tell you that making any comparison between the two is like comparing the sound of a Tuba with that of a Xylophone. Yes, they sit near each other in the whisk(e)y orchestra, both offering wonderful layers of  texture to the symphony of spirits, but singularly, they have vastly different timbres, which is a quality to be celebrated.  We love American whiskey.  Hell, we even awarded a blisteringly youthful single malt from America our new release Whisk(e)y of the Year last year in the Best in Glass award (this year's is being hosted in January, folks)-  but that doesn't mean that all Scotch is redundant, or that the US is officially producing 'better' whisk(e)y. No, they're producing different whiskies with their own wonderful character. 

It's high time to celebrate the category as a whole, driving success forward, ever challenging boundaries and above all, bringing drinkers together in a way that other spirits can only dream - both men and women (hmm...see our final point below)  

Yes all this is probably sentimental tosh and yes, it is 'just whisky' but clearly, people care and that is good.  
A thoroughly modern Mortlach

Speaking of which, earlier this month, Diageo announced that the Mortlach distillery is to expand its range of whiskies, including two no age statement releases (Rare Old and Special Strength) an 18yo and a 25yo. Alas, the tremendous 16yo is to be discontinued, but for any new Mortlach to see the light of day is truly exciting news.  Mortlach remains a criminally underrated distillery and we're looking forward to trying the new expressions soon.  The Mort, the merrier.  

Finally this week, PR Campaign Of The Month #2... of sorts.  Dewar's, no stranger to courting controversy (earlier this year releasing the questionable Highlander Honey) unveiled its 'Meet The Baron' campaign, where a sturdy, reliable and all-round good egg can be seen selflessly helping various drinkers in perilous situations, such as being chased by rabid dogs and chatted up by a buxom lady.  

Hang On!!  what was that??  Oh yes, the Baron's skills apparently spread to effortlessly intercepting an approaching blonde assailant (a larger lady), allowing the intended 'victim' to hang out instead with a bevy of lingerie models.  

Watch the film twice and we're pretty sure you can just about make out the sound of the hand grenade pin hitting the floor of the marketing department, coupled with anguished flailing executives desperately trying to regain control of the inevitable explosion that is about to occur.  
The Baron, shortly before the 'car crash'-of-an-advert
was pulled

Sure enough, it did. After numerous complaints citing sexism, the video was (rightly) taken down from Youtube and similar online sources.  But not before nearly 300,000 people had seen the clip.  

Not only does the advert brilliantly slip on its own banana skin, but it highlights how desperate whisky companies are to try and appeal to who they perceive as 'The Drinking Man' (actually the brand's campaign slogan.) What surprises most is the fact that given the firewall levels of market research, focus grouping and other more robust legal checks most sensible companies go through, no one thought that the advert might come across as a poorly put together and totally outdated piece of 70's thigh-slapping nonsense. 

Whoops. 

Like a faint waft of Brut aftershave, the video has now disappeared into the ether, so it's unlikely you'll be able to find it.  Don't worry though -  Anchorman 2 is about to come out.  Whammy...

Back on lighter, more enjoyable grounds, we met up with the fantastic Tom Bulleit yesterday and tried his newly released, higher strength Bulleit Rye. We'll explore this later this week, but needless to say, it is excellent.  Now what was Jim Murray saying... ;-)