Strange scenes at Caskstrength Towers of late. Banging late at night, the whir of machinery and today, the arrival of an enormous package, wrapped in cloth, carried by two straining red faced men. What does all this mean, you may ask?
Renovations perhaps? Of sorts, yes, but the type that were spuriously planned only a few days ago.
The reason behind the work, was a chance encounter with a baby grand piano. Just under a week ago, I decided to buy one- completely on the spur of the moment. Not something that one usually adds to a shopping list is it: Potatoes, check. Bread, check. Milk, check. Ginger ale, check. Grand piano, WTF?!!
It was an exceptional deal and all said and done, an exceptional piece of woodwork. The nameplate reads Monington & Weston, which we can date to around the 1930s, beautifully housed in a rich mahogany cabinet.
The trouble is, as I am now quickly finding out, you tend to arrange a room around something as large as a piano, which meant that the first thing in order was ripping up the carpet in order to sand and stain the floorboards before it arrived.
Why am I telling you all this inane stuff? Well, there is a point, honestly. You see, just before I took receipt of the piano, I thoroughly sanded the floor, till the natural wood (let's call it Quercus Beckenham) shone through. Wood is clearly a beautiful material, both aesthetically and from a functionality perspective. Once I had finished sanding the room developed an additional level of maturity about it, not dominated by, but enhanced by the natural tones of the wood.
Then, I think I did something stupid. I decided to apply a couple of layers of medium oak varnish to the floor. Instantly, the boards were darker, less natural looking and... sort of overly brown. Maybe even David Dickinson in colour. In my opinion, the varnish had dominated the wood. Yes, it looks ok, but i'm not convinced it enhances the room in the way that I had hoped.
The reason I bring this up is that whenever I now play the piano (you need to allow 6 weeks before having it tuned, which seems like an eternity) I will look at the floor and wonder what it would have been like had I have not applied the varnish. Did I made the right decision, or go too far?
The same question applies neatly to the use of wine casks in 'extra' maturing whisky. For those that get it right, the process involves enhancing the character of the spirit by using the cask as a vessel to deliver a complete balance of complementary flavours. But there are plenty who use wine casks (often heavy, tannic red wine barriques) to hide a multitude of sins - rather in the same way that someone would use a heavy wood varnish to hide the imperfections in a wooden floor. The results are effectively all about the wine, with the spirit (imperfections and all) taking the back seat.
One man who knows a thing or two about balance is Dr Bill Lumsden, whisky maker for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg. With the latter he has steered clear from tinkering too much with the formula of one of Islay's real unfettered gems (save for a few sherry cask interventions.)
It is with Glenmo however, that Dr Bill has indulged his experimental side - particularly his love of fine wine. A while back, I was fortunate enough to visit Tuscany with Bill and see first hand his genuine excitement for the bold, complex 'Super Tuscans' on offer, particularly the red wine from the hallowed Tenuta San Guido winery who produce Sassicaia - one of the finest wines in the world.
With the Private Edition series of Glenmorangie (which has also spawned a PX sherry finish, (Sonnalta), a very lightly peated expression, (Finealta) and more recently, Ealanta - a Glenmo matured in virgin white American oak) Bill has combined his knowledge about whisky with his love for intriguing wines. Two releases in particular highlight how both can work in harmony, with the usually dominant tannic tones of the wine allowing the delicate signature notes of Glenmorangie to shine through. Back in 2012, Artein was released, utilising the aforementioned Sassicaia casks and the results were superb: (read our review here) Rich, very vibrant and fruity, all allowing the soft floral character of Glenmorangie enough room to breathe.
Will the latest edition stay true to Dr Bill's finely tuned skills?
Companta (meaning friendship in Gaelic) is the 5th release in the Private Edition. This time around, a majority proportion (around 60%) of the recipe is built from 10 year old Glenmorangie which has been maturing in casks which have previously held Clos du Tart, a vibrant Burgundy wine.
To make up the remaining 40%, Dr Bill has used a proportion of older Glenmo, which has then spent time in casks first filled with Rasteau, a wine from the southern Rhone region in France.
According to Bill, Companta was nicknamed 'Cherry Red' during the development stages of the whisky. Judging by the colour of the whisky in the glass, we can see where he got the inspiration from. But along with colour, could the use of these particularly dominant wine casks bring with it any unwanted characteristics? Let's find out:
Glenmorangie - Companta - Private Edition Series - 46%
Nose: An initial tannic bite, with sour cherries, dark chocolate and earthy red wine notes. After a little while, these give way to a softer side - some candied fruit, a touch of mandarin, soft red fruit and vanilla begin to emerge. After that, the whisky becomes completely unlocked and the Glenmorangie of old begins to develop, with wafts of gentle sweetness and a lingering floral note.
Palate: Again, initially darkly tannic and woody, but this gives way to some luxurious dark chocolate, a touch of tobacco leaf, sweetened vanilla cream, fresh raspberries and back to black again with a thick molasses note.
Finish: As the palate begins to dry, a liquorice note develops, alongside a lingering red berry sharpness and rich chocolate.
Overall: A very different beast to Artein, in that Companta is a much more robust and complex whisky, full of dark surprises, whereas Artein has an effortlessly light, breezy nature to it. Companta is, without a doubt, masterfully put together and highlights how additional maturation can change the dynamic range of a well known spirit.
Now if only I had hired Dr Bill to varnish my floor...