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Showing posts with label SMWS. Show all posts
Showing posts with label SMWS. Show all posts

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Best In Glass Award 2012 : The Winning Whisky

The world of whisky is littered with awards, medals and trophies. As professionals in the drinks industry, we are honoured and privileged to be judges on a few of these excellent ventures. Indeed, as we type there is an ominously large box of samples waiting for us to ready our noses and palates for the judgement which awaits.

Scoring whisky is not something which we have every felt fully comfortable with. When we started this website, our ethos was (and indeed still is) about bringing you, our readers, entertaining and informative articles with tasting notes woven into the general fabric and architecture of the piece. These tasting notes provide guidance as to the flavour profile of the liquid, with some advice as to the quality of those elements. Thus helping you to make a decision if you'll like it or not. Ergo, not simply telling you if we like it. For example, you may love the light, youthful, peat smoke which is found in the Ardbeg Still Young. If so, then buy that whisky from the tasting notes we provide. If, however, you find that "young", "youthful", "spirit" turns you off and you like "heavy, rich, sherried, peat" then simply don't buy the whisky described.

Within these tasting notes, we'll add an overall section with our thoughts in it which is where we allow ourselves a little more freedom to place the liquid against others in the same category or price point. It's all pretty simple, really.

And keeping things simple really is our motto; we're all about keeping whisky inclusive, not making it exclusive, ring-fencing it for the geek and the wealthy.  If we were were a club, we  wouldn't have a dress code. You're as welcome here in a pair of Nike Air Stabs as you are in a pair of Church's Brogues.

The idea of inclusivity and simplicity was the driver for our yearly Best in Glass Award. Bored of the idea that a whisky, which sold out nine months ago could win a gold medal, or that a trophy was awarded to a whisky issued in a run of just 45 bottles, exclusively for the  ('Insert-typically-cryptic-but-predictably-gaelic-named') Whisky Club and something which the average man in the street will never even see, let alone have a chance to purchase, seemed totally ludicrous and alien to us. Worse still, it seems to enhance the alienation which can preclude so many new, young drinkers in to the category.

As a result, five years ago, we developed our own system. Paying homage the highly successful Mercury Music Prize in the UK, we chose our top ten drams from the year, got a bunch of like-minded drinks professionals together and chose one overall winner. 
The criteria for entry is simple:

-the whisky must be a new release in the calendar year

- the whisky must be commercially available to buy from a retailer (no festival bottlings, no one-off club bottles etc)

- the final ten whiskies are chosen by us at Caskstrength from reviews we've done and other whisky features we've penned, then judged by an independent panel. There is no entry fee as we chose the finalists from the whiskies we've had throughout the year. Often the liquid is provided free by the distilleries for the judging, but often we purchase many of the bottles used.

Once the ten nominations have been chosen by us, we sit in a room, have some lunch and then start the judging, with all the drams tried blind. Every year there is a mix of old and young whisky; peated and unpeated; single malts and blends; world whiskeys and Scotch. If we thought it hit our top ten and meets the criteria above, then it's in.

So this this year, our fifth awards ceremony rolled into town and it turned out to be the most surprising yet. Gathering at the London home of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, the 2012 panel was made up of the following:

Lucy Britner - Freelance Drinks Journalist
Ryan Chetiyawardana - Cocktail and Bar Consultant 
Ben Ellefsen - Director, Master of Malt
John Glaser - Compass Box Whisky Company
Alex Huskinson - Manager, The Whisky Exchange Shop, London
Alice Lascelles - Spirits Editor of Imbibe and The Sunday Times Drinks Columnist
Simone Sacco - Bar Manager, Hakkasan
Cat Spencer - Marketing Manager, Master of Malt
Marcin Miller - Number One Drinks Co.
Joe McGirr - Manager, SMWS London
Richard Woodard - Freelance Drinks Journalist and former Editor of The Spirits Business

The ten whiskies which made our finals this year were the following:

Balcones Texas Single Malt

The Balvenie Doublewood 17 Year Old Single Malt 

Cutty Sark Tam 'o Shanter Blended Whisky

Glenmorangie Artein Single Malt 

Johnnie Walker Platinum 18 Year Old Blended Whisky

Kilchoman Machir Bay Single Malt 

The Macallan Gold Single Malt
Nikka Coffey Grain Japanese Whisky

Springbank Rundlets & Kilderkins Single Malt
Teelings Hybrid Blended Irish / Scotch Whiskey

After much discussion, the panel whittled down the shortlist to three. From these those, an overall Best in Glass winner was chosen.

The two 'Highly Commended' whiskies were:

  • Teelings Hybrid Blended Irish / Scotch Whiskey
  • Cutty Sark Tam 'o Shanter Blended Whisky

So without further ado, it gives us great pleasure to announce that the overall winner - and this year's Best in Glass goes to:

Balcones Texas Single Malt - 53% - 75cl

Nose: Light orchard fruit notes, with apricot, stewed pears, plums and vanilla and a touch of dessert wine.  With water, the aromas start to really intensify, with more floral notes coming to the fore with a deliciously sweet red apple and hint of anise.  

Palate: Sweet and light, with vanilla, more dried apricot, chopped green apples, a hint of lightly toasted oak and milk chocolate.  The small casks used to mature this (mostly yard seasoned 20 litre American oak casks) have had a huge, but appealing influence to the palate. 

Finish: Short, with lighter fruit notes and a touch of liquorice. 

Overall: A mighty whisky and a triumph for independent distilling.  One thing's for sure, we very much look forward to trying the next few batches of this unique single malt in the years to come. 

So congratulations to the good people at Balcones for their excellent liquid, which the panel agreed stood up very well against some seriously stiff opposition. The panel were surprised and delighted by the Balcones bold flavour profile and balance of maturity.

Join us this time next year for the 6th annual Best in Glass award... who knows what will take the top prize...!


Barley & Water & Yeast & Time.

Just an additional note to mention that our new sister site,, is now up selling our own designs of whisky-related t-shirts, bags and... baby grows. Yes, that's right, Daddy's Wee Dram can enjoy whisky too! With international shipping, these items are all woven from high quality cotton with the chosen design in deep flock print.

The most popular tee so far has been our Barley & Water & Yeast & Time edition (as seen above), echoing the three ingredients which go into single malt whisky and the magical final piece of the jigsaw: time. 

Check it out here:

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, 19 April 2012

Olympic Spirit? Whisky, surely.

Living in London can be testing. Coming up we’ve got various events from the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee through to the much anticipated Olympic Games, which seems to have divided opinion of Londoners right down the middle.

On the one side are the ‘glass half full’ folk who dream of London being the cultural melting-pot of the world for two weeks where, somehow, the decrepit and failing public transport system won’t buckle under the pressure of an extra million people trying to use it... and then there are the realists.

People like me.

People who think that London is a great city, a wonderful place to live but we know the fault-lines. And many there are.

But, however negative your view of the upcoming Games may be, one should rightly focus on what makes London such a great city and so it was that yesterday afternoon gave me a key example of the brilliance of living life in a city rich in culture, history and heritage.

I was to catch up with an old school friend of mine. A chap of good Scottish lineage who ended up spending a long time living in Edinburgh but has now moved back South to live and work in-and-around London. Having known Simon for somewhere in the region of 25 years, but not having seen him for around 12 months, a catch-up in some of London’s more delightful haunts was required and having grown up together, there is bond that only well matured relationships have so where better to open our afternoon of gossip than at JJ Fox’s Cigar Merchants in Mayfair.

The area around St James’ Street, Mayfair is such a wonderful example of London and its history (as seen in our recent piece about Berry Bros) and, despite the best efforts of the local shop owners, you do not have to be wealthy to enjoy the refinements this part of town has to offer. In JJ Fox you can sit back in a leather Chesterfield, light up a very high quality cigar and enjoy a cup of coffee all for the princely sum of... well, whatever you can afford. Personally, I like a Honduran cigar called La Invicta and you can pick up their Corona No.1’s for a mere £4.75. Not a bad way to spend an hour, if you ask me.

Nestled behind JJ Fox on Crown Passage is a brilliant little pub called The Red Lion which provides exactly what one requires post-cigar; a nice pint of real ale. Apparently the second-oldest continually used pub in London with a licence to serve beer, this is London... not some new Westfield shopping ‘mall’ on the edge of the Olympic Park. Note to any rioters reading this: it’s full of trainers, flat screen TV’s and glass. #JustSayin’

JJ Fox and the Red Lion, two of the most idyllic places possible to catch up with an old friend. But an evening of cigars and real ale is only really complete with a wee dram so, via Randall & Aubin in Soho for some much needed belly-padding, we made our way over the Scotch Malt Whisky Society for a night-cap.

SMWS 29.109 – ‘Oak and Smoke Intensity’ - Laphroaig – 20 Years Old – Refill Ex Sherry – 619 bottles – Distilled 12th Oct 1990 – 59.2% abv

Nose: A hint of brine, a huge waft of smoke and then it settles down in to red berries, carnations and old leather sofa. Some wood polish and general ‘musk’ whips up all wrapped in a wet peat smoke which gives a lovely warming feeling to the dram.

Palate: Neat, this gives off plum jam, icing sugar, smoke, tar and cherries. But with water is when it really comes to life. This can take a large slug of H2O and with it come toasted brown bread with lashings of butter and strawberry jam, fresh cherry pie and honey all backed with a fantastic smokiness.

Finish: Without water, this is hot and aggressive. With, you get ginger, spices and oak.

Overall: Nowhere near the complete article when sampled neat, but with water this bottling comes to life in a big way. So good, I bought a bottle. A touch more expensive than a £4 cigar, at just over £70, but well worth it. One of the best heavy sherry matured Laphroaig’s I’ve had in a while.

Whatever we may think of the impending invasion of the world to our city (and to be fair, that's what we spent most of our history doing to other countries), there are many, many places 'off the beaten track' in London where you can nestle yourself away with a good friend, a good drink and some good food for a perfectly lovely afternoon / evening.

Our cracking evening ended with a suburb dram, but look out for our next post, pitting two new limited edition Laphroaig head-to-head: the new Duty Free-only PX vs. The 2000 bottles only Laphroaig ‘Brodir’... let battle commence!

Friday, 13 January 2012

Is that a Linkwood in your pocket...?

New Year resolutions: they can be both frustrating and fascinating at the same time. They can provide an opportunity for a clean slate, a fresh start, a new dawn.

Maybe you have the desire to lose weight. You’ve adjusted your diet accordingly and the fridge is full of fresh veg, salad and lean meats. After some online research, you’ve joined a local gym. Two hours in the Nike store and you’ve walked out with a pair of trainers seemingly made from a kitchen sponge for the sole with an upper consisting of less made-made material than you’d see Jody Marsh wear on a night out. And you’ve paid a ton for the pleasure of running on some ‘air’, a substance which is traditionally free.

Six months later and the shoes are being worn to do the gardening, the gym silently steals fifty quid a month from your bank account by direct debit and your waistline has grown by exactly the same percentage as inflation, an irony not lost on you when looking into a new pair of jeans which actually the fit the ‘new you’.

A friend of mine has a good rule. She doesn’t make New Year resolutions, but gives each year a title, a la Chinese New Year. For example, this year could be your 'Year Of The Fish', in which you vow to eat more seafood. Or 'Year Of The Plane', where you make it an aim to travel more. This year is going to be my ‘Year Of Discovery’.

The aim for 2012 is for me to try new flavours and experiences which previously have passed me by. This could be as simple as going around The National Portrait Gallery (somewhere I walk past on an almost daily basis but, criminally, have never been in) through to trying new foods that I have never had before (‘white pudding’, anyone?). One area that this allows for in whisky is, of course, the ongoing journey of tasting whiskies from new distilleries, be they Scottish, Irish, American, Japanese or New World.

The first of this year’s palate-expanders is Linkwood, a dram I am not familiar with at all. Owned by Diageo, Linkwood gets a brief outing (as do all 28 Diageo malts) as a 12 Years Old Flora & Fauna bottling (around £40 here) and then a smattering of unusual releases such as a slot in the Managers’ Choice releases with a 1996 offering, some Rare Malts bottlings and some nifty little 50cl offering in 2008 finished in rum, red wine and port casks. All very interesting, but it seems the easiest way to track down some Linkwood is through independent bottlers, and where else should one turn than to the SMWS:

39.82 (Linkwood) – Suede Shoes Walking Through Clover – 13 Years Old – 60.0%

Nose: A sweet nose which gives wisps of hot buttered crumpets, pancakes dusted with sugar and lemon juice, honey and heather. With water, the heather becomes much more pronounced, as do white flowers and a touch of Champaign.

Palate: Delicate with plenty of floral notes, copper and vanilla custard, however it is a little too ‘hot’ without water. With water: The sweetness is balanced out with a pleasant salty undertone. Vanilla cream filled buns dusted with cinnamon and enhanced copper tones shine through.

Finish: Copper tones and more heather and honey without water. With water: the salt comes to the fore in the finish, disappearing in to lemon cheesecake with a tart, sweet lemon sauce.

Overall: A very nice dram which demands more than a drop of water to open it up. Not quite enough to muscle its way in to my top ten distilleries yet, but certainly worth the introduction. Maybe we’ll go on a few more ‘dates’ and see if we really click. Either way, I think I’ve made a new friend with whom I look forward to spending more time.

A good start to the whisky end of my 'Year Of Discovery'. The question is, how brave will I be when it comes to food, roller-coasters and clothes... eek.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Doing The Boo....

Here at Caskstrength, we're most definitely fans of shiny new bits of software and online social networking programs. Twitter? Check. Facebook?...sort of. Myspace? Soooo 2007!
So when we were told about a brand new site, which allowed us to effortlessly add audio clips of our whisky escapades into a tasty, bite-sized homepage, we were intrigued.

Ladies and gentlemen, we bring you the Caskstrength Audio Boo. Or should that be Audio Boo(ze)

You can hear our very first postings here - and what better way to christen this box fresh internet sensation-in-waiting with a trip to the London Scotch Malt Whisky Society, for a few of their monthly dram recommendations.

Staff members Jonathan and Kat take us through a couple of their favourites from the last few outturns, whilst society manager Joe McGirr gives us a sneaky peak at one of the oldest bottlings the SMWS must have released- 35.50 'Something Special', which is an astonishing
47 years old.... well worth trying, if you're heading past.

We'll be developing our Audio Boo profile over the coming months, bringing you interviews, tasting notes and reviews, as well as a few more surreal observations from the world of whisky, including our forthcoming trip to this year's Feis Ile!

Until then, time to get Boo(ze)d up folks.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Ardbeg Adventure

It’s nearly Christmas and the festive mood is catching on here at Towers. The Christmas tree is up, the cards have been written and the list of presents has been made and distributed.

Top of the Christmas list is, as always, whisky. As the BiG Award shows, there have been some fantastic bottlings released this year, but there are some that have fallen though the cracks.

As one of the main criteria for qualification is the availability of the whisky, there will be no festival bottles, distillery only bottles or club bottlings.

Sadly, this rules out a lot of amazing bottles that have passed out lips in the last 12 months. And hopefully a few more to come before the end of 2010.

Which bring us nicely on to two interesting, single cask Ardbegs. One, a recently released distillery only bottling. The other, a treat we had on our trip to the SMWS in Brighton.

As both of these offerings are 10 Years Old, it gives us a nice a opportunity to crack open a bottle of Ardbeg 10, to use a bench mark against these two “jewels in the crown”:

Ardbeg – Ten Years Old – 46%

Nose: Peat smoke wafts up backed by zesty notes of lemons and lime, a hint of milk chocolate and juicy fruit chewing gum and a touch of seaweed. This is a classic Ardbeg nose, as you would expect from their flagship whisky.

Palate: Peat, obviously but all those notes of zesty-citrus come flooding through; lemons, limes and a hint of ginger.

Finish: Peat (again!), dusty / sandy notes of old cigars and leather with some salty hints and that seaweed from the nose again (crispy seaweed, as you get at the Chinese Restaurant). Some BBQ beef tones as well.

Overview: A well balanced whisky that is more medicinal than I previously remember. Easy to drink, despite the huge tidal wave of peat and this is balanced well with the citrus notes. A solid whisky, even if the price does keep creeping up.

The next two whiskies are single cask, cask strength 10 Year Olds. They have both been matured in different types of casks; the SMWS in a refill, ex-sherry butt and the OB Ardbeg in a 1st Fill Bourbon Barrel:

Ardbeg – Single Cask 368 – Cask Filled 25th Feb 2000 – Bottled 3rd March 2010 (released Nov 2010) – 240 Bottles – 55.9% Vol

Nose: Smoked Custard Creams. Over time dark red fruits appear (plums, blackcurrants and red currants) with some real liquorice. This nose is a lot more robust than I would have expected from an ex-bourbon cask. Dark chocolate finishes the nose off very nicely indeed.

Palate: Initial hit is of a real dryness, followed by smoked kippers and soot. Barbeque sauce hits big time and the palate develops into sticky toffee pudding and dark coffee with lots of sugar (without being overly sweet). Really, really unusual for a Bourbon Barrel. But very delicious.

Finish: Hot chillie sauce, dark wood notes, black tea and camomile. The official bottling notes says “sugared almonds” which is spot on, as is their “brine and cinnamon”. Awesome.

Overall: A really cracking bottle that delivers much more complexity than your average Bourbon Barrel. Greater poise, attitude and fruits than normal. I’d have guessed at a 2nd or 3rd fill Sherry Cask, if I hadn’t been told. Which brings me nicely on to...

SMWS – 33.96 (Ardbeg) – 10 Years Old – refill sherry butt – 668 bottles – 56.9%

Nose: a big hit of sooty smoke with elements of dark chocolate and blackberry / black cherry yoghurt. Strong and robust, sea salt and vinegar on hot chips.

Palate: Sweet, brown sugared tea is the first hit, driven through by smoke and that distinct BBQ sauce that we’ve seen above again. This is a very sweet whisky with excellent weight of spirit and good body.

Finish: Lots of smoke, but dry smoke, more like wood smoke than peat smoke, and once that dies, the sherry notes of rich red fruits, polished woods, ginger cake and figs comes through.

Overall: Deep, rich, sweet, salty and fruity. This is a very good example of a well matured Sherry Cask Ardbeg. Yum!

Of the three whiskies, the Single Casks highlight the zesty nature of the Ten Year Old, which weighs in with much more light-green tones (lemons, limes and ginger) than the two limited release bottling.

Of the two, you’ve got two extremes, with a Bourbon Cask and a Sherry Barrel. It has been a wonderful evening spending time with all three, but I was pushed to make a choice it would probably be the Own Bottling; it’s really unusual with the tea and camomile notes.

Having said that, day 5 of the second test of the Ashes is about to start and England need 6 wickets to win. It’s going to be a long night and the top of the SMWS Ardbeg is off. And I can’t seem to find it.

Shame... ;-)

Monday, 22 November 2010

Brighton Rock (s)

As winter wraps its chilling cloak around us, a trip to the seaside probably isn't up there on everyone's to do lists. However last week, we were invited to Brighton's Hotel Du Vin, home to the south east's Scotch Malt Whisky Society rooms to sample several of their new bottlings.

The trip from London to Brighton was a fairly tortuous affair, with trees on the line, the wrong leaves, farting businessmen and the overpoweringly twee sound of Justin Bieber, piped loudly from a teenage iPod next to me. It's at times like this that my inner Basil Fawlty rises up. Like David Banner trying to resist the transition into the Hulk, I furiously fought back the urges to snip the offending iPod cable discreetly with nail scissors. Fortunately, We had a hot meal and several fabulous drams to look forward to, so Basil was banished and we soon pulled into a crisp and bracing Brighton night.

The hotel has been superbly renovated and features an immaculate bar, behind which, you'll find a plethora of great whiskies. But for SMWS members, the hotel features a private room for tastings and it was here that our fun began.

London SMWS Manager Joe McGirr was on hand with 5 new bottlings from their extensive range, including an absolutely divine Clynelish and a downright bizarre Penderyn...
Here's our pick from the current outturn:

26.68 - SMWS single cask bottling- 'Morph and Minty' - 18 years old- 52.9% - 150 bottles

Nose: Butterscotch, wax jackets, Refreshers sweets, a hit of blue cheese and musty church books. Yes- a heady but superb mix of extremely diverse aromas.

Palate: Perfumed and floral notes mix with cereals, some waxy honey, mint humbugs, lavender and creamy homemade fudge. Wonderfully fruity and rich.

Finish: A hint of saltiness creeps in at the end, but the floral notes and a classic waxiness develops and you're left with a very satisfied set of senses.

Overall: Another choice cask from a consistently brilliant highland distillery.

Next up... Is it a Cognac? An Armagnac? Calvados? No... it's Welsh...

OK, so we can't really keep the identity of this one a secret, but the sheer strangeness of this, the society's first bottling from Penderyn needs to be noted. 6 years in a very fresh port cask has 'influenced' the spirit beyond all recognition...

128.1 - SMWS single cask bottling- 'A String Quartet of Flavours' - 6 years old - 55.6% - 233 bottles

Nose: Huge notes of fruity but floral Cognac, reminiscent of a very feminine VSOP. Dig past these notes and you walk headlong into buttery apple sweetness, with a distinct Calvados slant. the colour is absolutely staggering- russet red/brown.

Palate: The fruit develops, with port dominating at first, some talc notes and butterscotch.

Finish: Highly different- some lemon zest notes but again a drying finish really similar to a decent well-aged Armagnac.

Overall: It's hard to say that this is a decent whisky, as in all honestly, it isn't like any whisky we've tried for a long time. The cask has dominated the spirit to such an extent, that it is very one dimensional. But it's a dimension that displays how the use of interesting European oak can influence a whisky and because of that- this is well worth seeking out.

A heavily sherried Laphroaig reared its head (29.91) - with lots of big BBQ pork notes on the nose, coupled with a woody, slightly biting and dry palate. Also, the peaty 'chalk' to the Laphroaig's 'cheese' - a very handsome and light Ardbeg (33.96), with citrus, light peat and vanilla, mixed with cream soda and pairing very well with the Hotel du Vin's Creme Brulee.
But our attention was focused on our final pic of the night - one from Cambeltown's duo of distilleries.

27.85 - SMWS single cask bottling- 'Manly and Penetrating' - 12 years old - 58.8% - 209 bottles

Nose: Slightly musty, notes of wet wood and a slight damp warehouses. Then toffee, peanut brittle, marshmallows, and toffee apples.

Palate: Sherbet fruits, port sweetness, fruit gums, a hint of coffee and sawdust.

Finish: The fruity notes lead into slightly musty wine notes, with a little waft of west coast peat.

Overall: A highly entertaining and enjoyable dram, highlighting further that the society can root out some real gems from around the world.

As the evening drew to a close, it was clear that the SMWS continue to knock out excellent bottlings quicker than South East Rail can get you from Brighton to London. And nearly always at a reasonable price to their members. The pick of the bunch from this lot was the 26.68 and we happily took a hip flask full as preparation for the train ride home.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Adventures Of A Young Distiller

It's guest post time folks - and we have a really superb introduction to the world of distilling from a relatively young (but very experienced) chap. We recently met up with Matthew Pauley, part of the Thames Distillers operation, but also the man behind a wonderful new site - Distillers Nose. Matthew delivers highly entertaining but detailed discussions on the art of distillation and naturally, we thought you might want to get to know him!! Anyway check out the Distillers Nose site and.... take it away Matthew!!

The Adventures Of A Young Distiller

Firstly a brief introduction to myself and how I came to be a distiller.

I was very fortunate in comparison to many young people that I come across today, in as much as from the age of about 16, I have had an idea of what I would like to do jobwise… it was just a case of how. Part of my school curriculum was to go and do a weeks work experience. It was my mother’s idea to send her science mad son to the local brewery. During the week I was walked through every part of the process from keg cleaning (getting covered in dead yeast and oxidised beer) to wracking off, rolling and stacking kegs into the hundreds next to a lazy temp, who kept sitting down on the job.

More often than not I would make a weary and smelly scooter ride home.

I was bitten by the bug and realised I wanted to get into the industry in some way or another. During 6th form, I heard there was a course in Brewing Distilling and Malting at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh and having put it as my only option on my UCAS form, I was lucky enough to get a place. Edinburgh has to be the ideal place to be a student and Scotland is great place to get to know the drinks industry. I used to work in a pub during the holidays from uni and one day, I encountered a customer I had known for a while and got talking. It turned out he was a master of the Worshipful Company of Distillers.

It was through this conversation that I managed to get a job at Glenfiddich Distillery as a tour guide and I must admit, it gives an Englishman pause for thought when asked what size kilt socks he wears! I stayed in the Balvinie distillers cottages, walking in the foot steps of distillers past, also quietly perfecting a taste for whisky. Overall I spent the best part of two summers in Speyside.

During the summer, Dufftown, has regular Ceilidh, which for a relatively quiet village in Speyside, is both exhausting and exhilarating I am still unfortunatly rubbish at Ceilidh dancing. I spent a week in the company of the distillers at Glennfiddich turning big wheels to open needle valves and levers. I spent a day with Ali who, despite his advancing years, was as fast as a hare at getting from one end of the still house to the other. It was a real education and helped cement a love of the art and science of distilling.

When I went back to Edinburgh for university, (having built up a taste for whisky) I managed to get a part time job at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society on Queen Street.

It was here that I was given a free dram at the end of the shift, which being a hard up student, my eyes where naturally drawn to the prized golden ribbons.

Never one to be backwards in coming forwards, I asked if I could sit on their selection panel where you sit around a table and score cask whiskies and describe them as eloquently as you can. If a high enough score is awarded it is listed with a little description in the guide. I managed to wangle a place and was thrilled to get a description printed in their tasting guide. Among my other experience, I spent a placement at Tate and Lyle’s Tunnel Refinery looking at their continuous fermentation plant, which was lacking in the romance but from the technical geeky perspective was pretty cool.

I was pleased to graduate with honours and after a little while looking, accepted a position at Thames Distillers working with a novel distillation system and small scale beer bottling plant which has kept me busy to this day. The good thing about Thames is we do all sorts of small scale and specialist products, so things are seldom the same twice, which stops things getting stale.

I have still have a huge passion for the craft of distillation, despite doing it every day and I enjoy finding other spirits to tantalise and intrigue me.