Translate Caskstrength!

Showing posts with label Show all posts
Showing posts with label Show all posts

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!

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Tie A Yellow Ribbon, It's The Merry Month Of May: The Glenlivet Distillery Only SIngle Malt And Big Peat Islay Blended Malt Whisky Reviews

Before I kick off this post, we need to make a small announcement. Since we started writing this blog at the beginning of 2008, we’ve been on an amazing journey, met a lot of fantastic people and had some incredible experience in the world of whisky. There weren’t many whisky blogs around at that time (Dr Whisky and Whiskyfun take a bow for probably being the only other two – sorry if we’ve missed anyone out), with score-free whisky reviews seemingly like an idea from Mars.

Now in our sixth year, we’ve been extra busy with everything from writing work with the likes of Whisky Magazine, Imbibe, The Wall Street Journal in India and many more around the world, through to books (Neil and Gavin D. Smith’s excellent Let Me Tell You About Whisky), media work, our bottlings, hosting tasting far-and-wide, as well running our creative agency, Caskstrength Creative. This year we were even made Keepers of the Quaich and we were incredibly proud to receive such an honour from our peers.

As a result of our growing number of outlets for our writing (including a new book we have just been commissioned to write- more on that soon) we will be tightening up our posting schedule, condensing our blog to two articles a week, on a Tuesday and a Thursday, with any ‘special features’ (such as trips to Islay’s Feis Ile or anything else that needs more in-depth coverage or special attention) going out in between.

If you don’t want to miss out on our now bi-weekly posts as well as any other special features we do, you can subscribe to our mailing list (you won’t get any other rubbish, just our articles from here) on the right of the page.

So that’s it. Expect fresh and new content every Tuesday and every Thursday here on or mailed directly to your inbox if you subscribe.


May is a big month. 

Usually it is the time when relegation and promotion in the British football leagues are resolved (and as an Oxford United fan, that often induces ‘squeaky bum time’, as Sir Alex once called it), the FA Cup and Champions League finals are played and it is a month when you (if you’re me) start to think about booking a holiday, but realise it might be prudent to do a tax return first. But over-and-above all of these, it is also the season of the regional whisky festival in Scotland.

First up, for those of you who like a good Glen or two, the Spirit of Speyside festival kicks off. This year it was held between Thursday 2nd and Monday 6th May, with various events taking place across the region and some superb drams tasted, such as The Glenlivet’s first ever distillery-only bottling. Inspired by sister distillery Aberlour, they have added a fill-you-own cask in their new mini-tour section and, as you would expect, is labelled as ‘cask number 1’. So, for the second post in a row, let's try a new bottling from The Glenlivet.

The Glenlivet – Hand Filled At The Distillery – 18 Years Old - Cask No. 1 – Bourbon Cask – Number of bottles unknown – 56.8% ABV (£70.00)    

Nose: White peaches, rich maple syrup and vanilla. Some soft ginger loaf, highly polished oak furniture and over-ripe banana, apricots, nutmeg and cinnamon. There is fantastic age to this dram with a really rounded nose. A very active cask caught at just the right time, with a big in aroma. A really big aroma.  With water: the vanilla and banana come to the fore and red cherries appear.

Palate: At full strength, it is sweet on the palate (muscavardo sugars), with a hint of green tea, rancio and bitter orange, all wrapped up in very dark chocolate. With water, the whisky really comes alive, giving a boost to the previous flavours but with an added bonus of golden syrup and heather honey.

Finish: Soft and long with a rich treacle tart notes.

Overall: If you’re going to do something, do it well and that is exactly what The Glenlivet have done with first attempt at a distillery only bottling. A single cask, cask strength 18 year old for £70 is not bad value at all in my book.

The excellent, limited ed Aberlour
There were a few ‘special’ bottling flying around in Speyside, such as Glenfiddich's 200-only festival bottle (a light and floral bourbon cask from 1997 and bottled, hand bottled with an abv of 55.4%), an excellent Aberlour of just 1,812 bottles, designed for local sale only (a richer, stonger version of the a'bunadh with an age statement of 12 Years Old, 56.8% abv, 100% oloroso sherry) and a Mortlach named simply ‘48’ (3,000 bottles ‘only’) and bottled at the respective abv.

However, the home of the special bottling has to be Islay, which has consistently offered up interesting single cask releases such as the Lagavulins and Caol Ilas done by Diageo (not to mention their legendary Port Ellen), many interesting Bruichladdichs, Bunnahbhains and Bowmores and always something from Ardbeg and Laphroaig, who are now using the occasion to launch wide limited releases across the world. Add to this Kilchoman and Jura and the aforementioned holiday / tax bill seems to slip even further down the priority list when it comes to money!

As usual, we shall be heading out to Islay for the majority of the festival (a wedding precludes turning up for the first few days) but once we arrive we’re expecting the same fun-filled time as usual (although I’m not sure anything can top 2009 with @TWEBlog, Faceman and the Immortal Cowjetski). Having warmed up in April with a trip to Skye, tasting a couple of Port Askaigs and refreshed our palate with some excellent grain and Speyside offerings, it’s time to start warming up again for peat and what could be more apt than a new offering from the new arm of Douglas Laing, than their small batch Big Peat.

A brand which has been around since 2009 and has traditionally used whisky only from Islay, also at times using Port Ellen in their mix. The new release, available only at this edition, bottled at 50% contains whisky from Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and Port Ellen. A 50cl offering is only £29.99 and only 250 bottles have been made.

Big Peat – 'Private Edition' - Blended Islay Malt – NAS - 50cl - 50% abv £29.99 here

Nose: vanilla, spiced green apple, peat smoke (obvs), white and green wine gums, some watermelon, pear drops, chamois leather and grapefruit, some coal dust.

Palate: Lovely and smooth, soft vanilla and those pear drops take centre stage. The back of the palate is where the smoke sits. Some dusty old tones and a little copper fill the mouth. Zinc and calcium notes round out a sweet, peaty and slightly chalky palate. With water, the vanilla develops and the chalky nature falls a little, leaving an oiler whisky.

Finish: Bitter lemon, marmalade and smoke.

Overall: For a penny short of £30, this is a solid peaty offering, if not a little leathery in places. The perfect ready-made hipflask for that CalMac ferry over to Port Ellen, this will warm your heart and your tummy with a fist of great peatiness, before you disembark to savour some of the whiskies which originally went into this mix.

Well, this has certainly warmed me up and the smell of peat smoke fills my soul. Speyside seems to be a regular on our travels at the moment and it has been a while since I’ve visited Islay, but this has given me a dreamy vision of arriving once more to see old friends, stay in old buildings and drink old drams.

Here’s to May- a month of many delights!

Saturday, 6 April 2013

May The Nose Be With You: Highland Park Loki, Duty Free and European Editions Single Malt Whisky

The Beatles: very much considered to be one of the greatest bands in musical history. Stop anyone in the street, anywhere in the world and chances are that they’ll know a tune or two by the Fab Four.

Correctly lauded for writing some of the best songs of the 20th Century, their legacy of hits will live on as long as we consume music which, given the example shown to us by the past, will be forever.

I studied business at university, with a focus on the music industry (involving interesting aspects such as copyright law.... *yawn*) and whenever I think of the Beatles, one decidedly ignorant chap from those days springs to mind.

He claimed that any band who can release 12 studio albums of original material, plus b-sides, in just a 10 year history, “would write something decent, if you put that many records out”.

This man was, of course, an idiot.

Keeping a flow of consistently high quality output and cementing your place in modern popular culture as a result, is not easy. The road to longevity is scattered with those who burnt brightly on their debut album, but were unable to keep up their quality and consistency.  Take a bow Kula Shaker.

Seemingly as busy as the Beatles, those chaps up at the Highland Park distillery in Orkney have been hunkering down to release not just one, nor two, not even three new products, but a whopping nine new whiskies this year, thrusting them into the world in support of their ever-present core range.

Hidden away in two European markets, two new little releases were quietly being consumed by the Swedes (who get a cask strength, 56% abv, no age statement offering, pictured above left) and the Dutch, who get a tasty new 10 year old. Both these releases come in a nifty little 35cl bottle.

Highland Park – 10 Years Old – Holland only – 35cl - 40% ABV

Nose: This is certainly on the peater side of the Highland Park spectrum. In fact it is on the coastal side, too with peat, sea salt, chamois leather, some grapefruit and a hint of tinned peach coming through on the nose.

Palate: Sweet and almost heathery, with some peat (not as much as the nose) which gives a good basis to some notes of lemon meringue pie, tinned pineapple chunks and salted caramel milk chocolate.

Finish: short with a punch of peat and salt, lingering elements of the lemon meringue pie and then some light toffee tones.

Overall: At under 20, I wish we had an offering like this in the UK (but I’m sure the Taxman would have something to say about this). 35cl bottles would be a great way to get malt-ready drinkers into the category. For the money, a fantastic offering which showcases the lighter end of Highland Park very well indeed. I wonder if they’ll do one for Norway, matured in ‘Norwegian Wood’...

Next up for Highland Park is a complete overhaul of their travel retail range. Duty Free is a major area for whisky and Highland Park has taken the bold move to release six new products over the year, under the banner “The Warrior Series”.

The six bottles are all named after famed Viking warriors, with the first three of Svein, Einar and Harald all hitting the shelves soon in your local airport, priced at €40, €53 and €70 and increasing in European oak influence as you move up through the range. A further three will be released later this year.

Highland Park – Harald – 40% abv - 70cl

Note: A mix of around 50% European oak and 50% American oak

Nose: A hit of peat at first, backed with soft vanilla ice cream, some fresh ginger and then spices of cinnamon, cardamom and fresh pine.

Palate:  There is a lightness about the palate without it being thin, shown again the vanilla but also underpinned with the peat smoke, spices and some figs and toffee.

Finish: Smoke and spice give way to dried figs and cloves.

Overall: Again, a smokier whiskies than I would normally give Highland Park credit for, but this does not unbalance a palate which gives good flavours and a nose which packs a punch.

Finally, Highland Park have added the second release to their Valhalla Collection in the form of the shape-shifter Loki.

Hot on the heels of Thor, last year’s sell-out first release from this innovative collection, Loki has been developed to mirror the characteristics of this Norse spirit. A dark and mysterious character, Loki was known for his mischievous tricks which he would play on the other gods, often getting himself into much trouble with the other residents of Asgard.

The whisky itself shows off an age statement of 15 years, comes at the higher-than-normal strength of 47.8% abv and is limited to 21,000 bottles around the world, weighing in at £120.

Highland Park – Loki – 15 Years Old – 47.8% abv – 70cl – £120 here

Nose:  Hummm… there is some peat smoke in there, but it’s really hidden behind some toffee apple, a hint of mango and passion fruit and some boiled sweets. I’d be hard pressed to pin this down as a Highland Park from the nose.

Palate: Ah! There we go. A hit of peat and the tropical fruits come rushing through, leaving a peppery and leathery finish of cloves and antique furniture. This is an odd one, with the palate almost flipping the nose on its head.

Finish:  A sweeter finish, with the smoke right on the pack of the palate and a cinnamon spice ending.

Overall: A very strange sensation, this whisky is almost like three different Highland Parks, from the nose, the palate and the finish. Very drinkable, this is a different whisky to the earlier Thor release (which was bigger and more powerful on the palate) as this dances around, being hard to pin down but in a good. If you buy a bottle, open it and drink it.

So a busy start to 2013 for the most northerly distillery in Scotland. I’m sure tasting all these whiskies before they were bottled proved to be a Hard Day’s Night in Kirkwall, but it all really seems to have Come Together  for a Helter Skelter ride of flavours and stories.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Independently Minded: Glenfarclas 1981 31 Year Old Port Cask

I always admire an independent spirit. Coming from a music business background, there are examples upon examples of people having a passion, starting a business and watching it grow and flourish, mainly through taking risks which major companies simply could not take.

Examples abound in the world of recorded music, from Berry Gordy’s post-Tamla project of Motown (whose logo I had the distinct pleasure of having on the back of my business cards for a while, opposite) through to Richard Branson’s signing of a young group called the Sex Pistols, who had been thrown on the scrapheap not once, but twice by both EMI and A&M. Onwards into the 1990’s, would Britpop have ever happened if Creation hadn’t taken a punt on a band from Manchester that no one else wanted to sign...?

Today, indie labels still do a fantastic job of bringing us albums from the likes of the Arctic Monkeys (Domino) and Adele (XL Records), to name but a few.

This isn’t to say that being a ‘major’ is a bad thing. Heck, I worked for a major record company for a long time and, contrary to popular belief, we signed a lot of acts which wouldn’t have seen the light of day otherwise, with varying degrees of success, it has to be said!

Taking a risk was what it was all about for me and sometimes you have to wear the scars of failure with pride. In fact, scars just show experience and experience shows learning. And we should never stop learning. So get used to having scars.

But as for Scotch, one of the greatest ‘indies’ of all time is Glenfarclas. Forget Dufftown, this is Motown with Glenfarclas’ production values more a ‘wall of flavour’ than a ‘wall of sound’.

Throwing out releases as they please, from ancient Family Casks, to small quarter-cask release (tbc), these guys have been at it for years, gaining respect from every quarter for their ‘because we can’ approach. 

And the latest release from these little giants is a port cask offering, just for the UK and France. Only 480 bottles were taken from a cask laid down in 1981 and bottled in July 2012 and it is about to hit the shops now, with an RRP of £280.

Glenfarclas – Port Cask - 31 Years Old – 480 bottles – 42.8% ABV

Nose: Treacle toffee and hazelnuts are mixed in with the aroma of toasted pine nuts and olive oil. Over time in the glass (and this needs time) it opens up to reveal ginger ale, ginger snaps and sultanas.

Palate: Rich at first, with crème brulee topping of caramelised sugars, which finds its feet quickly, settling down to a creamy yet robust palate of ginger and lemon grass, with hints of red apples, summer fruits and, latterly, figs.

Finish: Spices abound with cinnamon and nutmeg the most prominent. White pepper springs forward to give a long and lingering finish to this warming dram.

Overall: Spices crash all around you in this dram, with ginger on the mid-tones and a creamy top end. A whisky which is at the same time both rich in flavour but not big and oily; more relaxed than that. A real drinker, not a sipper. Think Glenfarclas, but with added spice.

It’s great to see a distillery in the heart of Speyside (despite correctly having ‘Highland’ on their label) producing whisky of excellent quality yet at a price point which, quite frankly, puts others to shame. With a 30 year old at £123 here (yes, really) and a 40 year old at £274, here (honestly!) why would you not consider Glenfarclas to be the quintessential independent spirit.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Hide and Seek: Laphroaig Highgrove Single Malt Whisky

Whisky seems to be popping up in the most weird and wonderful of places at the moment. From the odd, unusual bottle in the local corner shop, to pubs now hosting vast arrays of bottles for you to choose from when out drinking, this is always a good indication of the growth in awareness of a product.

It has always been the domain of the malt drinker to seek out bottles which are interesting and unique. I was recently in a liquor shop in a particular part of North London which is home to a large Jewish community. The shop is a treasure trove of unusual whisky, a large portion of it kosher, making the whisky accessible for the local community. This included brands I have never seen before as well as certain expressions of existing bottles, tweaked to meet the needs of the consumer, such as the Glenrothes Alba Reserve.

It is the fleet-of-foot ability of some whisky brands to produce bottles for specific markets or specific customers such as this, which can give them not only an additional competitive advantage, but also a whole new support base of drinkers who will become advocates of the brand.

But finding some of these exotic expressions can be a real chore. Stumbling across things in a shop miles from where you live, is one way, magazines, auction sites and the internet is another way. It’s a little like finding new music you love. I have a list of people who I trust to supply me with top tips. Being an ex-A&R guy, this list includes top music managers and executives, artists themselves, music journalists, close friends and the radio.

Just this morning, I found myself engaged in some spring cleaning around my house and needed a soundtrack to turn to. I wasn’t keen on music I already knew, so Spotify was closed and I threw on, at random, the Don Lett’s show on BBC Radio 6 Music.

For our international readership out there, BBC 6 Music is the station you ‘retire to’ when you no longer want to listen to the latest chart hits by Lady Z or Jay Gaga (or is it Jay Z and Lady Gaga?) and when you’re not quite ready for talk radio about politics. In my house, BBC 6 Music is often known as BBC Smiths Music, due to the frequency of Morrisey-related songs on their playlist.

However, the advantage of the shows such as Letts and that of Craig Charles’ Funk & Soul Show is the fantastic mix of old music you’ve maybe never heard before and new tunes which aren’t quite of the sugary nature to make mainstream pop-radio.

Today alone, I discovered fantastic old tunes from acts such as Unit 4+2 and The Beat and brand new tracks from Austrailian band Last Dinosaurs and the absolutely awesome and brilliantly named Thao & The Get Down StayDown. If it hadn’t been for a bit of random website searching and radio listening, I wouldn’t have come across such a wonderfully aural experience. You can check it out for yourself right here:

One whisky which I can genuinely pinpoint as a real accidental discovery is the single cask Laphroaig which is produced exclusively for Highgrove House, the country estate of Prince Charles.

Basically, it seems, single cask versions of the Quarter Cask, these bottles come not only in the most amazing presentation boxes but, for something which is an official release of only around 250 bottles a time, it carries a price tag which is quite frankly madness: £59.95 (or an extra tenner for the massive presentation box).

A minimum age of 12 years old, this whisky doesn’t just provide exceptional value for the fact it is an official single cask bottling presented in a regal manner, but also for the fact that the whisky is bloody good. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that this is the best value official limited edition Laphroig on the market. And you can even pick them up at auction for only around £70 - £110. Even more madness.

But maybe this crown has now been stolen? Recently Laphroaig and Highgrove extended their relationship beyond the single cask, limited editions, to a more standard release. Bottled at 48% abv, this ‘ongoing’ release is just £35 a pop. What possible reason could I have not to order one and try it out? So I did...

Laphroaig – Highgrove Single Malt Scotch Whisky – NAS - 48% abv

Nose:  The classic Laphroaig nose of peat smoke, lemons and chamois leather. There is more than a close lineage with some of these good, youngish Laphroaigs and some of the better end of the Port Ellen release, I think. This release has some spiced red apple in it as well as a big hit of vanilla custard and a hint of poached pear.

Palate:  The palate does not disappoint from the nose, giving a full flavour of peat smoke, green apple this time but with the spices and vanillas as prominent as they are on the nose. Giving it some time, the peat really burns strongly across the mouth, but the wood influence gives some green veg depth which balances very nicely with the earlier sweet vanillas.

Finish: Well, more smoke, which isn’t a surprise at all. Behind it is hidden some more juice, freshly steamed veg and some Chinese herbs and spices. Strong green tea.

Overall: A delicious whisky, especially for the money. This is will make a fantastic gift for someone, but doesn’t quite hit the heights of the single cask editions from the same source.

Both of these releases from Laphroaig, and the above mentioned release from Glenrothes, go to show how strange, small releases from established distilleries and bottlers can be a real joy to discover (and a real bargain, too) if you look hard enough. The trouble is, finding them. Best of luck on your own personal search!

Friday, 11 January 2013

The Wonka Of The Whisky World: Compass Box

Well, here we are again. Yet another year begins and, would you believe it, we're approaching the middle of the first month already. Sort of. Hush my mouth, we're really only eleven days in. Barely scratching the surface, really! Or should that be 'barley scratching the surface'...?

Right, with the contender for 'worst pun of the year' already made in only our second post of 2013, it's time to start to talk seriously about the year ahead. We've already heard rumours about interesting bottlings to come from a wide variety of different distilleries and blenders, but no matter what is pulled from various warehouses across Scotland (and let's not forget the rest of world, please) and put in a bottle, there is one vital aspect that still underscores the whole of the whisk(e)y business and that is quality.

In 2012 we've seen more bottles than ever released, and at increasingly higher prices (see: Supply And Demand 101) but, ya know, I actually think the quality is getting better. Even Aldi and Lidl are taking their whisky seriously nowadays. Who would have said that a few years ago about two shops which openly claim to be aimed at the shopper on a budget... amazing really. So as we enter our sixth year of writing about this fantastic product, we look forward to sharing our journey of discovery with you and to continue what we set out to do right at the start: educate, entertain and inform.


Rumours of interesting bottles will always abound on the internet and until someone from a company, PR house or retailer actually tells us something is coming, we often take any whispers with a large pinch of salt. Especially those press releases which magically seem to appear each year on the first day of April...

However, there is one company who specialise in unusual bottles. When you hear a rumour about a possible release from this indie whisky house, you just hope it's true. The Wonka of whisky, Compass Box has been churning out amazing blended whisky since its inception in a West London kitchen in 2000.

Thirteen years later and this creative bunch have turned their hand to pretty much everything they could get away with, within the confines of the ever-changing Scotch Whisky Association regulations (and even some outside of it); this lot are real 'punks', in the purest sense of the word.

But not only do Compass Box have a focus on constructing fantastic liquid, they also have a real eye for art, too. The packaging designs chosen to house the whisky are just fantastic and the boxes which these bottles wear, sublime. Let's take a look at a new release from The House Of Compass Box, by way of an illustration:

Compass Box - The Entertainer - Blended Whisky - 1000 bottles only - Selfridge's exclusive - 70cl - 46% ABV - £84.99 here

This comes in a box and with a label which looks like Magritte and Duchamp have had a fight in workshop in early Nineteenth Century Vienna. To say this is a stunning piece is beyond doubt. But as we all know, whisky is not just about the packaging. How does this stuff actually taste?

Nose: A big hit of butterscotch and fresh daisy, there is also a wisp of peat smoke and oodles of vanilla. Just like opening a bag of Werther's Original by the fireside.

Palate: Deliciously delicate at first, with firey peat coming in to back up the mellow start. Tasted marshmallow melts over hot buttered crumpets and a hint of walnut praline gives some additional depth.

Finish: Vanilla. Peat smoke. Cinnamon. In that order. In equal measure.

Overall: This is incredibly drinkable whisky. With a drop of water it opens up to become really very moorish. Very well constructed a liquid.

This whisky is a creation specifically for the good people at Selfridges (who, ironically, don't actually sell fridges. Unlike John Lewis, who do) where it is exclusively available. Quite a timely release here in the UK; with a Downtown drought on, we have had to quench our thirst for costume drama with a new series that kicked off this weekend called Mr Selfridge, all about the inception of the great store and, I'm sure, some poetic licence on the odd love story of the workers therein.

Just 1000 bottles of this blend have been produced, retailing at £84.99. I wonder if Mr Selfridge was a whisky drinker himself. If so, I'm sure he'd have been proud to have this in his shop. And not just for the box.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

18 Under 30 Part Four: Monin Gringerbread Sugar Syrup

Continuing our adventure on bottles for the festive season which can be procured for less than the cost of a Premier League match at Chelsea and will last you longer than one of their managers, our journey so far has taken us from beer to Scotch, via Japanese whisky, and now we end up somewhere totally different, yet with another of the stalwarts in our cabinet every festive season.

Whenever Christmas comes around, there are key flavours which we all associate with the festivities. From sherry to dates and figs, cranberry to hazelnuts and marzipan, one of the key protagonists in the festive flavour character list is ginger. Not too easy to use as it can be very overpowering, there is one amazing product which can add a huge Christmas hit to any cocktail. 

Monin have for years made sugar syrups which much of the drinks industry have embraced in various forms. You'll see their products behind the stall in your local coffee shop as well as in your local cocktail haunt. Their Gingerbread Syrup, not even near the £10 mark, is pretty much Christmas in a bottle. The moment you take the cap off and the smell of condensed gingerbread hits you, you'll be in woolly socks by the fireside.

Our tip is to add this, in small measures, to your fav cocktail. It'll turn an "Old Fashioned" in to an "Old Lang Syne" and a "Whiskey Sour" in to a "Whisky Hug". Even a drop in a hot toddy will turn heads as you walk past with the cup filling the room with a whisky and gingerbread aroma.

Number 4 in our 18 Under 30: Monin Gingerbread Syrup

Caskstrength's Gingerbread Whiskey Sour:

Take a rocks glass and will with ice and water and leave to one side.
Next, fill one half of a classic Boston shaker with ice, four quarters of a small lemon, squeezing the juice in first, 5ml of Four Roses Small Batch (or similar bourbon),15ml of Monin Gingerbread Sugar Syrup and a dash of Angostura bitters. Add in the white of one egg and shake. Hard.

After a good 20 seconds of shaking, pour the water and ice out of the rocks glass, refill with fresh ice and slowly strain the mixture from the cocktail shaker into the glass. Garnish with dash of the bitters on top and, if you have any, a small slither of crystallised ginger. Refreshing yet festive, this is a winner of a cocktail for this time of year.

Under £30 here and here and here.

Monday, 3 December 2012

18 Under 30 Part Three: Nikka From The Barrel Japanese Whisky

As you may well now be aware, in the run up to Santa's big day we are publishing our top eighteen purchases for Christmas that weigh in at under thirty of your British earth pounds.

From beer (#1) to Scotch (#2), via various booze-based hooch, we'll kick back on Christmas Day and relax with some of these fantastic purchases.

Our third choice is yet another whisky which should form part of any good whisky cabinet, especially when you're on a budget. The Balvenie 12 Year Old Doublewood from yesterday is a must when looking for the most solid of Speyside introductions, but this next offering gives you something a little more, erm, exotic when asking Granddad what he would like for his fireside dram on Boxing Day.

Number 3 in our 18 Under 30: Nikka - From The Barrel - NAS - 51.4% ABV - 500ml

Nose: Very interesting nose. Dark and brooding and full of fresh wood. Really yummy. Dried apricots, mandarin. I wish I knew how old this was, as it smells old. Really old. Musty but fresh, like very well kept wooden tables you get in members clubs in London. No leather or musty books like you get with some “old” smelling whisky. The deeper you nose, the more you get: green apples. Peanut butter. This is goooood....

Palate: In it goes, big build up with that nose! Hummm... not the kick you would expect from a whisky at 51.4% but there is depth there. Not big sherry depth, more of a melange of interesting little flavours that make up depth; strawberries, Marmite, mint, pork scratchings, dark chocolate coco-powder (like the stuff on top of cappuccino's). Very interesting and tasty.

Finish: Lots of red chilli on the back of the throat, followed by soothing and clearing menthol which makes way for the beautifully strong oak to shine through.

Overall: This is not a tame whisky. The fresh mints, strawberry and coco powder make for a wonderful palate and the menthol at the end works so well with the red chilli. But the nose is the biggest surprise for this, making for a wonderful start. At again the ridiculous price of around £30, this is a bloody fantastic buy. Get it for a mate for a pressie and snaffle a bit away when they are not looking. They’ll think you bought them something a lot more expensive so you look like a great friend, plus you get to try it for free!! He he!!

Under £30 here and here.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

18 Under 30 Part Two: The Balvenie 12 Year Old Doublewood Single Malt Scotch Whisky

As the previous post from yesterday laid out, in the run up to Christmas we are giving you eighteen suggestions of bottles which cost under £30. The first recommendation was a beer; something a little unusual for us, but don’t be surprised to see other non-whisk(e)y products crop up. Why? Because this is Christmas, the Season of Goodwill to all men (and all booze). 

Over the month of December, it is good to have a variety of drinks to call on and you may, without giving anything away, see some pretty usual items for a whisky website pop up.

However, not this time! No sirreee... this time we’re firmly back in the realm of whisky and back at the heart of Scotch: Speyside.

Often at this time of year, you’ll find various deals on bottles of booze and this little beauty is one which often finds itself with a tantalisingly low price tag. The Balvenie 12 Year Old Doublewood is a cracking stalwart of a whisky and one which, if you’re giving a bottle as a gift or simply looking for a bottle to serve to those seasonal visitors, is a total winner.

Number 2 in our 18 Under 30: The Balvenie - 12 Year Old Doublewood - 40% ABV

Nose: An entertaining mix of light vanilla, lemon & orange zest and sweet caramels, mixed with some delicate sherry notes, dark honey and woody spices. Runny honey is the key with this easy drinker.

Palate: The vanilla, honey and orange zest all hit the palate first, back-dropped by moist raisins, some fig and a big spoonful of  sherry which mellowed out to create a smooth and sweet taste. Very open and balanced.

Finish: Drying cask notes, with a long fruity/nutty note. Warming and most definitely festive!

Overall: This is a proper classic of a dram. Consistent and well constructed; if you ever want to seduce someone who claims not to love whisky, this could be the fatal bullet in your gun.

Under £30 here and here

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Yamazaki Whisky: Wood You Believe It?

Not so much 'Norwegian Wood' as 'Japanese Wood'

When you walk in to a room, there is a lot to take in. The furniture, the carpet, the colours on the walls. Is there any art hanging up and if so, what does it add to the room; what does it say about the owners? How is the room laid out, and for what purpose?

However, when we walk in to a room, we don't usually run through this check-list of points. Not consciously, anyway.

But a room is given life, personality and character by the items in it and the way it has been dressed and arranged.

Unless you go out and buy a single cask, every bottle of whisky you buy has been blended, be it from a mixture of grain and malts from different distilleries into what we would traditionally define as a 'blended whisky', or those which carry the moniker of 'single malt' which are also blended together, just using malts from one distillery.

Every so often as drinks writers, we are invited to try 'deconstructions' of both blends and single malts. Fascinating to write about, these occasions give a real insight in to the make up of certain whiskies.

Conversations with the Master Blender reveal interesting nuggets as to the flavour profile of the overall mix (percentages of first fill sherry, to refill bourbon, etc.) but these geeky facts may not excite everyone. Personally, I don't want an explanation of how an aeroplane works before getting on it; I just want to have a great customer experience with my flight. In the same way, most people don't give two hoots as to the make-up of their blended or single malt whisky; they just want it to taste good.

However, some of the whiskies which go in to making up a standard release of a single malt are pretty bloody good. So much so, that the Japanese distillers Suntory have decided to release a series of whiskies which, we are told, make up the constituent parts of their Yamazaki 12 Year Old.

This series will be made up of four release, two already on the market. These editions showcase the whisky matured in individual styles of casks: a puncheon, a bourbon barrel and a heavy sherry barrel (all named, cunningly, 'Bourbon', 'Puncheon' and 'Sherry') will be available for around £70. The jewel in the crown is the Mizunara release, an edition matured in casks made from the famous Japanese variety of oak. This will weigh in around the £250 price point.

These four release are all markedly different, with the puncheon and bourbon barrel showing off light and delicate whisky, the sherry barrel giving excellent, heavily sherried hooch which, for the money, seems absurdly good. The wild-card player in the squad is the Japanese oak release:

Yamazaki - Mizunara (480 litre barrel) - NAS - 48% abv

Nose: a big hit of dried apricots, figs, toasted almonds (almond croissant), marzipan, light and aromatic spices.

Palate: the initial hit is of toasted tobacco leaf, over-ripe banana, which develops into banana bread and ever such a delicate hint of smoke.

Finish: heavy butterscotch, tropical fruits of mango and passion fruit, all finished nicely with delicate pear drops.

Overall: This is a whisky full of wonderful character and bold statements. Delicious and intriguing, this is well worth a try.

These individual bottlings may well be excellent in their own right (and there isn't a ringer in the flight), but the really interesting conclusion was trying the Yamazaki 12.

A whisky which we feel is underrated, the flavours of cooking apples, cinnamon, vanilla and flapjacks left us in no doubt that, once again, the quality of whisky coming out of Japan is of the highest order.

These whiskies have not just been put together, they have been expertly constructed by masters of liquid Feng Shui to create a room with personality, character and flavour.