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Wednesday 23 July 2008

A real question of taste.

Following on from our last post and the weather related theme continues... the sun is back with us (hurrah!) and we're parched, looking for a couple of summer crackers to get stuck into. Low and behold, an anonymous looking parcel drops onto the mat this morning and.... our prayers are answered! 2 brand new samples from the summer range of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society have arrived. Time to assemble our newly purchased garden table and chair set and catch some rays...

What really impresses me about the SMWS is their ethos towards the pure enjoyment of just whisky and nothing else. As many of you are probably aware, there’s little clue to which distillery you’re trying, other than a few well placed pointers to region, cask type and- if you’re really lucky, locality. This can only be a good thing to enhance your appreciation of different styles and essentially hone your nosing ability and palate.
First up, it’s the rather sweetly titled 97-11 ‘Honey Harmony’. All we know is that this is definitely a Lowland, so here’s hoping for a perfectly balanced start.

97-11 'Honey Harmony' Age 18 yo- 56%abv - 233 bottles

Nose: Fresh bourbon, vanilla, candied fruit and creamy chocolate.  I really had this down as a Rosebank on first nosing but the more you keep going, other notes like ripe banana and light heather notes also come through.  

Palate: Rich fruitiness with more of that heather, then there's almost a touch of coconut ice cream sundae, you're left with a nuttiness of crushed hazelnuts and almonds further in.

Finish: Definite notes of fragrant perfume with pears and apples on the very death. Also a slight saltiness coming thru, which lingers for a while.

Overall:  This definitely shares that light and fragrant fruitiness of a Rosebank, but there perhaps isn't as much depth as some which we tasted recently. It has it's own qualities though- the cracking sweetness and nuts on the palate make this a really great summery dram. Fortunately, our sample bottles are of a nice size and an extra dram is swiftly extracted, just in time catch the last bit of sun before South London once again clouds over. So as they often say - 'a little certainly goes a long way'!  

Next up is 64-15 'Waxing Lyrical' - which is something I tend to do after one too many great drams. (cue Caskstrength's 'Verbose Editor' to 'maniacally watch over this one , with one hand hovering on the delete key!) We're told that this is a Speyside whisky, from the Lossie area.

64-15 'Waxing Lyrical' - Age 15 yo - 57.1% abv - 288 bottles

Nose: Sweetness, rum notes, hints of smoke, candied fruit, candle wax and cedarwood.  So far, everything in its right place, really refreshing in character and delicate. Nothing jumps out too far. With a dash of water, you get more creamy toffee hints through here too, rounding the whole lot off very nicely.

Palate:  Wow, didn't expect that!! Licorice, menthol and lots of star anise coat the tongue like nothing i've had for a while. A real wake up call!  After a while, ginger and green herb notes come through, with more parsley if you add water.  A very different experience from what I was perhaps expecting, but really good and refreshing!

Finish: Sweetness and fudge like qualities come through after a while with orange zest and more of that candle wax.  Definitely a lot of depth to this dram, again longer than I had anticipated.

Overall:  This is certainly a distillery that I am very unfamiliar with - my palate has experienced surprise for the first time in a while which can only be a very good thing.  Another cracking dram...

In this day and age of marketing strategy, mass roll outs and heavyweight branding, it's easy to overlook certain distilleries or buy into something because you're 'told to' by the creative jargon on the packaging or flash website. With whiskies as good as these, you simply don't need to; your nose, palate and imagination do all the work- and that is to be applauded.  

Friday 18 July 2008

In Peat We Trust

About a month or so ago, we at Caskstrength were comfortably sat overlooking a marvelous bay, watching the sun go down, heady dram in hand and full of deliciously fresh seafood.  Put simply, we were at Bruichladdich, the weather was great and we were happy, safe in the knowledge that there were more great drams to follow and sunsets to gaze into. 
And so to now. You find me tapping away during the supposed 'July silly season', the rain pouring onto my Azalea's, black clouds bruising across the South London sky, with no let up in sight.   
But strangely, this is exactly the mood I am looking for.  Strangely, I'm hoping for the imminent thunderstorm to hang around, just long enough until i've finished the dram i'm about to review.  
In an ideal world, perhaps we all look for the perfect surroundings to enjoy a cracking dram.  A light and fragrant Rosebank reminds me of those endless summer days, (where have they gone btw?) with freshly cut lawns and slightly muggy, starry nights just before the weekend. 
Same goes for Longrow- maybe it's just me, but a glass or 2 of the cracking 18 year old evokes a leafy autumnal Sunday feeling, post-roast lunch, before a refreshing country walk. 
Peat smoke on the other hand. Now that's a whole different set of circumstances altogether. 
If Islay were a novel, it'd be 'The Hound Of the Baskervilles'- dark and brooding, full of intrigue and mystery, with images of remote, rain-lashed caves and chilling howls in the squally night air.  
Over dramatic it may sound, but take a second to open lets say, a Lagavulin 16 on a similar night, wherever you may be- and a shiver will undoubtably run down your spine. 
That seems to be the very essence of what Bruichladdich have tried to capture in their new 'Trilogy' of whiskies;  Waves, Rocks and Peat.  All evocative words that make one undoubtedly think of Islay.  Perhaps not the idilic Islay we experienced last month, but the real Islay. 
So, on this rainy night i'm curled up on the sofa sampling 'Peat'. The scene is set... can it live up to my romantic ideals?

Bruichladdich 'Peat'- no age statement- 46%vol - non chill filtered - 70cl

Nose: Wait for it.... sweetness! ginger, heather and creamy custard. And this is before the peat!! Is that right?  Ok, there it is- very delicate peat at first, but dig deeper and a more earthiness emerges, - really in keeping with the 3D3 that this is essentially replacing.  There is also no overpowering medicinal elements, just really well-rounded peat as you'd hope for. 

Palate: Warming spiciness, sherbet lemons, apple and more of that pleasant earthiness. The initial sweetness gives way to a slightly salty mouth feel, not unlike a Port Charlotte and it certainly feels like the younger whiskies here take a slight precedence.  

Finish:  Surprising.  The length is completely unexpected here, again that subtle peat returning, with maybe a touch of strawberry, tobacco and then leading into a dryness.  A saltiness lingers longest but not in an unpleasant way. It just keeps on coming, with waves of more earthiness.  

Overall:  It hasn't stopped raining outside and i'm already onto my 2nd glass. This doesn't disappoint.  For a Sub- £30 bottling, 'Peat' offers more than just an introduction to the brown stuff- it is delicate, relatively complex in the finish and perhaps more importantly- really, really drinkable. 

(note- normal service has now resumed, the sun is back and caskstrength are sauntering around the croquet lawn, Rosebank in hand...) 

Friday 11 July 2008

Astar is Born (or The Whisky World's Most Over Used Headline)

Glenmorangie remove their Artisan 50cl, 46% Vol bottling (which is rather bloody good) and replace it with the new Astar. Here are some early tasting note of this new, 100% proof offering:

Glanmorangie - Astar - OB - NAS - 70cl - 57.1%

Nose: Ginger, citrus, tweed, paprika, black pepper, becomes very deep with smoky vanilla. Maybe it's the power of suggestion, but the oak is very noticeable - polished wood, like an expensive bookcase. More masculine and intense than the old Artisan, but you'd expect that from the higher abv. Water opens up more sweet notes, natural caramel or butter toffee.

Palate: Carries on from the nose. Big, assertive and very bourbony. Exceptionally spicy & peppery but with compensating sweet creamy vanilla. Big mouth-filling weight - quite macho. With water, much more approachable though still very spicy.

Finish: Immense. Very long and warming, with tingling spices that last an eon. My mouth was still burning (in a good way) several minutes after the swallow.

Overall: If you're a committed sherryhead or you don't like oaky stuff or spicy food - avoid. Everyone else will love it. Very much of the same breed as the original Artisan cask, but less gentle - much more powerful and concentrated. An epic dram that needs a drop or two of water to really shine.

Notes by Tim.

Monday 7 July 2008

The (Sig)Nature vs Nurture Debate

The Balvenie is a distillery that I owe a lot to. It was about four years ago in an airport somewhere in the USA where I was offered some Balvenie DoubleWood, fell in love with it and in turn fell in love with Whisky. Still a great session dram of mine, I was thus excited when the new Signature bottling was released. This new edition was matured in THREE casks; sherry, first fill bourbon and refill sherry casks. Sounds great. And currently on offer at Oddbins for £25!?! Yes, please! Let’s get involved with the tasting...

The Balvenie - Signature – 12 YO - OB - First Batch - Limited Release - 70cl - 40% vol

Nose: Used cigarette butts. Dried apricots. Very moist Christmas cake.

Palate: butter. apricots again. salty and bitter. weak tea.

Finish: Very salty and very bitter with hints of black pepper. Not well balanced at all.

Overall: The nose starts off well, being rich and fruity. Once in the mouth, the weakness of this dram really lets it down. I find it unbalanced and dull, with the apricot overpowering everything and a real bitterness appearing. The finish is the worst with the bitterness and salt completely overpowering any interesting notes that this release blends together. Even at £25 a bottle, this limited release is a real let down.

Friday 4 July 2008

Head's up! new "10 minute dram with..." series kicks off.

‘The 10-minute dram with’…. Michael ‘Mickey’ Heads, distillery manager of Ardbeg:

A first- here; in a new series we interview some of the stars behind the stars, or the men/women behind the great whiskies we all know and love. We caught up with Michael Heads, distillery manager at Ardbeg, before a busy Feis Ile open day needed his attention!!

What does the festival mean to you as distillery manager and as an islander?

Well Feis' time is a big pull for all the distilleries and the islanders, which has now been going in this format for around 10 years. It has grown to a level where the Island is full of whisky enthusiasts and allows the distilleries to open up the doors and do things a little bit differently from the day to day business. It’s a 2 way process which allows whisky fans to come and talk to us – they’re all brand ambassadors and every year people return with new fans, so word of mouth is a great thing for the distillery.

What’s your background in the distillery business?

I’m in my 29th year now, starting out at Laphroaig in 1979, cutting peats and doing odd jobs for 10 years at the distillery. In 1989 I was made assistant brewer at the distillery, which I did for a further 10 years. I moved to Jura as the distillery manager in 1999 and then from there to Ardbeg in 2007.

What has been the biggest impact to the whisky business over your career so far?

Well the period of the early 1980s had produced the most change, where it was really crunch time for distilleries, especially on Islay where production slowed down and distilleries closed. It was the late 1980’s where there was more of a focus towards single malt, especially on Islay and its been growing steadily over the last 7 years with the distinctive flavour making a real connection with fans. In a recent report we’re seeing that Islay production has been growing faster than that of the other regions across Scotland. At Ardbeg, about 75% of our whisky now goes towards single malt, the other 25% directly into blending, for instance the Chivas blends.

Is there a good camaraderie between the Islay distilleries?

We know everyone in the business based on the island as it’s such a small community and have always helped one another out when there’s problems – if there’s parts that distilleries need to keep going we’ll exchange them etc. [the recent water shortage in the lochs being prime example of all distilleries being affected by bigger problems] In the end it’s always about the whisky that we make and are involved with that’s the best bit [he says with a smile!].

It’s interesting to see the old technology that goes into the manufacture of great whisky, prime example being the antiquated Robert Bobe Mill still used by Ardbeg...

It dates from about 1913 and works as well today as it ever has- it mills around 2 tonnes an hour still. They last a long time if you look after them – that’ll be here for another hundred years hopefully! [It is interesting to note that the Bobe company actually went out of business because their machines were so well made, no one needed any spares!!]

How have you found working with a bigger organisation (Glenmorangie) with regard to your traditional approaches? Have they perhaps been diminished or encouraged as a result?

I think we’ve really been encouraged to carry on with what we’re doing, we’ve got a really good product and we’ve got a great company in Glenmorangie that’s invested money into the plant. We have a good wood policy, which mirrors that of Glenmorangie who are recognised for their excellence and innovation. It’s great for our staff to see the growth of the distillery from what it used to be into somewhere that’s flourishing so well for the future.

Will you be capitalising on the emerging markets and developing more expressions- especially in the Far East and Eastern Europe?

Well in addition to the core range with the 10 year old, Uigeadail and Airigh Nam Beist we’re always looking for new products- the Ardbeg Committee in particular drives this; we get one new bottling out and we’re always asked when and what the next is going to be. We’re in the fortunate position at Ardbeg where we can sell more than we can supply at the minute, which can be good and bad at the same time! But certainly people are always keen on the mythical aura surrounding it and its reputation is spreading around the world. The 10 year old was this year voted Best whisky in the world in ‘Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible’ and people are now wanting to know more about the other bottlings in the range- from the limited edition single casks to anticipation about what’s coming next.

How much do you get involved in the creative aspects when a new expression is released?

Our master distiller Bill Lumsden has the final say in the creation of new products but we get encouraged to look for new ideas. We do a lot of the background work like getting the samples over to Bill and highlight anything extra special. Our warehouses are like an Aladdins cave of great casks and sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to find- it’s great to discover something really special or get an idea when something is going to be perfectly matured, that’s one of the most interesting things about the job.

Finally, your ‘all time favourite’ drams of choice?

Honestly, when you’ve worked in places for so long you obviously forge strong connections, so from my 20 years at Laphroaig, I’d have to say the 10 year old cask strength is a great whisky. Also from the Isle of Jura because of my career there I’d also have to say the original bottling of the 21 year old is a drink that I really love and at Ardbeg either the 10 year old, Uigeadail or if I can find one the 1977 release! (Caskstrength’s favourite bottling too- yeaaaah!!)

And on that meeting of minds and palates, we leave Michael to make the final preparations for the all-important open day and his very special ‘Managers Tasting’, which allows the public to share in his passion and taste some truly great whiskies at the same time.
Slainte,  Mickey!!

The Chap Olympiad 2008

Briefly removing our blogging hat to wear something slightly different-this time a Panama, we bring you news of the summers only real epic blockbuster event...

Saturday July 12th will see grown men in full tweeds, locking horns (or should that be briar pipes?) for the annual Chap Olympiad. Last year, the event saw the 'decathlan for the debonair' descend on Bedford Square Gardens, Central London for a Martini Marathon, Neck-Tie Kwon Do and other decadently themed events. This year, the event from 1pm-6pm is free entry, but the location a closely guarded secret.  To discover the venue, one must follow a fiendishly devised treasure hunt, uttering passwords and obtaining clues from the following chappish retail emporia, which when combined, will disclose the final destination:

JJ Fox & Robert Lewis, 19 St  James's Street, London SW1A 1ES -'I need a pipe tobacco that will last a hundred yard sprint'

Lock & CO, 6 St James's Street, London SW1A1EF- 'I'm looking for a bowler hat that will offer protection from flying saucers'

R.E Tricker, 67 Jermyn Street, London SW1y6NY - 'which of your brogues would allow for the swiftest getaway from a furious lady?

GEO F. Trumper, 20 Jermyn Street, London SW1Y6HP - 'Could i have my moustache trimmed in the Leslie Philips style, please?'

Mackintosh, 54-55 Burlington Arcade, London W1J 0LB- 'I'm looking for a raincoat that will withstand several hundred spilt martinis'

The Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly Circus, London W1 - 'Is the memory man available? 
I've forgotten where I left my umbrella'

Old Hat, 66 Fulham High Street, London SW6 3LQ - My aunt has suggested i invest in a pair of velvet jodhpurs. Can you help?

Non London residents can write to the Chap including a SAE for all the clues.  see you there- Caskstrength fancy their chances in the malt whisky filled, hip-flask relay, (should there be such an event...)

more details here at