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Tuesday 29 September 2009

A 'Vreckan good time...

As many of you Ardbeg fans will already know, the fantastic committee bottling of last year- Corryvreckan was recently added into the core range of expressions, sadly replacing one of our all time favourites- Airigh Nam Beist. But instead of crying into our Glencairns, we thought now would be a good opportunity to look to the future and celebrate the fact that Corryvreckan is a dram worthy enough to stand next to the other great contemporary Ardbegs.

At the weekend, we held a particularly special tasting- not just several great whiskies, but some highly unusual flavour profiles and aromas were thrown in to confuse, baffle and delight!
There seems to have been a tendency of late for some distilleries to 'embellish' tasting notes with relatively unknown flavour and aroma profiles, which most palates would simply never identify. We've always found this hilarious, so our little experiment was bound to produce some interesting results...oh boy...

Everyone knows that whisky and chocolate go together extremely well. As we pour our first dram, our good friend Darrell produces a non descript black box. Hello... this could be interesting...

Ardbeg Corryvreckan - 57.1% - 70cl

Nose: Butterscotch, orange zest and cereal. It's there in black and white. Lovely, honest and enjoyable. Of course, there is peat... but it's restrained, refined- clearly it's the backbone to the aroma, but it doesn't dominate. With water, the peat really relaxes and some wonderful sweet caramel. Surprising differences to the original committee bottling. There's perhaps a hint of the creosote/coal tar note from the original bottling, but it is no where near as prevalent.

Palate: Swathes of sweet peat and cereal take over the mouth instantly, leading into a fruity jam note- damsons anyone? Again, it is perhaps lighter than the committee bottling and doesn't seem to retain as much of the wine-like characteristics which the previous bottling had. That's not to say that it isn't great- the mouthfeel is wonderful, with a thick, sweet and rich viscosity giving the Corryvreckan a real air of luxury. 3 cheers for cask strength whiskies!!

Finish: Slightly oaky, perhaps seeing the influence of the wine casks but it's fruity sweetness lingers long after the palate has dried. Sensational.

At this point things went a little weird. We tried a combination of wonderful flavours with the whisky and the results are below:

Chocolates: From our selection of flavoured chocolates, a Jasmine, Bergamot, Tonka Bean (!) and Green Tea were chosen. The Jasmine and Bergamot, added a real floral note to the palate and were not dented by the whisky in the slightest- similarly, the whisky was certainly enhanced by the rich dark chocolate with the aromatic notes contained within. The Tonka Bean, had little effect, save for adding a certain 'aromatic bitters' like note to the whisky (Peated whisky sour?) and the Green Tea flavour was swallowed up greedily by the swirl of the Corry in full effect....

Darrell then reaches into his magic bag again and, with a grin from ear to ear, whispers- "now for the good stuff!" Oh er....

The phrase '5-a-day' will never have the same meaning after this tasting.

Presented on the dining room table were the strangest, alien looking fruits I have ever seen.

Mangosteen: Like a miniature brain inside a thick red husk.

Pitahaya or Dragon Fruit: Gelatinous and seedy, resembling a semi-set frog spawn.

And king of all weirdness..... drum roll please... the Durian.

Dear lord. This surely isn't a fruit?? You could batter someone to death with it!!
Thick, gloopy custard-like flesh, with a hard stone in the centre. Surrounded by a terrifying looking green spiny skin. It actually looked delicious when served, until your nose got within 20 yards of the bowl. What? Hugely strong aromas of onion, garlic and cheese covered Mexican chilli. IN A FRUIT!!!

Surely no whisky could match these brutes!!

Well, the Corryvreckan was admirable in its attempts, working superbly with the sweet flesh of the Mangosteen- the peat mixing nicely with the melon like flavour of the flesh. Well worth seeking out.

The Pitahaya added some floral notes to the proceedings, not all of them welcome but nonetheless, it was well flavoured and would be a better mix for a lighter whisky, say Rosebank or Glen Grant.

The spiny beast was up next. Wow. The texture is smooth and creamy, rather like the whisky, but the aroma blows your head off! In fact the peat certainly added to the overall flavour profile, but it was like biting into a whole Stilton, slathered in strong onion marmalade. Perhaps a sweet port or Oloroso sherry would mix well....?

We managed a few mouthfuls each, before conceding defeat. It was then impossible to taste anything else for the rest of the evening. The following morning, I found myself 'rediscovering' echoes of Durian for several hours, as did Mrs Caskstrength. Sorry about that. ;-(
Try this to expand your palate, but be warned- they're not for the faint hearted....

So there you have it.... Next time you see some distillery tasting notes, referencing bizarre aromas and flavours, try to think about whether they actually make sense. Anyone referencing a Durian is clearly a proper nutter....!!

Thursday 24 September 2009

Don't take these for Granted....

Ever had one of those really busy days, where you just make it by the skin of your teeth? Of course you have.

Recently, every day has been like that for Caskstrength- running from HQ for the train, heavily laden valise in hand only to realise you forgot your wallet. Train delayed due to a light track dusting of...dust. I recently shifted over to a more autumnal wardrobe and of course, this week has been blazing sun, so as I waited for the 10.42 to Victoria to finally arrive I could feel my temperature rising into distinctly 'hot and bothered' status.

Then a phonecall comes through - "Mr Ridley, we've sadly lost your really important parcel of documents....not our refunds....probably chucked in a ditch...have a wonderful day"...etc etc. Great.

My mind shifted to 'The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (the classic original version with Leonard Rossiter, not the appalling remake)

Should I jack it all in- snog my attractive secretary and stage my own demise by wandering off into the sea? (tricky, as I pretty much live in Kent)

Then one thing calmed me down. Hang on- i'm actually off to a whisky tasting, which will be great.
The 45 minute delayed journey into Victoria didn't seem as bad then, even as the power died on my phone and some fool accidentally sprayed my newly cleaned white linen blazer with Coca Cola.
The tasting in question was one I had been looking forward to for a while, if my memory serves me, it's a distillery that we haven't really featured very much on Caskstrength; Glen Grant.

As I arrived at the Albannach bar, a beaming figure in the shape of Dennis Malcolm greeted me, resplendent in full Scottish dress, with a table of bottles; Glen Grant (no age statement) 10 Year-Old, 1992 Cellar Reserve and something just a little bit special- A single cask bottling from 1992, to act as a perfect foil to the Reserve.

Dennis gave the assembled guests a great insight into the history of Glen Grant, where we discovered they were the first distillery to fill spirit into Sherry casks and that one of the Grant brothers was a gardening fanatic. (My next Scottish trip will definitely incorporate a visit to the gardens around the distillery, which look superb)

Rather than have pre-poured drams, Dennis encouraged us to pour our own, which, was a totally unexpected treat- not that you end up with larger measures, but the whole process seems a lot more relaxed and less rigid, something I definitely needed after the day so far!

Glen Grant No Age Statement- 40 % - 70cl

Nose: Very fresh and fruity, with a yeasty, barley note on the second nosing. Clearly a young whisky, but not at all overpowering.

Palate: Rich malt, coated with golden syrup and pieces of freshly cut apple /pear. Like a bowl of Shreddies jazzed up with some tasty accompaniment.

Finish: Very light and floral, with more apple notes coming through.

Overall: A great way to start the tasting- nothing overpowering here, just good, clean malty whisky. Very drinkable indeed.

Glen Grant - 10 Year-Old - 40% - 70cl

Nose: Immediate toffee notes, followed by some orange blossom, country fudge and a latte-like milky coffee aroma. Then comes a few light swathes of malt. Decent all round.

Palate: A refreshing and light entry to the palate, with vanilla, a little prickly white pepper and some light menthol notes. Again, the sweet malt comes to the fore, in a similar way to the No Age Statement bottling.

Finish: Apples notes again, with some almond paste/marzipan sweetness.

Overall: Another highly drinkable whisky- uncomplicated and smooth. Worth seeking out.

Glen Grant - 1992 Cellar Reserve- 46% - bottled in 2008 - 46% - NCF - limited release

Nose: Heather honey, light and fragrant floral (honeysuckle) with chopped hazelnuts, some slightly creamy white wine aroma and toffee apple. Sounds like a totally mixed bag, but all very sweet, fruity and floral...

Palate: Light menthol notes, white pepper, more of that white wine and some spiced cinnamon dusted apples.

Finish: Light and fragrant again with the hint of spice enriching the palate as it dries.

Overall: Essentially the big brother of the 10 year old, this has complimentary spicy woody notes (from the addition of sherry butts, we suspect). Another cracking bottling.

Glen Grant - Single Cask Bottling - Aged 17 years - Distilled 12th February 1992 - Bottled 20th May 2009 - Cask no: 17152 - 360 bottles - 58.8%

Nose: An immediate burst of vanilla, golden syrup and honey, mixed with a woody oaky quality. It's a real joy to nose whiskies at caskstrength. With a little water, the previously discovered pear and apple notes start to come through in abundance. Very much within the house style, but so much more.

Palate: Just as beguiling on the tongue as on the nose. Ripe fruits, syrup, marzipan and lemon zest combine with a slightly smoky woody undertone. Thicker mouth-feel than the 1992 reserve but to be expected, given it's at caskstrength.

Finish: Long, fruity and lingering, with a lasting syrupy sweetness.

Overall: Compliments the existing range extremely and a delight to try.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

A Coming Of Age

As wake up calls go, today is undoubtedly one of my earliest in a long time.

3.30am and I'm blearily wrenched from a warm bed with the prospect of a long drive, followed by 2 flights. No groans from me though. This isn't an ordinary trip.

Today Caskstrength was invited on a blindingly brief trip up to Islay for the official launch of a whisky which has undoubtedly been the talk of most peatheads for many months now.

The event marks the coming of age for Islay's youngest whisky, lovingly made by its newest distillery, Kilchoman.

3 years is clearly a damned important milestone in whisky making for any distillery.
It must have seemed like a lifetime to Anthony Wills and his team, when they embarked on transforming Rockside Farm into their dream distillery.

At last, the dreaming is over and you can almost feel a collective sigh of relief from the assembled crowd in the hall today; The first 'actual whisky' has arrived and representatives from every Islay distillery, as well as close friends and family are here to show their support and good cheer.

The release of pressure for Anthony Wills was clearly visible, as he made a hugely emotional speech about the rise of the distillery. It can't have been an easy ride and, in his own words, they have had to 'eat, sleep and drink Kilchoman' to make it work.

But today, it's all about the drinking- and glasses of Kilchoman 3 year-old are proudly piped into the barn, after a rousing introduction from whisky legend and all-round raconteur Charlie MacLean.

As i'm handed my glass, Charlie's historical stories are still resonating profoundly. Many years before this momentous occasion, the very parish of Kilchoman could well have been Scotland's 'cradle of distillation' - in a sense making this a perfectly timed renaissance...

Kilchoman - 3 Year Old - Single Malt - 46%

Nose: Extremely clean, with a very zesty, grassy quality, followed by a waft of youthful peat, some iodine and lots of medicinal character. With a little water, fruity notes emerge - perhaps a faint hint of banana?

Palate: An immediately warming and fruity mouth feel, with no alcohol burn at all. Adding a little water brings through some cream toffee, followed by sharper lemon zest and sherbet. Remarkable depth for a 3 year old whisky, that's for sure.

Finish: As you'd expect lots of fresh, clean notes and a lovely lingering young peat as the palate dries.

Overall: Well, there we have it- Finally Kilchoman have reached the point they can say: 'This is our whisky'- and what a whisky it is too. It has all the fresh, clean elements of young single malt which I love, but maps out just what a tremendous whisky this will become in the future. Something i'm very much looking forward to trying.

Huge congratulations - it was definitely worth the wait.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

And now for something completely different...

Recently, i've been installing a home bar at caskstrength HQ, partly to appease Mrs Caskstrength, who was beginning to resent losing her living room to half empty bottles and boxes of varying age, description and aroma. But mainly i'd fancied trying my hand out at a few old cocktails in the correct surroundings, after a chance encounter with a certain Professor Jerry Thomas.

You see, to the uninitiated, Mr Thomas can probably be described as the godfather of the cocktail, the pioneer of many of our most sacred and classic drinks, still enjoyed around the world today.
His book, 'The Bartenders Guide- How To Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant's Companion' was recently reissued and is a truly remarkable read. more about this in a minute...

I fancied designing a saloon style affair in the back of the house and busily started spec'ing everything up, until I realised it was financially impossible to replicate the famous Harry's bar in Venice.

So, on the friendly advice of a neighbour, I found a rather splendid early 50's cocktail bar which fitted perfectly into the allotted space. Glassware was duly purchased, alongside some vintage cocktail shakers and the accoutrements needed for turning out some classics. Now all I needed was some recipes... Enter Mr Thomas and his wonderful 'Saratoga Pousse-Cafe', created in roughly 1862... Here's how I got on...

For this 'fancy cocktail', I had originally followed the recipe to the letter, using a 'fine old brandy' as the main spirit, but i think I preferred the Mark II, in which I used a 'fine old whisky' - namely a generous measure of Balvenie Portwood finish.

Saratoga Pousse-Cafe - discovered by Mr Jerry Thomas and duly tinkered with by me.

One-fifth Curaco,(well I plumped for Absinthe)
One-fifth Benedictine,
One-fifth Raspberry syrup
(crushed fresh raspberries with a little plain sugar syrup)
Two-fifth's fine old whisky (something fruity and a little old works extremely well)
One teaspoon of vanilla cordial on top. (i didnt have one, so mixed a small amount of vanilla essence with plain sugar syrup)

The essence of a 'pousse' is apparently to try to keep all the ingredients separate in the glass and requires a 'steady hand and careful manipulation'

After delicately layering the ingredients in a small wineglass, I came up with this... Not bad I thought for my first attempt!

The essence is to apparently achieve a fine rainbow like appearance. Nearly there I think!!

Next time- see me attempting Jerry Thomas' signature cocktail- 'The Blue Blazer'- for those of a nervous disposition, it will involve setting fire to some whisky....

Friday 4 September 2009

Choice FM

Ok, here's a little scoop for you....some of you will have already heard about Diageo's plans to release a Manager's Choice single cask bottling from each of their operational distilleries (except for Roseisle, which is obviously not ready yet). We, like many of you received an excitable email recently about the release and immediately our appetites were whetted.

Here are the details of the first batch of distilleries, unveiled... a pretty attractive looking starting point:

Cardhu - distilled 1997- 252 bottles - £250

Elgin - distilled 1998 - 534 bottles - £250

Linkwood - distilled 1996 - 480 bottles - £200

Mortlach- distilled 1997 - 240 bottles - £250

Oban- distilled 2000 - 534 bottles - £300

Teaninich - distilled 1996 - 246 bottles - £200

However, one thing keeps nagging away whilst I type this....the pricing.

Granted, some of these
bottlings will become legendary- especially when we get into the Talisker/Lagavulin/Caol Ila territory (look at the 15 yo Caol Ila Manager's Dram of old - purportedly an astonishing sherried expression of Caol Ila & now retailing for around 500 quid).

But consider one thing:

At this years
Feis Ile, the "Diageo-owned-operational-Islay-distilleries" both released single cask bottlings, of a similar age to the Managers Choice, hand selected by The Manager (or Iain McArthur in Lagavulin's case) which retailed for between 60 and 70 quid. That seems like pretty good value, in any financial climate. Okay, you had to get to Islay on a certain week at the end of May, but I can't help thinking that the new bottlings seem mightily expensive, especially when you can pick up one of these bottling on eBay (or equivalent site) for well under what the first batch of the Managers Choice's are being released at.

That said, these bottles are unique and individual. And to have a complete collection of Manager's Choice
bottlings in one's cabinet would be pretty impressive, wouldn't it? This is mirrored in the press release where Classic Malts Selection spokesperson Nick Morgan says:

"We have occasionally issued single-cask bottlings of individual single malt whiskies before, for instance for visitors to the annual Islay Festival. And single-cask bottlings of our malts can sometimes be obtained from independent bottlers.

“But this is a much more ambitious venture - the most extensive collection we’ve ever released of single cask malt whisky bottlings, from 27 of our operational malt distilleries, involving both the well-known and those whose product isn’t widely available.

“Each individual distillery cask selected by the experts after an extensive examination has doubly earned its place in The Managers’ Choice, regardless of its age: because it faithfully illuminates that distillery's individual DNA, and also because it will offer the connoisseur a different, interesting and perhaps unexpected experience of that whisky.”

Hopefully at some point we'll be in a position to bring you a few notes on a couple of the Managers Choice whiskies but until then, you can re-enjoy the notes on the Caol Ila Feis Ile 2009 (Billy even put his signature on that bottle...) and the 2007, 2008 and 2009 single cask Lagavulins by clicking on the text.