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Tuesday 22 December 2009

We've Started, So We'll Finish...

Fresh, from our exciting night last week, when we crowned Kilchoman's 3 year old Inaugural release the Best In Glass winner, we thought it would be useful to give our palates some room to breathe. Yeah right.
Joel went back to drinking Babycham and Harvey's Bristol Cream, whereas I went a little off-piste. (that's 'Piste'...)
This involved me making copious amounts of a new 'baked apple' whisky cocktail i've been working on for Christmas (details to follow in a seperate post)

Rest assured, we're back on the straight and narrow now and have been wading through some of the recent samples which came in.

One we're particularly interested in was a new release from Highland Park- Earl Magnus. According to Jason Craig at the distillery, 'this is a 15 year old HP, with the addition of some casks from the early 1990's, which should add some greater depth to an high strength expression.'

Historically the Earl or 'Saint' Magnus has been a celebrated figure throughout Orkney tradition, most notably by the stunning cathedral in Kirkwall, which is less than a mile away from the distillery. The Highland Park archive also has in its midst, a bottling from the late 19th Century which depicts an image of Magnus, taken from an ancient stained glass window.

We're big fans of this year's releases HP releases, including the Hjarta and Orcadian vintages, so will this one also be a triumph? More to the point... would this Magnus dare to sit in the Caskstrength Mastermind chair...

"Earl Magnus, your chosen specialised subject is... 'The life and work of the Highland Park distillery'. You have 2 minutes, starting.... NOW":

Highland Park - Earl Magnus bottling - 52.6% - 5976 bottles - 70cl

Nose: Something earthy stirs as the liquid settles in the glass, some definite wood in there, but not sherry wood. A heather note, followed by some dried grass and a little waft of smoke, but only a fleeting one. Left for a while, some quite elegant floral notes develop- rose petals, dried rose petals perhaps?

Palate: Oh, that's working for me. A cracking oily, rich mouthfeel, gives way to some sweet, then menthol flavours. Barley sugar, then orange sherbet, coupled with some malty cereal. It's got Highland Park stamped all over it, but a little bit bolder, with a touch of embossing. With water, it mellows out and you get back the warming hint of floral in the mouth, rather like those fruit jelly sweets, with a hint of citrus. Again, given a little time, some milk chocolate enters the fray, which is nicely tempered with the lingering citrus.

Finish: A slight dustiness and dryness takes over the palate, but the finish is still rich and unmistakably Highland Park.

Overall: A really interesting bottling- the label looks great and the contents are certainly to be commended. At £85, it won't be on everyone's shopping list, but might just creep onto mine, if I can persuade Mrs Caskstrength to abandon her dreams of some tailored leather opera gloves for Christmas...

Friday 18 December 2009

BIG Award Winner... Here it is...!

A chilly night in a non-disclosed location. Six men sit around a table, laden with glassware, bottles and the remnants of a homemade fish pie. Ten whiskies, the finest new releases this year has to offer have been assembled in a sensible tasting order. One overall winner will triumph, two other whiskies will be highly commended alongside the victor.

2009's BIG Award was back, bigger and ready to spill the beans on some great whiskies...

This year's panel was comprised of some crack noses- so both of us Caskstrength chancers had a lot to live up to with our opinions:

'Sir' Colin Dunn needs no introduction at all. As one of the top bods at Morrison Bowmore, he was instrumental in bringing Japanese whisky to the palates of the UK. He has also delighted and educated thousands of new whisky converts as Senior Whisky Ambassador for Diageo.

Tim Forbes is one of the key chaps at the Whisky Exchange, partly responsible for selecting some of the excellent single casks that the Exchange bottle and providing the tasting notes for the hundreds of whiskies on offer on their website. He also runs a fabulous blog too.

Darren Rook is the manager of London's Scotch Malt Whisky Society rooms. As well as being a panelist deciding which society casks are bottled, he is also a top draw cocktail expert, runs a great blog and was one of the chosen bartenders for this year's Whisky Picnic in Edinburgh.

Darrell Sheehan has one of the keenest palates we've ever come across and has a splendid collection of single malts. Darrell was also one of our top chums who made the last 2 year's Feis Ile events such an unforgettable experience. All hail the 'Faceman'....

With the panel assembled it was time to pour the drams and cogitate and deliberate.

With such a range of flavours on offer, our palates undoubtedly took a pounding - debate raged as to personal favourites, but what surprised everyone was the consistency of our thoughts- whilst each whisky demonstrated it was at the height of its game, three drams were emerging as front runners from the 10. After several 're-tastes' we had found our winner- and jolly pleased we were too.

Firstly - our 2 runners up:

Four Roses Single Barrel (2009 Release) - 50% -70cl

A truly extraordinary bourbon and certainly the best we've tried this year. A huge range of fruity flavours, well balanced spice and masses of sweet vanilla, this really is well worth grabbing.

For more info, click here:

Master Of Malt 26 year-old Bowmore - 53.40% - 70cl

We first reviewed this back in July and what struck us immediately was the wonderful light and gently peated nose, but the unusually sweet, tropical fruits on the palate. Colin remarked that it was a reminder of some of the classic older expressions of Bowmore and we certainly wouldn't disagree!

There are still a few bottles of this 'soon to be classic too' bottling here:

So on to the numero uno.

There was no argument from the panel about this whisky being clearly the worthy winner. Not only does it strike a chord for new distillation, it really showcases the quality of young whisky and the potential it has in the years to come.

Drum roll please....

Well done to the Kilchoman distillery for the Inaugural Release and this year's BIG Award Winner!

The freshness at the heart of this whisky is the key to what makes it a champion- coupled with the fabulous balance of crisp peat and wonderful zestiness. On accepting the award, Anthony Wills, the man behind bringing this whisky to fruition said that "this is a tremendous climax to what has been an historical year in the short history of Kilchoman Distillery. It demonstrates that young malt whiskies can be very palatable and Kilchoman releases will definitely be something to look forward to over the coming years."

You can read our full review of the Kilchoman 3 year-old Inaugural Release here.

Well, that's it for this year's award- well done to all the short listed whiskies and we can't wait to start putting together next year's list!

Monday 14 December 2009

BiG Awards 2009 shortlist is unveiled!

OK, as we mentioned last week, here are the names of the 10 whiskies that we feel added a truly extraordinary edge to 2009. As it was with the inaugural BiG Awards (Best in Glass) last year, all 10 come from a wide variety of places and have a huge age range.

Some people will no doubt say we can't fairly pitch a 3 year old whisky against a 45 year old whisky. But here's the rub- it isn't about age (nor price for that matter!)
What these awards are about is celebrating EVERYTHING the whisky stands for...

What story does it tell you?

What memories does it evoke when you try it?

Does it make you beam from ear to ear and crave another dram?

You know- the sort of stuff that gets us all hot under the collar and ever so slightly giddy. All these whiskies have made us feel this way throughout 2009.

So with all these things in mind, we'll be holding a tasting panel later this week to crown the overall 'Best in Glass' winner 2009.
Here's our shortlist (in no particular order). You'll see that most have been reviewed at some point this year- the others were to be in our yearly round up of great drams, but we felt they deserved a place in the awards too:

Four Roses Single Barrel (2009 Release)
Invergordon 1971 Single Grain (Berry's Own Selection)
Hakushu 1989 (TWE 10th Anniversary bottling)

We'll bring you the results of this mammoth tasting later this week... Huzzah!!!

Thursday 10 December 2009

By George, it's ready!!!

The Scottish readers of Caskstrength will no doubt look upon this post with a mixture of amusement, intrigue and possibly distain, as we report that today, the first bottling of English Whisky goes on sale to the general public for 100 years. St George's Distillery over in Norfolk have been producing spirit since November 2006, initially under the watchful eye of master distiller Iain Henderson (ex-Laphroaig) and the very first bottlings or 'Chapters' were released as new make spirit and 18 month old spirit. A peated version of the spirit was also released around the same time.

Now the distillery (rather like Kilhoman did a few months back) can finally celebrate the birth of its whisky -with an initial batch of 349 cases (Chapter 5) going on sale in limited edition decanters a couple of weeks ago.
It of course sold out in a heartbeat and the distillery is now planning the release of Chapter 6, in the run up to Christmas. Matured solely in Bourbon casks and Bottled at 46% (non chilfiltered) Chapter 6 will be the first real chance to try the whisky...

As true blooded Englishmen (well, Joel is part Scandinavian, so he might not count) we're very excited about this release and what it holds for whisky making. Having not tried it yet, we'll reserve judgment, but as soon as we get a chance to try it, you'll be the first to know.

For more info on the distillery, click here

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Finish Reading All About... Joel Has Turned 30! **PART TWO**

In my first post I wrote about an 18 month journey to put together some whiskies from the year of my birth, 1979 in order to celebrate my 30th Birthday. In that post, I wrote about the first threewhiskies of the evening: A Port Ellen Single Cask Signatory bottling, the Port Ellen 3rd Release and a miniature of Imperial. So far, so yummy!

As my search for whisky from 1979 grew, I found my bank balance shrinking; the recession, rising energy bills, fuel duty increasing... the list seemed endless! In line with the shrinking bank balance, the bottles must shrink too, I thought. Feeling not unlike Alice In Wonderland, I was about to enter the interesting world of the miniature... My first purchase was the Imperial- a distillery which I had never experience before and I wasn't disappointed. Next up was another newby on me: Inverleven.

Inverleven - 1979 - 40% vol - 5cl - Gordon & Macphail

Nose: A lovely and sweet nose, I would have pinpointed this as a lowland from that alone. Not as rich in flowers and perfume as a Rosebank, but certainly some white flowers and a hint of toffee.

Palate: A touch of burnt sugar, some bacon.

Finish: Medium with mild spice.

Overall: A pleasant enough dram, but not one to knock the socks off.

The final wee bottle for the evening was a Glen Mhor, yet another distillery that won't ever produce again. This "little drinking" is a good way forward. Cheaper than big bottles and you get to try some whisky you may never have again!

Glen Mhor - 1979 - Distilled 25/5/1979 Bottled July 1995 - Cask No. 2377 + 2378 - 66.7% - 5cl

Nose: Over Mature Compost! Mint Tea, Apple Juice and old sackcloth

Palate: Vanilla Sherbet, much more of the fresh green apples

Finish: Lots of spices, with water cinnamon buns.

Overall: This needs a big dollop of water to open the senses up and get all the flavours out. Only a 16 year old but the is a real maturity about this dram. Robust and flavourful; just make sure you add water!

With the miniatures all gone, it was time to refocus on the big bottles of 1979 stock. By this time my budget was long gone. A few miniatures, a 1979 Port Ellen Single Cask and the Port Ellen 3rd Release later, the tank was indeed empty. It is at this stage that one has to rely on the extreme generosity of friends! There is an old saying:
"A man can be judged by the company he keeps".

On this showing, I am indeed one of the richest men alive. And the next part of this post is a tribute to those people. Thank you!

The first bottle to be unwrapped was a 1979 Caol Ila from Berry Bros, a gift from fellow caskstrengther, Neil (in the interests of clarity, we tried this at BB&R a couple of months ago and I expressed a delight in the bottling, so no prizes to Neil for picking up my very unsubtle hints!!- Cheers mate!):

Caol Ila - 1979 / 2009 - Cask No. 4412 - 53.1% vol - 70cl

Nose: This is a beast! Coal smoke, peat and general targeted aggression drag up pear drops, honeysuckle and mint. Whoooah! This is a nose!

Palate: Yes, that's a Caol Ila- everything you'd expect from the coal driven palate, but there is also some delicate creams in there. Leave it in for as long as you dare and the smoke rises. And rise. And rise. You can hold it for an eternity, but it's like holding a wasp in your mouth... it just gets more and more aggressive as it looks for a way out. This is not only very tasty, but very lively. A fun dram.

Finish: Not as long as you would expect from something as richly flavoured as this, nor from something with this level of strength. There seems just a whiff of relief from the liquid that you've released it. Again, the coal is dominant flavour, but when dies down there is a load of different florals with clear, runny-honey coming in late.

Overall: This is a sensational dram. I had a dinner party last week with one of the attendees from my birthday drinks there. He claimed he'd only come over to try this whisky again. There seems to be a real race developing for "dram of the night" with two front runners being this Caol Ila and the Port Ellen 3rd Release...

So far, so good. I'm very pleased with the additional drammage from 1979. It was truly turning out to be a great year for whisky. But where next? Kudos must go to Darren from the SMWS who pulled out a wonderfully interesting bottle from 1979, dragged kicking and screaming from his own archives. Another demolished distillery... a Glen Albyn.

SMWS 69.11 - July 1979 / July 2006 - 27 Years Old - 58.1% Vol - 70cl

Nose: Very nutty with a hint of sherry. I'm guessing from the nose and the colour that this a 2nd or 3rd refill sherry cask. I would never have pinpointed this whisky from the nose alone (why should I have done?!) but there is real body to it, backed with a freshness or lightness of grass.

Palate: Quite bitter at first, then some tobacco notes, pepper and a hint of salt.

Finish: Long and strong. With water this dram come alive much more- cooking apple notes leap out along with fresh brown bread.

Overall: Unusual and a real welcome break from the peatiness of the evening. This is a strong dram in every way; full of flavours of forest floors, cooking apples and brown bread. A MALT drinkers malt.

It was at this stage that the bottlings hit a wall. That was it for drams from 1979. But the little fact that I was born in '79 didn't put people off. It was time to dig in to some new bottlings... all THIRTY YEAR OLDS. Whoop!

The first came courtesy of my good friend Rich. We've grown up together and he was also born in 1979 but Rich was very kind in bringing along a bottle from yet another new distillery on me... Tamdhu.

Tamdhu - 30 Years Old - The Macphail's Collection - 43% vol - 70cl

Nose: One of those wonderful noses you get with a well aged sherry cask of dark chocolate with cherries in. Beautifully rounded.

Palate: Not as intense on the palate as the nose would suggest. Hold to the promise of dark chocolate but this time with a greater nutty feel of chopped hazelnuts.

Finish: Oooh, spices which I wasn't expecting. A lot hotter than I thought it would be and really quite long.

Overall: A cracker. Never had Tamdhu before but this makes me want to explore it further.

The next 30 year old up was a very special one for me. It had been re-label by the wonderful chaps at Master Of Malt as "Joel Harrison's 30th Birthday Malt - 30 Years Old". How very, very kind of them. The empty bottle I shall keep forever!

Master Of Malt - Secret Bottling Series - Joel Harrison's 30th Birthday Malt - 30 Years Old - Speyside - 40% Vol - 70cl

(note: this is a very heavily sherried Speyside from an un-named distillery...)

Nose: Burnt sugar, creme brulee, walnuts, old polished wood.

Palate: Phawr! That's sherried and aged! Pure apricots in syrup with toffee apple.

Finsh: Medium, lightly spiced and medium dry. Like well brewed tea without milk. Just leaves you wanting more.

Overall: That, ladies and gentlemen, is how to do heavily sherried 30 year old whisky. Everything you want on the nose from a good sherry cask, a plate that isn't too heavy but is nice and fruity and just enough dryness in the finish to leave you wanting more.

"Where do you go from here?" I hear you cry! Well, there are just two more drams from the night, so let's move on to Ma & Pa Harrison's contribution to my celebrations (Thanks Mum and Dad. xx) and guess what?!? It's only more bloody Port Ellen!!

Port Ellen 8th Release - 1978 / 2008 - 29 Years Old - 6618 bottles - 55.3% Vol - 70cl

Nose: The most delicate of all the islay whisky on the night. Hints of lemon, sea salt and smoke.

Palate: The smoke is subtle on this one and the first thing to pop up is those lemons and the salt, the smoke follows in later. Touch of liquorice too.

Finish: After the smoke dies down, pear drops and lime come up and then the fire of the chillies takes over. Long.

Overall: This is a good dram, but not the best islay of the night. In fact, probably in 4th place after the 3rd release, the single cask and the Caol Ila. But let's be honest... to finish behind those three is still bloody good going!

Finally, we come back to the mainland from Islay for one last dram as we travel down to Campbletown courtesy of a man whose picture should be found next to the word generous in the dictionary, Sukhinder Singh.
Longrow - MacMhuirich, Currie & Wilkinson - 1993 - 13 Year Old - Cask No. 635 - 46% Vol - 70cl

Nose: Wowzer! The most delicate hint of peat, banana and vanilla.

Palate: The smoke and banana intermingle with parma violets and touch of liquorice.

Finish: All of the above carried over a medium length and a hint of sherbet.

Overall: This is a fantastic dram. So delicate yet with some real push from the smoke behind it.

It's been a wonderful evening of drams. Thank you to all who came along. I am a very blessed person.

Monday 7 December 2009

BiG Awards 2009 are coming soon!!

Wow! So many great whiskies this year and so many great experiences to go with tasting them. However, there is only one awards ceremony that dares to put the 10 best up against each other... Yes, the BiG awards is back for 2009.

This year, competition has been stiff, but we've managed to whittle them down to 10 bottling's which we feel worthy of the accolade of 'Best in Glass 2009'.

The Rules are simple. Each of the nominees are new releases in 2009. Like last year, we'll be putting them all head-to-head for a final tasting to be held somewhere in London in the next 10 days.

We'll be announcing the short list next Monday - then battle shall commence to see which one is the most stand out bottling on the night. No 'Best Islay under 15 years old' or other similar sub-categories- just a simple, outright, pound for pound winner.

Last year's winner was the amazing Karuizawa 1971 bottling, which is now so scarce that grown men have been known to sell their hair for just a small dram of it.

keep 'em peeled for the short list and let us know whether you agree or disagree.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Some more choices to make...

December is always a hugely busy time in the drinks business and this year is clearly no exception. I've just bought a little helper to keep me in tip top condition and I recommend you do the same... Milk Thistle Tincture. Apparently very good to positively armour plate your liver. It tastes vile on its own, but slipped into a virgin cocktail, one can almost feel it protecting your pipes before the Christmas onslaught begins.

Our Caskstrength Christmas was very much kicked off last night, when we were given an exclusive preview of the next flight of Managers Choice bottlings. The next 6 distilleries to be released will hit the shops on January 8th 2010. Not shy to the criticism over the last Managers Choice releases, Diageo have upped their game and have at least wheeled out one big gun this time around (Talisker) which we were probably most eager to taste.

As we've already tittered some abbreviated notes, we'll split this post into 2 parts and give you a little more to chew on... bottle shots to come....

Lets start off with something a little light weight:

Glen Spey- Managers Choice Bottling - Date Filled: January 1996 (13 yo)- 52% - New American Oak -276 bottles

Very light, floral and almost too delicate- chopped almonds into sweet marzipan, with dessicated coconut, fruity parma violets, a little hint of honey and pencil shavings/ freshly sawn wood. It's there one minute and then it's gone!!

Palate: Very fruity, hints of Gewurztraminer, but backed up with some lovely rich buttery notes. With water, the fruit dissipates and you're left with very little else.

Finish: Slightly drying and short, but delicate with a few green herbs poking through.

Overall: Admittedly, I ruined this whisky with the smallest drop of water, but its aroma and palate were very good while they lasted.

Next up: A Speyside that often delights in the few moments one gets to try it- will this bottling live up to the challenge?

Inchgower-Managers Choice Bottling - Date Filled: October 1993 (15 yo) 61.9% - Bodega sherry cask - 564 bottles

Blood oranges, some cracking dry Oloroso sherry, dry, salty vermouth notes with a little hint of chamois leather. With the addition of water, some more fruity notes of Mandarin come through. Impressive and well rounded.

Palate: Chopped hazelnuts, a hint of apple, fresh mint & eucalyptus. Very menthol indeed. Unlike the Glen Spey, this definitely benefits from the addition of water- the fruits come to the front and the spicy heart is unlocked, with some salty licorice. It isn't as revealing as you'd like, but the water definitely gives you some more umph.

Finish: Very drying, but the licorice notes linger for a fair old time.

Overall: Not bad as sherried whiskies go, but in all honesty, there are probably more enjoyable ones around.

Onto the final dram in this part: Now we're getting interesting. This is either going to be a smasher or totally underwhelming, compared to the recent premium releases, the 25 & 30 yo. Yes... it's the Talisker.

Talisker - Managers Choice Bottling - Date Filled: December 1994 (15 yo) 58.6% - Bodega sherry cask - 582 bottles

Masses of wood smoke. Hang on... we're standing outside to the rear of St Barnabas Church and right next to a huge wood burning fire. Better move inside I think...

Right, that's better. Where were we? Oh yes- Wood smoke, not as much as there was outside, but a lovely sweet fresh wood smoke emanates from the glass. Alongside, a light phenolic note comes through and some linseed oil. It's definitely Talisker, but dare I say- restrained.

Palate: Wow. I didn't expect this. Lots of luscious, ripe fruit. Fresh strawberries, sweet raspberry jam, then lemon sherbet and a note of original flavoured menthol Locket throat sweets. A classic saltiness comes through on the backbeat, which anchor this dram firmly on Skye. Lovely and totally unexpected.

Finish: Lingering medicinal notes and salt last on the palate for a considerable time, a highly warming dram.

Overall: Superb. As a Talisker it shines- not a million miles from the 18yo, but with something else. As a Managers Choice bottling, you expect something special. It doesn't disappoint. Certainly the best bottling we've tried thus far.

Part 2 will follow shortly, where we'll tackle the Dalwhinnie, Royal Lochnagar and Blair Athol.