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Thursday 29 July 2010

An All-Points-Bulletin of Brilliance- A Day With Compass Box

The word Artisan is often applied to many gifted craftsmen and women across a variety of creative arts. From woodwork to pottery, the term conjurers up an image of a master at work, developing and honing the object of their attentions into something truly extraordinary.

Well a little while back, we got to hang out for the day with a true 'Artisan' of the whisky world. Mr John Glaser, the creative force behind Compass Box has been honing the art of great whisky making for the past decade - and this year sees the company trying out even more exciting, revolutionary ideas and recipes, wonderfully balanced with an unlikely sense of English eccentricity.
We say 'unlikely', as John (as many of you are already aware) is an American living in London, but take a visit to Compass Box's (fairly) recent HQ in the heart of London's leafy Chiswick and you'll be greeted by an office which fits somewhere between the zen tranquility of an LA beach house and one of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animations.

Everything about Compass Box HQ screams (sorry, persuasively whispers) creativity; from the calming Jazz playing in the background, to the mantra-like inscription on one of the walls -
'Above All, Share & Enjoy' - an air of simplicity, which is perhaps lost on the large number of more corporate players.

John essentially started Compass Box from his apartment kitchen table (above a hairdressers) with a desire to create "something outside of single malts", focusing on one distinct mission statement; To become a boutique blending company using better casks, achieving a house style, whilst applying an artisan's approach.
And it seems to be working. From, as John puts it "traveling around with a ruck sack full of whisky" Compass Box has achieved considerable successes in not only the UK, but with exports to over 25 countries worldwide. Not bad for a team of just three people eh...

So what was the 'Eureka Moment' when it all clicked into place?

John explains that "It was the discovery of using first fill bourbon casks, which led to a richer, softer whisky- I wanted to take quality aged whiskies and then develop them even further in quality oak. Compass Box isn't particularly about single malts" he continues, " it's about us starting with one lead whisky and then complimenting it with perhaps two or three more."

So do you see this as a blending skill?

"Actually, I think it's probably the antithesis of blending" he laughs. "Blends are more like a symphony orchestra, with no particular lead flavour, whereas we're probably more like a Jazz quartet- certain things tend to stand out, with their own character."

John cites Clynelish as one of the important tools in the company's arsenal of flavour, the distillery which sits at the heart of his sensational Oak Cross bottling, along with Teaninich and Dalliuane. His creative touch is perhaps most apparent with this marriage of whiskies, which uses oak casks developed by a small mill in France, that produces some of the highest quality cooperage oak in the world. John continues that "It was our work with this mill that led us to experimenting with secondary maturation of malt whiskies in casks fitted with new French oak heads. This is something no one else in Scotland does."

This innovative technique gives the whiskies much greater character and complexity, before they are married for up to a year in further oak.

Here's our notes on this excellent bottling:

Compass Box - Oak Cross- 43%

Nose: Superb sweet, fruity aromas, reminiscent of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum. Soft cereal notes, buttery vanilla, a hint of waxiness and toasted grain. Superbly balanced between the three main component distilleries (Clynelish, Dailuaine & Teaninich)

Palate: Very rich and mouth filling- barley sugar, a hint of grapefruit, crystalised ginger and Demerara sugar. In essence, rich, buttery and sweet. Absolutely sensational.

Finish: Lingering notes of sweetness, watermelon juice and really clean barley.

Overall: A brilliantly put together whisky, which serves as a refreshing aperitif, especially in the barmy British summertime. We'd recommend this as the starting point into the many great Compass Box whiskies.

John gave us a quick demonstration into the (quite frankly disturbing) effects of adding caramel colouring into whisky (Compass Box of course use none of the dreaded stuff in their whiskies) and it surprised us just how small an amount was needed to effectively take something like a lightweight 4th fill whisky up to a rich and deeply coloured 'Faux Fill'. The results aren't just noticeable on the eye either, take it from us!

We also got to try two of the other standouts from the Compass Box collection, Peat Monster (the company's best seller) and Spice Tree which again demonstrates just how forward thinking John and his team are.

Spice Tree is perhaps the company's most controversial bottling, because of its innovative production techniques. In 2006, they were almost forced to stop making it- absurdly, the SWA decided that secondary maturation of the whisky using casks with 'inserted inner French Oak staves' was not appropriate, on the grounds that it had never been done before, despite being a technique used by winemakers for the last 30 years. But effectively being dubbed an 'Illegal Whisky' can have its advantages and the bottling quickly became the stuff of legend, selling incredibly well and creating a huge demand for more.
And thankfully, more has been created, this time developing a new (and apparently legitimate) technique of using casks with differently toasted french oak cask heads, to obtain the rich spicy profile of the original Spice Tree. The label is also suitably avant garde- apparently the creative brief was to produce something resembling the LSD infused thoughts of Bjork... already a big thumbs up from us...!

Compass Box - Spice Tree - 46%

Nose: Wave upon wave of sweet Demerara sugar, fruity and dry vintage Cognac notes, heather honey and sliced green apple, maybe even a hint of fresh melon thrown in for good measure.

Palate: A lovely coating mouthfeel, with an initial spiciness, cinnamon, nutmeg and fruity, juicy green apples coming to the fore. With a little water, the palate starts to explode with a dizzying array of sweetness- some raspberry jam, a dusting of icing sugar and a lovely rich oaky base. Another triumph in the balancing stakes.

Finish: The fruit lingers on, with absolutely no dryness creeping in, giving a very satisfying fresh but complex, spicy aftertaste.

Overall: Spice Tree achieves all the objectives of well matured whisky, ie depth, lightness, sweetness and richness but delivers it in such an unusual and exciting way, your mouth eagerly looks forward to the next sip long before you've finished the first. It just has a real air of innovation about it, or to put it into Monty Python terms... And Now For Something Completely Different! It's certainly two fingers up to the pen-pushing bureaucrats and long may that continue.

As we leave John, Chris and Gregg to more experimentation, it is patently obvious that the whisky industry needs more mavericks like Compass Box. In a world where lighter spirits are grabbing the headlines with their youthful attraction, whisky almost needs to work twice as hard to compete for the same attention in the contemporary market place. It is worrying that the policy makers have a tendency to frown on innovations such as Spice Tree, but as Compass Box have proven, when you create something which is unique, perception challenging and... just downright drinkable, the results speak for themselves.
If you'd like to get more information on Compass Box and their range of great whiskies, check out

Tuesday 27 July 2010

A Walk In The Park....

Another hot London day and another hot new whisky launch are always fondly welcomed here at Almost a year since announcing the inaugural 'Orcadian Vintages', Highland Park have unveiled details of their 3rd bottling in the series... and the good news is it's a cracker.

This afternoon, we joined the irrepressible Gerry Tosh at the Albannach bar in London's Trafalgar Square for a sneak preview of this monumental release. Gerry bought us up to speed on the history behind the previous Orcadian Vintages (reviewed here) pointing out the wonderful quirks which made both the 1964 and 1968 bottlings so very different from each other.
Apparently in 1964, the Orkney winds weren't as powerful when gusting over the barren coastline and as a result, the peat smoke had a greater opportunity to have its wickedly smoky way with the maltings. However, Gerry pointed out that it was a very different story in 1968, with regular gales playing havoc with peating levels, blowing the smoke skywards from the kilns, thus producing a less pronounced smokiness in the malt.
Surely this will become a whisky-based pub quiz question classic in the future... (if such a thing were ever to exist...)

Anyway, the 1970 Orcadian Vintage sits somewhere in between the previous releases, balancing the rich fruity sweetness from the sherry casks with a delicate swathe of peated goodness. The basis for this bottling comes from a vatting of 7 casks, a mixture of butts and refill sherry hoggies.

Here's what we thought when the cork was finally removed from the ominous black bottle !

Highland Park - 1970 Orcadian Vintage - 48% - 1,800 bottles

Nose: An initial cask mustiness greets the nostrils and you're drawn into a beguiling mix of vintage wine notes, drying oak and a slightly sticky-sweet port aroma. As the whisky hits the air, the mustiness disappears and you're presented with classic Highland Park- sweet heather honey, slightly jammy notes (plum and cherry), hints of scented wax and a faint whiff of fragrant peat smoke. It's brilliantly balanced and another indication of just how good the older stock has been maturing. Sublime stuff.

Palate: Sponge cake notes hit the palate first, followed by mint humbugs, cherry brandy, golden syrup, soft malty cereal notes and again, a little whisper of that smoke. It coats the whole mouth and totally demands your attention. Give this time (at least 30 minutes) and it will reward you ten-fold with further rich fruit notes and even sweeter honey developing on the palate. Pretty good then? You bet.

Finish: Waxy, with lingering black cherry notes and an oaky dryness, but absolutely no bitterness whatsoever.

Overall: The first 2 releases of the Orcadian Vintage series were real eye openers, not only because of the quality of cask selection, but also as an exercise in how a distillery has, for decades, managed to create and maintain a perfectly balanced house style. This new bottling sits comfortably next to the 18yo as well as its older brothers and perfectly highlights just how rich the seam of great whisky making runs deeply within Highland Park. Long may that continue.

Monday 26 July 2010

Spoilt for Choice?

The final tranche of Diageo's Managers' Choice bottlings has just been released, which includes several big names, including Clynelish and the much anticipated bottling of Lagavulin, as well as some of the other less well known bottlings. Tasting notes of the entire batch can now be found on our new Caskstrength Warehouse site and below we've featured a cross section of our thoughts on some of the riders and runners...

Clynelish – Managers’ Choice – 1997 / 2009 – First Fill Bourbon American Oak – cask 4341 - 216 bottles – 58.5% vol

Nose: Ahhhh... Clynelish! Welcome to our noses. Beautiful aroma of lavender, vanilla and parma violets. Clynelish and Rosebank have, for us the two of the finest, most fragrant noses within Scottish whisky and you can see why Clynelish is the choice for the smart blender. If grain is the hard tackling midfielder, the ball winner, then Clynelish is the creative, luxury player. The one you come to watch. The one who sells the shirts. Really, really good.

Palate: Waxy, slightly bitter and loads cream. Holding the palate it develops loads of lovely berry flavours: summer fruits yogurt! With water: Swimming pool notes come through and the berries are reduced.

Finish: Very “bourbon-like” with oak and red jam. Not too far from the Four Roses Single Barrel. With water: As with the palate, the gentle medicinal notes.

Overall: This is a cracking dram but for me, needs to be taken straight.

Auchroisk – Managers Choice - 1999 – bottled March 2009 - 642 bottles - Sherry Hogshead - cask 11323 - 60.6% vol

Nose: Immediate Caramac notes, some definite spiritiness, malted milk biscuits, condensed milk and dessicated coconut.

Palate: Very thin mouthfeel, almost disappears in the mouth instantly. Some crème caramel notes and hints of Toffee Crisp bars. With water, the caramel notes are more pronounced, but that’s about it.

Finish: Sweet and fairly short, with a slight malty note entering on the death.

Overall: The nose gives you hope that this will be a stunner, but it falls apart way too quickly and you’re left thinking about what you’re going to try next. Disappointing.

Lagavulin- Managers Choice – 1993 – bottled February 2009 – 612 bottles – European Bodega Sherry Oak - cask 4477 – 54.7% vol

Nose: Soft medicinal notes, with carbolic soap and earthy/dry undertones. Slightly vegetate, with some salted potato crisps. A hint of plastcine and some gentle wood smoke rounds out a very pleasant nose indeed.

Palate: Crunchie bars, soft peat smoke and a slight mossy/musty note. The salted crisps make a return and some lighter white chocolate sweetness rounds out the palate.

Finish: The sweetness lingers with the classic Lagavulin carbolic medicinal notes and a drying woody note on the death.

Overall: A decent enough bottling, but in our opinion this goes to highlight just how good the regular 16yo bottling is when placed side-by-side. Also worth checking out the Feis Ile bottlings from the same distillation date, (1993) which again probably have the edge here.

Knockando – Managers’ Choice – 1996 / 2009 – Spanish Sherry Oak – Cask No 800790 – 612 Bottles – 58.5% Vol

A classic sherry whisky – robust dry/fruity aromas, tannic notes and slightly bitter undertones. The wood has dominated the whisky, but has not beaten it completely into submission.

Palate: Very dry mouthfeel, some fruity richness and twigs. The sherry influence is, er, heavy and somewhere under all this make up is a fairly honeyed whisky with some lovely delicate notes of green apple and fresh mint. With water: much improved and the true flavours of this distillery come to the fore.

Finish: long and warming with heavy polished wood and some mint. With water: as with the palate.

Overall: Spain is, along with France, one of the biggest markets for Knockando as a single malt and we wonder if this had an influence on the decision making behind this choice of bottling. The sherry is very pronounced but fortunately hasn't killed off the distillery character and is certainly worth a try if you're keen on big, fruity beasts.

So there we have it- alongside the Talisker, the Clynelish shines through as probably the best of the Managers' Choice bottlings.

Sunday 25 July 2010

'Daig This Out.....

In the last few weeks, there's been a lot of open discussion about the perceived 'age' of whisky in relation to its actual quality.  We've been open about where we stand on the matter, as have a number of other blogs  and whisky writers, not to mention the banter between certain distilleries.

It just so happens then, that we were recently sent a whisky that pretty much widens the debate even more so. A whisky that, whilst being in its infancy, displays all the hallmarks of a much older whisky, with a certain refined wisdom, maturity and panache to boot.  How is this possible??

Berry's Own Selection - Ledaig - distilled 2005 - Cask number: 900008 - 62.7% 

Colour:  We don't usually give much stead to the colour of a whisky, but this is a 5 year old...! In that short time (in a clearly very active sherry butt) it has taken on a wonderful rich gold/copper colour and looks totally glorious.

Nose: Mint humbugs, bonfire toffee, some earthy/soil like peat smoke, oaty Flapjacks and some juicy currants. Oh my.  Absolutely wonderful.

Palate: Powerful at first, but then straight into some sweetness, heather honey, crystalised ginger and creamy caramel.  It shares lots of similarities with homemade tablet and your mouth gets coated with a rich oiliness.  With water, it brings even more waves of refinement,  the honey become slightly waxier, the mint humbugs of the nose more chewy and the flapjacks (returned to the palate) even more buttery. With water and reduced in strength, I defy anyone to pick out blind that this is a five year old whisky...

Finish:  The peat lingers and the sweetness keeps on giving for a fabulously pleasant experience.  

Overall:  Doug and Ed over at Berry's can be extremely proud of this bottling.  Not only have they entered their well-honed oar into the age Vs quality debate, they've smashed it open.  This whisky is rich, thick and pretty revolutionary.   With vintage whiskies, one looks for a balance of maturity and freshness. With younger whiskies you're hoping to find a hint of where it may be heading in the future.  This one is already light years ahead. 

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Live and Glenivet

A wise man once told me that "single cask" is the whisky equivalent of a bootleg record in music.

How true this can be.

Around about 15 years ago, I fell in love with punk music. The Clash and The Sex Pistols became demi-gods in my world and so I would take regular trips from Oxford to London to visit Camden Market, the best place in town to buy t-shirts, badges, second hand clothes and, of course, bootleg CD’s. It wasn’t so much the recordings that were fascinating (especially with the DIY punk ethic, where most of the musicians could barely play their instrument) but, on live bootlegs or studio out-takes, it was the chat between songs that caught the ear.

There was a desire to connect with the (wo)men behind the music. You wanted intimate banter between the lead singer and the front row of the audience. You wanted words from the producer to the lead guitarist, or comments from the drummer to his engineer. It was all about discovery of the core personalities within the group. Something that was often produced out of many studio albums.

Rough and ready rock ‘n’ roll is what you want!

Usually, these bootlegs are tape recordings done by fans at shows which have made their way, via a Russian pressing plant, on to a 12” picture disc or CD. Housed in “unofficial” covers, with “unofficial” artwork, the very sense of uniqueness radiates from the sleeve. But every now and then, often to support a major release or sometimes as b-side, an artists' record label sticks something out which shows this side of their act. The Who Live At Leeds is a classic example. Made to look like a bootleg with rough and ready artwork, this was a revelation when it hit the shops in 1985.

In front of me I have two whiskies from the same distillery, The Glenlivet. One is a new release from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. The other is an official release, The Nadurra.

As always with the SMWS, their bottling are the most “bootleg” on the market. Even though they recently “cleaned up” their bottles which now look a lot more on-brand than their previous, artisanal, handfilled-looking relatives, there is still no distillery name, but plenty of information.

The Nadurra, on the other hand comes very much baring the hallmarks of a distillery released bottle. However, the contents of this is a little different from your usual ‘Livet, being released at natural cask strength and matured in 100% ex-American Oak, unlike the other standard releases of The Glenlivet, which all have key elements of European Oak in. This is the “official bootleg”, if you will. Plenty of distillery character, but raw and ready. Rock ‘n Roll!

Let’s take a look at the two and see if one is The Who Live At Leeds and the other is Oasis Live By The Sea...

The Glenlivet - SMWS - 2.78 Kissed By Sweet Promises – 21 Years Old – 512 Bottles – Refill Sherry Butt – 58.4% Vol

Before we start, a word on the colour (which we don’t usually do). This is 5 years older than the Nadurra and has been in an ex-sherry cask, but the colour is lighter! It may be that this is in a 2nd or 3rd refill sherry butt, the bottle doesn’t make it clear. However, the sherry influence is minimal, at least in the colour...

Nose: Initially a big nose prickle followed by lots of fresh wood (pine) and then a huge hit of plum, much like the Hibiki 12 Year Old. It’s very floral for a Glenlivet and there is a touch of oomph provided by a liquorice tone. Very well rounded, if not a little strong.

Palate: Bread and butter pudding, with some spiced custard over the top and a glass of light red wine! Here the sherry shows itself with some subtle red fruits and works it way around using spices to give itself some energy. With water: the apple pie really comes to life here, with the breadiness of the pastry standing out.

Finish: Like a heavy white wine, with a little bitterness, cloves and some more of that liquorice. With water: spicer and fruitier.

Overall: A very pleasant dram if not a touch overpowering at first. Needs water to highlight the subtle flavours which make this bottling well worth hunting out.

The Glenlivet – Nadurra – 16 Years Old – Batch 11091 – 100% ex-American Oak – 54.2% Vol

Nose: A much gentler note on the nose than the SMWS bottling, there are elements of deeper wood, vanillas, orange and lavender. An touch of horseradish sauce in there too.

Palate: Initially there are violets and heather, later honey comes through and some lightly spiced apple pie. With water: the vanilla is highlighted and with ice cream notes coming through. Almost like Neil’s cranachan with his whisky-cream...!

Finish: Sweet and long with elements of ginger and candyfloss. With water: retains the spices, but the vanillas balance it out nicely.

Overall: Not what you would expect from The Glenlivet, but this really does a fantastic job of showing off true, delicate yet robust distillery character without the need to add “complexity” from sherry casking. All they need to do now is add a new make to the range and you’ll be able to see a real journey from grain to glass via wood in your very own home!

Both of these whiskies are crackers. If you want true, usual bootleg-style fun, then go for the SMWS. You wouldn’t know it was sherried from the colour, but the palate holds some real surprises. If you want something a little more original, but still with that feeling that you’ve unearthed something other people haven’t, go for the Nadurra. Be warned, however. It’s Glenlivet, but how we know it...

As will now be the norm with our postings, you can download these tasting notes as a handy little pdf file at the Cask Strength Warehouse.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

The All New Caskstrength Warehouse

Greetings one and all! I trust this day finds you well.
I come to you today with some good news! We have finally got around to expanding our website.


Over the last month or so, we've been beavering away turning all our tasting notes from this humble little blog in to handy PDF files for you to download and keep, should you wish.

Our new archive site is called The Cask Strength Warehouse and can be found by clicking on the link in the tab at the top of the page, next to our new "About Us" or simply by clicking here:

Clever stuff, huh!?!

How does it work? Well it's very simple. You visit the home page, click through to the A-Z, select your distillery or blend and there you'll be faced with links through to each bottling review. You can either read the pdf from the comfort of your computer, or you can download them for your own archives. All for free!

There are over 100 different distilleries and brands from 10 different countries and somewhere in the region of 300+ reviews. We stopped counting when our eyes started to hurt. Damn computer screens.

Anyway, we hope you like it and that it will be a valuable resource for you.

Joel & Neil

Monday 12 July 2010

FOUR! (blends)

Luckily, here at towers we have some good friends. One such person is our mate Andy. A Northern Irish fella who now lives in London, Andy is a massive golf and whisky fan and sends this report down from the Barclay's Scottish Open at Loch Lomond this weekend. Lucky git... Finally you get a break from our inane ramblings to hear those of another misguided fool:

Hello! Here I am, in Scotland again for what feels like the third time in as many weeks (mainly because it IS the third time in as many weeks). It’s a perfect July day, grey, cold, and windy, with the type of rain that Vietnam would be proud of in the monsoon season. I also have 3 text messages from friends in London informing me it’s 31 degrees and sunny. (Note to self, don’t rub people’s noses in it when heading to Scotland.) Added to that, a 3 hour delay at Gatwick the night before had led to a missed dinner and an intimate knowledge of just how uncomfortable the seats are at gate 45.

However, you’d be VERY much mistaken if you think my damp exterior would lead to low spirits… I had the prospect of seeing some of the best golfers in the world play The Scottish Open along with a tasting of the Ballantine’s prestige range around lunchtime!

Off I set on the 30 minute cab ride to the course. Jim the very friendly driver, pointed out the Ballantine’s bottling plant at Kilmalid on the way and, in what felt like no time at all I had arrived at the course, grabbed a coffee and a bacon roll and nestled under an umbrella by the 8th green in front of the club house to watch a few groups of players come through.

Golf and whisky are regular bedfellows and go hand-in-hand like Russell Brand and Katy Perry, though perhaps with a little more class. I never set foot on a course without making sure my hipflask is topped off and in the side pocket of my bag. If you don’t play golf, and I know many of you won’t (oh what infuriating joy you’re missing out on!) it may not quite translate, but the tasting of a wonderful dram while walking through beautiful countryside with good friends is an experience that simply cannot be bettered. The fact you have to stop occasionally to hit a ball (and then usually look for it in the trees) very often does come second (insert joke here about Tiger Woods coming second…).

I digress, back to the present. After standing still for an hour or so, I was thankful to see a group with Graeme McDowell coming through as not only did he win the US Open 3 weeks ago, he’s a fellow Ulsterman and as I discovered, a fellow lover of whisky. He’s is also a Ballantine’s brand ambassador and gets personally involved in special golf commemorative blends. What a man. After following them for a few holes my heart began to sink as I slowly came to the realisation that “no, I would never be good enough to be a professional golfer” and “yes, these guys really are that good”.

Checking my watch I realised it was time for lunch followed by a much anticipated tasting. I walked up the impressive steps of Rossdhu House and was shown through to a fantastic old dining room which couldn’t have been purpose built any better for a whisky tasting. With the setting so perfect, the whiskies laid out and the golf on a telly in the corner, I wondered if life gets any better? (Just to reiterate, it was 31 Deg down here in London! – Ed)

Ken Lindsay, Ballantine’s Global Brand Ambassador took us through some of the background of the blend and had some bottles of the two key Single Malts that go in to the range (Glenburgie and Miltonduff), along with a sample of the blended grain that forms the base of the range too. A wonderful opportunity to taste the ingredients in their virgin states! While it’s fair to assume that the bulk of the grain spirit does come from the Pernod Ricard group distilleries Dumbarton and Strathclyde, not even he knows the exact blend with grain from all 7 major distilleries being used. In fact, anywhere between 35 and 40 different whiskies actually go in to each different blend from all corners of Scotland.

At this stage I must hold my hands up and say that I’m not a huge drinker of blends. That’s certainly not to say I’m a Malt snob, or that I don’t enjoy them; it’s simply the case that in the course of my drinking life I haven’t had the opportunity to sample as many blends as I have Single Malts. Added to that the general “down the nose” look that most whisky drinkers give to grain whisky, I must admit that I was very pleasantly surprised by the depth and complexity in the drams I sampled.

Ballantine’s - 17yr – 43%

Nose: A soft buttery vanilla nose with hints of summer spice and heather.

Palate: Over-riding sweet vanilla and fruit with undertones of creamy fudge. Balanced with a touch of citrus. Overall very smooth and balanced.

Finish: A fairly short sweet fruit finish which is worryingly moreish.

Ballantine’s - 21yr – 43%

Nose: A very floral nose, hints of cadbury’s crunchie, and sweet spice.

Palate: Sweet rich mouth with hints of smoke, honey, and citrus.

Finish: Very balanced sweet spicy finish that lingers.

Ballantine’s Limited – Release No A00553 – 43%

A special limited release with no age statement. A “representative” blend from the master blender Sandy Hyslop.

Nose: Rich fruit, brown toast, Devon fudge.

Palate: Honey, hints of coal, rich sultana type fruits. Very soft creamy mouth feel.

Finish: Sweet, sherry hints, spicy, and enough body to be very pleasing.

Ballantine’s - 30yr – 43%

Nose: Rich vanilla, honey, oak.

Palate: Hints of smoke, toffee apple, winter cake, heather.

Finish: A finish that stays for a LONG time. Full and rich, hints of liquorice, with sweetness from caramel tones.

I’m sure you’ll have noticed from the above notes, similar hints are common throughout the range and to be honest that’s what I was actually most impressed with. To be able to have a consistent thread through all of the blends to maintain a “Ballantines-ie” identity, despite huge age differences really surprised me. Obviously each has it’s own nuances and the age difference gives the older blends considerably more oak and richness, but the key flavours were still common to all. For me, the 17 YO, (for its simple drinkable enjoyment) and the 30yr for its remarkable finish were the two standouts on the day. Now I’m not one to parrot corporate identities around, but Ballantine’s use the banner for their brand of “soft, sweet, complex, elegant” and I’ve got to hold my hands up and say that it’s probably a fair commentary on their blends!

In the hour and a half I’d spent in the clubhouse, the weather had decided to brighten up considerably (people were sunbathing!) so with a warm glow from the tasting and a spring in my step, having checked to find out that Darren Clarke (another fellow Ulsterman!) was still leading, I headed back to the course and managed to catch his group heading down the 12th.

For the rest of the afternoon I wandered happily around the course immersed in my new found love of, well, pretty much all things around me really. The course looked magnificent in the sun, the players were bombing their drives 320 yards+, and hitting it stiff to the pins (You what? – Ed). I also had a lovely warm glow in my chest which lasted me right up until I got back to my hotel and tucked in to their considerable back bar. I began with a Yamazaki 12….. and well, the evening just carried on from there.

Extra Notes……

Glenburgie 17yr – A floral fruity nose which leads to smooth honey and fruit palate with slight citrus hints. Not a long finish, but very pleasing and sweet.

Miltonduff 17yr – A vanilla floral nose, with hints of candle wax leading to a rich fruity palate and quite long sticky toffee finish with hints of floral spice.

Grain Vat (used for the Ballantine’s 17yr) – Light honey nose with hints of candy floss and toffee popcorn. A vanilla/ floral palate with narrower fruit tones, leading to a sharper finish, which is sweetened by the caramel hints that stay through it. One of the nicer Grains I’ve tried to be honest.

A big "thank you" to Andy for his guest blog post. It must have been tough...

Friday 9 July 2010

Distillery Only

I’m really a country boy at heart. Stick me in a Barbour and a pair of Hunters, give me a hip flask full of Scotch and walking cane and I’m as happy as Larry; “wandering o’er vale and hill...” and all that.

But much like Wordsworth himself, I find myself here in London. Occasionally cheery at it’s beauty, it’s wonder, it’s fantasy. At other times with despair and dissolution. This is summed up by Wordsworth in his poem “London, 1802”:

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

He’s right ya know. Have you ever tried using the tube between 17.30 and 18.30. He must have caught it at its peak; 18.02...

Anyway... enough of the bad jokes. One of the things that makes London (or any major city) amazing is discovering new shops, museums, restaurants, bars... that are totally unique to this city.

I remember fondly the first time I encountered Gordon’s on Villiers Street near Embankment Station. A tiny little wine bar located in the former building where Samule Pepys lived in 1680.

Or when, as a student, I used to take frequent walks along the Southbank where I encountered witty, well composed and though provoking graffiti by some chap called Banksy... I think a few people know who he is now.

But you don’t tend to get this sort of unique discovery in the countryside, do you?

Well, yes you do! I’m not talking about donning a metal detector and discovering some long burried Roman gold. If you happen to find yourself up in the beautiful Scottish countryside, there is unique treasure to be found at most distilleries in the form of Distillery Only Bottlings.

These come in various shapes and sizes: Bruichladdich have their Valinch series, a cask in the shop where you can fill your own bottle. Glenfiddich do a similar thing, but with a cask strength version of their 15 Year Old. Macallan often have a very limited edition which are hand filled on site. Ardbeg can be seen to roll out Single Casks, with the last one a single cask, cask strength version of their 10 Year Old. And they all seem to be at a very reasonable price, too. Quite right, I say. Once you factor in the cost of getting to the distillery itself, it’s great to have a well priced, unique reward waiting for you...

This brings me on to the two whiskies I have in front of me; the Oban and Blair Athol distillery only bottlings. These were introduced earlier this year along with the Lagavulin and Glenkinchie and I was a little surprised to find out that, up to the release of these four, the only other Diageo-own distilleries that provided visitors with a unique bottling were Caol Ila, Talisker and Clynelish.

Those of you who read the blog from this years Islay Festival will know about the Lagavulin, but let’s just run over that one again. It has no age statement on it, but is natural cask strength being bottled at 51.5% ABV and as with the Distillers Edition this has undergone a second (or ‘double’) maturation in Pedro Ximenez-treated American oak casks. We liked it, but then we really like the Distillers Edition and so to have basically a cask strength version of that really pleased us. I did hear a rumour that there were 1,000 cases of this (6,000 bottles) but I don’t know how true this is.

The obvious place to go next is the Oban as this too is a mirror of their Distillers Edition Release. Another NAS, this is bottled at 55.2% and has been double matured in Pedro Montilla Fino-treated American oak casks. Note: I guess, as with the Lagavulin, that maturing in ex-American Oak which has been treated with sherry means that you get a greater surface-area-to-whisky ratio (as opposed to using larger European Oak casks) and therefore faster maturation, hence the No Age Statement... again, just a guess however. The run for this release runs to just under 9,000 bottles apparently.

Oban – Distillery Only Bottling – NAS – 55.2%

Nose: well, of course you get the initial big hit of sherry. But this is a rich, treacle-like sherry infused with nutmeg and orange blossom. Hints of travel sweet and some dandelion and burdoch.

Palate: The strong sherry tones are the loudest notes in this orchestra but as you give it time clear honey bursts through with some delicate elements of light woodsmoke and hint of dry leaves. With water it become a little more curried, with the spices staying put the underpinning element of strong oak going.

Finish: Medium in length, oaky and spicy. Lingers slightly with mint but then its gone leaving a dry, cake-mix element behind.

Overall: This is a solid dram. It kinda needs to be at caskstrength for all the richness to come out and therefore you can’t take too much of it.

Onward to the Blair Athol. Not a distillery we are overly familiar with, but we know what we’re looking for. I’m sure this will ring a few Bells... This bottling is much more straightforward being matured in first fill european oak sherry casks and bottled at cask strength of 55.8%. Again, this carries no age statement.

Blair Athol – Distillery Only Bottling – 55.8%

Nose: The classic BA nose of ginger but with some red fruits backing it up in the distance and a touch of lemon grass. A really lovely and subtle nose.

Palate: A really soft and chewy mouthfeel with some coffee notes, walnuts, a hint of thick, dark leather and some peppery-spices. All underpinned with the ginger from the nose. With water it become a whole lot more rounded and smoother without losing any of the personality from before. Can really take water well.

Finish: long and lingering, warm and soothing. Becoming slightly bitter towards the end, like a good real ale.

Overall: I really wasn’t expecting too much of this dram, but it is excellent. I’m not sure of the RRP, but if it falls sub-£60 then it’s well worth a shot. Tasty.

Saturday 3 July 2010

25 Alive....

For all you Caol Ila fans out there, Diageo recently announced that there was to be a new 25 year old expression as part of the core range, which already includes some little gems such as the 12yo, 18yo, Distillers Edition and annual unpeated batches (last year's 10 yo was an improvement on the 8yo, an already well-established favourite of ours)

With so many independent bottlings of Caol Ila out there (hey- everyone seems to do a Caol Ila don't they?) where would this older 'official' sibling sit?   It would have been easy to assume that you're talking about the super, super premium category, with a price tag to match (comparing it to similarly aged releases from other distilleries and bottlings)

However, here's the great news. The RRP for this is £135.    

Let's dive in for a dram.

Caol Ila - 25 Years Old - 43% abv

Nose: Very expressive and complex indeed.  Where to start... Lemon zest, hints of black pepper, cream fudge, a waft of licorice, classic Caol Ila coal dust, but no where near as definitive. Then we get the peat. It's such a gentle, elegant aroma, that wraps itself around your nostrils and almost says, 'come and find me when you're relaxed and ready'.  Quite striking in its approach. There's also a more surprising fruity edge to this- a hint of dare I say it, the exotic?? Mango perhaps.  In any case, what we have here is a belter of a nose. Job done.

Palate: You can see before it even reaches your mouth that it's going to be oily. The palate gets coated from the first initial sip, with a rich, syrupy texture. It's very sweet on the entry, with a big hit of brown sugar, into a broad, malty note.  Then comes the peat, much more prominent than the nose, but still refined and balanced.  More sweetness with golden syrup, some notes of chewy toffee and a little light diced green apple for good measure.  

Finish: Lingering notes of something floral and fruity stick to your gums, while the undercurrent of peat washes past. Superb and very lengthy. 

Overall:  This has to be right up there with the best Caol Ila's we've tasted- the last lot being the Feis Ile bottlings.  It has such a subtlety, demanding (but in a hushed tone) that you take your time. 

It's 10am and i'm sat on the new 'terraced' area at Caskstrength towers, with another glass of this.  I finished the evening previously in the same spot, 25yo Caol Ila in hand and still I feel there's more to discover here.  Mrs Caskstrength and I have been looking at purchasing some Jack Vettriano prints recently and if anything, they compare brilliantly-  gaze into 'Dancer In Emerald' or 'The Drifter' and the lighting, the texture and sheer emotion of his work demands your fullest attention.  This Caol Ila deserves exactly the same.