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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.