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Wednesday 29 December 2010

A Swift Late Nighter

Enforced separation from one's whisky collection is surely a crime that should be recognised by the United Nations, but needs must and you find me up in Wetherby visiting relatives, before heading back to open a few bottles, which I was given for Christmas. The other Christmas bottlings I bought on my travels have long been exhausted but fortunately, I took precautions and packed an emergency dram, should the need arise. And risen it certainly has. Watching a programme about the secret life of polar bears took my mind off having a crafty snifter, but despite the BBC's best efforts, the icy conditions endured by the bears and their cubs make me feel the need for a winter warmer.

Time to crack out reinforcements...

I was given a drams' worth of the latest Special Release Brora 30 yo, with instruction to break it open, should the need arise. So here I am, watching another repeat of Cliff & The Shadows- The Farewell concert DVD. Jeeves...fetch me the toffee hammer... i'm going in....

Brora - 2010 Special Release bottling - 30 yo - 3000 bottles 54.3%

Nose: Chopped brazil nuts, cocoa dusted dairy fudge, candle wax, a hint of carbolic/medicated soap and something distinctly malty, Horlicks springs to mind. But although this is my nightcap dram, its aroma is certainly not sending me to sleep!

Palate: Initially quite hot, with more of the chopped nuts, some zesty sherbet, some meatiness (minted roast lamb?) followed by some nice creamy malt notes. This year's release probably doesn't have the depth of some of the previous year's releases and with water, it falls a little flat, but there is a pleasant honeyed sweetness retained on the palate.

Finish: The sweetness lingers, along with hints of the chopped nuts. The finish is far more lengthy without the addition of water and all the better for it.

Overall: The nose really helps this dram along nicely, but in my opinion, the palate (diluted especially) holds it back from being considered up there with some of the great Brora bottlings of the last few years. That said, A massively welcome dram right now, especially when Cliff is about to break into break into song again...

Sunday 26 December 2010

Distilled With Conviction

It isn’t very often that I dread writing a post. If these occasion were more regular than not, I’d simply jack in the whole blog-writing thing and spend my time doing something much more productive. Especially on a day like today: Boxing Day.

Yesterday, Christmas Day, was a joy. Neil drew the long straw and got to write a post up on The Dalmore EOS from his Christmas getaway, a house built in 1859. Yet here I am, sat in an even older building (that makes it better, right? Because it is older?) with parts dating back to 1650, an open fire spewing out heat to combat outside temperatures of -14 Degrees C and some fantastic whisky to consume over the Seasonal Break. Yet something inside me doesn't want to write this review at all.

Why?” I hear you cry. “Tasting whisky and writing about it. Who wouldn't want to do that?

Well, this post is sweet and sour. It almost writes itself, yet the tasting notes section... that is not going to be easy. For today I venture in to 4 different Australian Single Malt Whiskies.

With Boxing Day comes many excellent sporting events. Today here in the UK, many people, including myself, would be venturing out in the sub-zero conditions to watch a match of Association Football. Sadly, the weather has hit hard and most of the games are off, including two in the Premiership. You’d think the richest league in the world would be able to beat off the frost, but as King Canute proved, no matter how rich or influential one is, you can not control Mother Nature.

The weather is very different Down Under where England and Australia are battling it out to see who can lay claim to The Ashes, one of Sports oldest and greatest contests and it appears that the Boxing Day Sales have started in Melbourne, with 10 Aussie wickets for just 98 runs....* Last night I stayed up until the lunch break, that’s 1.30am British Time, to watch the first period of play and boy, was it good. 4 wickets before lunch and when I woke this morning, an England victory looks on the cards and along with it, The Ashes themselves.

If you’re one of our many foreign readers and you’re wondering what the hell I’m going on about, all you need to know is that we have a game that is 5 days long and based around Lunch and Tea. What could be finer that that? Baseball, my arse...

With The Ashes test underway, what better excuse to try these Single Malt samples we have been kindly sent by a reader from New South Wales. Gregg Donovan, stand up and take a bow.

First up is Bakery Hill. Gregg writes “BH is my fav in AUS & I buy the Peated Malt Cask Strength often (60%). I have sent you samples of the one mentioned above & the Classic Malt Cask Strength as well (60.5%)”.

Right, time to tuck in to these two, then!

Bakery Hill – Classic Malt – Cask Strength – NAS – 60.5%

Nose: Uncooked sour dough, malt, weetabix and milk. A hint of dark brown sugar, developing in to brown bread.

Palate: Strong and malty, the weetabix notes from the nose expand on the palate to give good flavour and lots of attitude. With water, the subtle notes of toasted oats and marzipan come through.

Finish: Lively and electric which, when water is added mellow out to leave more wheat and oats with just a hint of liquorice and some salt.

Overall: An incredibly drinkable malt (when cut down with water) which would give any Scotch a run for its money. I’d like to try a well aged version, as this tastes a little on the young side, but the youth it retains gives it the lightness and the energy to explode some fantastic flavours on the palate. A great start to my Australian Malt adventure!

Bakery Hill – Peated Malt – Cask Strength – NAS – 60%

Nose: A youthful peated note jumps out the glass at you. At a guess, I’d venture this is 5 – 7 years old and still quite spirit. A hint of banana milkshake mixed with toffee is present.

Palate: A big peat hit smothers your tongue and then Werthers Original come through, with a burnt toast backings. With Water: the smoke is dulled. In fact, it is almost gone completely. The vanilla is enhanced and the oats jump out much more.

Finish: Burnt smoke, cream and toffee again. With water, the whole effect is softened and dulled.

Overall: I’m really disappointed with this dram, given the quality of their first offering. Not a patch on anything you’d find from Islay, Orkney, Skye or elsewhere in Scotland. Much more work needed to make this the malt that it could be.

Next up is Limeburners, from Western Australia. Gregg: “I’ve sent you a sample of the ‘Barrel M23’ (61%) They’ve won some awards for this & Jim Murray gave this barrel a pretty good wrap.

A little bit of research show that this company run a small, boutique distilling operation in Western Aus, making Vodka, Gins and Whisky. It looks as if all their output from whisky is in Single Cask form and it isn’t cheap (between $125 - $200 Aussie Dollars, about £100+, for bottles). Made in copper pot stills inspired by the shape of Scottish pot stills (they won’t say which ones), their first whisky was released in 2008.

Limeburners – Barrel M23 – Bottle Number 037 – NAS - 61% ABV

Nose: Rich and powerful, this evokes apricots resting in a rich syrup, some Christmas cake, a hint of rum and some vanilla ice cream. A really great nose.

Palate: Wow, the first hit is of rich dark chocolate covered cherries. As it sits on the palate, some rich oak develops; all those classic flavours of polished wood and church pews. But newer, not so old. More reproduction that actual antique. The apricots are still there, big time. Punchy with a BIG flavour. Adding water brings out additional sweetness, like honey in yoghurt. This needs ever such a light drop of water.

Finish: Rich oak notes, stewed apricots (there is a theme here) and rum and raisin ice cream.

Overall: Phew! This has bags and bags of personality. I’m not sure this will be to everyone’s taste, as the flavours are so rich and concentrated, which can become too sweet with the addition of water, but I like it. I like the fact it will divide people and that is more up front than Katie Price. This distillery seems to be doing something right and it will be interesting to see how their spirit develops with age. I feel this could be excellent stuff given 10 – 20 years in the cask to mature and round off the puppy-dog like energy that it has at present.

Finally, we come to the last sample, Sullivans Cove. Gregg writes “I’ve sent you a sample of their Rare Australian Double Cask” (Bourbon and Port Oak), 40%. They are one of the more popular distilleries down here and are based in Tasmania, so I thought I better represent.

This kind sample has led me to sit here in fits of laughter for the last few minutes or so. The motto on their bottle is “Distilled With Conviction”. Seriously? Are you being serious? “Distilled with Conviction”! I once had a friend who was emigrating from the UK to Australia. When he arrived in Sydney he was called in by immigration services and one of the questions he was interrogated with was “Do you have a criminal record?” His reply: “I didn’t know you still needed one.”

Right, let’s dig in to this:

Sullivans Cove – Rare Australian Double Cask – Bourbon & Port Cask – 40%

Nose: A few underlying fruit notes of passion fruit and wisp of vanilla, but the over riding aroma is oats and barley. Pretty nondescript, really.

Palate: Smooth, but with little personality over and above the wheaty, oaty flavours. Like a supermarket own highland Scotch, this gives very little in the way of notes other than to say there are some mandarin flavours and a touch of peach melba if you really look hard for them.

Finish: Fades quicker that the Aussie tail. Same notes as the nose and the palate. But very easy to drink.

Overall: We’re used to anything branded Australian as a mark of extreme personality, but this is just, well, dull. It isn’t bad. In fact, it is very easy to drink. But it is boring and uninteresting. *yawn*

As I draw my Boxing Day post to a close, it’s clear that there are some excellent malts being made Down Under and I had nothing to fear from the tasting. How much of it will ever reach the UK shores is unclear, given their price point and the fact we’re yet to even adjust to the influx of Japanese whisky. But I would encourage you, if you find yourself in the Southern Hemisphere, give some of the Oz Malts a go. They have a much more promising future than Ricky Ponting.

*apologies to BBC Test Match Special

Saturday 25 December 2010

The '59er

You catch me, typing briskly, pre Christmas dinner, after a bracing walk in West End woods, just near Esher. Myself and Mrs Caskstrength are visiting my Godmother for the day and I thought it sensible to bring a few drams with us, should we get caught short. We very nearly didn't make it back from the woods, as our car found it very difficult to negotiate the ice covered hill from the car park and I must thank the 4-5 passers by who came to our aid!

So next to a warming fire, I am getting in couple of pre-prandial sharpeners - the excellent Ballantine's Christmas Reserve and a large measure of Bowmore Tempest. My malty arsenal also consists of a Highland Park 18yo, Pikesville Rye (in case anyone fancies a Manhattan!) and the Dalmore Gran Reserva. But there is also a very special dram, which I have earmarked for a little fireside contemplation later on. Before we left London a tiny sample of the Dalmore Eos 59 yo arrived in the post and I couldn't think of a better time to review it.

You see, the house, 'Melrose', which we are staying in was built in 1859 and has been my home from home for probably the last 33 years. Every summer holiday I would be dumped here by my parents to spend time building dens, making guns out of pegs and elastic bands and learning to roll on the several old barrels my Godmother had lying around (a skill, which I sadly no longer possess) Melrose was also made famous (ahem..) for being the location for a Kellogg's Crunchy Nut Cornflakes advert in the mid 1990s.
This is actually the last time I will get to visit the house, as from February, it is being sold to be demolished, making way for a number of new houses in its wake. A sad end to a wonderfully historical manse, but all good things must pass.

It seems fitting that a 59 yo whisky should be my sign off dram to 'Melrose' and this festive time with friends and loved ones seems very poignant to share a few other wonderfully warming drams.
It is now 6.30pm and we have eaten a superb meal (probably the best roast spuds ever, Paul!) and the fire is beckoning me. The Eos and some quiet time have arrived...
According to Dalmore, Eos is the sister cask to the 1951 vintage Selene bottling, which has now had another year to develop even more character. Only 20 decanters of this whisky will be produced and it therefore commands the princely price tag of £15,000.

Dalmore - Eos - 59 yo- 45%

Nose: Creamy coconut is the first aroma to emerge from the glass, followed by some very earthy, oaky forest floor notes, vanilla, roasted vegetables (honestly, not the residue from the Christmas dinner) some polished mahogany surfaces, leading into quite subtle dried fruits. Definitely old, but not aged. Dig deeper and you may find a slight but very subtle smokiness, sort of ash notes or spent log fires.

Palate: Brandy steeped cherries, chopped hazelnuts and chocolate ice cream, candied, mixed peel, a big swathe of vanilla (in fact, rather like the vanilla infused rum i've been working on) a faint hint of bruised mint leaves, lemon zest and then some drying oak right on the death.

Finish: A lingering fruitiness, strawberries and cream, with perhaps a slightly tart candied peel and some cherry sherbet. Over time, a backbeat of oak lingers. The mouth becomes dry, but there is no bitterness at all from this cask.

Overall: Highly commendable whisky making- lots of hidden depth, retaining a maturity, but also demonstrating a refreshing zestiness. I shall be enjoying the considerably cheaper (but nonetheless exceptional) delights of the Gran Reserva with a robust Montecristo Edmundo cigar later this evening, but i'm glad to have tried the Eos today and reminisced about the parties, the seemingly endless summers and all the fun with our friends and loved ones at 'Melrose'. It's at times like this that one realises homes are not just piles of bricks and mortar, and that the real value lies in the memories of the wonderful times spent within them.

Joel and I wish you the very best and most relaxing of Christmas breaks and hope that where ever you happen to be reading this, you're sat there, with a decent dram in hand and plenty of time to fully enjoy it.

Here's to more of the same in 2011....

Thursday 23 December 2010

WhisKey To Success

Distilleries are getting smarter. They understand the power of social networking and nearly every distillery has a great website with a chance to join some sort of "club" for unique offers, news stories and other general entertainment.

Their lists of competitions open to members is also becoming increasingly interesting, focusing in on opportunities for people from all over the world to visit and, in some cases, work at a distillery.

The Glenrothes Distillery is currently running their Whisky Maker competition and earlier in the year, Bushmills ran the Make It At Bushmills competition to give the chance for one winner to work a the Distillery with the ultimate goal of creating their own whiskey.

I was lucky enough, along with singer-songwriter Foy Vance and the Irish Rugby Legend that is Keith Wood, to help judge the competition. The winner was a Bulgarian chap called Ivan, so we got him to write us a blog post about his time at the Distillery and what it was like to make his own whiskey.

"“Winning Make it at Bushmills was one of the best things that has ever happened to me! On the day when it announced who would be the finalist from Bulgaria at the Global Final, I was working as a Life Guard and I didn't have my phone on the beach. Bushmills called me 15 times to try and tell me that I was the Bulgarian finalist and decided to give me one last chance to answer…luckily I heard the phone ringing through the door as I was coming home and rushed to answer it. The news that I would be going to the Bushmills Distillery was a great early birthday present for me as I turned 28 two days later!

The feeling of winning something like Make it at Bushmills against such strong competition is unbelievable! It’s like applying for your dream job with thousands of people from all over the world and they choose you above all!! When I got home to Bulgaria after Bushcamp [the worldwide final of the competition, held at the Bushmills Distillery] I was already famous. I was all over the news - every major newspaper had an article about me and I started giving lots of interviews for all kinds of media.

When I went back to Northern Ireland to take up my dream prize, I received rock star treatment. I was picked up from the airport and driven to an awesome huge luxury penthouse apartment which would be my home for the next 30 days. Also the distillery set me up with a car, phone, laptop and camera. I couldn't wait to meet Colum Egan, the Distillery Manager, the Distillery Director Gordon, the Distilling Manager Darryl and the rest of my new family at Bushmills. The first day was overwhelming. Colum giving me the famous red shirt that everybody who works at the distillery wears. It was an epic moment. I then spent lots of time meeting basically everybody who works at the distillery!

I spent my 30 days at Bushmills working in different departments to see all of the stages of the whiskey making process. It gave me a great understanding of the magic of making Bushmills - I felt so lucky to have such an incredible opportunity.

I also went to Cork to learn how barley is converted into malt. I was very impressed by the complexity and the size of the process! Now I fully understand the big difference between barley and malted barley and how important it is in whiskey making.

The Bushmills Master Distiller, Colum Egan saved the best for last. As I had proved that I could ‘Make it at Bushmills’, I was given the unique chance to make my own kind of Bushmills Whiskey. What an honor! It took me two days of walking from cask to cask, from warehouse to warehouse, restless, tasting and smelling all of the liquids to choose which ones I would blend together to make my whiskey.

It was hard work choosing them, but somebody had to do it! I had to use all of what I had learned at the distillery for the past month and apply it to making my own whiskey.

On the eve of the day when I would finally create my whiskey, Colum invited me and my brother (he got to join me for a few weeks as part of my prize) for a dinner where we met his family and his dog called Whiskey (I wonder why?). This meant a lot. Family is so important to me and Colum introducing me to his made me feel very special. We had a fantastic time and it gave me new confidence in my task!

I confided in Colum that the whiskies that I had chosen had the Bushmills character, but I wanted to add something that reminded me of ME in it. He introduced me to his very special reserve of whiskies to see if they had the character that I was looking for. I chose an 18 Year Old Single Malt Whiskey, aged in a cognac cask and never used in a Bushmills Whiskey before. When I smelt it, I knew right away that this is it! It reminded me of home – fresh and rich ingredients and such a full and long lasting flavor, so I knew this would be the secret weapon in my quest for my perfect whiskey!

I added it in to what I had already had designed and “et voila”! I had the whiskey that I had dreamed of! I was finally satisfied with my achievement! When Colum and the crew at the distillery all tasted it, they were really impressed and proud of me! We got ‘Ivan’s Whiskey’ bottled and labeled and then it was time to say goodbye to my new family. It was emotional to say the least. Everybody told me that I'm part of the Bushmills family now and forever. I've got so many invitations to visit back and naturally I also invited them all to come and visit me in Bulgaria. Thanks to Colum and everybody at the distillery for having me…you made my dreams come true! Now I am ready to take on a new challenge!”

Bushmills - 16 Years Old - 40%

At times, I will struggle with Bushmills. Not necessarily the whiskey, but the branding. Sometimes a blend, sometimes a single malt. I wish they'd find a different brand to house their grain and malt mix under. Anyway, we recently reviewed their 21 Year Old which was good, but not mind blowing. Getting to know this range a little more this year, the stand out whisky for me is this 16 Year Old.

Nose: Deep in colour, this is transferred to the nose with rich wood spices, some cinnamon and orange zest. A hint of clove mixes with some fresh green herbs and a touch of spearmint.

Palate: The wood effect on the palate is not drying but creates a mouth-coating whiskey which gives off some stewed red summer fruits, but tempered with a subtlety that doesn't scream "SHERRY CASK!!" in your face at the top of its voice, yet whispers it, probably a bit too quietly, in your ear. It gets its point across, but maybe needs to be a bit more passionate about it.

Finish: There is a distinctive Bushmills finish to this whiskey. Slightly spicey, smooth and just a hint of kumquat.

Overall: A solid whiskey and the pick of their regular releases.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Last Minute Whisky Pressies

With less than a week to go, only a crazy person would leave buying their christmas presents till the 11th hour. And yet, as every Christmas that goes by, I always find myself in exactly the same position, thinking that everything will be ok, once I venture onto the streets of Central London for a few hours of 'gifting'. I sort of pulled it off this year, but then the weather turned and I had to beat a hasty retreat before I was marooned with all the all the other crazy people, their faces covered with that familiar, mildly panicked look that only number of last minute rash purchases can cure.

Fortunately, for the whisky fan in your life, we've got a few suggestions whilst there's still time to get the visa card out.

We featured a number of books recently on the blog, 101 Whiskies To Try Before You Die, The World Atlas Of Whisky, and now, on a similar tip comes The World's Best Whiskies, by Dominic Roskrow. With 750 whiskies around the globe to fill up its 300 pages, as well as useful sections on food matching, classic cocktails and tips on nosing and tasting whisky, Dominic has excelled in bringing whisky to life and this is an excellent read, post Christmas day, with dram of something firmly in hand. Whereas, it might be too late to order them online with all this snow, Messrs. Waterstone's should be able to help!!

On the dram front- both Master Of Malt and The Whisky Exchange have some decent, and interesting gift ideas, that you can probably still lay your hands on if you get your skates on!

This Islay tasting kit features a few cracking drams that the discerning peat lover will undoubtedly be delighted to open on Christmas morning, lunchtime, or for that special evening dram, to make the nauseating Dr Who special fly past.

Similarly, TWE have a great offer on The Glenrothes 1985 at the moment. Perfect for shutting up Uncle Monty's inane jokes during the Bond double bill you've been waiting for.

On a non-whisky related tip- for the gentleman in your life with a penchant for fine grooming, A trip to Ted's Grooming Room will brighten up their lives and leave them looking super sharp and ready for 2011.

Monday 20 December 2010

Picture This....

I was with some friends recently and over a few festive drams, we discussed the 'aesthetic' of the whisky bottle. I don't know if this is just me, (or if i'm just plain weird) but every time I see a new bottle design, I kind of see the shape of a person in it.

Ardbeg, with its slightly bulbous shoulders and rounded neck, makes me think of some of the more fuller-figured ladies depicted in Botticelli's masterpieces. If i'm feeling particularly playful, a bottle of Dalwhinnie makes me think of the combined works of Beryl Cook.

A Lagavulin bottle seems to have a more statuesque presence, perhaps resembling Rodin's 'The Thinker' or Myron's iconic Greek sculpture 'Discobolos'.

At the other extreme, Joel always thinks of John Cleese, every time he sees a Fettercairn bottle.

Perhaps the beauty of a whisky bottle is truly in the beholder. But perhaps it should merely act as a vessel for the inner beauty- ie, the liquid? Which ever way you see it, Bottle shape and label design are big business. A few distilleries are going to great lengths to reinforce this aspect, arguably none more so than The Macallan, whose Masters Of Photography project has been greeted with an equal measure of praise and criticism. The Rankin Edition, a 30 year old Fine Oak bottling came with a series of polaroid pictures, featuring Rankin's beautiful blonde muse, Tuuli Shipster. Some were strikingly eye catching, (as above) creating a stark feminine contrast to the masculine machinery within the distillery. But some were... to be honest, a bit 'Readers Wives' in our opinion. Put it this way, you'd probably be a bit disappointed if you got the bottle with a close up of some charred staves, wouldn't you... ;-)

The Macallan's new project features the work of another internationally renowned snapper, Albert Watson. Watson has shot countless celebrities across his career, including Hitchcock, Bill Clinton and even the Queen. His work with the second Macallan Master's of Photography bottling tracks a series of images, backdropping the production of a 20 yo whisky, made from 2 first fill sherry seasoned oak casks. As you'd expect, there are shots taken in Jerez, including those seen here, as well as the arresting scenic beauty of Speyside. The release is limited to 1000 bottles, each featuring a unique label using Watson's images and a series of 10 prints. All very nice and highly in keeping with the 'aesthetic' we disussed above.

But strip this away and what is the actual whisky like? 20 year old sherry casked whiskies do not usually cost £700, so this is going to have to be exceptional.

Macallan - Masters Of Photography - Albert Watson Edition- 20 yo- 43%

Nose: Hello, this is very interesting. Beautifully fragrant, no notes of dryness, just bags of cedar wood, all-spice, dates, prunes, juicy raisins and cola notes. Dig deeper and you'll find some dark chocolate covered hazelnuts, hints of aniseed and some softer vanilla notes. Terrifically complex and beautifully balanced.

Palate: An initial sweet vanilla'y note leads to some overripe bananas, more dried prunes, liquorice, sugary malt cereal (Shreddies) chocolate orange, with a return of the all-spice from the nose.

Finish: Lengthy and developed, with some cinnamon stewed apples lingering on the palate. Again, no oaky dryness or bitterness.

Overall: Quite a tough one really. This really is an excellent whisky, with a nose to die for. If you'd discovered it by accident without the benefit of seeing the bottle, you'd be very quickly hooked, reaching for your wallet. You almost don't want to think about the bottle, the photos and all the stuff surrounding the release.

If you are a collector, art lover or someone with £700 to burn, Macallan have really thought about this release and the liquid absolutely sells itself. You'll either love the concept of packaging it with the work of a seminal photographer, or dislike it intensely. That much we'll leave up to you.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Bonded Warehouse

Today is the last Saturday before Christmas; a perfect opportunity to nip out an put the finishing touches to the Christmas shopping. Well, it would have been had it not tipped down with snow for about 3 hours this morning. From less than a millimetre to well over 4 inches in about 180 mins is quite a feat, especially here in Central London.

Not a time to be out shopping. Not a time to be out doing anything at all, really. This is a time to call up on local friends, put on a pot of hot chocolate and dig in to some festive viewing.

For me, this consists of as much James Bond, 007, as played by Roger Moore, as possible. Classic films. Classic lines. (“Put your clothes on, Love. I’ll buy you an ice cream.”) Classic fashion. No man can wear a safari suit quite like Roger Moore.

Before I start sounding like Alan Partridge (possibly the greatest clip we’ve ever linked to) there are many, many Christmas classics and one which I know a lot of people will love at this time of year is The Sound Of Music.

From watching The Sound Of Music this weekend, it has come to my attention that the von Trapp family were indeed the world’s first drinks critics and were trying to send home a message of their tasting notes for the locally produced Austrian spirit, through the lyrics of one of their most famous songs, These Are A Few Of My Favourite Things:

Nose: “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, brown paper packages tied up with strings.”

Palate: “Cream coloured ponies and crisp apple strudels, door bells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles. Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings.

Finish: “Girls in a white dresses with a blue satin sashes, snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes, silver white winters that melt into springs”

Overall: “When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I'm feeling sad, I simply remember my favourite things, and then I don't feel so bad.

Judging by their overall comment, one would imagine this to a be peated spirit with a high alcohol content, giving a “bite” and a “sting” to the experience of the dram. My advice; drop in a little water...

None of this has anything to do with where I’m going next, which is to write up some of the notes I tweeted on Monday from a wonderful Laphroaig tasting at The Whisky Exchange’s shop in London, hosted by Distillery Manager John Campbell.

The tasting featured a whopping eight whiskies, starting with the 10 Year Old, then Batch 1 & Batch 2 of the 10 Year Old Cask Strength. You’ll notice, three whiskies in, that we’re still on their 10 year olds. Big smile. Onwards the selection went to the Quarter Cask, the Triple Wood (Travel Retail Only), the 18 Year Old, Cask Strength 25 Year Old and finally a 30 Year Old Cairdeas.

We’ve reviewed much of this before and it can all be found at (the soon to be updated) Caskstrength Warehouse. In summary, the 10 year old was excellent as always. Like visiting an old friend; solid and reliable. The Quarter Cask: in our opinion, is better than the 10 Year Old. The whisky that goes in to it is apparently between 5 and 7 years old. Age matters, huh? The 18 Year Old: is it as good as the 15 Year Old used to be? I don’t know, I can’t really remember the 15 Year Old too well. But this does an ample job in providing a whisky with more depth of wood character, a greater spice presence and depth of flavour than the 10 Year Old. The Cask Strength 25 Year Old I wasn’t a fan of. I found it had too much bitterness and the smoke hadn’t mellowed, but had become faintly annoying and stale. It also fell apart with water.

The were however, two outstanding bottles, both at the opposing end of the age scale. And the price scale.

Laphroaig - 10 Year Old – Cask Strength – Batch 002 – 58.3% ABV

Nose: Huge wafts of peat smoke but with this being a Laphroaig, there are the classic elements of bandages, TCP and liniment. But this is backed with a very “lowland in American oak” feel: slight hints of ginger and vanilla oak. Tempting.

Palate: A fresh fruity nature that goes from being tinned fruit salad (neat) to something more akin a home-made smoothy using the fruit in the bowl that is on the turn, but you’ve not got enough smoothy to go around the family, so you water it down very heavily! Plus a bit hit of peat, of course. The fire from the peat keeps this one lingering on and on.

Finish: Lots of great wood; spices and oak. A hint of hazelnut praline and of course, loads of smoke!

Overall: Side-by-side with Batch 001, this wins hands down. Having said that, I think I’d still rather have a bottle of the Bowmore Tempest, but that is a side-by-side that we’ll look to do in the very near future and we’ll do it blind.

Laphroaig - 30 Year Old – Cairdeas – 43%

Cairdeas is a brand that has been developed to sell in to Friends of Laphroaig as well as Travel Retail and Festival Bottlings. Basically, it is their “Ultra Premium” or “Ultra Rare” range. This bottle has spent 30 Years in Oloroso Sherry and 1 Year in ex-American Oak casks, technically making it a 31 Year Old. You can watch a video of a warehouse tasting of this whisky here.

Nose: Ahhhh... there is that medicinal peat smoke, but aged and restrained by the influence of the wood. Like Ryan Giggs, a football who used to rely on blistering pace but due to age has become a more tempered player, happy to linger on the ball and pick out stunning passes. This is a mature nose with elements of menthol, not medicine. Peaches, not peat. Soft, inviting and warming.

Palate: The influence of the sherry has imparted stewed plumbs, apple chutney and cloves. All wrapped up in that delicate peat blanket.

Finish: Just enough flavours of spice apple and stewed red fruits to compete with that delicate peat hit. Well balanced and warming.

Overall: In this whisky, we see just how well peated whisky can age. When wood spices, sherry and peat smoke combine with maturity, it can be unstoppable.

It’s been a while since we’ve done a flight of Laphroaig and is something we usually do when on Islay, so it made a refreshing change to sit down with these old friends just a few miles from home. It is also fantastic to be re-visiting some of the whisky that we used to review a lot of in the early days, such as the Ardbeg posting from last week and in a few days time we’ll be looking at a Talisker vertical, which is yet another blast from the past!

Merry Christmas, one and all.

Thursday 16 December 2010

A Load Of Old 'Toshan....

Recently, I was going through the cabinet at Caskstrength towers, wondering whether I should categorise all the bottles into their respective regions. I'd seen my pal do this and create a rather fetching leather-bound menu, which I liked the look of. So like trying to order one's music collection into genres (which starts out like fun, only to descend into absolute misery)
I set about the task, only to quickly realise that 1 region, the Lowlands was pretty poorly represented. I have a couple of nice Rosebanks, which i've been rationing out, but are becoming severely depleted. I also picked up a bottle of Auchentoshan Three Wood, as Mrs Caskstrength tasted it at a food festival earlier this summer and proclaimed it to be 'the whisky that MIGHT start her enjoying whisky'... High praise indeed.

It was somewhat timely then, that earlier this week, we received a couple of small samples of 2 new Auchentoshan releases, namely their 1998 and 1977 vintages.

Auchentoshan - 1977 vintage- 49% - Oloroso Sherry Cask - 249 bottles

Nose: Moist Christmas cake, slightly earthy and musty, with some pine resin, aged leather, big fat juicy raisins and some freshly cut oak. Quite surprising that this has been in Oloroso for its entire term, yet doesn't show any signs of over-age or dryness/dark fruit.

Palate: Hot and quite firey, with ginger, lemon zest, a hint of chilli, then extinguished with some creamy milk chocolate, some herbaceous /almost vermouth notes. Lingering sweetness from those big juicy raisins and all spice come through on the death.

Finish: Not a hint of dryness, the palate is left feeling juicy and peppered with fruit and spice.

Overall: Altogether, a bit of a minx. The nose has lots of juice and leather, the palate is very spicy, but the whole thing is very pleasingly balanced. This works as a wintery whisky, but differently to most other older sherry casks, in that it certainly isn't dominated by overly woody flavours and still retains a zesty, spicy sense of youth.

Auchentoshan - 1998 - Fino Sherry Cask - 54.6%

Nose: Toffee, with peanut brittle, honeycomb, oak sawdust, white pepper and lemon zest are all noticeable on the first nosing. With a little water, summer fruits including gooseberries and elderberries make themselves known, coupled with a malty cereal undercarriage.

Palate: Not as open as the 1977. There is a similar spiciness, with the ginger and lemon zest, but it's not quite as appealing as before. Water really gives this a lift, with a much more fruity edge coming to the fore.

Finish: Clean, with a residual malty note developing as the palate dries.

Overall: Nothing inherently wrong here- a very well put together Auchentoshan, but perhaps not as developed and as exciting as the 1977. The Fino sherry notes really compliment this style of whisky, heightening the spice and citrus. Overall, well worth seeking out if you have a penchant for discovering a hidden depth to Lowland whiskies.

I think I already have one resolution for 2011. A bigger cabinet.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

BIG Awards - Competition Winners Results!

Well folks, sorry for the delay in posting the results of our readers competition. As mentioned in an earlier post, Mike Aikman wins some tasty samples of our 10 BiG nominees. But there are also 2 runners up prizes to be awarded and those go to Richard Wood and Jonathan Bryant. Well done gentlemen!! A very nice, newly released collection of Jura Miniatures will be winging its way to you shortly - in case you're wondering what's in it- take a look below...

Also keep an eye out later this week for something a little Antipodean themed... and no, it has nothing to do with the ashes...

Monday 13 December 2010

Rising to the Challenge

Sometimes, great ideas just present themselves, rising out of tragedy, misfortune and accident. And Glenfiddich's new release Snow Phoenix typifies this sort of thing down to a T.

I must admit that when we first heard the story if this remarkable whisky, my b******t radar went on alert. A shameless cash-in on the unfortunate damage to Glenfiddich's warehouses, resulting in the loss of a few casks of whisky to the elements?

Well, once i'd stopped being suspicious, I was intrigued to find out more. To re-cap the story in case you missed it... In December 2009 the snowfall in Dufftown was just about the heaviest on record for the area. Approximately 4 feet of the stuff had landed and compacted on the warehouse roofs and the weight was equivalent to a herd of elephants standing on top of each warehouse. Clearly something had to give and what resulted was a huge hole and many man hours of work in freezing conditions as low as -19c to remove the precious stock and repair the damage. Whilst it's unclear whether any actual casks were crushed under the weight, the whole event prompted Glenfiddich's Malt Master Brian Kinsman to release a special batch of whisky from the casks within the warehouses- and Snow Phoenix was born.

Now here's the thing. The story is a great tale of effectively survival against the elements. But would this whisky hold up regardless of the tale it can tell? Last week, I got an opportunity to find out, at a rather unusual tasting over in Hackney, East equally chilling and bleak place, but not in the same way as Dufftown is, under 4 feet of snow... ;-)

Chef, Ben Greeno (middle) with Jamie Milne (right)

The folks at Glenfiddich have been busy working in conjunction with acclaimed chef Ben Greeno, formally one of the rising stars of the 2 Michelin Starred Noma restaurant in Copenhagen. Ben has set up an innovative 'supper club', inviting diners by appointment to his own London apartment for a home-cooked gastronomic experience. Brings a new meaning to the phrase 'straight from the chef's table'....

Our 5 course meal (a preview to Ben's Glenfiddich Burns' Night menu) was paired expertly with expressions from the Glenfiddich range, the dessert being matched to the Snow Phoenix.
Sweet parsnips and Malt Oil were complimented by the light and fruity 12yo, with cured salmon and szechuan pepper working nicely with the more robust flavour of the 18yo. For the main course the 14yo Fine Oak went well with braised beef cheeks in a 'whisky barrel reduction' - basically a rich, oaky sauce, made by infusing pieces of stave into the mixture.

By dessert, the assembled diners were positively salivating for final whisky- whose fateful tale was told expertly by Jamie Milne, UK Brand Ambassador for Glenfiddich. Although the contents of Snow Phoenix are listed as no age statement, Jamie pointed out that the whisky is likely to be a vatting of casks between the ages of 13-30. So an incredible spectrum of maturation then. Also made me start to wonder what type of flavour profile we'd be expecting; Light, fruity and gentle like some of the younger bottlings, or bigger and resonant, like the older expressions? Would the pairing with vanilla mousse, malt cookies and elderflower suit the whisky, or be lost under the weight of flavour, rather like the potential fate of the casks under all that snow....

Glenfiddich - Snow Phoenix - Limited edition bottling - 47.6%- Non Chill Filtered

Nose: Slightly musty, earthy grape notes, cereals (malted barley) followed by floral notes and a whiff of some dried fruit. With a dash of water, white chocolate notes come to the fore, followed by liquorice and fresh peach. Not at all what I expected, but excellent all the same.

Palate: Immediate creamy cereal notes, masses of light orchard fruit, hints of dried apricots, followed by light caramel and delicate vanilla. The mouthfeel with the vanilla mousse was sublime.

Finish: Lingering fresh fruits fade into those of the dried variety (more apricots) and also mango.

Overall: Very different to what I imagined. The lighter styles of whisky have definitely taken the high ground here and this is a whisky which doesn't feel that wintery at all. In fact, it could easily work in the middle of summer, paired with a seasonal fruit compote or salad. Expert whisky making all round from Glenfiddich and at around £49, very affordable for a limited edition bottling. Whilst we don't usually draw much attention to the packaging, the box which this comes with looks great.

As the weather gets heavier again, I can't help but wonder what fate lies-in-wait for the warehouses this year. Will we see Snow Phoenix mkII? Time- and the words of wisdom from this man will tell...

Let's hope that this doesn't happen....

Friday 10 December 2010


Well, here it is folks, the moment you've been waiting for... from our list of 10 incredible, inspirational drams, we have the great honour of announcing the overall winner of the 2010 Best In Glass awards.

Yesterday, at a secret location in central London, 5 men sat down to discuss the fate of our short list.

Ben Ellefsen- director supremo of Master Of Malt

Ryan Chetiyawardana - Cocktail supremo and top barman at the now legendary 69 Colebrooke Row

Sam Simmons - Global Ambassador for The Balvenie and known to millions simply as Dr Whisky. We certainly had a prescription for him.

plus 2 shabby drunken reprobates.

The format was the same- 10 whiskies, initially nosed and tasted blind, were whittled down to a shortlist of 3, with one overall winner.
And, to use the vernacular of a slightly pubescent teenager "OMG- how hard was that!!"

This year, the standards were exceptional. We argued, mulled, ummed and arrrred, at one point finding that we had spent nearly the best part of an hour exploring the fine differences between a 4yo and a 40yo.

Something had to give- and in the end, we managed to nail our top 3.

So our 2 runners up, or as they are, 'highly commended' bottlings were:

Yamazaki 1984- The panel feeling this whisky was a masterpiece of whisky making, displaying a broad symphony of oriental flavours.

Glenfarclas 40 yo - Big, bold intense flavours, with lots of distillery character.

but this year's overall winner, by a whisker is.....

Berrys' Own Selection - Ledaig 2005 - single cask bottling

Yet again, a young whisky triumphs over age. The panel felt that the whisky exhibited some huge flavours and extraordinary cask choice. Well done to Doug and all over at Berry Brothers & Rudd for continued excellence with their bottlings. If you can lay your hands on a bottle of this- GRAB ONE NOW!!

That's it for another year folks. See you, same time, same place next year!

ps.... as you'll see by the dusty old spitoon...
not a drop was wasted.