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Wednesday 27 April 2011

Islay Jazz Festival: Day Two (plus a wee exclusive)

It’s been a few months since returning from the Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival, which took place 17th – 19th September 2010. Two days of music and whisky is always welcome in my world and some of the acts that I discovered on that that trip have since become regular tunes on my iPod; like a good holiday when you make ‘proper’ friends with people you actually stay in touch with. It is these factors that tend to make a holiday take that leap from “good” to “great”. For this reason alone, I would heartily recommend music lovers to make the journey over to Islay for this years festival, but more about that later on.

With a little over six months since my trip, what better way to celebrate than to gather some friends, musicians and general whisky lovers in an upper room in East London to chat music and drink some whisky. I say whisky but we were focusing on one specific distillery for the evening, Lagavulin.

Not known for an enormous range of bottles (if Bruichladdich is the Picasso of Islay then Lagavulin must be Van Gogh) with a small core output, it was almost a shock to have managed to gather 11 different bottles of Lagavulin in one room. A mix of Own Bottlings (12 Year Old, 3 different 16 Year Olds from different years, Distillers Edition, Distillery Only Bottling, Friends Of The Classic Malts Bottling), through to some independent bottles, most of which won’t (can’t?) state their contents is Lagavulin. Occasionally you come across one which can state its origins, such as the Elements Of Islay Lg1 and Lg2, which are gems and should be considered as great bottles to buy and drink.

One of the main incentives for getting these bottlings together for the evening was to try three different Lagavulin 16 Year Olds from different years, side-by-side. Every distillery will try and produce a consistent product but, as with any artisanal product, this isn’t always the easiest of tasks. Producing a consistent New Make Spirit goes a long way to consistency, but once you’ve left the task of maturation up to Mother Nature, Things Have Changed as Bob Dylan once sang.

Let’s have a look at how these three compare:

Lagavulin 16 – 1996 – 70cl – 43% Vol

Lagavulin 16 – 2008 – 70cl – 43% Vol

Lagavulin 16 –2010- 70cl – 43% Vol

Nose: The first thing to state is that these are all unmistakeably Lagavulin 16’s. We are not looking at big differences here, but small details which give the whiskies their own personality, but only by the smallest of margins. The 1996 has a mossier and softer-peated nose than the 2008 and 2010 editions. The 2008 has more stewed fruit than the 2010, which is the most robust of the three, with the biggest spirit hit.

Palate: This is where the differences really come in to play. The 1996 is quite sizably smoother on the palate (this is spirit that would have been produced as far back as 1980, if not the late 1970’s) with the 2010 being much zestier and almost lemony at times. The 2008 sits somewhere between the two, but leans more heavily in the direction of the 1996, with soft peat notes. The 1996 and 2008 are more like wholemeal brown bread, the 2010 is more like sourdough; zestier and more lively on the tongue.

Finish: Again, the same theme; the 1996 has loads of coffee notes with digestive biscuits. The 2010 has all of this, but underpinned with a zest, like someone has added a touch of clear apple juice or a zested a lime very briefly over the top. Once more, the 2008 sits more akin to the 1996 but the coffee is more mocha and dark chocolate than straight dry, dark coffee.

Overall: A fantastic comparison which threw up more differences (albeit each one small, but with a fair impact on the overall effect) than we though. If I had to choose one, it would be the 1996, although the 2008 comes pretty close. Good job they're all our bottles, so we get to take them all home! Funny thing is, I’d never have picked out the zesty nature of the 2010 until I was comparing it against the two others. It’s amazing what you can find when you really look!

(FYI, if you want to know the bottling year of your whisky, there is usually a code printed on the back of the bottle.. It might be hard to find, but it is usually there somewhere. To decode it, do some Googling!)

Two of the more unusual bottles which graced our tasting were the Friends Of The Classic Malts bottling; a 1995, 12 Year Old, First Fill Sherry at 48% and the Distillery Only Bottling, NAS, which weighs in at 52.5%, bottled in 2010. We have it on good authority that this offering is an enhanced version of the Distillers Edition, matured onward in yet another cask from the Pedro Ximenez which constitutes the Double Matured moniker of the Distillers Edition bottling. So let’s have a look at these two as well:

Lagavulin – Distillery Only Bottling – NAS – bottled in 2010 – 52.5% ABV

Lagavulin – Distillers Edition – 1990 / 2006 – 16 Years Old – 43% ABV

Nose: similar noses of very rich fruit cake, rum and raisin chocolate and apricots soaked in brandy. A dash of water to the DO bottling, to level up the ABV’s, reveals this nose to be slightly more complex, with Seville oranges added to the apricots and a whisp of wet sand and dark chocolate in there too.

Palate: Both offer baked banana, crystallised ginger and candied orange segments dipped in chocolate. The Disitllery Only bottling has an extra level of smoothness to the palate, like a strawberry crème chocolate from a selection box. Sweeter than the DE, which offers more wood spices, cardamom and fennel.

Finish: Neck and neck, both landing with a peat and spice edge, in classic Lagavulin manner.

Overall: You can tell the additional maturation of the DO bottling over the DE, but the differences are subtle, like the re-cut version of Star Wars once Lucas was able to show explosions in higher definition...

For a long time the DE was my favourite whisky in its price range. Still very much rate it, but have found myself hugging the 16 over the DE nowadays; less sweet, slightly more delicate, soft peat in the 16 which really hits the spot for me.

Onward to the Lagavulin Jazz Festival 2011: Dates for the festival this year are the 16th – 18th September with the full line up to be announced very soon. However, one thing we can reveal is that there will be an exclusive Lagavulin bottling available only to ticket holders, this year. We don’t know what it is, how much it will be or when it will be available (during the Jazz Festival, one would imagine) but if they maintain the consistency of the official bottlings we tried on our night, gig-goers will be in for a real treat...

I'm sure you'll be able to find out more information and book tickets here:

Saturday 23 April 2011

Happy Esters

Running a blog is like having a baby. It takes money out of your pocket, you have to attended to it, even on holidays, as it screams for your attention. It won’t even look after you when you get old. But once you’re in, you’re in. No backing out now...

And thus I find myself on Easter Saturday, on retreat to the countryside, writing about whisky. The weather outside has been unseasonably hot; begging one to just sit and be, to listen to nothing but the sound of birds singing (I can honestly hear nothing but a chorus of birds and lone woodpecker hammering into a tree) while sipping slowly on a pint of shandy or a refreshing G&T.

But not me.

In anticipation of a visit to Speyside next week for our first taste of The Spirit of Speyside Festival, followed by a quick trip to Middleton Distillery in Ireland, all before for our 5th Feis Ile: Festival of Malt & Music on Islay, travelling home via the Arran Distillery Open Day AND having just returned from The Balvenie and Bowmore educations, I have a new drinking policy: If I’m not drinking to write, I’m not drinking at all.

This means that, unlike Ridley, I’m not soaking up the sunshine with Mrs Beverage by my side. I can almost hear a collective, sympathetic “Ahhhhhh“ from all our readers...

The first hump in the road for my wagon today was a visit to the football with Papa Harrison. It was 25 years ago this month that our team, Oxford United, won their only major trophy (discounting league titles) The League Cup and the club were hosting a re-run of the match before our game with league leaders Chesterfield.

A packed room watched Oxford put QPR to the sword and run out 3-0 victors. We even had some ex-players and management staff in attendance. It was a magical way to spend lunch time, even getting my hands on the trophy itself...

But one thing struck a number of people in the room, as we watched the 25 year old footage and that was how much the game has changed over the years.

All 22 players (and the one substitute who came on) were either British or Irish and, despite the hard-tackling, cup final nature of the game, not one yellow card was issued. When QPR’s John Byrne went crumbling to the floor following a nailing challenge from Centre Back Gary Briggs, he just got back up again and carried on. One particularly heavy challenge on Oxford’s John Aldridge in the opposition penalty area must surely have been a foul, a clear cut penalty. But when the referee waved away the shout, the game continued: no surrounding of the referee, no ganging up on him, no managerial ranting and raving. This was a different era, a different time. The game has changed a lot. In comparison, I watched Tottenham Hotspur Vs Arsenal on Wed evening and it seemed more like watching Avatar than football; not quite real life, but very entertaining.

This got me thinking about old whiskies that I’ve had. At the Whisky Show 2010 we were discussing with some folk about why whisky from a different age tastes, well, so different. The conclusion seems to be two-fold:

Firstly, the majority of distilleries would have had coal fired stills. This means the heating levels would have been inconsistent, as coal is difficult to control, and would have been patchy in the heating of the base of the stills with different areas hotter than others. As a result, the spirit being made would have had a greater degree of inconsistency in flavour, which in turn adds character (not always good character, but character none-the-less). Today gas or steam is used to heat the stills, giving incredible levels of control to the temperature and consistent heating across the whole of the base of the still, meaning a more consistent flavour of new make spirit is produced.

Secondly, the type of condensers used. In the old days every distillery would have used Worm tubs; a slower form of condensing the spirit from the second (or in some older cases, like Talisker from the 1960’s, the third distillation) still or Spirit Still. With a Worm Tub you get less contact time between the new make spirit and copper, giving a different, more robust / meaty and often sulphury note to the spirit. This is in contrast to the newer Shell and Tube condensers, which provide greater efficiency, where the spirit has a much greater contact time with copper. This leads to a lighter and more delicate spirit.

Only a handful of distilleries in Scotland still have Worm Tubs. A while back we visited one, Royal Lochnagar, where the condenser is kept outside, meaning the variable temperatures of Scotland’s weather also play a large part in the flavour of the spirit produced.

One such distillery to still use Worm Tubs is Old Pulteney. We did a piece a couple of months ago on a Duty Free Only bottling they released, and earlier this week we were treated to a tasting of their full range of commercially available whiskies.

It’s a funny old range, starting off with a 12 Year Old and going all the way up to 30 Years Old. Well, actually it now includes a whopping 40 Year Old which we’ll tell you more about in a moment. But why is it so strange?

The 12 Year Old is a solid whisky which sells in excess of 600k cases a year, 50% of them in the UK. Pure gingerbread man in a glass, it is easy to see why this inoffensive bottling is so popular. With a range that next moves up to a 17 Year Old and then on to a 21 Year Old and 30 Year Old, you would expect, with each incremental age rise, for the whisky to follow suit. But this isn’t the case with Old Pultney.

The 17 Year Old is much lighter and more buttery than the 12 Year Old and a whole heap away from the heavy sherry tones of the 21 Year Old. It reminded me of The Glenlivet Nadurra which provides a real right-turn in their range of whiskies, too.

Old Pulteney – 17 Year Old – 46%

Nose: Apple lattice, vanilla, copper, Paul Smith Green aftershave, gooseberry and over ripe kiwi fruit.

Palate: Icing Sugar, hint of salt, apple sauce (the cheaper stuff that is sugary, almost like the inside of a Maccy D’s apple pie), white grape juice. Very unctuous and yummy.

Finish: Tart, creamy, sweet crisp green apples.

Overall : This has more in common with a light lowland than a Northern Highland whisky. It was my pick of the bunch, but then I like a bourbon matured whisky and at 17 Years Old, the combination of age and the barrels makes this a very drinkable dram, especially with the summer approaching and all this hot weather about...

Once the 17 is out of the way, it is very much a case of “as you were” for the 21 and 30 Year old. Solid whiskies, increasing their flavour, spices, dryness with their age. The additional maturity gives dusty notes and smelling the 21 was like sniffing a glass full of shreddies. As the range came to an end, we were introduced to the newest addition: a 40 Year Old.

Old Pulteney – 40 Year Old – 1968 - Pre Release Sample – 363 Bottles - 53.4% ABV

This will go on to be bottled at 52.5%, apparently with whisky taken from 3 ex sherry barrels and 1 ex bourbon barrel.

Nose: If you met Worzel Gummidge, this is how he might smell! A big mix of hay and straw and old, worn leather (not polished leather, books and old shoes, but worn leather jackets). You’d expect it to be welcoming and not at all scary! Shammy leathers. Whisky just doesn’t smell like this unless it is old.

Palate: surprising creamy for something this old; scones with jam and clotted cream but wood spices, cinnamon and rocket providing the spices.

Finish: Long and lingering, ginger notes, tobacco, cigar casing, orange and custard creams. The straw from the nose comes through at the end backed up with fruity blackcurrant juice.

Overall: A complex whisky which is surprisingly vibrant for its age. This should be out in June-ish 2011 and will add to their range of Old Pulteney well, sitting a level above the 30 Year Old, should you wish to venture onward from at bottling.

With the Old Pulteney tasting in the bag, it signals the start of my next period on the wagon, until we leave for Speyside next week. So here I am, cup of tea in hand, having a day reminiscing about past success. Where ever you are this Easter, sit back, think about something you’ve done, seen, heard, tasted that made you happy and enjoy your break with a smile on your face.

He is risen. He is risen indeed!

Friday 22 April 2011

Easter Treats

5pm on Good Friday and I can't think of a more apt name for a national holiday. The sun is belting into every corner of my little south London garden, i've put the dartboard up and some close friends are coming round for an evening at the Oche, accompanied by a choice of warm weather whiskies... But what to go for?

Well see, here's the dilemma. At Caskstrength towers, the Rosebank is usually placed behind a sheet of glass with a sticker on the front, which reads 'Break me at the first sign of summer'. Do I risk cracking it out now and finishing it all off this weekend? (it's forecast to be a belter here) Kind of feel that if I do, i'll pretty much hex the whole of the summer period and summon up the usual weather we get in South London (rain, with the occasional sideways gale)

So i've held back on the majestic Lowland masterpiece and gone for a choice of 2 drinks for tonight: Firstly, a Yamazaki 12yo served 'Sonic style'...
50ml, into a Hi-Ball glass, topped with ice, half filled with chilled soda water and them topped up with tonic. To garnish, a slice of lemon zest and a sprig of mint. Give it a quick stir and you can confidently parade across your veranda, without a care in the world, except for running out of ice.

My second choice tonight is a Tropical Fruit Whisky Sour, using another cracking Japanese whisky- Hakushu Bourbon Barrel.
40ml of Hakushu (you can use any light, fruity whisky really, but this is great)
10ml lemon juice, 10ml vanilla sugar syrup, a dash of lime juice, 5ml of pineapple juice and if you have any, a little kiwi fruit juice (yeah, ok, so we have lots of fruit to use up, ok!!)
Add the ingredients to a shaker with half an egg white and ice, shake till your hands turn blue and strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice. drop a few dashes of bitters onto the top and garnish with a small piece of lime and a cherry.

A (non) typical view across the plains of South London

The Rosebank remains intact, but I feel my friends and I will be more the merrier as the sun sets in glorious Penge.

Happy easter everyone...

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Please Sir. Can I have some (Bow)more...?

Last night, we hosted a charity whisky tasting in aid of the Japan Society and their remarkable support for the Japanese Tsunami relief efforts; 5 sensational whiskies, one as a refreshing highball cocktail and the rest as smooth sippin' drams. It was a wonderful evening of music, dancing, great raffle prizes (and a private whisky tasting from us as the booby prize...) and refinement, very much in a vintage style. The venue was the Central London members club Home House, situated in the manicured and well kept Portman Square, just off London's busy Oxford Street.
Leaving post-11pm, the bright lights of the city outshone an almost-full moon. Car after car sped by, headlights shining out but having little effect. London was alive, but an image of a world as far flung from Hebridian island life as one can possibly imagine.

Late last week, we found ourselves on Islay ready to visit one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, whose origins stretch back as far as 1779 - (just don’t tell the folks at Glenturret!) Bowmore.

Landing at Islay Airport is always an experience. The windsock appears to be starched into a horizontal position, pointing the way north to our destination. Like many of its Islay counterparts, Bowmore is a distillery steeped in tradition- and with sensational views across Loch Indaal, it is a wonderful experience to step back from the grind of everyday life and gulp in deep breaths of the salty coastal air, mixed with a heady and gently intoxicating peat smoke, which the distillery is famous for.

Our guide for the day was Eddie MacAffer, Distillery Manager and all-round legend in the world of Islay single malts. Before guiding us on an in-depth tour of the workings of the distillery, part of which you can see in the video included at the bottom of this post, we took a trip out to visit some of Bowmore’s many peat bogs. Trying our hand at a little bit of peat cutting, anyone who has experienced this first hand will get the sense of trepidation we approached the task with; when you’re being scrutinised by none other than ‘Ginger Willie’ (another of Bowmore’s near legendary employees) the idea of cutting a neat slice of peat, majestically tossing it over one’s shoulder, whilst trying not to slip into the bog makes the whole process quite tricky.

At one point, Joel (whose cutting skills left a great deal to be desired) very nearly toppled into the bog... Imagine the shock of finding a preserved Harrison in a couple of thousand years - historians still trying in vain to unlock the purpose of the Oxford United Supporters badge he so proudly wears.

Once the peat had been cut, it was time to make a trip to Bowmore’s water source. While the distillery is on the coastline, the water source- Laggan River is a long way in land and back in the distillery's distant past a channel was painstakingly cut by hand in 1841. It runs over 7 miles to deliver a plentiful supply and took over a year to cut. Eddie pointed out that the water actually gets less peaty along the journey, which we put to the test, enjoying a dram of Bowmore Darkest with water direct from the source and then another further on towards the distillery. A whisky, out in the open air, diluted with a little splash of slightly earthy water is as close to perfection as you'll get in our book...and Darkest doesn't disappoint; big dried fruits, subtle peat, with a hint of sweetness.

Returning to the distillery, we enjoyed a quick lesson in malt turning, before it was time to experience Warehouse Number One, the oldest continually used warehouse in Scotland and rammed with gems from as far back as 1957. (Oh how we’d like a night alone with those casks...)

The specific reason for this visit was to try the new 1982 Vintage Release. Limited to just 501 bottles, the release sits well between last year's 1981 release and the 1983 vintage - a very limited bottling, which is going to be released at next month’s Feis Ile. (Get ready for the openday queue folks...)

But beforehand, a few mouthfuls of some other gems from the burgeoning Bowmore cabinet.

First up: Bowmore's 'distillery only' bottling:

Bowmore - The Craftsman's Collection -Maltman's Selection - 3000 bottles - 54.6%

Nose: Big burnt caramel, notes of roasted meat, followed by swathes of smoke and juicy seville oranges.

Palate: More roast meat, sweet peat (with a hint of medicinal) and soft fruits, leading into drying oak. Moreish, but very direct.

Finish: Lingering notes of sweet peat and drying sherrywood.

Overall: If you happen to be passing by, be sure to try a sample of this in the Bowmore bar- it certainly hits home and won't to be to everyone's tastes, but if you like your peat and sherrywood in 3D, you'll absolutely adore it.

Bowmore - 1983 vintage - 501 bottles - 47%

Nose: Initial notes of highly aromatic fresh mint, dark toffee, gooseberries, watermelon sweets and daffodils.

Palate: PARMA VIOLETS. Yes - very much in CAPITALS. Enormously fruity/floral and perfumed, leading into clean malt, heather honey notes, soft, very gentle wood smoke and a slightly tropical note. A really eloquent and open palate, absolutely superb.

Finish: Baked banana, lingering vanillas and a dash of tangerine juice.

Overall: Unbelieveably fruity, but with a rich seam of sweet peat. The early 1980's seem to be a superb era for vintage Bowmore casks and this one sits right up there with the best of them.

Saturday 16 April 2011

A Right Royal Rumpus

What a week it's been. In terms of keeping oneself busy, this week has been very easy indeed. We've just returned home from a fabulous visit to Islay, the details of which we'll be bringing you this coming Monday. But before slipping on the new Fleet Foxes record, drawing a bath and preparing for a much needed shave, we feel duty bound to bring you our tasting notes for a very special whisky, which was released a couple of days ago. You may or may not have seen our spoof Royal wedding bottling, (or to be precise, a monster of a bottling, released to celebrate the official stag do) but a sample of the real thing arrived whilst we were away... (the actual wedding invitation must still be at the Penge sorting office...)

As with the last great Royal bash back in 1981, The Macallan have beaten everyone else to the punch and released the official Royal Wedding bottling, which is a marriage of whisky taken from 2 casks, both filled on the 29th April - a 1996 and a 1999. The release is limited to 1000 bottles, priced at £150, available only from the distillery shop or at The Macallan website.

To come across the slight pessimist for a second- there is hardly a history of harmony surrounding the recent royal weddings but in the case of William and Kate we wish them every success for the future- a more handsome a couple you would struggle to find. One can only hope that they're given enough space by the often maliciously intrusive scum we call a popular press in this country, for they appear to be genuine and honest - attributes that some of the more senior royals could do with fine tuning.

Anyway, onto the whisky.

The Macallan - The Royal Marriage Commemorative Bottling - 1000 bottles - 46.8%

Nose: Highly resinous, with classic Macallan sherrywood dryness, leading into cinnamon bark, cocoa, crystalised orange slices, a deft hint of some butter candy (Werthers) and light sultanas.
With water, a much more noticeable fragrant plum/soft orchard fruit aroma makes itself known. Quite lovely in fact.

Palate: Quite dry on the palate, but not at all cloying- with more cinnamon, well balanced cocktail bitters (particularly elements of vanilla, cloves and dried orange peel) then into a creamy soft milky cereal note. It has a lot of similarities with the recent Albert Watson bottling, but perhaps without the bigger, more pronounced notes of all-spice or liquorice.
Adding water really brings out the sweetness, with more noticeable vanilla toffee coming through.

Finish: Dark chocolate covered raisins and plum jam lead the way for a nicely lingering finish.

Overall: Once again, The Macallan have proven themselves worthy of marrying a whisky fit for a king. Mr Grier - expect your knighthood in the post.

Friday 15 April 2011

Off The Map...

Airport shopping is often a dangerous thing, in that you’re away from home, (and probably any responsible adults) a little bit gung ho and will most likely have some crisp notes/newly liberated Visa card(s) plumping up your wallet, which are strictly there to be converted into a foreign currency. Then you pass Sunglasses Hut see a pair of Red Rayban’s that really only look good on Jensen Button. The gland controlling hormone secretions to your sensibility momentarily shuts down and before you know it, you’re heading to the gate thinking you look like a racing driver, whilst actually looking like Louis Spence.

Folks, we’ve all been there, I’m a pathologically bad airport shopper and I vowed recently that I have to get things under control, before I begin to get mistaken for any more camp contemporary dance icons. Tricky thing is that most of the major UK airports also have a tremendously alluring branch of World Of Whiskies, which is usually conveniently placed next to Messrs. Lunettes de Soleil & Co.

Travel retail exclusives have become all the rage for most distilleries. Highland Park have capitalised well on airport wallet liberation and we’ve documented some of the best bottlings to go for a few times on Caskstrength. Glenrothes also offer a very sturdy Robur Reserve as a reasonably priced travel retail exclusive.

Glenfiddich are the latest distillery to enter the frame with their brand new release -Age Of Discovery. Aptly named for the international traveller, this exclusive 19yo Madeira cask finish bottling was available from World Of Whiskies from last week and seeing as we were passing through Gatwick we had an opportunity to give it a go. As packages go, the Discovery looks wonderful- a mixture of Gulliver's Travels, ancient cartography and a definite sense of 'adventure'. But will the liquid itself inspire wild voyages to the promised land, or head off the map, where be monsters lie?

Glenfiddich - Age Of Discovery - Travel Retail Exclusive- 19yo- Madeira Cask Finish - 40%

Nose: Floral soap, soft brown sugar, sultanas, diced green apple and fudge. with a touch of water a pleasant honey comb note develops.

Palate: A little soapy initially, leading into heather honey, menthol notes, java coffee, roasted malt and a hint of cocoa. Water gives a touch of damsons on the back palate.

Finish: lingering notes of malt extract and a touch of dried figs.

Overall: An interesting take on a vintage Glenfiddich. It wasn't as exciting as I'd hoped it to be, but fits neatly in where the 18yo and the 15yo sit within the Glenfiddich family.

Thursday 14 April 2011

Standing at the Auccy...

Hot on the heels of our recent trip to the Lowlands where we visited Cameron Bridge and Glen Kinchie, we find ourselves in Glasgow for a tasting of Auchentoshan, including a sneak preview of their soon to be released 1975 vintage bottling. As some of you will remember 1975 happens to be my birth year and it always seems to take on an additional resonance to drink something produced in the year you just so happened to pop out.

Our tasting began with an introduction to the core range of malts from the distillery's Senior Blender, Jeremy Stephens. What we find intriguing about Auchentoshan is the relationship between the range of expressions 12 Year Old and Three Wood. At their hearts are a series of very prominent key characteristics, despite the type of maturation or age. Tonight's tasting also highlighted just how much of a forward thinking company Auchentoshan have become; in a few short years the brand have considerably increased their output and now sell around 60,000 cases worldwide per year. This might not sound like a lot, but they seem to be appealing to a new, previously untapped group of whisky drinkers - by way of example, Mrs Ridley recently proclaimed Auchentoshan Three Wood as her pathway into enjoying whisky...a big bold statement... and something I have been hoping would happen for nigh on a decade now!!

You can view Mrs Ridley's tasting notes on the Three Wood here.

Auchentoshan - 12yo - 40% - 70cl

Nose: Very distinct aromas of dried coconut, unblanched almonds and cherry drops all greet the nostrils on the first sniff- it is light, but not in the same way perhaps Glenkinchie or Bladnoch is (not remotely zesty, or floral) and definitely has plenty of individual character.

Palate: A slightly off kilter coal/oil like note first hits you, not what I was expecting, but not unpleasant- this subsides into ripe pears, more almond notes and perhaps the deftest hint of sherry wood.

Finish: Lingering fruit notes with a hint of woody oak creeping in on the death.

Overall: A very solid starting point from the distillery's key malt. It perhaps lacks the character demonstrated so eloquently in the brilliant Three Wood, but nonetheless a easy and enjoyable single malt.

Next up and a real coup- a sneaky dram of the brand spanking new Auchentoshan 1975 vintage. We reviewed the distillery's last 2 vintage bottlings (the 1977 and 1998) back in December, with the older whisky showing off a different side to intense sherry cask maturation.

The 1975 is a different beast altogether. It's not clear exactly what type of casks this has come from (we suspect refill Bourbon, rather than 1st fill) ) but with only 500 bottles in the outturn and around 30 for the domestic market, it probably isn't going to be around for long. Looking at the label and packaging- simplicity a great thing indeed... Rest assured, there will be no Lalique decanter here...

Auchentoshan 1975 - 46.9% - 500 bottles- 70cl

Nose: Quite remarkable. Although this is quite the middle-aged gentleman, it exhibits elements of the dried coconut and unblanched almonds found in the 12yo. But then it really starts to come alive. Wow- stewed rhubarb, marshmallows, melted brandy butter and gingersnap biscuits are all there in abundance. Balanced, rich, moreish, wonderful.

Palate: A huge hit of tropical fruit takes you by surprise - very unexpected indeed. It's mango and passion fruit, but then a little smoked pork begins to take over and we're off in a different direction, with white pepper, hints of aged tobacco and then back to some sweetened tinned peaches and cream. Utterly brilliant.

Finish: The fruit lingers nicely, with the peaches being the overriding force.

Overall: An absolute delight of a whisky. Make no mistake, I am probably harder on whiskies from this year than any other, but this one is totally spot on. The birthday collection I have been slowly building when I can afford to is developing nicely but now it has an Auchentoshan shaped hole in it. Damn it...

Wednesday 13 April 2011

A Tun Of Fun

When you sit on the tarmac at any given airport, you see small vehicles scurrying around the runway the size and shape which never enter real life. Never seen on the motorway or A roads, these tugs are akin to the deep sea blob-fish that are projected in green limelight on TV nature shows; odd shapes and sizes, they scurry around demanding attention, like 1970’s punks.

Flying is a funny old game, especially when you’re going from one part of an island to another. That’s why I’ve chosen to make a trip up to Scotland via train. Nothing new there, we’ve done that plenty of times before. This time however, I’m going further than ever before (Aberdeen, from London) and I’m taking the sleeper train...

As you can see from the video, the trip was pretty good, despite the small cabin, with the added bonus of waking up in the Highlands of Scotland just a stone’s throw from Speyside, my ultimate destination.

The first stop on today’s journey is a quick nip in to the town of Huntly where independent bottlers Duncan Taylor are based. A whistle –stop tour of their small (but well formed) bottling plant just off the main street was a real education. Plenty of interesting stock, including some maturing cask of very old, very rare Speyside malts shows the company in rude health and if their recent Black Bull 40 Year Old is anything to go by, they’ll be churning out quality offerings for a while to come yet.

One nice innovation they are developing is to additionally mature some casks in smaller quarter casks and octaves. This way, bottles can be released in smaller batches with enhanced finishes over a number of different days.

I was treated to some small samples of a Single Cask Cameron Bridge from 1979 (tinned pineapple and huge, gluey grain notes, sweet and syrupy) and a 1972 Caperdonich which left me wanting to discover more about this lost distillery. Look out for them in the near future.

Onward from Huntly to Dufftown, the heartland of whisky making and the real reason for taking the sleeper up from London: a visit to The Balvenie Distillery.

Last year The Balvenie released a very limited edition bottling developed by Malt Master David Stewart Tun 1401, especially for visitors taking the tour of their facilities, one of the only places in Scotland where you can experience whisky making from cooperage, through to malting and the whisky making process itself. A tour well worth taking, if you can get on one (8 people, twice a day, 4 times a week is a pretty limited offer). This bottling was preceded by two other successful distillery only bottlings, Rose Batch 1 and Rose Batch 2, but more on them later...

For the original Tun 1401, Stewart took 6 casks (4 American Oak and 2 Sherry Butts) and married the contents together in a large tun. Just 336 bottles were released at 48.1% ABV and such was the reception for this bottling that Stewart and his team have decided to create a second batch. Using a new selection of barrels, the new Tun 1401 Batch 2 will yield an increased number of bottles with a worldwide release in late May 2011.

The newer batch is made up of 10 barrels ranging from 1969 to 1989, with the majority of the spirit made in the early 1970’s. Let’s have a look at 9 of these constituent parts:

1967, Hogshead:

N. Pineapple chunks

P. More tinned pineapple with Vanilla Ice Cream and Soda Water

F. Lime Cordial

1970, Sherry Butt:

N. Garibaldi Biscuits, Wheat.

P. Copper, Raisin, Digestive Biscuits

F. Sweet Tea

1971, Sherry Butt:

N. Dusty Furniture Polish.

P. Boiled sweets, wood polish.

F. Oaky and dry

1971, ex-Bourbon:

N. Fresh pineapple, cream, white grape juice.

P. Fresh lemon, cloudy apple juice.

F. Oak and dry sherry

1972, Hogshead:

N. Pear soap.

P. Lime juice.

F. Lime peel

1973, sherry butt:

N. rich red fruits

P. Wonderful depth, freshly sliced red apple.

F. Deep and rounded summer fruits

1974, Hogshead:

N. Cream Soda.

P. Cream soda again but mixed with fresh pineapple and green apple slices

F. Short and sweet.

1975, Hogshead:

N. Black Currant juice

P. Dark Chocolate

F. Very short with a hint of bitterness and oak

1978, Bourbon:

N. Vanilla cream cakes

P. Hints of mint, éclairs

F. Toasted Marshmallow.

There was one final cask, a bourbon barrel from 1989 but I didn’t get a chance to have a nose / taste of that sample, sadly.

My biggest impression from each of these casks (sampled with water) was that they would all make a good single cask bottlings, with a couple being exceptional single casks (1967 and 1978 as my personal picks). So how will these individual whiskies come together to create one Single Malt? Well, let’s hear from David Stewart about the process in this short video:

The Balvenie – Tun 1401 – Batch 2 - ~3000 bottles – Sample strength at 52.2% ABV

Nose: Wow, this is a whisky with a big personality and the nose jumps out the glass at you; citrus fruit juices come through first, followed by a dumbing down of the energy thanks to some runny honey tones and finally oak and wood spices add some last min left turns to the aroma.

Palate: A huge hit of spiced pineapple, as if used in a mild curry with some lime chutney and Seville orange marmalade.

Finish: Very rich with toffee and coffee giving way to soft brown sugar and spices.

Overall: Dave Broom taught me not to confuse power with complexity when judging a whisky, but this is both powerful and complex but equally well balanced. For me, The Balvenie produces very drinkable whisky (the Double Wood was the whisky that got me in to whisky) but occasionally can lack bite and personality. The Tun 1401 makes up for that in bucket loads, with a huge personality that still plays to all the key strengths of what makes The Balvenie such an easy whisky to drink. Fingers crossed this gets bottled as near to this sample strength as possible...

The Tun 1401 Batch 1 which we reviewed here, replaces The Balvenie Rose (two batches, both around 400 bottles per batch, finished in Port Pipes) as the Distillery Only bottling. As well as picking up my very own bottle of the Tun 1401 Batch 1 to sink at home, there were a few bottles of the Rose Batch 2 left on the shelf at the distillery shop. What to do? Ignore the last credit card bill, dive in to purchase a bottle and have a taste. Let's see how it compares to the Tun 1401...

The Balvenie- 16 Years Old - Rose – Batch 2 – Distillery Only Bottling - 50.3% ABV

Nose: Copper notes, rich summer fruits, rose petals, runny honey and sweet cure bacon.

Palate: malty and sweet, poached pears in syrup, tinned apricots. Soft.

Finish: Very sweet, crème brulee topping, sugared tea and some wood spices to round it off.

Overall: A solid Balvenie with the Port Wood giving loads of character to the classic tones of honey and sweet sugar. A good dram, but the Tun 1401 Batch 1 wins this battle for me. A note for the presentation of this, which is stunning, with the bottling coming in a velvet-lined box. Very fancy indeed!

All-in-all, a cracking day at The Balvenie. A huge ‘thank you’ must go out to Malt Master David Stewart for his time, as well as to David Mair, The Balvenie Distillery Ambassador, for making the day possible, for so much information and drams.

We will get back to you with a firm date for the release of Tun 1401 and any further details should they be available.

I’m off back to the train station but this time not for the sleeper train to London, but a much shorter hop to Glasgow. Who knows what we might find down in the Lowlands...

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Join Us For A Very Special Tasting

Hello all, we're sure that like us, you were shocked and deeply saddened to see the devastation in Japan in the wake of the earthquake and resulting Tsunami. There are a number of really worthwhile charity organisations that you can donate to- including the Spirit Of Unity bottling, released in conjunction with some of Scotland's leading independent craft distillers and spearheaded by the Arran distillery. If you can grab a bottle of this, we urge you to do so- £59.99 + p&p and available from Royal Mile Whiskies and Loch Fyne Whiskies.

Caskstrength have teamed up with The Japan Society for a very special tasting of Japanese whisky at one of London's most luxurious private member's club, Home House on Monday 18th April.

Joel & myself will be showcasing 5 sensational whiskies- Ichiro's Malt -Mizunara Oak Cask, Yamazaki 12yo (with a twist!) Hakushu Heavily Peated, Hakushu 12yo and Hibiki 17yo. In addition, there will be authentic Japanese cuisine provided, courtesy of Tsuru, musical accompaniment in a 50's style from crooner sensation Gary Driscoll, plus a raffle, containing some other cracking Japanese malts and assorted goodies.

Tickets are £25 (with all the proceeds going to charity) and spaces strictly limited to 40 places. They can be purchased directly from the Japan Society's website, or by emailing

for more information, click on the flyer below:

Hope to see you there!!

N & J

Monday 11 April 2011

Beggan' For More

Looking through our posts these last few months and it appears that we've covered more Irish whiskies than any other style. There are 2 main factors to this:

Firstly, there seems to be an abundance of quality Irish whiskies out there, which we feel are helping revitalise the category. Statistically, Irish Whiskey is the fastest growing dark spirit in the world.

Secondly- we absolutely love it. Our recent outing from Dublin confirmed there are some real crackers out there, including the Connemara Single Cask bottlings and current Red Breast 15yo.

The sublime Kilbeggan 15yo.

Today we bring you news of a new addition to the Kilbeggan family. One of the very first whiskies to really blow our emerald socks off was the 15 year old, tried many moons ago, before the blog was barely a twinkle in our eyes. It's been a house staple for a while and when news broke last year that there was going to be an 18 year old- we were filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Will they phase out the superb 15yo in favour of the new older sibling, like Laphroaig did a couple of years back? More's the point, how has the blend developed, with whiskey aged for 3 extra years now available to master blender Noel Sweeney? We recently reviewed the Greenore 18yo single grain, which we presume is at the heart of this and it came off very favourably indeed, so our hope altimeter is set to 'extra high'.

The new release is at present a small batch release of 4,000 and, according to Cooley's press release 'destined to become a collector's item'. Hmmm. Nice idea, but for us, Irish whiskey above all others is for drinking rather than collecting! So without further ado, let's crack into the fabulously shaped square bottle and pour a large one.

Kilbeggan - 18yo Blended Irish Whiskey - 4000 bottles - 40%

Nose: How much bourbon vanilla is in here!! I swear, given a prevailing headwind, you'd easily mistake this for a small batch bottling of Kentucky's finest on the first nosing. Delving further in, some white pepper notes develop, followed by a hint of earthy, mossy leaves, some strawberries topped in sweet Carnation Milk and a very clean cereal note. So far, so good. It is different to the 15yo, in that some of the creamier notes have taken a back seat, but this all works very nicely indeed.

Palate: Rich, oily and thick on the mouthfeel, velvety soft in fact. The bourbon vanilla has now transferred itself to the palate and wave upon wave hits you, followed by the sweet creamy cereal and a touch of drying oak. The grain gives this a slightly spirity back palate, but it's a minor gripe really, as the initial mouthfeel is so pleasing.

Dolores, dressed as a furry Cranberry.

Finish: And, like The Cranberries' Dolores O'Riordan sang so poetically- 'did you have to let it linger?' Well... yes they did actually, for rather a long time, it seems. I suspect the grain balance here is considerably higher than the malt whiskies, as the finish is light and fruity- classic aged grain in fact, but very nice nonetheless...

Overall: A thoroughly enjoyable dram with a nose and initial mouthfeel, which are highly commendable. Would it take over from the 15yo in Caskstrength Towers? Probably not, but this takes Irish whiskey blending on a step further. Good work chaps.