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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!