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Tuesday 30 August 2011

New Malt Whisky Yearbook 2012

Exciting news folks, the new Malt Whisky Yearbook 2012 is released on the 1st October and this time round, i'm pleased to mention that I was asked to contribute a chapter to this excellent tome.

This year's edition is the biggest ever, running at 300 pages and features chapters from Charlie Maclean, Ian Buxton and our good friend Colin Dunn. It also features a brand new section on Japanese whiskies from Chris Bunting, the creator of great Japan-based blog Nonjatta.

If you fancy grabbing one, visit for more details...

Shameless plug over...


Neil x

Monday 29 August 2011

More Orcadian Fire!!

Howdy and hope all is well on this August Bank Holiday Monday. After our recent office relocation to the park, we decided we very much enjoyed losing ourselves in the reverie of the great outdoors. Well, as much as one can obtain in Crystal Palace. Continuing our vaguely outdoor, (or park theme) we've just returned from a little jaunt over to the Orkney Isles, where we imbibed as much spiritual influence as possible. That and a few decent drams of Highland Park...

Nothing quite prepares you for just how different the Orkney Isles 'feel'. Having visited Islay many times before, you expect to be over-awed by the elements and the remoteness of island life. But Orkney feels positively sculpted by the wind, the ocean and perhaps, more than anything, influenced by mysticism and legend. If we're totally honest, it doesn't feel like a part of Scotland at all.

A visit to the Neolithic stone circle, The Ring of Brodgar gives you a snapshot of how spiritual the islands used to be - rather like Stonehenge, the huge rocks seem transported and set in place with remarkable precision, tirelessly dragged for miles until their final resting place. Just looking at them and realising that they are actually twice as big as they appear (with as much stone set into the ground as is on show) has a funny effect on the mind and body; the trapped nerve in my back began to throb yet feel miraculously cured at the same time. A placebo effect? I suspect unknown forces are at work - either that, or the anticipation of the flight of Highland Park drams waiting for us at the distillery.

After a short tour around the floor maltings, kiln, stillroom and warehousing with the fountain of all HP knowledge, Boot-camp Commandant (and champion devourer of Orkney's famous Porkie Horne) Gerry Tosh, we settled down to try a selection of lesser-known expressions of Highland Park. What's remarkable about the distillery is the genuine sense of interaction between the actual spirit, wood type, peating level and maturation in the whiskies. From trying a sample of the new-make, to a very old example of the whisky, the same classic blackcurrant notes are present, highlighting the distillery's distinct character.

Malty balls??

First up, a dram of two halves...

Highland Park - Capella - around 4,500 bottles 40%

Capella was produced in 2005 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the island's famous Italian Chapel, painstakingly built by the Italian prisoners of war based on the main island. If you visit Orkney, the Chapel is an absolute MUST SEE- prepare to be amazed when you open the heavy oak doors at the front. We won't spoil the surprise here!

Nose: Fresh raspberries, coconuts, melon and citrus oranges- into marmalade notes. Such a huge range of fruit, tempered by an underlying light floral smoke. Unmistakably HP, but with the fruit salad levels pushed up to 11. Notes of sandalwood and spice bring up the rear.

Palate: Spritely, but following with huge complexity; lingering sweet fruits, fruit gums, hints of spicy fruit compote, then into smoke and oak. Is this a mix of old and young? Similarities to the 12yo, but with something darker and older at its core...

Finish: Juicy fruit and oak notes linger on the palate.

Overall: An exercise in balancing all the best fruity bits HP has to offer, with that classic, non-smoky floral smokiness!

Next up: A dram, which we have wanted to try for a very long time indeed. Re-patriated back from the Japanese market a couple of years ago the 1977 Vintage was bottled to mark the 200th anniversary of the distillery. Around 694 bottles were re-packaged, available only at the distillery shop.

Highland Park - 1977 - Bicentenary Edition - 40%

Nose: Earthy, peppery, with a wonderful mix of fresh & dried fruits, classic blackcurrant leaf notes, barley sugar, a light dry smoke and a waft of strawberries & cream. Superb.

Palate: Wonderfully oily and waxy, with humbugs, sweet, rich Manuka honey, cherry drops, white pepper and creamy oak.

Finish: Light smoke, with waxy, honey throat lozenges.

Overall: Absolutely sensational in every way. This is Gerry's favourite dram of Highland Park and it is easy to see why. A shame it isn't bottled at a higher ABV, but even at 40%, this is sterling stuff.

Our final dram is another distillery-only treat. Except that it isn't just a distillery-only bottling, but is also available should you fancy traveling the 6000+ miles to Taiwan, where a small number of bottles are available.

Highland Park - Sword - Especially bottled for the Taiwanese market - Distilled 1997 - Bottled 2010 - c.2000 bottles - 43%

Nose: Slightly picante, with smoky, woody chilli notes, dry aromatic sherry, into rich Oloroso, demerara sugar and malty cereal notes. With a dash of water, a note of powder paint develops.

Palate: Again, very fruity with more of the sherrywood influence, developing into peppery notes, with classic blackcurrant leaf and vanilla.

Finish: Dry and spicy, with lingering oak and aromatic herbs on the death.

Overall: Solid, flavoursome and exciting- a huge departure to the Capella bottling, but more in keeping with the recent Magus Saga bottlings. The smoke and sherry influence is much more prevalent, making this a powerful beast indeed.

Sunday 21 August 2011

The Call Of Nature

On Friday, we decided to move the Caskstrength office from its usual residence, surrounded by dusty bottles, into the fresh air of Crystal Palace Park. Sure, the broadband speed isn't quite up to much, relying on leaf power as opposed to fibre optics. However, they have real dinosaurs, (as above) an ice cream van and a place to chill whiskies in the form of a nice clear boating lake. And, as an additional bonus, A slightly swarthy-looking man occasionally pops by, offering freshly prepared platters of Paella. Is there a point where too much Paella becomes dangerous?

Whom ever came up with the phrase 'Hot Desking' clearly hasn't left the confines of his/her comfortably serviced, yet blindingly bland office block, for fear of encountering nature. Imagine- this could be you...

Or this, should you so desire.

This outdoor 'Park Desking' seemed the perfect environment for trying a new batch of blends, which we suspect were designed for the express purpose of outdoor drinking.

Wemyss are fast developing into a very progressive and forward thinking whisky company- and their newest batch of blended malts, The Hive, Spice King and Peat Chimney, all aged at 12yo really nail the point. There's a simplicity at the very heart of these whiskies, each one doing exactly what is suggested on the label.

So, with a little flask of chilled mineral water, some ice and a gob full of Paella, we set about doing an experimental day of mundane office-based chores - tax returns, some statistical analysis and the most evil of all office drudgery - the powerpoint presentation. Would these whiskies, coupled with our canopy of fresh air make them more palatable?

Wemyss - Blended Malt - The Hive - 12yo - 40%

Nose: Light, soft fruit compote notes, some honeyed sweetness, tinned pears and vanilla.

Palate: A surprising amount of smokiness hits the palate on the first mouthful, coupled with homemade apple pie, sweet vanilla ice cream and chopped almonds. Refreshing and very easy drinking. As a long drink, the subtleties of the blend come through, working nicely in a Mizuwari.

Finish: Light, refreshing and fruity.

Overall: A surprising mix of soft fruit and thick rich smoke on the palate. Expertly put together working either on its own, with a couple blocks of ice or as a longer drink.
The tax return is ripped through in no time.

Office Chores: 0
Wemyss Whisky: 1

Next up: Spice King 12yo, apparently uses a Highland malt as its signature spicy backbone... Let's see how it works in our outdoor challenge.

Wemyss - Blended Malt - Spice King - 12yo - 40%

Nose: Dry, woody spice notes (cinnamon, cedar and bleck pepper) with some licorice, a hint of menthol and some burnt bonfire aromas. With a little time in the glass, some cooked banana notes develop nicely.

Palate: Very spicy and dry on the first sip, cinnamon and clove, mixed with Bramley apples, burnt caramel (verging on the bitter type) leading into a sweet, vanilla custard note and hints of pipe tobacco.

Finish: The vanilla notes linger, the more drying woody notes following through shortly afterwards.

Overall: Complex, well balanced and flowing with flavour, this dram is another step up on The Hive. It isn't particularly suited to a long drink, we preferred it as a easy sippin' short drink, so perhaps not something to pair with the task of finishing a powerpoint presentation outdoors- but a fine dram nonetheless.

Office Chores: 1
Wemyss Whisky: 1

The final job to be completed in our outdoor South London office was a personal bugbear of mine- filing away emails. By now, we're feeling a lot more relaxed, after a couple of drams and the surroundings of the park are beginning to completely envelop us. Time to crack the Peat Chimney out.

Wemyss - Blended Malt - Peat King - 12yo - 40%

Nose: Fresh cherries, a very light peat initially, followed by a distinct sootiness and wet tweed. With a bit of time in the glass, blackcurrant notes, banana milkshake and some hazelnut chocolate begin to emerge. The sootiness certainly weighs in, but this isn't a massive blast of peat- just propping up the back.

Palate: Ah. There's the peat. Swathes of the brown stuff, coupled with more silky, rich chocolate coat the palate. Once again, nutty notes begin to take over. It isn't by any means an abrasive style peat, more along the lines of the recent Port Askaig we reviewed.

Finish: Slight vegetive notes, with sweet root vegetable and pepper notes, with a very sweet note on the death.

Overall: With a big slug of superbly chilled still water, ice and a slice of lemon zest (which we had to pilfer from the Crystal Palace Park Cafe, the emails seemed to miraculously fly into their destination folders. I even managed to delete a huge backlog of mails that had been stubbornly been refusing to leave quietly.

Office Chores: 1
Weymss Whisky: 2

The evening is now drawing in- We're pleasantly tanned, relaxed and have done a day's office work, in one of London's most idyllic parks. What's more we've had 3 really good drams, 2 of which worked perfectly as refreshing summer sippers. Hopefully we'll have at least a few more weeks of sunshine throughout September, where we can enjoy more office days like this, coupled with some great outdoor whiskies. We're certainly committed to the cause...

Friday 19 August 2011

Another rather splendid competition...

It's been a bit of a bumper couple of weeks for competitions. Firstly we offered you a chance to grab yourselves a pair of tickets for Whisky Live Glasgow and now we bring you news of another fantastic opportunity to grab a unique signed guitar, courtesy of Highland Park!

In late June, Caskstrength teamed up with the mighty Arcade Fire, for a spot of whisky tasting during their sell out Hyde Park show. Much fun was had with everyone who came along to visit our little whisky bar and the band helped to redesign the label for special, very limited bottling of Highland Park 18yo - The Orcadian Fire.

They also signed a Highland Park customised guitar - and you can now get a chance to win it, through the Highland Park Facebook page!

Simply follow the links below and you could be the lucky winner who gets to strum its silky strings!

Best of luck...

In the meantime, to get your heart racing, here's a video of the Arcade Fire live:

Tuesday 16 August 2011

A Spoonful Of Sugar, Helps The Medicine Go Down...

As our name suggests, our constitution is pretty much as strong as an ox, when it comes to ailments and illnesses. Apart from the odd cold, Joel and myself tend not to be struck down with anything, a feat that we always attribute towards a refreshing glass of edifying whisky. Nothing like a whisky to revitalise, revivify and restore one's power to tip-top condition.

So it was a surprise to me the other day, that after a discovering a niggling, persistent pain in my throat I had to head off to my local hospital for a closer examination. Nothing serious mind, just a routine procedure. The doctor had prescribed what is known in the trade as a 'Barium Swallow', effectively the Hors d'oeuvre to the 'Barium Meal'. On paper, neither of these things sound particularly appetising.

I had initially hoped for a pan-seared scallop, paired with thinly sliced Lancashire black pudding, followed by a well cooked steak, perhaps glazed with Normandy butter and fresh herbs, then a couple of tablets to swallow, but the actualities were far more prosaic. A small cup of greying sludge, the consistency quite reminiscent of your average MacDonald's milkshake sucked back through a straw.

On my way to the hospital, I had been told to expect an awful, metallic tasting liquid, but on arrival, I was pleasantly surprised. This greying gloop, though not particularly attractive to look at, actually tasted reasonably good. So for completest reasons and to expand the scope of my flavour references, here are my tasting notes:

Barium Swallow - 2011 vintage - 0% abv - 70ml - Batch 384972

Appearance: Battleship grey undercoat paint, with a slightly metallic hue.

Nose: Initial wafts of artificial strawberry sweets (think Barratt's Candy Sticks), MacDonald's strawberry milkshake and a vaguely mineral-like/chalky note. Over time, (and bear with me here, as the staff nurse seemed to be losing her temper after I asked if I could add a dash of water to 'really open it up') slightly rubbery notes, surgical gloves and sealing wax come to the fore.

Palate: More of the strawberry candy sticks, followed by a tour-de-force of highly chalky blandness and a strange fizzy, sherbet note. strains of a metallic, dare I say, coppery flavour develop before the palate becomes overcome by the chalk.

Finish: Lingering fruit and rubber, give this baby a reasonably lengthy finish -something definitely to write home about.

Overall: I enquired as to the comparisons to the 2010 vintage and even the legendary mid-1970's vintages, to which the doctor pointed out that this year was certainly the best yet, the 70's bottlings lacking the more pronounced fruity undertones. This is certainly up there with the likes of Calpol and is certainly in a different league altogether compared to the more austere Milk Of Magnesia, but I can't help thinking that it lacks the vibrancy and aromatic power of something like Covonia, known in the trade as the 'Laphroaig' of orally-administered expectorant medicines.

With my test over, I headed back home slightly dazed, feeling in need of something brilliant, palate cleansing and a bit special to give my day back its zing.
What I reached for was not the crusty bottle of vintage Covonia, but a new single cask bottling of 27 year old Dailuaine from our good friends and prescribers of fine spirits, Master Of Malt. I believe this is the first Dailuaine we've reviewed (other than as part of Compass Box's superb Oak Cross, which is a vatting of Clynelish, Dailuaine and Teaninich)

Established in 1872, this Diageo-owned Speyside distillery turns out around 3.4 million litres of spirit a year, contributing a 16yo to the Flora & Fauna collection.

Master Of Malt's bottling was bottled early in July this year and was distilled on the 2nd November 1983 matured in a refill sherry hogshead. After quickly checking our medicine cabinet, which also yielded several tubes, pastes and tinctures from the same year, (all now consigned to the bin) it was time to get my summer back on track.

Dailuaine - 27 yo- Master Of Malt - Single Cask bottling - 53.60% - 70cl

Nose: Wonderful nutty notes- green hazelnuts, brazil nut shells, a light waft of marzipan, melted white chocolate, freshly charred oak and aromatic Fino sherry notes. Quite the aperitif whisky in fact. With water, a slightly more perfumed note develops, with pollen-encrusted lilies and a some oak sawdust.

Palate: Wow, a spicy, licorice note hits the palate first, with sharp gooseberry fool, some medicinal menthol notes and clean cereal notes. With water, a creamier note comes to the fore, with the menthol and spice fading into a more pronounced sweet, nutty and vanilla-laden flavour, with perhaps a touch of Nutella about it.

Finish: The oak begins to dry the palate, with the emergence of some slightly bitter coffee grains, but there's enough of the tingly spice left to make its mark.

Overall: As is the phrase- 'just what the doctor ordered'. My palate is now fully cleansed from its Barium Hors d'oeuvre and the restorative powers of whisky have triumphed once again. Hurrah!! This decent summer sipper has done the trick and I feel refreshed and revitalised. What's more, my throat pain has today subsided a little. Coincidence?? Who knows, but with any luck, there will be no need for a return visit to Chez Beckenham Royal and their rustic menu of metallic delicacies.

£64.95 For more info visit: Master Of Malt

Friday 12 August 2011

WIN: Whisky Live Glasgow

Isn't the year rushing past? It seems only yesterday we were settling down to our first review of the year and now we're nearing mid August, with the evenings starting to draw in and football season kicking off already, it's time to start planning for the 'bers.

The first big whisky event of September is Whisky Live Glasgow, taking place on Saturday 3rd September at the Glasgow Thistle Hotel. As usual, there will be plenty of distilleries turning up with their wares, but alongside the ability to get to know whisky a little better, you'll find Whisky & food combinations, a Collectors Corner for valuations, a blending room where you have the opportunity to combine different whiskies, create and bottle your own blend with unique characteristics which will hopefully be palatable. And as usual, there will be plenty of Masterclasses.

There are several different types of tickets available, which you can check out at along with all details of the Masterclasses on offer. However, we are giving you, dear reader, the chance to win a pair of Full Day & Masterclass entrance ticket by answering this simple question:

Which Masterclass at Whisky Live Glasgow has analysis drawn from the Whisky Magazine Index ?

Email your answers to by Sunday 28th August. Tickets will need to be picked up on the day and you must be over 18 years of age to enter.

Good luck!

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Two Distinctly Different Drams - in Uncertain Times.

What stranges time we live in. It is almost impossible to hide from the fact that here in England, we are sliding towards all-out war on the streets of our major cities. As London recovers from the rash of mindless, opportunist, idiot rioters, you have to question just what drives the younger elements to commit such crimes. Boredom? A sheep-like mentality? Perhaps a reaction to the endless advertising of things that people just can't afford, a counterpoint to the fact that we are in real danger of creating a society of children who value material things above everything else.

But despite the madness of the last couple of days, we turn our attention once again to what drives us- great whisky. To unwind with a great new dram, knowing your family is safe, feels like a hell of a good thing.

A few days ago, a couple of new drams from Speciality Drinks came through the letterbox. Well, actually they were so well packaged, the postman had to knock on the door...

Can you spot the drams?

Anyway, after recovering one, which accidentally fell into the kitchen bin, I quickly realised that this brace of drams was a bit special. A 19 year old Rosebank from 1991 and a favourite of ours from old, just a little bit wiser - Speciality Drinks' Port Askaig also at 19 years old.

The door is locked, Mrs Caskstrength is on the sofa and the rattle of the catflap, signifies that my faithful companion, Bobby is back, satisfied with his evening patrol.

Speciality Drinks - Rosebank - 1991 - 19 years old - 46%

Nose: Freshly cut wet grass, lemon balm, sherbet lemons, some slightly spirity menthol and a waft of some floral perfume/powderpuff notes.

Palate: Stewed apple and melted butter, some light sweet vanilla notes and a drying oakiness.

Finish: A lingering perfumed note vies for your attention whilst the vanilla notes get creamier.

Overall: Nice, light and summery. A welcome lift for a London night, mired in doom and gloom. Perhaps not as vibrant as some of the younger expressions, but very enjoyable.

And now for something completely different. Port Askaig is an undisclosed Islay distillery, although we have long since suspected it to be a Caol Ila. The previously released 17yo backdropped a superb Feis Ile a couple of years ago for us and whilst I was over in Islay recently, I thought it would be good to relive this excellent dram at the newly-owned Duffie's bar in Bowmore.

Stocks of the 17yo have pretty much gone now and I have high hopes from this, which is 2 years older and perhaps wiser. Whilst the backdrop of Penge is very different from Islay, Will this new release transport me back to such a magical and tranquil place.

Awaiting final image... so here's the 17 again...

Speciality Drinks - Port Askaig - 19 years old - 45.8%

Nose: Gentle, restrained peat, some medicinal carbolic notes, vanilla cream, banana milkshake and malty oakcakes covered in melted toffee. Not a million miles from Caol Ila Moch.

Palate: Classic Askaig grit on the palate, backed with digestive biscuits, milky sweetened coffee, sweet peat, more of the banana milkshake and some medicinal, notes. Lovely and oh, so drinkable.

Finish: Sweet cereals and sweet peat.

Overall: Well, it's adios to the 17 year old and whilst it's a shame to see it discontinued, this is a more than welcome substitute.

No doubt, you'll probably get a chance to try this cracker and others at the Whisky Show, which this year showcases its flavoursome wares from Vinopolis on the 7th & 8th October. The masterclasses, including an epic flight of sherried Manager's Dram whiskies, led by the irrepressible Colin Dunn look like winners to us, to if you want tickets of more information, visit:

Sleep well, England. And keep up your spirits.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Summer Suntory Releases

Having just returned from Islay, where the daytime mist and drizzle meant that a waxed jacket and cap provided perfect cover for the country walks, I find myself back in London, where the temperature is nearly 30 degrees. I'm laden with a case, several bags and of course, various bottles, which I picked up on Islay including the Lagavulin Distillery Only bottling. If you are over on the island, make a beeline for the distillery and pick one up, whilst they have some is well worth it.

This was the view before the rain decided to return...

Returning to London on the tube with luggage and a waxed coat in sweltering summer temperatures is one of my pet hates, especially that uncomfortable feeling of a slightly sweaty back. It is made all the worse when coupled with very precarious paper carrier bag handles, which threaten to give way at any moment on a packed tube carriage, emptying your precious whiskies out onto the floor.

Despite delays and my blood boiling over, I managed to get home, bag intact, but needing a shower... and almost certainly a big drink.

When we're lucky enough to be blessed with hot weather in the UK, to enjoy whisky in a Mizuwari style or as a highball is certainly the sophisticated way to unwind and Yamazaki 12yo, Hibiki 12yo or a light and fruity Hakushu work a treat. So I whipped one up, using plenty of Yamazaki 12, ice, topped up with soda, with a nice-sized piece of lemon zest thrown in for good measure.

Suntory have recently released 2 new Bourbon Barrel expressions, in time for the UK summer market. whiskies are non-aged, but are matured in fresh, first fill bourbon casks to heighten the sweet, fruity flavours. Around 3,000 bottles will be available across Europe of each expression priced at £69.99. We reviewed the Hakushu earlier on in the year, (which you can read here) and recently got a sample of the Yamazaki Bourbon Barrel release. On initial nosing, both whiskies are very similar - layers of sweet, candied fruit, but here are our more detailed thoughts....

Yamazaki - Bourbon Barrel - limited release bottling - 48.2% - NAS

Nose: Immediate hints of vanilla, white chocolate, heather honey and toffee apple. Given time in the glass, a drier note comes through, something similar to Yamazaki 12yo. Notes of light wax polish and lavender follow, with a touch of water.

Palate: Very sweet, with more white chocolate, coconut macaroons, vanilla sponge cake, carnation milk and a hint of strawberry jam.

Finish: Lingering creamy notes and a drying flavour, reminiscent of dessicated coconut and a touch of spice.

Overall: A hugely enjoyable dram. Sweet and fruity with layers of creaminess, which linger on the palate. If you fancied a rather luxurious Mizuwari, you could use this, but it's such a nice sipper, a couple of blocks of ice or a dash of water will work perfectly for a great summer's day dram.