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Friday 30 September 2011

The Nudes At Ten

You really have to have your cultural barometer adjusted when travelling abroad. On my recent trip to the South of France, I took some time out to find some nice beaches dotted along the coastline.

Many stretches of beach in the main towns and cities feature municipal areas at their extremes, with the sections in between often privately owned by the huge sea-front hotels. These feature bars or restaurants which seamlessly bleed into sun loungers, the Mediterranean Sea lapping at the golden sand just a few yards in front of that. Signs along the promenade inform visitors of what awaits on each part of the beach.

One afternoon, I decided to hit the sand with a bunch of samples I had siphoned off back in England to 5cl bottles. I packed my bag and headed off to find a beach appropriate to the samples I had with me and the dram of the day, the whisky I’d chosen to sip in the sun, was The Naked Grouse. This, therefore could mean only one thing. I must find a nudist beach to really put this dram in to context. A quick look in my guide book tells me the loose translation which I should seek out is ‘a la plage nudiste’... so off I wander in the direction of the local beaches.

“Huzzah!” I cry as I find exactly what I’m looking for. Fortunately for me, I had found Plage de Tahiti near St.-Tropez. Apparently one of the best beaches in France for spotting celebrities topless, it was made famous with some rather revealing shots of Brigitte Bardot and now these celebrities were going to get to see me, sans vêtements. Those lucky, lucky people...

As I made my way down the steps towards the white sand my sack, full of liquid goodness, swinging in the midday heat, I felt proud to be a part of the local scene. As the sun’s rays pounded down on my sunburnt head, disaster struck. My bulging sack suddenly split open, revealing my miniatures to shocked onlookers. Children ran screaming to their parents, husbands shielded their wives eyes from the view and seagulls scattered as if Armageddon had arrived.

Embarrassed, I scrabbled around in the sand to recover my smalls, dusting off the sand with a cotton handkerchief and cupping them in my palm for safe-keeping. Trying to front out the situation, I maintained my British dignity, found my stiff-upper-lip and strode off toward a slightly sheltered area of sand. With a combination of sunburn and embarrassment, my head was as redder than Ron Jeremy’s after a hard day in the office. Settling down, I cleaned off my sample of The Naked Grouse and poured it in to my glass which had survived the ordeal.

The Naked Grouse - Blended Scotch Whisky - 40%

Nose: There's no mistaking the huge sherry influence here- slightly rubbery, but moist raisins, plump damsons and a dusting of all-spice hit the nose first, followed by candied citrus peel, Glace cherries, fresh green apple peel, cinnamon bark and cola syrup. Bold and hugely impressive.

Palate: Sweet dried fruits, lead into rich buttery malt, with bonfire toffee notes, dark licorice sticks, cinnamon buns, sweetened Arabica coffee and barley sugar. Superbly balanced.

Finish: The spiced notes linger, fading into a tangy apple peel note and more of the licorice.

Overall: If you like your blends big, bold and jam-packed full of moist, juicy flavour, you need to get your lips around thi...


Thursday 29 September 2011

The (Pot) Still 'O The Morning

I love Indian Summers. Here we are a few days away from October and the sun is blasting through the the shutters at Caskstrength Cottage, my beaten up old writing desk bathed in a wonderfully warming glow as well as the promise of another excellent day ahead. It is 8.54am, I am about to review the first whisky of the day and I have finally managed to connect up my computer to a remarkable piece of technology called a Squeezebox.

(no, not this type)

this is more like it.

It effectively allows me to stream all my music to the stereo wirelessly from anywhere in the house, as well as access the impossibly large library of songs contained on Spotify. As much as it pains me to say it, there really is no point in ever visiting a mainstream record shop again. Thank you HMV, but your services are no longer required.

Having said that, if anything, it makes the experience of actually buying a record exciting again. There will always be gaps in your music collection that can't be fulfilled by online providers so with any luck, the independent retailer and second hand vinyl shops will thrive again- so long as people can be arsed to find them.

My first whisk(e)y of the day is also designed to fill a gap, this time in the cask strength Irish whiskey category. Off the top of my head I can think of very few standard release Irish whiskies, bottled at cask strength - Connemara... anything else? So the release of Red Breast 12 year old Cask Strength edition is something of a new venture, especially for Irish Distillers.

Glancing into my cabinet I can see a bottle of Red Breast 15 yo; an exceptional whiskey bottled at 46% but probably an unfair comparison point. As soon as we can grab a dram of the regular strength 12 yo, we'll bring you an addendum side-by-side tasting. But with the sun on my back and Beck's Sea Change seamlessly transported from my lap top to my stereo, it's time to dive in and see whether this dram will ultimately add to what promises to be an exceptional day.

Red Breast - 12 Years Old - Cask Strength Edition - 57.7% - Batch B1/11- 70cl

Nose: Wow, the additional strength spirit makes its presence known immediately. It has a firey top note, which dies away quickly to reveal notes of fresh plums, a little dustiness, some clean linen, desiccated coconut and a lingering creaminess, akin to dairy fudge. Very pleasant indeed.

Palate: For the first whisky of the day, pre 9am, this is certainly a mouthful! Powerful and coating, the tongue gets the first blast of wonderful sweetness, more of the dairy fudge, followed by some cornflake notes, creamy vanilla, golden syrup, a deft hint of floral apple peel (Pink Lady?) and some black cherries. Despite the power, this is a brilliantly developed dram, with the sweetness lingering on the palate, slowly unveiling layers of fruit, cream and on the very back, a little spice. A drop of water certainly broadens the softness out, but it doesn't really need it. One suspects that you're probably going to choose this to drink undiluted - otherwise you might as well get the 40% version.

Finish: Lengthy and creamy, with the emergence of the apple again on the death.

Overall: A hugely welcome addition to the Red Breast family. As we've written on here before, along with Green Spot, Red Breast 12 year old is one of those solid, dependable Irish whiskies that oozes character, as well as class. Given the the higher abv, this bottling carries on the character, albeit with a bit more intensity.

For some bizarre reason, we've never actually reviewed the 15 yo on this site, so if the day carries on like this, i'll be cueing up another glass and probably writing off my planned morning gardening.

The Indian Summer, eh. Today, I think the phrase 'Irish Summer' is probably more appropriate.

***Addendum*** after checking the cabinet more throughly I realised a small bottle of regular strength Red Breast 12yo was hiding at the back. As a side-by-side the new Cask Strength release is clearly a more dynamic whiskey, with elegant top notes of fresh fruit and Juicy Fruit chewing gum.

On reducing the Cask Strength version down (to roughly 40% ) the difference is quite distinct, with the original exhibiting more butterscotch & soft toffee notes and the Cask Strength exploding with fruit above and beyond notes of soft caramel and vanilla. In short they are 2 very different whiskies. And we salute that.

Monday 26 September 2011

Cornish Folly

Imagine the scene, some 25 years ago and the humble Japanese whisky salesman on their way up to Glasgow in search of a sale, in one of the many city pubs, bars and off-licences.

"What is it you're selling again?" asks a slightly bemused bar/shop manager.

"Japanese Whisky. We've been making this since 1923," retorts the salesman, in a confident, yet vaguely misplaced fashion.

"You're having a laugh aren't you," splutters the bar manager, mouth full of firey spirit. "Why the **** would we sell this?! You're in Scotland, the HOME of whisky, you crazy man!!"

So another failed sale, another disappointing trip back down the M74. But the salesman isn't beaten that easily. Given time, (ok, quite a lot) some incredible whisky making and a whole host of awards, the salesman confidently strides back into the same bar/shop, this time the manager buying up the car-load of stock for an eager audience to get stuck into.

And so it came to pass- World Whisky as a category was born. Today, Indian, Tasmanian, Welsh, Belgian, German, French, Taiwanese, Spanish, as well as a whole host of other world whiskies are beginning to stick out on the whisky drinker's radar, which is an exceptionally refreshing proposition. New ways to enjoy whisky are emerging from the Far East. Great whisky cocktails are becoming easier to make at home and as we mentioned recently, thanks to a world of sophisticated TV programmes (like Mad Men) drinking whisky is, to be frank, cool again.

All this brings us to England. The spiritual home of London dry gin, cask-conditioned ale, cider, mead and the mother of 'Booze Britannia', Pimm's No. 1 Cup.

We can now add whisky to the growing pantheon of English libations. Much has been made of the new(ish) whisky being produced over at Norfolk's St George's Distillery. Nearby, at the Adnams Brewery new spirit is currently maturing in a range of different casks with the North Cove Oak-Aged Vodka the first commercially available spirit of real interest.

So it is with avid interest that last week, news reached us concerning the release of the first Cornish whiskey in 300 years.

Hicks & Healey Cornish single malt whiskey (note the 'e') is a collaboration between the St Austell Brewery and Healey's Cornish Cyder Farm, famous for turning out the intriguingly titled Rattler Cider.

Matured for 7 years, using barley from South East Cornwall, the whiskey is double distilled in the small still owned by Healey's farm, which is also used to make cider brandy.

According to an article in the Daily Telegraph last Thursday whisky writer Jim Murray described the spirit as 'among the best debut bottlings of the last decade.' Further reading also revealed that the whiskey apparently has 'notes of spice, honey and barley, combined with delicate fruits and hints of cocoa and caramel before a late vanilla finish, which make it faultless and almost beautiful beyond words.'

Bloody hell. High praise indeed. Better try to grab a sample of this to try. Then we discover the price of this brand new 7 year-old wonder whiskey... £150 for a 50cl bottle.

Now we're really coughing up our breakfast. How the folk can a 7 year-old whisk(e)y be worth anywhere near this price?

So we head over to visit a friend, who had that very day contacted us eagerly with the news that he had been sent a small sample of the whiskey.

Here's our thoughts on the newest pretender to the English whisk(e)y throne. Buckle up.

Hicks & Healey - Cornish single malt whiskey - 7yo - matured in ex bourbon casks - Cask 29 - 61.3%

Nose: Very spirity on the first nosing, with pine notes, a waft of coconut, wine corks, a slightly musty note, followed by cider vinegar, cinnamon and apple pie. Given approximately 45 minutes in the glass with a dash of water, the whiskey begins to open up, becoming more pleasant- the spicy, fruity apple pie notes loosely resembling a recent (and pretty brilliant) SMWS bottling of 7yo Glen Grant we tried - ironically titled Mom's Apple Pie. Just not a patch on it.

Palate: HOT. Spirity, with some initial spiced notes evaporating on the tongue almost instantly. More cinnamon/clove and apple pie notes develop, but alongside these, an underlying thin, brittle and ultimately bitter mouthfeel dominates. Water unfortunately doesn't help.

Finish: Short, biting and vaguely fruity.

Overall: Extremely disappointing. Then you consider the price. This whisky costs £150 for a half litre. Absolutely ridiculous. And as for the 'among the best debut bottlings of the decade' and 'beautiful beyond words' ? Well, we'll let you draw your own conclusions concerning our thoughts here...

So rather like the chap we mentioned at the start of this post, we feel for the would-be English whisky salesman, as they head off with a boot-full of Albion's finest, precariously rattling around on the M74.

Time will indeed tell on whether the story will play out favourably like the successes we've witnessed with Japanese whisky. Unfortunately, this new Cornish whiskey does little to help the cause. The Jury is still out on how St George's whisky will continue to mature, but given the 'Chapters' currently available, there is a lot of promise. And so, to anyone from Adnams reading this...

Saturday 24 September 2011


One of the joys of living in London, is leaving. Don’t get me wrong, it is a fantastic city, crammed with culture, sport and beauty. But the pace of life here is fast. And hard.

If you ever join a gym, one of the first pieces of information you are told is that rest days are more important than your work-out sessions. The interim period when you are not putting your body under stress, is when it grows, when it develops; the benefits of which are seen in your next gym visit.

The same is true for the bear pit that is London. It isn’t until you leave that you realise how tired you are and, in returning, you feel the benefit of a well deserved break.

Last years break was a trip down to Cornwall. A true Staycation where I was able to sit with a glass of Port Ellen and enjoy the traditional British summertime weather... well, they do say that today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky... *sigh*

This year, I opted for an altogether more continental holiday. Sunshine was required in bucket-loads and I was not prepared to risk the wrath of a British Thor. A quick scout around on the ‘net at cheap flights showed up Nice as a go-to destination, especially once the school holidays were out of the way.

A prime destination with vineyards, lovely beaches, beautiful people and sunshine, this part of France seemed the polar opposite to riot-torn South London, so flights and hotels were duly booked and off I hopped for some r ‘n r.

But there was also a secondary reason for this chosen destination, the TFWA (Tax Free World Association) Expo 2011.

“What on earth is that?” I hear you cry...

Well, every year a large swathe of the luxury goods industry descended to the Cote d’Azur resort of Cannes, usually famed for its yachts and yearly film festival, for a business expo on Travel Retail (Duty Free to you and me). As Travel Retail is such an important market place for booze (one only has to look at the new whisky-specific area in Delhi airport, cunningly named Uisce Beatha, or the investment by BAA in Heathrow Terminal 5 to see how important Travel Retail is), not just for shifting large quantities of standard releases, but also for experimenting with new and unusual releases (see here, here and here for some Travel Retail goodies we’ve reviewed in the past) which, if taken to the hearts of the travelling public, may end up in an off licence near you soon, the industry feels it is good to showcase some of these products once a year, and the TFWA Expo provides the perfect platform to do this.

Travel Retail also provides an opportunity for the super-rich to buy products without paying quite so much tax on them, so if you can pick up a £100k bottle of whisky in an airport, you may (as crazy as this seem to humble people such as you or I) actually be landing yourself a pre-tax bargain. Take the fella who recently purchased a bottle of Dalmore 64 in Singapore airport for £125,000. That was without any duty on it. My main question is, did he leave it in the compartment above his seat, or underneath the seat in front of him during his flight? Either way, the miniature of Johnnie Walker Red Label he’d have had from the little trolley on the flight back is going to seem even more disappointing if you’ve just concluded that sort of transaction...

So, a beach holiday and the chance to try some exciting new whisky. Er, yes please...

After the obligatory time spent on various beaches across the South of France, doing my best impression of Ray Winstone’s excellent character Garry ‘Gal’ Dove from Sexy Beast (“It’s hot. It’s too ****ing hot.”), I popped over to Cannes for the TFWA to see what I could find and it turned out to be a tale of three, all Speyside, whiskies:

First up was the new Glenfiddich Travel Retail offering; a 19 Year Old matured in Bourbon Casks. This will expand their range in Travel Retail from just one of the Age of Discovery edition, to two (both at 19 Years Old). We reviewed the original here and this newer release should come out at the same price point (around £80) in early 2012 and is really quite delicious. No picture as yet, but it’s pretty much the same as the one reviewed in the previous piece, only with a royal blue box...

Glenfiddich – Explorer Bourbon Cask – 19 Years Old – Travel Retail Only - 40% ABV

Nose: Butterscotch, wisps of heather and honey with an over-riding maltiness. Very appealing.

Palate: Malt and hot buttered crumpets hits with a robust vanilla-wood flavour. There is no hiding which type of cask this has come from. It’s bourbon matured Scotch and doesn’t hide the fact, being very easy on the palate

Finish: Slight spices, medium in length.

Overall: A very pleasant dram which maybe lacks a little in personality, but will appeal to Travel Retail goers looking to gift the people they’re staying with, without offending them with a risk-taking choice.

Aside from trying this new 19 Year Old, another real treat at the William Grant stand, owners of Glenfiddich, was a display where one could nose all 25 whiskies that make up Grant's 25 Year Old Blended Scotch, really throwing the gauntlet down to other expensive, no age statement premium blends, effectively goading, “Come on, what are you hiding?!” to those (that?) brand. Currently a Duty Free exclusive, you’ll soon be able to buy the Grants 25 in a shop near you. If you have in excess of £100 to do so, that is.

Another new Travel Retail exclusive release comes from across the way in Speyside, courtesy of The Glenlivet and their new Masters Distillers Reserve. A celebration of the fact that The Glenlivet has only ever had three Master Distillers, this release has been specially created Alan Winchester, the current incumbent of the role (and one of the nicest people in the drinks business, we kid you not).

This release is a three wood maturation process of European Oak butts, first-fill American hogsheads and finally re-fill hoggies and comes at the bargain price of £34.99...

The Glenlivet – Master Distillers Reserve – NAS – 40% ABV – 1 ltr

Nose: Rich tones with old oak, some tobacco (sweet cigarette, not cigar), a hint of plum jam and some wet, fallen leaves. Strong and robust on the nose.

Palate: A bigger palate than expected from a 40% abv, no age statement product. This gives off an excellently robust palate with the same flavours from the nose translated to the tongue, with an increased nutty nature appearing over time.

Finish: Additional spices add to a long and lingering finish which coats the mouth with a lovely oily, but slightly drying sense.

Overall: There should be no surprise that this whisky sold 581 bottles on its first day of release in Heathrow Airport. And it should be no surprise that I bought a bottle on my way through Heathrow, either. I don’t think I need to say much more than that...

And so we come to the final expression tried on my break away from the UK. Well... actually, that’s a lie. There are two expressions from the final distillery I’m going to cover. One is a true Travel Retail Only expression. The other, well, isn’t. In fact, the other whisky is one of those over-the-top, mentalist ideas of a whisky which I’ll certainly never be able to afford and really didn’t want to review on here. Why? Because at $20,000 a bottle, I won’t ever be able to afford it and I can’t imagine that (no offence to any of our readers out there) none of you will be able to either. But there is a reason why I have chosen to cover it. And that will become apparent in moment. But first, something a little more affordable and only available at an airport near you, for £69.99:

The Macallan – Whisky Makers Edition – NAS – 42.8% ABV – 1 ltr

Note: A 42.8% abv Macallan... it’s already very strange!

Nose: As you would expect from a Macallan, this is a rich and sweet nose with hints of toffee popcorn, over ripe strawberry and some subtle coffee tones. Not majorly exiting, but certainly inviting.

Palate: Full of flavour, the balance is good with vanilla and sweet red berry flavours mixing well in the mouth. It’s a little flat, but as you give it time it comes to life with some notes of forest fruits and, oddly, twigs (but in a nice way).

Finish: The finish gives a lingering oak tone with some liquorice and fruits of the forest gateaux.

Overall: Yeah, it’s good. Like a Coldplay album track, you kinda know what you’re gonna get with a Macallan at this price. It’ll be downed in places like France and Spain like water...

And finally... The Macallan have a new release out. It isn’t strictly available in Duty Free only, but it seemed that Cannes was the place to launch it. Well, people there own yachts, don’t they. They’ve got oodles of money.

This is another Lalique decanter, this time containing Macallan distilled on the 9th and 10th of November 1950. So that’d make it 60 years old, then. Just 400 bottles of this whisky have been released.

Previously in these pages, we’ve questioned the integrity of very high end whisky. And while this still isn’t reaching the heights of a £125,000 Dalmore or the $460,000 that someone paid last year at auction for a Macallan 64 Year Old Cire Perdue, it’s still a little more than, well, anyone I know would be willing to spend on one bottle of the water of life.

But aside from the perceived value of this bottle, with the age of the whisky (hummm... it’s funny how older whisky is more expensive, when it was actually cheaper to make back then- cheaper running costs of the distilleries, cheaper fuel, cheaper wheat, no legal dept or HR dept to fund... hell, they should be giving this stuff away! If only...) and the limited release, we should take our eyes off the price and focus on the product in side. How does the liquid actually taste?

The Macallan – 60 Years Old – ‘in Lalique’ – 53.2%

Nose: Now here is something a bit odd and certainly something I wasn’t expecting. A smoky Macallan. I’m not talking Laphroaig smoke here, but subtle wafts of smoke which David Cox, Director of Fine & Rare Whiskies for The Macallan (what a job!) says is due to the malting process of these older Macallans having some peat smoke used in the drying process. Makes sense. But it really isn’t what I expected at all. Once over the shock of delicate peat smoke, this has rich hazelnut, cocktail cherries, strawberry jam, the red / purple boiled sweets that your granddad used to give you as a child. Then red apple appears and the peat smoke resumes at the death of the nose.

Palate: A huge flavour, this is more akin to a liqueur than a whisky. Giant red fruit tones assault the palate with very heavy oak, but also with a sweetness. A real sweetness which seems to come out of nowhere and balance out the dryness of the aging in wood, perfectly.

Finish: Long, sweet lapsang souchong tea (neat, no milk), cherry jam and then the subtle smoke flavours which kick in.

Overall: I’m honestly speechless over this whisky. At the risk of eulogising, it is the best whisky I’ve ever had. There, I’ve said it. Shoot me. Please, please, please just stick this in a normal glass bottle, don’t tell anyone about it and whack it out at £50 a bottle. Please. I’ll take a case. No, two cases. At this stage I’m willing to eat my hat. This whisky is simply stunning. It’s like every whisky in Scotland in one simple dram: enough smoke to understand what flavours that brings to whisky, enough oaky dryness to show the effect of cask aging, but total balance with additional sweetness, which come out of nowhere. And a finish of delicate smoke but rich red fruits... I’m gonna stop here, as my thoughts on this could be an essay in their own right. In summary: Nice (gettit. Nice? Nice. Oh, you lot...)

With just a short period of time left on my Southern France adventure, it was time to forget the suntan lotion, hit the beach and come back with a tan that screamed at fellow tube commuters “Look! I’ve been away somewhere hot!”.

As the miniatures trolley made its way down the isle of the Airbus A320, there was only one drink that could press my ‘reset’ button, so as the plane made its way across Central France back to busy old London, I was sipping a G&T and dreaming of a lottery win before The Macallan 60 sells out...

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Coffee In A Cocktail? Don't Be A Mentalist!

Sometimes the most obvious of pairings in cuisine can be downright, bloody awful.
Personally, I think that anyone who says oysters taste better with a liberal amount of peated whisky poured over them is a blithering idiot. Why ruin a good whisky on something resembling the contents of a used tissue??

Ok, apologies. I don't get Oysters at all. You may have seen a little video shot at the recent Feis Ile, where I try to conquer my abject terror of oysters. It did not go well.

Pairing whisky with anything edible is tricky. It works extremely well with chocolate - if the chocolate is robust enough to cope with such an intense flavour. Cigars and whisky are a dubious pairing, unless you have a very rich mouthfeel to the whisky, but nothing too overpowering. To quote Victor Ferreira, Cigar Sommelier for Boisdale Canary Wharf and one of the top 5 cigar experts in the world- “If you’re having a very rich, strong cigar, usually you need to balance it with a delicate and smooth drink or vice versa. You can reach a point where if your palate is overwhelmed by flavour, you can’t separate out which direction it's coming from.”

Wise words Victor.

So what about coffee?

I know a few whisky folks swear by the pairing of a heavily-sherried dram and an espresso. Again, I think so long as neither cancels each other out, or the earthiness of the coffee doesn't over power the whisky, it can be a divine experience.

But coffee in cocktails?

The Espresso Martini. Not sure I approve of this. The Martini is the personification of purity and balance. Throwing in a coffee is like dropping a Van Halen solo into the middle of Massenet's Meditation Suite.

The White Russian works to a point, but only if you're wearing a dressing gown, a slightly shabby beard and hang out all the time at your local bowling alley.

Here's the conundrum. Recently, Caskstrength were contacted by one of London's newest and most highly revered coffee shops, The Department Of Coffee & Social Affairs to see if we could develop a coffee cocktail to serve at the launch of a London Design Festival event- 'Imagined Cities, curated by Acclaimed gallery Dainow & Dainow.

Some of the works from 'Imagined Cities'

Painstakingly, the Baristas prepared a half-litre of perfectly brewed, bespoke espresso blend for us to experiment with before the launch.

We tried making a coffee based Whisky Sour, which totally fell apart before it even got to our lips. Next up was something in shot form, based on a coffee cordial, using naval rum, Muscovado sugar syrup and bitters. The mixture was immense, but too strong to be consumed on its own, so we had a brainwave. Why not make a simple long drink, using the cordial as a base, add another flavoursome spirit and top it up with something?

It worked. A lot. Our chosen mixture, The Leather Lane Liquor (named after the street that the coffee shop occupies) was a combination of things that surely shouldn't work:

The Leather lane Liquor:

In a Highball glass, filled with ice:

15ml Coffee Cordial: comprising of, Naval rum, a dash of Maraschino liqueur, muscovado sugar syrup, 1 vanilla pod, licorice bitters, cocoa bitters and a dash of spice (clove + cinnamon) plus a couple of pieces of expressed lemon zest.

20ml Jim Beam Red Stag. Ok- purists out there will whinge about this, but get back in your boxes, you naysayers!! Sure it's far too sweet to be sipped on its own, but the cherry sweetness counterpoints the power of the cordial.

Top up with tonic - Fentiman's is by far and away the best for this.

Over the top, express another piece of lemon zest and spray over some atomised espresso to give the whole thing a really heady topnote. (Our sprayers were from Muji, but got jammed up after an hour of cocktail making.) Stick to T-shirts and iceball molds, in future.

Harrison gets to grips with the Leather Lane Liquor

The finished product is quick to make, refreshing, aromatic, sweet and gives you a wonderful earthiness from the coffee on the finish.

The London Design Week launch party arrived and lucky, the cocktail was a winner- we knocked out 200 during the evening to a bunch of vaguely tipsy, very chattery folks.

Atomisation in slow motion...

Perhaps the caffeine cancels out the alcoholic properties?

Anyway, we'd love to hear from you if you have any other coffee/whisky related ideas or cocktails. This pairing is definitely a go-go...

For more information on the London Design Festival click here:

For more information on The Department Of Coffee & Social Affairs and their Coffeesmith Collective click here:

Tuesday 20 September 2011

2 (Exactly-The-Same-But) Very Different Bruichladdichs

As we move seamlessly into Autumn, we're feeling increasingly chipper about the next few months in the run up to Christmas. Whisky it seems is really firing on all cylinders internationally and domestically, thanks to the success of programmes like Mad Men, there is definitely a halo effect surrounding the cool aspect of our favourite spirit.

It's never been busier for whisky tastings either. Caskstrength have been out and about across the UK - and in a couple of cases abroad, meeting folks, drinking and hopefully converting new drinkers to our wicked ways.

Just over a week ago, Both Joel and myself find our in very different climates indeed. Mr Harrison was over on Islay sampling the brand new bottling of Bruichladdich 10yo, whereas I was boarding a ferry to the continent with one third of Master Of Malt (the irrepressible Mr Ben Ellefsen)

Our destination was Maltstock, a genuine whisky festival, set in the wonderful (less-than-rolling) countryside of Nijmegen, Holland. Ben and myself had been asked to present a masterclass on Closed Distilleries and we were raring to go - whiskies, amusing slideshow and the back up plan of a revealing dance, should the talk go badly.

Despite missing our initial ferry, hitting traffic pretty much all the way through Belgium and Holland, we arrived 12 minutes before the talk was due to start, calmly set up and kicked off with a set of 5 cracking bottlings from closed distilleries:

1. Littlemill 1990 (a Murray McDavid 18yo bottling)
2. Glenlochy 1980 (Signatory 30yo bottling)
3. Tamnavulin 1981 (Master Of Malt 16yo bottling) - Yeah, ok so the distillery has re-opened, but it was closed when this was bottled.
4. Caperdonich 1972 (Duncan Taylor 38yo bottling)

And finally, a wonderful Hanyu 23yo.

In anybody's book, that's gotta be a decent lineup, right?

Needless to say that the tasting kicked off, right good an' proper and everyone seemed to have a lot of fun. Hell, I even managed to get a laugh, when comparing the imaginary re-opening of a closed distillery to the feeling of watching the A-Team in your 30's (no matter how much you want it to be, it just isn't the 'same')

A goldmine of Silverseals and one of the tables full of brown booty...

After catching up with Mr Billy Abbott (who was presenting Speciality Drinks' brand new Elements Of Islay range) we visited the 'Gathering' area - a little outdoor quad, surrounded by chairs, benches and, most importantly, four large tables with what can only be described as a burgeoning plethora of sensational whiskies- probably a good 200 different bottlings, generously donated by attendees. Mind Blowing Whiskies. At this point, I hadn't been drinking, but try saying this mouthful of superlatives after a few drams and it probably translates roughly as: plugghenbughsgedgh suughphr whiskies.

I think this is where a distinction must be drawn. In actual fact, not a single person I saw over-indulged in the incredible treasure trove on offer. I was trying to imagine if this sort of set up would work in London, Manchester, Glasgow or for that matter, anywhere in the UK. It just wouldn't.

Anyway, I chose a few different bits and bobs, that immediately caught my attention:

A 1.5L bottle of White Horse, from the early 1980's. Apparently this was purchased for the absolutely incredible price of 30 Euros... Come on! that's insane.
I absolutely adore trying whiskies like this. They taste like time capsules and highlight just how good a lot of these blends actually are... and indeed were. Think a wash of creamy fudge, peat, paraffin lamps, cream soda and sponge cake all colliding with buttery shortcake, caramel sauce and wet cotton wool.

A 1974 Highland Park First Cask Bottling. Slightly tired, but classic old HP smoke and fruit notes, mixing with some sweet marzipan notes.

finally- and thanks to Mr Abbott - a sneak preview of one of the Whisky Show's undoubted forthcoming highlights; A rare Lochside single blend from 1964. Just how does a whisky become this fruity? It is exactly like drinking a glass of tropical fruit juice. Absolutely superb and unique.

But one dram that also caught my eye was an old bottling of Bruichladdich 10yo.

How interesting... Here I am, over in mainland Europe, drinking a very old Bruichladdich 10yo and there is Joel, over on Islay at exactly the same time, drinking a brand new Bruichladdich 10yo.

So here we go... Old vs New.

Bruichladdich 10 Year Old - 40% - Bottled... 90's?? Anyone please feel free to chip in here

Nose: Wow. Very fruity, with delicate smoke swathes and classic Trebor Refreshers sweets. Not what I expected at all.

Palate: Wet cardboard, fruit salad sweets and some sweet maltiness. Very different to the large majority of Bruichladdich bottlings I have tried previously. A faint waft of peat pops in at the end and most welcome it is too.

Finish: Butterscotch notes and sweet shortbread notes.

Overall: Surprising. Very low peating levels have given this an almost unrecognisable character. Sure, the bottle has probably been open a little while, but I enjoyed this. It won't blow every 'laddich fan away, but these old bottlings are worth seeking out if you can find them- purely for interest value. - check out the latest Scotch Whisky Auction, as one is a current lot.

So there we have it, a promising start from the old style bottling. Over to our Islay correspondent for an update on the brand new bottling... Motty, sorry Harrison:

That's right Ridley. You join me on a windswept Saturday afternoon on Islay, spiritual home of whisky and the place where men are men, where bleak is chic and where a 'spade' is most definitely called a 'shiel'.

The Bruichladdich teamsheet today reads like a catalogue of Brazillian rap stars- WMD, 3D3 and Black Arts up front in the formidable 'prong formation', Ugly Betty & Octomore on the wings, the power duo of Rocks and Waves in solid defence, with the recent signing X4+1 in goal. The controversial striker, Port Charlotte remains on the bench and captaining the side today is the powerhouse - (Big) Jimmy McEwan, under the watchful eye of the Turquoise Terrors' veteran coach, Mark 'Never-A-Rainy-Day' Reynier.

A lot has been made of this team and like a mighty falling oak, they're able to change direction in a second. Now, there is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a sea are we now afloat and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures. For a new Bruichladdich 10 year old now awaits...

Bruichladdich – 'The Laddie 10 Year Old' – 46% abv

Nose: The light and delicate nose gives off subtle tones of crème brulee, fresh lemon cheese cake dusted with icing sugar and some seaside notes. This is the Islay equivalent of a stick of brighton rock. You hear the seagulls squawking as the aromas hit your nose.

Palate: The first impression is of Scottish tablet with a creamy undertone and some superb sugary notes, which are in no way sickly. Gingerbread and sweet tea are the headline flavours. Very well balanced with some boiled sweets and heathery tones. You know this is an Islay whisky, but not because of the peat. There is a real personality about the palate, but it is not overwhelming; to say this is easy to drink would be an understatement of gigantic proportions.

Finish: The finish is where the wood influence kicks in, with some spices, more vanilla and the gingerbread, carrying on though in a delicate way.

Overall: Well, what can we say? This is seriously one of the best entry-level Islay whiskies on the market and will appeal to those who don'’t have a huge appetite for peat. This whisky could become a flagship bottling not just for Bruichladdich, who need some stability behind their releases, but for the island as a whole.

Big words eh. Try it for yourself and let us know what you think...

Many thanks to Maltstock for putting on such a terrific event and we'll see you again next year. Anyone thinking of running a whisky event should certainly see how its really done. For another view, check out Ben's blog post on the weekend.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Bourbon Outfitters Part 2: Make Your Reservation Here

Both Four Roses, who formed the first half of this mini-series, and Woodford Reserve, which forms this second half, make up two of the six member distilleries on Kentucky’s ‘Bourbon Trail’, something which, at present, remains a dream of ours to complete.

In lieu of hopping on a tube train to Heathrow, jumping on a plane to Washington, grabbing a transfer to Louisville and hiring a car to drive to Woodford, I thought it would be much easier to catch the 133 bus for 10 mins and be part of a Woodford Reserve tasting evening hosted at The Whisky Exchange’s shop, in London’s Vinopolis Centre.

Bourbon is becoming more and more of a key spirit in my cupboard. As I learn to make an ever increasingly wide variety of cocktails, bourbon is fast becoming my choice of whisk(e)y as a flavour. Richer and with more of a kick than most Scotches, it is robust enough to add serious attitude to a cocktail, yet rounded enough to compliment your chosen drink's other flavours. Do be careful, however as some older bourbon whiskey can easily over-power your drink, in the same way a big, smoky Islay can knock it for six.

But it isn’t just in a cocktail that bourbon whiskey is exciting me. Sipping it has become a real pleasure too and, along with Irish and Japanese and some ‘new world whiskies’, it can add real colour and experience to the pouring selection on offer at home. Sadly, too many bars focus on the lower end bourbons or Tennessee Whiskeys for their back-bar, hampering the education of the masses on sipping anything even vaguely non-Celtic.

If you are a Scotch lover and haven’t yet given bourbon a fair chance, then you most certainly should. It’s tasty, for sure, but it is equally important to understand the product which sat in the majority of barrels which then gave birth to the Scotch you so dearly love. And while you’re out procuring a (decent) bottle of American Whiskey, do yourself a favour and pick up some nice Sherry at the same time. It’ll only do your palate good and enhance your understand of Scotch. It’s a little like meeting your partner's parents. Suddenly you see, nay understand, where their little traits come from.

I’m waffling. Let’s get back to the whiskeys in question. The evening was certainly educational and I’m sure we’ve covered this before, but for bourbon to be called bourbon, it must conform to these three key regulations.

  • Produced in the United States
  • Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn (maize)
  • It must be aged in new oak barrels

When it comes to an age statement, it is a little bit more complicated than Scotch or Irish whiskey, with no minimum age requirement. However if the whiskey has been bottled at under four years of age, it is required to reflect this on the label. At the same time, any bourbon listed as ‘straight’ must have been aged for a minimum of two years, and if it is between two and four years, this must be specified on the label. So any bottle without an age statement will be +4 years old. Straight Bourbon Whiskey must also have no added colour or flavour.

The Woodford Distillery is the oldest bourbon distillery to still be working. Opened in 1812, the current Master Distiller is a chap named Chris Morris (no, not this Chris Morris, a different one) who practices triple distillation, in pot stills, on his spirit; quite the oddity in Kentucky. And it was some of his experiments which have made it in to the bottle, that we were to try.

On first look, the sight of eight different glasses on the tasting mat was very daunting, especially when we were treated to Woodford Reserve Mint Juleps on arrival. But as it transpires, the first four drams were really only for comparisons sake; they were:

  • Woodford Reserve White Dog (new make) – 55% abv
  • Woodford Reserve 1 Year Old – 55% abv
  • Woodford Reserve 2 Year Old – 55% abv
  • Woodford Reserve – 43.2% abv

It was interesting to see how a bourbon develops it flavour and colour very quickly,due to a mixture of fresh American Oak barrels and the extreme seasonal temperatures in Kentucky, where the stuff is matured.

Woodford Reserve – NAS – 43.2% abv

Nose: Not as strong as other bourbons, with some delicate vanillas, a hint of toasted almonds and well polished copper. Some tobacco notes.

Palate: Soft brown sugar, almost rum like, on the palate becoming even softer over time (from brown sugar in to toffee or Scottish tablet), backed with soft vanillas again.

Finish: A delicate hint of spice, with some more brown sugar hitting through.

Overall: Deliberately inoffensive, but still with some character, this is a bourbon for everyman, from the cocktail mixer to someone wanting a lower-end sipper as a starting point on their own bourbon trail. At around £26 here and here, it seems pretty decent for money.

Having moved on from what makes Woodford Reserve, Woodford Reserve it was time to delve in to their special releases, known as The Master’s Collection.

In short, the Master’s Collection is a series of bourbons which have been subject to additional maturation in different styles of casks, a la a Scotch whisky, with the exception of their Sweet Mash release, a bourbon made without using the traditional sour mashing technique. Interestingly, however if you additionally mature, you are not allowed to call it a bourbon. But you are allowed to put the word bourbon on the label. Go, figure...

The Masters Collection on offer for the evening were as follows:

  • Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma – Cutrer (wine finish) – 43.7% abv
  • Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sweet Mash – 43.2% abv
  • Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Seasoned Oak – 50.7% abv
  • Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Maple Wood – 47.2% abv

All very interesting experiments, these. It’s is good to see a bourbon company playing around with finishing and bottling at cask strength. The biggest let down on these bottles are prices, with the cheapest being the Seasoned Oak at £95 and the most expensive being the Wine Finish which, if you can still find it, should retail at around £160. For that sort of cash, you could land yourself a George T Stagg at 70.9% abv. Yes! Exactly.

The pick of the bunch from the Master’s Collection for me was the Maple Wood finish, as it was the trust to its roots:

Woodford Reserve - Master’s Collection - Maple Wood – 47.2% abv

Nose: The soft brown sugar of the standard edition comes through, but this time with an addition of sweet, reduced sugars, obviously some maple notes mixed in with light tobacco and some prune juice. A hint of candied cherry is in there too, as well as some delicate wood spices. Very appetising.

Palate: The palate is less sugar-sweet than it’s big sister, this release giving hazelniut chocolate spread tones mixed in with an oak spiced flavour (like weaker tea, sans milk) with the nuttiness taking over the driving from the brown sugar.

Finish: The finish is long, with a decent balance between the maple sugars and natural wood spices, but also the corn flavours do a good job to underpin these, without making the whole lot gluey and sticky which can happen in a bourbon. Complex? Yes. Room for more complexity without over-doing it? Certainly.

Overall: A good experiment that has produced a good whiskey, but at £110 this is an expensive bottle to keep around the house. Granted, you won’t find too many others like it, but then maybe there is a reason for that. Spend the extra £50, buy yourself a case of the original, invite a load of friends over, flip some pancakes, pour everyone a large glass of Woodford Reserve with ice and a side order of pancakes drizzled with maple syrup. Stick on Sea Sick Steve on Spotify and have yourself a cotton-pickin’ jolly old evening.