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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...