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Monday 31 October 2011

Please Sir, Can I Have Some Dalmore?

Say what you want about easyjet, at least they fly to Inverness. A bonus if you want to visit some of the more northerly extremes of whisky making on this Fair Isle (and beyond). Plus, they don’t have the audacity, as with some other budget airlines, to pretend that where they’re going isn’t actually where they’re going. Honestly, if the Scotch Whisky Association were given overview of Ryanair’s airport naming policy and applied the same rules they have for whisky labels, we’d all be in safer hands!

As a football fan, I take great delight in visiting new grounds (hopefully to see Oxford play) and this season alone has already yielded another four grounds to my list, with such glamourous locations as Morecambe, Plymouth and Macclesfield penned in the diary. Thankfully Swindon has been done. In more ways than one.

This passion for visiting new grounds, new places and meeting new people has been carried over to distilleries; I love visiting new ones, meeting the people who make the liquid as well as discovering the individual and unique processes that make each distillery distinct. ‘Every day is a school day’, when going around a distillery. You always, without fail, learn something new. So it was with gusto that I jumped at the chance of visiting the newly refurbished Dalmore distillery.

With Scotch whisky exports up by 20% in the first 10 months of 2011, interest in the product has never been higher and people don’t just want to consume, they want to imbibe. Not just the liquid, but the history, the stories and the folklore. This means that when people do go to Scotland, they’re keen to see where their favourite dram is made and how it goes from grain to glass.

The Dalmore has invested £1 million in creating an experience for visitors which guides them through the spirit-making process using clever lighting; the Washbacks are lit with neon strap lights, creating a Tron-eque environment, while the Stills are bathed in flashing lights, recreating the boiling of the liquid and the separation of water and alcohol. The whole experience is a visual delight, half Science Museum, half Coldplay gig.

For the uber-geek however, the real fun comes away from the Still Room. The more time I spend at distilleries, the more I appreciate the ‘cut point’ of the spirit:

The cut point is one of the essential aspects that gives a distillery’s New Make its unique flavour. During the second phase of distillation, the spirit runs off the still and must be captured, placed in a cask and matured. However, you cannot use all of it. The foreshots, the first section of distillate, contains some volatile compounds which can make you ill and the feints, the latter section of the distillate, is too low in alcohol. And doesn’t taste great! This leaves the middle section, known as the ‘heart’, to be saved for maturation. Every distillery chooses which section of the distillate to select as their heart and this will have a profound effect on the profile of the whisky. Thus, the points where the distillery selects to start and finish collecting the heart, are known as the ‘cut points’.

At The Dalmore, the cut is made at around 70 – 72% alcohol. One of the new installations at the distillery is designed to show why this is. A display of 12 bottles of new make spirit are open for nosing. Each bottle has been filled with spirit from a different ‘cut point’, so each has a differing level of alcohol. The range runs: 61% / 64% / 67% / 70% / 72% / 74% / 78% / 80% / 81% / 82% / 83% plus a bottle containing the feints and one containing the foreshots.

This fantastic display allows visitors to nose the difference in aroma between the spirits. Some of which are very nice (closest to the heart) and some of which are not so nice (closets to the foreshots); it highlights the huge importance of taking only the best spirit away for maturation, or else you’ll end up with a pretty bad dram!

In the same area, there is a fantastic sculpture of barrel made up of staves from different types of wood (plane, sherry etc) at different charring levels; a great visual example of the range of casks the spirit can find itself in, for maturation.

The Dalmore has also been offering visitors the chance to purchase a distillery only bottle. A single cask from 1991 chosen by the workers at the distillery, only 450 bottles have been released.

The Dalmore – 'Distillery Exclusive' - 1991 - filled: 25/01/1991 bottled: 10/08/2011) - 20 Years Old – Distillery Only - Comes in a Drawstring Velvet Bag – 450 bottles only - 59% ABV (£150)

Nose: Fruit and Nut Chocolate with a glass of Port is the first aroma out of the glass. Behind it comes pine nuts and a hint of Ryvita. The well-hung, aged raw steak giving it a slightly meaty note. With water, the chocolate tones develop greater prominence.

Palate: Orange Sherbet, orange crèmes mix with good woody driness which gives the whole things some balance of spice to the sweetness of the orange. There is robust Porty nature to this (I don’t know what type of cask this has been in) which I first encountered in the nose. With a drop of water, palate tones turn more to tangerine flavours. Really very tasty.

Finish: The finish is much more robust than the palate, with espresso notes, five spice, a hint of Black Jack sweets and Wham! Bars (I’m getting all Retro-sweet shop here!).

Overall: It’s not often you see an official single cask Dalmore released, so a bit of a rarity from the distillery. But judging by this 20 year old, it has proved a great choice by the distillery chaps and will hopefully open the door to a few more like this in the distillery shop. In short, an excellent bottling at a good age, with a robust ABV and packed with flavour.

The tour at The Dalmore was entertaining and educational and is very much worth a visit. If every day is a school day, when going around a distillery, then visiting The Dalmore is like sports day; you’re bound to have a bit of fun.

Friday 28 October 2011

The Ultimate Coming Of Age

1901. A year of unprecedented change across the globe. Queen Victoria passes away, giving rise to the beginning of the Edwardian era. The Commonwealth of Australia was formed. The world, although yet to realise the significance, was joined by Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and master of the honeyed vocal chords and Jazz horn himself, Louis Armstrong.

It was also the year that Janet Sheed Gordon was born. Daughter to Isabella Grant and Charles Gordon and heir to the William Grant & Sons whisky business. for the past incredible 110 years, Janet has lived close to the Glenfiddich distillery, keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings, the comings and goings and ultimately, the liquid that the distillery has been turning out and maturing so successfully for nigh on the past eight decades.

Janet Sheed Gordon (now Roberts) graduating in Law in 1924

The photo below was taken in 1969, at the opening of the Glenfiddich visitor centre. Janet would have been 68 - and looking all the better for it!

As the oldest living woman in Scotland, it's hard to imagine how the world must seem through Janet Roberts' eyes now. So much change, revolution & technology; the birth of the jet age, space travel, nuclear energy, the electric guitar, the internet, the microwave oven and everything else we take for granted these days. All of this has been invented or pioneered during her incredible life.

It seems fitting then, for Glenfiddich to honour such achievement the only way they know best; a bottling of one of their oldest whiskies, from one of the best casks in the distillery's inventory.

What a monumental project this has become. Just 11 bottles of the Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve are ever going to see the light of day. The packaging is an accurate representation of the whisky's namesake, from the travel case box, right down to the aqua marine colour used on the capsule, reported to be Janet's favourite colour.

Comes with a miniature too...

The liquid inside each hand-blown bottle is no less special.

The sherry butt used was filled on Hogmanay 1955. It is what Malt Master, Brian Kinsman describes as a 'plain cask' in that it hasn't had a huge impact on the maturation of the whisky in a short space of time. What this cask has done is allowed the whisky to mature perfectly over a long period of time - 55 years to be precise, which we think rather succinctly sums up a life most definitely well lived.

The first bottle will be auctioned at Bonham's Edinburgh Auction on the 14th December, with all proceeds going to WaterAid, a charity which Glenfiddich have supported in the past.
Further bottles will be available throughout 2012 in key whisky markets such as the US, Taiwan Russia, China and India.

So it is with a deep intake of breath that we raise a dram up to our lips to review.
Crikey. Here goes...

Glenfiddich - Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve - 55 years old - Cask 4222 - filled December 1955- 44.4% - 11 bottles

Nose: An immediate explosion of soft fruits, parma violets, peach skins, floral wax notes, wonderfully perfumed clean linen and brandy snaps. Given time in the glass (hell, this whisky can take all the time it wants) a more herbaceous/vermouth note develops, with some lightly brewed hibiscus tea and finally some freshly picked strawberries and a faint waft of peat smoke. Truly magnificent; open, delicate and enveloping. I carried on just nosing this long after the tasting and changed direction several times as the night wore on.

Palate: A light note of soft aromatic peat, grapefruit, parma violets and lemon zest. Light and fruity, but tethered by a backbone of oak. However nothing dry or oaky dominates, the fruity notes keep developing on the palate, with orange flower water, some light vanilla and back to the soft peat again.

Finish: Peerless balance for a whisky this age. Lingering light fruit, with a slightly drying oak note on the death. The peat takes a backseat, but is still there in spirit, along with the vanilla and zest.

Overall: An extraordinary life such as Janet Sheed Roberts' could only be celebrated with a truly extraordinary whisky and without question, this hits the mark on every level. Hats off to Glenfiddich for maintaining this sensational cask for the past five and a half decades.

So there we have it; inspirational whisky making and perhaps more importantly, an incredibly inspirational woman.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Some Terrific Taylors

Since we reviewed Duncan Taylor's Blackbull 40yo earlier this year, we've really started to take notice of just how many good bottlings the company are turning out - on a very regular basis too.

The last 3 are no exceptions either. The Rare Auld range represent the pinnacle of Duncan Taylor stocks, with many of the releases bottled at around 30 years, from across Speyside, the Highlands and Islay.

We recently got stuck into a Cardhu, a Bunnahabhain and an intriguingly titled 'Iconic Speyside'. Now what could that be, we wonder...

Duncan Taylor - Rare Auld Collection - Bunnahabhain - Distilled 1979 - 32 yo - 47.1% Cask No: 38408

Nose: Notes of dried coconut, some hints of aromatic dry vermouth, soft brown sugar, some bonfire toffee and a distinct nuttiness.

Palate: Very sweet on the first sip, but calms down after a few minutes in the glass. Again, notes of brown sugar, some slightly zesty grapefruit and soft toffee, almost reminiscent of an aged dessert wine. A true dessert whisky perhaps?

Finish: lingering notes of toffee, chopped hazelnuts and swathes of vanilla'y oak on the death.

Overall: Highly enjoyable - especially sweet, so not to everyone's tastes, but right up our street.

Next up: A rare auld Cardhu.

Duncan Taylor - Rare Auld Collection - Cardhu- Distilled 1984 - 26 yo - 54.4% Cask No: 2873

Nose: Classic oak ageing at its best. Vanilla notes, lots of spiced, cinnamon apple pie, lemon sherbet, cherries mascerated in cognac, furniture polish, Brazil nuts and icing sugar. Warm and inviting, not cold, hard and old.

Palate: Initially sweet, leading into a mouth coating chocolate/cocoa note (think really good quality dark chocolate, with a dusting of muscovado sugar) then, plump raisins, stepped in dark rum, some fresh lemon juice, more Brazil nuts, chocolate covered marzipan and perhaps even a slight barbecue note, although that might be from the Old El Paso taco kit we enjoyed an hour ago. Anyway, enormously open and flavoursome. Lovely stuff.

Finish: Lingering notes of dark chocolate covered nuts and those plump rum soaked raisins. Absolutely gorgeous.

Overall: This is a real find. Balanced, yet old. Open, refined, complex and super-easy to drink. Another very impressive bottling. If you're considering bottlings for your 30th birthday in a few years time, get this and open it on the big day, you'll love it. In fact, hang that idea- just buy it and open it immediately!

And finally.... the dram that dare not speaketh its name (although we suspect it begins with G) (great... big help there... eh)

Duncan Taylor - Rare Auld Collection - Iconic Speyside- Distilled 1984 - 27 yo - 54.8% Cask No: 2033

Nose: Big buttery biscuit base, (not again...) then into more of those Brazil nuts we mention above, some papier mache, notes of Copydex adhesive uncooked pork mince and the very centre of a rosebud!! Sounds absurd, but there you go... that's whisky for you. Given time, more of a digestive biscuit note develops, with a little dusting of dried ginger. It isn't a patch on the Cardhu, but certainly isn't a duffer- just weird.

Palate: A vaguely gingery note pops up first, followed by some savoury meat (honestly, this definitely isn't the Taco kit, we promise!) then into fresh double cream, some light toffee notes and a malty sweetness. Again not a patch on the Cardhu, but interesting nonetheless.

Finish: Quite a drying, lengthy finish, with hints of lavender and something quite bitter and hoppy.

Overall: A little off key if we're absolutely honest, but then compared to the Cardhu, a great many bottlings from anyone's collection would be under par.

If any of these take your fancy, check out the Duncan Taylor online store here:

Tuesday 25 October 2011

The First Of Many

2011 has seen the debut of some extraordinary whiskies; from established favourites (Ardbeg Alligator) re-discovered classics (MacKinlay's 'Shackleton') and coming of age gems (Bruichladdich 10 year old)
2011 has also seen the birth of one or 2 dogs, but on the whole, it's more than refreshing to see just how many well received whiskies are now out on the market.

The Japanese whisky world can also give itself a hearty slap on the back too. Thanks to the tenacity of The Number One Drinks Company, scores of priceless Karuizawa casks have been rescued, which will now see the light of day they so richly deserve. It's also a superbly exciting time for new Japanese distilleries. Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Hanyu Card Series and the widely regarded saviour of this lost classic distillery has reached the pivotal moment, which he has been waiting for, for the past 3 years; the birth of his very first Chichibu single malt.

Continuing his success, Ichiro Akuto began distillation at the brand new Chichibu distillery in 2008, which can be found about 80km to the North West of Tokyo. Presently using a mixture of imported malt from Germany and England, Akuto-san aims to locally source his raw materials for the future, including Japanese peat. The wooden wash backs he currently uses are manufactured from Japanese oak, so a distinctly home-grown theme is emerging.

To date, Chichibu has released 2 editions of Malt Spirit, (a 14-month old double-matured bottling & a heavily peated 3-month old) both of which has been highly commended by the international whisky community. Now Ichiro's first 3 year old single malt- triumphantly titled 'Chichibu The First' has arrived... and the great news is that it's absolutely superb.

Chichibu - The First - Japanese Single Malt Whisky -distilled 2008 - bottled 2011 -61.8%

Nose: 3 years old? How can it be this complex?? Honey, light floral notes of honeysuckle, sweet peas, mix beautifully with vanilla notes, white pepper and milk chocolate, to give this a dusty, but wonderfully rounded aroma.

Palate: Again, the mouthfeel of this whisky defies its youth. Lemon grass notes, fresh limes and coconut milk take hold of the palate first, followed up with lashings of sweet vanilla, marshmallows and apricots, before ascending into some more highly perfumed notes. For a whisky of 61.8% it is amazingly delicate. Adding water certainly brings out the vanilla notes, but this is perfectly drinkable at cask strength.

Finish: Lingering notes of vanilla, some light oak notes and dried apricots give this first real Chichibu some lengthy complexity, way beyond its years.

Overall: Absolutely inspired whisky making, from a man, who is in our opinion, a shining light in the world of Japanese whisky - and for that matter whisky, wherever it is made. A triumphant first bottling and hopefully the first of many!

Thursday 20 October 2011

2011 Special Releases roundup

Well, the end of the week draws nearer, as does the tightness of our scarves around our chilly necks. It's very nearly bonfire weather and the city air has that briskness that only a tranche of top flight, limited releases whiskies can soothe.

Every year about this time, Diageo pull out their Special Release collection; a showing of usually their finest - and in many cases rarest stocks, which are snaffled up like the orange creams in a tin of Quality Street.

This year is no exception. 7 bottlings, including 3 classic closed distilleries (and one closed grain distillery) were showcased tonight at a Central London location to the great and good of the drinks business and the general buzz regarding what was going to be the highlight was unusually palpable.

the list of drams released is as follows, but rather than make this an unruly post, we've decided to bring you our opinion on the best 3 of the bunch.

Brora 32 year old
Caol Ila 12 year old Unpeated
Knockando 25 year old
Lagavulin 12 year old
Port Dundas 20 Year Old
Port Ellen 32 Year Old
Rosebank 21 Year Old

Nothing on this list that shouldn't be, we think you'll agree. However, let's dive in on the biggies and, unsurprisingly first up... it's the one that most of you are probably expecting... Yes! The Knockando.

Sorry, couldn't resist that.

Port Ellen - 32 Year Old - 1978 - Refill American Oak casks- 53.9% - 2,988 bottles - £300

Nose: Huge butterscotch & marzipan hit first, with a waft of iodine, soft vanilla poached pears, burning pine and liniment. Given time and a little dash of water, the classic chamois leather rears its head and we're transported back to Islay for that magical day tasting the previous 10 releases in the old filling store. Whatever magic Port Ellen has, this bottling has got it.

Palate: Quite earthy on the first sip, followed by a clean malty note, with some superb medicinal notes (the softest of peats...) Then comes the soft fruit, smoked lemon notes, rosemary and a little dash of white pepper.

Finish: Rich, coating and superbly lingering.

Overall: Yet again, this PE has all the hallmarks of a true great. For us, it is a reminder of the classic bottlings (the first 4 releases in particular) and despite being into its 30's, shows no sign of falling apart. If you can find this one, grab it, but good luck!

Next on our list- the Port Dundas Grain. This is an unusually aged bottling, but the colour really drew us in before anything else did. It's a remarkable chestnut brown, which has been developed from the 3 different casks used in this bottling: Aged for 3 years in refill casks, then for 17 years in ex-sherry, new European oak charred casks and finally first fill ex-bourbon American oak.

Port Dundas- 20 year old grain whisky - distilled 1990 - 57.4% - 1,920 bottles - £110

Nose: Lordy, this has some serious Armagnac notes - wafts of very floral notes, perfumed bourbon notes, cherries, lemon zest and sweet vanilla. In fact, it is strangely reminiscent of a classic whiskey punch recipe, made by the maestro of cocktails, Professor Jerry Thomas. That might not mean a great deal to a good many of you, but think about a wonderful interaction of vanilla, refreshing and often sharp citrus bursts and a delicate swirl of something perfumed. It's like sniffing a Wild West harlot's hankie...

Palate: Sweet then into a slightly drying darker fruit note, with cereal overtones, some hints of rice crackers/Rice Crispies, with a dash of white pepper and more vanilla.

Finish: The complexity of the casks gives this some added definition and the dark fruits and nuttiness linger beyond the more lively softer fruity notes.

Overall: Unlike most grains we've tried, and clearly influenced by cask choice, but a terrific experiment nonetheless. It has the elements of oak ageing in sherry wood, but with some of the more obvious light and heady notes you can come to expect from a decent grain. Well worth seeking out.

And finally.... The Knockando!!

No, sorry, although the Knockando was a decent enough dram, the final highlight must go to the Lagavulin 12 year old. Always a consistent classic in the distillery's portfolio, the 12yo release is now into it's 10th release and this release promises to be right up there again.

Lagavulin - 12 year old - 57.5% - £63

Nose: Slightly starchy water (boiled potatoes perhaps?) into some creamy blue cheese notes (Cashel Blue) sea salt, some iodine/sea spray notes, linseed oil, followed by a gristy, dusty malt and that big old blast of classic carbolic Laga peat.

Palate: Gristy again, with wood smoke, creamy vanilla chocolate, banana foam sweets and some red berries. The peat is vibrant and tongue coating, just like you'd have hoped. Wonderful stuff.

Finish: More of the iodine and carbolic soap notes, but outside of these firm flavour favourites, the finish is quite short. But don't think of this as too much of a limitation. It might leave you relatively quickly, but it leaves a huge impression.

Overall: A cask strength 12yo Lagavulin for £63. What more needs to be said?

The bottles should hit the shelves, in the UK at least, sometime within the next 10 - 12 days. With the summer we've had, it's very much the winter of discount tents (see what we've done there...?!) so get out, get yourself some cheap camping equipment and pitch up outside your local independent whisky retailer to beat the rush, if their allocation hasn't already been snapped up.

Sunday 16 October 2011

The Grand Jura

Some times I feel very sorry for the Isle Of Jura. There it is, sat next to Islay, not the poor relation by any means, but just not extended as many courtesies as its big brother. Groups of peat pilgrims travel from all over the world to Islay, to bask in the smoky glow of all those legendary distilleries. The Feis Ile comes around once a year and in spite of Jura putting on a fair old show of its own, it is criminally overlooked by the large majority of visitors. This year was no exception and the bloody awful weather put pay to any visitors who were that bit curious about what the distillery has been up to.

Well quite a lot, as it happens. A brand new shop and last year's Boutique Barrel collection have gone a small way to showing that the little brother can punch above his weight when he wants to. Now we have Feith A' Chaorainn 1976 vintage - part of the limited edition Rare & Prestige collection of older bottlings that Jura have been developing. We haven't tried the 1974 vintage, which yielded 658 bottes, but judging from the noise it made in certain circles it was a cracker.
Apparently the name means 'the lands around the rowan'. Catford in South East London has lots of Rowan trees growing in its vicinity, which are supposedly noted for bringing good fortune. Not sure I'm buying into that, knowing Catford for...well being Catford, but let's hope the Jura Rowan brings this dram a whole lotta' good fortune.

Isle of Jura- 1976 - 'Feith A' Chaorainn' - 46% - 500 bottles

Nose: Incredibly mossy, with a mineral-like dustiness, some seasoned pine, fresh mint, blackberry leaves and then comes the classic aged bourbon notes; vintage vanilla, tinned peaches and cream, more tropical notes nestling at the back, with a very harmonious and some what aromatic pipe tobacco note, with a deft note of smoke. This noses incredibly well from the outset, but give it a little time and it begins to explode with aroma.

Palate: Absolutely superb. Rich oily golden syrup notes grab your tonsils first, followed by some menthol cough sweets, a faint note of anise, a little blast of iodiny peat and some liquorice. The balance is perfect and the cask has given plenty to the viscosity of the spirit. There's not the faintest note of dryness or brittle oakiness, just wave upon wave of that liquorice and the syrup.

Finish: The spices linger, some burnt, smoky caramel notes develops and notes of soft fruit and cream come to the fore. Contemplative and extremely lengthy.

Overall: What can I say. This is unquestionably the best Jura i've tried and I've no doubt that there are probably some other sensational casks sitting there waiting to be bottled.

If there's one distillery that has constantly been in the shadows, compared to its more shouty, popular Islay big brothers, it's Jura. And I think all this is about to change - by a unanimous decision.

Saturday 15 October 2011

I'm Not A Plastic Bag

It’s a gloriously sunny day in London. The season can’t make its mind up if it wants to give us a prolonged Indian Summer or if Autumn should really kick in with a vengeance.

Such is the ferocity of the sunshine, that it is very much a day for short sleeves. So much so, that I’ve been out for a long walk this morning to enjoy the sunshine, especially as the evenings are drawing in faster than a British Defence Secretary’s political career.

And so it is, that I find myself at the always popular Borough Market. A hive of Middle Class activity, this particular food market in London is a honeypot for wannbe Jamie Olivers; if a bomb was to go off at the height of the lunchtime rush hour, in middle of the complex, The Guardian readership would surely be cut by 20%.

As I queue in the simmering autumnal heat for a chorizo sandwich (exactly...) I find myself surrounded by a good few couples. It’s a Saturday lunchtime and, without exception, each couple seems to be evenly weighted: a woman in her mid twenties to mid forties, a cotton tote bag with a witty political / ecological / ethical statement printed on the side (“Yes We Can” / “I’m not a plastic bag” etc), weight down no doubt by a selection of organic veg, her wannbe-bought-in-OXFAM-but-actually-quite-expensively-bought -from-anthropologie crocheted skirt brushing the tops of her soft brown leather brogues, she leads her boyfriend through the crushing crowds with her other hand.

He looks lost, confused at the real difference between the organic apples in the bag and the ones his girlfriend usually buys from the Waitrose just off Upper Street. Adorned in skinny jeans, turned up just above the ankles, no socks and battered deck shoes, his Lyle & Scott cardigan hides a.n.other t-shirt from anyone of the fashion houses who supply Urban Outfitters.

I’m wear a not-to-dissimilar outfit (from the chap, not the lady), save from the deck shoes (do me a favour), the addition of a pair of socks (it is October, after all) and my t-shirt, which is a football top. It is a Saturday, my team are playing (somewhere dreadful in the North) and I’m proud to wear a shirt that says “This is my team and later on I’ll have a cold beer and listen to the commentary via the local radio’s website.” (I’ve never been to Macclesfield and, to be honest, not sure I ever want to go.) But as the couple brush past me, the chap catches my eye. Then looks me up and down.

There is a look of despair in his eyes. It was immediate, even before he caught sight of my attire. And then it happened. He clocked my football shirt. And it was as if something snapped, deep in him.

Why can’t I wear my football shirt out?” he seemed to say. It’s a Saturday. I want to go home and drink a beer and listen to the commentary. But I can’t. I’ve agreed to help prepare an organic dinner party for Sophie’s friends. She’ll go ape-shit if I even look up the scores on my iPhone. Why am I here? Why am I alive?

Well, my friend. That’s life. You’re now part of a team. And that team wants to present you to the people of this planet as her boyfriend. As a result, you can’t be seen to be wearing football shirts to a middleclass mecca such as Borough Market. Not even on a Saturday. What if, shudder, she was to run in to some of her colleges from the charity she works for? Or, worse still, some of her friends? What would they say if her man was wearing a hideous nylon football top? You might as well spit in their face... or be carrying a plastic bag from Iceland.

When bottling a whisky, the major distillers need to make sure their liquid represents the brand they’ve spent years developing. You can’t suddenly whack out an unpeated Ardbeg 10 Year Old in the same bottle. Or a non-sherried Macallan in an Own Bottle. They, much like the girl above, have worked hard to develop the image of their partner. The whisky has expectations to meet; it can’t be seen to be wearing a football shirt. Oh, gosh no.

However, independent bottlings can do what the hell they like. It’s the equivalent of a day at home: you can throw off the shackles of ‘appearance’, stick on those baggy old jimjam bottoms and your stained old football shirt from last time your team won a cup and act how the hell you like. It’s still you, but without any boxes to tick. That’s where indie bottling excel. They’re the whisky, but relaxed.

Queen Of The Moorlands Rare Cask Edition XXXVII - Bruichladdich – 2001 – Cask #312 – 1st Fill Ex Sherry Hogshead – 62.5% vol

Nose: very sharp initially, but with some air strong toffee notes (bluebird), old B&B wardrobe draws, smoke and a hint of seaweed. The sherry is the predominant driver to the nose, giving it good body. With water, mocca notes develop as does walnut and hazelnut tones.

Palate: The peat creates a good bed for toffee notes, but crunchy toffee like the middle of a Dime Bar. With water the whole dram comes alive, with increased brandy butter flavours, the nutty tones from the nose (emphasis on the walnut over the hazelnut) and some burnt sugars.

Finish: Burning embers of pulled pork with smoky sauce, sweet sugars (brown) and dark rye bread.

Overall: A heavily flavoured dram that needs water to come alive. Lots of rich flavours which balance well but could be overpowering if the water ratio isn’t right. This bottle will give you twice as much whisky, as it really does take water. Meaty, smoky and fully flavoured.

This is one of the first bottles from the new ownership distillation, and can be bought for £80 here.

Monday 10 October 2011

Round Table Time

It's that time again. The Whisky Knights, a raggedy, disparate bunch were thrown together a little over a year ago - the premise being that the burning questions of the day from the whisky world would be discussed and debated with all the panache of Lancelot and his Camelot chums.

Well, something like that. In reality, it was the 12 most active whisky blogs, generally grumbling and drunkenly scratching their troublesome itches in public.

This month, it's time for Caskstrength to ask the question and we think it's a cracker:

Dave Broom wrote an interesting article recently on the most common myths surrounding drinking whisky, highlighting a lot of existing anxieties people associate with the spirit.

What myths have you encountered from your readers and how would you help demystify them to encourage a wider (and younger audience) to enjoy whisky?

Us – Caskstrength:

In our opinion, the biggest myth about whisky is that it’s a deeply challenging spirit, once the domain of the elderly gent, general drunk, whose palate is completely grizzled or, the true connoisseur. Of course there are lots of myths floating around whisky, water/ice/blends vs malts, but they probably all inter-relate with the big flavour question- that to the uninitiated, whisky will blow your goddamn head off.

In our recent experience (taking whiskies on the road to a totally new group of drinkers, including a high percentage of women) if you break down the preconceptions before the drinker has even had a sip and- pre warn them not to slug the thing right back, they usually find the enjoyment begins to unlock itself. Imagine if you don’t like oysters. The thought of knocking back something which looks like the contents of a tissue is never going to be appealing, but give it some context, some explanation and some guidance and the whole thing should become a lot more palatable. Well, I hope so, as I’ve yet to keep one down. But with any luck, the same principle applies.

Ruben- Whisky Notes:

One of the myths that I frequently run into, is the myth of whisky contamination and (rapid) deterioration. Some people are questioning reviews because they were based on a sample rather than a "real" bottle, and often we are advised to drink a bottle ASAP once it has fallen below a certain level. I'd like to mention three things.

Firstly, there's a big difference between simple "changes" and deterioration. Every whisky changes over time and perhaps the biggest change, whether you like it or not, is caused by simply opening a new bottle. I've experienced this several times: the first sip straight from a new bottle is slightly disappointing and not in line with reviews, but after a couple of days it shows the aromas you'd have expected. After that, it usually stays the same for a long time. So I'm not questioning change, it's just not necessarily a bad thing.

My second point is that I don't think our senses are suitable to track differences over time. The context will have changed, our mood is different, we tried the whisky in a different line-up, we ate different things before our tasting... and the differences will be too subtle to notice anyway. The only possible way would be to compare an open bottle to another bottle from the same batch that we have kept closed. Even then I'd like to remind you of my first remark... which of the two profiles is the "real" profile? The newly opened, air-tight profile or the aired, "normalized" profile?

As a last element, I'd like to tell you about my experiences. I have a dozen of bottles that I opened six years ago, levels are fairly low (under one third) and yet I find it difficult to spot differences. In any case none of them went "bad". They may have changed, but why should I care if I still appreciate them, perhaps even more than before? The same goes for samples, on several occasions I've compared a sample to a full bottle, and I never felt I was tasting different products.

My conclusion: of course whisky can change, but the differences will not be relevant and they will be due to changes in our assessment rather than changes to the product itself. Unless you're planning to keep bottles for 50 years or more, I don't think you need to worry about deterioration. Whisky, being one of the purest alcoholic drinks around, is probably one of the most stable as well.

Peter Lemon- The Casks:

I was going to write something contentious about the myth that pairing food and whisky is a good idea. Regardless of what people say, the amount of alcohol in whisky wipes out all but the strongest, simplest flavors. Sure, there are things that taste good with whisky, chocolate, strong cheese, bbq, but do not try to tell me that an Islay malt pairs well with poached oysters in a fennel-saffron reduction. One sip would wipe out all subtlety, all nuance, in the dish, it can't not - with whisky's high ABV, that's simply the way our palate's work. When you have chefs and sommeliers thinking that high alcohol wines (15%-18%) are too strong for food, that's proof enough that something 40%+ just isn't a wise choice. Aperitif, yes. Dessert, sure on occasion. After-dinner, definitely. Dinner, no. Whisky-paired dinners are fairly popular but they're just a way to get people in the door to drink whisky, which is fine, just don't buy into the myth that whisky shows off any kind of culinary delicacy.

But, then I thought, that's not so much of a myth that I've encountered as it is a misconception at best, or my petty opinion at the very least. Probably the myths I've encountered most are the same boring old "there's a right way to drink whisky" and "single malts are always better than blends" myths. As for the former, in the tastings I've lead, I've always stressed the only right way to drink whisky is the way you like it best; out of the freezer, mixed with coke, over ice cubes made with tomato juice, whatever floats your boat. Sure, some whisky-geek approved ways are going to show off the spirit better in an analytical way, but that really doesn't matter. Definitely don't worry about anyone "slapping" you if you don't enjoy your whisky the way an expert tells you to. As for the single malt vs blend thing...get over it, drink more varieties of each and you'll realize neither is better than the other, they're just different, wonderfully and purposefully so.

Jason Johnstone-Yellin - Guid Scotch Drink:

I encounter three myths on a very regular basis and I believe all three stand in the way of whisky reaching a wider audience (and I'm not even going to mention the myth that whisky is only for your Grandpa!):

1. Too many folk think you need to spend big money to experience good whisky. Come on! While entry level whiskies have steadily increased in price over the last decade (while the prices of other entry level spirits have remained pretty constant - or even decreased) spending $30 or $40 on a good entry level single malt represents a better investment over spending $15 or $20 on a cheaper whiskey. Years ago, when I founded the Single Malt Whisky Society of the Palouse my first goal was to educate on the value of price point. Within a few months of launching the society my members were telling me about spending an extra $10, $20, or even $30 on a bottle of whisky and how they were now enjoying what was in their glass so much more. What looks like a big price difference while standing in the liquor store makes for an immeasurable increase in overall enjoyment.

2. The issue of connoisseurship comes up all the time. "I don't have the palate to enjoy an expensive bottle," folk have said to me at a tasting event or in the comments of my blog. Rubbish! You might not have the vocabulary to describe what you're tasting in the glass but you sure as hell know whether or not you're enjoying it. Sit with friends and chat about the flavor profile and you're guaranteed to say something that makes others say, "that's EXACTLY what I'm getting!" And there's really no better feeling than sharing stories, throwing out a few informal tasting notes, and having a good old dram with friends and family whether it's a $40, $80, or $180 bottle of single malt. My advice is to not worry about what needs to be said but instead to have a dram, relax, and see what comes out your mouth!

3. Finally, and this made an appearance recently during the Round Table hosted by Pete at *The Casks*, is the myth that you shouldn't use good whisky as a mixer in a cocktail. Poppycock! When we're talking about drinks mixed by a highly qualified mixologist (I love that word!) we're not talking about Jack and Coke, your dad's Highballs, or other old school nonsense. We're talking cutting edge ingredients and flavors that allow us to see whisky in a new light. How is that not a wonderful thing and something that will increase the number of younger folk drinking good single malt?

Chris Bunting – Nonjatta:

I suppose the misconception I find myself butting up against most often is the idea that the cost of a whisky has a causative relationship to its taste. A whisky is not priced highly because it is delicious. Ignoring the complications of marketing strategies and deliberate attempts to target luxury niche markets, what you are paying for is rarity rather than how good it will taste (although a maker that sold something horrible for a large amount would be rather stupid, so you are also, I suppose, buying some sort of guarantee of drinkability for far more than you should be paying).

Certainly, there is some enjoyment in knowing you are one of the few people to be able to taste a given dram, but to restrict one`s whisky intake to expensive whiskies is a bit like refusing to eat crumbly, fresh cod because it is not as expensive as Fugu fish. This is a particular issue in Japanese whisky, where some rare, old whiskies from peripheral makers can be quite expensive and, at the same time, of quite phenomenal foulness.

Keith Wood – Whisky Emporium:

I can't say I have encountered any myths from my readers as such, but earlier this year I was perusing the shelves of a local whisky store when I was severely reminded of that good old adage "Age Matters", or not, as the case may be. Anyway, there I was when a woman entered the shop and also cast a glance across the shelves then looked at me and said "Oh dear, these almost all have 'ages', look 10 years old, 12 years old, 15 years old even 20 years old, but you know, it doesn't mean anything, they're all the same really."

My interest was now piqued "All the same?" I questioned. "Yes," she replied "age doesn't matter or mean anything. I visited a local distillery a few weeks ago and they explained to me that once a whisky reaches 3 years old it doesn't change any more. After three years old the 'age' doesn't mean anything"

Hmmm, I decided not to try and pursue this discussion further, but left her with her wisdom gained from the one local distillery in this corner of the world which bottles an annual edition of 3 year old whisky and nothing older...........!

Gal – Whisky Israel:

1.Single malt is "better" than Blended whisky. Most people who do not know much about whisky think that the single malt is the best, and a blend can never get close to it. The real truth is that there are nasty single malts and brilliant blends. All depends on the blender and quality of ingredients. I send people to try some of Compass Box's excellent blends, or even a high end Blend with a high Malt content such as Black Bull, or even Grant's 18/25 which are more available in duty frees.

2.Whisky should be drunk with a lot of ice, like in the movies. It's true that in Israel. a hot country we do need a bit of cooling down, but not that much... I usually tell people, try your whisky neat. Cool it down a bit with rocks (real ones) or in the fridge.

3.Older whisky is better. Always. People usually look at the age statement on the bottle and if it's 18 years old, it should be great. a 6 year old Port Charlotte? Can't be good right? Well, no sir! Age is not everything and cask selection is more important. Put a good whisky into a dead cask for 30 years, you get a bad whisky. I encourage people to try NAS and also advocate young age for peated malts... NAS is not the enemy.

4.I don't like whisky. Many people try cheap blends, and that's what they think whisky is. Bad whisky can really be a turn off , and I suggest experimentation. Try a lot, as many as you can. whisky is a big word, and no 2 whiskies are the same. Try all kinds of whisky you can get your hands on and see which one you like.

Matt & Karen - Whisky For Everyone:

There are numerous myths, preconceptions and stereotyped views about whisky and we encounter them everyday – some are extreme and some are more common, some are from the uneducated individual and some are from established people who are prominent in the whisky industry. As a whisky beginner or novice it is hard to separate fact from fiction – this is what we try to do on the Whisky For Everyone blog and website. The two most commonly asked questions that we get are …

Should I add water or ice?

There are those that will turn their noses up at you for even daring to mention adding anything to your dram of whisky (you can include mixers or cocktails in that as well!). A certain Master Blender has also been known to threaten to kill you for doing such a thing! However, the reality is that most whisky drinkers and people in the whisky industry take their whisky with varying amounts of water. This softens the sharpness of the alcohol and allows the full aromas and flavours to develop. It is especially necessary when tasting a whisky with a high ABV (for example, 48-50% ABV+). Most whisky, unless it is ‘cask strength’, has been watered down anyway to get it to the 40% ABV at which most popular brands begin their ranges. However, if you are a beginner even 40% ABV whisky can seem strong.

We recommend always tasting a whisky ‘neat’ first and then making your own mind up – if you find it too strong/alcoholic, then add a few drops of water. If it’s still too strong, add a few more drops and so on. Each persons taste is different, so there are no right or wrong answers. Adding ice is slightly different as this chills the whisky down very quickly, which inhibits the full aroma and flavour profile. You will only begin to get these once the whisky begins to warm up to room temperature, similar to if a white wine to chilled too much. What you will get is a cool, refreshing drink but without the full benefit of the whisky’s character.

Single malts are better than blends, right?

This has to be the most common myth of all. There is a firm belief that single malts are better than blends and this is the belief that we had when starting as beginners, albeit with no knowledge of the subject. Most of this can be attributed to good marketing, some voices within the hierarchy of the whisky industry and enough people who fit in to the ‘whisky snob’ category.

Historically, single malts are a modern invention with Glenfiddich pioneering the genre in the late 1960s. Many distilleries followed them and many more have only released their first single malts in the last 10-15 years, as the popularity of the genre has risen. Before that, single malts were very rare and almost all whisky was blended. All of the biggest names in the industry that we know today were founded on the back of the success of blended whisky. Sales of blended whisky still dwarf that of single malt by a ratio of 9:1.

Single malts play on their heritage and history, and are the essence of one singular place and time. They undergo more ageing that most other spirits. Some of the finest whiskies that we have tried to date are single malts but we have also sampled some average and disappointing ones. On the flip side, we have equally tried some excellent blended whiskies and some awful ones. As a consumer, you make up your own mind – if something tastes good to you and you enjoy it, then it’s a good whisky. It doesn’t matter if it is a single malt or a blend, as long as the individual enjoys drinking it.

The important thing with not just our two ‘myths’, but all the others mentioned in this month’s Round Table is – try them out for yourself, make up your own mind and most importantly of all, enjoy your whisky the way that you want to enjoy it.