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Thursday 17 November 2011

The Best of the Beatles

Travelling has always been a large part of my life. From midnight drives back to London from a gig at the Night & Day in Manchester, to hour-long tube journeys on a Monday morning, my companion on these trips has consistently been my iPod.

Always rammed full of music, certain tunes mark certain travels like a souvenir from a particular destination. Two weeks in the States in 2003, taking in the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas followed with a trip to LA, was sound tracked by Tegan & Sarah’s If It Was You album. Whenever this record comes on my iPod, I’m transported straight back to the corner of 6th and Red River, stood outside Emo’s waiting for a friend to help me christen the day with a cold bottle of Modelo before hitting a bunch of shows.

In a similar way, every time I get on a flight and the seatbelt signs are turned off, the very first record I stick on is The Postal Service’s excellent (and only) album Give Up. If you’ve not heard it, this record is a real low-fi treat and the tracks Such Great Heights and Recycled Air are the perfect accompaniment to flying.

Writing about Scotch for various publications, and not living in Scotland, means I’m still doing my fair share of travelling and the journey from London to Aberdeen / Inverness / Glasgow / Edinburgh is now a well trodden path.

Travelling is always a chore and I don’t know anyone who actually really likes airports, train stations or long car trips. But like any journey in life, it’s the destination that is key. However, one positive is that during ‘travel time’ you are afforded the chance to read books and listen to music. A rarity in today’s world, where every waking hour seems to be filled in some way or another.

One extra joy is the ability on a long journey, to explore a range of an artist’s repertoire. If ever I’m looking to find out about a new (to me) act, I will never, ever default to their Best Of..., but always try and find an album which best represents their output, warts and all, and then listen around those to previous / future releases. Thus, the time travelling to Scotland and back affords this rare pleasure.

When looking at the output of a distillery, the same is true. It is not very often you get the chance to sit down with a flight of whiskies from one distillery to assess and explore their range, let alone have the time, space and peace to enjoy this experience.

Thankfully, on a recent trip to Speyside, I was invited to sit and try the range from The Macallan. Situated on a 370 acre estate, just by the River Spey (the distillery has a beat on the Spey and their own Ghillie), sandwiched between Rothes and Craigellachie, with neighbouring distilleries poking above the trees whichever way you look, this couldn’t be further away from my regular drinking den in South London. These guys have one of the world’s greatest fishing rivers at the end of their garden. At the end of mine is a rusty baked bean can and an empty box of condoms which seems to have blown in on the London winds. I think I know where I’d rather be to sit down with a dram or two...

The tasting was preceded by a tour of their Visitor Centre. A fantastic piece of work which is both educational and entertaining, focusing enough on science without becoming too nerdy, yet providing show-and-tell aspects without wanting to be The Science Museum. The Macallan currently runs 21 stills (two spirit stills for every wash still) which were upgraded and expanded in 2009. The highlight of the tour, strangely, is the end. Not because it was over! But because of this:

What on earth is that? Well, good people of the internet, this is a cask of whisky hidden under the floorboards. Now, I’ve always had a desire to build my own house (I’m a sucker for Grand Designs) but this has just raised the stakes to another level. Amazing stuff:

The Macallan – Alec’s Hidden Dram – 11 Years Old - ~60% abv

Nose: Well, it was very cold (the first flourish of snow was going on outside) so it didn’t give a great deal away, except for some rich Christmas cake notes and a hint of gingerbread.

Palate: Very rich and oily, with strawberry jam, some plum chutney and a dollop of malt loaf. With water, it opened up to reveal some mint notes and hint of red boiled sweet.

Finish: Rich and oily with a hint of liquorice and truffles.

Overall: Very nice, cask strength Macallan. Hiding casks under floorboards is the way forward!

As the tour ended, it was time to move on from hidden casks (the first time I’ve ever had Floorboard Finish!) to standard bottlings. The Macallan have two styles of regular expressions: Fine Oak, which is a mixture of three types of cask (American Oak ex-Bourbon, Spanish Oak ex-Sherry and American Oak ex-Sherry) and Sherry Oak, matured in... yup! Sherry Oak! But first up, it’s New Make:

The Macallan – New Make – 71% abv

Nose: Very fruity, sweet. Gooseberries, apples and candy floss.

Palate: Strawberry laces and candyfloss again.

Finish: Short, creamy and sharp.

Overall: A very characterful new make.

The new make was good, but as usual I prefer my sprit with some cask maturation, so onwards to some actual whisky...

The Macallan – 12 Year Old – Sherry Oak – 40% abv

Nose: Some dried fruit, mainly vanilla, strawberry ice cream with a very subtle hint of ginger and some apricot dusted with cinnamon.

Palate: A delicate palate with the sherry tones really hitting through (Christmas cake, etc). There is a lot of similarities between the palate on this, and nosing a used sherry cask; quite dry but full of flavour.

Finish: Very sweet, coffee with vanilla syrup in.

Overall: A really good standard expression of the The Macallan which isn’t ground breaking but should encourage consumers to upscale in the range.

The Macallan – 15 Years Old – Fine Oak – 43% abv

Nose: White grapes, rose water and cut grass. The Spanish sherry influence is tamed by that of the white oak (American oak) just rounding off the spices.

Palate: Orange blossom, vanilla and cinnamon. The missing spices now appear and the sherry becomes more prominent on the palate.

Finish: Milk Chocolate with hazelnuts, some dried fruit. A woody dryness at the back of the palate and some dry white wine.

Overall: The Fine Oak series seems to have filled a gap of taking the edge off from The Macallan for those who aren’t so keen on a big sherry hit, and it has succeed as this is a very drinkable 15 Year Old.

The Macallan – 18 Years Old – Sherry Oak – 1991 release – 43% abv

Nose: The aromas really just jump out of the glass on this one, with some amazing hits of ginger, chocolate and cinnamon. Massive and very appealing.

Palate: A rich and unctuous palate of ginger bread / ginger cake, some dry wood spices, cooking apples and muscovado sugar.

Finish: Very dry with heavy weight flavours of Christmas cake and cigar casing that lasts for a good length of time.

Overall: This really is a very pleasurable whisky to drink and you can see why it is so popular. 18 Years Old feels like a good age for The Macallan as it really starts to develop its character. If this wasn’t £80 a bottle, I’d drink a lot more of it.

The Macallan – 21 Years Old – Fine Oak – 43% abv

Nose: A very light, yet complex nose of tropical fruit juice, vanilla and pine resin.

Palate: Vanilla ice cream, orange cream chocolates and a hint of crunchy nut cornflakes with fresh, full cream milk.

Finish: A hint of spices, the overriding flavour is cream ├ęclair...

Overall: Yet again, an example of how the Fine Oak provides something just a bit different. It’s Macallan, just turned down a bit. Everything is there, but it doesn’t shout at you as much as the Sherry Oak does.

The Macallan – 30 Years Old - Fine Oak – 43% abv

Nose: Tropical fruits (again), black bananas, real vanilla pods, cherry drops.

Palate: Big oak hit, which you don’t expect from the nose. Hold it on the palate and the cherry drops really amplify and develop in to strawberries topped with balsamic vinegar.

Finish: A tiny hint of wood smoke, it is a robust finish with juniper tones to it.

Overall: This whisky really is very complex, jumping from cherry to juniper, from big oak tones to strawberries, but it is remarkably well balanced too. At this age, I think it helps to have a portion of American Oak in the mix, to take the edge off what could be a whisky with too much extravagance if it were exclusively from Sherry Oak.

A superb experience, visiting Scotland is always a real pleasure. Sitting in quiet, surrounded by very little other than neighbouring distilleries, taking time to really relax with a dram is the very best way to enhance the qualities of the liquid. Thankfully, I can close my curtains from the trash at the end of my garden and I’m overlooked by my neighbouring distillery (Central London’s only one, making Beefeater Gin) and if I close my eyes, really close them hard, I can be wherever I want to be. Until the loud reggae music come drifting over from the flat opposite that is... it's probably The Best Of Bob Marley. *sigh*