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Thursday, 5 July 2012


There aren't many houses in the UK where you'd happily pick up a small sample bottle of amber coloured liquid, pop the top off and give it a good hearty sniff before pouring into a glass and swigging away; certainly not at my elderly relatives houses, that's for use.

Thankfully, unlike my sister-in-law, I'm not a doctor in the Churchill Hospital's renal unit who has chosen to bring work home with them, but a professional in an altogether more gentle industry, that of spirits, and more specifically whisk(e)y.

Keeping track of samples is a pretty straight forward business: usually when one arrives it is marked up clearly on the bottle with all the relevant information (distillery name, working title, age statement or otherwise, ABV and any other interesting information, if they can fit it on) and once lined up neatly on my writing desk, they form an orderly queue waiting to be reviewed, like British OAP's waiting in line at the Post Office to collect their weekly pension.

However, the orderly queue can go from Home Counties Post Office to the first four rows of a Take That concert with ease, when disrupted by samples we've drawn from our bottles or taken out of friend's stashes as often these can go unlabeled, with my brain thinking “I’ll remember what’s in there” and then totally forgetting.


And so it is that over time, my writing desk has filled up with small sample bottles, the contents of which I have no idea. Trying them turns in to some sort of whisky Russian roulette...

These, however are my new best friend: 

A sharpie on a key ring. Whoever invented this should be given a medal. Or at least a bottle of nice whisky!

Thankfully, at the moment my samples are hideously well organised. I seem to have learnt my lesson, due to being recently shocked by one truly awful sample (more to come later in the week) that I’d taken from a friend after being shocked and appalled by something they’d made me try. So bad was it, that I thought I just had to write about it. But utterly violet was how I felt when I opened the blank sample last week and I vowed never again to leave a bottle unlabelled on my desk. 

There are just two unlabelled samples currently on my desk and I know what is in each of the bottles: one is a Murray McDavid Port Ellen, the other is a 20 Year Old Lagavulin (independent  bottling from 'The Syndicate') but I don’t know which bottle contains which whisk. However, when I took the samples from the original bottles, I deliberately used two differently shaped sample bottles and had the presence of mind to take a photo of each of the wee vessels next to its ‘daddy’.

So I've decided to try them blind, writing notes on them without any more information that I already have, before revealing to myself which whisky is which... now, let's give them both a go:

Sample One:

Nose: A wonderfully rich peat smoke rises from the glass, backed with some sherry tones, raisins and brown sugar. The slightly earthy, almost farmyard tones give away that this must be the Lagavulin, but there is always a chance it isn't!

Palate: Classic rich Islay on the palate with some tropical fruits, almost Bowmore like, which give way to dark chocolate, some sweet rum tones all underpinned with a big hit of mossy peat smoke and warehouse floor.

Finish: Pure oak and strawberry jam. Very, very nice but maybe slightly too much wood?

Overall: A really wonderful dram of great complexity but incredible smoothness.

Sample Two:

Nose: Ahhhhh... chamois leather, grapefruit and peat. Surely a Port Ellen?! In fact, I'd put my house on it. But with this there is some additional sweetness, like a clear apple juice or very sweet tea over the top. Interesting.

Palate: Hummm... Slightly salty, this doesn't give too much on the palate other than smoked white grape juice and some slight tones of white bread and almost a hay-like note (the smell of hay in a flavour!). Strange.

Finish: Sweet spices and white grape juice again. Slightly bitter.

Overall: clearly a Port Ellen on the nose, but a very odd beast on the palate. The delicate tones which hideaway underneath Port Ellen smoke seem to have been rounded off and sweetened down; not what I'd want from this distillery, but it certainly would appeal to some palates. Almost like a Port Ellen b-side remix

And so, which is which? Well, it was all a little too obvious on the nose and it turns out that the big, rich tones of Sample One is indeed:

Lagavulin - 'The Syndicate's Bottling' - 20 Years Old - Distilled 03.09.1990 / Bottled 22.09.10 - Cask No. 4395 - 48.1% abv

and Sample Two revealed all, with the Port Ellen being finished in Chateau D'Yquem Casks...

Port Ellen - Murray McDavid Mission Series - Distilled 1982 / Bottled 2009 - Chateau D'Yquem Cask Finish - 1175 bottles - 48.6% abv

Well, if this was whisky speed dating, I'd certainly be looking for the 'phone number of Sample One. Sample Two I'll leave to find love elsewhere.

The moral of this story? Always carry a Sharpie with you... if nothing else, so you can do this sort of thing: