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Friday, 18 January 2013

A Mötley Crew Indeed... Southbank Centre Whisky Club

Smashing into 2013 like a greased up, white hot juggernaught of whisky, hitting a Ford Transit Van full of salted Lurpak butter, Caskstrength's January has thus far been undoubtedly our busiest yet. Book launches, new tastings, creative projects, writing and a host of fun have all entered the swiftly emerging horizon and so far, we've been feeling slightly light headed as a result.  In other interesting news, our 5th annual BiG award (Best in Glass) has recently sparked off a flurry of international interest, especially in the New York Times with Balcones single malt release proving that craft distillation is very much alive, well and turning out some highly individual and engaging spirits.

Anyway, back to what we know best: writing and talking about whisky.  

Last night was our first Southbank Centre Whisky Club date for 2013 and the line up was undoubtedly the best yet: premium whiskies of the highest order. The club, which was started this time last year for members of the Southbank Centre and Royal Festival Hall is now open to non-members and it was wonderful to see a few familiar faces last night and regular readers of Caskstrength grinning as the drams were being poured.  But then again, who wouldn't want to open their 2013 malt account with this little motley crew and a view of Big Ben after dark?

From the left:  Balvenie Portwood 21yo, MacKinlay's recreation, Highland Park 21yo,
Nikka Pure Malt 17yo and SMWS Glen Moray 38yo
In fact, we were so taken with the whiskies, that we decided to do a little write up on each one-  (as we reviewed the MacKinlay's recently click here for a full report)

Balvenie Portwood 21yo -  40%

Nose: A wonderful richness, with floral wax, fresh cherries, wine soaked oak and spiced oranges. 

Palate: Bold and creamy, but with a secondary wave of fresh cherries, lemon zest, a hint of liquorice and oaky, ruby port. 

Finish: The oak is balanced perfectly with a lingering note of fresh fruit.

Overall: On a show of hands, this very much looked the dram to beat... until our next one popped its head up, but a truly outstanding example of how to bottle a near perfect whisky.

Highland Park 21yo - 40%

Nose: Manuka honey, a touch of dried ginger, liquorice, juicy apples dusted in cinnamon and brown sugar. The peat is soft, floral and slightly waxy.  Wonderful and refined.

Palate: Soft sweet malt, stewed red berries, patisserie cream, some green apple freshness and a sprinkling of rich brown sugar.  Tantalising and extremely moreish.

Finish: Honeyed malt notes are left on the palate, with a touch of slightly more medicinal peat.

Overall: HP 21yo at this strength is just superb.  The 18yo ranks as one of the all-time greats and this is another step up in the staircase of malt perfection.  

Nikka Pure Malt 17yo - 43%

Nose: Bold and bright, with strong PVA notes, a mineral/chalky note, swiftly followed up with some very unique peatiness (smoked straw), rich malt extract and old lobster pots/ brine.  Very distinct indeed.

Palate: Very clean, with come sweet candied cherries, icing sugar, malted milk biscuits a touch of pears steeped in white wine and vanilla, plus a slightly smoky backbeat.  

Finish:  The creamy notes take the longest time to diminish, alongside the peat smoke and fresh fruit.

Overall: Balanced on the palate, giving the hallmarks of lingering oak alongside some youthful exuberance.  Nikka are really beginning to fill in the gaps left by the likes of Suntory's Hakushu and Yamazaki, as well as the hugely sherried Karuizawa with their approach to intricately peated whiskies. this is yet another 'must-buy', if you're looking for something different from a Japanese whisky.

Scotch Malt Whisky Society: 35.63 (Glen Moray) 1974 Single Cask - 45.3%

Nose: A very dry note to begin with, which takes a little time to open up. But when it does, the fun begins: graphite/pencil shavings, a hint of freshly modelled clay, lemongrass, golden syrup, creamy fudge, vanilla essence and stewed plums.

Palate: The initial dryness gives way to some gingery notes, sweet potato, lemongrass something slightly medicinal (child's cough syrup) and a hint of woody anise.

Finish: Slightly dry, with a crisp oakiness leading the way and a touch of cooking apple.

Overall:  Yes, this is showing signs of its age, but there's still plenty in the tank to get excited about.  A great way to round off our tasting with and judging by the fair share of hands -  a firm favourite for some of our Whisky Club members.

If you'd like to come along to our next Southbank Centre Members Whisky Club, (on March 6th, covering Irish whiskey) visit the Southbank Centre website, where you can become a member (and get plenty of benefits, including significant discounts on events at the Royal Festival Hall, as well as access to the members lounge.  You can also email us info(at)caskstrength(dot)net for details and tickets, as our 2013 events schedule (including gin, cocktails, and many more) are now open to everyone.

Friday, 11 January 2013

The Wonka Of The Whisky World: Compass Box

Well, here we are again. Yet another year begins and, would you believe it, we're approaching the middle of the first month already. Sort of. Hush my mouth, we're really only eleven days in. Barely scratching the surface, really! Or should that be 'barley scratching the surface'...?

Right, with the contender for 'worst pun of the year' already made in only our second post of 2013, it's time to start to talk seriously about the year ahead. We've already heard rumours about interesting bottlings to come from a wide variety of different distilleries and blenders, but no matter what is pulled from various warehouses across Scotland (and let's not forget the rest of world, please) and put in a bottle, there is one vital aspect that still underscores the whole of the whisk(e)y business and that is quality.

In 2012 we've seen more bottles than ever released, and at increasingly higher prices (see: Supply And Demand 101) but, ya know, I actually think the quality is getting better. Even Aldi and Lidl are taking their whisky seriously nowadays. Who would have said that a few years ago about two shops which openly claim to be aimed at the shopper on a budget... amazing really. So as we enter our sixth year of writing about this fantastic product, we look forward to sharing our journey of discovery with you and to continue what we set out to do right at the start: educate, entertain and inform.


Rumours of interesting bottles will always abound on the internet and until someone from a company, PR house or retailer actually tells us something is coming, we often take any whispers with a large pinch of salt. Especially those press releases which magically seem to appear each year on the first day of April...

However, there is one company who specialise in unusual bottles. When you hear a rumour about a possible release from this indie whisky house, you just hope it's true. The Wonka of whisky, Compass Box has been churning out amazing blended whisky since its inception in a West London kitchen in 2000.

Thirteen years later and this creative bunch have turned their hand to pretty much everything they could get away with, within the confines of the ever-changing Scotch Whisky Association regulations (and even some outside of it); this lot are real 'punks', in the purest sense of the word.

But not only do Compass Box have a focus on constructing fantastic liquid, they also have a real eye for art, too. The packaging designs chosen to house the whisky are just fantastic and the boxes which these bottles wear, sublime. Let's take a look at a new release from The House Of Compass Box, by way of an illustration:

Compass Box - The Entertainer - Blended Whisky - 1000 bottles only - Selfridge's exclusive - 70cl - 46% ABV - £84.99 here

This comes in a box and with a label which looks like Magritte and Duchamp have had a fight in workshop in early Nineteenth Century Vienna. To say this is a stunning piece is beyond doubt. But as we all know, whisky is not just about the packaging. How does this stuff actually taste?

Nose: A big hit of butterscotch and fresh daisy, there is also a wisp of peat smoke and oodles of vanilla. Just like opening a bag of Werther's Original by the fireside.

Palate: Deliciously delicate at first, with firey peat coming in to back up the mellow start. Tasted marshmallow melts over hot buttered crumpets and a hint of walnut praline gives some additional depth.

Finish: Vanilla. Peat smoke. Cinnamon. In that order. In equal measure.

Overall: This is incredibly drinkable whisky. With a drop of water it opens up to become really very moorish. Very well constructed a liquid.

This whisky is a creation specifically for the good people at Selfridges (who, ironically, don't actually sell fridges. Unlike John Lewis, who do) where it is exclusively available. Quite a timely release here in the UK; with a Downtown drought on, we have had to quench our thirst for costume drama with a new series that kicked off this weekend called Mr Selfridge, all about the inception of the great store and, I'm sure, some poetic licence on the odd love story of the workers therein.

Just 1000 bottles of this blend have been produced, retailing at £84.99. I wonder if Mr Selfridge was a whisky drinker himself. If so, I'm sure he'd have been proud to have this in his shop. And not just for the box.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

First of 2013 - Mackinlay's Blended Whisky - The Journey Edition. All At Sea?

Welcome back folks. We trust you had as much fun over Christmas as we did and of course tasted some sterling liquids.  After indulging fairly ferociously on NYE, we thought it wise to take a little break this week, have a few long walks and give thought to the first dram of 2013, which has actually been nestling in a pile of whiskies at our office awaiting discovery.  And how ironic seeing as its inspiration was pretty much encased in ice, awaiting its own discovery many years ago.

Now unless you really aren't interested in major whisky stories (or have been encased in ice yourself), the tale of the lost Shackleton whisky will be fairly old news to most readers. In short, Antarctic explorer Earnest Shackleton abandoned his base camp back in 1909 leaving behind a case of MacKinlay's blended malt Scotch whisky.  In 2007 the case was rediscovered surrounded in thick ice.  After painstaking research Whyte & Mackay's master blender Richard Paterson recreated the whisky using a recipe including a few rare, long lost malts and the Discovery Edition, eventually released in 2011, received widespread acclaim from most of those who tasted it- including ourselves, the bottling making the shortlist of our 2011 BiG Award.

So you thought the story was over and that this ship had effectively sailed into the sunset?  Oh no.  Why let a golden opportunity pass by.  Another batch of the whisky, the Journey Edition, has been prepared, this time to mark the recreation of one of Shackleton's famed journeys from 1916: 800 nautical miles across ocean and deep ice from Elephant Island off the coast of Antarctica to South Georgia.  This time around, to help raise funds for the Antarctic Heritage Trust, the treacherous journey will be repeated later this month by polar explorer Tim Jarvis using a recreation of one of Shackleton's original vessels and it is hoped that sales of the whisky, (the 'official' whisky of the expedition), will contribute £500,000 to the Trust.
The Journey Edition takes its influence from the
 original straw inner packaging

Now, the cynic in us would say -  guys, why not let it lie?  The original Mackinlay's recreation was sensational - does the world really need (or indeed care about) another batch?? This edition apparently uses different malts to the original recreation but aims to capture the exact same flavour profile as the original 'Discovery' batch - and therefore be as near to the original discovery as possible.  So it's potentially a little bit different, but the the same time.

An Antarctic Hula girl?
Confused yet?
Don't  be. The great thing is that despite the packaging looking more like a bottle of Italian Chianti cross-dressing in a Hawaiian grass skirt, the liquid inside is yet again a masterpiece of blending.  And as there is a genuine cause being supported here we'll chloroform our cynical side, restrain him and put him back in the angry box until the next questionable whisky launch comes around.

MacKinlay's Blended Scotch Malt Whisky - The Journey Edition - 47.3% - 100,000 bottles

Nose: Stewed pears, vanilla pods, a touch of white wine, creamy custard and rich toffee. Wonderfully light, but with a darker side lurking in the background.  Alongside some toasted almonds and a touch of straw lies some delicious wafts of peat smoke - not medicinal, but floral and balanced.  Superb stuff.

Palate: Bang... and we're into unchartered territory here. The fruit from the nose remains, bringing some green apple tartness, but the peat is much more pronounced, spicy and rich.  A tingle of liquorice starts to develop alongside some creamy, sweet malt (barley sugar), dairy fudge and a touch of menthol on the death.  Mouth coating and oily, this is a rugged whisky but the high strength (the whisky was originally bottled at 47.3% to supposedly stop it freezing in the Antarctic conditions) doesn't make it too spirity.  In fact, the palate is as perfectly balanced as the nose.  

Finish: The smoky notes subside and we're left with an orchard fruit freshness, the creamy malt and a touch of dryness. 

Overall: Whilst the concept of part deux smacks a little of sales & marketing over-enthusiasm, you can't fault the liquid here. Hard to say if it is EXACTLY like the original recreation, but on reading our tasting notes for the Discovery Edition after tasting this version, it seems that Mr Paterson has done Shackleton proud once again.