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Wednesday 27 February 2013

Stormin' Stuff

Fish. A man who knows his knitware
as well as his weather. 
Storms eh.

Here in the UK we get our fair share of them.  From the notorious 'four seasons in a day' that complete the Islay experience, to a great summer's day out ruined by watching a rain soaked cricket pitch from the back seat of a fogged up Austin Maxi. As a nation, we're absolutely hopeless at preparing for or reacting to bad weather situations.

Consider the biggest and most blinding weather cock up in the BBC's living memory.  The great Michael Fish, weatherman and pin-up to millions of beige-clad ladies of a certain age, casually poo-pooed the notion that a concerned caller from Wales might be able to correctly predict a hurricane was about to hit the UK and that we should all prepare for the worst.  The immortal words  'don't worry, there isn't' will probably make their way onto Fish's gravestone, as his flippant remark was of course the start of probably the worst British storm in over 100 years.  On October 15th 1987, millions of pounds worth of damage was caused when the said hurricane tore Britain a new a***hole, killing 18 people in the process.

25 years on and this monumental blooper is still part of the British psyche and even made its way into the opening ceremony of the Olympics, sealing Fish in some sort of crazy, imfamous-yet-guilt-laden time bubble for the rest of his life.

So when two sample bottles arrived on my desk late last week, I was a little perplexed.  Both bottles were labelled 'Storm', but both were apparently completely different whiskies. One of them was a brand new blend from legendary whisky makers Cutty Sark and the other was the brand new, hotly anticipated release from Talisker.

For a second, I saw the words 'lawsuit' flash before my eyes, but then, thinking back about how hard it had been for the Fishmeister to predict the coming of his nemesis storm given all his credentials, I felt slightly more comfortable with the naming issue.  You see, rather like the UK weather, here we have two very unique types of Storm.

Let's consider the new Cutty blend first.  Cutty Sark Storm hasn't stepped a million miles away from the light, refreshing accessibility of the Original blend, but has a proportion of older single malts thrown into the mix to give a darker side to the whisky.  Tropical storm, or full-on shipwreck stuff? Let's find out...

Cutty Sark - Storm -  40%

Nose: Some exceptionally well balanced spiced notes mingle with robust liquorice, a big wad of sherry soaked tweed, plenty of lighter orchard fruit (apples and ripe plums) and a waft of vanilla.  

Palate: Lingering notes of overripe plum, vanilla, some star anise, oloroso sherry, an oaky dryness and creamy vanilla all vie for your attention.

Finish: The oak stays on the palate, but helps to deliver an additional last minute belt of dried spice. 

Overall: This excellent blend has all the hallmarks of Cutty Original but ratchets up the intensity a few notches.  It's bigger and a bit bolder than your average blend, but won't over complicate a classic drink like a whisky sour. In fact, we recently used Storm as part of an Indian food pairing, dashed with some bespoke bitters and the whole thing came together perfectly.  On the Storm'ometer -  this one is right up there.  

Next up and a distinctly chilly breeze has started to blow.

Somewhere in the background, a lone dog begins to howl, foreseeing what is about to hit.  The rusty weather vane on old McNabb's roof suddenly starts to twist around violently, screeching a tortured siren song to the storm gods.  Children playing hopscotch outside on a chalk-etched path look up to the skies as it bruises ove... oh...

Whatever, you get the bloody picture.  Yes.  Kaboom...Talisker Storm has arrived and its fanfare is the cacophonous rattle of thunder emanating from one's Glencairn.  

Talisker Storm doesn't carry an age statement and has been bought together from a variety of aged stock in both refill and rejuvenated casks, aiming to produce an altogether more brooding, powerful and intense whisky.  According to the press release it will sit somewhere between the 10 year old and the Distillers Edition expressions from a price perspective.  

Now seeing as I had a bottle of 10 year old open, I thought it prudent to see just where the new Storm sits. Producing a more powerful and intense Talisker is no easy feat, considering how massive a whisky the marvellous 10 year old is.  The answer is that both whiskies are completely different.  Talisker 10 year old does have a lighter burnt vanilla aroma on the nose and a slightly drier, more smoked bacon led note, with some baked apple and a lot of salty briny character.  Storm on the other hand....

Talisker - Storm -  45.8%

Nose:...Initially, you're in similar waters to the 10 year old.  Peppery, with a hint of smoked dried chipotle chilli, backed with some stewed prune/plum notes and then a big waft of morning-after bonfire embers.  Then it opens up, with a younger, more fiery note, lemon zest, backdropped with some additional spiciness, anise playing the major role. It's deeper, richer and dare I say it, more well-rounded than the 10 year old.  Not necessarily a bonus, considering how arrestingly brutal the 10 year old is but this is a far more interesting, thought provoking and complex a whisky.  

Palate: Given a few minutes to settle down this is stupendous stuff.  Fiery, hot, then rich and sweet, it has a surprisingly refreshing sweetness on the first sip with candied apple slices, vanilla custard and liquorice, before the palate gets bombarded with classic Talisker salty, hot chilli peat.  There's more of the burnt bonfire stuff the further you get in, but it's all contained with a richer fruitiness.  It has a greater viscosity in the mouth to the 10yo too, despite their identical strengths. 

Finish:  As the more ashy bonfire notes die away, you're left with lingering fruit, some drying oak and masses of woody spice, anise and liquorice.  

Overall:  Look.  Talisker 10 year old is one of THE all time, undisputed classic whiskies, so this new expression has heaps of pressure on its shoulders to perform at the same level, let alone pip it to the post.  But after two glasses of this (unusual for me in a tasting note situation) I have to say that this is an absolutely triumphant expression.  No, it isn't more 'intense', 'visceral', 'powerful', 'assertive' (or any other unnecessary adjective) than the 10 year old. It's DIFFERENT. If you will, the tropical storm to the 10 year old's desert storm.  Either way, on sheer whisky making skills, this will undoubtedly blow hurricane-sized holes in its other peaty opponents.  

Now... if only Mr Fish had been able to try a glass before his ill-fated prediction.  No way he'd have missed this storm coming.    

Friday 22 February 2013

Caskstrength And Carry On: Bottle 'C'

Ahoy, Mateys!

Okay, we’ll admit it... the frequency of posts on has not been as regular as we would have liked so far in 2013. The number of samples piling up on our desk is beginning to resemble World of Whiskies at Heathrow T5 and we will, we promise, get rolling on these very soon, so expect a landslide of entertaining, educational and irreverent posts later this month and on in to the new year.

One of the reasons we’ve been slightly distracted recently is due to us working hard on getting everything sorted for our new bottling in our series of A – Z whiskies.

You’ll remember that we started our A – Z with a single cask Arran release in 2011 for 'A', followed up by last year’s BenRiach, for B. Both of which were highly limited and sold in a heartbeat... and so, as night follows day, our ‘B’ bottling will be followed by our ‘C’ offering.

In order to have this next release lined up, Neil and I have been up and down to Scotland, like a crazy whisky yoyo, making sure each and every detail of this next release has been covered and so far it’s looking ship shape and Bristol fashion...  We’re very excited about it, so much so, that we’ve shot a little teaser video to give you a taste for what is on the way, with a slight twist: we’re not actually going to tell you what it is, just yet.

And this is where you step in. 

If, after watching the video, you have an educated guess as to which ‘C’ we are bottling, then you can send us your guess, along with your age and country of residence, to and we’ll pick TWO winning entries to send a free bottle to. Closing date for the competition is 15th March 2013 and the usual T&C’s apply (over legal drinking age, etc).

(for those of you on our mailing list, the video can be found by clicking this link here)
(for those of you on an Android device, you can watch on youtube by clicking here)

The whisky will be officially released on March 27th at 10am though Master of Malt. We are yet to finalise the RRP, but as with the last two, will be priced at a level which makes us look a little bit mental...

Saturday 16 February 2013

New Bar Alert. Mizuwari: The City Finally Embraces Japanese Whisky

As modest type chaps, we seldom get any pleasure from the phrase 'we told you so'. But this time, we're going to bask in its relative glow... sort of...

FINALLY. Someone has decided to open a Tokyo-inspired micro bar in the centre of London, serving possibly our favourite drink in the last several years, the Mizuwari.  After visiting a handful of these little gems in the Ginza district of Tokyo three years ago, we came back glowing, insistent that someone should replicate the idea in the capital.  Three years went by and nothing.  'Come on!' we cried -  'Japanese whisky...Great ice...a packed vibe'y basement environment... excellent food next door and a bottle store for the keenest of customers...Someone please make this happen.'

Still nothing.

Then an email arrived.  Suntory, purveyors of some of the most enlightening Japanese whiskies (and the clear market leader in the UK) had partnered up with a Japanese restaurant, taken over the downstairs bar and bought Ginza to Soho.  Kampai!

So here it is, the opening week of Mizuwari, London's hottest bar, housed in the basement of Bincho, a rather swish Japanese restaurant on Old Compton Street.  As you can imagine, first week open - and the place is packed to the rafters with the usual curious barflies, Japanese whisky connoisseurs and a few genuinely confused Japanese tourists, who happen to have inadvertently stumbled on this heaving joint and who probably feel they've stepped through a portal of some kind, back to Tokyo.

In every respects, Mizuwari is the real deal. Right down to the back bar, which surprisingly doesn't just feature Suntory whiskies (although Hibiki, Hakushu and Yamazaki are the predominant serves here), the glacial quality of the ice, the hand carved ice balls and the locked cabinet, with some choice bottlings reserved for those truly in the know (and with a few more ££s to spend.)

Resident bartender Zoran Peric is well known in London's Japanese whisky circles -  a true gent and undoubted pioneer in helping to bring the spirit to the city's more discerning drinkers.  His range of drinks feel authentic, but have a broader feel to them, especially the elderflower-influenced Mizuwari made using the lightly peated Hakushu 12yo  and the fantastically simple Hibiki 12yo, served over an ice ball.

 Folks. Your Mizuwari prayers have been answered.

Visit Mizuwari (in the basement of Bincho) 16 Old Compton St  London, Greater London W1D 4TL 020 7287 9111

Friday 15 February 2013

It's a Vintage Friday. Jura's new 1977...and Jazz

What a bloody full-on year so far.  With barely time to find to feed oneself, Caskstrength have this week been getting stuck into some of the recent samples to pop through the letterbox -  to be honest, trying to clear a path to our desks would be a big bonus.

One banger of a vintage that jumped out immediately is the recent 1977 release from Jura.  The distillery has a very healthy vintage collection on its mantlepiece now and the 1976 release, which came out back in 2011, made our BiG shortlist such was its succulence.

This year, we find the distillery offering up something equally interesting and hopefully as majestic on the palate.  The 1977 bottling is limited to 498 bottles and was originally matured in three first fill bourbon casks, before being finished for a further 12 months a ruby port pipe.   The additional port character is not immediately visible, but look closely and you'll begin to see the slightest tinge of sunset red... wondering what it has done for the nose and palate of this 36 year old.  

Wrapping up warm... and rocking' to a
1920's Jazz playlist... Lois Ridley. 
Today's review will be made in the company of miss Lois Ridley, who, it turns out seems absolutely fascinated with the trombone-heavy 1920's ragtime jazz of Tiny Parham and Jack Teargarden.  A recent discovery for me, thanks to the honourable Mr Sam Simmons, aka Dr Whisky.  In fact, the more she listens the more I am convinced she's destined to be a future heartbreaker and sultry Jazz chanteuse... Gulp.

Jura - 1977 Vintage -  498 Bottles - 46% - £600 RRP

Nose:  An intensely fruity aroma off the bat, with some big fat buttery vanilla pods, a faint whiff of some perfumed ruby port, oil of Olay, lip gloss and face powder (not mine, I may add), a little furniture polish and some restrained peat smoke (in the way only Jura knows how.) It's delicate, refined and very good indeed. 

Palate: Almost tropical on the first sip, followed by sweet vanilla, white chocolate, a similar restrained peat smoke as to the nose, coconut, Caramac bars and more of that Olay/face powder.  I imagine this is what its like kissing a 1920's jazz chanteuse, if they were nibbling on a Caramac between sets.    

Finish: A drying note, but the vanilla continues to sing through, backdropped by a trio of coconut milk, creamy oak and perfumed peat.  

Overall:  Well, they keep plucking 'em from the relative obscurity of the Jura warehouse and thrusting them into the limelight... and boy, this one hit the high notes yet again.  Who needs Stephen Poliakoff's 'Dancing On The Edge' when you can listen to this baby all night... 

Sunday 10 February 2013

Hide and Seek: Laphroaig Highgrove Single Malt Whisky

Whisky seems to be popping up in the most weird and wonderful of places at the moment. From the odd, unusual bottle in the local corner shop, to pubs now hosting vast arrays of bottles for you to choose from when out drinking, this is always a good indication of the growth in awareness of a product.

It has always been the domain of the malt drinker to seek out bottles which are interesting and unique. I was recently in a liquor shop in a particular part of North London which is home to a large Jewish community. The shop is a treasure trove of unusual whisky, a large portion of it kosher, making the whisky accessible for the local community. This included brands I have never seen before as well as certain expressions of existing bottles, tweaked to meet the needs of the consumer, such as the Glenrothes Alba Reserve.

It is the fleet-of-foot ability of some whisky brands to produce bottles for specific markets or specific customers such as this, which can give them not only an additional competitive advantage, but also a whole new support base of drinkers who will become advocates of the brand.

But finding some of these exotic expressions can be a real chore. Stumbling across things in a shop miles from where you live, is one way, magazines, auction sites and the internet is another way. It’s a little like finding new music you love. I have a list of people who I trust to supply me with top tips. Being an ex-A&R guy, this list includes top music managers and executives, artists themselves, music journalists, close friends and the radio.

Just this morning, I found myself engaged in some spring cleaning around my house and needed a soundtrack to turn to. I wasn’t keen on music I already knew, so Spotify was closed and I threw on, at random, the Don Lett’s show on BBC Radio 6 Music.

For our international readership out there, BBC 6 Music is the station you ‘retire to’ when you no longer want to listen to the latest chart hits by Lady Z or Jay Gaga (or is it Jay Z and Lady Gaga?) and when you’re not quite ready for talk radio about politics. In my house, BBC 6 Music is often known as BBC Smiths Music, due to the frequency of Morrisey-related songs on their playlist.

However, the advantage of the shows such as Letts and that of Craig Charles’ Funk & Soul Show is the fantastic mix of old music you’ve maybe never heard before and new tunes which aren’t quite of the sugary nature to make mainstream pop-radio.

Today alone, I discovered fantastic old tunes from acts such as Unit 4+2 and The Beat and brand new tracks from Austrailian band Last Dinosaurs and the absolutely awesome and brilliantly named Thao & The Get Down StayDown. If it hadn’t been for a bit of random website searching and radio listening, I wouldn’t have come across such a wonderfully aural experience. You can check it out for yourself right here:

One whisky which I can genuinely pinpoint as a real accidental discovery is the single cask Laphroaig which is produced exclusively for Highgrove House, the country estate of Prince Charles.

Basically, it seems, single cask versions of the Quarter Cask, these bottles come not only in the most amazing presentation boxes but, for something which is an official release of only around 250 bottles a time, it carries a price tag which is quite frankly madness: £59.95 (or an extra tenner for the massive presentation box).

A minimum age of 12 years old, this whisky doesn’t just provide exceptional value for the fact it is an official single cask bottling presented in a regal manner, but also for the fact that the whisky is bloody good. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that this is the best value official limited edition Laphroig on the market. And you can even pick them up at auction for only around £70 - £110. Even more madness.

But maybe this crown has now been stolen? Recently Laphroaig and Highgrove extended their relationship beyond the single cask, limited editions, to a more standard release. Bottled at 48% abv, this ‘ongoing’ release is just £35 a pop. What possible reason could I have not to order one and try it out? So I did...

Laphroaig – Highgrove Single Malt Scotch Whisky – NAS - 48% abv

Nose:  The classic Laphroaig nose of peat smoke, lemons and chamois leather. There is more than a close lineage with some of these good, youngish Laphroaigs and some of the better end of the Port Ellen release, I think. This release has some spiced red apple in it as well as a big hit of vanilla custard and a hint of poached pear.

Palate:  The palate does not disappoint from the nose, giving a full flavour of peat smoke, green apple this time but with the spices and vanillas as prominent as they are on the nose. Giving it some time, the peat really burns strongly across the mouth, but the wood influence gives some green veg depth which balances very nicely with the earlier sweet vanillas.

Finish: Well, more smoke, which isn’t a surprise at all. Behind it is hidden some more juice, freshly steamed veg and some Chinese herbs and spices. Strong green tea.

Overall: A delicious whisky, especially for the money. This is will make a fantastic gift for someone, but doesn’t quite hit the heights of the single cask editions from the same source.

Both of these releases from Laphroaig, and the above mentioned release from Glenrothes, go to show how strange, small releases from established distilleries and bottlers can be a real joy to discover (and a real bargain, too) if you look hard enough. The trouble is, finding them. Best of luck on your own personal search!

Friday 1 February 2013

A Very Alternative Burns Night

It's no secret that we're not Scottish.  In fact, the nearest we get is that Joel's dad is from Oxford and his mum from Bergen in Norway, with Glasgow lying right in the middle of the two.  Oh, and Neil owns a very fetching Bowmore tweed jacket.  But as a couple of writers who spend nearly every waking hour living and breathing Scotch whisky and loving every minute of it, sometimes it's nice to take a step back and do something a little bit different. 

So with this in mind, this year, we decided to theme a Burns Night tasting we were hosting with a distinctly international feel.  A sell out audience of 60 rabid Scotophiles, one massive haggis, poems and stories from Scotland of old, all accompanied by some exceptional Japanese food, courtesy of the fantastic restaurant Tsuru, a piper (well, a saxophonist) and a magnificent haul of world whiskies.  

Our plan was to introduce the whiskies to attendees without actually explaining the origin of the whisky or using the distillery name- giving the whole evening a vague air of mystery and anticipation, which proved to be much harder than we expected. So, with our back against the wall, we did what we do best... and resorted to poorly constructed puns, analogies and crude descriptors.  Joel: 'Neil... can you describe Wales to me in a sentence?' Neil: 'Err... Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and daffodils?' 

Words and lack of credible descriptions aside, we were fortunately blessed with a line up of whiskies that did all the talking -  each with its very own accent and personality.  So with the food menu paired to perfection, we launched into a short trip across the whisky making globe, starting off our journey in the fine company of the Japanese: 

Hibiki 12 Year Old Blended Whisky 43%
Nose: Hugely fruity and plummy with slight wafts of fragrant licorice, rice wine, honeysuckle and when you dig deeper, some wonderful buttery/creamy notes.

Palate: A delicate yet rich texture in the mouth with layers of smooth malt and grain, licorice, some fresh fruits, lemon zest and vanilla.

Finish: Lengthy, with spiced notes and vanilla traces. Well balanced and thoroughly enjoyable.

Penderyn Welsh Single Malt  46%
Nose: Something deliciously fruity and perfumed, coupled with some white chocolate notes and some unmistakable chopped hazelnuts.

Palate: The freshness of the Penderyn is immediately there, but it is enhanced hugely by some lovely oily fruitiness, some country fudge, dried apricots and then a hint of drying wood.

Finish: Some lingering dryness, but it's fruit all the way into a well rounded and lengthy finish.

Teeling’s Hybrid Scotch/Irish Whiskey 44.7%
Nose: Initial soft fruit notes, some dusty books, white pepper, buttered brown toast and a slight waft of old lobster pots/sea air/iodine. Direct and very appealing. 

Palate: Very thick and rich on the palate, tongue coating and silky.  The peat smoke combines with a sweetness to great effect -  think a smoky version of golden syrup and you're somewhere nearby.  

Finish: Fresh, with smoky overtones and a hint of drying oak.

Paul John Single Cask Indian Whisky 57%
Nose: Milk chocolate, hazelnuts, fresh oak and hints of woody spice.

Palate: Hot and spicy, with dried ginger and soy notes, a hint of menthol, malty notes and a touch of citrus orange.

Finish: juicy, with hints of fresh oak, lingering woody spices and dark caramel.

Balconies Texas Single Malt 53%
Nose: Similar light orchard fruit notes to a highland whisky, with apricot, stewed pears, plums and vanilla.  Also a touch of dessert wine.

Palate:  Sweet and light, with vanilla, more apricot, chopped green apples a hint of light oak and milk chocolate.

Finish:  Short, with lighter fruit notes and a tiny touch of liquorice.

With Scotch whisky at an all time high from both a sales and quality point of view, it's no surprise that the rest of the world should be following suite and these bottles provide a suitably splendid alternative, should you fancy a foray off the tartan map for a change.