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Tuesday 25 June 2013

Sing When You're Winning, You Only Sing When You're Winning: Glen Grant Five Decades Single Malt Scotch Whisky

When you first discover music, and I mean proper music, not some pop-tastic, here-today-gone-tomorrow, tweenie-aimed, profit-driven offering from a major record company, you often realise what a wealth of natural talent there is to hear in the world.

The are so many artists who have had a genuine impact on culture that it would probably be impossible to listen to every track by every artist listed under the ‘influential’ banner. As a result, as we move through life, we hear certain tracks (usually the biggest ‘hits’) by major acts and we pick and choose whose back catalogues we would like to dig a little deeper in to.

Every-so-often, and due to the huge reservoir of recorded music in the world, we’re hit with a classic artist or album which we’ve genuinely never heard before. I remember when I first subscribed to Spotify; it was a nightmare for about a week, because I didn’t know whether to go through and enjoy all the music I knew I already liked, or to explore the artists I loved, or to simply listen to loads of ‘new’ music (or at least new to me, if not in the literal sense).

And of course, there is brand new music being created every day. This just adds to the ever increasing pile of music, from both past and present, on the great ‘unlistened-to’ playlist in the sky.

However, it is good to have a cheeky look sometimes at some of the acts which have sold bucket-loads of records in the past, who have shaped modern culture and the sound of many of today’s artist.

The whisky business is booming at the moment. Okay, so sales maybe down overall (with profits up), but the expansion of various Scottish distilleries, the re-opening of others and the building of new premises, both in Scotland and across the world, makes it seem like we’re in the middle of the industrial revolution.

With all this new sprit being generated and previously snoozing brands coming back to life, it is easy to forget the stalwarts, one of them being Glen Grant.

The first distillery to be opened in the now whisky-focused Speyside town of Rothes (home not just to several distilleries but also to the Combination of Rothers Distillers (CoRD) dark grains plant, as well as Forsyths, world-renowned coppersmiths and stillmakers), Glen Grant has established itself as a major player, one of the biggest selling single malt in the world

Pretty impressive stuff, really.

With a powerhouse in the USA and Italy as its sales foundation, since it was acquired by Gruppo Campari in late 2005, the range has been expanded to cover a No Age Statement ‘Major’s Reserve’, a 10 Years Old and a 16 Years Old, all supplement by market-specific offerings, such as a 5 Years Old in Italy, all of which are matured in ex-Bourbon casks.

The running of the distillery is overseen by an industry legend, Dennis Malcolm who started at the distillery in April 1961 as an apprentice cooper. Having been in charge of both Glen Grant and its sister distillery, the now-departed Caperdonich, in his 50 years plus Dennis has worked in all stages of the whisky making process. Needless to say that what he has forgotten about whisky making is more than I’ll probably ever know.

To celebrate his five decades at the distillery, Glen Grant have release a special, limited edition bottling simply known as ‘Five Decades’, containing whisky from each of the decades, which was launched at a dinner in Edinburgh last week.

Dinner is always great (something I try to fit in every single day, don’t you know) but the two real treats of the evening were firstly being able to spend some time chatting to Dennis about his career and the business and secondly, trying the core expressions from Glen Grant, something I really haven’t done in a very long time, if at all with a couple of the expressions. Going through the Major’s Reserve and the 16 Year Old was a little like digging into the past albums from a great act which you haven’t really spent much time with before. Suddenly you realise why they are so well loved.

Having sampled the 10 Years Old, the 16 Years Old and the aforementioned Major’s Reserve, we were treated to a glass of the new release, Five Decades.

Putting together a whisky using stock from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 80’s and 00’s can’t be an easy feat, but Glen Grant has a history of fantastic old stock, much of it bottled by the brilliant independent bottlers, Gordon & MacPhail. This new release is not to be confused with one of these vitnage bottlings, as it is very much its own beast, but the age does shines through, coupled with youthful bursts of spirit along the way. Unusually for Glen Grant, this uses a portion of whisky matured in Oloroso sherry butts.

Glen Grant – Five Decades – Limited Edition – 46%abv 70cl

Nose: Orange blossom, honey and nuts (crunchy nut cornflakes?), sweet vanilla and golden syrup. Yet more honey as it develops in the glass.

Palate: Vanillas, orange citrus fruits, milk chocolate (rum and raisin?), apricots, rye bread with salted butter.  

Finish: a hint of smoke (just a tiny amount), some blackcurrant  and liquorice tones.

Overall: This is available from July 2013 for an RRP of £115. One of the hot potatoe topics of the whisky business at present is that of age statements. Here, you have a whisky carrying no age, but with the knowledge that it contains a good portion of whisky from a span of five decades. A sweet and soft whisky which will appeal in abundance to the Glen Grant drinker, this is well worth a try.

Having discovered their core range and fully understood quite how this distillery can be so well respected (the 16 Years Old is particularly fantastic stuff), it has inspired me to go off and dig around on Spotify and find some of those major-uit-shifting acts which I’m not all that familiar with: Neil Diamond, Chicago and Foreigner await. This could be a very long evening... someone pass me a glass of Glen Grant. 

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Happy Eight-er: The Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch Eight (8) SIngle Malt Scotch Whisky

This might look like Neil (top) and Joel (bottom), but really it's the movie poster. Honest.

There are elements to writing where, sometimes, inspiration just doesn’t hit. Reporting fact, you can’t go too wrong: you already have a narrative of facts set out in front of you, the skill is ordering it for the reader, to make it make sense, even if there is no conclusion. With creative writing, you’re faced with a blank page and off you go. If there is nothing there, then there is little else you can do than wait. And wait. And wait some more.

How does one get around this blank slate, this empty void, this deserted page? Well, if  you’re the brilliant Coen brothers, the movie writers/makers/producers (and a second nod in as many weeks for one of the Coen brothers, Joel, who is also a writer on The Simpsons) then, when faced with this situation, you write a movie about it. Which is exactly what happened when, mid-way through writing their film Miller’s Crossing, the pair were hit with writers block. To clear the creative dam, they wrote Barton Fink, a story about a holywood scriptwriter inflicted with the same problem.

"We're only interested in one thing, Bart. Can you tell a story? Can you make us laugh? Can you make us cry? Can you make us want to break out in joyous song? Is that more than one thing? Okay!" – Jack Lipnick, Barton Fink

Often, it can feel a little like this, when sitting down to write this blog. We’re lucky- we have facts we can report. But who wants a repetition of what’s written on the label of a bottle? If you want that, go and read the label on the bottle. We have tasting notes- that’s always a help. But writing the rest... that can be a real challenge at times.

However, let’s face it, the best stories told are by the whiskies from the casks. Be they three years and a day old, or somewhere approaching four decades of age, these are the true story-tellers of the business; they’re the raconteurs who will leave you wanting more, posing questions and generally leaving you thinking that you’ve had a wonderful time. They are the true marketers, the true brand ambassadors, the stars of any tasting. Simple, yet complex at the same time, it is their richness of experience which you have paid for, their headline slot the turn for which you wait.

The release of the new Balvenie Tun 1401 seems to have become an annual staple in the whisky calendar, and what a good thing that is. Not a duffer yet  in the already eight strong line of releases, it started with just 300 bottles of the Batch 1 (now an true ‘investment grade’ whisky, whatever that means) which we reviewed here (even looking at each of the invidivual casks which went in to it) and this week saw the release of the latest batch.

The Tun holds around 2000 litres and each batch is created my their Malt Master, David Stewart. As this is made up of 12 casks, the most yet (ranging from the 1970’s up to 1991), with three of the casks being European oak and the rest coming from America, it’s outturn is around 2500 bottles worldwide.

The Balvenie – Tune 1401 – Batch 8 – 50.2% abv  - £220 available here

Nose: A big nose crammed with rich apricot jam, honey, freshly cut ginger, toffee, cinnamon and liquorice. It is a heavy nose; big and rich and befitting of a well aged whisky.

Palate: Ginger cake, very rich and oily honey. Hints of Four Roses single barrel bourbon coming through (big red cherries and hot strawberry jam) with fresh vanilla pods. Some cinnamon.

Finish: Toffee apples, spices and that honey note again.

Overall: This is not a slugger of a dram. The Balvenie makes some very quaffable whiskies (their doublewood is a whisky you can pretty much throw the cork away on, and their new 15yo single barrel release, reviewed here, isn’t far behind) but this is a totally different beast: still very much The Balvenie, but it is big and rich and demands you take time over it. The sort of dram you want to take a lot of time over. It also develops well with water, so if you do get hold of a bottle and decide to open it (go on, it’ll be worth it!), then please, please, please.... find some time to enjoy this dram.

Tun 1401 batch 8 is whisky which has a simple story; it lets the liquid do the talking. Throughout this range there is continued excellent consistency from The Balvenie. There is a reason why these are popular at auction: they’ve managed to get the balance between collectability and drinkability absolutely spot on.

Get in the queue now for batch 9...

Thursday 13 June 2013

It's Gin O'Clock People... Caskstrength Gin Tasting Class at the SouthBank Centre

After all the peated shenanigans of our recent visit to Islay, coupled with three solid days judging whisky this week at the IWSC Awards (we lost count at around 150 or so) our palates and tiny minds are a little shot.  So we thought the only way to counteract any ill-effects of whisky exposure was to dive headlong into white spirits instead... the Obi Wan to whisky's Vadar if you will.  

And with this in mind, we bring you news of a rather exciting gin tasting workshop we're hosting at the Southbank Centre in London on Wednesday 10th July. 

Caskstrength, In Association with The Southbank Centre Presents:
A Journey Into the refreshingly exciting world of premium gin!
Join us for an internationally flavoured journey into London's quintessential and best loved spirit, gin.
Experience how gin is made, discover the myriad botanicals that go into giving gin its unique flavour, try six outstanding premium gins from around the world as well as learn the secrets of making the best gin and tonic and perhaps the most iconic cocktail of all time, the classic gin Martini.
The evening promises a real experience into how gin took control of the City of London back in the 18th Century and how the thirst for gin has developed internationally over the past decade, including everywhere from the Philippines to Spain.
We'll also be joined by a Very Special Guest Gin Expert on the evening too, so it promises to be a botanical packed bonanza!
The event starts at 6.30pm and tickets are available to non members of the Southbank Centre, priced at £40 or £70 for two.  Numbers are limited, so get your skates on!
Let us know if you'd like to come along and we'll hook you up with the Southbank Centre or alternatively, feel free to Book Tickets Here:

Tuesday 4 June 2013

A Distillery With A View... Ardbeg- Feis Ile Day 3

Blimey, that went quickly. Usually, after the full force of the Feis Ile we're both feeling absolutely destroyed and ready for the return journey and a familiar duvet, OR totally inspired, thirsty to dig out more peaty goodness. This time around, as we've only spent a short spell on this wonderful island, we're very much in the latter camp and Saturday brings forth probably the highlight of the week -  Ardbeg's open day

Much has been made of celebrating the distillery's cult following around the globe and it's intriguing to see just how many peat'o'philes (is that ok to say?) rocked up at various retailers, bars and whisky events last Saturday, eager to try the new release, Ardbog. We even heard rumours that a flock of inflatable sheep were driven across London Bridge here in London, in homage to the brand's unique sense of humour. But for us, there is really only one place to truly dig down to the core of the brand and that's the Old Kiln Cafe, where by 12pm, hundreds of festival goers were already queuing to get started on the drams and the events that the distillery team had planned.  

Seaview's very own still...
(aka a wood burning stove)
We were fortunate this year to have landed a couple of nights at the distillery's brand new Seaview Cottage, next door to manager Mickey Heads' home from home. As holiday homes go, the place has been designed as the ultimate Ardbeg fan's dream come true.  The location couldn't be more idyllic: With a balcony overlooking the bay and the front door pointing squarely towards the warehouses, one doesn't know which way to look. From the Ardbeg Green carpets to the portraits of Shortie adorning the walls, everything is in-keeping with the irreverence of brand.  You can see for yourself here...

Ardbog Day followed on from last year's elaborate events and the mighty 'hand of destiny' (designed and built by the equally mighty - and all round excellent guy Yogi at the distillery) was once again presiding over the occasion, this time bursting through a giant peat bog in the distillery courtyard.  The events were similarly wacky: bog racing in sacks, a Krypton Factor-style challenge of dexterity and speed to load a wheelbarrow full of peat whilst traversing an tricky course plus excellent tastings from Bryony MacIntyre as well as unique trips to Texa Island with Mickey, to try a few choice drams. And what of the whisky of the day? Ardbog... Bottled at 52.1%, Ardbog is a mixture of bourbon casks with a few that have also been aged in Manzanilla casks, which tend to give a charismatic salty/aromatic note. The 2013 festival bottlings have been excellent (with the Lagavulin leading the way in our opinion) so we had high hopes... Battle of the Bogs? Let battle commence...

Ardbeg  -  Ardbog -  52.1% - 70cl 

Nose: A briney note hits first, with a touch of liniment, a little coal dust and a wee blast of menthol, all bog wrestling for your attention. Underneath, a slight liquorice root develops, with a sweeter tablet/vanilla rich chocolate note, some white pepper and a waft of wood smoke.  

Palate: The coal notes develop, with salt-crusted barbecued pork, some drying oak notes and a hint of sweet tablet again, backdropped by a luscious coating of smoky hickory wood. The mouthfeel is rich and unctuous and very easy drinking, despite its strength. 

Finish: Lengthy iodine and singed BBQ pork give the palate a formidable run for its money. 

Overall: Boom. This is absolutely sterling stuff, raised from the very bowels of the peat bogs, but with so much more alongside. Whereas last year's Ardbeg Day was a little threadbare in places, this is a full on 15-tog-patchwork-quilt of a whisky, bristling with character.  

Although our time on Islay was woefully short by previous year's standards, this Feis Ile has been one of the best yet. Looking at the burgeoning numbers at each of the distilleries, it could well be the most successful yet too- and proves that although the waft of peat is undoubtedly drifting on the breeze around the globe, the allure of actually visiting the island itself burns as fiercely as ever.   

Sunday 2 June 2013

Sauce-ages. The Future of Meat Products. Bunnahabhain & Lagavulin - Feis Ile Day two

Hello deer! 

Having spent a great couple of days on Jura, experiencing the island to its fullest (including a three hour bus tour- something we didn’t think possible on an island with just one road, but boy was it informative and fun) it was time to head back to an island we’ve spent a lot more time on: Islay.
Arriving at Port Askaig it seemed only sensible to visit the pair of distilleries which sit just around the corner from Islay’s second port, Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain. We popped in to the former, for a quick hello with the chaps there and to take in that wonderful view back across the Sound of Islay to the Paps of Jura, a must for anyone visiting the island.

If only we’d had our speedboat again, instead of driving back up the hill, along the road and down again, we could have simply nipped around the corner to Bunnahabhain, who were having their Open Day.

Always good value, it has been a wonderful place to hang out over the past few years with some excellent events (last year’s caber tossing even made the back page of our limited edition newspaper, The Daily Cargo, which came with our recent Cutty Sark release), this year proved no different, offering a small stall holders market, band, events and a bar serving a slushie-style cocktail. A nice turn of pace during the week.

Before the event really kicked in, we took some time to sit down with Andrew Brown, the distillery manager at Bunnahabhain. A local chap, he’s worked there for over 20 years and is now the man in charge of making the spirit. Andrew kindly took an hour out of his busy schedule to give us a highly informative lowdown about the history of the distillery, casks, flavour, spirit quality and, of course, a dram or two...

Bunnahabhain – 35 year old – 1971 – 750 bottles only – 44.9% abv – bottle no. 123 – 70cl

Nose: Sweet coconut, vanilla, blood oranges and spices. Creamy with banana notes and soft caramel.

Palate: Dry, but very malty, with dry menthol, fresh mint, buttered toast, cornflakes, liquorice root and some rose notes.

Finish: A light dryness, very fruity with kiwi and peaches and cream. The blood orange from the nose comes back at the death.

Overall: We’d go as far as to say, this is the best Bunnahabhain we’ve had in a long time. Two others were two bottling from Speciality Drinks, sister casks filled on the same day in 1979 (our review from the start of this century can be found here). All of these are really lovely drams, sadly all now long gone...

As is now tradition, Bunnahabhain also have their own festival bottling out. This year it is a 10 year old from a sherry butt and it’s a huge hitter, coming in at 60.1% abv...

Bunnahabhain – Sgeul Na Mara  – 10 Years Old – 606 bottles – 60.1 % abv – 70cl

Nose: Slated caramel, ginger cake and butterscotch. It opens up with water to reveal stewed fruits and a tangy, mandarin note.

Palate: Initially, it is drying with layers of sherry and liquorice, moist oak and stewed apple. With water, it opens up in to more tinned pineapple and the bananas, which we’ve come to love this distillery for.

Finish: The finish gives both green and red apple skins and a big hit of dry oak.

Overall:  A big hitting whisky which needs water to fully open up, but when it does, you won’t be disappointed.

After leaving Bunnahabhain, we took the high road across the island to Port Ellen and onwards up to Ardbeg, our resting place for the next couple of nights. En route, there was time to pop in and see our old friend David Wood, now the Brand Home Manager for both Caol Ila and Lagavulin distilleries, where we were able to share a dram of the excellent Lagavulin festival bottling with him...

Lagavulin – 18 Years Old - Feis Ile 2013 – 3000 bottles – 51% abv – 70cl

Nose: Surely this can’t be right… Earl Grey tea? Yes, there in all its glory is a stupendously fragrant bergamot note, backdropped with all the hallmarks of a classic Lagavulin: sappy woodsmoke, carbolic soap, a rich sherry oakiness and hints of Playdoh and almond marzipan.  Sensational.  

Palate: Again, a fragrant Earl Grey note continues, with a sweet, slightly stewed tea note, wonderfully rounded smoke and a lighter, spicy richness.  It has big similarities to the 16yo, but has an additional power and complexity to it. 

Finish: Lingering wood smoke and fragrant top notes. 

Overall: Another outstanding Feis bottling from Lagavulin, who set the bar stupidly high for themselves nowadays, this delivers... and then some. Some armchair whisky anoraks and Twitterers (or 'Twats' as we like to call them) have been critical about the fact that Lagavulin have discontinued the tradition of releasing a festival single cask, but this whisky squarely bats any criticism back and the larger outturn at least offers a wider global audience a chance to grab a bottle at a sensible (non-grossly inflated-auction) price.

After settling into our Islay accommodation (more on that tomorrow...) we received a visit from our good friends at Master of Malt. Here on their own annual trip, with bags full of goodies, they were en route to iPed2013... International Port Ellen Day 2013. Hosted by @MaltWhiskyBar this has seen some astonishing tastings in the past, including this one (here) from 2011, where every single official Port Ellen release was available to try. 

This time around, Jon Beach led the assembled Port Ellen-ites through a number of indie bottlings in a variety of locations, including outside the maltings, the Oa lighthouse and a sneaky peek into the old malt kiln buildings, now home to an unofficial gym of weightlifting equipment. The distillery may be well and truly dismantled and gone forever, but its liquid legacy remains very much in the hearts (and mouths) of whisky aficionados.    

Saturday 1 June 2013

Hatches, Matches & Despatches. Jura Distillery Open Day Fun - Feis Ile Day One

Yes, folks. We’re here again. As yet another year rolls around, with the FA Cup Final out of the way and Glastonbury, Wimbledon and The Ashes on the horizon, what could be a better way to while away your time, than with the Feis Ile: Isle’s Festival of Music and Malt.

Usually, we’d be here right from the off, hitting the eight distilleries in row and then, if we had the time / weather / energy, hit Jura for an hour or so. But not this year. Oh, no. This year, we’ve come to Jura first.

Sitting off the coast of Islay, Jura is an island of ones (save for the TWO doctors): one road, one shop, one church, one hotel, one pub and one distillery. ~188 people live in an area the size of London, seriously outnumbered by 6,000 red deer. It is probably most famous for being the final home of George Orwell and providing him with the perfect isolation where he could write 1984, the piece which, according to some, eventually finished him off.

However, for some of us of a certain age, it also provided the backdrop for one of the most audacious pieces of ‘art’ (or PR stunts, depending on how you look at it) of the 1990’s, when hugely successful British dance outfit, KLF (known at that time as The K Foundation), burnt £1 million pounds. In cash. In 1995.

Even now, nearly 20 years on, it seems utter madness that someone, even in the name of art, could burn a million quid. But that’s exactly what the two members of the KLF, Bill Dummond and Jimmy Cauty did. Many myths and rumours surround this event, with the band claiming that only £900,000 eventually went up in smoke, with £100,000 worth of £50 notes simply flying into the air due to the intensity of the fire. The local police even found up to £1500 in charred notes, which were left for the two members to reclaim if they so wished.

So Jura is a place where interesting things happen and in 1810, a distillery was opened; the perfect place to hide from the excise man. By 1901 the distillery was closed to lay dormant for nearly 60 years, until it was rebuilt in the early 1960’s springing back to life in 1963. Housing the second tallest stills in Scotland, and the largest stills of any island distillery, it is now a single malt which you’ll find all over the world. Yet another piece of art from this small island making a global impression.

The venue for our Turas Mara tastings
This year, Jura held an ‘open house’, over two days running free buses and ferries across from Islay, hoping to attract many more of the folk who have travelled to the Feis Ile for their annual hit of smoky whisky.

With events ranging from warehouse tastings with the ever-energetic Richard Paterson, through to speedboat tastings in the Sound of Jura, (…hosted by yours truly) there were plenty of reasons to drive onto the small car ferry and make the short crossing between islands.  On top of all this, there is an annual festival bottling release from Jura, only available from the distillery during their open days. 

This year, the bottling was extra special, to mark the 50th anniversary of the distillery reopening, a ‘boutique barrel’, containing whisky from a 1963 French oak cask, as well as containing some heavily peated stock, resulting in a whisky which is both fruity and smoky. 

Jura – Festival 2013 – 1963 French Oak + Heavily Peated 1999 stock – 663 bottles – 52.4% abv - £70.00

Nose: A real treat straight off the bat.  The aroma of a delightfully smooth, almost 70’s peat smoke swirls around the glass initially, followed by some rich notes of spicy sherry/wine tones, some oakiness and a fruity, almost jammy note. 

Palate: Initially dry and hot, with some oakiness delivering a wet wood note, which then fades into a spiciness – a hint of cinnamon and liquorice.  Given time in the mouth, the wine influence takes hold with some bold fruit and a distinct smokiness. 

Finish: The peat lingers alongside an oakiness and a rich fruit note.

Overall: The nose really defines this whisky:  elegant and refined, with a smooth smokiness.  A dash of water develops the fruitiness and direct nature of the spice.  At £70, it’s also very well priced against many of the other Islay festival bottlings.  Well done chaps.

Jura also have a new release, called Turas Mara, which means ‘long journey by the sea’ and is their new offering in Global Travel Retail. Made up from whisky matured in four types of casks (bourbon, sherry, French oak barriques and port pipes) it is priced at £45 for a litre. 

Jura – Turas Mara – GTR only - 42% abv £45.00

Nose: A departure from the festival bottling. Masses of fresh fruit, vanilla, a real sweetness and some subtle spices. Light toffee/peanut brittle, sliced pears and orange zest. Candied and very fruity.

Palate: Sweet and malty, with some herbaceous notes, crème caramel, some sour cherry notes and a hint of creamy oak. With water, zesty lime notes begin to emerge. 

Finish: Clean, with orange zest and a slight drying vanilla oak. 

Overall: Having used this as the main feature for our speedboat tastings, it has established itself as our favourite expression of Jura on the market today.  

Tea, you say?  Turas Mara and cake more like.
It has been a real pleasure spending some extended time on Jura, an island we have only fleetingly visited before. We had no idea as to the hidden beauty of the island and we would highly recommend a visit, and a drive all the way up the islands only road...

Tomorrow we head to Bunnahabhain and try the festival release from Lagavulin...