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Thursday, 25 July 2013

Italian Stallion: Puni Italian Single Malt

The other day, I was asked if I was in to wine. Well, I like wine and I have a basic knowledge of some grape varieties, some producers and some vintages; but to be honest, I know a lot of people who have a far greater depth and breadth of knowledge than I on the subject.

A long time ago, when I first fell in love with whisky, it seemed that Scotch was a world which I could get to grips with more easily than, say, wine. Scotch whisky to me seemed like a triangle with three sections. At the base there is blended whisky; high volume and focused on consistency. The most FMCG part of whisky business, by a long way.

The middle of the triangle: single malts. Certain distilleries who bottle their own product, often with a range of easy-to-understand, age statement products growing in maturity throughout their range. Again, with consistency playing a major roll.

At the top of my pyramid, are single casks. These often come from distilleries who don’t normally release a single malt, or if they do, are in some way unique. Yet these are never about consistency; these are the ‘flair players’ in the team. Temperamental, inconsistent, but sometimes utterly brilliant.

This simplistic approach to one part of the whisk(e)y world seemed light years away from wine, where one side of the river differs to another, one vintage to the next, and on it goes. Throw in grape variety, the producer and production, the weather, bottle-aging and when to open and drink the product... oh, and then learn this all for every country that makes wine around the world and it makes understanding wine seem like particle physics, while understanding whisky? Well, more like lego.

But with whisky globally seeing a renaissance, once silent Scotch distilleries reopening, new ones coming on line all the time, all around the world (the President of the American Distilling Institute in the US tells us there are now over 550 craft distilleries in operation there, many making whiskey as well as gin and other spirits) and countries like Japan throwing down the gauntlet to the Scotch whisky industry in terms of sheer quality of spirit, the whole category has become a lot more complex in the past decade or so.

And it is this issue of quality which can only be a good thing for whisk(e)y across the world. Scotch, very much seen as a premium product in the category, cannot afford to rest on its laurels. Just because it is considered the home of whisky, where some would even say it was invented, is no excuse to kick back and ‘chillax’. After all, it was a Scotsman who invented the television. But would you buy a Scottish TV today? No. Would you buy a Japanese TV? Yes.

Whisk(e)y has grown and the world has embraced. New and exciting countries are producing whisky, which have never done so before and here am I am going to look at a new single malt distillery which is the first and only in its country: Italy.

When starting off with a blank page, with no history, no millstone of tradition, then why not do something different; this is exactly what the Epensberger family, the folk behind the Puni distillery in Northern Italy, have done.

From their jaw-dropping building, a 13-meter tall red brick cube, through to their two current products, a new make and a very young single malt (note the lack of the term ‘whisky’ here) matured in local wine casks which are stored in ex-military bunkers, the whole affair is unique.

These two releases, initially called simply ‘White’ and ‘Red’ and latterly renamed ‘Pure’ and ‘Alba’, are the only two products produced by the distillery, with the first being young spirit (6 months old) and the second being matured for twice as long in Marsala Vergine wine casks from Sicilly. Both products have been upped from their original strength of 40% to a new, higher strength of 43% abv and, unlike the ‘White’ and ‘Red’ which were only sold locally, these will both be available internationally.

The ‘Pure’ is a classic new make, with lovely vanilla, malts and honey, backed with a hint of fennel and fresh leather.

Puni Distillery – Alba – 6 months old - Marsala Vergine – Sample - 43% abv

Nose: No getting away from it, this is young and spirit (as you would expect at 6 months old), but it is not argressive in any way. The aromas are well balanced and soft, with a big hit of green apple sours, pear drops, young banana, some blackcurrants and croissants dusted with icing sugar. Right at the back sits peach melba and dream topping. Very inviting and very promising...

Palate: Again, no doubting the age of this, but the palate is full of flavour; the banana from the nose is back, this time with toffee and some elements of instant coffee. After the fruits, the palate develops a nutty quality with walnuts and hazelnut praline. Once again, you would expect something aggressive or unruly and energetic at this young age, but it is restrained and well balanced.

Finished: The finish is where the nutty quality lingers with the hazelnut praline giving taking the headline slot, before milk chocolate and cream finishes off.

Overall: Very tasty stuff at such an early age. Very much keeping an eye on this place...

As the world of whisky continues to grow, I’m sure many new distilleries will pop up in countries where we have never seen them before. But more power to these emerging producers, especially if their style is as effortless, and the product as drinkable as that of the good family Ebensperger at Puni distillery.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Parlez-Vous Whisky?

Summertime.  Impossible to predict in this country, yet always so welcoming, especially after a tough few months of back to back projects.  After Caskstrength's busy event schedule, which included a fun and very bustling bespoke whisky bar partnership with Mumford & Sons for their recent outdoor summer UK gigs and a positively sparkling gin tasting at the Southbank Centre, it was time for a holiday and the destination for one of us was the Loire Valley in France to a remote farmhouse, perfect for idling around with family for a week.

Lois Ridley, with no wardrobe issues.
Now of course, when you're preparing for a summer holiday, there are certain demands on one's wardrobe:  are shorts really that acceptable?  How should one dress to avoid looking too much like a tourist?  Is black tie absolutely necessary for a provincial dining experience?  All these were vexing questions, cutting a deep furrow during packing.  I obtained a brand new panama hat before the trip (not the rolled, 'travelling' type) which also posed an issue regarding where it would sit in the car, without getting crushed by my daughter's extensive wooden toy collection.  Decisions! I thought a holiday was time to avoid making any but before we even set foot on French soil, I was presented with far too many.

One easy decision concerned which whiskies I was to travel with.  A lightweight, but beautifully balanced Glen Grant 10 year old would provide everything I needed for making tall, icy drinks, a Caol Ila 18 year old (in 20cl format) would provide some robust warming power in case the sweltering French weather was to turn swiftly on its beret'ed head and a Yamazaki 18 year old would provide a perfect counterpoint to the endless barbecued meat products we would no doubt be consuming during the week.  So simple there. Or so I thought.

Anyone who has travelled by car to France for a vacation will have no doubt stopped off at the many Hypermarkets dotted along the highways:  E.Leclerc, Carrefour and Inter Marche are vast warehouse-styled shopping experiences, totally out of kilter with the enjoyment of pottering around a rustic French village looking for a loaf of bread, some croissants and 200 Gauloises (I don't smoke, so I made this bit up.)

But what is truly astonishing is the selection of wines and spirits available - from all over the globe.

As I wandered down the spirits aisle, I was taken aback by the range in Leclerc, which rivalled that of a specialist UK retailer:  Single barrel bourbon, Japanese whiskies I have never seen close up and an entire section dedicated to exceptional vermouths.  The comes the prices.  Come on UK! Quite frankly, when you can pick up bottles of Four Roses Single Barrel for under 30€, Highland Park 15yo for under 30€ and the aforementioned Japanese whiskies for a fraction of the prices they appear on specialist websites, I can see why whisky is hugely popular in France. Needless to say, after spending 200€ on whisky on the first day of the holiday,
I thought I should probably settle down a bit and put my wallet away.

One interesting whisky which did catch my eye in a local Carrefour shop was from the Warenghem distillery, produced in the Breton region in northern France.

As part of my recent book project with Gavin Smith (Let Me Tell You About Whisky) I tried a number of whiskies from the region and was impressed by the emerging quality. Warenghem produce several single malts and a couple of blends: from a double matured (French oak and sherry cask) to bourbon cask matured whisky and Breizh, a blend that recently triumphed in the 2013 World Whisky Awards.

The bottling I bought from Carrefour for 15€ is labelled Reflets de France and appears to be a range of products, much in the style of Tesco's Finest - from honey to sea salt and foie gras, the range seems to represent French gastronomy at its best, so I was quite surprised to see a whisky featuring here, but equally pleased to see that French whisky is revered by its producers as highly as some of the country's more well known delicacies.

So what of the whisky itself?  Well, there is little information available on the bottle, short of the abv (40%) but a quick glance at the back label with my basic grasp of French reveals that the whisky is 'composed of malt aged for up to three years in oak casks, with an emphasis placed on the quality of the local water to add character to the flavour...'

Let's dive in, shall we. Will this be a French Fancy, or simply a case nonchalantly shrugging one's shoulders, the same brilliantly disdainful way that only the French do best... ;-)

(Breton top and Panama hat not included with purchase)

Reflets de France -  Breton Whisky -  Produced by the Warenghem Distillery - 40% - 70cl - 15€

Nose: A light, clean malty note opens up first, with a touch of dried ginger, some slight moist wood, some lightly perfumed powder, banana milkshake and a wisp of smoke perhaps? Just a touch, to give this a very entertaining mix of aromas. It is certainly young, but given a little time, a honeyed sweetness begins to emerge.  

Palate: No mistaking the light wisps of smoke here -  it is rich and oily, but still restrained - reminiscent of the lightly peated Ardbeg Blasda or Caol Ila Moch.  Alongside sits some fresh green apple, oaty porridge, an oak note, bitter hard caramel and a malted chocolate milkshake note.  Light and frothy but with a highly drinkable approach to it.  

Finish:  Given the age the finish is malty, with a hint of zestiness creeping through and a little sour cherry and light milk chocolate on the death.  

Overall: Now listen very carefully, I shall say this only once... For 15€, this is a really good example of a French whisky that one could easily get into trouble with.  Neat, over ice or as a highball, this is pleasant in all its guises and definitively hammers home that French whisky is not to be taken lightly. Whilst it won't trouble many of the serious malt hounds out there, it gets a tricolour-coloured thumbs up from us. Vive le Whisky Breton! 

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Music, Malt and Maturation: Bushmills Live 23 Year Old Irish Whiskey

I’ve been very lucky in life: at an early age I started promoting and managing bands and a few years later I had my dream job in the A&R department at Island Records. I spent nearly a decade discovering, signing and developing new acts and in that time I was consistently asked one question: how do I discover a great artist?
Now working in a different industry as whiskey writer, I am still asked one question consistently: how do I discover a great whiskey? Simply, the best way to discover great whiskey, is with friends.

In my previous working life I discovered that there is no simple formula to finding new musical talent, but there are key ingredients, two of which are friendships and experience. Add to these the luxury of time and a solid understanding of the wider cultural landscape and you tend to have a winning formula.

One can draw parallels here with whiskey; it is the experience of the farmer that lets him grow the best barley, the Master Distiller to create the best spirit and, of course, the experience of that spirit in oak casks. Similarly, if you speak to any musician about the art of song writing, they’ll tell you the same is true in their field (excuse the pun) - emotion and experience are the ‘barley, water and yeast’ for them; their very own raw ingredients.

Alongside these key ingredients, time is a vital element to the development of both whiskey and music. When crafting a song, it is rare for an artist to be suddenly hit by inspiration like a bolt of lightning. Most work hard and collaborate with friends to perfect their craft; the results can often take years, sometimes decades, to hone.

In the same way, time allows whiskey to mature. Keeping an eye on the maturation process is one of the nicer jobs at a distillery. Nosing casks, assessing which need more time to develop and eventually which ones are ready to be released into the world surely rivals most dream jobs I can think of.

An ability to understand the lay of the land is also crucial for music and whiskey crafting: at any record label, it is the role of an A&R Manager to have an intimate knowledge of the landscape of current talent, deciding who’s worth investing in and eventually releasing at the right time. This demands knowledge of unsigned acts which are self-releasing records, touring, recording, getting press and radio play, tweeting, selling get the picture.

It is a skill akin to understanding the maturing stocks at a distillery, except the artists are casks and the warehouse, the world. At Island Records, my former home for many years, we had a formidable roster, ranging from Bob Marley to U2. Being tasked with adding to this list, I felt less like a talent spotter and more like the custodian of a legacy. 

Last year Bushmills Irish Whiskey brought the music and whiskey worlds together in a unique event, inviting a mixed group of up-and-coming and established artists to play live at their distillery, helping people to enjoy whiskey and music in the best way possible: with friends.

As a result, ‘Bushmills Live’ was born and this year the distillery opened their gates once again, as the next generation of acts arrives to ply their craft alongside the next generation of whiskey, both maturing as they do, side-by-side.

Musicians and whiskey makers both have a very similar approach: preparation now for future success. So where better for these two to meet than in a location which, for centuries, has been doing one thing brilliantly: preparing today for success tomorrow.

The list of acts at this year’s event included some big name acts, such as Of Monsters And Men, Jake Bugg, Iain Archer (a personal friend of the blog) and a band I have been meaning to catch for a while now: Bear’s Den.

Bear’s Den is a new band, signed for a few EP’s to Communion, Mumford & Son’s label. We had the pleasure of seeing them again when we ran some whiskey tasting for the bands at Mumford’s recent sell out show at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (and something we’ll have the pleasure of again on Saturday in the wonderful town of Lewes) and quite wonderful they were, too. If you’ve never heard them play, I strongly suggest you click on this link and listen to their track Agape; a truly beautiful tune.

Bushmills created a bespoke whiskey for the headline act, Of Monsters And Men, using casks from sherry and bourbon barrels, from the years the band members were born; 1987, 1989 and 1990 making it a 23 year old single malt.

Bushmills – Of Monsters And Men – 23 Year Old Irish Single Malt Whiskey - 40% - 70cl

Nose: A big hit of vanilla and maple syrup, icing sugar, some figs and dates. Lighter, grassy tones gives this whiskey some vibrant energy.

Palate: Milk chocolate gives way to rich sherry tones, dark cherry and some sponge cake with strawberry jam and vanilla icing.

Finish: Lasting malty tones, with a hint of fresh kiwi and the strawberry jam again. Some mint.

Overall: An excellently constructed whiskey where the age shines through but with some extra, vibrant energy, too.

As we saw in our Jam & Dram exercise in May, music and whisk(e)y go hand-in-hand. Next time you put on a record, or go to a gig, forgo your usual pint and choose something altogether more in line with the work, effort and artistry on stage: a whiskey.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The New Frontier In Gin - Burrough's Reserve

Desmond Payne -  Mr Gin

Here at Caskstrength, we're used to the importance of wood in developing the supreme character in a spirit. From lengthy maturation in an ex bourbon barrel, to short periods of extreme finishing in sherry, port or wine- the type of cask and its quality will of course have a profound effect on the spirit it holds.

Recently, there has been a trend for ageing more traditional white spirits in oak too - something we have cast a slightly quizzical eye over.  Just blithely sticking a spirit into an oak cask won't give you the results you're looking for- take our word for it.  We received a brilliant kit from the Wasmund distillery last October, which included a charred, unused two litre cask and enough new make spirit to start a small house fire.  It began to mature very quickly -  in fact after a month, it was beginning to take on a mellowed, round character.  

But after Christmas, things went quickly down hill, to the point that the spirit was virtually undrinkable, such was the power of the oak.  It now resides in our office and due to the fluctuating temperature, there is so little left in the cask,  the liquid resembling a very dark woody monstrosity.  

So subtlety is very much the key when it comes to using oak wisely, especially when your spirit is traditionally clear.  

Two companies put out aged gins last year: Master Of Malt aged its Ampleforth's gin for apparently six months in small 50 litre casks, with the results working out well.  Alongside them, French distiller Citadelle oak aged its excellent gin, releasing it in vintages and allowing consumers to experience the different subtleties between them.  

Both of these pioneering products have been followed up by arguably one of the biggest players in gin, a sign that what was previously seen as a relatively novel product is perhaps about to hit the mainstream.  

Burrough's Reserve is a brand new gin from the Beefeater distillery, which is situated near the Oval cricket ground (and a stone's throw away from Joel's house.)  It takes its name from the distillery's founding father James Burrough and is distilled using a tiny still (No.12) which looks positively cute next to the mammoth copper behemoths which impressively hiss away in the still house.  

But the real magic happens when master distiller and all-round ginmeister, Desmond Payne takes the spirit and places it into a specific type of cask- namely those previously filled with Jean de Lillet.  For those of you not familiar with this name, Lillet is the name behind one of the finest vermouths in the world, which was used in the famed Vesper cocktail, as consumed liberally by one James Bond. For Desmond, the idea of 'resting' a gin was an exciting prospect, but one which was fraught with pitfalls.  To age a gin in something that had an actual relevance with gin was his challenge, which meant not just reaching for any old used bourbon barrel or sherry hogshead.  Instead, he looked for a cask that would enhance the botanical balance in Beefeater and not dominate it - and the choice of Lillet casks was an inspired one.  If you haven't tried Lillet in a Martini or other gin cocktail, we urge you to get down to a retailer now and buy a bottle -  it is unlike any other vermouth -  and then you'll begin to understand its significance in the resting process here. 

What results is a gin that has taken on a slightly darker hue in colour and a spirit that Desmond hopes will be sipped neat, like a whisky or Cognac.  But what does it deliver on the nose and palate? We tried the gin both frozen down and at room temperature and the results were remarkably different -  the colder temperatures bringing out more of the citrus notes and classic gin botanicals.  But at room temperature...

Burrough's Reserve -  Oak Rested Gin -  Batch 01 - 43%

Nose: Immediate notes of vanilla custard, sweet creamy coconut, a touch of white pepper, Amalfi lemon zest, fresh pine and a softer, buttery biscuit note.  

Palate: The botanicals deliver wonderfully, with juniper leading the way, followed by a gentle spice note, more lemon zest and a little liquorice, then comes the oak influence, with more vanilla notes and a slight maltiness. 

Finish: Lingering notes of lemon zest, juniper and a creamy vanilla all coat the tongue, but leave the mouth feeling refreshed and vibrant.  

Overall: This works as a sipping spirit, without a doubt and the influence of the oak, is restrained and perfectly balanced.  Whether it will change the way we consume gin is debatable, but as a category defining moment, Burrough's Reserve has achieved a great deal in a short space of time.  My next plan is to try this at the heart of a Martini, where I think it will excel.