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Thursday 29 August 2013

Fright night In Room 666… Devil’s Punch Bowl Chapter II - An Omen?

Today, you find us in a slightly diabolical place… Literally.    After checking in to our hotel at Gatwick Airport the night before a short day trip to Scotland (which requires a very early start) we find ourselves in the position of staying in the room below:

Talk about 'The Number Of The Best' (Western)

Before we pull the duvets close around our ears and start to worry about the strange knocking noise from the wardrobe (either the sound of Freddie Krueger sharpening his bladed glove, or a slightly rickety ironing board that wasn’t replaced properly) we realised our location was probably the best possible location to review one of the samples of a few recent purchases we have in our travel bags,  – Arran’s second chapter of their well received Devil's Punch Bowl.   

This time around the demonic inspired bottling has been put together from a range of some 27 different casks, including 17 ex-sherry and 10 ex-bourbon casks, four of which have held peated Arran. We’re told that the actual liquid ranges from vintages between 1997 to 2004. 

So with the wind starting to howl outside (possibly just another A320 Airbus landing) and strange shadowy figure lurking outside (as this is a Premier Inn hotel, we’re presuming it’s Lenny Henry) we pour a couple of drams. Will we last the night, or will the chilling Room 666 claim another couple of victims…

Arran - Devil’s Punch Bowl - Chapter II – 6,600 bottles - 53.1% - RRP £72.99

Nose: Young and a little spirit initially, leading into a touch of fresh orchard fruit (greengages and granny smith apples,) plus a slightly dried fruit note.  With a dash of water, a malty cereal note develops, with a touch of dried leaves and a little light smokiness.

Palate: Some feisty ginger hits first, with a softer caramel/honeyed note emerging afterwards with some drying spice. With water, the peat begins to develop. Not overpowering, but certainly present and dry, with a hint of sootiness on the back palate.

Finish: Lingering notes of clean malt and a slight earthy/dryness with a touch of smoke.

Overall: Perhaps more Rocky Horror than The Evil Dead in the fearsome stakes, but all in all, another decent and well put together whisky from Arran, a distillery which continues to punch above its weight.  

Tuesday 27 August 2013

The InFamous Grouse - Famous Grouse 40 Year Old Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog will know that I'm not the biggest fan of flying.

Despite a large proportion of our time spent in Scotland on business, I would always rather take the four hour train ride to Edinburgh, than the 60 min flight. In my eyes rail is the greatest way to travel, but it does have its drawbacks.

Lengthier than flying (I wouldn't want to train it to Aberdeen or Inverness, unless on the sleeper) it can be hot, cramped and smelly. But at least, unlike flying, you get it sit in one place for an extended period of time; valuable writing time for me.

So well loved and so well priced, it is interesting to find this Famous bird releasing a very old, ultra-premium blended Scotch whisky. A far hoot (is that the noise a grouse makes?) from on tap ‘pints over ice’, they’ve gone and added a First Class carriage, in the form of a 40 year old blend, to their express train.Otherwise we could be left with a ‘what if’ situation on our hands, a generation later, as we were with the railways.
Somehow, and I'm never sure of the exact economics of this, flying can actually work out cheaper than taking the train and when we're organising our own trips up, which happens a lot, this is a vital consideration. It is also more exciting and more contemporary; the modern way to travel.

However, if one has a long lead time on a visit, the greatest travel of all can be achieved by booking early: first class rail travel.

Just that little step up from the norm, travelling first class to Scotland from London (or vice versa) gives you what basically amounts to a serviced office for 4/5 hours: internet, unlimited tea and coffee, beers or wine and two good meals. For £65 (very much in advance), it isn’t half bad.

The Famous Grouse is the most popular Scotch whisky in Scotland. Ubiquitous in both the local bar and supermarket, it tends to be consumed as a mixer (mostly) spawning off-shoots such as Ginger Grouse (mixed with ginger ale and available on tap in some outlets) which have seen the brand capitalise on its brand awareness, to take on the long drink market as well winning the race in the short drink field. 

276 decanters of the stuff have been produced at 47.3% and fall under the banner of a ‘blended malt’, so no grain whisky in the mix. It carries an RRP of £2,000 a bottle.

The Famous Grouse – 40 Years Old – Blended Malt Scotch Whisky – 70cl – 47.3% abv – RRP £2,000

Nose: The first thing to say about this whisky is that the aromas are incredibly vibrant for a liquid carrying this age statement. And we don't mean 'young’ by this, just jam-packed with flavours which dance around in a really great way. Everything you'd want from an old blend here: black cherry, antique furniture, rose-hip, slight cassia bark and some liquorice (blue liquorice allsorts). Aniseed, too. A hint of very old, lightly peated whisky.

Palate: it's up there in terms of strength for a 40 year old, so you get some excellent, moist Christmas cake at the start, then the delicate aniseed balls followed by the dark cherry and hints of Dr. Pepper and some very well aged peat.

Finish: Real liquorice comes to the fore and some oak spices appear as the flavour starts to dissipate.

Overall: Famous Grouse is a whisky which doesn't usually play this game- the biggest selling Scotch in Scotland, it tends to be a high volume, supermarket blend. However, this whisky is (and we're going to say it) exceptional. Like the Tam O'Shanter from the same stable, the very old blends leaving the Edrington blending room at the moment seem to be unstoppable.

A quite remarkable dram, but the big question is: will anyone travel first class, when they can fly? Let’s hope the typical Famous Grouse drinker isn’t Dr Richard Beeching and embraces this for the quality drink that it is. 

Saturday 24 August 2013

Norwegian Wood (Part 2) : Glenfiddich Cask fo Dreams 2012 Nordic Oak Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Until about 3 months ago, I think I was the scourge of any travelling party I was with. For those of you that don’t know, I’m one just a handful (in global terms) of people who have a Norwegian passport and until recently had a ten year old edition of the document which, to be frank, was kinda just that... a handwritten paper document without the ability to scan. 

Norwegian Wood, literally.
This lack of technology was something which seemed to confuse almost every passport control office in the known world, particularly those of American persuasion.

In a bid to bury the rubber-glove treatment so liberally handed out to people with a passport as "unusual" (not my words, but the words of Chuck from the Chicago branch of Homeland Security) as mine, I recently upgraded to a posh new passport with retina scanning and everything! Exactly what you’d want from a country as LOADED as Norway. 

Cheers, chaps! Now send me my barrels of oil, please!

Anyone who has been to Norway will have experience the unrivalled natural beauty of the place; it truly is stunning. And the one thing Norway has is trees. Lots and lots of trees.

Therefore, it makes a lot of sense for someone to whip up some casks from these trees, to mature whisky in. Which is exactly what the folk over at William Grant & Sons have done, maturing some of their flagship single malt, Glenfiddich, in Nordic oak. 

The final spirit, released as the Cask of Dreams, yeilded just 3,600 1 litre bottles which have been made available in the Nordics, with 1,008 bottles being seeded in to Viking Line ferries.

As a tribute to my Norwegian friends, the tasting notes shall be in my mother tongue:

Glenfiddich – Cask Of Dreams 2012 – Nordic Oak – 3,600 bottles – 48.8% - RRP 110euro

Nose: Krokan, honning, furu, vanilje, tre krydder og kanel.

Palate: God smak, hint av vanilje, mynte, kardemomme, jord og lavendel.

Finish: Stor tre smak, tørr og lang med en krydret finish som varer lenge.

Overall: A brave move, as the additional heat and power that new wood gives to whisky can often be too much, but this has worked well and the earthy tones it develops are very pleasing indeed.

Other Cask of Dreams releases have been done before, with one popping up in the USA in June, which was matured in American Oak and finished in virgin American Oak, priced at $99 and limited to 6,600 bottles.

It’ll be interest to see if a Cask of Dreams makes its way to the exclusive market of South East London. Perhaps they’ll step up to the local community and mature it in ex-Tennents casks...

Thursday 22 August 2013

Armed And Forewarned. The Rise Of Armagnac, Dear Drinkers.

A little while ago, I wrote an article on the science behind the cocktail; How some bartenders were taking drinks to a spectacular new level, even breaking them down to a molecular state of flavour.   What this supposedly represents is a sea change in how we will view our beloved tipples in the future.  Our drinking culture has begun to operate at two very distinct tiers: one where mass consumption and low quality homogenised goods exist to provide cheap thrills. The antithesis being bespoke, well crafted and in some cases, over engineered drinks, designed to slake the thirst of a more knowing and well educated palate.  In short, it’s the ‘Con Vivant’ to the ‘Bon Vivant’.  

Looking at many historical views on future culture (take Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ for instance) and we see a grim outlook of what might occur if our drinking habits deteriorate too far into the land of Sci-Fi and are taken purely for kicks, rather than pleasure. Chemically enhanced milk is not only consumed by Alex and his gang of Droogs, but the ‘Sophistos’ dressed in dinner jackets too, suggesting that every layer of society had succumbed to such a dumbing down of standards.   

But every once in a while, something comes along which reassures me that all will be well with our future drinking habits - so long as we maintain our respect for the artisan, the traditionalist and the mantra of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

One spirit, which exemplifies such traditions is the brandy produced in the small region of Armagnac to the South West of France. As a spirit, it is so often over shadowed by its more well-known sibling, Cognac. But any similarities are (grape) skin deep and making a comparison between the two would be like comparing Irish whiskey to Scotch. Indeed, Armagnac is actually the oldest brandy to be produced in France and although both spirits are derived from similar grape varieties (with Armagnac principally favouring a strain unique to the region called Baco) the production processes are markedly different. It is here where Armagnac comes into its own as a brandy of exceptional complexity, quality and balance.

Tracing its roots back to the 14th century, it is fabled that Armagnac had medicinal properties and a document written in 1310 (now a highly prized literary treasure in the Vatican) by Prior Vital Du Four claimed it had forty virtues, including rendering ‘men joyous, preserves youth and retards senility. And when retained in the mouth, it loosens the tongue and emboldens the wit, if someone timid from time to time himself permits.’

The Armagnac region is divided into three sub regions:  Bas-Armagnac being the most highly regarded, covering over half the spirit’s production, alongside Armagnac-Tenareze, famed for its more chalky soil and Haut-Armagnac, which represents only a small amount of production in the region.  Alongside the aforementioned Baco grape (which was introduced in 1898) Armagnac production relies heavily on the Ugni Blanc variety, alongside Folle Blanche and Colombard to give the briefly fermented wines distinctly different characteristics before they are distilled.  Armagnac Producers favour Baco for its robust qualities and for the fact that it tends to age extremely well, with the Folle Blanche nicknamed the ‘ballet dancer of grapes’ for its temperamental traits during the growth period and the floral character it gives the finished Armagnac.  

The Armagnac Express rolls into town...
Traditionally the distillation of the wines happens in early November and by law must finish by no later than the end of March and it is this stage, which really characterises Armagnac as a fundamentally artisanal spirit.  The stills used are radically different from the alembic pot stills used in Cognac and their design is unique to the production of Armagnac. With a Serpentine condenser (resembling a coiled snake, used to turn alcohol vapour back into a liquid) their column still design is as ingenious as it is archaic looking and until recently, Armagnac producers would tow them on the back of tractors (or in some cases by horse and cart) directly to the vineyards to distil on site. By only needing to distil once, the distiller obtains a very flavoursome and complex spirit at around 52% ABV, Cognac needing to be distilled twice to reach the same alcohol strength. 

After a lengthy maturation in French oak primarily from the Monlezun forest the spirit develops its rich colour, with aromas of aged leather, dried fruit, spices and vanilla, which develop from deep within the casks.   Younger Armagnacs share similarities in flavour to Cognac, but older expressions mature amazingly well, developing similar character to aged Scotch whiskies. In fact, in certain cases, particularly vintages from the late 1940s and 50’s, the Armagnac takes on a distinct rancio-like quality (a highly prized musty/savoury note, often found in very complex single malt whiskies matured in sherry casks) which pairs extremely well with robust Cuban cigars and equally so with the region’s other gastronomic delights, notably foie gras and Agen prunes.

Bespoke bottling at its best

Perhaps one of the most striking things about Armagnac is that, compared to other oak aged spirits, it remains a mystery to many drinkers, partly due to the ubiquity of its big French rival, Cognac.  But when you consider that a bottle of vintage Armagnac from the late 1930’s (undoubtedly one of the finest spirits I have ever encountered) will cost you a fraction of the price of a comparable Cognac or single malt whisky, you begin to realise what a treasure trove there is to be discovered. One thing’s for sure, given the astronomical prices and increasingly high demand for the likes of premium single malt and Cognac globally, spirits enthusiasts could do far worse than occasionally considering turning their affections towards Armagnac, arguably one of the last great untapped, independent, artisanal drinking pleasures - before we’re all doomed to a diet of our favourite drinks in affordable pill form and a future controlled solely by multinational drinks companies. 
Here are a number of perhaps the finest examples of Armagnacs currently worth seeking out: Again, when you consider the relative (rapidly escalating) prices of super premium single malts, you'd be a fool not to given them a cursory look...

Armagnac Delord - Hors d’ Age - 15 Year Old - 40% - around £43

Pass through the sleepy market town of Lannepax in the Bas-Armagnac region and you’ll probably miss this tiny Armagnac house in the blink of an eye.  But surprisingly the company produces around 100,000 bottles a year. What’s remarkable is that the bottling process, labelling and finishing touches (wax sealing and gold embossing) are all done by hand by a team of two or three workers.  Artisanal production at its best.

Nose: Elderflower notes, tangerine, sweet country fudge, a hint of milk chocolate and a touch of cinnamon, cedar and dried fruit.

Palate: The spicy/fruity note extends to the palate, with apricots, maple syrup, candied orange and a touch of tinned peach. 

Finish: Vanilla, liquorice and a distinct spicy wood note.  

Overall: At this price, any curious-but-not-totally-sold spirits drinkers can afford to take a punt.  If you don't like it, send the rest to us and we'll swap it with you for something!

Darroze Armagnac - 40 Year Old - 43% - around £126

Darroze can rightfully be called one of the true pioneers of Armagnac, partly as the company has helped to make the spirit much more accessible outside of France. Under the tenure of the current custodian, Marc Darroze, a huge selection of vintages has been assembled, each one coming from grapes produced by specific farmers, alongside bottlings ranging from 10-60 years old.

Nose: Orange and lemon zest, cigar box notes, fresh cherries, almonds, marzipan and a wonderful sweet strawberry note.

Palate: Powerful and complex, with a strong rancio note, alongside dried fruit, liquorice spiciness and toasted orange peel.

Finish: Dark caramel notes and a dry oakiness give this some extreme length.

Overall:  40 year old liquid for under £130.  Think about that for a second, then ignore the price, open it and invite your regular spirits pals around.  They'll thank you for this introduction... 

Armagnac Castarède - 1939 Vintage - 40% - around £750 

Castarède is one of the oldest Chateaus still producing Armagnac and the company is still proudly family-owned, today by the formidable Florence Castarède.  Alongside some sensational younger spirits, notably the 10 year old VSOP and 20 year old Hors ‘d Age (‘Beyond Age’) Castarède pride themselves on producing some exceptionally old vintage bottlings.  

Nose: Blackberry leaf, effortless dried fruits, hints of butterscotch, some light charred notes and cherries in muscovado sugar.

Palate: An intoxicating explosion of passion fruit, blackberry, a little spicy liquorice and an oaky, tannic coffee backing.  Absolutely peerless.

Finish: Lingering notes of rich vanilla, dried fruit and woody spice.

Overall: An astonishing spirit, full of wisdom, complexity and personality, with stories to tell as long as you have time to sit there and enjoy them.  I was lucky enough to have a small measure of this and it will rank as one of the most enjoyable and enlightening drinking experiences I think i've ever encountered.  

Monday 19 August 2013

Holy Spirit? The Glenrothes Single Malt Scotch Whisky

There are certain single malts which just seem to have a presence about them and in the UK, one of those is The Glenrothes.

When I was first exploring single malts, this was a distillery which intrigued me for one reason and one reason alone: the packaging.

Let’s not underestimate the importance of packaging when it comes to any product, but particularly when it comes to single malt whisky.

A lot of focus and attention is placed on packaging these days, and quite rightly so. We live in an age where visuals and design are important. Over the last twenty years or so, here in the UK we have been introduced to cut-price Scandi-style by IKEA, who singlehandedly raised the bar with regard to the visual side of furnishing our homes, going some way to help us all to think about purchasing items that are not only useful, but beautiful too.

A 1980's Scotch bottle
In this time, packaging in the drinks industry has come a long way. From the utilitarian bottles found on 1980’s supermarket shelves (which now hold a retro-love-in vibe, but at the time were hardly pushing the envelope of creativity) to today’s offerings, housed in anything from a mock-Viking longship headstock to a leather suitcase, have raised the bar and helped to premiumise a product made simply from barley, water and yeast.

There is a common trend these days at the higher end of the whisky market, where the packaging will be more reflective of the price and, to be fair, if one is paying a high price for an expensive bottle you’d want all the added value you can get. It is only a tiny minority who will tweet or blog about an ultra-premium whisky and note that they “wish a couple of zeros could be knocked off the price if only they’d sold it in a plastic bottle instead of a giant wooden box”. The majority of us and, most importantly, the consumers who actually buy these products like, want and appreciate a level of packaging to match the liquid and the price tag.

However, at the lower end of the market, it is hard for a producer to justify any kind of lavish packaging. This does not mean standards have dropped with recent releases such as Jack Daniel’s White Rabbit and the consistently brilliant Nikka From The Barrel (with updated box design) showing what can be done at the bottom end, when style and design are thoroughly thought through.

And it was the packaging of The Glenrothes which really made me take notice, a few years ago. Where everyone else was either forgoing a box, or placing their product in a standard carton, the good people behind The Glenrothes created a square cardboard wrap around a beautifully dumpy (somewhat like myself) bottle, which was a total departure from any other Scotch whisky at the time.

Since then, the packaging has been restrained a little, with standard bottles now coming in a square, thick cardboard carton but the liquid remains on a consistent high.

Produced at the Glenrothes distillery in the village of Rothes, Speyside (and not be confused with Glenrothes, the town between Edinburgh and Perth where the Diageo-owned Cameronbridge grain distillery sits, churning out vodka, gins and whisky), the site produces around 5.5 million litres a year. The new owners of The Glenrothes single malt whisky is London-based wine and spirits merchant, Berry Brothers and Rudd (with the actually distillery remaining in the hands of the former brand owners, Edrington) who are slowly releasing vintage stocks, as well as a series of new ‘reserves’.

Let’s kick off with a vintage, to set the pace:

The Glenrothes – Vintage 2001 (bottled 2013) – 43% abv – 70cl - RRP £45

Nose: Crisp ginger snap biscuits, a little fresh butter, some woody spice, a little fresh orange zest and a lighter bourbon sweetness. 

Palate:  Slightly sweetened tannic breakfast tea, toasted marshmallows, maple syrup and more citrus orange. There’s a sprightliness about this, but it isn’t too twitchy - just the right amount of youthful playfulness, mixed with a sweeter oaky wisdom.

Finish:  Lingering notes of lemon juice, butterscotch and a hint of spice.

Overall: A classic ‘Rothes in the styling department.  If you enjoy Speyside whiskies on the lighter side, this will please you greatly.

Next up is a first for The Glenrothes, with a trio of whiskies to be released exclusively into the Global Travel Retail market, which is undisputedly a highly prized market in its own right – and one, which is clearly bulging at the seams with new whisky releases.  

The Manse Brae collection covers a range of ages and styles, with the no age statement entry point, Manse Reserve (named after the imposing house which sits above The Glenrothes distillery) coming in at £33 and delivering some youthful spirit tones, alongside wafts of fresh vanilla pods, a little dry sherry spiciness and some sweetened coffee earthiness on the back palate.  Its elder brother (funnily enough called the Elders’ Reserve)  weighs in at £80 and although still a no age statement, apparently has a minimum age of 18 years behind it – delivering richer, bonfire toffee notes, some espresso coffee bitterness, leading into a blast of charred Seville orange zest across the tongue.  

However, the pick of this jet set travelling party is the Minster’s Reserve, weighing in at £115, we’re told it the youngest whisky in the mix is 21 years old (at the time of writing) but it carries a No Age Statement on the label.

The Glenrothes – Minister’s Reserve – Global Travel Retail only – 43% abv – 70cl - RRP £115

Nose: Well aged with blackcurrant, toffee apple and Battenberg cake. Some walnut and menthol tones.

Palate: A big, meaty hit of BBQ pork and buffalo wings, followed with a slice of oak, some vanilla and milk chocolate. Golden syrup hit the front of the palate with tropical fruits leaving a juicy-fruit nature at the back. Lemon and lime.

Finish: zesty, yet aged. There is a good element of upside down cake and some light spice.

Overall: Not quite the Holy Spirit, but I’ll pray for some more (if the Angles’ will leave it behind).

Okay, you should never judge a  book by its cover and in the same way you should never judge a whisky by its box. Or its age. Or its price. But this is good stuff. Enjoy.