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Friday 31 January 2014

Glenmorangie Companta: The Perfect Company?

Strange scenes at Caskstrength Towers of late. Banging late at night, the whir of machinery and today, the arrival of an enormous package, wrapped in cloth, carried by two straining red faced men. What does all this mean, you may ask? 

Renovations perhaps?  Of sorts, yes, but the type that were spuriously planned only a few days ago.  

The reason behind the work, was a chance encounter with a baby grand piano. Just under a week ago, I decided to buy one- completely on the spur of the moment.  Not something that one usually adds to a shopping list is it: Potatoes, check. Bread, check. Milk, check. Ginger ale, check. Grand piano, WTF?!!

It was an exceptional deal and all said and done, an exceptional piece of woodwork. The nameplate reads  Monington & Weston, which we can date to around the 1930s, beautifully housed in a rich mahogany cabinet.  

The trouble is, as I am now quickly finding out, you tend to arrange a room around something as large as a piano, which meant that the first thing in order was ripping up the carpet in order to sand and stain the floorboards before it arrived.  
Why am I telling you all this inane stuff?  Well, there is a point, honestly. You see, just before I took receipt of the piano, I thoroughly sanded the floor, till the natural wood (let's call it Quercus Beckenham) shone through. Wood is clearly a beautiful material, both aesthetically and from a functionality perspective. Once I had finished sanding the room developed an additional level of maturity about it, not dominated by, but enhanced by the natural tones of the wood.  

Then, I think I did something stupid.  I decided to apply a couple of layers of medium oak varnish to the floor. Instantly, the boards were darker, less natural looking and... sort of overly brown. Maybe even David Dickinson in colour. In my opinion, the varnish had dominated the wood. Yes, it looks ok, but i'm not convinced it enhances the room in the way that I had hoped.  

The reason I bring this up is that whenever I now play the piano (you need to allow 6 weeks before having it tuned, which seems like an eternity) I will look at the floor and wonder what it would have been like had I have not applied the varnish.  Did I made the right decision, or go too far?

The same question applies neatly to the use of wine casks in 'extra' maturing whisky. For those that get it right, the process involves enhancing the character of the spirit by using the cask as a vessel to deliver a complete balance of complementary flavours. But there are plenty who use wine casks (often heavy, tannic red wine barriques) to hide a multitude of sins -  rather in the same way that someone would use a heavy wood varnish to hide the imperfections in a wooden floor. The results are effectively all about the wine, with the spirit (imperfections and all) taking the back seat.  

One man who knows a thing or two about balance is Dr Bill Lumsden, whisky maker for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg.  With the latter he has steered clear from tinkering too much with the formula of one of Islay's real unfettered gems (save for a few sherry cask interventions.)

It is with Glenmo however, that Dr Bill has indulged his experimental side - particularly his love of fine wine. A while back, I was fortunate enough to visit Tuscany with Bill and see first hand his genuine excitement for the bold, complex 'Super Tuscans' on offer, particularly the red wine from the hallowed Tenuta San Guido winery who produce Sassicaia -  one of the finest wines in the world.   

With the Private Edition series of Glenmorangie (which has also spawned a PX sherry finish, (Sonnalta), a very lightly peated expression, (Finealta) and more recently, Ealanta - a Glenmo matured in virgin white American oak) Bill has combined his knowledge about whisky with his love for intriguing wines.  Two releases in particular highlight how both can work in harmony, with the usually dominant tannic tones of the wine allowing the delicate signature notes of Glenmorangie to shine through. Back in 2012, Artein was released, utilising the aforementioned Sassicaia casks and the results were superb: (read our review here) Rich, very vibrant and fruity, all allowing the soft floral character of Glenmorangie enough room to breathe.    

Will the latest edition stay true to Dr Bill's finely tuned skills?  
Companta (meaning friendship in Gaelic) is the 5th release in the Private Edition. This time around, a majority proportion (around 60%) of the recipe is built from 10 year old Glenmorangie which has been maturing in casks which have previously held Clos du Tart, a vibrant Burgundy wine.  

To make up the remaining 40%, Dr Bill has used a proportion of older Glenmo, which has then spent time in casks first filled with Rasteau, a wine from the southern Rhone region in France.   

According to Bill, Companta was nicknamed 'Cherry Red' during the development stages of the whisky.  Judging by the colour of the whisky in the glass, we can see where he got the inspiration from.  But along with colour, could the use of these particularly dominant wine casks bring with it any unwanted characteristics?  Let's find out:

Glenmorangie - Companta - Private Edition Series - 46%

Nose: An initial tannic bite, with sour cherries, dark chocolate and earthy red wine notes. After a little while, these give way to a softer side -  some candied fruit, a touch of mandarin, soft red fruit and vanilla begin to emerge.  After that, the whisky becomes completely unlocked and the Glenmorangie of old begins to develop, with wafts of gentle sweetness and a lingering floral note.  

Palate: Again, initially darkly tannic and woody, but this gives way to some luxurious dark chocolate, a touch of tobacco leaf, sweetened vanilla cream, fresh raspberries and back to black again with a thick molasses note. 

Finish: As the palate begins to dry, a liquorice note develops, alongside a lingering red berry sharpness and rich chocolate. 

Overall: A very different beast to Artein, in that Companta is a much more robust and complex whisky, full of dark surprises, whereas Artein has an effortlessly light, breezy nature to it.  Companta is, without a doubt, masterfully put together and highlights how additional maturation can change the dynamic range of a well known spirit. 

Now if only I had hired Dr Bill to varnish my floor... 

Monday 27 January 2014

A Brace Of Beauties: Aberlour 12 Years Old Double Cask Matured Single Malt Whisky And Aberlour 12 Years Old Bi Centenary Edition Limited Edition Single Malt Whisky

We all know that the most important thing in the world of whisky production is the quality of casks used to mature the spirit. The big two, American oak casks and European oak casks, are often rolled out on whisky bottle labels to try, in some small part, to describe to the purchaser how the mature product inside the bottle has come to be: a small Curriculum Vitae of the liquid.

There are, of course, other casks which can be used for maturing whisky such as port pipes, sweet wine casks and French wine barriques (this week we’ll review the new Glenmorangie Private Edition which has been matured in red wine casks), but the main players are European oak and American white oak. But what does that mean?

A Cooperage in Spain
Many whisky drinkers will automatically make the assumption that an American oak barrel has previously held American whiskey, usually a bourbon of some sort and that European oak will have been used first mature sherry, both giving different levels of intensity and flavour to the resulting Scotch whisky.

However, the words ‘American oak’ on a label should not automatically lead you to believe that these casks have held bourbon. It is fair to think so, but it should be noted that American oak is also used in the maturation of sherry and that some bodegas and Spanish cooperages focus only on the use of American oak, as we experienced on a recent fact finding trip to Jerez.

Much more telling is when a label tells you the lineage of the cask and what it has previously held. To illustrate this, let’s look at two different whiskies, from the same distillery, bottled at the same age but from different cask styles.

The first is Aberlour 12 Years Old, the standard range bottling which has been matured in two different types of casks. The label tells us that ‘traditional oak and Sherry oak casks’ have been used. There is no wider definition of what a ‘traditional oak cask’ is, save to say that the assumption is left to the drinker that it is an American oak cask, the number of refills left to the imagination.

Aberlour – 12 Years Old – Double Cask Matured – 70cl -  40% abv

**note: this was previously bottled at 42% abv**

Nose: Creamy vanilla gives way to crème brulee, heather honey and freshly baked bread. Sweetness rises up, giving hints of apricot jam and iced buns, with a hint of fresh mint at the back.

Palate: A big hit of candied orange peel, some light cinnamon and some basil notes. This whisky is fresh at first, but the richer tones of mandarin and anise develop over time. With water: the palate slows down with the apricot coming first followed by delicate pear drops with a spiced backdrop.

Finish: A shot of spice with a touch of apricot again. With water: a longer finish with less spice and more summer fruits.

Overall: A very drinkable Speyside 12 Years Old which gives a well produced balance between American oak vanilla and European oak inspired fruits.

The second is an Aberlour 12 years old, which has been matured only in sherry casks for the full term of the maturation. This edition was made available only at the distillery in 2013 to celebrate the bi-centenary of Aberlour village and is limited to 1812 bottles, the date which the distillery was founded.

Aberlour – 12 Years Old – Distillery Only Aberlour Village Bi-Centenary Edition – 1812 bottles - 70cl – 56.8% abv

Nose: Straight up at you with some punch, this hits the nose at a whopping 56.8% abv speed, delivering a very full and rich sherry aroma of blackcurrant, roasted strawberries drizzled with reduced balsamic vinegar glaze, some menthol and  the classic Christmas cake for which sherry casks are so famous. With water:

Palate: Warm spices from intense wood flavour deliver a drying but delicious dram which, to uncover more, demands the addition of water: once added, we find black forest gateaux (black cherry and cream), more blackcurrant, newly polished wood and a oaky hit. Sour cherry and cola cubes at the end.

Finish: Liquorice and red apple skins with a hint of white pepper.

Overall: Wowzer: a big, big flavoured whisky which delivers well in both balance and complexity. If you can get hold of a bottle of this, try it. It’s Aberlour A'bunadh with some additional maturity, so it seems.

The results: Well, here we have two whiskies from the same distillery, with two totally different profiles but a clear family resemblance. It is good evidences that, at the same age, two differently flavoured whiskies can be achieved from the simple use of different styles of oak. 

The core range Aberlour 12 is very much an ‘every day’ drinker. Something perfect for the hiplflask or to keep pouring during a game of poker. The special edition 12 years old, with its big heavy sherry tones is just that: a special whisky, a sipping whisky, which should take you a lot longer to make your way through than the standard 12 years old ‘easy drinking’ option. 

Either way, the two are clearly from the same mothership, showing how important the production processes at different single malt distilleries are to the overall flavour of a malt.

Thursday 23 January 2014

Cinematic: The General Compass Box Blended Scotch Whisky

New technology is, in general always fun to purchase and play with. Rarely have I found myself buying a piece of new technology that is truly essential; how often does one really need a new camera, tablet computer or, indeed, TV.

However, this last month has seen two piece of, erm, essential technology arrive at Chez Harrison. The first really is an essential: after an inspection on a very aging boiler in my new house, it was deemed by people in the know, who wear proper stout work clothes and carry actual tools, including a real gas-safety monitor, that my current boiler was a silent assassin; not the stylish sort you’d read about in a Nordic noir novel, but a clunky, British elderly sort who was capable of accidently pulling off the perfect crime. Less Stieg Larsson, more Tales of the Unexpected.

Now, I’m not sure many of you would think of a simple boiler, the heartbeat of a house, as a piece of technology. That is, until you see these modern-sorts which one can now purchase. My new boiler comes with a digital remote control, meaning you basically have a thermostat in whichever room you choose to inhabit of an evening. Some of the posher versions even come with an app to allow you to switch the heating and hot water on and off, from your mobile phone or tablet. I know, I know... this is the future, right??

The second piece of new technology which I’ve picked up, is a TV. I think most people would say that a TV isn’t an essential piece in the jigsaw of life but it has managed to ensconce itself firmly into the fabric of our culture and play a major role in our free time.

Buying a TV these days is not as simple as it used to be. 20 years ago, it was simply about size: how big do you want it. And if you want a really big TV, you’ll have to put up with something the size of a small car, parked in the corner of your living room.

In the 21st century, in the telly showrooms of the world, questions arise such as the refresh rate speed; LCD vs LED; 3D capability; do you want a ‘smart TV’ (I take it that means it has been to University for three years and can hold its own at a middle class dinner party...) and so on.

Some of these technological leaps, such as HD and the skinny nature of many of today’s screens are a vast improvement on the technology from previous years. But no matter how many aspects of technology we throw at the small screen, television is simply not the experience that cinema delivers.

Cinema is something else; the big screen, the huge surround sound, the comfy chairs, the sticky floors... it all adds up to an experience which we know and love.

There is something comforting about the cinema, but (it seems to me anyway) that, save for 3D films, the vast leaps forward in technology which we have seen in the world of TV, haven’t quite been applicable in the cinema, with the ‘experience’ relying far more on just that: experience. Visiting the cinema doesn’t seem to feel any different for me now, as it did when I was 12. It is still exciting, visceral and, to some degree (and compared to modern telly), old fashionedBut ultimately, very comforting indeed.

It is this comforting quality of being old-fashioned, antique if you like, which really sets apart the whisky in this post.

Constructed from a complicated mix of two parcels of pre-blended stock, which was allowed to mature for a very long time (33 years and, apparently 40 years) before the good people at Compass Box discovered them and decided that bringing them together into one single, uber-blend was a good idea.

And indeed it was:

The General – Compass Box – Blended Scotch Whisky – NAS – 53.4% abv - 70cl - ~£200 here and here

Nose: A very big, rich nose which brings to mind the age-old tasting note of deeply polished wood, sandalwood, toffee, oak and freshly baked wholemeal bread.

Palate: A strong palate which gives meaty notes, ginger, pulled pork and BBC burnt-ends. A hint of fruity lime is overpowered by candied orange and Ryvita. With water, the orange turns to orange blossom and lighter, white flowers (Lilly) emerge. The robustness is lost but replaced by a lovely floral delicacy, with the grain element becoming more lively.

Finish: Orange creams and banoffee pie. Again, with water, much more delicate but an increased spice on the finish.

Overall: this is a very interesting whisky, full of flavour and very old style, well aged malt and grain. The flavours of all the old-skool are there, and very comforting they are indeed.

Technology? Na, thanks. I’m off to the cinema for the sights, sounds and the smells which I hope never change as I carry on the journey into middle and old age.

Wednesday 22 January 2014

World Whisky Bonanza

Something tells us that 2014 is going to be a special year for the world of whisky. 

And by that, we actually mean whisky producers around the world. From the gems coming out of Tasmania (in the shape of Overeem and Lark, who have recently joined forces) to a growing interest in French whisky and the rise in profile of South African whisky, the number of new places to visit on the whisky map is increasing almost weekly.  

Recently, we reported on what's happening here in the UK. With St George's steadily developing their sales base and Adnams delivering some very inspirational products, all eyes look towards the London Distillery Company to see if they can live up to the lofty expectations that are placed on them. Building a distillery is one thing - developing a top class whisky is another.  But there should be a fair wind behind the team at the distillery and a lot to learn from the work done at the likes of the aforementioned Tasmanian titans. 

So with that, here's a round up of some rather interesting world whiskies some of which we tip for greatness this year. To the traditionalists, they may present a radical challenge in the flavour department, but the opportunities to use them in other ways are, to us, what makes them exciting.  

First up and a rather curious whisky from New York. Well, technically it comes from France, but Brenne is the creation of New Yorker Allison Patel, an American importer/exporter and blogger. 

The bottle design is immediately very eye catching indeed- in fact, whisky bottlers of the world, unite and use more pizazz on your labels please - especially when you have to consider that whisky is now fast becoming a competitor to more accessible dark spirits.  

The interesting USP here is that the whisky (from an unnamed distillery near the River Charante) is produced from two types of barley, grown by the distiller, the spirit distilled then twice in alembic style stills, with water from the Charante used throughout the process.  The whisky is matured for a period of around 5-6 years in virgin French Limousin casks, but then refilled into Cognac casks for a further two years. Each batch is effectively taken from a single cask and reduced in strength to 40%.

What this gives is perhaps one of the most unusually sweet toffee notes we've experienced in a whisky. In fact, you would struggle to pick this out as a whisky initially. Let's dive in further:

Brenne - French Single Single Malt Whisky - 40%

Nose: Like I said above, incredibly sweet and toffee-influenced. Think strawberry sauce on top of  toffee ice cream scattered with foam banana sweets and you get the picture. But don't take this as a bad thing. Quite the opposite. Underneath is a fruity note, full of fresh apricots, some hints of toasted malt and a waft of Cognac, which would totally make sense. It's different, pleasantly wacky and certainly a very innovative way to present the aromas of a whisky. 

Palate: A big hit of creaminess first off, followed up by a gentle fruit sherbet note, a hint of tropical fruit and white chocolate. The wood has clearly given this a lot of very unusual influences and once again, traditionalists may scoff at the unusually sweet fruity flavours, but for those looking for something different, this might be it.  

Finish: A hint of oiliness, some more sweet patisserie cream and a touch of liquorice. 

Overall: A revelation. I really like this; not just for the fact that it is a small operation trying to do something different, but for the fact that from a flavour perspective, it offers so many possibilities to the non-whisky drinker. It would make a great spritzer, taken over ice, an Old Fashioned or be an unusual chilled shot- all aimed at dragging the harsh, unapproachable world of single malt whisky away from the bores and snobs and into the hands of new drinkers.  

A solid starting point then. Next up on our mini world tour is another stopover in France with the distillerie Grallet-Dupic (aka La Maison de la Mirabelle.) As the name suggests, the distillery is more accustomed to distilling a number of Eaux de Vies - mirabelle, pear and plum. They have also begun to distil a whisky and the Whisky of Lorraine (not a lady's name but a place) is bottled as G.Rozelieures, named after the tiny village the distillery is situated in. Could this be essentially a 'Faux de Vie' or something much more...

G.Rozelieures -  Rare Collection -  French Single Malt Whisky -  40%

Nose: Youthful balsa wood notes arrive first, with some grapey/white wine notes, a touch of woody spice and slightly spirity note.  It's fresh and very clean. Although this is 40%, it needs a little water to tame the spirity side. A few drops reveal a sweeter side, a touch of charred meat and icing sugar.  

Palate: The icing sugar continues onto the palate, with a fresh woody note (pine) resonating through, into some juniper, fresh green herbs and a little olive oil. Vanilla rounds out the proceedings. 

Finish: Short, with a clean, spirited note.

Overall: Not the most dynamic of world whiskies, but certainly unique. Given a little time in the glass, it develops a peppery, almost smoky note. A few more years in cask would probably do this a real favour and begin to develop some of the spice even further. 

Over to South Africa and the James Sedgwick Distillery, run by the affable gent who is Mr Andy Watts. We first encountered their Three Ships single malt back in 2011 (a limited edition 10 year old) and from there on in, the distillery has risen to take multiple plaudits in the World Whisky Awards, with further praise going to the Bains Cape Mountain Grain whisky (one of our whiskies of the year last year.)

Three Ships main sail (sorry for the pun) whisky is a bourbon cask finished blend, (both grain and malt whisky) which is matured for 3 years and then finished for a further 6 months in first fill bourbon casks.  It is now starting to reach these shores after demand has become greater, thanks in part to the distillery's award successes.  

Three Ships - Bourbon Cask Finished  Blended whisky - 43%

Nose: An initial mixture of honeycomb, some white flowers, a touch of vanilla and a clean, zesty grain note running right the way through. With a little water, the grain notes drift into the background and a malty richness develops.  

Palate: A surprisingly fatty/oily mouthfeel, with rich vanilla, whipped sweetened cream and mango slices all arriving first. A more zesty fruitiness comes second with a return of the honeycomb. Water brings out more of a floral side to the blend.

Finish: Hints of lemon zest, a little vanilla ice cream and puffed wheat linger on the palate.  

Overall: Another solid and well-rounded piece of whisky making from Andy and his team. I can picture a perfect drinking scene for this: looking out to sea from Camps Bay in Cape Town, as the sun descends for the evening.  It may be a chilly January here in London, but in my head, i'm already there.  

Tuesday 21 January 2014

If You Like A Lot Of Chocolate On Your Biscuit, Join Our Club: Talisker and Royal Lochnagar Friends of the Classic Malts 2014 Single Malt Whisky Editions

Before you start asking us even more questions, the answer is: yes. The question: did we get to try the 2013 batch of Diageo’s Special Release whiskies. And very good they were to. As usual, there was the regular releases from Lagavulin (the always grand 12 Years Old), Caol Ila, Port Ellen (now on to number 13) and Brora.

Unusually, however there were some extra old offerings from Talisker (1985 vintage), along with a 37 Years Old Lagavulin, a 21 Years Old Oban and, the pick of the bunch for us, a 36 Years Old Convalmore. Not something you see a lot of these days.  

Now, there is no denying that this lot are excellent whiskies... but anyone who has tried to buy a bottle of the most sought-after of the collection will know quite how quickly they disappear. Trying to bag one is about as easy as finding rocking horse poop.

Couple this with the new pricing structure where a bottle of Port Ellen, previously sold for ‘just’ three figures, will now set you back £1500, and you'll see how many of these top end offerings are out of reach for a lot of consumers. 

(As an aside, unlike a lot of other people, I don’t see an issue with these prices. Diageo are just following the residual market in what it feels these bottles are worth; I wouldn’t sell you my house for 50% of its market value, so why should Diageo sell you their whisky for half the price the residual market deems it is worth?)    

However, these limited edition high value bottles do create an air of exclusivity, which is where Diageo have balanced out, to some degree, their portfolio of interesting single malts with a series of new expressions for their Friends of the Classic Malts club.
On offer, initially, are two highly interesting, triple matured single malts: one from Talisker and one from Royal Lochnagar which will be available in the UK, Germany and Switzerland. In total, across five expressions, there will be 24,000 bottles released.  

Talisker – Friends of the Class Malts 2014 Release – NAS - Triple Matured – 9,000 bottles only – 48% abv

Triple matured in: “refill casks, charred American oak hogsheads, European oak refill casks”

Nose: Big and strong, with some smoke, salt and a hint of toffee. It takes a while to open up, but once fully in bloom, the Talisker sea-salt notes are clearly there, with the triple wood maturation giving more body, with some light honey and heather notes coming through at the death.

Palate: Lemon and lime mix with peat smoke and salted caramel toffee. White pepper and some coal dust appear to give a full flavoured dram which just seems a little out of sorts. It’s like smoked lime pickle in a glass.  

Finish: Sour cherries, unripe kiwi fruit and a hint of peat smoke.

Overall: Well, we love Talisker 10, Talisker 18, Talisker Storm and Darkest Storm. This, however, goes into the same file as Talisker Port Ruighe... lots of flavour but, like a child whose family has moved around a lot, this seems to be a bit unsettled, a bit misdirected. NB: it did settle with time (and we mean a few hours here) in the glass, but was still running around the palate with a little too much enthusiasm...)

Royal Lochnagar - Talisker – Friends of the Class Malts 2014 Release – NAS - Triple Matured - 3,000 bottles – 48% abv

Triple matured in: “refill casks, charred American oak hogsheads, European oak refill casks”

Nose: A vibrant nose of granola drizzled with honey, milk chocolate and honeycomb. Some linseed oil, blackcurrant bush leaves and malted milk biscuits.

Plate: Rich and rounded, this whisky has taken well to its three different homes, picking up something interesting in each environment. There is honey, spices (cinnamon and cardamom), toffee again and a hint of red apples.

Finish: A really lovely dram whose spirit has been enhanced by the triple maturation and given a rounded balance of sweet and spicy.

Overall: A great example of how triple maturation can really enhance a tipple.

Friends of the Classic Malts can purchase these offerings for £80 per bottle at a friendly local retailer in the aforementioned countries, or you can pick up a bottle at Alexander and James, here.

Continuing in their theme of unusual bottlings for the FotCM club, which has seen an excellent Talisker 12 Years Old and an utterly brilliant Lagavulin 12 Years Old too, this Royal Lochnagar is one to add to your collection. Let’s hope the other three releases live up to this one and, at £80, it is a very fair price for an unusual limited edition. A very fair price indeed.

Talisker, Royal Lochnagar... you guess the rest, but I’m just hoping that Lagavulin features, especially at this price point! Sadly, we’ll have to wait to find out...

Tuesday 7 January 2014

2014: The Year of the Hipflask

Greetings all and welcome to 2014. We’re safely into the year now and I’m sure that many of you will have made resolutions for yourselves in 2014.

Every year I have a set of resolutions which are wheeled out, only to be broken, unused or utterly ignored before the first month comes to an end. Such is their frequency that I’m tempted to have a print out of them laminated, just to hand to people on an annual basis, during the first week of each new year, to answer to the same question I’ve posed above about the ways in which I plan on improving my life over the coming twelve months.

And that is what a resolution should be: a form of improvement to one’s health and wellbeing. I can’t imagine that there are many people out there who have decided to eat more chocolate, take less exercise or do fewer good deeds.

As for my own ‘self-improvements’, the 2013 list started with the annual desire to lose weight, linked in with a greater level of exercise, and to ingest fewer foods (and drinks) which may reverse the process of me losing weight.

Second on my 2013 list was to become properly fluent in Norwegian; I carry the damn passport, so I should probably learn to hold a conversation in the mother-tongue for longer that few, erm, words...

Third on last year’s list was start a yearly trend of producing photo albums, proper printed ones, from pictures I’d taken throughout the year. In the pursuit of all drinks great, Neil and I often find ourselves in interesting and unusual places. Add to this all that goes on in one’s personal life with holiday, travel and family... then it makes sense to document it and with the ease of digital photography these days, a photo book seemed like the best option.

The World's Worst Boyband

So, how did I do in 2013? 

Well, when it comes to my health and fitness, then I think I’m around the same BMI as this time last year, but I did manage to run the Islay Half Marathon and finish in a time of 2 hours 22 seconds... something I’m very proud of given the unforgiving nature of the course and the weather.

This year, I’m openly throwing the gauntlet down to Ridley to run it. I can see him dressed up as a 118 118 character: part young Steve Ovett, part John Cleese in Clockwise taking on the hills and wind of the Inner Hebrides.

I’m gonna start the #RunRidleyRun to get him committed...

As a result of the ‘big run’, I think I’ll put a tick against that particular resolution. The same is true for my photo album. Oddly ordered from Jessops the day it went bust (I was still sent it by the company that printed their books for them, which was nice) it is something I have looked at on a regular basis over the past 12 months as a remind of the fun times which 2012 offered.

The major fail, and this happens each year, is the lack of improvement in my Norwegian. No great shakes, really but I’m desperate to not let my fellow countrymen down, especially as I’d love to host a tasting in the motherland sometime soon and have the appropriate vocabulary in order to do a proper job!

But here we are in 2014 and my main resolution remains the same: live a more healthy life.

Having recently moved out of Central London to an area which has cleaner air and bigger green spaces, I found myself on my first proper walk of the year yesterday. Seven miles took me from my front door, up to Windsor Castle, down the aptly-named Long Walk and back home again. 

Weighing in at just under two hours, it was an ideal way to start the working week, blowing out (almost literally with the weather we’ve been having in the UK this last week) the cobwebs of the Christmas break and reinvigorating myself before sitting down to a pile of emails, articles and other work.

The walk was thoroughly enjoyable, but the morning is no time to be taking a stroll at a leisurely pace. It is ‘exercise time’ and eventually the same route shall be turned into a jog. For now, I’m happy with a fast-paced wander, my ankles still somewhat weight-down by excess Xmas fare.

But as the evenings start to elongate and the light lingers for just that little bit longer, my local park will become somewhere to spend the twilight hours, either with friends on a dusky weekend summers evening or walking off the rigours of a day’s work during the week.

Either of these activities allows me to bring into play something I’ve been meaning to properly utilise for a while now: my hipflask. Or, more correctly, hipflasks.

Over the years I have been gifted a few nice hipflasks as well as picking the odd one up either at a distillery (the Lagavulin green leather one which comes with four cups, is particularly nice, if not a little large to be classed a hipflask) or in vintage/charity shops and I have learned a few things:

If you have a hipflask, I would suggest that you DON’T keep any liquid stored in them for much longer than a few days, maximum. Many hipflasks (unless glass) will eventually taint the liquid inside and leave you with a slightly odd colour as well as something which probably doesn’t taste quite like the initial product you first filled into your pocket-sized pouch. This means that if you don’t finish the contents, you should decant it back into the bottle it came from as soon as possible, when returning home, washing your flask out thoroughly before it is ready of duty once again.

Therefore, I find that it is good order to have two hipflasks in rotation at any one time; one for peated whisky and one for unpeated whisky. This makes the washing process rather less laborious, as you can still leave one flask with a whisper of peat smoke in it, safe in the knowledge that it won’t taint your 1960’s single cask Speyside for your walk the following week.

At the same time, if you are out walking with friends, it allows you to have two whiskies of differing flavour profiles depending on your mood/the weather/your friend’s love (or otherwise) or peated Scotch.

The walking and connected hipflasks, in turn, justify owning a good selection of whisky; providing a peated and an unpeated offering to takeaway, plus allowing you, as a whisky drinker, to experience a wider range of your bottles in a more visceral environment, out in the open.

It only remains to ask what the ideal whisky would be for my upcoming, late evening strolls around Windsor Great Park. The obvious answer: Johnnie Walker, surely...

Happy New Year, all and a very hearty ‘good luck’ with your own resolutions.

Friday 3 January 2014

2014 - A Year of Excitement

And we're back. After a very leisurely Christmas break, it's nice to pick up the reins again and excitedly look towards 2014 as a year of exceptionally fine spirits. You'll be seeing a few changes to this website during 2014, alongside the release of our forthcoming book, The Spirits Explorers, which is due to be published later this year. After six years of bringing you news, releases and opinions on primarily whisk(e)y, we'll be bringing you a lot more on other unmissable spirits from around the world. Stay tuned with your glasses primed! 

Back in 2013, half of the Caskstrength team saw in the new year with a particularly fun theme: 
A Fawlty Towers party. 

A Damn Good Thrashing awaits...
Alongside turning Ridley Towers into Fawlty Towers, several games featured for the assembled guests (aka Polly, Sybil, the Major, Manuel, Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby and other cast members): 

The Gin & Orange, Lemon Squash and Scotch & Water Challenge (where contestants have to make the aforementioned drinks in as quick a time as possible against an opponent - a ref. to the episode 'A Touch Of Class')

Thrashing an Austin 1100 Piñata, which was swiftly despatched with a tree branch to reveal its contents. 

Stupidity aside, New Years Eve was a great opportunity to do a round up of a number of new (old) whiskies which have recently arrived in the post and in our trolleys: Cutty Sark's brand new Prohibition-inspired release, a brace of exceptional 'old' White Horse blends, an Auchentoshan 1975 vintage and perhaps the most prestigious, a 50 year old Bowmore.  

We won't be officially reviewing the White Horse blends, but suffice to say that if you see any cropping up at auction (especially from the 70's and 80's) you will face some stiff competition from us.  Any respective whisky cabinet should contain an old blend in our opinion. Not only do they provide an insight into whisky making of the yesteryear for a less than premium price, but also highlight some very unexpected flavours. The penultimate drink of the evening was an Old Fashioned, made using the White Horse bottle to the left of the picture (thought to be from the early 80's) and its sweet, delicate smoke and malty, creamy fudge notes were absolutely stupendous. Perfect for Basil and Manuel to put their differences aside... for a few minutes anyway.   

The first sample of the evening was a new(ish) offering from Cutty Sark. Commemorating the 80th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition this robust blend harks back to Cutty's coming of age in the US, and continues the blend's innovative approach. Prohibition will now be available outside the US for the first time, so let's hoist the anchor and set sail...

Cutty Sark - Prohibition -  50%  

Nose: Toasted almonds, battenberg cake, some fresh mint and marzipan, plus a hint of smoke. There is a solid balance between smoke, vanilla, hot buttered toast, dark chocolate and hazelnuts. Pure smoked praline in a glass.

Palate: With the 50% abv this gives a delicate, yet prickly mouthfeel. First up is fresh apricot, followed by mango chutney, toasted oats and tinned pineapple.

Finish: Some spices, cinnamon, oak and a nip of sherry.

Overall: A complex dram. I accompanied this sample with a craft American IPA and the rich, bold flavours of the whisky stood up to the yeasty/hoppy notes of the beer. The opposite of the usual delicate Cutty: bold, rich and malty- yet with bags of fruit.

Next up was Auchentoshan's latest release- a 1975 vintage, bottled at 45.6% exclusively for travel retail. This vintage sits alongside the distillery's other previous vintage releases from the 70's and the 500 bottles are drawn from ex-American oak casks. We reviewed a previous '75 release back in 2011 and quelle surprise, this offers many of the same delicious characteristics.

Auchentoshan 1975 - 45.6% - 500 Bottles

Nose: Wafts of toasted coconut, milk chocolate, light lemon zest and creamy vanilla. The classic complex-yet-inviting bourbon cask notes make this irresistible. No need for any water here- it would be very easy to drown the subtleties on offer.  

Palate: A continuation of the beautiful aromas above. Sweet and creamy, vanilla custard hits first, with a touch of oaky dryness creeping in, but not in an overpowering way. Alongside the cream comes toasted almonds, a smattering of citrus zests, gooseberry fool and a surprisingly fresh sliced green apple.  

Finish: The green apple is smothered in patisserie cream, which sticks to the palate with an after taste of soft brown sugar. Sensational.

Overall: Yet again, this 70's offering demonstrates Auchentoshan at its very best. It will set you back £500 and a flight somewhere (we're unclear as to which airports you'll be able to find it.) But chances are, it's unlikely you'll still find its similarly aged sibling any longer. Scanning through various online retailers we also find that the closer to 2015 we get (and a 40th birthday looming large) whiskies of this nature are becoming more pricey as the months tick by. 

And Finally... We make it towards midnight, with a sing-song from Gary Barlow on BBC1 and Kevin Costner's 'Waterworld' on ITV (really... Why??) 

Following on from Morrison Bowmore's Lowland distillery comes the latest release from the company's Islay powerhouse. Bowmore continues to innovate, despite being one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland. The 50 year old, distilled in 1961 is currently the oldest commercially available single malt from Islay.  Two ex-bourbon hogsheads have yielded just 200 bottles, each one priced at an eye watering £16,000.  

Old Bowmore always offers up a wealth of extraordinary discoveries. Take their last benchmark- the 1964 Fino cask release from 2012. Intense tropical fruits, divine creaminess and a waft of the most subtle sweet perfumed smoke. Bowmore of this age ceases to be just a whisky, but is something far more beguiling- as we shall see below.  

Bowmore 50 Year Old - Distilled December 1961 - 40.7% 

Nose: Where to start. The most intense Bowmore nose yet, jam packed full of tropical fruit notes and so much more. Passion fruit, papaya, mango and ripe kiwi fruit mix with plump vanilla pods, parma violets, a wonderful light, floral lavender-influenced smoke, white chocolate and sweet patisserie cream. Quite where the mysterious 'Bowmore fruit' actually comes from is up for debate, but it makes Bowmore arguably the most distinctive distillery on Islay, and for that matter, probably in Scotland too.  

Palate: More of the same beautifully detailed tropical fruit notes. The classic Bowmore parma violets are powerful, but flavours of tinned peaches and cream, vanilla and mandarin segments sit nicely alongside, with a backbone of dry, floral smoke. Exceptional.

Finish: Lingering tropical fruit and a slight oaky dryness lead the light smoke in what is a deeply expressive and complex tongue twisting finale.  

Overall: It's difficult not to sound like a pretentious tit when writing reviews of whiskies like this. But you just can't sum them up fairly using simple reference points. What we have here is one of the truly great whisky releases of the decade, with effortless balance and charm. If money were no object, this would be a whisky that could simultaneously start and end one's journey into malt whisky. It's the equivalent of discovering the end of the masterpiece tome by a venerated author, the playback of a classic album that defined a generation or the photo finish to a world-record breaking 100 metre final (or perhaps a much longer race for that matter!) 

All in all, a stunning way to see in 2014. Quite where the distillery goes from this expression remains to be seen, but here's hoping that Warehouse No.1 contains even more blinding discoveries. 

Now - a few Caskstrength predictions and observations for 2014: 

  • Grain Whisky to finally get the recognition it deserves from major distillers -  in its own right. 

William Grant & Sons had the foresight in 2013 to release a single grain whisky as a proprietary brand and it is inevitable that others will follow suite.  Let's never forget just how important grain whisky is in blended whisky and it is great news to see the whisky begin to gain momentum under its own steam. Legendary William Grant & Sons pioneer and former chairman Charles Gordon sadly passed away over the Christmas period, but he leaves his company in vibrant shape, full of innovative ideas and enthusiasm for developing the whisky category.  

  • More companies to receive a public hiding for dubious marketing campaigns.  
The Dewar's Saga or 'Barongate' (read about it here if you're unfamiliar) demonstrated an acute and frankly baffling misunderstanding of who the company assumes whisky drinkers are, whilst providing the whisky community with a relatively easy target to bark at. Importantly it also gave everyone a reason to move forward, away from the ass-slapping masculinity of tired whisky campaign ideas several decades old, that still seem to rear their ugly head from time to time. The reputation of the brand took a big dent (rightly so) but we suspect this won't be the last time that a brand gets a marketing campaign catastrophically wrong. We watch and wait with eager excitement... Sharpen your pitch forks. 
  • World Cup Fever hits the whisky world.  

The biggest sporting event of the year is bound to have a knock on effect everywhere and given the growing demand in the host nation Brazil for whisky, it is inevitable there'll be a flurry of World Cup themed whiskies.  We recently read that one well-known Islay distiller has allegedly planned something featuring the colours of the Brazilian flag, but until we hear it from the horse's mouth, we'll say no more. 

  • Seasoned whisky drinkers get fed up with whisky and move on.  
Previously known as 'The Whisky Shop'

Slightly OTT this one, but given the constant negativity surrounding new No Age Statement releases, price rises and new emerging markets, spirits like Armagnac, rum and mezcal will begin to sound their Pied Piper tunes, proving irresistible to connoisseurs whisky obsessives, thanks to their accessible price points and bold flavours. Whilst you'll still find us at the front of the queue when it comes to reviewing new whiskies, we're also going to be writing a great deal about the aforementioned spirits, simply because we love them and the possibilities they offer.

...And a few shorter predictions...
  • The most staggeringly brilliant release from a distillery/distilleries beginning with E. 
(probably... ;-p )
  • Your Grandma asking you which whisky she should put her money into. 
(highly likely and slightly scary)

  • Another swathe of new whisky auction sites open for business.  
(including 'Japanese only' perhaps?)

  • A massive celebrity endorsed whisky...
(who knows who, but probably on the cards somewhere...) 

  • The word 'Dram' to be made illegal, especially during over enthusiastic whisky-related conversations and even more likely when used as an annoying prefix.
( ;-p )

2013 was a blast for us, hope it was for you too.  Keep reading and exploring great spirits in 2014...

Joel & Neil