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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 PiƱata, 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