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Monday 31 March 2014

Liquid Football: Ardbeg AuriVerdes Single Malt Scotch Whisky Review

Rather like Christmas seemingly coming earlier every year (FYI ONLY 267 shopping days to go folks!) the attention on Brazil being this summer's most desirable media/product tie-in nation has well and truly begun in advance of the big event. 

Only last night did we witness the first domino falling in the commercial build up to the World Cup, with Budweiser producing an 'emotional' (their words, Lynn, not mine) black and white TV advert around the passion of football. As the official beer of the World Cup, Bud have produced some limited edition bottles clad in gold, which, will no doubt taste every bit as interesting as their current product.

But brushing aside the cynicism, there are a brace of other drinks companies who have also seized the opportunity to use the summer blockbuster as a launchpad for new products - and both of them look a lot more interesting to us.

Ballantine's have ventured into the flavoured whisky market with their newly released 'Brasil': a low ABV spirit drink (so not a whisky at all, being both flavoured and bottled at 35% abv) which is flavoured with Brazilian lime peel. Expect to see a full review on here soon, in a special feature on flavoured whiskies.

Next up comes a late entry on the team sheet, this time from Islay.

What is arguably the worst kept secret in whisky right now, Ardbeg is releasing AuriVerdes at the end of May, a limited edition bottling in homage to the summer football spectacle, but actually marking their very own celebration of Ardbeg Day, an annual event in the distillery's calendar on the 31st May, coinciding with the hugely popular Feis Ile. Expect football themed high jinks if you're heading to Islay and the Ardbeg Open Day.

A Possible Photo from Ardbeg Day 2014

So what of the liquid itself?

Well aside from the very shiny gold bottle (the regular release will be in traditional 'Verdes' green) the news is that the Ardbeg whisky creation team has been busy experimenting with freshly toasted new cask ends. With the whisky drawn from bourbon casks, the toasted ends give the 'classic' Ardbeg notes a new dimension...

Ardbeg AuriVerdes - Ardbeg Day Bottling - 49.9% -Outturn TBC 

Nose: Hot, with some distinct Ardbeg smokiness (sweet cure bacon), alongside a little dry spiciness, a big waft of vanilla pipe tobacco, expresso coffee, a touch of ginger and an injection of some lighter citrus zest -  fresh lemon and lime. It's powerful, but with a light touch alongside -  think Didier Drogba... 

Palate: More classic Ardbeg fullness, the smoke turning a little more medicinal, with greener notes (fresh orchard fruit) and something a little more savoury - sweet potato perhaps? There is a youthful zestiness at play too but the mouthfeel is superb, with more smoked meat, vanilla and a candied sweetness -  the 10 year old is a good reference point, but it has a little more depth alongside.  

Finish: Surprisingly dry, with a lingering oaky spice, some sooty residue and a last-gasp citrus bite. 

Overall: Another Ardbeg that offers a real star quality. For those who were fans of the likes of Alligator and Ardbog, this fits nicely into the extended family.  Enough of a team player, by not straying too far from the 10 year old, whilst also in possession of a few maverick tendancies.   

For more football fun, click here:

Friday 28 March 2014

The Great Tennessee Whiskey Debate: Jack Daniel's Old No.7 Review

I have a new favourite spot of an evening to sit and write. It is outside one of my new local pubs. Having recently moved house, I have had an opportunity to explore the array of local ale houses, on a mission to work out which shall eventually become my (second) home.

At present, my chosen haunt is a classic English freehouse: yards from Windsor Castle, it is steeped in history, has real ale on tap and, more importantly, has Lagavulin 16 on an optic (on an optic!!).

Handily, along with two open fires inside, it also sports a small group of outdoor tables, allowing for a large glass of whisky and a cigar as the spring evenings start to turn into long summer ones.

Sitting, as I am tonight, enjoying a glass of Laga and a Monte Open Junior, I am alone in the half-light of the evening, due to a slight cold snap which has taken hold in the south of England.

However, the pub inside is rammed and as I sit here, the sounds of the gathered masses indoors, muffled by the thick Edwardian walls of the establishment, bleeds into the open air. It is a sound of convivial jolliness, people enjoying themselves, relishing their conversations as they nestle their chosen drinks for the evening.

As the conversation flows, I can still make out parts of chitter-chatter, threads of debate as the words mix into the night air along with my cigar smoke.

For someone who is passionate about whisky, of all types, I'm always looking at the global impact of the spirit and the hot topics of conversation around it. Having recently visited the U.S. to discover more about bourbon production and American white oak casks, I was able to dip into the current hot topic of conversation which is bubbling away Stateside. Like someone popping into the bar to place their next order and accidentally getting caught up in the chat, being back in the UK is like being back outside the pub, listening to the debate from afar; slightly muffled by the walls of distance.

The conversation in question comprises two main parts and it all starts around a legislation passed in 2013 to define what Tennessee whiskey really is.

It was the Tennessee General Assembly which created a designation for whiskey produced in the State, drawing up a rule which says that Tennessee whiskey can be made only of "fermented mash comprised of at least 51 percent corn, aged in new barrels of charred oak, filtered through charcoal and bottled at 40 percent alcohol (80 percent proof), or higher, by volume".

Now, those of you who know whiskey, will realise that this sounds a lot like the way the Tennessee stalwart Jack Daniel’s is made.

Jack Daniel’s – No.7 – Tennessee Whiskey – 40% abv

Nose: Sliced green apples dusted with cinnamon. Vanilla and light toasted oak notes. Fire-charred marshmallows and a hint of hazelnut. Not strong, which makes this more of the mixer that we know it as, rather than a sipping bourbon. 

Palate: At first a plesant palate of hazelnut and fig, with a touch of toasted almond; but it becomes slightly 'plastic' over time in the mouth. Once this subsides red apples and more fig appear backed with spices and air dried, salt cured ham.

Finish: Spices; vanilla and cinnamon. Medium in lenght.

Overall: Nothing wrong with this whiskey, it is just a little weak and a little over spiced. Want vanilla coke? Drink JD & Coke. It is a classic, afterall.

Essentially, what this ruling has done is to ring-fence a specific production method, one that happens to be the same one used by Jack Daniel’s, for any product which wants to call itself ‘Tennessee whiskey’; something I find rather strange because if you have a product which has a uniqueness in the process, why would you want other producers to have to conform to that standard? Celebrate what it is that makes your product different from others; give yourself a USP. Vodka producers are looking for one all the time. If your USP becomes legislation, it is no longer a USP. Look at Kim Jong Un’s hair cut. Distinctive. A brand. His brand. That is, until he gets all the other men in North Korea to have the samestyle... then it becomes just a hair cut; the same as everyone else’s.

This legislation has caused somewhat of an upset between some of the other producers in the State, particularly the Diageo-owned George Dickel, which calls itself ‘Tennessee whisky’ and who oppose the move to set in stone the process of production.

It has all started to get rather complicated and has seen much debate in the corridors of power in Tennessee, to the extent that just this week, following a debate, it has been decided to refer the matter to a Summer Study review.

If you really want to, you can watch all 15 mins or so of amendment 14041 being proposed in the General Assembly, here (about 2 hours in). You should, as I’m going to come back to it in a moment.

So, why should there be any concern to us, the humble whisky drinker, agnostic as to where our matured spirit comes from (be it Scotland, Ireland, any number of States in the USA, Japan, or indeed elsewhere), but just loving the spirit we call ‘whisky’?

Well, because there is one key rule in the production of American whiskey, be it bourbon from Kentucky, bourbon from elsewhere in America, or Tennessee whisk(e)y which is the use of new American oak barrels.

In the above link, the chaps in Tennessee are discussing what gives a product the right to be labelled ‘Tennessee whiskey’ and they hit on an interesting point, when Rep. Bill Sanderson, proposing the amendment says, referring to some Crown whiskey he has in his car:

“We can make quality Tennessee whiskey by using used barrels.”

Later in the debate, Rep. Curry Todd underlines the issue of wood, by saying:

“This is all about barrels.”

Now, let’s focus on Scotland for a moment: Scottish distillers, from small indie operations through to the major distillers who base their business on blended malts (where the millions of litres of new make grain spirit produced each year is often filled into First Fill, or 'used' American oak barrels) will be looking nervously over their shoulder to see if there is not only a change to the production methods of the spirit that can be called Tennessee whisky, but also the maturation process in America, too.

And a small change from the use of ‘new oak’ to simply ‘oak’, will have a huge effect in Scotland, Ireland, Japan and other whisky-making counties, as much as it will in Kentucky or Tennessee. With American oak casks becoming harder to source anyway, a change in legislation towards the use of barrels more than once could cause somewhat of a bottle-neck to those distilleries outside of American looking for used American white oak in which to mature their spirit.

As a result of this possible restriction in the supply of casks from the US to the rest of the whisky-producing world, the price of casks is sure to go only one way: up. And if the cost of goods to the producers increase, you’ll more than likely see this reflected in the price of the bottle on the shelf.

If I were a distiller, I’d be keeping a close eye on the proceedings in the American States’ Committee houses on this subject. And as a whisky drinker with a limited budget, I’d relish today’s prices because tomorrow’s may not be quite so pleasing.

Monday 24 March 2014

The Times The Are a-Changin'...Tasting Four New Mortlach Expressions

As we roll comfortably into spring, it seems that the major players in the world of whisky are moving forward with their big ticket items, as the yearly release schedule gets firmly under way. Only two weeks ago, Suntory unveiled their mighty new No Age Statement Distiller's Reserve Yamazaki and Hakushu expressions. Now, hot on their heels, comes arguably the most widely anticipated release so far: the reemergence of Mortlach.  

So far, the news of four new Mortlach bottlings has not gone down well with one particular camp.  

The withdrawal of the Flora & Fauna 16 year old (which, according to Diageo, was sitting at around 800 cases per year, so a tiny outturn indeed) ruffled a few feathers with a small-but-vocal core of whisky enthusiasts and fanatics. The announcement of two No Age Statement releases (Rare Old, a name which has been particularly prickly for many and a Special Strength version (the same liquid but bottled at 49%) alongside a brace of older, super premium expressions (18 and 25 year old) did little to help stem the negativity about the releases, which are scheduled for June/July this year.  

But far from throw our miniatures out the pram and take to Twitter like it was a modern day pitch fork, we looked at the plan objectively. Mortlach is currently undergoing something of a major transformation from an under-appreciated distillery many whisky drinkers simply know nothing about - to a major player in the luxury market, which spans global proportions. Capacity is being doubled from an existing 3.8 million litres, with six new stills being installed - complete with worm tub condensers: probably the first time since the 1980's that any distillery of note (save for smaller, more craft orientated operations) has gone down this route.   

There are clear similarities with a certain distillery beginning with M and ending in acallan. Limited stock and a rising demand for a particular flavour profile internationally has meant that a rethink was necessary in terms of the type of bottling available and its pricing structure. Macallan's huge success in Asia has meant that certain expressions have been withdrawn and the stock structure has taken on an altogether more personality (and colour) led focus, without age statement.

The new look Mortlach, when it is finished.

Mortlach has the opportunity to do the same and become a serious rival in the same circles as The Macallan. It has a bold, European oak dominated character and given proper investment and careful stock selection, Diageo can promote the brand into the luxury league.  

But this can only happen if the new liquid is any good. Despite the best efforts of anyone, there will always be those who fervently criticise the decision to withdraw the 16 year old, resenting the progress of the brand into the major-league. 

To use an analogy from the world of music, it's a little like when Dylan went 'electric' back in 1965.  'Judas!' cried one hessian-clad misery guts. 'He's sold out,' cried another be-sandaled folkie, the full horror etched for all to see on his patchily bearded face, as Dylan tore through 'Like a Rolling Stone', backed with a new set of amped up, electrified musicians.  

The reason for their protestation? Arguably because they had lost control of something they thought they had all to themselves. 

Dylan's canon of music is of course a milestone in the Great American Songbook and his solo performances will always stand the test of time. But without his reinvention, his popularity would have swiftly reached a plateau. Probably fine for his many folk followers, but for a man of clear ambition, success needs progress - and progress requires decisions -  many of them hard to swallow for those who felt They Woz There from the beginning.  

Of course, Mortlach is a distillery, effectively owned by shareholders; a commercial distilling enterprise, not a visionary (if slightly frazzled) American singer songwriter. So the changes Diageo are implementing for the brand make a great deal of sense from a business point of view. By creating a range of whiskies, each with an escalating price point and age, alongside a bottle design with a greater degree of craftsmanship (they are quite stunning close up)- the halo effect comes into play, rather the same as it does in the Johnnie Walker range.  

But for the principle to work and for the halo to become fully (and angelically) illuminated, the liquid needs to be a fine piece of work at every price point, especially given that the releases are bottled into 50cl sized vessels (75cl for the US)    

So is it?

Well, today, we got the chance to find out, thanks to a presentation from one of its main creators, Dr Matthew Crow and Mortlach's newly appointed ambassador, Georgie Bell. After trying the new make spirit (which was about as bold and malty as any we have come across) it was time to visit the range for the very first time.  

Time to turn up the volume and hit play on Blonde On Blonde? 

Or simply skulk off to an inoffensive, grumpy solo acoustic version of The Times They Are a-Changin? 

Mortlach - Rare Old - No Age Statement - 43.4% - 50cl - RRP £55

Nose: A big hit of bold copper aroma, woody spice, rich caramel sauce, Creme Brûlée and a little charred meat.  It perhaps doesn't have the full on 'meatiness' that the Mortlach of old has become renowned for, but anyone approaching this from afresh, will find a plenty of meat on the bone -  the spices are very well integrated, alongside a sweeter vanilla note too.  

Palate: The charred meat continues, with swathes of robust caramel sauce, tobacco, dark chocolate and a touch of orchard fruit. With a little water, the orchard fruit comes to the front and the creamy vanillas start to take hold. A dram of two halves, that's for sure.

Finish: An oaky dryness, with a lingering and very mature spice note. 

Overall: It's Mortlach.... That's right folks, it's Mortlach. Nothing really taken away and nothing unnecessary added either. Solid, warming and very robust, just like it should be. The cask choice here is very complimentary and the refill hoggies balance nicely with a little re-charred spice, alongside a drop of European oak richness. A great start.  

Next up -  The Special Strength version, released specifically for Global Travel Retail outlets. This is effectively the same formulation as the Rare Old, but weighs in at 49%.  Will the slightly higher ABV make much of a difference?

Mortlach  -  Special Strength Edition -  No Age Statement -  49% - 50cl - RRP £75

Nose: Wow, a real surprise. Fresh blueberries, toasted vanilla, burnt caramel, milky coffee and a much more intense copper coin note. Vintage aromas at work?  In fact, open a bottle of 'Old' whisky, i.e. one bottled a long time ago and this shares a number of similarities. Given time, a sticky gingerbread pudding note develops alongside the more familiar charred wood/meat aroma.

Palate: The extra strength gives this a much more defined and direct mouthfeel, with scorched orange zest, blueberries, a very fatty nuttiness and a hint of menthol. Water brings through a light blackberry note, alongside a slate/flinty note.   

Finish: Dry tobacco and dark chocolate. 

Overall: The sceptic in me would look at this release as a bit of a cash cow, but in total fairness, this is a very different whisky to the Rare Old, despite sharing its DNA. The extra strength gives it a fundamentally different personality altogether and one which I very much enjoyed. A whisky that will keep delivering in many different ways, whenever you go back to it.  

Next up, the 18 year old, which Matthew informs us has a greater proportion of first-fill European oak, balanced with refill barrels and butts. Clearly, the 16 year old will be a reference point, but by how much?

Mortlach - 18 Year Old - 43.4% - 50cl - RRP £180

Nose: You're straight into a very robust mix of wet mossy leaves, gingerbread, spiced dried fruits, some earthy tobacco, dark chocolate and orange zest. Given time, a more fragrant rose note begins to develop (rather like Turkish Delight) and a lighter coffee aroma. Superb. 

Palate: The bold-as-brass approach continues to the palate, but with some very well balanced complexity in tow: more of the dried fruits, a return of the charred meat, malty dark chocolate, Cognac steeped oranges and then sweet vanilla. Water brings a welcome return of the orchard fruit and then a more milky/creamy coffee note. 

Finish: Dry, with more dark chocolate and oaky spice. 

Overall: A different liquid to the 16 year old, with greater subtlety and integration of the bold flavours you would hope for. This is sensational stuff, make no mistake. 

To finish - the 25 year old. Priced against the Macallan expression of the same age (around £600) this is clearly aimed squarely at the same type of high end drinker. A significant price uplift on where the 18 year old fits, so one would expect this to really deliver. The profile is taken solely from refill American oak casks too... Curious...

Mortlach - 25 Year Old - 43.4% - 50cl - RRP £600

Nose: Hard to put an age on this, but if we were pinned to the wall, we would say it has aromas associated with far older whiskies: highly polished leather, mahogany tables, toasted chestnuts, then into a heady mix of sandalwood, cedar and scented wax. Give this more time to open up and you're suddenly in tropical fruit heaven: custard topped mango, with a little dusting of soot, followed by more of the Turkish Delight from the 18 year old. Effortless ageing - peerless aromas. 

Palate: A continuation of the fragrant wax, backed with salted caramel, light tropical fruits, Portuguese custard tart, and a hidden nuttiness (chestnuts again). Given more time, the complexity develops further with a wonderful integrated spiced oak, sitting alongside the creamy custard. Nothing is out of place, or too dominant - it all sits together rather brilliantly.  

Finish: Lengthy notes of creamy oak, some lighter fragranced wood and a more gentle spice, tempered by a sweet vanilla.

Overall: This is something to sit with, ponder over and try to get to the bottom of. It is without doubt, one of the best new releases to come from Diageo in some time (alongside the Special Release Convalmore of last year.) At £600, anything less would be considered as a huge disappointment, but hats off, as this delivers on every level.  

So there you have it. A brand new core range has arrived. Dylan has officially picked up his Stratocaster. The ticket price and volume have gone up accordingly and the venues are getting more far flung and exotic - but the show has become far more engaging. 

Those who don't want to go along for the ride, remember the old times, start stashing away the bootlegs and tell everyone you were there at the start...And if you still don't like what you're hearing, there's always Woody 'Dailuaine' Guthrie. He's not due for a reinvention any time soon, as far as we can see...

Wednesday 19 March 2014

The Secret Life of the Pensioner: Master Of Malt 60 Year Old

Old age is a funny thing.

In life, we look at old age as something to be fearful of. Things stop working the way they should. We slow down, most likely become more intolerant of the things that irritate us and reminisce about the 'good old days'. In fact, the archetypal pensioner in the UK comes in for a lot of stick really.

In whisky however, people seem to think that older is definitely better. Whilst it is fine to applaud complexity and wisdom, championing the well-seasoned and the mature, simply using age as the be-all- and-end-all indicator of quality seems absurd.

But as we all know, both life and whisky are full of surprises.

What. A. Legend. 
When Fauja Singh first ran the London Marathon back in 2000, he was one year shy of his 90th birthday and clocked a time of six hours and 54 minutes. Impressive stuff. By the time he had completed his 5th London Marathon he had shaved nearly an hour off that time and became the world record holder for his age range - aged 93. Now aged 102, his achievements keep getting all the more remarkable -  he can still run 10k in an hour and a half.

We couldn't find a suitable
picture of an rubbish old whisky,
so here's Flavio Briatore in a thong. 
Conversely, there are some truly terrible old whiskies. Bitter, brittle and well past their best, they coast ungracefully into an oaky retirement home of obscurity, still thinking they're as vibrant as they were 20 years their junior.

Likewise, there are some excellent age-defying whiskies that continually challenge the logic of older is better.  Consider the recent Brora 40 year old we reviewed a few weeks ago. Stuffed full of complexity, yet still as vibrant as a Hoxton hipster's moustache. In the same post, we referenced Overeem's magnificent sherry cask bottling which is likely to have only just seen its 5th birthday, yet has a startlingly broad array of complex flavours. Go figure...

We continue this theme with the launch of yet another old-aged head turner. (Thankfully not wearing a thong)

Master Of Malt continue to surprise and delight with their diverse portfolio of releases: from the brilliantly constructed barrel aged cockails, gins and other maverick gems, through to some serious single cask releases.  Their latest is no exception, this time weighing in at 60 years old.

Carrying the banner of the Secret Bottlings Series, this ancient Speysider (no real clues to which distillery it comes from, although we have a couple of ideas) allows the chaps to bring in some very old stock for a very decent price. £999 is what this will set you back  - yes, still a lot, but clearly a fraction of what this would have cost if the distillery name was included on the label.

With anything this age, one has to leave any preconceptions aside:  If whisky were measured in dog years, this would weigh in at 420. Lucky it isn't, but our impressions of the majority of whiskies the wrong side of 50 have left a lot to be desired - save for Highland Park's initial batch of 50 year old and the absolutely stellar Bowmore 50 year old which was released at the end of last year.  How will this fare?...

Master Of Malt  -  60 Year Old - Secret Bottling Series -  42.2% - £999

Nose: White grapes, some apple sour sweets, quite distinct herbal notes and then a nice waft of polished oak furniture. The age is present in a dusty, hot landscape-style aroma, but is still surprisingly restrained. Given a little time in the glass, toffee apple and sweet tea notes begin to come to the fore, giving this a very complex aroma.

Palate: Milk chocolate and rich sticky flapjack coat the mouth with a swathe of leather bound books and some dark cherry notes. Given a little more time to open up we find Black Forest gateau with a large dollop of vanilla sweetened cream, which makes for a palate both spicy and sweet - with a good vibrancy for its age. The oak is there, but again mercifully, not cladding the walls of the glass, like a Highland Castle drawing room.  

Finish: The cherry notes leave their mark, this time backed with nutmeg and cinnamon spice alongside some sweeter vanilla notes. 

Overall: An OAP whisky who has wisdom, wit and can probably run a marathon quicker than most middle aged posers in their expensive sportswear. Keep an eye on it'll probably have charmed the pants of your missus within five minutes of being introduced. A truly surprising elderly gent with the physique and personality of a whisky 30 years its Jr. If it were a real person it would clearly be this person...

Tuesday 18 March 2014

The American Dr(e)am: From Branch to Bottle. Glenfiddich Single Malt Scotch Whisky

The American Dream. Sort of.
One of the magical things about whisky is seeing it grow up: from being a pure, clear spirit it transforms itself into a dark, delicious aged liquor. It is no secret that what aids this transformation, and where a large percentage of the flavour of whisky comes from, is the oak barrels in which the spirit is matured.

Earlier in the year I visited Jerez to see the production of sherry and sherry barrels, which are in the minority when it comes to the maturation of whisky. For the job of turning spirit into Scotch is left mainly to those casks sourced from America. So vital are these American oak casks to the whisky business, that I took a trip with Glenfiddich to find out exactly how they are made and where the wood comes from to produce them.

Living in London, nipping up to Scotland or heading over to Ireland to watch whisky making in progress is pretty easy. Not so, visiting some of the central and southern states of America... but if you want to see American oak barrels being produced, as well as the bourbon that will first fill them, that's where you have to go. So I packed my bag, my hat and my lumberjack shirt and headed out to the US to find out more about these casks.

Arriving in Kentucky I was surprised to find how cold it was; American whiskey maturation is all about high temperatures and humidity, allowing for fast maturation (a 'straight bourbon' must be two years or older, for example). However, I was out of luck if I wanted to top up my tan as temperatures in the morning had dipped to around about -9°C. It's funny how you can find a use for that bad Christmas jumper, even at the start of March!

My jumper, a hand-knitted affair from a far-flung relative, came in super-handy as my first appointment was a chilly start early one morning- not at a cooperage nor at a distillery, but in the middle of a field somewhere in Indiana. Growing up in the country, I'm used to early starts and cold weather but as a whisky writer I'm also used to warm drams and leather armchairs... so to find myself in the middle of the forest at 6am as the sun rises, without a hip flask in sight... well, you can imagine my terror.

Tim The Lumberjack
As the rising sun slowly lit up the misty forest, with the leaves crunching under foot, I made my way to a small clearing where the light came flooding in. Slowly emerging from the mist, a beast of a man carrying a chainsaw in one hand and a map in the other appeared, making his way towards me. Thrusting out his hand like a bears paw, he introduced himself as Tim, the local lumberjack.

Tim's job is to locate the enormous American white oaks which will be used to make whiskey barrels. Finding white oak trees is not the simplest of tasks; forests are agnostic as to the tree types which call it home and Tim works with just one other person to scour his and his neighbours' woodlands for them. After finding a maple and several other varieties of trees, we eventually came across what looked like a promising specimen: tall and straight, reaching high into the now clear, crisp blue sky, this tree was to be our first catch of the day.

Video: Tim Cuts Down An American White Oak (Note How He Manages To NOT Knock Other Trees Over At The Same Time)

Starting up his chainsaw Tim encouraged me to stand back in the woods to watch ("Back a bit further. A bit further, please. No... keep going. It's a big one!") as the tree came tumbling to the ground. Crashing into the forest floor Tim estimated it to be about 90ft long; quite a winner. After a good morning finding the right white oaks to fell, Tim loads his logs onto a lorry and drives them to the nearest sawmill, where they are turned into staves.

Tim The Lumberjack's Truck
A fascinating job, the role of this local lumberjack was far from my vision of huge teams of trunk-hunters deforesting left, right and centre. My favourite example of his lifestyle was when I asked Tim if he does this every day. His reply? Simply "Nope. Some days I go fishin'".

Once Tim's timber has been processed into staves, they make their way to a local cooperage, in this case, the family run Kelvin Cooperage.

Kelvin Cooperage is, as you would expect with the current demand for casks from all over the world, a hive of busyness. Sandwiched between Louisville airport and the wilderness of the sprawling State, it produces casks for some of the biggest companies in the world, including the chaps at Glenfiddich where there seems to be a real symbiotic relationship between the two companies, both being proudly family owned and operated.

The two brothers in charge at Kelvin, Paul and Kevin, are two of the most fascinating people you could wish to spend some time with, when it comes to the world of whiskey. These are the guys who provide the key element for every distiller who wants to make a mature spirit and as a result quality has to be at the forefront of everything they do.

A Heavily Charred American Oak Stave at Kelvin Cooperage.
Originally from Scotland and sons of a cooper, they relocated to Kentucky to start their cooperage. Sourcing wood locally, the barrels destined for Scotland are firstly used in the American whiskey business before being sent, whole, to Scotland to be filled with spirit.

I've been to cooperages before but have never witness the entire journey of oak, from branch to barrel, experiencing the sheer human endeavour involved; from taking 90ft logs out of a forest on a frosty spring morning to the coopers hard at work making or mending the barrels to be filled with spirit. Add to this the care and attention of the whisky-makers in Scotland and time it takes to mature Scotch whisky, then you'll realise that the age on the bottle is a mere indication of the whisky's age; it's true birthday to be found deep in the roots of an American white oak tree.

The Glenfiddich - 12 Years Old - 40% abv - 70cl - £26ish here and here

Nose: A big hit of vanilla, fresh green apples, cool whip, iced buns and some malt. Over time, kiwi, goosberry fool and basil appear to give the nose added depth.

Palate: The kwiki and goosberry (and other soft green fruits) come to the fore, with green and red apples in the middle and vanilla underpinning the whole palate. The malt gives good foundations for these flavours to sit on, while the vanilla takes the driving seat over time, especially with a splash of water. Fresh.

Finish: some spices but the ultimate flavour is apple sours and American-style 'watermelon'.

Overall: We have always said that these single malts with a more accessible price point are not to be dismissed. Sometimes it really pays to go back and try stalwarts such as this to see why they are so well loved by the consumer. Don't ignore because of their ubiquity.

Thursday 13 March 2014

I Come From The Land of the Ice and Snow: Reyka Vodka

I don't know how much you remember from your youth, but there are certain moments which, when I cast my mind back to them, define the age I was and that era of my life. 

For me the first real football World Cup but I remember was Italia '90. Such was the impact of the fantastic England team at that tournament, that I even purchased the Italia '90 Subbuteo set to relive those famous games with my dad on our dining table. 

The reality is that it probably rained hideously all summer long, but my memory is of running around the park playing as much football as I could and pretending to be an International footballer. I was 10 years old.

Fast forward to today and many World Cups have passed by. Just two later, when France '98 rolled around, life had changed immeasurably: now 18, this World Cup was experienced mainly in the pubs of Oxfordshire, surrounded by beer and friends, the same as many football tournaments since.

For me, World Cups have become an occasion to invite people over (or nip to the pub), open a few cold cans of beer and watch a couple of interesting football matches while catching up on gossip and generally just hanging out and I know this to be true for the generation before me, too. Beer and World Cups are synonymous for me; the perfect beverage to enjoy most watching my top sport.

But imagine being Icelandic... because, until 1989 beer was illegal in the country. There is a whole generation of people slightly older than me who were not able to enjoy any sporting occasion with a cold can of lager, let alone an artisanal craft ale. 

Thankfully times have changed and it is no surprise that post-1989 things in the Icelandic drinks business have been looking up. In the last few years craft breweries have been popping up over the island like sightings of trolls in the Viking times; even calling themselves things like Freyja... crazy, huh!

Not A Whisky, Freya is a locally brew from Iceland
However, as much as we love brewing and beer, they are mere soft drinks compared to what we are concerned with here at Caskstrength: spirits. Such is our love for the stuff that we have a new book coming out later this year called The Spirit Explorers, more of which you will hear about as the year progresses. It looks at interesting spirits, made by interesting people, in interesting places; one of those places being Iceland, for Iceland is the home to the Reyka vodka distillery, first ever on the island. 

An ambitious project which started in 2005, Reyka isn't made like most other vodkas in large column stills, but is distilled using a Carter-Head still of which there are only six operational in the world. The Carter-Head copper still (below right) was traditionally used for gin production as it is easy to hang a basket of botanicals inside. However, the chaps at Reyka have replaced the botanicals with Icelandic volcanic lava rock, which allegedly filters the spirit as it evaporates before condensing. 

Reyka's Carter-Head Copper Still
Again after condensing it passes through a glass receptacle full of lava rocks. These rocks and the ones in the basket are replaced every 50 distillations, cleansing the spirit as it comes off the still.

Couple this unique still and their addition of volcanic rock with Icelandic water, created by the melting of glaciers which feed the local streams and the pure Icelandic air, and you're left with a spirit that is not only crystal clear but has a delicate aroma, wonderfully rich mouth feel with hints of minerals and some vanilla and a finish which gives 'fresh' a whole new meaning. 

I enjoyed it simply over ice (taken from a glacial waterfall) or in a classic vodka martini with zest, where the fresh minerality combines with citrus to be the cocktail equivalent of a quick snort on some Vick's Vapour Rub. Worthy of a start to anyone's evening after a long day in the office.

If you get a chance to try this copper pot still vodka, then give it a go. Try it on the rocks to really put a slice of Iceland in your glass.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Timeless (and Ageless) Japanese Delights: Suntory's new Distiller's Reserve Yamazaki & Hakushu

Wow, what an extraordinary month it has been for whisky chatter so far. Any more of this excitement and we'll have to take a short nap somewhere quiet and friendly -  Rum or Armagnac perhaps.  ;-) 

First up and a large contingent of the online whisky community got its knickers unnecessarily in a twist about the unknown future of Scotch whisky and the terrifying looming spectre of No Age Statement whiskies. We'd like to issue a zen-like calming call to all those bloggers concerned: Take a deep breath and pour yourself something nice (maybe even N.A.S?)...whisky isn't broken quite just yet - we promise. 

Right on cue, Diageo, (seemingly the target for much abuse this past week especially) unveil a new range of Mortlach expressions AND a monumental stepping stone in the history of Brora. Two fairly hefty (and polarising) statements in the malt whisky world, by any stretch of the imagination. Whilst we'll reserve our judgment call on the 'Mortlach Scenario' (which sounds very much like a new Dan Brown novel) until we have actually tasted the liquid (makes sense, does it not chaps?) we can at least be thankful that there is plenty of excellent whisky left out there and the prospect of the industry moving forward yet again in the eyes of the every day consumer looks extremely positive in our view. 

Then the largest players in the world of Japanese whisky Suntory announces two brand new No Age Statement expressions, which will radically change the landscape of the international appetite for its whisky. 

It seems, as if No Age Statement-itus is catching folks... Better run and take cover. 

Stirred 13-and-a-half times?
A classic Highball
Suntory's latest brace of releases focus on the specific styles of their two malt distilleries, Yamazaki and Hakushu. The former, widely regarded as the very first Japanese whisky distillery celebrated its 90th anniversary last year and has long been a firm favourite here, for pushing the boundaries of flavour and versatility in whisky. 

In the 12 year old expression of both distilleries, Suntory have defined, in our opinion, (with the addition of Nikka's From The Barrel) the delicate simplicity of the Mizuwari (or Highball with sparkling water) -  a drink so perfect in its construction that lengthy tomes have been written about the correct number of times one should stir the mixture of whisky, ice and supremely clear spring water - Suntory reckoning that 13-and-a-half times is the pinnacle of excellence.  

So why bring out two new whiskies- The Distiller's Reserve range - especially lacking in age statements?

Well, like every whisk(e)y company in the world, times are a'changing and global demand for aged Japanese stock has meant that there is precious little out there - especially in Europe. With such an unprecedented focus on world whisky, Suntory have been smart enough to create two distillery defining expressions that not only deliver big on flavour, but also won't cost the earth, given the inevitable price rises of the 10, 12 and 18 year old expressions.  

Suntory Chef Blender Shinji Fukuyo pointing
out his predecessors  
At a launch last week in central London, both these new Japanese expressions were formally unveiled, after a highly successful introduction in the domestic market. We were lucky enough to join Shinji Fukuyo, Chief Blender and General Manager of the Whisky Blending and Planning Department at Suntory; the man responsible for creating the new range. Introducing the whiskies, Mr Fukuyo revealed that one of his daily responsibilities is to sample 300 different casks from the Suntory inventory, so with so many parameters to play with, putting these whiskies together was never going to be easy.  

And it wasn't.  

'After my first experiment, I was scalded by my boss,' he jokingly revealed, as we began to delve into the core component parts of both whiskies. But without a doubt, his second attempts have squarely hit the mark, both whiskies delivering what could accurately be described as the core flavours of each distillery: Yamazaki, known for its rich, well-rounded red berry fruit and lighter citrus zest - and Hakushu dialling in a little smokiness alongside a malty core, surrounded by soft orchard fruit and a little spice.   

Cask samples
Both expressions are formed by careful use of different cask styles, which Suntory have explored individually in their own dedicated bottlings. In the Yamazaki Distiller's Reserve, we were treated to cask samples from a Mizunara oak cask (a strain of oak unique to the Far East) which delivers a totally original and highly flavoursome spice note, reminiscent of Japanese incense. Alongside this, a sample from a cask of sherry matured whisky aged for around 20 years, complete with its big, bold and robust earthy dryness.  But an interesting additional Bordeaux wine cask finished whisky hinted at where much of the well-rounded red berry fruits and additional dryness in the new expression comes from.  

The Hakushu Distiller's Reserve comes from a totally different flavour profile altogether. Samples of lightly peated and heavily peated Hakushu were tried alongside a frankly astonishing sample of first fill bourbon cask Hakushu - if you happen to chance on a bottle of this style of Hakushu (there are a few floating around at good indie retailers) grab it - the tropical fruit notes will change your perception of whisky making forever.  (in fact see our review of this expression here)

So individually, each cask style delivers a distinct 'colour' to the overall picture. But what are they like when combined together?  'Stupendous'  is one word we would happily use.  
Yamazaki -  Distiller's Reserve -  43%  - No Age Statement - RRP under £40

Nose: A lightness hits first, with subtle vanilla and lemon zest, leading into fresh strawberries, a little milk chocolate and some golden syrup. There is also an emerging spicy/incense note, which develops with the addition of water.

Palate: The fruit becomes more intense, with fresh fleshy white peaches, a hint of raspberry, a dryer oaky note, vanilla essence and a twist of lemon zest.  It is vibrant and youthful, but still full of fabulous character.

Finish: Sweeter fruity notes linger, with an overall tannic background.

Overall: A superb start. This encompasses all the hallmarks of the 12 year old Yamazaki, but leads it into a new fresher styling.  Very clever whisky making and a steal for the retail price.
Hakushu Distiller's Reserve -  43% - No Age Statement - RRP under £40

Nose: Wonderfully fruity with soft pears, a touch of green apple peel, fresh mint, vanilla, a slight damp mossiness and a waft of very fragrant smoke -  enough to drive the heart of the distillery character but not too in-your-face for those who find peat too much of a distraction.

Palate: A lighter fruit develops first with fresh honeydew melon, sweet vanilla, the floral smoke mixing with a charred herbaceous note. With water, it really develops, the fruit starting to integrate wonderfully with the smoke.

Finish: The smoke is left on the palate, with a subtle fruitiness and a hint of oak.

Overall: Another fantastically balanced whisky. Hard to pick out a favourite here, as both whiskies deliver so much character within their 'house' styles.  We would recommend both of these side-by-side - especially if you're planning to have a go at your very own entry into the Mizuwari/Highball phenomenon!

Make no mistake: Suntory have undoubtedly released two game-changing No Age Statement whiskies here.

Anyone still left ranting, please form an orderly queue.

Expect to see both these whiskies at either Master Of Malt or Whisky Exchange soon.