Translate Caskstrength!

Wednesday 30 July 2014

I Come From The Land Of The Ice And Snow: Benromach Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Snow Joke: My Trip To Benromach
One of the scariest drives I have ever done in my life was early one March morning from Perth to Forres, a small town near Inverness. It was a Monday and I was up around 4am with the aim of arriving at the Benromach distillery at 8am, to start a day working at the distillery to learn about how the distillery works and document it for an article in Whisky Magazine.

Benromach in the Snow
However, just after waking I threw back the curtains to see somewhere in the region of 36 inches of snow clogging up the path below. Scurrying outside, I quickly dug a path for my car to exit on to the well-salted main road and began the slow drive up the A9. As I passed Dalwhinnie distillery the thermometer in my car showed -15 degrees centigrade. To say it was cold would be an understatement.

After slipping and sliding all the way north from Perth, I arrived at Benromach just in time for a pre-work cup of tea to warm my frozen bones. The sky had tuned from granite to deep blue, and the white washed walls of the distillery shone like platinum, a chimney in the yard reaching high into the sky, providing a beacon for the angels to pop in and grab their share. I was glad to have risked the icy roads and the deep snow to make it for the start of the day.

The history of Benromach follows that of many other Scotch distilleries, closed by the previous owners, United Distillers (now Diageo), in 1983 after the first production started in 1898.

Ten years later, the local family business of Gordon & MacPhail (G&M) were looking to expand from bottling and blending into distilling and the opportunity to purchase the site came up. Sadly, the distillery was little more than buildings, as the equipment (including the stills) had all been removed.

Seeing this as an opportunity, G&M embarked on an ambitious programme of installing an entirely new operation inside, developing a new still shape and keeping all the production in a single, linear line.

The aim was to make Speyside whisky as it had been produced pre-1960’s- with a hint of smoke and this is what they have achieved in the newly repackaged 10 Year Old:

Benromach – 10 Years Old – 43% abv - £29.28 here

Nose: There is certainly a hint of smoke on the nose of this wee beastie. It is sweet, with a hint of orange citrus fruit (blood orange), some icing sugar and raspberry. A touch of sandlewood. Very well balanced and extremely inviting.

Palate: Banana bread, apricots in syrup and fig jam. The smoke is not as prominent on the palate, but tingles away under some tinned peaches, runny honey and vintage vanilla.

Finish: Rich rum cake and upside down pudding with a waft of smoke.

Overall: This is a fantastic whisky, it really it is. The hint of smoke gives this more of an island element, but really only on the nose and the finish; the palate is much more classic Speyside. How they can knock this out at under £30 is beyond me. A must for anyone looking for a quality single malt on a tight budget.

With production of the new style spirit starting in 1998, it would be a while before any new mature stocks were ready for the market. G&M were in luck however, as stocks of whisky from before the closure already existed, enabling them to create a range of vintage Benromach releases.

Benromach – 1976 Vintage – 46% abv - £415.80 here

Note: constructed from 1st Fill and Refill Sherry Casks

Nose: There is the Benromach DNA of orange blossom and red fruits, but age has given this a freshness of green fruits (star fruit, gooseberry) and cooking apple, dusted with cinnamon.

Palate: The orange blossom really flourishes here, with other red fruits (red boiled sweets) and a slight hint of chilli jam. Milk chocolate dusted with cocoa powder and praline coat the mouth as tropical fruits develop.

Finish: Sweet, with an abundance of red fruits.

Overall: A classic ‘old’ whisky, this gives you everything you’d expect from a 1970’s sherried Speyside whisky.

If you haven’t experienced Benromach before, you don’t need to get up at 4am and drive through thick snow, risking life and limb to see the distillery. Save yourself the petrol money and order a bottle of the 10 year old. I’m not sure that you’ll find a bottle of single malt Scotch for much better value. And once you’ve fallen in love, start saving for the 1974.

Friday 18 July 2014

All Hail The Cooper: Glenfiddich Excellence Single Malt Scotch Whisky

The great author Jonathan Swift once wrote that “he was a bold man who first ate an oyster”. It is this sort of gastronomic experimentation which has given us such great delights as a human race, tickling our taste buds with incredible innovation.

I often wonder who it was that first invented the meringue; they must have been the Heston Blumenthal of their day, but probably didn’t get the fame their invention should have rewarded them with, let alone a Michelin star or even their own range of cookware.

And it is this need to create, to always push the boundaries, that man has been striving for ever since we had a sense of taste, a lust for flavour. Of course we all need to eat, drink and be merry. But the tastier the first two parts of that phrase, the greater the volume of merriment.

It’s a simple equation: Eat + Drink = Merry. Increasing the pleasure aspect of one, or both is like swapping the ‘plus’ symbol for a ‘multiply’ symbol. This is why we celebrate those who have the ability increase our pleasure, to change our +, to an x.

In the mix of master blender, the superstar bar tender (what an appropriate phrase to write with Tales of the Cocktail happening at the moment), the footballer-turned-whisky-maker... there is one person often forgotten, who is key to the final flavour of any aged spirit. And that is the cooper.

The origins of cask maturation have been long forgotten as the cask has, for centuries, been a fairly utilitarian tool for the transportation of goods. From coal and fish, to a variety of liquids, the barrel was the carrier bag of its day; developed into a sea container for special goods. But it is the people who first discovered maturation from a white spirit to a dark, delicious drink who should be celebrated as much as the man who first shucked and sucked an oyster. Long forgotten, these men are responsible for something very special, the ideal of the cask to cradle some of our most precious liquids from simple spirits to super single malts.

Already this year I have visited cooperages in Scotland, Spain and the USA and the results never fail to surprise me. Handmade, in the most part, casks are designed to absorb a small amount of their liquid contents, swapping spirit for spices, whiskey for wood influence. But not only do casks add flavour to their contents, they also breath; slowly letting air in and out, as if they are giant wooden lungs, taking in oxygen and breathing out lost spirit, a gift to the angels.

This conflicting purpose, to both store and give away, makes barrels almost biblical, following the guidance that the more you give away, the richer you will become; ergo, the more active the cask, the more condensed the liquid inside becomes, taking flavour from both the wood and the previous incumbent of the cask, and the richer the liquid gets. A truly spiritual experience.

In my journeys to see both sherry casks and bourbon barrels in production, to understand more about their role in maturation, I have learned a lot about the preparation that a cask must go through before it is allowed to mature Scotch whisky.

There are huge differences between American oak and European oak, between ex-sherry casks and ex-bourbon barrels, between a hogshead and a puncheon. But all were, at some stage, the results of experiments by innovators, leaving a legacy for today and well beyond. 

Thank you to those people, whoever you are.

Glenfiddich – 'Excellence' – 26 Years Old – Matured 100% American Oak – 43% abv - £350

Nose: The casks which this whisky has been matured in have delivered a first class aroma of sweet vanilla, custard cream biscuits, malted milk and crème brulee. There is a hint of oak spice, but only to give body and provide a platform for the developed Madagascan vanilla and white flowers to build on.

Palate: A richer mouthfeel than expected, this is a buttery dram with a hint of heather, yet again some spices to balance out the palate. It is clearly American oak, ex-bourbon and takes in the butterscotch aspects of well matured whisky from these styles of casks, but sprinkles a small amount of cinnamon on top.

Finish: A brilliant balance of sweet and spicy, with that rich vanilla giving a super landing to a great dram.

Overall: This whisky was designed to reflect the style of cask it has been matured in. American oak, ex-bourbon barrels filled in the last century, have marshalled a spirit through more than two decades, resulting in a whisky which is the perfect ambassador for this style of maturation.

If it hadn’t been for those great cooper-innovators, inventing the cask, maturing and re-maturing spirit in it, we wouldn’t have a whisky like this today. So, cheers to those forgotten folk for giving us all something so special which will echo through the ages.    

Monday 14 July 2014

Hug A Hoodie: Quick Fire Ramblings: Highland Park Dark Origins & Bowmore Tempest Batch 5

Well, it's bloody hot today. At this time of the year in the UK, it's clearly impossible to predict any kind of temperature in advance. A day ago, I was sheltering from the howling gale and rain under a tree (wearing a hooded top) beside a tennis court, thinking why did I decide to peruse such a stupid outdoor pastime.  In an hour, I shall be slipping into the comfort (!) of a woollen dinner suit and bow tie for an evening event. Why?? Damn You Mother Nature!

Anyway, with such complete contradictions afoot, it's probably a good time to review some arguably un-summery whiskies that we have sitting in our office, probably waiting for a cold snap to take hold.

Recently Highland Park launched a brand new expression called Dark Origins, supposedly to celebrate the unorthodox working methods of the distillery's founder, Magnus Eunson, who operated his shady business as an illicit distiller largely in the shadows, away from the prying eye of the exciseman.

Dark Origins comes complete with a hooded chap on the label (who, if we're honest, looks a little more 'urban' than the likes of a Hebridean distiller) and the whisky itself is comprised of twice as many first fill sherry casks than the classic formulation of the 12 year old, aiming for a richer, darker and altogether more muscular whisky.  Have they succeeded?

Highland Park - Dark Origins -  46.8% - NAS - RRP £65

Nose: Certainly an abundance of full bodied sherry notes on the first sniff: caramel, chopped nuts, a little mustiness, molasses, all balanced with a waft of smoke.  It is reminiscent of the 12 year old, but has more depth. So far so good.

Palate: Very tarry, sooty and oily. The peat gives this a charred, slightly bitter approach, taking it away from the classic floral, honeyed sweetness of the 12 year old. There is lingering wood, a slight creosote and a bold menthol undertone, but one can't help but be overpowered by sootiness. The most smoky HP to date?  Very probably, but it will certainly take some getting use to. Given time, a sweeter note develops, helping to balance out the proceedings. 

Finish: Lingering wood, a little pepper and charred meat notes round out a very dry finish.

Overall: A hard to understand beast, this one.  The nose reveals a lot of real complexity, alongside all the clearly intended darkness, but the palate is full-on beat-you-about-the-head-and-neck-with-a-fence-post stuff.  Put it this way, it's like walking through Croydon late on a Saturday night.  In the shadows lurk danger: Terrifying, but just a little bit exciting at the same time. They should start producing hoodies at the distillery shop... 

Next up and the latest instalment in Bowmore's well received Tempest series. Now five batches in, the series sees no sign of slowing down, nor changing direction, short of the subtle differences between the batches.  It is bottled at 55.9%  and rocks up around £50 as a price point. Not too shabby considering what else lies at this price point. In terms of maturation style, this should be a sharp contrast to the Highland Park above, as it is drawn from first fill bourbon casks, giving a lighter, brighter note. Less hoodie, more boating blazer?  We reviewed the last batch here - and if this turns out any where near as good, Bowmore will have done it again. 

Bowmore - Tempest -  Small Batch - Edition 5 - 10 Years Old - 55.9% RRP £50

Nose: A subtle floral/fruity peat emerges first, alongside fresh sponge cake, golden syrup a touch of almond oil and marzipan. Dig deeper and you'll find ripe banana, a touch of plasticine and a surprising mossy/leaf note.  

Palate: The peat is kept in check by a zesty lemon note, some soft brown sugar, fudge topped muffins and very creamy coffee.  In fact, this could be the most confectionery- influenced batch yet. Another sip reveals more marzipan and a touch of menthol tobacco, the floral peat returning right at the end.  

Finish: Slightly dry, but with bags of underlying, lingering floral smoke.

Overall: Another tick in the 'excellent' box from this batch. Again, it offers balance, character and accessibility, but is robust enough for those who are looking for a peaty whisky to ooze additional character.  

Friday 11 July 2014

Employee Of The Month: American Maturation at Heaven Hill

To Dream, The Impossible Dream...

America: land of dreams and opportunity. Visiting is always a joy (despite ever increasing security checks at Heathrow- yawn) and it highlights one of the great things about being UK based- our closeness to the US and to Europe. We really do occupy a funny middle ground between our friends on the other side of the Atlantic, and those just across the Channel.

Having recently returned from another trip to the States, it is easy to draw on the similarities (language, popular culture, most foods, sense of humour, etc) to feel very much at home, but to look at the 'differences' (currency, costs, weather, architecture, style, accent, a lack of social responsibility to look after the poor and sick...) to realise you are elsewhere.

And these differences do not stop at currency, politics and tastes, for America also makes whisky, but an entirely different style of whisky that we make here in the UK and these differences, along with some striking similarities, were highlighted to me on a recent trip to Heaven Hill distillery in Kentucky.

Heaven Hill is composed of two main sites, both huge in scale; the result is a company whose fingerprints are seen across the whole whisky category, in Scotch, Irish and Japanese whisky bottles because most of ex-Heaven Hill barrels end up being used to mature spirit from producers in these countries. To put it simply, the ripples of distilling here spread far and wide, on a truly global scale and all this under the influence of the owners, the Shaprio family.

It is unusual to find a place with such influence, such standing and such fame that is still family owned and it is in this fact where we see, in all the differences between Scotch and American whisky production, another small similarity, another mirror of authenticity, as Scotland is home to William Grant & Sons, producers of Glenfiddich, The Balvenie and Grants blended Scotch, and also still family-owned and operated. In both you see a friendship and a working relationship between the two dynasties, with much of the William Grant Scotch distillate matured in ex-Heaven Hill casks.

As is the way with Kentucky bourbon production, one distillery can accommodate the production of many brands, and the Heaven Hill distillery is no exception. Spread over two sites, one for spirit production (the Bernheim distillery in Louisville), and one now specifically for the maturation of spirit (just on the edge of Bardstown, Kentucky), the former contains column stills producing various base spirits with differing mash bills, which will go on to mature, at their second site, into individual, unique expressions such as Elijah Craig, Fighting Cock, and Parkers.

At this juncture, we could get bogged down in the differing spirit profiles and make-up, looking at Heaven Hills portfolio and drawing comparisons between their different brands. But seeing as this task could encompass a blog in its own right (and not just a blog post), I want to look at something more fundamental: maturation.

The one thing we can be sure of is that prohobition had a huge impact upon spirit production in the USA. Not only did it create a vacuum of quality spirit (often filled by Scotch smuggled into the country), it provided a fertile ground for the cocktail to thrive and stuck the nail in the coffin of several distilleries around the world, as well as in the States itself. But for all the negatives, what it did do was create almost a clean slate for the distillers of America to embrace new technology.

As a regular visitor to Scotland and someone who writes a lot about Scotch, there are certain touchstones which can nearly always be relied on: ancient distilleries, copper pot stills, small dunnage warehouses, pagoda roofs... these are the 'shortbread tin' stereotypes which don't just nod in the direction of heritage and history, but positively support it. But lets not forget that the original distillers who first came to the newly discovered land of America would have been Welsh, English, Scottish, Irish and European distillers, arriving to farm the land which would have included running the occasional still, as they would have done back home.

However, prohibition served to wipe these small pot still artisans from the landscape and, once the Great Experiment ended, it was time to rebuild the distilling business to quench the thirst of a nation.

 Now, if youre starting a new business today, you dont head out to buy a typewriter, headed note paper and stamps. You go and purchase a laptop, register a domain and set up an email address. In the same way, the distillers of America didnt opt for pot stills (yesterdays technology) but for the new, efficient column still. They didnt build small dunnage warehouses, only three barrels high because that is the height a man can lift a cask to. Nope, they built enormous cathedrals of casks, because items like forklift trucks existed, to lift barrels into place. And thus the slow drift from the similarities of the Celtic settlers and their relatives in Scotland, and the modern distilling and maturation techniques seen in the bourbon business today, commenced.

Column stills can also be found in Scotland and it is the production of grain which keeps the industry alive through blends (and now a growing category in its own right thanks to single grain whisky from the likes of Girvan), and of course there are huge technical differences in the base production of bourbon and Scottish grain whisky (the basic grain make up, sour mashing, etc) but it is the maturation which really is striking.

As with all Kentucky bourbon whiskey, brand new American oak casks are used, imparting a strong, robust and sweet flavour to the maturing spirit inside. But unlike those hobbit-esque warehouses to be found on the distillery doorstep in Scotland, the warehouses at Heaven Hill are, quite frankly, enormous. Seeing their sheer size put me in mind of the first time I saw an Airbus A380 descending over London for its arrival at Heathrow. Massive and a little bit scary.

Entering one of these huge, white spaces (which look they might have been designed by someone with a fetish for Soviet-era prisons) you are simply hit with a staircase, leading to a series of floors and doors: The Maturation Zone in the Crystal Maze, perhaps. Perfectly constructed, each level (of which there were thirteen!) houses an intricate system of barrels, all holding a different style of spirit, designed to mature for different lengths of time, becoming different brands of bourbon.

There was no musty smell of earth and bung cloth as there would be in Scotland. But a sweet aroma of spirit, oak and freshly cut pine. The temperature was warmer than outside (something you dont get in Scotland) and the barrels, all uniform, were organised by row. Walking around them, up and down between the floors, was like flying around in the 3D grid system in Blade Runner. Sadly, without an iconic glass of whisky in my hand, as these casks were very much sealed.

Climbing the stairs to the very top and peering down thirteen floors to the ground level, taking in the scale of maturation, surrounded by other enormous warehouses, this couldnt have been anywhere else but America. This was maturation, supersized.

Back inside the safety of Heaven Hills visitor centre, I was finally able to experience some of the magic of a single barrel bourbon when I was handed a glass of whiskey, and one which represents some of the best value for money of any bourbon on the market today:

Evan Williams Single Barrel - 2003/2013 - 43.3% abv - 75cl

Nose: Rich vanilla, red summer berry compot, a big splash of new oak, builders tea with about 15 sugars and a sprinkling of cinnamon. Rich with a big attitude, but not over-oaked.

Palate: This is where this badboy really delivers. The palate is seriously easy going, yet there is a foundation of big flavour with more vanilla, aprcot jam, some smoky BBQ sauce (without this being smoky, oddly) and rasberry travel sweets.

Finish: Robust, rounded and very well balanced with more vanilla and a hint of oak spice.

Overall: If you want a great example of a single cask bourbon, at ten years of age, this is a real corker. I paid about $25 for this bottle (well under £20) and I'm note sure I could have spent $25 better, really. An absolute corker of a dram which is still only about £35 over here in the UK.

I had the chance to pop into the new Evan Williams experience in Lousville and the plans there are fantastic. Theyve just built a small pot still operation which fills a barrel a day (when it is running) to bring a craft, pot still element to Evan Williams, so look out for stocks from that in the future. This scaled down visitor experience, in a former shop in the heart of Louisville is, quite simply, one of the best whiskey-based attractions I have ever visited, so if you find yourself out there, make sure you go.

In visiting Kentucky to discover the joys of bourbon, you get to see the legacy of The Great Experiment and how it has forever changed the landscape of distilling in America. With the craft distilling revolution bringing back the pot still, and the stalwarts of the business such as Heaven Hill offering seriously good liquid at such great value, the future for American whiskey looks incredibly positive

Monday 7 July 2014

The Guide to Home Smoking: Ardbeg Kildalton

Blimey, that was a swift three weeks!  Our recent inactivity over the aforementioned period was largely down to travelling, spiritual enlightenment and a mixture of other interferences, but we return to our desks a little more well travelled, a little more enlightened and a little more interfer.... whoops... that didn't work did it....

Anyway, with the current clutch of whisky releases (Highland Park Dark Origins, Tomatin Cu Bocan 1989 and Kininvie 23 year old - which will all be reviewed in due course) we turn ourselves to another tasty titbit, which follows on nicely from our previous Islay-based post.  

Mention the word Ardbeg in certain circles and you'll usually be confronted by a frothing mess of superlatives delivered by a dribbling, stammering whisky obsessive -  usually from Western Europe or Scandinavia. In short, we can think of very few distilleries that have some how managed to capture the hearts of such an obsessive and tight-knit clique. Since the Ardbeg Committee sprung up in the year 2000, quickly gaining over 3,000 international followers, the reputation of the brand for being one of Islay's real treasures has truly unfolded. Today there are over 50,000 members of the committee, making it one of the most popular brand affiliation programmes (to use the formal tongue of marketing speak) within the whisky business. 

The committee release bottlings have historically been a way to gauge the progress of the development of the whisky released by Ardbeg: From Very Young For Discussion (the first taste of Ardbeg since it reopened) to the 'Oogling' (a work in progress version of Uigeadail) and latter day releases (Supernova, RollercoasterAlligator and Ardbeg Day etc) the committee members could get their mits on limited release bottles before anyone else.  

This however created a problem: Such exponential growth meant that, rather like concert tickets for a one-off Led Zeppelin (or One Direction, if you are that way inclined) concert you effectively had to be sitting at your computer at 8.59am, ready, logged in and poised to enter your Visa details before anyone else.  The releases went from 100's of bottles, to a few thousand to 10's of thousands, simply to cater for the mass disappointment felt when those not quick enough missed out.  

It's a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't.  

But with Ardbeg's newest release (ok not a Committee release, but a limited edition) the theme has changed somewhat.

Kildalton is an important name in the world of the Ileach - and the whisky connoisseur. Head to Islay and take the short drive down along the south shore road, past Laphroaig, Lagavulin and the Ardbeg distillery and eventually you will end up at a weather beaten, ruinous parish church. The Cross of Kildalton stands proudly on this hallowed spot and anyone who has visited will tell you that it is a very special place indeed. The cross itself is over 1,200 years old and acts as a symbol of of Hebridean life; it is a haven of tranquility and spiritual enlightenment.  

Ardbeg released an expression back in 2004 under the Kildalton banner. It was effectively a very lowly peated whisky at cask strength distilled in 1980, which was rated so positively by connoisseurs around the world, that any bottles still in existence are now becoming increasingly difficult to find.  A Kildalton from 1981 was also released as part of a special pack celebrating Ardbeg peat, which you can pick up at auction and is well worth hunting down. It also contains a miniature of the legendary Ardbeg 17 year old.

However, the name Kildalton has been resurrected once again -  and this time comes with a charitable connection.  

Sales of the new limited edition Ardbeg Kildalton bottling will generate funds for the North Highland Initiative, a charity that was set up by HRH Prince Charles to support fragile rural communities across the North Highlands. As part of this, the partnership will directly benefit charities and community organisations on Islay.   

So what of the whisky itself?  

Well the new Kildalton expression is bottled at 46%  and carries no age statement. Drawing on peated whiskies from both bourbon and sherry casks, it is quite different to the original Kildalton release, but is distinctly different from some of the more robust smoky expressions in the range.

Perhaps the most important part of the story is that until later this autumn, the whisky is only available to buy at the distillery itself, after such time it will be available online. The outturn remains unknown, but we suspect it will be enough to cater for the many thousands of die-hard Ardbeg fans out there. Worth taking a trip out to Islay especially?  Let's find out...

Ardbeg - Kildalton - 2014 Release - No Age Statement - 46%  - RRP £120 

Nose: Light and very creamy at first, with a mixture of soft toffee, dried flowers and a hint of floral style smoke, alongside some sweet Earl Grey tea. It is fairly gentle, with a graceful approach to smokiness, as opposed to kicking you in the nose with big bonfire or medicinal notes. Similarities to the original Kildalton?  Yes, for sure. Perhaps not quite as refined, but anyone finding the full blown notes from the distillery too overpowering will fall for this quite easily. 

Palate: Wow, there's the smoke. Incredibly dry, with a wood-influenced peatiness,  some coal tar soap, caramel and an earthiness all begin to develop. It's certainly a whisky of two minds, this one. Given time, the wood reveals a slight sweetness -  possibly a little sherry influence too, but it is well packaged and balanced all in all. 

Finish: A dry, lingering smoky residue is left on the tongue, with a touch of the medicinal side of smoke developing and some orchard fruit. 

Overall: Here we find Ardbeg in playful territory. It is smoky enough to give peat heads their fix (who wants the stupidly overly peated expressions these days?  Not us, that's for sure...) and has a delicious lingering freshness alongside. Yes it is expensive for a no age statement Ardbeg, but factor in the charitable connection and it's hard not to feel some affection for the new Kildalton.  

Worth taking a trip for?  It's Islay we're talking about here. Of course it bloody well is.