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Monday 26 January 2015

The First of The Last Great Malts: Craigellachie Single Malt Scotch Whisky

The relationship between beauty and functionality is one I struggle with. I'm Scandinavian and subscribe to the ideal that, as far as you can make it, everything should be "both beautiful and functional".

There are plenty of excellent examples of this, from coffee makers through to oyster shucking kits, but every so often in life there is an example of extreme functionality without beauty, and the embodiment of this has to be a certain Mr Dean Windass.

A builder by trade, Dean Windass is what we humble chaps in the pub would call 'an ugly f*cker'. Dean signed as a professional footballer for Hull City (a place itself of questionable beauty...) before moving to Aberdeen where he became somewhat of a legend.

Moving back south to English football, Windass signed in 1998 for Oxford United at a sum that is still counted a club record fee for the University city team, and when he arrived in the City of Dreaming Spires he came with a warning- for Deano, as he was known, had been much loved by the supporters of the football clubs he had played for previously. But a genius on the pitch, he was also dogged by a fierce temper and Oxford United fans received warning of this via our weekly football fanzine (kids- this was like a blog but in paper form, before the Internet existed).

The story goes that Dean, the man with the face of a boxer but the feet of an angel, had once been sent off THREE TIMES in one game, whilst playing for Aberdeen: firstly for some on the pitch footballing offence; secondly for verbally abusing the ref who sent him off and thirdly (and brilliantly in my eyes) for "using the corner flag as a weapon".

Wow. Just wow.

In what would be considered a long career on the pitch, Windass’ final act was a simply amazing goal, which you can watch here, while back at his home town club of Hull City in a match which is still the biggest financial prize in sport- scoring the winning goal to take Hull into the Premier League. At Wembley. It must be noted that Dean Windass was nearly 40 when he performed this piece of utter magic.

As you can see from the footage (if you've bothered to watch it) Dean Windass has cropped bleach/blond hair, looking like a washed up D.J. in a local nightclub, trying to relive his days as a headline act in Ibiza.

But whatever his look, his ability shined through.

Speyside (local club: Aberdeen) is a forest of beauty and functionality. Distilleries such as Aberlour, The Balvenie, and Benromach stand as stunning examples of architecture, churning out some of the best single malt on the market. Top this off with The Macallan, which is about to go under the surgeon’s knife with a £120m new distillery, this should make their site as beautiful as the liquid in its bottles.

But there are some distilleries where function takes over from form. We recently visited a 'new to market' distillery, which has been churning out malt whisky for a long time, but due to its long history is now somewhat of an ugly child of mid-1960’s architecture, but with a result that would grace the grass at Wembley stadium.

Craigallachie Distillery sits in a wonderful location, just down the hill from Dufftown before the banks of the Spey river rise to meet the Macallan, Knockando and Cardhu distilleries. The spawn of mid-century architecture, aside from a quite stunning walk along the top of their worm tub cooling vessels, is a functional production facility, part of the team of distilleries producing whisky for the Dewar’s blend.

The team behind the malt distilleries (owned by Barcadi) have decided to have a go at replicating the umbrella group of malts that Diageo successfully launched under their 'Classic Malts' banner in the 1990s.

Using the term ‘The Last Great Malts’ it covers Craigellachie, GlenDevron (the distillery known as MacDuff), Aberfeldy, Royal Bracklar and Aultmore - all well regarded juice  in their own right.

The Last Great Malts; an odd name. It comes across as something of a final sigh from a collection of excellent distilleries, not a new collection of vibrant malts. It seems almost like an acknowledgement that there is a wave of newer distilleries to take their place, steal their crown and melt it down into cooler jewellery for a new generation- like the Rolling Stones doing a 'last great tour' before giving way to Jack White or the Arctic Monkeys. But instead of £450 a ticket, it is £330.00 for a 23 year old whisky...

But enough about the marketing, let’s look at the distillery itself. A wonderful still room, housing four large pot stills, despite its utilitarian feel has one very unusual aspect: a large window which can be opened to let in the natural Speyside air. If you’ve been to Caol Ila, you would feel very much at home in this still room, save for the view which isn’t of the mist covered Paps of Jura but of the A941.

In terms of production, Craigellachie is one of the few distilleries left in Scotland to use Worm Tubs as their method of condensing, something to applaud. And it makes for a wonderful spirit (show me a distillery using worm tubs, that doesn’t...).

Their new range encompasses Craigellachie bottled at 13, 17, (a sneaky 19 year old for Duty Free) and 23 years old the maths geeks among you will notice that these are all prime numbers. Aside from that one fact, all these releases are quite excellent, with the real stand out being the 23 year old.

Craigellachie - 23 Year Old – Single Malt Scotch Whisky – 46% abv –  £330.00 here

Nose: A real depth of complexity with large dose of oak spiciness, some candied orange zest and just a hint of blood orange. There are red apples and pear drops too. Very inviting. Not over oaked but a wonderful balance of spice and meaty, oily tones.

Taste: Blood orange develops on the palate with an addition of toasted marshmallows and a hint of lime pickle. Big and unctuous, this has the age to give it good body, but still maintain as vibrant and energetic flavour profile.

Finish: Long and oaky, but without being too dry, this has a great balance of wood in it.

Overall: An excellent dram which has seemingly lasted well in cask given the meaty nature of the spirit. It’s a shame it can’t all be at this age, but with a lower price point...!

All round, this is a great start to The Last Great Malts which, I think, should be given a far more positive name if they are all this good...

Thursday 1 January 2015

Party Like It's 1985

An Orville PiƱata, shortly before his celebratory new year thrashing 

Hello one and all. We're back from our relaxed Christmas breaks now, heading into all manner of excitement in the new year. 

We look back fondly on 2014. It was a year that bought some truly exceptional spirits, many many journeys and friendships:  From Baijiu in China, Cachaca in Brazil, Armagnac in France and some wondrous drinks in-between, both of us can definitely say it was an enlightening year.  

2014 also saw us bring out Distilled, our first book together which is shaping up really nicely for 2015. Expect to see us popping up in a few unusual locations next year, as we travel around, hopefully continuing our spirits exploration around the globe. 

However, there is a new year and a new dawn coming (keep your eyes peeled here folks...) so let’s kick off with our predictions for 2015: 


The Continued Growth of Grain 

We already tipped grain as a new category in its own right back in 2012 and 2014 saw the launch of Haig Club, a single grain Scotch whisky developed in partnership with major drinks producer Diageo and megastar ex-footballer David Beckham. There aren’t many other single grain whiskies on the market, with just one other official global release, three expressions from the Girvan distillery in the Lowlands of Scotland. However, grain whisky has always been highly sought after by connoisseurs and experts, who know that the lightness of the spirit gives excellent flavours of vanilla and lemongrass, making it ideal for mixing or sipping with acouple of blocks of ice. With only Haig Club and Girvan available around the world at the moment, and the considerable weight that a celebrity such as David Beckham adds to this category, expect to see others jumping in and wanting to be part of the grain whisky party. 

High Value Brands Offering Experiences:
As we see more and more highly valued single malts and blends, such as The Macallan and Johnnie Walker pushing their prices up with rarer, older and more extravagantly packaged items, the focus will shift onto 'experiences'. They could be high-end, exclusive trips to the distilleries, more branded ‘houses’ (like The House of Johnnie Walker) or shops. Either way, we think the immersive experience of taking consumers on a literal journey will become more of a focus in 2015. Look out for more bespoke blends from big whisky companies too, for those who can afford it. 

My Top Tipple From 2014: The Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso

We haven’t got around to reviewing this one, yet but the new Nadurra Oloroso offering from The Glenlivet at 60.7% is stunning and priced at a bonkers £45. Take Aberlour’s A'bunadh and soften it slightly and you’ve got this. It packs a punch and is worth every penny.  


Craft: This Party Is Getting A Little Crowded... 

The term ‘craft’ has taken over in the world of spirits, particularly in whisky. In the USA, ‘craft’ distilling is a huge movement with small producers making tiny amounts of their own rye, bourbon and single malt. As these distillers gain more sales, they’ll be able to afford to export their products and see them (if they are good) take hold in markets far from where they are made. 

But there won't be room for everyone. It feels like 'Craft' is a term that is thrown around without prejudice now, with some distillers -  be it big or small, exhibiting little or no craft. There are some genuinely brilliant well-crafted products out there: be it well-known Scotch blends (hey -  blending is the original craft, when you really start to think about it) or tiny distillers with equally small spirit batches. But when corporate boardroom decisions interfere with the distillation process (i'm looking at you, Balcones) you kind of get the feeling that the money-making-machine and the sound of the cash registers are the predominant sounds echoing around a few distilleries, whose reputations are now damaged as a result.  In 2015 and beyond, we think craft will become less about being handmade, more about using technology in new and innovative ways to create or 'craft' new products.  Think less wicker chair, more MacLaren F1.  

Other Spirits Stealing Whisky Drinkers:

The idea of ‘occasion’ is going to be focused on more and more in 2015. Why drink a fairly boring vodka, when you can enjoy a grain whisky before the party really kicks off?  Similarly, do you really need to be paying  through the nose for super premium aged single malts, when you could be getting the same after dinner experience with an extraordinary Armagnac, vintage Tequila or rum for a fraction of the price? Whisky still has an enormous cache internationally, but there are signs that other spirits -  particularly Armagnac and Mezcal are beginning to draw a few connoisseurs away from whisky.  

My Top Tipple from 2014:  Chateau Laubade 1983 Vintage Armagnac

As I mentioned above, Armagnac is perhaps the most underrated and unexplored spirits category in the world at the moment, (aside to that of Cachaca and mezcal) with some exceptional expressions available for a fraction of their equivalent Scotch vintages. Having explored the Gers region in November during La Flamme De l'Armagnac (an amazing experience when all the distillers light their stills to mark the start of the distillation season) it reminded me of the Feis Ile experience on Islay, before it became a too overcrowded and commercialised. It was here at the Laubade estate where I discovered their 1983 bottling: a rich, resinous and spicy beast-of-an-Armagnac, full of tannic oak, liquorice and anise, alongside some sweeter vanilla notes and juicy citrus fruit.  All this complexity for around £75.  

We're very much looking forward to tackling 2015 and all the intriguing spirits on offer.  Expect to see a fair few changes here over the coming months-  we'll be focusing on a much broader scale of drinks, rather than just whisky, so here's to a cracking vintage year! 

Don't forget to follow us at @WorldOfSpirits on Twitter.

Neil & Joel