Whisky Hub #1 at Albannach

Along with the more usual ‘proper’ tastings there seems to have been the start of a movement recently towards less formal gatherings. With the likes of Whisky Squad, and maybe soon my own regular whisky club at The Alma, popping up to quite frenetic take up (in the case of ‘The Squad’ anyway – tickets for the next session disappeared in 20 minutes) it’s good to see more people trying out the idea. Coming along to this last month, although I’m finally getting round to writing it up a week before the next meeting, was Albannach on Leicester Square with their Whisky Hub.

The idea is quite simple – a small group of people each bring along a bottle of whisk(e)y that they like and then share it with the group and tell everyone why they like it. There’s also some nibbles, kindly provided by Albannach, and the regular sort of banter when you get a group of whisk(e)y lovers in a room together. The first meeting was a bit slewed towards people from the booze industry, with me as the only non-professional drinker in the room – Cat and Ivo from Albannach, Will Lowe from Bibendum, James Hill from Diageo Select Brands and one of his friends, a barman (maybe manager? I was drinking) from (I think, remember the drinking) Sheffield. The plan was simple – go round the table, revealing your bottle and saying as much or as little about it as you wanted.

We started off with Will, who had brought along a bottle of Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon. Four Roses are a whiskey maker that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, ever since I did a tasting of their range (on their own and in cocktails) at Callooh Callay last year. Will met Jim Rutledge, Four Roses master distiller, a little while back and soaked up a chunk of information about them from him. They do a regular range of 3 whiskies – Four Roses Bourbon (aka Yellow Label), Small Batch and Single Barrel. Along with the regular bourbon distilling tricks of maturing the whiskies in different parts of the warehouse (often in large stacks that leave largish temperature differences between the top and bottom rows, helping to alter the maturation between barrels – Four Roses don’t generally go up much, stopping at about 3 barrels high, iirc) they produce the varying flavours in their whiskies by making a variety of different spirits from different grain recipes and using different yeasts. In total they have 2 different mashbills (ratios of corn, rye and other grains) and 5 different yeasts for a combination of 10 different spirits (which Whisky Magazine has described this month in a useful section that I’ll be pulling out to keep) which are blended together in different ratios to make the three whiskies of the regular range as well as other special bottlings. The Yellow Label uses all 10 recipes, the small batch 4 of them and the single barrel only one, depending on which barrel is chosen. The Small Batch ends up with 27.5% rye in its makeup, with the rest being corn (in order for a whiskey to be called Bourbon it has to have at least 51% corn) which gives a chunk of rye spiciness as well as the more well known corn sweetness. On the nose it had butter and biscuits, coconut, vanilla, salty caramel and sugared violets. To taste it had an underlying sourness with menthol, grainy sweetness and a sugary woody finish. A good start to a rather eclectic evening.

Next we turned to James, who opened his mystical whisky ambassador bag and pulled out the Glen Spey 21 Year Old (2010). This is part of Diageo’s special releases range, where they put out (comparatively) small batches of high quality whisky from some of their distilleries each year. This one was part of a 10 cask batch of about 6000 bottles, with the casks being american oak but formerly containing sherry rather than, as is more common, bourbon. A large part of the flavours that we get from bourbon and sherry barrels are not from the previous inhabitant but from the nature of the wood – american oak has a close grain and european oak a wider one, leading to different wood/spirit interaction as temperature changes move the maturing whisky in and out of the wood. The fluid previously in the barrels does also add its own touch, so american oak sherry butts are an interesting combination of maturation aids. On the nose this had coconut and vanilla (as one would expect from american oak), candle wax and, as a nod to the sherry, maraschino cherries and an undertone of beefiness (Bovril?). To taste it was quite citrusy, accompanied by sweet caramel, minty menthol and some drying tannins towards the end. Water added sponge cake to the nose and unbundled the taste, revealing toffee, prickly woody custard, big woody spice and a hint of sherry trifle.

I stepped in at this point and unveiled my contribution – Hammer Head, the 20 year old(ish) Czech whisky that I wrote about last year. I wanted to take along something that I was pretty much certain most people wouldn’t have tried before and that noone else would have brought, and this very much fulfilled my criteria. It seemed to go down well, with everyone being quite shocked that it was as nice as it was.

We then moved on to Ivo, Albannach’s whisky manager. He’d chosen the Mortlach 16 Year Old Flora and Fauna Edition. The Flora and Fauna bottlings (as I’ve mentioned before) are a range introduced by United Distillers (now part of Diageo) in the 90s to showcase some of their distilleries that didn’t normally produce single malts. While many of the range are no longer produced some still are, including this sherried dram showing off the traditional Mortlach characteristics. On the nose it had maple syrup, mint, slightly mulchy grass and sharp sherry fruit. To taste it was rich with caramel, smokey wood, polished wooden floors and a lightly floral note. Water brought out lavender, brittle toffee and more spicy sweetness. I rather like Mortlach and this one will be the one I turn to once I can’t get my currently favoured Boisdales bottling.

Next up was Cat, who had chosen The English Whisky Company’s Chapter 9, one of their first bottlings legally allowed to be called whisky, the first to be produced by their own distiller and the first peated English whisky. The distillery’s outside of Thetford in Norfolk and was put together by the Nelstrop family, farmers who owned some land near the river Thet. They built a new distillery from scratch and brought in consultant distiller Ian Henderson, formerly of Laphroaig, to start them up and also train up former Greene King brewer David Fitt to take over when Ian moved on. As the only whisky distillery operating in England they’ve also sensibly decided to jump on the tourist market and have a visitors centre at the heart of the distillery which, along with releases of their maturing spirit as Chapters 1-5, helped fund the distillery during the initial three years before any of their produce could be called whisky. I’ve got an unopened bottle of the Chapter 9 in my whisky cupboard so I was quite keen to have a taste without having to crack mine open. On the nose it was initially obviously young, with grain, sweet peat, wood smoke, citrus, cream sponge cake, bananas and creamy new make spirit. At first I thought it smelled quite boring, but it gained complexity and ‘age’ as it sat in the glass oxidising. To taste it was sweet with gravel, lime floor cleaner, pine and a sweet wet peat finish. Water brought out egg custard on the nose and more sweetness to the taste, although accompanied by the aforementioned floor cleaner. This isn’t one I’m going to jump on immediately, but I’ll be happy to open it if it doesn’t rise in price on the collectors market – it’s not sold out yet months after release, so I’m expecting that I’ll be drinking it rather than using it as a deposit on a house…

Last was James’s mate, whose name I have shamefully forgotten (especially as we discussed the uniqueness of his name for quite a while before he ran off with Mr Hill to assault the bar at The Dorchester). He’d chosen a whisky from James’s magic bag – Lagavulin 1994 Pedro Ximinez Finish Distiller’s Edition. The Distiller’s Editions are Diageo’s ‘finished’ whiskies, with each of the spirits sitting in a different cask for the end of their maturation to pick up some extra flavours. In the case of Lagavulin they’ve used PX casks and it seems to be lauded as the best of the range (and the prices for previous years’ releases demonstrate that). I think this one was the ’94, based on it being the most recent release and most likely to have been in James’s bag, and it was rather nice. On the nose there was sweet salted caramel and a big smokiness that slowly faded as it sat in the glass. To taste it was again sweet, and very easy to drink, with smoke, a hint of citrus and a little bit of syrupy PX. Water lightened the smoke revealing a bit of wet wood and some muddy peat. Not overly complicated but rich, smoky and sweet.

James then dipped into his bag again and brought out a non-Diageo whisky, independently bottled and from a distillery they don’t own – Queen of the Moorlands Rare Cask Bunnahabhain XXXIV. Bottled for The Wine Shop in Leek in Staffordshire, a shop that sells much more whisky than its name suggests, it was distilled in 1997 which was (according to their site) a year of experimentation at the distillery, where they switched their normal unpeated production to peated for the whole year. These days they distill peated spirit for a few weeks at the end of the season, but the glut of casks in ’97 allowed a lot more experimentation with maturation. This whisky sat in a sherry hogshead for 12 years and was bottled in 2009 at 54.3%. On the nose it was salty with light smoke, gravel and boiled sweets. To taste it was big and orangey in the middle, surrounded by mud and stone. It was quite spiky and water calmed it down, bringing out more sweetness and stony minerality as well as ‘smoked golden syrup’.

A good start to the Whisky Hub with a nice range of interesting whiskies and some interesting chat about whisky and the state of the universe. The next meeting is next week (hopefully it’ll take me less time to write it up this time) and the plan seems to be to put on one every month. Albannach are restricting numbers so that it’s possible to try all the whiskies and still walk out of the restaurant, but if you’re interested please drop me a mail and I’ll pass your details on for when they hopefully expand things further.

Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon
Bourbon whiskey, 45%. ~£25 from Master of Malt

Glen Spey 12 Year Old (2010)
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 50.4%. ~£130 from Master of Malt

Hammer Head
20 year old Czech single malt whisky, 40.7%. ~£30 from World of Whiskies

Mortlach 16 Flora and Fauna
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40 from Master of Malt

English Whisky Company Chapter 9
Single malt English whisky, 46%. ~£40 from Master of Malt

Lagavulin 1994 Pedro Ximinez Finish Distiller’s Edition
Islay single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£55 from Master of Malt

Queen of the Moorlands Rare Cask Bunnahabhain XXXIV
Islay single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 53.2%. ~£60 from The Wine Shop

No pictures due to a combination of camera fail and being too busy nattering. And drinking…

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