Impressively it seems that a year has passed since the first Whisky Squad meetup. I wasn’t present back in that dim and distant time (having only met co-founder Andy a few days earlier and already been booked up for three months of first Thursdays) but I have heard tales of whisky excellent and vile, and exploits terrifying and daring. The story-telling was mainly fuelled by beer but I trust the tellers implicitly, although I’m not sure how a T-Rex would get through The Gunmakers‘s front door or how a single pork scratching could drop one before it ate any customers.
This time our imbibing was led by other co-founder Jason and the theme was a secret, only revealed at the end (or at least when Jason got bored of not having told people) as being whiskies from distilleries with significant anniversaries this year. There was also cake, with recipe up on The Squad site – it was rather good, and last time I saw Jason he told me he had been dreaming about it. That might be going a bit far, but it’s one to have a go at, even if sticking in the last of your Bowmore Darkest isn’t recommended…
Anyways, the whiskies were all tasted blind, as usual, and the first one started of with a nose of bubblegum, apples and pear drops with a big savoury base. To taste it had citrus, cinnamon spice, sweet fruit, orange pips, sour wood and a hint of rubbery bitterness. Water brought out some fizzy Refresher flavours but left the big bitter finish. The paper came off to reveal that it was a Connoiseurs Choice Royal Brackla 1991, bottled at 17 years old. The distillery isn’t particularly well known, despite being the first to receive a royal warrant (hence the Royal in its name), and sits on the edge of Speyside, variously being described as a Highland or Speyside whisky depending on who you ask. The distillery was founded in 1812, its imminent 100th anniversary being the reason for being included in the line-up, by Captain William Fraser and was simply known as Brackla until receiving its warrant from William IV in 1835. It continued on, with the normal changings of hands and rebuildings, until 1985 when it was closed. It reopened in 1991 under the banner of United Distillers and Vintners (now Diageo) and was sold to Dewars in 1998, the current owners, who use the distillery to mainly produce whisky for their blends as well as Johnnie Walker and others. Its connection with blended whisky goes back a bit further, with Andrew Usher (the ‘father’ of whisky blending) being employed by the distillery in the 1860s and using its spirit in some of his initial blends. There aren’t many distillery bottlings (other than an old Flora and Fauna from the UDV days and a 10yr old from 2004 that I’ve seen mentioned) but thanks to its life as a whisky sold for blending it appears fairly often from independent bottlers, such as Gordon & MacPhail who bottle the Connoiseurs choice range.
Number two started the regular round of more evocative description with a ‘Smells like Timpsons’, and had a nose of pain stripper, PVA glue, a hint of leather, bananas, sweet fruit and gomme syrup. To taste it was backed with marzipan, with raisins, tart white grapes, butter and woody spice. Water brought out some citrus and transformed it into a Fry’s Orange Cream on the nose. Honey and spice appeared in the taste, along with oranges and lemons, and the finish brought in some burnt wood. The bottle was uncovered to reveal that it was a Gordon and MacPhail Linkwood 15 year old. The distillery is in Elgin, in the heart of Speyside and is owned by Diageo. It opened in 1824 and has been distilling continuously since, apart from closures during the second world war and from 1985-1990, two times when many distilleries went dark. When it reopened after the second world war not much changed, with distillery manager Roderick Mackenzie taking the ‘nothing must change, just in case it changes the characteristics of our spirit’ to a level beyond most managers, anecdotally insisting that spider webs must be left alone for fear of making changes to the flavours. Linkwood is another distillery that doesn’t get much love in the way of distillery bottlings, with the sole official release being a rather lacklustre Flora and Fauna entry, but it’s much loved by the independents and appears quite often – I’ve tried some especially good SMWS ones as well as a rather tasty one bottled for The Whisky Exchange’s 10th anniversary last year. Outside of those bottlings it can be found as a component in many blends, especially those managed by Diageo.
Number three came out of the gate with a call of ‘Buttered rum and biscuits’, with brioche, candied pineapple, wood, light tobacco and glue appearing on the nose. The gradual crystallisation of the more esoteric tasting notes led to ‘Like Colonel Gadaffi hiding in an old cupboard in Cuba’. To taste it started with soured fruit and moved through spicy cream to a lightly sour, rubbery finish. Water brought out more cream and softened the rubber, adding syrup sweetness and some dusty wood. Paper torn off, this turned out to be a Gordon and MacPhail Strathisla 25 year old. Another independent bottling, as Strathisla’s owners (Chivas Brothers/Pernod Ricard) only produce a single officially bottling (a quite tasty 12 year old that I tasted last year), this 25 year old is scarily cheap for its age, coming in at about £60, showing another bonus of independent bottlings – they often come in at much more affordable than an equivalent distillery bottling (if one was available). Founded in 1786 as Milltown and changing its name in the 1870s, Strathisla hasn’t closed since opening (making it the oldest continually operating distillery in Scotland, according to the internets and PR bumph) and these days is used as the heart of the various Chivas blends.
Number 4 didn’t inspire quite so much bombast, but got some quiet respect. It had a calm nose of sweet cream, light acidity and a bit of volatile alcohol, leading to a taste of lemony wood, sweet syrup and milk chocolate on the finish. Water brought out butter, foam strawberries, and some lingering unfinished wood. With the label removed we saw that the bottle claimed to be a Bowmore, but that was a sneaky substitution – it was in fact Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix, normally enclosed in their distinctively triangular bottle, but switched to keep us guessing a bit longer. The Snow Phoenix is a limited edition put together after the heavy snows in 2010 collapsed the roof of one of Glenfiddich’s warehouses. They fished the barrels out from the snow and rubble, and then vatted them together to produce a one-off commemorative whisky. It went on sale for about £50 a bottle and has quickly risen in price and sold out (with this bottle coming from a batch of bottles that I managed to grab recently in my local Waitrose for label price), with its rather pretty tin adding to the appeal. However, I’ve heard rumours that another tranche has recently been released and that it may not be quite so limited as originally though, which makes me question my investment in a couple of bottles for future sale to a collector a few years down the line. We shall see…
Number 5 was rather scary – as dark as Coke and dangerous looking. Initially on smelling it someone came out with ‘Dirty, but in a good way’, but that quickly lost the ‘in a good way’ as we stuck our noses deeper into our glasses. There were prunes, rubber, bitter orange, cubes of jelly concentrate, motor oil and sour molasses. To taste there wasn’t very much – it tasted very much like a light new make spirit backed up with burnt coffee. Water got rid of some of the coffee and might have added some orange (although that could have been wishful thinking), but didn’t do anything to improve it. Label removed this was shown to be Cú Dubh, gaelic for Black Dog. This is a whisky from Mannochmore, founded in 1971 and celebrating its 40th birthday this year, in the vein of the previously released Loch Dhu (black loch). They take a relatively young whisky and send it to Denmark for ‘special treatment’ which turns it very dark. As it’s still called whisky it’s fairly obvious what this special treatment is – the addition of spirit caramel. While I generally agree that a small amount of caramel doesn’t affect the flavour of a whisky noticeably, as the folks at Master of Malt examined recently, the burnt flavour hiding at the back of the palate in this whisky suggests to me that if you load a vat with it then it’ll start appearing on the tongue. Loch Dhu is often called one of the worst whiskies released in recent memory (with at least one review giving a half bottle a higher score than a full one due to there being less to hate) but it’s picked up a reputation as being something strange and due to the rapidly decreasing stock has risen rapidly in price – if you can find a bottle you’ll often pay over £250 these days. The Cú Dubh is an effort to get back in on the Loch Dhu action and the Danish processing is probably due to its popularity in Scandinavia. However, the reviews I’ve read suggest that this one is considered to be even worse than its predecessor and has even caused some people to reassess quite how bad the Loch Dhu was. Despite all that, I didn’t particularly dislike it – I blame my dangerous love of new make spirit…
The final dram for the night was rather distinctive in both colour and shape of bottle and even without that hint most people in the room would have guessed the distillery anyway. On the nose it started off with baby sick (dissected by those present into astringent sour milkiness) which faded with exposure to air to give mud, a hint of peat, and generally sour and salt scents. To taste there was a lightly sweet peatiness, sweet fruit, liquorice, peppermint and a touch of charcoal. Water brought out more minerality and a mulchy vegetable air. While the distillery wasn’t in question the exact expression was, with these guys being famed for the silly number of bottlings they’ve produced since they reopened 10 years ago (hence their inclusion in the list) – it was the Bruichladdich 2001 Resurrection Dram. This spirit was from the first batches that they produced when the distillery came back online in 2001, with this release was bottled in 2008 and limited to 24000 bottles, several of which have been sitting in Jason’s flat until needed. With Bruichladdich reaching their 10 year landmark they seem to be looking to cut down on their bottlings (a new one every couple of months as far as I can tell) and focus on producing a lightly peated core range (based around the 10 year old) and using their other brands (Octomore and Port Charlotte) to focus on the big peat that most people look for in Islay whiskies. It’s nice to see them calm down slightly, although whether they can stop master distiller Jim McEwan having crazy ideas is another matter.
So, Happy Birthday Whisky Squad. All going to plan I’ll be along as often as I can on the way to the next one(s). Speaking of which, the next one is this Tuesday…
I was beaten to getting this written up yet again, this time by Charly over at Caffeine Frenzy Wanderlust.
Connoiseurs’ Choice Royal Brackla 1991
Highland single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35
Gordon & Macphail Linkwood 15 years old
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40
Gordon & Macphail Strathisla 25 years old
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£65
Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 47.6%. ~£75
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£25
Bruichladdich 2001 Resurrection Dram
Islay single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35