Whisky Squad #23 – The Smoking Section

The problem with combining the ever lengthening Christmas season with having two whisky squad sessions per month is that someone who works in whisky retail (me) gets a bit busy. As such this post has taken me rather a while to produce, even for a lazy drunk like myself. At least it should be appearing before the end of the month…if I get a move on and start writing about the whisky rather than myself…

Anyways, the first of November’s Squad meetups was to feature a topic that hasn’t really been broached since back in my first attendance, Whisky Squad #4 – Islay Malts. That session featured a range of whisky from the island, rather than focusing on the traditional peaty fare, so the chaps decided that a night for smoke heads was long overdue. Hence Whisky Squad #23 – The Smoking Section.

There was some mild confusion at first, as rather than our usual venue of The Gunmakers we had shifted to The Red Lion, tucked in behind Berry Brother’s and Rudd in St James, and usually better known in the whisky circuit as the venue for The Whisky Lounge tastings. However, Jeff, the landlord of The Gunmakers, has decided to refurbish our regular room causing us to be evicted for a couple of sessions while he and his regulars/cohorts/chums rip out the fixtures and throw the sofa out of the window. Hopefully we’ll be back in our spiritual home soon. Anyways, they’re having a Winter Ale and Food festival at the end of the week – you should go, it will be ace.

The plan was simple – try some whisky, all of which would be smoky. We were unfortunately not accompanied by our the traditional Whisky guide, Mr Rook, who claimed something about ‘having a small child to look after’, but he had popped in before we turned up and set the dram order. I mention this so that blame can be apportioned. Luckily, m’colleague Tim had come along and we had Rob from Berry Brothers on the other side of the room, so there was enough whisky know-how to spread around. Now, onto the blaming.

Octamore 4.1Whisky number one was poured and it was quite lightly coloured. On the nose it was savoury, with wine vinegar, burning pine needles, mud and malt, as well as a traditionally peaty medicinal scent with freshly unwrapped bandages. To taste it had predominantly the taste of young spirit – caraway, fire and alcohol. Along with that it had some salty liquorice, brine and lots of smoke – not so much peaty smoke, but just hot, fiery smoke. It finished quickly, with some creamy grain fading to nothing. This was a fairly brutal start to the evening and it wasn’t much of a shock to see that it was Octomore 4.1, the peatiest whisky ever made. Well, the whisky made with the most peated malt, at least, as I don’t know how peaty the spirit was when it came out of the still (distillation removes some of the elements of the wash including some of the phenols that make whisky ‘peaty’). Octomore is the name for the heavily peated malts that Bruichladdich have been making and which should continue as one of their brands now that they’ve released their first 10 year old made solely with spirit distilled since the distilleries reopening and are starting to calm down on releasing so many expressions. This was the ‘blame Darren’ dram, as starting off a tasting with Octomore could be seen as a hostile statement of intent. Luckily things calmed down from here on.

Benromach Peat SmokeWhisky two was light gold and much calmer. The nose had some plasticine, wax, butter, a bit of fruit, some meatiness and a light hint of smoke. To taste it was bitter and minerally, with more butter, some mint and mulchy leaves – a muddy peat taste. Water added some cream, sweetness, lime citrus and more smoke and it finished a bit cardboardy, with charcoal and coal dust. The label was whipped off to show that this was Benromach Peat Smoke. From seeing the bottle I thought at first that it was Benromach’s Special Edition Organic, the only peaty whisky I knew they’d done, but it seems that they now produce this as a regular bottling – one of the few peated Speyside whiskies.

Port Askaig 25Next up was a whisky that Tim recognised immediately from the bottle shape and that I had no clue about. On the nose it was sweet, with a farmyardy edge that burned off quite quickly to leave pine, stone, mulchy grain, lime and hints of tropical fruit. To taste there was sweet pastry, menthol, pear drops, pear skin tannins, and musky wood smoke. Water brought out more fruit and more of the muskiness in the smoke, leading to a lingering wood smoke (burning green wood) and sweet woodiness. A tasty dram that I rather enjoyed and couldn’t place, which turned out to be Port Askaig 25 year old, as produced by my employers. Port Askaig is a range of whiskies from an unnamed Islay distillery that we bottle and sell, and which I’ve not tried many of yet. If you’re interested then the folks at Connosr did a rundown of the range that I’ve been using as crib notes when anyone asks me about them…

English Whisky Chapter 11Whisky four was again light and had a nose of lemon, brine and shellfish – almost scampi and lemon Nik-Naks. Fresh and maritime with a woody smoke behind everything. To taste there was lemon butter, sweet syrup, pine and a lot of alcohol – this was definitely a cask strength whisky and needed some water. Dilution calmed it down a bit and brought out some more mineral notes. The finish was short and my notes simply say “Chocolate?”, the accuracy of which I question. The reveal showed it to be my first correct guess of the night – Chapter 11 Cask Strength from the English Whisky Company, although I will admit that the distinctive bottle shape helped rather a lot. I tried this when judging the World Whisky Masters this year and liked it then (we gave it a Master award, the top honours), and my opinion hasn’t changed – the finest whisky that EWC have produced, and by far my favourite young peated whisky I’ve tried to date.

Kh1Whisky five was again one that I probably should have guessed but didn’t. On the nose there were baked beans, kippers, grain, full ashtrays, leaves, fisherman’s friends, lime rind, fennel, stewed tea and charcoal – a lot of flavours. To taste it was simpler, lightly sweet with charcoal, lime leaves, nettles, tobacco and some prickly alcohol. The finish lingered with green leaves and some medicinal smoke. I rather liked it and was very please when Jason pulled off the paper to show that it was Elements of Islay Kh1. The Elements series is also bottled by my employers, with each different distillery being assigned a two letter ‘chemical symbol’ used in combination with a release number to name each bottling. I can’t possibly say which distillery Kh is, but this is the first bottling that we’ve done from them, it’s the first independent bottling of their whisky that they’ve allowed, and it was selected by Tim and I from a selection of samples from the distillery, the first whisky I’ve helped choose. I should probably have recognised it…

Kilchoman 100% IslayThe last whisky of the night was then handed around and on the nose had fake butter, nail varnish remover, muddy peat, lots of stony minerality, pears, the ‘wet dog’ muskiness that Tim often talks about in his Islay whisky tasting notes, a spot of astringent Bruichladdich-a-like ‘baby sick’ and an underlying meatiness with peaty medicinal notes. To taste it was very sweet and grainy with some lime and minerality – a simple and young spirit. The finish hung around longer than I expected, with stone, sweet cereals and some peaty mulch. Label off, the whisky turned out to be Kilchoman 100% Islay. A Kilchoman at this point was unexpected (for reasons that the previous paragraph may make obvious) and even less expected was for Peter Wills, son of distillery owner Anthony Wills and their first brand ambassador, to stand up and say hello – I thought I recognised him from whisky shows. 100% Islay is fairly unique in that it is almost entirely local in nature – the barley was grown and malted at Kilchoman; it was then mashed, fermented, distilled and matured at the distillery and only left the island to be bottled, although they did do a limited edition cask strength version that was bottled by hand (using a teapot, it is rumoured).

A nice bit of peaty whisky, despite my current tastes being for more ‘boring’ unpeated bourbon casks and a definite reminder that I need to get myself some Kh1 before it runs out.

Next time – the Movember tasting. Hopefully before the end of the year…

I was beaten to the write-up this month by Pooja over on her Table For One blog. I will not be beaten again! Until next time.

Octomore 4.1
Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 62.5%. ~£80

Benromach Peat Smoke
Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£35

Port Askaig 25 year old
Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 45.8%. ~£100

English Whisky Chapter 11 Cask Strength
Single Malt English Whisky, 59.7%. ~£70

Elements of Islay Kh1
Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 59.7%. ~£50 for a 50cl bottle

Kilchoman 100% Islay
Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 50%. ~£70

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