Whisky Tasting Chez Moi #1

Being someone who likes to talk I’m jealous of those lucky folks who get paid to wander around and talk about whisky. So, in an effort to get at least part of that I invited an exclusive posse of people around to my flat to have a bit of a whisky tasting. The intention was to try a few things that were in someway different to the norm and to span as much of the whisky spectrum as I could with 4 or 5 bottles.

Tasting
Compass Box Hedonism, Benromach Organic, Kilchoman New Spirit, Benriach Curiositas, Yamazaki Sherry Cask

So, here are my notes on what to say about each one, as well some audience reactions:

Compass Box Hedonism: There are number of different legal classifications of whisky, which due to recent lobbying by the SWA changed at the end of 2009. The three main types are:

  • Single Malt Whisky – malt whisky from one distillery. It will be most probably be a mix of various different batches (to get a consistent flavour and style for each line of whisky), but all of the whisky comes from the same distillery.
  • Blended Malt Whisky (formerly known as vatted malt) – changed November 2009, a move not entirely popular amongst many whisky makers. This is a blend of malt whiskies, which can come from any distillery. It is, however, only made up of malt whisky.
  • Blended Whisky – whisky that is made of malt and grain whiskies from any producer.

This is a fourth type – a vatted grain (maybe now a blended grain…who knows?). While grain whisky is usually used as a bulking agent for blends, produced quite cheaply in a continuous rather than batch distillation process, there are some producers who take a more malt-like approach to its creation and there are companies who try and do interesting things with it – Compass Box are part of the latter group and buy whiskies from the former. Run by John Glaser (who corrected me last time I wrote about them), they produce interesting blended whiskies that are in a totally different league to the Bells and Teachers of this world. This has some flavours in common with a bourbon, coming from grain as it does, but definitely has a different style.

From the audience: It seemed to go down fairly well. It’s the lightest of the whiskies I was presenting, hence its position at the front of the line-up, and even the less keen whisky drinkers appreciated it.

Benromach Organic: The distillery reopened in 1996, after years of closure. Rather than the more regular ‘mothballing’ of the site, where they leave everything in place, Benromach was pretty much stripped of all its equipment and had to be almost rebuilt. Their regular whisky is lightly peated (slightly more than the Speyside norm of 0-5ppm of phenols at about 8-12) to try and capture the flavour of speyside whiskies when peat was a more common fuel for drying malt, but the Organic is different. It’s the first Soil Association certified organic whisky and as part of this process everything involved in the making needs to be organic, from malt to barrels. Whisky barrels are normally used before the whisky gets to them – sherry and bourbon are the two main spirits that go in beforehand, and they take on a lot of the woody flavour from the barrel, allowing whiskies to mature without extracting quite as much of those flavours. However, In order to keep with the organic certification the Benromach Organic uses new american oak barrels that have never seen another drop of booze. This whisky is also entirely unpeated, which is fairly normal on Speyside, although their stocks of the regular Organic are running out due to their switching of production to a peated version. I’m not a fan of the new “Special Edition Organic”, so I’m pleased that after a short while they switched back to the unpeated version, so while there will be a gap in availability it will be returning in the future.

From the audience: this one started off less popular, with the woodiness not well received. However, with a drop of water the flavour changes a lot, with creamy vanilla appearing, and it grew in popularity.

Kilchoman New Spirit: One of the problems with whisky production is the time it takes between making your whisky and making money from it. This is especially difficult for brand new distilleries as they have no older stock to keep themselves afloat with until they can start selling their wares. Kilchoman opened in 2005, the first new distillery on Islay in 124 years, and was setup to be slightly different. Their barley is grown on the attached farm, they are one of the last 6 distilleries who have their own maltings and they bottle on-site. In order to keep cash coming in they sold cask, case and bottle futures for their first production runs, keeping them going until they hit the 3 year mark at which their maturing spirit legally became whisky and could be sold as such. The first release was in 2009 and has been received quite well, although their upcoming 5 year is something I’m keeping an eye out for. Another way that they raised money was to sell samples of their maturing whisky – their New Spirit. This bottle doesn’t have a maturation time on it, but the otherwise identical one I bought at the same time claimed that it had been in wood for 1 week…

From the audience: I didn’t pour everyone a shot of this – a very young, heavily peated 63.5% spirit is not something that you generally knock back much of – instead pouring a small slug into a large wine glass so that everyone could get at least a smell. Almost everyone tried it in the end, with the reactions being what you’d expect for something that I generally describe as tasting like cattle feed and death. That said, I do quite like the flavour and there were a couple of nods that it wasn’t all that bad, even it was burny and eye watering.

BenRiach Curiositas: I’d not heard of the distillery until recently (and I now have a box of miniatures of their aged expressions to try) but heard of the Curiositas through Anna’s twitter stream when her friend Jon got a bottle and rather enjoyed it. The distillery is another that has changed hands a lot, recently being picked up by the independent Benriach Distillery Company (who recently picked up their second distillery – Glendronach) in 2004. It had a sad beginning, opening in 1892 and then mothballed in 1900 when the bottom fell out of the whisky market. It reopened in 1965 under Glenlivet, sold to Seagrams in 1978 and then dropped to a 3 days per week production in 2001, before the more recent purcahse. This is one is different because it’s a peated Speyside whisky. As I mentioned earlier Speyside whiskies are normally peated lightly to not at all, coming in at about 0-5ppm, with Islay whiskies like Laphroaig and Ardbeg being much more famed for their peaty smokiness (with barley peated to about 40ppm and 54ppm respectively). The Curiositas is peated to 55ppm – which is about as peaty as you get for a widely available whisky. They also have a younger version (3-5 years?) of their peated spirit, Birnie Moss, which I found at Whisky Live – it’s mainly sold into the French and Spanish markets, where there is a strangely high demand for young, unmellowed, peaty whisky.

From the audience: As expected this one was the least popular, although the speyside sweetness coming through the smoke brought it up the popularity scale quite a lot. The progression from raw spirit to matured whisky worked quite well though, with the mellowing process really showing (although choosing something as powerfully flavoured as the Kilchoman probably helped there).

Yamazaki Sherry Cask: The whisky that I ran from Blackfriars to Soho to buy the day before the tasting; one that I tried in Milroy’s at Christmas and rather liked. The difference with this one is that it’s Japanese, which isn’t really all that unusual as there are 90 years of history backing up their produce, and very heavily sherried, which is slightly more so. Whisky production in Japan was started by Shinjiro Torii, a pharmaceutical importer, who founded the company that became Suntory and started bringing foreign booze into Japan. He hired Masataka Taketsuru, who had trained at Hazelburn in Scotland (a name now used by the Springbank distillery to brand their triple distilled, unpeated Campbelltown whisky, as the original distillery has closed), to start distilling at the Yamazaki distillery and Japanese whisky was born. Taketsuru left Suntory in the 1930s, travelled around Japan looking for a spot that felt like Scotland and built a distillery in Yoichi on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, starting Nikka, the other famed Japanese distiller. The mix of whiskies that goes into a single malt will often contain at least some spirit matured in sherry casks and other whiskies will be matured for a length of time after they have been married together in a cask which has held sherry or another drink to ‘finish’. However, you don’t get many bottlings which have sat exclusively in a sherry cask for as long as this – a very dark reddy brown whisky, it almost looks like flat Coke and is a bit thicker and stickier than your average dram.

From the audience: Far and away the favourite of the night (which is one of the reasons why I did my cross-central-London run the day before to make sure I got some before Milroy’s closed). It’s sweet and rich, with fruitcake and dates. It’s quite unlike the ‘regular’ whisky flavour that people expect, although with enough hiding behind the dried fruit to remind you that you’re not drinking port. I’ve tried an even more heavily sherried Yamazaki at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, but that almost felt like a fortified dessert wine than a whisky – this is an excellent winter dram, and unfortunately one that seems to be becoming scarce as stocks start to sell out.

Anyways, my choices seemed to work and lasagna was fed to the assembled throng. On top of my selections there were also some pressies and temporary donations brought along, with Nikki‘s sloe gin, and Alan and Ruth‘s chocolate vodka, blackcurrant vodka, homebrew beer and bottle of Marble Chocolate Marble all sitting on the side waiting for me to do some tasting and writing about them. Alan also brought along his bottle of Glenallachie single cask 18yr old, also matured exclusively in sherry casks, to compare to the Yamazaki – it compared very well, coming in as the second favourite of the night on flavour and favourite for price – £35 from the web or in person at the Strathisla distillery, home of the Chivas Brothers experience…

I suspect this may happen again, especially as Nikki and Ruth now seem to be whisky converts. I must use my powers for good…

Alan and Anna have also done write-ups on their blogs and I think I need to give a general thanks to all of my victims for letting me talk at them for an afternoon: Anna, Alan, Ruth, Paul, Nikki and Michael.

Compass Box Hedonism
Blended scottish grain whisky
43%, component whiskies 14-29 years old
£45 from Waitrose

Benromach Organic
Unpeated Organic speyside whisky
No age statement, 5-6 years
43%. Limited stock available

Kilchoman New Spirit
Islay new spirit, 1 week old
43.5%. Occasionally available in whisky specialists (I got mine from Cadenhead’s in Edinburgh)

Benriach Curiositas
Peated speyside single malt whisky
40%, 10 years old. Peated to ~45ppm.
Available from whisky specialists (I got mine from The Whisky Shop)

Yamazaki Sherry Cask
Very sherried Japanese single malt whisky
48%, 10-12 years old
Limited availability – worldwide release of 16,000 bottles (I got mine from Milroy’s)

The Macallan’s 12 Year Olds

During my recent sojourn in Scotland my chalet buddies humoured me with a final day of driving around, following brown tourist signs and making an occasional stop at a distillery. We popped in to Cardhu, where we missed a tour, and ended the day at Glenfiddich (which I may write about at some time in the future). In between we briefly stopped by The Macallan, a whisky that I hadn’t tried for years but that seems to be rather well respected.

Unfortunately we couldn’t grab a tour as places needed to be prebooked by phone (as the lovely ladies who ran the distillery shop repeatedly informed us – they did not enamour themselves to me), but we had a chance to have a nose around the shop and try a quick complimentary dram of their regular 10 year old expression – a whisky that I liked a lot more than I thought I would. Rather than the boring Speyside that I expected I got a lightly woody whisky that was intriguing and definitely worth a second look. Rather than grabbing the same again as a takeaway I picked up miniatures of their two 12 year olds – the slightly older version of their regular whisky and the 12 year old Fine Oak.

Macallan

Macallan is known for exclusively using ex-sherry casks in maturing their whisky, but the Fine Oak editions add in some ex-bourbon maturation into the mix, ending up with three barrels used in making the whisky – spanish oak ex-sherry, american oak ex-sherry and american oak ex-bourbon.

The regular 12 year old was interesting on the nose, with hints of garibaldi biscuits, but was slightly disappointing on first taste with lots of wood tannins and a hint of spiciness. With water the woodiness softened to a pleasant vanilla, but the dram wasn’t particularly inspiring, and certainly not as interesting as I felt the 10 year old was.

The Fine Oak continued the biscuity theme with a touch of rich tea and sugary branches on the nose. To taste it was very woody, as the name might suggest, and quite sweet. It had a hint of perfume to the flavour, touching on sandwalwood. My rather flowery tasting note says “Like the floor of a stately home after a party involving cake and messy guests”. Water quickly diluted the flavour, but calmed the woodiness, bringing out more of the perfume and a note of floor polish. Right at the back of the mouth I also got a hint of sherbert lemons. It was more interesting than the regular 12, but not one that’s going on my list.

The Macallan 12 Year Old
Matured in spanish sherry casks
40% ABV. Widely available

The Macallan Fine Oak 12 Year Old
Matured in spanish sherry casks, american oak sherry casks and american bourbon casks.
40% ABV. Not listed on the Macallan website and seems sold out on several UK websites.

Quick Tastings

A couple this week, but first something that isn’t a tasting – I live on the site of the old London Guinness factory, which has since been knocked down and replaced with flats (including mine), some offices (including Diageo, the makers of Guinness) and a park with a lake in. It looks like either we’ve had a scary fungal boom or Diageo have kicked out the St Patrick’s day river dye a few days early:

Diageo HQ

On with the drinks, this week all beers courtesy of a trip to Borough Market, which was in itself an excuse to go to The Rake:

Brooklyn Black Chocolate StoutBrooklyn Black Chocolate Stout (10%, from Utobeer. Seasonally brewed from October to March) – Black to the point of almost total opacity (holding it up to a lamp did little but warm it up a little bit) and quite thick (it definitely has legs when swirled) this is most definitely a dark stout. Very sweet on the nose with a slug of alcohol. Thick and sweet on the taste with lots of chocolate malt, a hint of bitter dark chocolatey flavours and a nice bitterness at the end. Tasty but heavy.

Duchesse de Bourgogne [Wikipedia for those of us who don’t speak flemish] (6.2% flemish red ale from keg at The Rake) – I had a quick sampler of this before diving in and was glad that The Rake serve third pints. It’s very nice, but at the same time quite overpowering in both smell and flavour; not a beer that you can drink much of. On the nose it is Worcester Sauce and little else, as it is at first when you taste it. However, after a second sip you start to get used to the strength of flavour and pick up the rest – cherries, soft fruit and a little bit of bitterness. It is really rather good, although the strangely sour, salty sweet start might put many off.

Devine Rebel?

Brewdog Devine Rebel Reserve (12.5% barley wine from keg at The Rake, who called it Divine Rebel) – A reddish ale with not a lot on the nose. However, it’s thick and malty with a big berrylike fruitiness (maybe overripe bitter peaches?), a slab of bitterness down the middle and a slighty fizzy flavour on the finish. It almost hides its strength but happily kicks you in the head. A tasty evening/life ender.

Stiegl Pils (Salzburger Pils) – an Austrian lager that I jumped on after a week of complaining that I couldn’t find Ottakringer (the beer of my formative years in Vienna) in the Austrian deli near work. It’s typically light gold and not as crisp as I was expecting, with a ricey flouriness and a chunk of sweetness. It quickly fades to a much sharper hoppy finish with little aftertaste. Not one I’ll be jumping to find again, but refreshing after a couple of rather heavy beers.

New Wood

Barrels
I like big butts and I cannot lie…

My week up in Scotland recently not only introduced me to Benromach whisky, but also to the idea of putting whisky in new casks. Now, this may not sound like a particularly wild idea, but the majority of whisky is matured in casks that have already held some other form of booze – bourbon and sherry being the current mainstays before you get on to ‘wood finishing’. The first fill of booze will temper the barrel and remove a lot of the transferable woodiness, letting the second fill pick up different flavours and not be overcome by the wood. However, while up in Scotland I heard of three different whiskies using brand new wood – Benromach Organic and two from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a Glen Moray and a Glenmorangie.

I’ve written about Benromach before, but its use of new wood intrigued me enough while at the distillery that I quizzed our tour guide a bit about it. The wood comes from a US forest which, while maybe not intentionally planted as such many years ago, has been kept up to Soil Association ‘Organic’ standards and that certification suggests a reason why they are using new wood – in order to be certified as Organic they would have to use products that have not been subject to any processes that are not up to scratch, something that I suspect Jack Daniels (the usual first spirit in whisky barrels) don’t really aspire to. While the wood choice may be in part forced on them by their move to make the first organic whisky, it has also pushed them to make an interesting production whisky – the other two I found from new wood are single cask bottlings rather than generally available. The wood comes across clearly in the Benromach, appearing at the start of the taste as a tannic kick and adding vanilla to the aftertaste as well as a lingering woodiness. With water an oaky creaminess pops up and the tannins mellow slightly. During our tour the guide commented that the new barrels add a hint of bourbon flavour to the whisky and now that I have tasted it I can now tell some of the elements of Bourbon that come directly from the wood – some of the sweetness, the slight bitterness on the center of the tongue and the vanilla creaminess that you often miss if you drink your whiskey with ice. I rather like the Benromach organic and am slightly sad that it has almost disappeared in it’s original incarnation, currently replaced by the peated Special Edition, but Sandy the distillery tour guide did assure me that it will be reappearing soon.

While visiting the Edinburgh SMWS rooms on the way back from my sojourn in The Highlands I tried to grab a dram of their new Glen Moray, intrigued by the talk of new wood and my new found liking for the Benromach. However, due to an issue with the bottle labels (either they had the wrong ABV or they’d been stuck on the wrong side of the bottle, depending on who you spoke to) it hadn’t turned up in time and I was directed towards a Glenmorangie bottling using a similar idea – 125.31, Tropicana then luscious poached pears. At the recent Whisky Exchange Glenmorangie tasting I learned about the ‘designer casks’ that they had put together for the their Astar – specially selected trees, grown slowly so as to have the right consistency to allow the whisky to be flavoured by the wood in the manner they wanted. However, Astar is not matured in new wood – the barrels are sent over to Jack Daniels for the first four years of their lives, arriving at Glenmorangie after the whiskey has been removed. With a litle reading between the lines on the SMWS website it seems that it is a whisky matured in an Astar barrel untouched by JD. Rather than the upfrontness of the Benromach, the Glenmorangie’s wood was all at the end – it’s a sweet whisky with a slight prickly spiciness that lands in a mouthful of twigs. I wasn’t all that keen, but it wasn’t in any way unpleasant.

Glen Moray have until recently been part of the Glenmorangie family and were a testbed for some of their crazy ideas – according to the barman at the SMWS, if you saw something strange come out of Glen Moray and do well then you could be sure that it would probably appear from Glenmorangie shortly after. I finally managed to find a dram of this final new wood example at the London tasting rooms, after the bottle wrangling had been completed – 35.34, Moroccan Tea-room Masculinity. On the nose there was salt and aniseed, and not a lot of the woodiness I was expecting. To taste there was more wood and tannins, but also toffee, salt and peppery lemons. With water the wood came out more, with a chunk of vanilla, but it wasn’t quite so overpowering as it is in the Benromach. Interesting, but not one for me to add to the collection.

I also found another whisky which uses some new wood while wandering around Whisky LiveCompass Box Spice Tree. While chatting with the guy on the stand about the company’s obsession with wood, we talked about the process that led them to the current methods for getting woodiness into Spice Tree. First there was a stage that I heard about elsewhere, where they put wood chips in the marrying barrels – a process well known in the wine industry, even if it is seen as a little dodgy. [They didn’t use chips – see the comment from John Glaser below] This was quickly stopped by the SWA, who don’t like it when people do strange things and try and call their product whisky, but they carried on the idea by putting whole new wooden barrel staves directly into the barrel, another trick pinched from wine. This was, again, quickly banned and they came up with their latest trick (not mentioned on their website yet, which tells the tale of their run-ins with the SWA) – new barrel ends. Rather than making a whole barrel from new wood, which would have a bit more of an effect than they wanted, they just replaced the ends of the barrels with the new wood, giving the whisky some contact while at the same time not breaking the rules. The folk at Compass Box are smart. And a bit mad. The Spice Tree is a 100% malt blend, currently made up of Clynelish, Teaninch and Dailuaine (I think that’s right on the last one – I had been drinking by then and my hearing was going) and it’s pleasantly spicy, as the name and intention suggest, with a rich sweetness and some woodiness from the new oak.

It seems that new wood is one of the latest experiments in the whisky world that’s starting to rear its head after a decade long maturation process. Without thinking about the time the whisky has been in the warehouse it almost seems as if the distillers are reacting to the work of people like Compass Box, who are doing interesting things with wood, but after some consideration (as Compass Box are only a decade old) it looks like it’s all part of the long cycle of whisky experimentation. I’m interested to see what other single barrel bottlings appear from new wood but am also intrigued as to what this new flavour might contribute to regular bottlings. Glenmorangie have already made a bit of a splash with Astar, I’m keen to see who’s next.

Quick Tastings

HopheadDark Star Hophead – I rather like hops so this was pretty much always going to be a favourite. I grabbed a pint at The Wenlock Arms the other night, while popping in briefly for a meeting (meetings in pubs are the best). It’s light and golden with a bitter hoppy taste that doesn’t get too much after a pint. Easy to drink and one I can drink all night.

Moscatel Emilin, Lustau – While sitting around at Dehesa for a birthday meal with my dad and stepmum I was tempted into a glass of sherry and went for the moscatel, something that I’d read about recently while looking into whisky maturation but never tasted. It was dark and sticky, a touch lighter in both colour and flavour than a PX. It was rich with tastes of dates and raisins, but stopped short of the occasional overpowering nature of PX. I may have to look out for some more…

SMWS 18.29, Welcoming, mouth-filling and moreish – a 24 year old from Inchgower, a distillery I only knew as a name on my SMWS list (and which seems to be a big component of Bells), and one of two recommendations from Darren, the London rooms manager, for a whisky that was a bit different and from a distillery I wouldn’t have tried something from before. On the nose it was quite flowery with hints of salty toffee. To taste it had touches of floor polish and sherbert dabs. With water it opened up to give more fruitiness, hints of the red lolly in the sherbert dab and a touch of coal on the finish.

SMWS 41.42, Seduction in an Austrian coffee house – recommendation number 2, a 23 year old from Dailuaine (a distillery I hadn’t even seen on my list). The nose had an intriguing combination of pork scratchings and lemons and to taste it was interesting, with parma violets, chilli and charred liquorice root. Water softened the woodiness of the liquorice bringing liquorice allsorts into the mix. Rather nice, although seemingly sold out.

Ptarmigan

Ptarmigan

After 25 years of visiting Aviemore, one of Scotland’s biggest skiing resorts, it still surprises me when there’s enough snow to ski and not so much that you can’t get up the mountain. This year, however, we were treated to the most perfect snowy weather that I’ve heard of in Scotland – good powder on top of deeper snow, clear blue skies and enough coverage to get you from the top of Cairngorm to bottom of the ski slopes without having to walk. I was eventually convinced to go skiing for a day and despite my natural inability when attached to skis I rather enjoyed myself. Annoyingly, one final fall onto my not-quite-padded-enough bottom put an end to my day of activity and I repaired to the top of the mountain for a dram in the early afternoon. While wandering around the obligatory shop I found a couple of Cairngorm Mountain Ltd whisky bottlings and decided to grab a sampler of each – The Ptarmigan 15 year old blended malt and 16 year old single malt.

At first I thought the 15 year old was a regular blend, but as the name implies it is instead a blend of single malts of at least 15 years old each. On the nose it has hints of pear, pineapple and a malty toffee, and to taste this turns slightly sugary with hints of lemon and a touch of oiliness. With water the oiliness develops into a light linseedy flavour that compliments the rich sweetness. All in all a fairly drinkable whisky – nothing to raise eyebrows, but perfectly decent.

The 16 year old is much lighter in colour, which suggested to me at first that it might not have picked up much from the wood – I was wrong. On the nose it has salt, pepper and floor polish along with a slug of smoky leather. In the mouth there was still a lot of peaty leather, but also an unexpected oaky wood taste and a touch of sharp fruit. Water softened the wood to bring out vanilla and banana, but the peatiness remained. Again, not what I expected at all and quite pleasant. My little sample went down surprisingly easily, despite the smokiness.

There’s not much information about them online, but it seems they are bottled by the Edrington Group, owners of local(ish) distilleries Tamdhu and Glenrothes. I’ve not tried either, but from the descriptions I’ve found online it seems that the single malt may well be from the former – it’s certainly added Tamdhu to my list of whiskies to try.

The Ptarmigan 15 year old Blended Malt
40%

The Ptarmigan 16 year old Single Malt
40%

Both available from the Shop at the Top and Mountain Shop on Cairngorm mountain, near Aviemore.

Zhigulevskoe Pivo

Pivo

Being of that strange breed who can eat such things sober, I stopped off on Queensway on the way home this evening to visit one of my old haunts – Taza Kebab House. I used to live a street away and was a regular there during the lovely days of the late 90s and coming back today over 10 years later it hasn’t changed a bit. The prices are up by 50p, but lamb or chicken (or both) shawarma still goes into a pitta which is then placed in a griddled Panini machine before being taking, when crispy, and annointed with salad, garlic sauce, a chunky chilli and tomato sauce and something that looks like houmous but is a lot runnier. It’s the only kebab shop I know where they give you a paper plate (for eat in) or a takeaway silver dish (for takeaway) and point you towards tubs of salad and sauce that sit on the obligatory leaning shelf opposite the counter. It’s still great.

My friend Max used to come down from Newcastle, where he was studying agriculture (although he was a proper farmer rather than someone who thought it might be nice to have daddy buy them a farm), arrive at Bayswater tube and then demand to be taken to Taza. We would walk the 2 minutes to my house whereupon he would place the kebab on a plate and reverently eat it with a knife and fork. We would then go and get very drunk. In summary – good kebab.

Anyways, while walking up the road back towards the station I spotted some german text on a bag of nuts on the counter in one of the shops. I’ve been on a bit of a memory lane wander recently, remembering when I used to live in Vienna, and so jumped into the shop hoping it would contain teutonic treats. Unfortunately I had misread the situation and it was instead the Kalinka Russian shop. Not to be dissuaded, as it was empty and the staff were mopping the floor and looking mopey, I grabbed a chunk of smoked beef and the most soviet looking bottle of beer that I could find – жигулевское. A quick poke at the Wikipedia cyrillic alphabet page gave me something I could read, Zhigulevskoe.

When poured it’s a very light golden colour with a small amount of head that clears quickly. It doesn’t smell of much, with hints of maltiness and a touch of citrus. To taste it changes quite rapidly. Initially quite bitter it fades to sickly malt along the sides of the tongue and turns to a dry generic eastern european taste at the back of the mouth. Not particular interesting but not all that bad, even if it isn’t one that I’ll be seeking out again in the future.

According to the internets it’s a brand of the Efes group, picked up when they bought into the Krazny Vostok brewery, and it’s brewed in Kazan, a part of Russia that I hadn’t heard about – how I hadn’t heard of Tartarstan when I spend most of my days picking through interestingly named places (mainly in Russia) on Wikipedia eludes me. However, while searching for more information about the brew I came across the following two YouTube videos which I assume, as I don’t speak russian, give differing reviews of the greatness of this beer:

Cairngorm Brewery

The Cairngorm brewery hides on an industrial estate at the northern end of Aviemore, conveniently a mere 5 minute walk from the timeshare village that my family have been visiting for the last 25 years – longer than the brewery has existed. It first came to my attention when I noticed a sign up offering a brewery tour and tasting for the princely sum of £1 a few years back. I obviously jumped at the chance and was shown around the then small warehouse of brewing equipment by a man with an impenetrable scottish accent and a hyperactive love for his work. We repaired to the shop afterwards where we sampled the beers they had on tap, loved them all, and left with a polypin of Trade Winds (still one of my favourite beers of all time), the first of that batch that left the brewery. The sad tale of one my holiday companions pulling the front off the polypin twice, spilling all but a couple of pints on the floor, need not be mentioned again, other than to say that he knows who he is. He has still not been forgiven…

With only a couple of beer drinkers up this year we decided against the polypin and by the time I was picked up from Aviemore station there was a mixed case of their bottled beers waiting for me. In the interest of science I have drunk my way through at least one of each beer in the box, so as to be able to enlighten you all.

IMGP4533

Trade Winds
My favourite of the beers, to start. It’s a light brew, light gold in colour and floral on the nose. To taste it has oaty grain flavours and a nice hoppy finish. In bottle it’s a bit more pronounced in all of its flavours than on tap, but that doesn’t dissuade me much. A great bottled or draft beer, and one I thoroughly recommend.

Wildcat
A Tomintoul brewery brand brought into the Cairngorm brewery when they bought them out in the mid 2000s. From what I’ve heard there wasn’t much to take from Tomintoul apart from their recipes and expertise, with the buildings an equipment in bad repair, but the remaining beers are worth a look. Wildcat is a solid best bitter – full flavoured, with a slight sweetness and a bit of an alcoholic kick. This is one that I’ve never found a really good pint of on tap, but in bottles it’s a solid straight down the line bitter.

Blessed Thistle
Brewed with thistles rather than hops in the wort, the label claims that this was a method used in Ye Olden Dayes. They also late hop it with Goldings and add some ginger, which all sounds quite interesting. I’m not sure what thistles taste like, but the beer is quite thick in the mouth and has a nice late bitterness, a small nod at the ginger and a generally full malty taste.

Stag
Another Tomintoul acquisition (if I remember correctly) the label doesn’t give it much description, and the flavour doesn’t take much. It’s a bit hoppy and a bit malty, finishing quickly. However, it’s quite nice and one that I could happily drink all evening, even if it’s not overly distinctive.

Black Gold
This is the brewery’s stout, and very black it is too. It’s thick and has a chunk of chocolate malt, but it is also quite light in flavour. A strangely refreshing stout that retains some the stomach filling nature. My younger brother used to drink it on nitrokeg draught instead of Guinness at a pub in the next village along – he reckoned it easily beat Guinness, even with gas pumped through it.

Cairngorm/Sheepshagger Gold
After concerns from some of the establishments they sold the cask version of this beer to they decided on a dual naming – Cairngorm Gold for the more reserved pubs, Sheepshagger for those who didn’t care. It’s a very light golden beer, brewed (if my memory of the long ago tour is correct) as a cask lager. It’s lightly flavoured with hints of lagery dryness and subtle fruitiness at the end. It’s less fizzy on tap, but a bottle or two of this could certainly turn a lager drinker’s head.


Cairngorm/Sheepshagger Gold
4.5%

Blessed Thistle
4.5%

Black Gold
4.4%

Stag
4.1%

Wildcat
5.1%

Trade Winds
4.3%

All available directly from the brewery, selected branches of Tesco in Scotland, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society rooms in Edinburgh and occasional other places that sell beer. I’ve seen some in Royal Mile Whiskies in London before and as Trade Winds is an award winner it pops up quite often.

Benromach Distillery

I’ve been up in Scotland for the last week and, in traditional manner, had ‘wander around a distillery’ on my holiday todo list. I’ve been going up to the highlands almost every year for the last 25 years, staying in Aviemore a stone’s throw from the River Spey, and have visited a good number of the distilleries in the area. This time my first stop was the first place that I managed to find a leaflet for – Benromach.

Benromach

Benromach isn’t a whisky that I’m familiar with, recognising its branding but not even knowing that it was a Speyside until I found the leaflet in the hallway of Aviemore’s Old Bridge Inn. The reason for its lack of fame became apparent within a few minutes of starting the tour – the distillery was closed and stripped bare in 1983, before being reopened, with completely new whisky making equipment, under the Gordon & Macphail banner in 1998. They’ve only recently started to bottle their 10 year standard release and as such are still a small name in the industry, although they have also been working on some slightly different whiskies which have a potential of carving them out a niche.

The distillery itself is quite compact and they run a mash a day during the week, producing about 1000 litres of whisky a time, about an order of magnitude less than the nearby larger distilleries dotted around the countryside near Elgin. The standard 10 year is slightly peated, coming in at about 8-12ppm, rather than the Speyside norm of 0-5ppm, and they are also currently producing their ‘Organic’ whisky with completely unpeated malt. They use fairly standardly shaped stills (the spirit still has a reflux bulb, which our tour guide said helped drop the heavier elements of the whisky back into the still while allowing the lighter to rise over the neck) and the washbacks and stills are all in the same compact room. From the main building we stopped first in the barrel filling warehouse and then in their number one warehouse, the only one surviving of the two that the distillery had before closure. With a dirt floor and low roof it’s a traditional warehouse, only stacking the barrels two high in each row as they stretch away into the darkness. The masturing whisky fills the cool room with the beautiful smell of the angel’s share (as the evaporated whisky is known), sweet and malty, and I could have happily stayed in their for a while.

Benromach Visitor Centre

Back in the visitor centre we were all presented with a dram of the 10 year, as well as being given on offer of a taste of anything else they had an open bottle of – unfortunately that didn’t include their higher end whiskies, including a rather intriguing looking Vintage 1968, from before the initial close of the disitillery, which had sat in sherry casks for all of its 40 years.

The 10 year old had a distinct note of linseed oil on the nose, which didn’t carry through that much into the taste. Along with the slight oily flavour, although not texture, there was a touch of hazelnut and a light hint of smoke at the back of the mouth. Water quickly knocked out the more delicate elements of the flavour and brought an icing sugar sweetness.

Taking up the offer of some further tasters we moved onto their Madeira cask finish, which didn’t make much of an impression – it retained most of the regular Benromach flavour with an added extra sweet richness. Again water didn’t do much to enhance the flavours.

I then tried the two whiskies that I was most interested in: the Organic and the new Special Edition Organic. The distillery was the first to get a fully certified organic whisky into production, including using new barrels of american oak rather than reusing bourbon barrels as is usual. These new barrels haven’t been seasoned by 4 or so years of maturing bourbon and thus have much more woodiness to give to the whisky than a regular barrel. The spirit for the original Organic is entirely unpeated while the Special Edition was a short lived run of peated spirit which has now been phased out in favour of the original unpeated variety. Stocks of the original are now running low but more will shortly be available when the cellared stock finishes maturing. Both Organics are given without age statement and have matured for 5-6 years. Due to the new barrels they have both taken on a lot of colour in that time, having a deep reddy brown hue. After that though the two whiskies barely resemble each other.

Benromach's ChimneyThe regular Organic smells alarmingly like a bourbon, although with an underlying slug of maltiness. To taste it is woody and tannic, with a malty sweetness peeking through and reminding you that it is a scotch. Water quickly reduced the flavours, although brought out some vanilla from the woodiness. I rather liked it, being a bourbon drinker on the side, and quickly snapped up a bottle.

After the success of the Organic I was very interested to see how running a peated spirit through their process would go. As pointed out to me by one of my tour chums, I seemed to really want it to work, but was disappointed. On the nose it combined peatiness with sweet malt to produce something that resembled mulching cattlefeed a little too much for my liking. In the mouth it was strongly peaty but faded away to nothing very quickly, having a quick smoky sweetness and little else. Water deadened it to be a simple one noted smoky dram that was not particularly pleasant.

Hopefully they’ll get their regular Organic back into the shops soon and the 10 year production will settle down to allow Gordon & Macphail will be able to position them in their catalogue correctly. However, until then they’re a nice little distillery with a quick but informative tour and perfectly passable whisky that’s worth a try.


Benromach 10 Years Old
43%

Benromach Madeira Cask
8 Years Old (4 years in Madeira casks)
45%

Benromach Organic
No age statement, 5-6 years
Non chill filtered, no added colouring
43%

Benromach Organic Special Edition
No age statement, 5-6 years
43%

Many thanks to our tour guide, Sandy. Tours are £3.50, including a dram of 10 year old and a £2.50 voucher redeemable against bottles of whisky over £25. Tours run from 11am-3pm on weekdays and it’s probably best to phone up in advance and see what times tours are going to be.

Мастика Пещера

Mastika

I don’t travel much, being afraid of places were I don’t speak the language as I am, but my comfort zone was well and truly kicked in 2008 when I ended up in Bulgaria for a friend’s wedding. In standard fashion I used the opportunity to sample the local booze and other than some fairly average beer (I probably didn’t find any of the good stuff due to staying in a posh hotel and keeping away from random bars due to the aforementioned not speaking the language issue) and rather good Rakia my only exposure was the Mastika that I picked up in the airport – Mastika Peshtera.

I’d not encountered the stuff before and even had to look up on Wikipedia what it was before I grabbed a couple of bottles to bring back. After some wrangling with customs in Zurich (during which both bottles were confiscated, due to the Bulgarian airport staff not putting the right date on their tills and thus my receipt, and then carried through the terminal to where I was waiting once the customs guy had, unasked by me, pursued my case for keeping them with his superior. I like Zurich) I finally cracked a bottle when I got home and got my first taste.

It’s a strong, oily, aniseed spirit which is quite overpowering neat, fading quickly from an initial sweetness to a pleasantly bitter aftertaste. Over ice it opens up nicely and tastes like a bitter anise. However, the addition of water in any form leads to a strange reaction – it goes cloudy (expected) and a white solid precipitates out, sticking to the sides of the glass (not quite so expected). This grainy solid is quite worrying at first, but the effects of the drink are quick and your vision soon fades…

Other than the white gunk the most disturbing thing about this Mastika is the hangover it produces. It reminded me somewhat of an absinthe hangover, with everything seeming slightly more real, including the functioning of every organ in your body. Along with that, however, it adds all of the hallmarks of a regular hangover, making the day after significantly more painful than it might have been otherwise.

While doing some firkling on the internet to find out how a) to write Пещера in roman characters and b) anything more about the stuff, I found some of its advertising on YouTube. I’m not sure if this is standard Bulgarian advertising (I was too busy wandering around trying to find military museums to sit and watch TV), but it’s certainly a step on from our usual XXXX ads here in the UK. Warning: Contains sexual themes, a very tiny pair of bikini bottoms, music played on a Casio keyboard and men hiding erections.

I’ve now run out, having finished the second bottle last week (the bottle that I had given to a friend as a present and that he had left behind in his flat when he became my landlord) and I suspect I won’t be going out of my way to get any more. However, if a bottle crosses my path again I may still be tempted to pick it up. I suspect the memory of the hangovers will have faded by then…