Supper with Jim Haynes and Fernandez & Leluu

IMG_4810_2My occasional flirting with Qype and the London food blogging community leads to fairly random events popping up on my radar – this Tuesday I ended up at one. The idea of supper clubs isn’t particularly new: a bunch of people, some you know, some you don’t, turn up at your house and you make them dinner. The phenomena has entered my consciousness recently with the emergence of an underground dining movement in London (which veers from the ‘please kick in some cash for the dinner or at least bring me some presents’ to ‘minimum donation is £115. Please tip your waiter’ depending on the people organising) and the buzz that it has created online. However, I’ve not been along and hadn’t really considered it until I got an invite from the PR people behind a chunk of After Eight’s most recent campaign, focused around veteran supper clubber Jim Haynes. He’s been running Sunday night parties at his flat in Paris for the last 30 years and is a thoroughly nice chap – annoyingly I got to have a quick chat with him at the beginning of the night when I had no clue who he was or what was going on. Luckily the obsessive bloggers of Olde Londone Towne were present and there’s some video of him talking later.

Anyways, our hosts for the evening were Simon and Uyen (aka Fernandez & Leluu), rather lovely providers of meals to the randoms of London. Rather than their regular plan of doing a sit down meal for 10-15 people they went with a more Jim-style affair, ramming their flat with 40 bloggers and qypers and serving up plates of rather good food that could be eaten with one beforked hand. The food was rather good – starting on a mixed plate with a marvellous summer roll in the middle (that started a train of thought that ended with me face down in a bowl of vietnamese duck soup the next day), moving on to some excellent beef carpaccio surrounded by tasty trimmings and finishing with a solid glass of baked croissants with strawberries and cointreau (well, they said cointreau when describing the menu but it said whisky on the piece of paper I have – it was boozy and delightful [and cointreau, I reckons]).

Peaches

As usual, my eye turned towards the bar. Not knowing much about the traditions of supper clubs I arrived empty handed, rather than with the bottle of wine (at least one) which is The Proper Thing To Do. Luckily this had been considered and Johan Svensson of DrinksFusion was on hand to supply us with cocktails all night. We started off with some prosecco or a Bellini. I initially avoided the cocktail due to the Archer’s stained memories of working in a bar at university – after a night of making jugs of Sex on the Beach for drunken rugby players the fake peach stench of Archer’s sticks to the skin, a smell that taunts me to this day. However, after a quick chat with Johan I was tempted in – pinky peach puree with prosecco, a touch of real peach liqueur and crisp slice of peach. Not even a hint of fakeness, it wasn’t particularly sweet, with the prosecco toning down the mild sweetness of the puree and even the garnish working as a contrast – suffice to say I liked it.

After the food appeared, the sky appropriately darkened and a cocktail menu appeared on the bar. I am much remiss in my duties as I didn’t get through all of them (nice people were talking to me, which is very annoying and gets in the way of the drinking. I am prepared to forgive them on this occasion), missing out on the Spring Tom Collins (Gin and lemon juice with elderflower cordial and soda, served in a long glass over ice). While we tucked in to our starters I had a chat with Johan about the wonderful world of booze and he has annoyingly added more things to my ‘find and taste’ list – agave tequila, interesting rums, genever and dutch liqueurs. My annoying eye for faces (but without the accompanying mind to remember where I’d seen the face) kicked in and it seems that I’ve probably bumped into him at Whisky Live on one of my pair of attendances, probably serving me some rather good Van Winkle bourbon. That reminds me, I need to stock up on bourbon…

mosaicecbd9fe2338ea01a702b7aa4b37ec5f9a4464e68The most popular of the other drinks on the menu was the Rose-Club Cocktail, and after a chat with Johan earlier about the secret ingredient I was keen to try one – Gin shaken with vermouth, rose liqueur (‘secret’ ingredient), raspberries and lemon juice, sweetened and soured with simple syrup and campari respectively, and then served straight up in a coupe with a pair of rose petals floating around. It was interestingly sweet and sour with an undercurrent of rose running through it. It was a touch too strong for my liking, though, but I can forgive that as Johan was in production line mode, pumping out cocktails by the jug – a couple more shakes and I suspect it would have been excellent.

I’d not tried rose liqueur before and I think the one in this cocktail was from the Wees distillery in Amsterdam – it’s made in small runs with a combination of distilling with roses in the still and later maceration, with flowers from an old rose gardener who specialises in old fashioned varieties with interesting aromas. It was specially liked by Niamh, who had been trying to get a rose flavour into a cocktail a while back with little success, as rose water didn’t quite cut it – this really does add an interesting slug of rosiness to whatever it touches.

Next I tried a Bramble – another on the ‘by Dick Bradsell’ list, this is a London cocktail bar mainstay (having been invented here) and one that I have rubbishly never got round to trying. Gin and lemon juice sweetened with a drop of sugar, stirred with ice, floated with crème de mure, and garnished with a blackberry and a curl of lemon peel. It tasted exactly as one would expect, with the sourness of the lemon juice tempered by the crème de mure – it’s gone onto my list of cocktails I will consider ordering, despite it containing way too much non-booze for my liking…

To finish off the evening, and to keep the corporate overlords happy, the After Eight Alexander was rolled out – cognac shaken with melted After Eights, vanilla and cream, served straight with a dusting of chocolate. This was surprisingly nice, with the richness I was expecting cut by the booze to give almost an After Eight scented liqueur chocolate filling, after you got through the creamy head.

Anyways, it was a good night – a weird mix of mate’s party and formal event that worked well. Anyone going to Paris with a Sunday to spare should look into going to one of Jim Haynes’s parties, he’s a lovely chap with a pile of stories and the streak of awesome madness that hosting parties for randoms every week for thirty years suggests.

This post was powered by an explosive bottle of Hop Back Taiphoon and an alarming percentage of a freebie box of After Eights.
Many thanks to Simon of Fernandez & Leluu for looking after my camera when I left it behind and then offering me booze when I went to collect it.
There are some more write-ups on the interwebs: Qype, London Eater, Domestic Sluttery

Eastercon Whisky Tasting with Iain Banks

Being a science fiction fan I spent the long easter weekend just gone hidden away in hotel by Heathrow airport attending Eastercon, the yearly british sci-fi convention. While the con committee managed to rustle up a bar full of London Pride and Old Rosie (even if the cider did its traditional thing and disappeared a lot faster than the bar staff expected) the other bars were fairly lacking in interesting booze. I continued my habit of drinking through the most interesting whiskies that they had (knocking back some Glenkinchie, Knockando and Caol Ila) but one program item above all caught my eye – a whisky tasting with Iain Banks.

IMG_4791Mr Banks is one of my favourite authors, not only for his excellent regular fiction and SF but also for his other book – Raw Spirit. It may claim to be a book about whisky, but the main things I remember are a page of waxing lyrical about Chateau Musar (which I now try and keep at least one bottle of in the house at all times) and many more passages about how much fun it is to drive around the great wee roads of Scotland in a Land Rover. However, the book is one of the things that kicked me into trying to explore non-beery boozes and also to write about it, so obtaining a spot on the whisky tasting became a mission. I foolishly turned up several hours before sign up to make sure I got one of the 15 spots only to find that a) noone was queuing at 8am and b) noone was awake at 8am. However, a queue did appear at about 9am and as number 4 in line I got on the list.

We convened later that day for the tasting, led by a panel including Iain Banks and Liz Williams, two of the convention’s guests of honour, with an original plan of going through six whiskies: a lowland, a highland (although one on the edge of speyside), two speysides and a pair of Islays.

First up was Auchentoshan 12 year old, our easy drinking lowland to lull the non-whisky drinkers into a false sense of security. I’ve not tried the regular Auchentoshan before (this having replaced the previous standard 10 year old expression), although I did work my way quite happily through a bottle of their Three Wood a few years back. This is a unique distillery in that it distills its spirit three times, rather than the standard twice of the other distilleries in Scotland. On the nose the whisky was quite strong, with a touch of vanilla and quite a slug of alcoholically themed scents – pear drops, lighter fluid and a hint of acetone, although I suspect that part of that was from the use of plastic cups and my already setting in con tiredness. To taste it was not as light as I expected, with a chunk of wood and tannin softening into vanilla and a touch of honey. A drop of water opened up the sweetness into a more honeyed caramel and revealed a touch of smoke, fruit stones and linseed oil as it developed in the glass. Definitely one to let sit with a drop of water in, it mellowed into rather an interesting dram over a few minutes.

IMG_4767

Iain Banks is quite well known for his ability to spin a yarn in person as well as on paper and in between whiskies there was a touch of discussion and story telling, even if it did inevitably splinter into 10 conversations as the booze started to settle in. It seems that I was not the only one to notice a hint of the petrolhead in Raw Spirit, but Banks has started to tone down his car collection due to a touch of green guilt. The Land Rover and fast cars seem to have disappeared to be replaced by first a hybrid and now a diesel, a tale accompanied by a slightly sad tone to his voice.

Next we moved to the highlands for the Dalwhinnie 15 year old. One of my fall back malts this is one that I know well, having visited the distillery a few times and had numerous bottles in my cupboard as a drink I know I like. On the nose there’s a touch of smoke and a sweetness that turns into fruit salad chews in the mouth. It also has a peppery prickle on the tongue and a bit of toffee. Water evens out the smoke a touch, letting a bit of the fruitiness come out.

Hiding at the back of the audience, behind the lucky people who got the drinking passes, was a lady who works in the perfume industry and as a discussion of flavours and scents flourished she chipped in with some interesting thoughts from a different but very similar industry. As we started describing the flavours of the whiskies, and comparing them to the traditionally flowery tasting notes, the inevitable contradictions started to appear. There are many reasons for this, with two main points coming up. Firstly the physical limitations of smell, from genetic heritage governing sensitivity to certain chemical compounds, to just the fact that over time (and with age) the senses start to dim, leading to them being less overpowered when you experience a strong flavour such as whisky. Secondly the role that experience plays in both forming sense memories and retrieving them, leading to flavours that may not perfectly line-up but mean something to the individual.

Next on the list was our next speyside – Glenlivet French Oak. This, like Macallan, is one of those whiskies that I kept meaning to get round to again – a big name that I assume I know the taste of, but don’t actually remember. The French Oak is yet another whisky that uses a bit of new wood in its production – a proportion of the blend of malts has been matured in new Limousin oak casks. On the nose it had vanilla and red fruit but became a bit more complicated in the mouth, with a malty sweetness, creaminess and a hint of smoke. A touch of water turned up the heat and added some more wood to the flavour but turned down both creaminess and sweetness. A much more interesting dram than I expected, especially with the creamy mouth feel that the oak brought, but one to drink at bottle strength.

It was about this point in proceedings that you could tell you were at a convention that attracted some people with a knowledge of science. Led by the perfumer a discussion started about the biology of scent detection, with the traditional lock and key explanation (certain ‘shaped’ chemicals clicking into similarly shaped receptors to produce nerve impulses) being questioned as current research suggests that similarity in the shape of chemicals doesn’t always lead to similar tastes. There is also some difficulty in doing experimentation on this as imaging people’s brains in controlled and repeateable conditions is not trivial, especially as everyone’s brain is wired somewhat differently leading to different areas ‘lighting up’ with the same flavour in different people. There’s rather a lot to the science of flavour…

Next was the first of our cask strength whiskies, bottled by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society – 24.106: Discordant Staves. It’s a 12 year old Macallan which I assume was matured in one of their regular sherry casks. On the nose it was fruitcakey with a thick caramel sweetness, but on tasting a lot of the cake fell away to give a sweet, slightly oily dram with hints of raisins and a touch of rubberiness running through the middle. A rather different flavour to the other Macallan’s I’ve tried recently and one that has pushed them towards the top of my ‘taste these when they arrive at the SMWS’ list.

Our discussions about flavours and experiences led to how we decide on what a ‘good’ whisky is. In the end a large part of that seems to come down to the associations that the whisky had. Liz Williams had a fondness for Glenfiddich, as it’s what her dad drinks, other people had drinks that they’d had a weddings or parties. When ‘researching’ (the quotes were explained as being implicit in all mentions of the word) Raw Spirit, Iain Banks actually did very little drinking at the distilleries – as the main driver he ended up buying a bottle from every distillery he visited for later sampling at home. However, he mentioned that one of his favourite whiskies was an Ardbeg, one that he tried at the distillery. The experience of drinking a one of a kind barrel, since sold to someone else, standing beside the distillery as the sun sets over the sea is an experience I can see sticking with you, especially if it’s a good dram.

Suitably, our next whisky was Ardbeg 10 year old. Ardbeg’s a bit on the up at the moment, with a lot of their limited production being snapped up quite quickly. I’ve not tried it since I met up with some friends a couple of years back to drink our way through the rather complete range that Adam had ‘accidentally’ bought while leafing through the Ardbeg web store. The 10 year old is the standard expression and it shows the distillery’s nature quite well. On the nose it has a strong peatiness, moving into a cattle feed and mulchy sweetness. On the tongue the smoky peat taste continues to dominate, with woody sweetness, a thick rubberiness and a slightly buttery taste combining to make a rather nice whisky. It’s not one for the fainthearted, with the TCP-like taste of the very peaty Islay whiskies shining through, but if you like that sort of thing it won’t disappoint.

By this time conversation was getting a bit confused – it’s quite surprising how many people can get a decent sized shot out of a bottle of whisky… We quickly moved on to our final dram in the tasting, another SMWS cask strength bottling, this time of a Laphroaig29.80: Wedding Cake in a Coal Sack. Laphroaig’s reputation preceded it, which made this dram a bit of a sheep in wolf’s clothing – a stealth whisky. Rather than the regular TCP, sea spray and peat that you’d expect, I got hint of burnt matches on the nose, along with a rich fruity sweetness. To taste it continued the nose with ash, citrus and dried fruit all coming through. A drop of water removed little, adding a taste of coal and a slightly socky tint. A very interesting whisky, not at all what we expected and a good one to finish the tasting.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your state of inebriation, a few of us had brought along a few samples of our own. 1/2r Cruttenden brought along a bottle of the St George’s English whisky, which very quickly was accepted into the running order as a final drink of the session. This is part of the first release, at 3 years old, with the distillery having released ‘Chapter X’ bottlings every six months over the maturation of the spirit. It’s only a limited release as they want to mature it a bit longer, a decision I thoroughly agree with. The whisky is obviously very young, with only a little of the wood’s flavour penetrating the spirit, leaving it with a definite hint of aquavit and caraway seed. However, it is a very smooth whisky with an incredibly thick and creamy mouth feel that makes me want to get my name on the waiting list for new bottles. There is also a peated version coming out in the summer which seems to be preferred by many, so I may have to look into obtaining a bottle. For scientific purposes, of course.

On top of that I tried a drop of my own Yamazaki Sherry Cask, still as good as ever, and a big sip of some 18 year old Bladnoch that was more fully flavoured than any lowland I’ve tried in a long time – another to move back up the tasting list.

A fun tasting with some fun stories, interesting science and some rather tasty whiskies. Well worth queuing up for…

IMG_4794_2

Auchentoshan 12 year old
Single Lowland Malt Scotch Whisky, 40%, ~£30

Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old
Single Highland Scotch Whisky, 43%, ~£30

Glenlivet French Oak Reserve
15 year old Single Speyside Malt Scotch Whisky, 40%, ~£30

SMWS 24.106 Discordant Staves
Single Cask Macallan Single Speyside Malt Scotch Whisky, 58.9% (Sold out)

Ardbeg 10 Year Old
Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky, 43%, ~£40

SMWS 29.80 Wedding Cake in a Coal Sack
Single Cask Laphroaigh Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky, 52.7% (Sold out)

Mitchell Krause No 2

While down in sunny Horsham recently, to see my family and nip over to nearby Crawley for my podcast buddy Matt‘s birthday (Pizza Express – they do Peroni Gran Riserva, which is quite nice), I had a few moments to pop into the local beer shop – The Beer Essentials. I grew up in Horsham with the smell of the King & Barnes brewery covering the whole town with Marmitey goodness on brew days and was sad when the brewery closed after a buyout by Hall and Woodhouse. From the ashes sprung two breweries (WJ King and Co, run by Bill King, the former owner of K&B and Hepworth & Co, run by former head brewer Andy Hepworth) and two beverage companies (The Beer Essentials, run by Gareth Jones and Deakin Fine Wines, run by Simon Deakin, who both used to run the K&B brewery shop). As my dad is now the third man (of three) in the Deakin operation I’ve started keeping an eye on the output of all four. This beer manages to combine two of them: I bought it from Gareth and it is brewed under contract by Andy – Mitchell Krause No. 2.

Mitchell Krause No2

I first found out about the beer on occasional drinking buddy Steev Goodwin’s podcast, The Beer Crate, and after hearing that it was being brewed by Hepworth’s it went on my ‘to find’ list. The idea seems to be that the folks at Mitchell Krause have put together some recipes for beers from around the world and are getting them brewed in the UK to try and bring some more international flavours to the domestic market. However, Graeme Mitchell (the boss) is not, it seems, a brewer himself and has brought in former Boddingtons head brewer Paul Buttrick to put together the recipes and passed production to Hepworth’s. Along with the american pale ale they have a Czech Pilsner (#1) and a Bavarian Hefe Weiss (#3), all UK brewed.

The #2 is definitely an american style PA, with noticeable hops and a good fizziness, but also put together with a nod to the UK market – it’s only 3.8% (a significant step under the ~5% of most of the pale ales I’ve had from the US and closer to the lighter end of the bitter market) and isn’t as fizzy as I’d expect.  It’s an okay beer with a hint of grapefruit bite behind the hops and a quick inoffensive finish, not quite the more ballsy hoppy punch that I expect from this kind of beer, but easy to drink and almost a ‘gateway beer’ to move people from the fizzy yellow end of the drinking spectrum towards something with a little flavour. Not one to turn down, but maybe not one to search for.

Mitchell Krause No.2 – American Pale Ale
3.8%. Brewed under contract by Hepworth & Co
I got mine from The Beer Essentials

Vodka Tasting at Bob Bob Ricard

The lovely people of Qype, especially organisatrix extraordinaire SianySianySiany, have looked after me again, this time be helping with one of my missions for the year: learning more about vodka – somehow I managed to wangle may onto one of Bob Bob Ricard‘s rather exclusive vodka tastings. At first I felt this rather strange as I’d thought that BBR was a english restaurant with a continental twist, but after a few minutes talking to Richard Howarth, the Ricard of the name, I discovered the error of my ways – Bob, the other owner, is actually a chap by the name of Leonid whose Russian influence is the twist on the restaurant that I’d assumed to be from a bit further west. Part of Bob’s introduction of Russian culture into the fabric of the restaurant is his love of vodka, hence the freezer (chilling the vodkas to -18°C), selection of zakuski (Russian nibbly food) and, following on naturally, this tasting.

BBR Vodka Tasting We started off with BBR’s signature cocktail – a Pink Rhubarb Gin and Tonic. It was both sweet and tart, with a slug of rhubarby goodness running through it, and topped with a fairly stiff head that we assumed to be under the influence of egg white. For a G&T it wasn’t at all fizzy, which is good as I suspect that making it gassy wouldn’t have worked. We asked a waitress about the preparation and after a quick disappearance to consult with the bar she came back with a rough recipe: add rhubarb and sugar to Bombay Sapphire and heat until things are about to start bubbling; turn off the heat and leave overnight; strain the liquor to give a rhubarb infused gin; mix with tonic and ice, shake and serve. The egg whitey head is actually brought about the high sugar content and our theories of rhubarb syrups were all shown to be rather pedestrian – a nice drink with an impressive effort behind it.

The plan for the tasting was to try five vodkas, each with a different piece of zakuski. At this point the difference to a whisky or wine tasting became apparent – the vodka wasn’t particularly meant to be tasted. Very specifically, the history of vodka production has involved continued refinement of the process to try and remove more and more of the bad products of distillation, giving as clean and light a taste as possible (as well as minimal headaches and a continued ability to see) – cheap vodkas may taste of petrol cut with meths, but expensive ones will barely taste at all. Luckily Leonid was away for the day and Richard was not quite as harsh a tasting master as his colleague rumoured to be, allowing me to have a bit of a sniff and sip as long as I knocked back a chunk of the booze, as is the Proper Way Of Doing Things.

First up we had a Kauffman Special Selected Vintage 2006 – Kauffman’s vodka is made using grains of a specific year, hence the use of a vintage in the description, and produced in very small batches. As with wine, certain years are said to have produced especially good vintages, with 2003 and 2006 being singled out recently. That said, they haven’t been producing the spirit for long, with their website only listing the 2002, 2003 and 2005 vintages. A quick knock back of the first half the glass showed a surprising smoothness, with a fairly even distribution of flavour, a good mouthfeel and a nice warmth (rather than burn) on the way down. A bit more of a sip and savour revealed a honeyed sweetness across the whole tongue and a long grainy finish.

Next we followed along the range with a taste of the Kauffman Private Collection Luxury Vintage 2003, a name with way too many qualifiers in it for my liking. This was one of 25,000 bottles to be produced from the harvest (the Special Selected Vintages run to about 45,000) and was the most expensive vodka of the afternoon, coming in at about £12 a shot on the BBR menu. The initial chuck down the throat gave a more aquavit-y sensation, with the centre of the tongue going almost untouched by taste, with a bit more of a sensation down the throat and a gentle warming feeling spreading out across the chest. With a bit more of a swill around the mouth the centre of the tongue stayed unworried, but a pleasant pepperiness crept across the sides of the tongue to go with a sweetness similar to the 2006. Very clean tasting, I can see why this is a favourite amongst ‘real’ vodka drinkers.

BBR Vodka TastingAfter these two we took a break for food, as previous tastings had seen a marked decline in tasters who drank through without a break. Accompanying the first two vodkas we’d had jellied ox tongue with quails eggs and horseradish (which I thought was excellent, despite the jelly fear in some of the other tasters – the horseradish was especially good and quite happily edible on its own with a long spoon), and salmon roe on hard-boiled quail’s eggs (which, due to a rather serious love of big roe, happily went down my neck). We were now confronted with some slightly larger dishes to share, with the week’s special of scallop, black pudding and cox’s apple with watercress and chives (not my fave – a bit too dry a black pudding for my liking, although Richard did say that they deliberately went for such a beast, and I don’t really see what the fuss about scallops is, even if these were rather nice), blaeberry wine cured Orkney beef with celeriac, blueberries and hazelnuts (this was rather excellent, although the bluberries were confused for olives and then grapes before a final realisation of their identity), goat’s cheese salad with pickled beetroot (which I avoided due to a dislike of goaty cheese), and potted shrimp with watercress, croutons and lemon (which I started craving while writing this after seeing the picture – butter with a few prawns in on crunchy toast…tasty). It was all rather tasty and definitely a good bit of fortification for the next few drinks.

After a quick table clearing we were presented with glasses of Beluga Vodka. There was some discussion as to the nature of its relationship to the Beluga sturgeon, spawner of tasty caviar, and eventually we came down on the side of associating itself with luxury. The vodka is made in the middle of nowhere, pulling its water from a local well with no industry within 300km of the distillery, a big flag displaying the spirits march towards purity. On the quick throw down the throat it came across as much more prickly, raising the hackles of my tongue, and causing more of a reaction as it wandered down to the stomach. Going slower, it had much more flavour, with grain coming through a lot more than the sweetness of the earlier vodkas. This may be a fault for the Russian connoisseurs, but it’s the sort of thing I like – being able to actually taste my drink – and I thought it to be rather good.

We quickly followed on to Russian Standard Imperia. This was the first producer of the day that I’d heard of already, as I use the basic Russian Standard as my regular vodka at home. I don’t drink a lot of it on its own, but mainly use it to extract flavours from things to make flavoured spirits. I suspect I will write up my experiments sometime in the future, but for now the regular vodka is quite rough, but good at having its flavour masked by other things. The Imperia is a different kettle of fish, based on a recipe by Dmitri Mendeleev, the inventor of the periodic table, it’s been around for a while and had its recipe declared to be ‘The Standard of Vodka’ in 1894. The production process strikes me as maybe going too far, with 8 distillations and two filterings through quartz (I don’t even know how that would work…). I chucked half of it down my throat, as was becoming usual by now, and got much more of a burn than previously, with a much bigger taste of grain. On the nose this was the first to be easily discernible, with hints of caraway in with the regular alcoholic whiff, and in the mouth it had a touch of vanilla and a long warm finish – nice, but not quite as smooth as the others.

Finally we got to the last vodka of the tasting – Stolichnaya Vodka Elite. Described as being much rougher than the rest despite being an expensive premium vodka, this one was included to show us how refined the top vodkas at BBR are. True to form I necked half of it and got a nice burn down the throat and a chunk of grain across the tongue, definitely a bit more to it than the earlier ones. It had a slightly sweet smell and lots of flavour – honey and grain rolling around the mouth. Again, this was up my street and I quite enjoyed it, but it’s definitely not as close to the Russian ideal of clean flavour that was displayed by the Kauffmans.

BBR Vodka Tasting The last three vodkas were accompanied by some more zakuski and we were treated to Meat Pelmeni (meatballs wrapped in noodles – a russian ravioli – served with vinegar and sour cream. These were my favourite thing of the day, excellently moreish and enough to get me to return on their own), Malosol Cucumbers (baby cucumbers cured in brine until crispy, an easy win for someone who likes both salty food and crunchy cucumber like me. I may have to make some of these at home) and Salo on Rye Bread (wafer thin slices of cured pork fat on rye bread. The fat melted in the mouth into a smoky butter that then infused the highly flavoured bread – it was almost great, but there was a bit too much bread for the [still quite large] amount of salo, so it turned into a bit too much of a rye fest for my liking) which continued the filling process to the extent that we turned down en masse an offer of Sunday lunch. We were, however, offered another go at whichever vodka the group liked the best, and after some umming and ahhing the consensus appeared to be the first one that we tasted – the Kauffman Special Selected Vintage 2006. It balanced the lack of flavour that the producers were going for with some very pleasant flavours, making it a very worthy favourite. I may not be grabbing a bottle for my freezer (at about £70 a go) but I may have to have a try next time I see some.

My favourite of the tasting was the Beluga – prickly and full of flavour while still rather smooth and easy to throw down the throat if need be. I may seek out a bottle and then offend the Russians by drinking the occasional shot slowly over ice. I wonder how cold my freezer is…

Many thanks again to Richard for leading us through the vodka, telling tales of running a restaurant and filling us with food; Siany for organising the thing (and letting me go along) and Qype for keeping their website going so that I can go and do such things.

Vodka Kauffman Special Selected Vintage 2006
40%. Approx £70 per 70cl bottle

Vodka Kauffman Private Collection Luxury Vintage 2003
40%. Approx £140 per 70cl bottle

Beluga Vodka
40%. Approx £40 per 70cl bottle

Imperia by Russian Standard
40%. Approx £30 per 70cl bottle

Vodka Elite by Stolichnaya
40%. Approx £40 per 70cl bottle

Bob Bob Ricard is at 1 Upper James Street, Soho, London W1F 9DF and they are lovely.

Siany’s Qype blog post is up and there are a bunch of reviews appearing on BBR’s page

The Macallan Ice Ball Serve

I am a big fan of gimmicks, even if I try not to give them too much credence, but when I heard about Macallan’s latest it gave me a kick to go and find somewhere that could demonstrate it – The Ice Ball Serve… Basically, serve Macallan 10 yr old over ice, but instead of using cubes use a giant sphere of ice created with much theatre in a machine constructed from two large heavy copper lumps with a ball mould carved into them. I’m generally not a fan of ice in scotch whisky, although it has its place, but I decided to abandon my principles and wandered down to Hawksmoor to give it a try.

The machine is excellent – two large copper blocks, each with a hemisphere carved into the centre of one side, between which you place a large block of ice and then let the combined forces of gravity and ambient temperature take their toll. The heavy copper presses on the ice and being at ambient temperature it melts it a bit. Slowly but surely the weight of the upper copper block squishes the ice into the mould, while strategically placed holes in the blocks let water escape, until it’s a fairly decent sphere. There’s a turny thing on the bottom block to lever the ball out, leaving the barman to pick it up with some tongs and plink it into the specially shaped glass before sploshing on some Macallan 10. It is a perfect piece of point of sale bar theatrics – little can go wrong (other than not having enough pieces of big ice), it’s not messy, and is quite easy to explain. Hawksmoor don’t have much in the way of branded furniture on their bar, but I can see why they said yes to this one.

They are, however, quite scarily expensive (a few kilos of decent copper isn’t cheap) and Macallan have distributed them to about 20 places around the country (a list can be found over on Whisky Intelligence). They are originally from Japan, home of the excellent bar related gadget, and it seems that Macallan have a license to distribute them in the UK. While I won’t be seeking one out for my kitchen, I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out to see how far they spread amongst the posh bars of London – it’s nice to have an excuse to go to posh bars…

It’s definitely worth a try, although while I felt the cooled Macallan was quite nice, it was nothing special – certainly not as nice as if drunk at room temperature. The big ball of ice may not melt as fast as a bunch of smaller cubes, but getting it out of the glass when you’ve got to the concentration of whisky/water that you want is difficult, as the glass has been designed to have an opening about the same size as the ball – it does make you drink your whisky a little faster, I suppose, which is something that Macallan won’t mind. So, one for the gadget lovers and those who like ice in their scotch. I fall into one half of that camp and while I may not be having another ice ball of my own I will certainly sit around and watch other people smile as the machine does its work.

Macallan 10 year old
Sherry cask aged single malt scotch whisky
40%. Widely available for about £30 per bottle. I had mine at Hawksmoor. As you may have noticed. They’ve also got the 21 year old and many other tasty whiskies (that may appear in the next Quick Tastings post, if I can decipher my drunken notes) on the shelf. I like Hawksmoor.

Debowe Mocne

The treasure trove of my one of my local shops is running dry – I’ve now drunk pretty much every beer they’ve got and they don’t seem to like changing the range any more. So, this is the last of the bunch – Dębowe Mocne.

Debowe Mocne

As usual despite my polish heritage I have no idea about this beer other than that the ‘mocne’ means ‘strong’. However, after a quick google (and hitting upon my main source of info for polish beer, even if I disagree with almost every one of his reviews, Hywel’s Big Log) I now know some things. Dębowe means Oak, named so as it’s matured in oak barrels, and the bottle slogans of ‘Naturalna Moc’ and ‘Bogaty Smak’ mean ‘Naturally Strong’ (rather than fortified) and ‘Richly Flavoured’. If you understand polish then there is a website, complete with smiling man with his arms crossed and animated barrels, that looks like it’s cost a bit more to put up than the rest of the polish brewing industry have spent on the internet combined. There’s also an obligatory advert up on the YouTubes – this one has more of a classical theme than most of the beer ads I’ve seen recently:

It’s a darker then usual lager with a reddy gold tint and it has a slightly cereally, biscuity smell. To taste it’s quite pleasant – soft and richly malty, with a hint of hoppy bitterness at the end and a touch of caramel crispbreads. For a 7.5% polish beer it hides the alcohol rather well and is quite worryingly drinkable, although you can feel its effect creeping in behind the eyes quite quickly. All in all rather a nice find from the corner shop – the best of the mocne beers I’ve found as of yet.

Now to move on to the next shop on the parade. I just hope they have as interesting a meat selection as the last shop…

Dębowe Mocne
7.5% Oak Aged Polish Strong Lager
About £1.70 from your local corner shop

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.