Tis the season of advent calendars, and the latest craze is to fill them with booze. Now, I’ve not actually got one – I do work for a drinks company in direct competition with the folks who make the calendars, after all – but everyone else with a whisky blog does and I feel left out. So, I’m going to write about a different whisky every day in advent, and as I don’t have an actual calendar, my whiskies should be different to everyone else’s. Here’s the first: Amrut Single Pedro Ximénez Cask #2697.
I like whisky festivals. In the last few years the numbers of festivals popping up around the country has grown and much of the thanks for that must got to The Whisky Lounge. I’ve been attending their shows as a punter since their first London festival back in May 2010, and have since progressed to helping at them, both for work and for the The Whisky Lounge themselves. My main problem with working at shows is that I don’t usually get a chance to try many whiskies, as I’m generally behind one of the stands. However, I sometimes get a chance to have a roam and taste a few bits and pieces and Saturday, at the first Bristol Whisky Fest, was one of those times. One rather special dram even got me to break my ‘no writing notes at shows’ rule – Amrut Greedy Angels.
It’s been a busy month. Or so. However out of a combination of a (misplaced and unrequired) sense of duty and the fact that this blog is increasingly a replacement for my rapidly deteriorating memory it’s time for some more Whisky Squad magic. Way back in April (about a month as I write) we hit the mammoth third session within a four week period, breaking out very much for pastures new. Eschewing both our usual pubby surroundings and the chilly lands to the north of Hadrian’s wall we gathered at Dishoom on St Martin’s Lane for a run through some Indian whiskies with Icons of Whisky Brand Ambassador of the Year 2012 Ashok Chockalingham of Amrut.
Despite my best intentions I do seem to let a lot of the things that I grab to write about stack up. While that may not seem like the worst thing in the world (Oh noes! I seem to have a pile of boozes on a shelf and I HAVE to taste them all…) it does make me feel like a naughty schoolboy who hasn’t done his homework. So, when a mail arrives from the Whisky Tasting Club to let me know that my next box of whiskies are on their way, reminding me that I haven’t even opened my last tasting box yet, I feel the urging boot of ‘get on with it’.
Rather than a gentle sampling over the space of a couple of weeks, like I did last time, I decided to sit down and make a ‘proper’ tasting. I will admit that it was in part to get use of the five watchglasses that I slightly drunkenly purchased at Whisky Live a couple of weeks back. I like glassware too much. Anyways, tasting set #2’s theme is Whiskies of the World and included drams from the USA, Japan, India, England and The Netherlands.
Taking them in the order in the accompanying leaflet I started with the Zuidam 5 year old Dutch Rye. I’ve written about this one before, as I have with most of the whiskies in this box, but found it a bit less sweet than last time. On the nose my notes describe it as ‘mentholated bourbon’, with sharp rich fruit, vanilla, coconut and foam bananas – overall sweet but with an underlying tannic dryness. To taste I got sour cream, sweet vanilla caramel, hints of cinnamon, sour white grapes and a creamy woody finish. Water brought out more sourness with grapes and wood and added vanilla to the finish.
Next was Nikka from the Barrel. I’m a big fan of Nikka and this blend was my choice for my own aborted Whiskies of the World tasting. It also has a really pretty bottle. On the nose there were raisins, sweet wood and flowers – very reminiscent of good aged grain whisky (one of my favourite things). To taste there was big dry wood, turning quickly bitter through plump sultanas to a dry cardboard finish with quite a lot of alcoholic prickle on the tongue. Water tamed everything and amalgamated the flavours – tannic vine fruits leading to a sour woody finish with a good chunk of booze hanging around.
Third was Amrut Fusion, which I tried at Albannach a few weeks back. On the nose I got much more this time, with butter, bread and a hint of vanilla standing out over a hefty alcoholic hit – ‘boozy brioche’ my notes say. To taste it was quite closed but I got a light creaminess followed by a spike of fruit and grain. It can take a good chunk of water and the flavour opened up to reveal cream, sweet crunchy apple and hints of grain leading to a woody finish of old furniture and fruit trees.
Next was the English Whisky Company Chapter 9, which I tried at the first Albannach Whisky Hub. At three years old this is as young as whisky gets and it definitely shows. On the nose there was cream backed by fruity peat, sweet lemons and a hint of green wood smoke. To taste it was quite light and oily, with a peat smoke burst surrounded by apples and lightly muddy vegetal notes. There was the taste of young whisky (the caraway/aquavit flavour of young barley spirit) and the finish was short and tasted of digestive biscuits. Water killed most of the smoke leaving sweet citrus and young spirit – a lemon aquavit? My bottle of this is staying in the cupboard unopened for now.
Last was Elijah Craig 12 year old, the only one I don’t remember trying before and one I’ve been meaning to for a while. I’ve been a fan of Elijah Craig for a while ever since my last stop at my first Whisky Live was their stand – I stood there quite wobbily, talking about barrel aging of spirits in different climates with a group of similarly wobbling punters and the stand owners, having very little clue about what I was saying and occasionally having my glass topped up by people who seemed to find that amusing. I may have tried the 12 then, but that was pre-notebook and the only thing I remember from that part of the evening was my misplaced certainty that I knew everything about barrels. On the nose the 12 year old had big sour caramel, rich PX-like raisins, golden rum, coconut, glace cherries, a hint of pepper and some underlying sour grain. To taste it was thick and waxy but lighter than the nose suggested. It started with sweet grain and moved through cherry, crunchy mango and violets to a throat-warming finish of sweet fruit wood. Water smoothed out the slight throat burn and brought out some sweetness from the wood – green apples in the middle, dusty raisins at the side and the cherries become more glacé-like.
My next box is sitting on my desk along with a copy of Dom Roskrow’s World’s Best Whiskies, a bonus for having for subscribed for 3 boxes, and this set’s theme is Wood. Hopefully I’ll get round to cracking these open a bit sooner.
Zuidam 5 Year Old Rye
Dutch rye whiskey, 40%.~£50.
Nikka from the Barrel
Japanese blended whisky, 51.8%. ~£25.
Indian single malt whisky, 50%. ~£35.
English Whisky Chapter 9
English single malt whisky, 46%. ~£40.
Elijah Craig 12 Year Old
USA bourbon whiskey, 47%. ~£25.
Following hot on the heels of my last post about Albannach‘s monthly whisky club is this more timely write up of February’s gathering. Shifted downstairs into a darkened corner booth of Albannach’s A-Bar due to a private party having booked the entire upstairs we had a few of us from last time and some new people and, in a happily shocking turn for a whisky event, even numbers of men and women. Hopefully whisky producers will continue to stop advertising seemingly solely to gentlemen of a certain age and whisky geeks, and the whisky community will continue its trend towards no longer just being the domain of bearded men with notebooks – I for one am happy to see less people who look like me at whisky events… Anyways, on to the whisky!
First up this month was Cat from Albannach with a bottle of Inish Turk Beg. It’s the first release of a new irish whiskey, limited to only 2888 bottles, named for a private island off the west coast. It’s a whiskey that’s covered in marketing and digging through their website doesn’t get much information about the spirit itself – the island is owned by Nadim Sadek who has set it up as a brand in of itself, encompassing food, art, music and now whiskey. According to the site it’s finished in poítin barrels that have ‘long lain’ on the island, cut to bottling strength using rainwater collected on the island and sold in handblown bottles made with glass that contains sand from the island. There’s no information about the whiskey on the web apart from a few reviews and some theories from people who haven’t tasted it that it’s very young Cooley spirit aged in former bourbon barrels. However, I reckon it’s had a little bit of time in the barrel and despite the marketing guff I thought it was rather nice – on the nose it was salty and floral (violets?) with caramel and a light woody smokiness; to taste there was vanilla up front, a spicy middle with a bit of gravelly minerality and a dry honeyed woody finish. Water dropped out some of the sugary sweetness, adding more honey and a little bit of woody tannin. It’s a bit pricey for my liking (at about £125 per bottle) but it’s not bad, despite the story around it seemingly being more important than the liquid. I have already claimed the empty bottle from Albannach when they finish, if Cat doesn’t get it first (which she will)…it’s very pretty.
Next up was Will Lowe, who brought along some Amrut Fusion. It’s one I tried, and have no memory of, at last year’s London Whisky Lounge festival and one that is sitting on my ‘tasting shelf’ (aka unused monitor stand that’s part of my desk) as part of my next Whisky Tasting Club box (that I’ve had for about a month…I should get onto that). It’s (mostly) from India and is probably the most well travelled whisky I’ve ever tried. The Fusion part of its name comes from the fact that it uses both Scottish and Indian barley in its manufacture, with the Scots grain being peated and the Indian not. The Indian barley is grown in the Punjab before being sent to maltsters in Jaipur. After malting it meets the Scottish barley in Bangalore at Amrut’s distillery, where it is distilled and aged. From there it makes its way to the UK – quite a trip. On the nose it had caramel popcorn, a bit of gravel and a hint of woody smoke. To taste it was universally described as ‘pinched’, with its stronger 50% bottling strength compressing the flavours behind an alcoholic kick. I got some more minerals and a bit of peaty smoke, but mainly it was hot and spicy and didn’t reveal much. Water tamed it to a sweet and stony dram with an edge of farmyard, showing it to be quite pleasant under the fire.
Third came Cat’s colleague Carolina who brought a bottle of Glen Grant Major’s Reserve. Glen Grant is a highland distillery on the edge of the lowlands which, from my recent reading of Richard Paterson’s Goodness Nose, seems to make lighter spirits in a more traditionally lowland style. I’d not tried this one before but Carolina had chosen it as one that she felt was a good introductory whisky – working in a restaurant like Albannach she often gets asked for recommendations for non-whisky drinkers and this is one at the top of her arsenal. On the nose it was buttery, with butterscotch, apples, custard and a light spice. To taste it was quite sweet for with a nice chunk of wood to balance it. There was liquorice root, sour polished wood and a little hint of menthol at the end before a short sweet wood finish. Water brought out more candied sugar on the nose but killed the flavour, leaving it simple, sweet and sour. This was rather easy drinking and one of my favourites of the night – a very good whisky for someone who isn’t sure what they’d like.
Next was me, with a bottle of Benromach Organic that I picked up from my visit to the distillery this time last year. I’ve not tried it since the tasting I did last March, but I remember being rather keen on it at the time. It’s the first Soil Association certified organic whisky, although a number have appeared since release, and is unpeated and aged exclusively in new wood casks. When I first tried it I assumed the choice of new wood was due to the difficulty of obtaining organically certified refill barrels, but it looks like other distilleries have managed it so I’m no longer sure of the motivation for the cask choice. Since I last mentioned the whisky it has now pretty much sold out everywhere, with its replacement, the peated ‘Special Edition Organic’, not going down anywhere near as well – hopefully the unpeated version will reappear soon. On the nose we got an interesting gluey smell (although a table of people arguing of what type of glue it smelled of hints towards a number of mispent youths) which in the end we settled on being wet papier mache (although PVA glue and primary school paste both came up) along with tea and bananas. To taste there was much more wood than I remember, overwhelming the palate with dry and dusty oak, and new wood spiciness a bit like an unrefined bourbon. Along with that there was the expected vanilla and some red fruit. Water tamed it a little bit, although while it brought out some sweet butter it did also soften some of the wood to damp cardboard. Not as much of a favourite this time as I remembered from before.
Next was Melanie, who had a bottle of Ballantines 17. While the earlier Amrut Fusion had been respectably scored as Jim Murray’s 3rd best whisky in this year’s whisky bible this Ballantines came in first, even if it has caused a chunk of mumbling amongst the whisky community. I’m naturally suspicious of scoring things like whisky, especially when Murray admits that the 17 is one of the reference whisky that he uses to set his palate before tasting, as well as one of his favourite whiskies. It’s a difficult thing to blind taste when one of the things that you are tasting is something that you know you like and also know the smell of rather well. I used it as part of my last whisky tasting and it’s still not one of my favourites – on the nose there was acetone and apples; to taste smoke, sour wood, cinnamon, bits and pieces of fruit, and a good chunk of wood; water knocked out a chunk of the wood, bringing out more sweetness and woody caramel. Far from unpleasant I just find it to be quite uninteresting, although I assume that’s just me being biased without reason. The mind is a difficult thing…
Last up was Lucas with a bottle of Ledaig 10. This comes from the Tobermory distillery on the Isle of Mull, where their unpeated spirit is named after the distillery and their peated Ledaig, it’s old name. It’s got a bit of a reputation for unevenness, with good whiskies at one end(such as the 5 year old Ledaig that Berry Brother’s bottled last year, which picked up various accolades) and filthy whiskies at the other (such as the Tobermory 15 that was tasted at Whisky Squad #3) but not a lot in the middle. They seem to have had a bit of a rebrand recently and I was quite keen, although apprehensive, to try the Ledaig. On the nose it had black junior school plimsolls (fresh from the box), tinned sardines, wet leaves, damp soil and a hint of lemon. To taste it had coal and tar, a bit of unscented soap, lots of minerality and salty preserved lemons. Water killed the interesting flavours, leaving just a wet and smoky mess. Despite the non-traditionally appealing flavours I list above this one was my favourite of the night – totally different to the rest of the whiskies with a very different smokiness to that which you normally get from peat. The harsh rubberiness of the spirit is not going to be for everyone, but if you like a sensual assault it’s worth a try.
With the whisky gone the evening broke down in what I assume will become a traditional fashion with random conversation appearing. I had to run off quite quickly due to a) impending drunkenness and b) an appointment with Gatwick airport to find a plane to get me to Porto in Portugal, where I had a further appointment with a lot of port. The things I do for this blog…
Hopefully there’ll be more Whisky Hub shenanigans next month – many thanks to Cat for throwing it all together again. As with last time, let me know if you are interested in coming along (probably the last Wednesday of the month) and I’ll see if there’s space.
Inish Turk Beg
Irish whiskey, no age statement, 44%. 1litre bottles available for £125 from Harvey Nichols.
Indian whisky, no age statement, 50%. ~£35 from Master of Malt.
Glen Grant Major’s Reserve
Highland single malt Scotch whisky, no age statement, 40%. ~£20 from The Whisky Exchange.
Organic Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, no age statement, 43%. Sold out, but was about £35 from Master of Malt.
Blended Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40 from Master of Malt.
Single malt Highland Island Scotch whisky, ~£30 from Master of Malt (although I’d check that is the new edition, as the image on the page isn’t and the tasting notes are quite different from the rubbery punch we got).
This blog is quite good for getting me invited to slightly random events that aren’t just plain drinks tastings and when I was asked along to a combination practise whisky dinner and book launch at a Michelin starred Indian restaurant, I couldn’t really say no. The book in question is Dominic Roskrow’s latest, The World’s Best Whiskies and the restaurant Quilon.
Dominic has been writing about whisky for years, having been editor of Whisky Magazine amongst other writing poitions, and was made a Keeper of the Quaich in 2007 and a Kentucky Colonel in 2010. He now edits The Whisky Shop‘s inhouse magazine, Whiskeria, writes all over the place and runs whisky tastings around the country. It was more in this latter capacity that he we met him, as the plan was to taste some whisky rather than listen to a reading of tasting notes from the new book.
Quilon, specialising in food from the south west of India, wasn’t an entirely random pairing, as this was a test run of a whisky dinner that Dominic will be hosting at the restaurant at the beginning of next year. The fact that they also have a 50 strong whisky menu and a head chef who likes the odd dram, as we discovered when he came out to have a rest and a drink at the end of the night, didn’t hinder things either.
We started the evening with a cocktail of Johnny Walker Black Label and Créme de Mûre, topped up with champagne, which I was not that great a fan of – the champage overpowered the whisky and the liqueur didn’t help that. As I’m not a fan of fizzy wine it wasn’t my kind of thing, but the assembled journalists, with a couple of us bloggers for good measure, seemed to enjoy it well enough. While we sipped at these Dominic described his approach to writing the book, basically drinking a lot of whisky. He went through and tried all of the whiskies himself (bar one that I can’t remember) and wrote up fresh tasting notes for all of them in his own rather irreverant style, focusing on drinking whisky and having a good time rather than the more regimented tasting notes side of things.
Dominic is very much a lover of whisk(e)y from all over the world, as his Kentucky Colonel-dom (-ship? -ity? who knows…) attests, and we started the whisky tasting with the Amrut Double Cask. Amrut have been making drinks for many years, but their foray into the single malt whisky market was described by Dominic as a ‘Newcastle university student experiment’. One of the family who own the operation was studying in Newcastle and wondered whether it was possible to sell an Indian single malt whisky in the British market. The initial answer to the question was ‘no’, but they’ve persevered and over time the quality of product and the eagerness of reception has grown, leading to the current state where it’s no longer considered quite as strange that you can buy Indian whisky in the UK and their products are getting good critical attention. Due to the environment in Bangalore the maturation of the whisky is rather different to in Scotland, with 2-5 years of maturation being usual and 7 years the oldest that they’ve produced as yet. This speed of turnaround has allowed them to do a lot of experimentation, with various different barley types (both local Indian grain as well as imports from Scotland) and barrels as well as other fiddling. This bottling is a vatting of two old casks (from 2002 and 2003 – two of their oldest) demonstrating the main problem with maturing for so long in the tropics – the whisky lost 59% of its volume in evaporation over the 7 years. Rather than being alcohol evaporating, as you get in cooler climates, this was mainly water, with the alcohol content of the spirit rising from the filling proof of 62.5% to 69.8% before reducing for bottling. This is now pretty much sold out, as you’d expect from a total availability of 306 bottles. On the nose it had vanilla, a beefy maltiness, apples and chilli. To taste it was buttery, with sweet vanilla, black pepper, green peppers, a bit of chilli spice and long bitter wood finish. As it sat in the glass it opened up a bit more and I got a hint of aniseed – not the sweet heat of an aniseed ball but the seedy aniseed of the speck at the centre. Water softened the wood, bringing out more vanilla and calming the spiciness.
Next we tried out our one Scottish whisky of the evening, the Glenkeir Treasures 17 year old Macallan. The Glenkeir Treasures are a range of The Whisky Shop’s own bottlings and this one was a single cask which had produced 144 bottles. It was matured in bourbon and finished in sherry casks (I think that’s what Dominic said), showing Macallan’s increased use of bourbon casks in their production, something that was very much not the norm for them in the past. On the nose it was vegetal with some horseradish and mustard. There was also dark chocolate, a rich maltiness and a smell that my brain resolved to be “off limes” – a pleasant soured citrus. To taste there was sweet woody spice with salt and pepper, but these were overshadowed by a dry tannic wood that stepped in and dominated. Water rolled away a lot of the dryness, revealing vanilla ice cream which quickly faded through dried fruits to a long woody finish.
We then skipped continents again, this time to the USA and Hancock’s Reserve Single Barrel. Produced by Buffalo Trace (there are a lot more whiskey brands than there are distilleries in the US, with most companies producing a variety of different products) it’s a single cask with individual bottlings often coming in at 8-10 years, although the age is not stated on the bottle. This one had a lovely nose, with sweet varnish, pencil rubbers, bubblegum, dried apples, pastry, bananas and a rich caramel. To taste it was much lighter, with the apples returning along with some grapes, sultanas and sweet wood spice, finishing with light woodiness. It was the groups favourite of the evening and I can see why – very smooth and easy to drink in comparison with the rather spiky whiskies that preceded it. I found it slightly disappointing that the promise of the nose wasn’t quite borne out in the body, but still rather enjoyed it.
The last in our round the world tasting session was the most interesting for me – Karuizawa 1982 from The Whisky Exchange. Appropriately Tim from TWE (and writer of their rather good blog) was there to represent the bottlers, who had put this whisky out as part of their 10th anniversary celebrations. I tried it a week earlier at their official celebratory tasting (that I might one day get round to writing up here) and had to check carefully to make sure it was the same whisky. We tried it very soon after pouring at Quilon, whereas it was the penultimate whisky at the TWE tasting and had sat in the glass for about 2 hours, and it seems that it is very much a whisky that changes with exposure to the air. This time the nose was rich with truffles, struck matches, raisins, grapes and sherried wood. To taste it had sherry fruit and peppery spice, followed by a burst of wood that led into a rich, spicy, meaty finish. An impressive and very different whisky from the rest, and one that lost a lot of the ‘forest notes’ as it sat in the glass (which it didn’t do very long this time).
We then followed this with some excellent food from the Quilon menu, matched with a red and white wine rather than with the whisky, with the curry leaf and lentil crusted fish starter (as south west India has a whole load of coastline to obtain fish from), the lamb roast main course (which reminded me a lot of the excellent ‘dry meat’ at Tayyabs) and the rather special pepper ice cream (which I suspect had a chunk more than pepper in – I assumed it was cardamon until I read the menu) all standing out. With dinner finished we were joined by head chef Sriram Aylur who tucked into a pair of drams (with a spot of ice, as room temperature whisky after an evening in a hot and spicy kitchen wasn’t something he was a fan of) while we chatted with Dominic about the joys of whisky.
All in all a rather nice evening and encouraging to see the whisky industry outside of the core distilling reaching out to bloggers (something that Dominic himself mentioned in the latest Whiskeria – November 2010, page 50). I think that the restaurant need to have a chat with Dominic before next year to best work out how to set up the tasting though, as wine glasses aren’t great for nosing and chilled water isn’t the best for adding to a dram. That said, the food was very good and they’ve gone on my list of places to try and have a proper meal at.
I’d already occasionally spoken to Dominic on Twitter, so it was nice to meet him in person. I’d even signed up to his online whisky tasting club earlier that week, receiving shipping confirmation of my first box of samples while I was talking to him that evening. In a stroke of duplication it seems that in addition to the copy of the book that I was given after this tasting I’ll have another one arriving sometime early in the new year, as The Whisky Tasting Club are giving each of their regular members a copy after their second tasting. I’ll have a spare soon so I might even have to do a competition giveaway or something – while the book is (from my current browsing) rather good and beautifully designed (the front cover alone has given me both photographic and glassware envy) my house is too full of books and booze to allow any duplicates in. Worryingly, that even counts for booze…
Amrut Double Cask
7 year old Indian single malt whisky. 46%. ~£80 from Whiskys.co.uk
Glenkeir Treasures Macallan 17
17 year old Speyside single cask single malt Scotch whisky. 57.7%. Sold out, but was ~£70 per bottle
Hancock’s Reserve Single Barrel
Single cask bourbon aged approx 8-10 years. 44.45%. ~£70 from Royal Mile Whiskies
Karuizawa 1982, Whisky Exchange 10th Anniversary Bottling
17 year old single cask Japanese single malt whisky. Sold out, but was available from The Whisky Exchange.
Many thanks to Su Lin Ong of SLO London for inviting me, the staff at Quilon for feeding me and to Dominic for the whisky and whisky talk. I didn’t pay for the evening and did receive a copy of Dominic’s book to take home with me. And a copy of Whiskeria, but I think you can get those for free at The Whisky Shop if you buy something and ask nicely. I think that’s what I did last time.
Tickets are now available for the February 1st 2011 dinner. Details in this PDF.
Dominic is another person who is being foolish and growing a ‘tache for Movember. While it pains me to advertise a ‘rival’ (doubly so, as he’s a member of The Edinburgh Whisky Blog‘s team rather than infinitely superior Whisky4Movember posse) as it’s a rival for sponsorship cash and it all goes to the same place it’d be churlish of me not to link to his fundraising page. His moustache is also better than mine.