Masterclass number three of the Saturday of Maltstock was a whistlestop tour through the latest whiskies from Glendronach and Benriach, presented by the ever bouncy Donald MacLellan. I met him earlier in the year when I tagged along to Benriach with Jon Beach of the the Fiddlers during a day of ‘doing Speyside‘. Donald was helping a chap I later found out to be Bert Bruyneel of indie bottler Asta Morris (a guy who really knows how to choose his casks, as Mr Robson will attest) choose some casks and let us tag along. I owe him many beers.
The year hasn’t ended yet and here it is – a blog post about the most recent Whisky Squad tasting. It’s even (unless plans go awry, in which case I’ll delete this sentence making these parentheses entirely pointless) before the next Squad meeting, the Christmas dinner on the 8th of December, so this officially makes me a good boy again.
Anyways, the second tasting of November was deliberately pushed towards the end of the month as it was in honour of Movember, and the extra couple of weeks meant that there were some moustaches on display, unlike during the Smoking Section tasting where MoSista Charly‘s stick on lip warmer was the only thing worthy of the name ‘Mo’. Anyways, we gathered upstairs at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society with bottles donated from a variety of sponsors and all the proceeds going straight to the Whisky4Movember fund raising efforts. Unfortunately we had some generous sponsors and even excluding the emergency bottle I had in my bag, just in case any of the whiskies didn’t arrive, we had eight drams to get through. It’s a hard life…
While up in Speyside in February I didn’t do all that much out of the ordinary – I was driven around, drank beer, drank whisky, stood on some skies, drank some more beer… However, in a fit of ‘surely that can’t be all there is to it’, we made an excursion on our last day to The Heather Centre. While I will give it some benefit of the doubt due to the rather heavy snow outside, I don’t think it will make it on to my list of ‘must visit’ sites in the Speyside region – it was a garden centre. It had everything you’d expect from a garden centre, with garden stuff, strange nicknacks and a kitchen section with a video on loop showing how you! can have a device that does not only one useful action but three! and it’s both easy to clean and lots cheaper than you’d think! On top of those and the inevitable tartan boxed shortbread it had a shelf of booze.
There were some vaguely interesting bottles of whisky on there, along with some Caorunn Scottish Gin (that I had little nip of – it tasted of gin), but as I had a rather full rucksack to drag back south I decided to grab a box of miniatures – The silver boxed, BenRiach Classic Speyside collection.
The silver box comment is only important because I found out at Whisky Live that they also do a gold detailed box which has some of their other whiskies in, including their peated Curiositas. It was very shortly after learning this that I bought a bottle of Curiositas (as seen in my recent whisky tasting) based on a) drunkenness b) the nice man giving me some distillery pin badges and c) my feeling slightly foolish at not having checked out what the other box on the shelf at the Heather Centre contained. Anyway, this box contains four 50cl bottles across their standard range.
First by age is the Heart of Speyside – the no age statement entry level single malt. It’s very lightly coloured and has sweet grain, vegetable oil and raisins on the nose – a bit like a boozey muesli (breakfast of champions). To taste it’s quite strange – quite fresh with flowers and heather, backed up with a slug of furniture polish. Whisky tasting assistant Anna hit the nail on the head – ‘Mr Sheen, but in a good way’. Water brought out some other flavours, with vanilla and Refreshers (the chalky loveheart ones, not the chews) joining the flowery, perfumed taste. Interesting, and definitely benefiting from a delicate dilution.
Next up is their 12 year old. This one continues the theme of the last, with flowers and furniture polish on the nose, but also has some caramel and toffee along with a generally increased richness, as you would hope with <unspecified number> of extra years in the barrel. To taste it has some woody vanilla and a warming spiciness, along with a slug of wood and a bit of linseed oil. Water rounds things out and makes it a lot sweeter, leaving honey and linseed oil fading to a woody taste on the finish. Quite nice, but a bit sweet for my liking.
Third in the box is the 16 year old. Again, this one is a development of the last, but this time some of the floweriness has gone, leaving light honey and heather, and a little bit of saltiness has crept in. To taste it’s very different, with leathery wood, tannins and a peppery smoke almost hiding the honey sweet oiliness of the previous two. A drop of water opens up the wood into a creamy vanilla, with a touch of smoke and a dry finish. I rather like this one and suspect a bottle may make its way into my cupboard at some time in the near future.
Last on the list is the 20 year old. Further development of flavour here, with a nose of oiled wood, caramel and damp cardboard. The wood has really influenced this one and at first it tastes almost like a dry bourbon, but on top of that there a chunk of sweet lemon, leather and dry tannins. A drop of water loosens the whole lot, softening the heavy woodiness to a creamy vanilla, allowing the honey and linseed of the younger whiskies to sneak out and be rounded off with a woody finish. A nice dram, yet again, but not a patch on the 16 for me.
Benriach Heart of Speyside
Speyside single malt whisky, no age statement, 40%, ~£25
Benriach Aged 12 Years
Speyside single malt whisky, 12 years old, 43%, ~£30
Benriach Aged 16 Years
Speyside single malt whisky, 16 years old, 43%, ~£40
Benriach Aged 20 Years
Speyside single malt whisky, 20 years old, 43%, ~£55
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.
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
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)
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)