It’s impressive how quickly 12 months can pass by. This time last year, I was trying to work out how to both get to the Islay Festival of Malt and Music – Fèis Ile to its friends and about 50,000 Scottish gaelic speakers – and travel around the island once I got there. My companion during this ‘planning’ was a dram from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, their first bottled in celebration of the festival. This year I can’t make it to Islay, so instead I’m looking at other people’s plans with a new whisky compantion – the SMWS’s second festival bottling, 127.44: Cantina Mexicana.
Travel retail is a strange market. Not only are the shops in some of the strangest on earth – liminal spaces constructed with a strange dual purpose of quick movement and opportunities to spend cash – but it’s a hard market. Bruichladdich are no stranger to the vagaries of travel retail and they’ve just unveiled a pair of new whiskies – Bruichladdich The Laddie Eight and Port Charlotte 2007 CC:01.
Today is a special day. By the time you read this, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will have not only been released, but I will have seen it. I’m booked in to the midnight showing, so as not to have to avoid the internet due to it being filled with spoilers for the film.
When looking through my whisky collection, there was only one dram that could possibly fit the day. Maybe the geekiest bottle on my shelf, and one of my favourites: an independently bottled Bruichladdich 1992, the Save Lars Whisky.
As I said in my post from last week about the third Bruichladdich Micro Provenance tasting –aka #LaddieMP3 – I have a complex relationship with Bruichladdich. There are a couple of drams that have shaken my dislike of the whiskes which have been made since the distillery was revived in 2000, but the one that weakened my resolve the most was Bruichladdich X4+3.
As I said in that blog post, it was a whisky that I should have in no way liked – quadruple-distilled and only matured for three years. Yet, I loved it. At the second of the online Laddie Micro Provenance tastings, they dropped in an older version, but I wasn’t involved and just watched as people enjoyed it, only to entirely forget about is existence moments later.
However, the lovely Ben Cops of Ben’s Whisky Blog, who had tried the X4+3 at Whisky Squad with me, remembered the my look of consternation as I realised how much I liked it, saved me a bit of the X4+9 and pressed it into my hand the next time I saw him. I finally got around to trying it this evening, so it is now advent calendar whisky #5 – Bruichladdich Micro Provenance Cask #060, aka X4+9.
I have a confession to make: I don’t really like Bruichladdich’s whisky. They’re the geek touchstone; the independent Hebridean distiller that showed that the little guy could go it alone; the home of Jim McEwan, his crazy experiments and his even crazier tasting notes; the one with their own shade of blue. However, with a very small number of exceptions, I’ve not enjoyed a bottle with the word Bruichladdich on it since I got into whisky. So, when I found one I liked, I thought I’d better make a note of it, especially as it’s one I assumed I would hate – Bruichladdich X4+3.
After years of trying, I’ve finally made it to what is often seen as an essential pilgrimage in the life of a whisky geek: I’ve come to Islay for Feis Ile – the festival of malt and music. Each distillery has an open day and at least one limited edition whisky, most of which are only available on the island. I’m staying a few minutes walk away from Bruichladdich and tried their Feis Ile bottling during their open day on Sunday, the quite ridiculous Octomore Discovery.
[The sale has now gone through – there’s an update at the bottom if you’re interested]
So, the buzz on the whisky interwubs over the last few days has been all about Bruichladdich (other than the potential for a Twitter organised cask-share, that is), ‘in negotiations’ to be bought by Rémy Cointreau. No numbers have been announced, other than The Scotsman saying that analysts had said that £25m ‘was a number’ (I paraphrase), but it looks like Mark Reynier and the other investors will be getting their money back, having spent somewhere between £5m and £10m on the distillery back in 2000.
However, rather than everyone slapping each other’s backs and doing the happy dance there’s a lot of downcast eyes, wailing, blatant and annoying metaphor, and gnashing of teeth. For why?
I’m so very tired. It’s over a week since I got back from The Netherlands and still I am a broken wreck who looks on the concept of being a ‘shell of a man’ as being a step up. And what is to blame for this? Maltstock 2011 – the best whisky festival I’ve been to so far. A gathering of whisky fans from mainly across Europe organised by a group of whisky fans and with the intention of being pretty much the least commercial whisky festival in the world.
The weekend took place at an old Cub Scout lodge in Nijmegen, near the German border, and the plan was simple – turn up, bring whisky, put the whisky on one of the tables provided, share, talk toot and maybe sleep. A few companies had organised tastings, including my employers who had commented “do you want to do a tasting?” when I tried to blag some whiskies from our tasting cupboard to take along for the table, and I ended up showcasing some upcoming releases in the Elements of Islay range. There was also the promise of music and a BBQ, but mainly it was focused around sitting down with a bunch of new friends and drinking, talking and generally contemplating whisky.
Another month and another chance to show my dedication to the cause that is Whisky Squad. We were in The Gunmakers as usual but my head was partly elsewhere – it was IPA day. I’m a big fan of beer and IPA day sprang up quite quickly and quietly, thus clashing with Whisky Squad – nothing should happen on the first Thursday of the month apart from The Squad, this I decree. Anyway, I focused on the whisky and missed out on the rather epic looking IPA Day dinner at the Dean Swift, although I will be making a pilgrimage there to sample their wares soon enough.
Impressively it seems that a year has passed since the first Whisky Squad meetup. I wasn’t present back in that dim and distant time (having only met co-founder Andy a few days earlier and already been booked up for three months of first Thursdays) but I have heard tales of whisky excellent and vile, and exploits terrifying and daring. The story-telling was mainly fuelled by beer but I trust the tellers implicitly, although I’m not sure how a T-Rex would get through The Gunmakers‘s front door or how a single pork scratching could drop one before it ate any customers.
This time our imbibing was led by other co-founder Jason and the theme was a secret, only revealed at the end (or at least when Jason got bored of not having told people) as being whiskies from distilleries with significant anniversaries this year. There was also cake, with recipe up on The Squad site – it was rather good, and last time I saw Jason he told me he had been dreaming about it. That might be going a bit far, but it’s one to have a go at, even if sticking in the last of your Bowmore Darkest isn’t recommended…
Anyways, the whiskies were all tasted blind, as usual, and the first one started of with a nose of bubblegum, apples and pear drops with a big savoury base. To taste it had citrus, cinnamon spice, sweet fruit, orange pips, sour wood and a hint of rubbery bitterness. Water brought out some fizzy Refresher flavours but left the big bitter finish. The paper came off to reveal that it was a Connoiseurs Choice Royal Brackla 1991, bottled at 17 years old. The distillery isn’t particularly well known, despite being the first to receive a royal warrant (hence the Royal in its name), and sits on the edge of Speyside, variously being described as a Highland or Speyside whisky depending on who you ask. The distillery was founded in 1812, its imminent 100th anniversary being the reason for being included in the line-up, by Captain William Fraser and was simply known as Brackla until receiving its warrant from William IV in 1835. It continued on, with the normal changings of hands and rebuildings, until 1985 when it was closed. It reopened in 1991 under the banner of United Distillers and Vintners (now Diageo) and was sold to Dewars in 1998, the current owners, who use the distillery to mainly produce whisky for their blends as well as Johnnie Walker and others. Its connection with blended whisky goes back a bit further, with Andrew Usher (the ‘father’ of whisky blending) being employed by the distillery in the 1860s and using its spirit in some of his initial blends. There aren’t many distillery bottlings (other than an old Flora and Fauna from the UDV days and a 10yr old from 2004 that I’ve seen mentioned) but thanks to its life as a whisky sold for blending it appears fairly often from independent bottlers, such as Gordon & MacPhail who bottle the Connoiseurs choice range.
Number two started the regular round of more evocative description with a ‘Smells like Timpsons’, and had a nose of pain stripper, PVA glue, a hint of leather, bananas, sweet fruit and gomme syrup. To taste it was backed with marzipan, with raisins, tart white grapes, butter and woody spice. Water brought out some citrus and transformed it into a Fry’s Orange Cream on the nose. Honey and spice appeared in the taste, along with oranges and lemons, and the finish brought in some burnt wood. The bottle was uncovered to reveal that it was a Gordon and MacPhail Linkwood 15 year old. The distillery is in Elgin, in the heart of Speyside and is owned by Diageo. It opened in 1824 and has been distilling continuously since, apart from closures during the second world war and from 1985-1990, two times when many distilleries went dark. When it reopened after the second world war not much changed, with distillery manager Roderick Mackenzie taking the ‘nothing must change, just in case it changes the characteristics of our spirit’ to a level beyond most managers, anecdotally insisting that spider webs must be left alone for fear of making changes to the flavours. Linkwood is another distillery that doesn’t get much love in the way of distillery bottlings, with the sole official release being a rather lacklustre Flora and Fauna entry, but it’s much loved by the independents and appears quite often – I’ve tried some especially good SMWS ones as well as a rather tasty one bottled for The Whisky Exchange’s 10th anniversary last year. Outside of those bottlings it can be found as a component in many blends, especially those managed by Diageo.
Number three came out of the gate with a call of ‘Buttered rum and biscuits’, with brioche, candied pineapple, wood, light tobacco and glue appearing on the nose. The gradual crystallisation of the more esoteric tasting notes led to ‘Like Colonel Gadaffi hiding in an old cupboard in Cuba’. To taste it started with soured fruit and moved through spicy cream to a lightly sour, rubbery finish. Water brought out more cream and softened the rubber, adding syrup sweetness and some dusty wood. Paper torn off, this turned out to be a Gordon and MacPhail Strathisla 25 year old. Another independent bottling, as Strathisla’s owners (Chivas Brothers/Pernod Ricard) only produce a single officially bottling (a quite tasty 12 year old that I tasted last year), this 25 year old is scarily cheap for its age, coming in at about £60, showing another bonus of independent bottlings – they often come in at much more affordable than an equivalent distillery bottling (if one was available). Founded in 1786 as Milltown and changing its name in the 1870s, Strathisla hasn’t closed since opening (making it the oldest continually operating distillery in Scotland, according to the internets and PR bumph) and these days is used as the heart of the various Chivas blends.
Number 4 didn’t inspire quite so much bombast, but got some quiet respect. It had a calm nose of sweet cream, light acidity and a bit of volatile alcohol, leading to a taste of lemony wood, sweet syrup and milk chocolate on the finish. Water brought out butter, foam strawberries, and some lingering unfinished wood. With the label removed we saw that the bottle claimed to be a Bowmore, but that was a sneaky substitution – it was in fact Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix, normally enclosed in their distinctively triangular bottle, but switched to keep us guessing a bit longer. The Snow Phoenix is a limited edition put together after the heavy snows in 2010 collapsed the roof of one of Glenfiddich’s warehouses. They fished the barrels out from the snow and rubble, and then vatted them together to produce a one-off commemorative whisky. It went on sale for about £50 a bottle and has quickly risen in price and sold out (with this bottle coming from a batch of bottles that I managed to grab recently in my local Waitrose for label price), with its rather pretty tin adding to the appeal. However, I’ve heard rumours that another tranche has recently been released and that it may not be quite so limited as originally though, which makes me question my investment in a couple of bottles for future sale to a collector a few years down the line. We shall see…
Number 5 was rather scary – as dark as Coke and dangerous looking. Initially on smelling it someone came out with ‘Dirty, but in a good way’, but that quickly lost the ‘in a good way’ as we stuck our noses deeper into our glasses. There were prunes, rubber, bitter orange, cubes of jelly concentrate, motor oil and sour molasses. To taste there wasn’t very much – it tasted very much like a light new make spirit backed up with burnt coffee. Water got rid of some of the coffee and might have added some orange (although that could have been wishful thinking), but didn’t do anything to improve it. Label removed this was shown to be Cú Dubh, gaelic for Black Dog. This is a whisky from Mannochmore, founded in 1971 and celebrating its 40th birthday this year, in the vein of the previously released Loch Dhu (black loch). They take a relatively young whisky and send it to Denmark for ‘special treatment’ which turns it very dark. As it’s still called whisky it’s fairly obvious what this special treatment is – the addition of spirit caramel. While I generally agree that a small amount of caramel doesn’t affect the flavour of a whisky noticeably, as the folks at Master of Malt examined recently, the burnt flavour hiding at the back of the palate in this whisky suggests to me that if you load a vat with it then it’ll start appearing on the tongue. Loch Dhu is often called one of the worst whiskies released in recent memory (with at least one review giving a half bottle a higher score than a full one due to there being less to hate) but it’s picked up a reputation as being something strange and due to the rapidly decreasing stock has risen rapidly in price – if you can find a bottle you’ll often pay over £250 these days. The Cú Dubh is an effort to get back in on the Loch Dhu action and the Danish processing is probably due to its popularity in Scandinavia. However, the reviews I’ve read suggest that this one is considered to be even worse than its predecessor and has even caused some people to reassess quite how bad the Loch Dhu was. Despite all that, I didn’t particularly dislike it – I blame my dangerous love of new make spirit…
The final dram for the night was rather distinctive in both colour and shape of bottle and even without that hint most people in the room would have guessed the distillery anyway. On the nose it started off with baby sick (dissected by those present into astringent sour milkiness) which faded with exposure to air to give mud, a hint of peat, and generally sour and salt scents. To taste there was a lightly sweet peatiness, sweet fruit, liquorice, peppermint and a touch of charcoal. Water brought out more minerality and a mulchy vegetable air. While the distillery wasn’t in question the exact expression was, with these guys being famed for the silly number of bottlings they’ve produced since they reopened 10 years ago (hence their inclusion in the list) – it was the Bruichladdich 2001 Resurrection Dram. This spirit was from the first batches that they produced when the distillery came back online in 2001, with this release was bottled in 2008 and limited to 24000 bottles, several of which have been sitting in Jason’s flat until needed. With Bruichladdich reaching their 10 year landmark they seem to be looking to cut down on their bottlings (a new one every couple of months as far as I can tell) and focus on producing a lightly peated core range (based around the 10 year old) and using their other brands (Octomore and Port Charlotte) to focus on the big peat that most people look for in Islay whiskies. It’s nice to see them calm down slightly, although whether they can stop master distiller Jim McEwan having crazy ideas is another matter.
So, Happy Birthday Whisky Squad. All going to plan I’ll be along as often as I can on the way to the next one(s). Speaking of which, the next one is this Tuesday…
I was beaten to getting this written up yet again, this time by Charly over at Caffeine Frenzy Wanderlust.
Connoiseurs’ Choice Royal Brackla 1991
Highland single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35
Gordon & Macphail Linkwood 15 years old
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40
Gordon & Macphail Strathisla 25 years old
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£65
Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 47.6%. ~£75
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£25
Bruichladdich 2001 Resurrection Dram
Islay single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35