Whisky Squad #51 – The Brown Spectrum (volume 3)

With new year comes what is now becoming a tradition for Whisky Squad, in as much as doing something for three years in a row make a tradition – a session in the cellars of Berry Brothers & Rudd with friend of The Squad Rob Whitehead.

On arrival Foursquare informed me that I hadn’t been to Berry’s since January of 2012, when we did our ‘Third Sense‘ session in the Berry’s cellar, which makes me a sad panda – visiting the shop is something I try to do from time to time, despite being able to get most of their spirits at work, simply because it’s rather excellent, from subsiding floor to unalterable English Heritage listed nails (stuck into a Tudor period wall significantly after the time when the wall belonged to one of Henry VII’s hunting lodges), to say nothing of the wine.

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#BerrysWhisky – Berry Brothers and Rudd Tweet Tasting

Steve Rush of The Whisky Wire continues to rule the world of online Twitter tastings. I generally stay out of them to let more real people in, rather than industry shills like myself, but every now and again Steve runs one that piques my interest. They’ve been coming thick and fast recently and one of his November sessions was put on in association with The Great Whisky Company and Berry Brothers & Rudd. Despite Rob Whitehead‘s frequent attendance at Whisky Squad I don’t get to try anywhere as near as much of BBR’s whisky as I’d like, so I pinged Steve and got in on the tasting.

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Whisky Hub #1 at Albannach

Along with the more usual ‘proper’ tastings there seems to have been the start of a movement recently towards less formal gatherings. With the likes of Whisky Squad, and maybe soon my own regular whisky club at The Alma, popping up to quite frenetic take up (in the case of ‘The Squad’ anyway – tickets for the next session disappeared in 20 minutes) it’s good to see more people trying out the idea. Coming along to this last month, although I’m finally getting round to writing it up a week before the next meeting, was Albannach on Leicester Square with their Whisky Hub.

The idea is quite simple – a small group of people each bring along a bottle of whisk(e)y that they like and then share it with the group and tell everyone why they like it. There’s also some nibbles, kindly provided by Albannach, and the regular sort of banter when you get a group of whisk(e)y lovers in a room together. The first meeting was a bit slewed towards people from the booze industry, with me as the only non-professional drinker in the room – Cat and Ivo from Albannach, Will Lowe from Bibendum, James Hill from Diageo Select Brands and one of his friends, a barman (maybe manager? I was drinking) from (I think, remember the drinking) Sheffield. The plan was simple – go round the table, revealing your bottle and saying as much or as little about it as you wanted.

We started off with Will, who had brought along a bottle of Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon. Four Roses are a whiskey maker that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, ever since I did a tasting of their range (on their own and in cocktails) at Callooh Callay last year. Will met Jim Rutledge, Four Roses master distiller, a little while back and soaked up a chunk of information about them from him. They do a regular range of 3 whiskies – Four Roses Bourbon (aka Yellow Label), Small Batch and Single Barrel. Along with the regular bourbon distilling tricks of maturing the whiskies in different parts of the warehouse (often in large stacks that leave largish temperature differences between the top and bottom rows, helping to alter the maturation between barrels – Four Roses don’t generally go up much, stopping at about 3 barrels high, iirc) they produce the varying flavours in their whiskies by making a variety of different spirits from different grain recipes and using different yeasts. In total they have 2 different mashbills (ratios of corn, rye and other grains) and 5 different yeasts for a combination of 10 different spirits (which Whisky Magazine has described this month in a useful section that I’ll be pulling out to keep) which are blended together in different ratios to make the three whiskies of the regular range as well as other special bottlings. The Yellow Label uses all 10 recipes, the small batch 4 of them and the single barrel only one, depending on which barrel is chosen. The Small Batch ends up with 27.5% rye in its makeup, with the rest being corn (in order for a whiskey to be called Bourbon it has to have at least 51% corn) which gives a chunk of rye spiciness as well as the more well known corn sweetness. On the nose it had butter and biscuits, coconut, vanilla, salty caramel and sugared violets. To taste it had an underlying sourness with menthol, grainy sweetness and a sugary woody finish. A good start to a rather eclectic evening.

Next we turned to James, who opened his mystical whisky ambassador bag and pulled out the Glen Spey 21 Year Old (2010). This is part of Diageo’s special releases range, where they put out (comparatively) small batches of high quality whisky from some of their distilleries each year. This one was part of a 10 cask batch of about 6000 bottles, with the casks being american oak but formerly containing sherry rather than, as is more common, bourbon. A large part of the flavours that we get from bourbon and sherry barrels are not from the previous inhabitant but from the nature of the wood – american oak has a close grain and european oak a wider one, leading to different wood/spirit interaction as temperature changes move the maturing whisky in and out of the wood. The fluid previously in the barrels does also add its own touch, so american oak sherry butts are an interesting combination of maturation aids. On the nose this had coconut and vanilla (as one would expect from american oak), candle wax and, as a nod to the sherry, maraschino cherries and an undertone of beefiness (Bovril?). To taste it was quite citrusy, accompanied by sweet caramel, minty menthol and some drying tannins towards the end. Water added sponge cake to the nose and unbundled the taste, revealing toffee, prickly woody custard, big woody spice and a hint of sherry trifle.

I stepped in at this point and unveiled my contribution – Hammer Head, the 20 year old(ish) Czech whisky that I wrote about last year. I wanted to take along something that I was pretty much certain most people wouldn’t have tried before and that noone else would have brought, and this very much fulfilled my criteria. It seemed to go down well, with everyone being quite shocked that it was as nice as it was.

We then moved on to Ivo, Albannach’s whisky manager. He’d chosen the Mortlach 16 Year Old Flora and Fauna Edition. The Flora and Fauna bottlings (as I’ve mentioned before) are a range introduced by United Distillers (now part of Diageo) in the 90s to showcase some of their distilleries that didn’t normally produce single malts. While many of the range are no longer produced some still are, including this sherried dram showing off the traditional Mortlach characteristics. On the nose it had maple syrup, mint, slightly mulchy grass and sharp sherry fruit. To taste it was rich with caramel, smokey wood, polished wooden floors and a lightly floral note. Water brought out lavender, brittle toffee and more spicy sweetness. I rather like Mortlach and this one will be the one I turn to once I can’t get my currently favoured Boisdales bottling.

Next up was Cat, who had chosen The English Whisky Company’s Chapter 9, one of their first bottlings legally allowed to be called whisky, the first to be produced by their own distiller and the first peated English whisky. The distillery’s outside of Thetford in Norfolk and was put together by the Nelstrop family, farmers who owned some land near the river Thet. They built a new distillery from scratch and brought in consultant distiller Ian Henderson, formerly of Laphroaig, to start them up and also train up former Greene King brewer David Fitt to take over when Ian moved on. As the only whisky distillery operating in England they’ve also sensibly decided to jump on the tourist market and have a visitors centre at the heart of the distillery which, along with releases of their maturing spirit as Chapters 1-5, helped fund the distillery during the initial three years before any of their produce could be called whisky. I’ve got an unopened bottle of the Chapter 9 in my whisky cupboard so I was quite keen to have a taste without having to crack mine open. On the nose it was initially obviously young, with grain, sweet peat, wood smoke, citrus, cream sponge cake, bananas and creamy new make spirit. At first I thought it smelled quite boring, but it gained complexity and ‘age’ as it sat in the glass oxidising. To taste it was sweet with gravel, lime floor cleaner, pine and a sweet wet peat finish. Water brought out egg custard on the nose and more sweetness to the taste, although accompanied by the aforementioned floor cleaner. This isn’t one I’m going to jump on immediately, but I’ll be happy to open it if it doesn’t rise in price on the collectors market – it’s not sold out yet months after release, so I’m expecting that I’ll be drinking it rather than using it as a deposit on a house…

Last was James’s mate, whose name I have shamefully forgotten (especially as we discussed the uniqueness of his name for quite a while before he ran off with Mr Hill to assault the bar at The Dorchester). He’d chosen a whisky from James’s magic bag – Lagavulin 1994 Pedro Ximinez Finish Distiller’s Edition. The Distiller’s Editions are Diageo’s ‘finished’ whiskies, with each of the spirits sitting in a different cask for the end of their maturation to pick up some extra flavours. In the case of Lagavulin they’ve used PX casks and it seems to be lauded as the best of the range (and the prices for previous years’ releases demonstrate that). I think this one was the ’94, based on it being the most recent release and most likely to have been in James’s bag, and it was rather nice. On the nose there was sweet salted caramel and a big smokiness that slowly faded as it sat in the glass. To taste it was again sweet, and very easy to drink, with smoke, a hint of citrus and a little bit of syrupy PX. Water lightened the smoke revealing a bit of wet wood and some muddy peat. Not overly complicated but rich, smoky and sweet.

James then dipped into his bag again and brought out a non-Diageo whisky, independently bottled and from a distillery they don’t own – Queen of the Moorlands Rare Cask Bunnahabhain XXXIV. Bottled for The Wine Shop in Leek in Staffordshire, a shop that sells much more whisky than its name suggests, it was distilled in 1997 which was (according to their site) a year of experimentation at the distillery, where they switched their normal unpeated production to peated for the whole year. These days they distill peated spirit for a few weeks at the end of the season, but the glut of casks in ’97 allowed a lot more experimentation with maturation. This whisky sat in a sherry hogshead for 12 years and was bottled in 2009 at 54.3%. On the nose it was salty with light smoke, gravel and boiled sweets. To taste it was big and orangey in the middle, surrounded by mud and stone. It was quite spiky and water calmed it down, bringing out more sweetness and stony minerality as well as ‘smoked golden syrup’.

A good start to the Whisky Hub with a nice range of interesting whiskies and some interesting chat about whisky and the state of the universe. The next meeting is next week (hopefully it’ll take me less time to write it up this time) and the plan seems to be to put on one every month. Albannach are restricting numbers so that it’s possible to try all the whiskies and still walk out of the restaurant, but if you’re interested please drop me a mail and I’ll pass your details on for when they hopefully expand things further.

Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon
Bourbon whiskey, 45%. ~£25 from Master of Malt

Glen Spey 12 Year Old (2010)
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 50.4%. ~£130 from Master of Malt

Hammer Head
20 year old Czech single malt whisky, 40.7%. ~£30 from World of Whiskies

Mortlach 16 Flora and Fauna
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40 from Master of Malt

English Whisky Company Chapter 9
Single malt English whisky, 46%. ~£40 from Master of Malt

Lagavulin 1994 Pedro Ximinez Finish Distiller’s Edition
Islay single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£55 from Master of Malt

Queen of the Moorlands Rare Cask Bunnahabhain XXXIV
Islay single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 53.2%. ~£60 from The Wine Shop

No pictures due to a combination of camera fail and being too busy nattering. And drinking…

Whisky Lounge – Islay ‘Blind Fury’ Tasting

Having rather foolishly double booked myself during the last Whisky Lounge event in London (a Springbank tasting that I was rather looking forward to that got dropped in favour of an evening of sherry) I grabbed a ticket to Mr Ludlow’s December extravaganza as soon as I could. This time the format was slightly different in that it was to be a blind tasting, with the whiskies revealed at the end of the night, focusing on whiskies from the whisky obsessed island of Islay.


There are currently 8 distilleries on the island (with a 9th in the planning/building stages), which isn’t bad for a piece of land less than half the size of London and inhabited by only 3500 people. While traditionally Islay is known for its peaty spirit the distilleries produce a range of whiskies, with Bunnahabhain producing unpeated spirit (most of the time) and Ardbeg producing face melting bottles of smoky mud (also, most of the time). A blind tasting of these is quite interesting, as while each distillery has its own style different bottlings borrow ideas from the other producers, making things all a bit muddled. There are a few bottlings and distilleries that I reckon I could pick out, but I was interested to see how many I could guess. In the end though this blind tasting wasn’t about guessing. Knowing where the spirit in my glass has come from will often prompt an attitude or tasting note that comes from inside my head rather than from the glass. Tasting blind removes all of that and hopefully lets us taste without preconceptions.

IMG_6364It was a full house in the upstairs room of The Red Lion in St James’s and the man behind the Whisky Lounge, Eddie Ludlow, led the group through the whiskies. The plan was simple – we were to taste the whisky, talk about it and then give him a tasting note from each table to add to a record of the evening and compare against the other tastings of the same whiskies that he’d done around the country. We were the penultimate leg on his tour of the UK and the room did well in coming up with yet another totally different set of tasting notes for Eddie to try and consolidate. I was sat next to Chris Matchett, one of my occasional whisky buddies, a man well known for his lyrical descriptions of flavours – he was the one who came out with comments about bacon at the unsmoky The Glenlivet tasting last month…

IMG_6366First up was a coppery bronze dram that Eddie let us know was between 46 and 50% alcohol. On the nose it was sweaty and muddy, with camphor, apple, sea salt, a hint of oranges and salted caramel. To taste it had vanilla and light smokiness (more woody than peaty), with a syrupy texture and a dry, spicy wood finish. Water brought out more sweet creamy vanilla and some perfume from the wood, as well as some sticky glacé cherry. The tasting note we ended up providing was ‘Soggy marmite toast with salted butter and golden syrup, all spread with the same knife’, although Chris’s ‘Birkenstock sandals that someone else has been wearing all summer’ as one for just the nose almost pipped it. As an overall description his note of ‘A speyside whisky on holiday’ pretty much nailed it – not your usual Islay fair. My prediction for this one was that it was a sherried Bunnahabhain and I was rather pleased to see that I was right – it was Bunnahabhain 12 years old. This is a new version of their standard whisky, bottled at a stronger than before 46.3% and made up of a mix of bourbon and sherry casks. Totally unpeated and quite rich, it was a tasty start to the evening.

IMG_6369Next was a very lightly coloured whisky which we were told was between 50 and 55%. On the nose it was quite a big difference to the previous whisky – woody/muddy peat, mulchy seaweed, mint, mushrooms, pears, strawberry, cracked granite, meaty butter, a hint of the farmyard and a floral centre (maybe roses). To taste it maintained the muddiness from the nose adding in some piney smoke. It had a minerally, grassy finish that lingered around with a hint of the sweetly syrupy middle  flavour. Water tamed it nicely, adding orange, lime and a generic ‘fruitiness’ to the nose, pushing the smokiness back a bit. This revealed more stoniness and some sweet citrus hanging around in the middle. I didn’t have much of a clue on this one and put it down as maybe one of the peaty Bruichladdichs, focusing on the mineraliness. As expected I was entirely wrong – it was a Berry Brothers and Rudd 1989 Bowmore, bottled at 50.9% and 20 years old. Probably from a quite inactive cask and totally unlike any Bowmore I’ve tried before.

IMG_6372We then moved on to a darker dram, a nice yellow gold, which were told was 40-50%. On the nose there was sweaty salted butter, leather, marmalade, toast, lemon, mulch and Bisto gravy thickener (the brown cornflour rather than gravy granules). To taste it had a light caramel sweetness to start, with an oily mouthfeel, leading to a hot peaty finish through a core of creamy sugar and woody spice. Water extended the sweetness into the finish and softened the wood to a green twig sappiness. The smoke of the finish gave way to woodiness with orchard fruit and sweet and sour sauce. For this I guessed an Ardbeg, focusing on the peat/wood/sweet combination (which may not be general Ardbeg but for some reason sticks in my head), but was yet again entirely wrong. It was, instead, a bit of a ringer – Jura Prophecy. This has no age statement (although it’s probably 12-16 years old), is bottled at 46% and is the heavily peated expression of their range – a range of whiskies from the next island along from Islay, separated by a mere 250m of water. Eddie got round this ‘semantic’ argument by claiming that Jura was connected to Islay via an underwater causeway, and thus counted. There were murmurings…

IMG_6375Next up was a coppery dram that we were told was between 55 and 60%. On the nose there was turkish delight, dark chocolate, raisins, burned apple pie (very specifically listed by me as the burned bits on the top of the pie where the pastry cracks and the filling bubbles out, and by someone else as the layer between the filling and the pastry when the top has burned), bread and butter pudding, and a bed of meaty peat under it all. To taste it was very smoky, with a heavy coal smoke flavour almost obscuring vanilla and more apple pie. Water helped separate the flavours, leaving a spike of peat at the front leading to a sweet muddy mulch. The coal is calmed down to reveal vodka-like grain. Our note for this was ‘Apple pie and ice cream beside an iron coal stove’. This was the first whisky I was fairly certain of, writing down a definite Bowmore – the specific sweet smokiness is the flavour that I find in Bowmore and few other Islay whiskies, and this time I was right – Bowmore Tempest, a 10 year old whisky bottled at 56%. This one was from the second batch they’ve made of this and was matured in first fill bourbon casks.

IMG_6374Our penultimate dram was very light and between 46 and 49%. From the nose I was certain I knew which distillery it was from – a strong smell of the farmyard, light alcohols, white cabbage, menthol, caraway, vodka, a light oiliness (the smell of ‘flavourless’ cooking oils) and white pepper. It smelled young and was quite thin and prickly. To taste it had a creaminess combined with the smoke, bringing to mind Bavarian smoked cheese tubes. It also had sweet root vegetables, lots of caraway and a pleasantly creamy mouth feel. A drop of water brought out tropical fruit, sour wood and mulchy peat as well as more cream. I was certain that this was Kilchoman, the island’s newest distillery, as the whisky tasted very young and similar to the new make spirit and not-mature-yet ‘whiskies’ that I’ve had from them. Yet again I was wrong – it was Douglas Laing’s Big Peat Batch 10, a blended malt bottled at 46% and made up of whiskies from Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and Port Ellen (although as the latter is closed and bottles go for silly amounts of money we assumed that there wasn’t much of it in there). This is a really young tasting whisky and ones that makes me want to crack open the bottle of Kilchoman I have hiding at the back of my cupboard.

The last whisky of the night was a pale gold, and between 55 and 60%. On the nose it had golden syrup and salt, burning grassland, mint, white grapes and a stony minerality. To taste it was sweet with and almost cloying peatiness backed up by wood smoke. There was also sweet fruit (apple and strawberry?), fragrant tea and pepper. Water brought out lime and vanilla on the nose, and sherbert, wet carpet, cinnamon, lemon & lime, spiced orange peel and a tarry finish to the taste. Again, I was fairly certain I knew what this one was (especially bolstered by 6 drams as I was by this time) and both wrote down and called out Laphroaig Quarter Cask, focusing on the sweet peatiness and minerality that I find in that whisky. Predictably I was wrong again – it was a cask sample from Ardbeg. Drawn from the cask (a first fill bourbon barrel) quite recently it was at the cask strength of 56.3% and was distilled in 2000.

In the end I was quite pleased with two out of six, especially as most of my other guesses made sense (at least to me) and weren’t blind stabs in the dark. It was also nice to taste things without any foreshadowing, letting my subconscious whisky snob stay asleep and not jump in with its ideas. The evening was wrapped up by singer/guitarist/songwriter Tim Hain knocking out a quick rendition of his song One More Dram (last heard at The Whisky Show a month or so ago, accompanied by Colin Dunn in the Connosr Whiskypod) before Eddie had to run away to the snowy north again. There are already plans afoot for next year’s events and there is also a new Whisky Lounge dram appearing soon – Dram 101. It’s a blended malt with about 50 components and was put together by Eddie as a follow up to last year’s Whisky Lounge Festival Dram. It should be available from the Whisky Lounge website soon, maybe even before Christmas but so far the only evidence of its imminent existence are a couple of tweets and this video


At the end of the tasting we all scored the whiskies out of 100 (something that I hate doing, hence the lack of scores on this site) and Eddie is now collating the results from all of the tastings ready for release to see which whisky came out top overall. My favourite of the night was the Berry Brother’s Bowmore, followed by the Big Peat, so I’ll be interested to see what the group reckoned.

Bunnahbhain 12 Year Old (new bottling)
Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 46.3%. ~£30 from The Whisky Exchange.

Berry Brothers & Rudd 1989 Bowmore
Single Cask Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 50.9%. ~£60 from BBR.

Jura Prophecy
Single Malt Jura Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£50 from Master of Malt.

Bowmore Tempest 10 Year old
Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 56%. ~£40 from Master of Malt.

Big Peat
Blended Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£30 from Master of Malt.

Ardbeg first fill bourbon cask sample
Single Cask Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 56.3%. Not available unless you go to the distillery and beg or rob Eddie.

Whisky Squad #7 – Berry Brothers & Rudd

Another month, another slab of Whisky Squad related delight Chez Jeff, the lovely landlord of The Gunmakers. This month we were treated to another special guest following in the rather hefty footsteps of Colin Dunn – Rob Whitehead from Berry Brothers & Rudd. Regular Whisky Guy Darren was off recovering from a whisky related sojourn state-side, so we were left in the capable hands of Rob to run us through some of the whiskies that Berry Brothers bottle.

Berry Brothers & Rudd are the oldest family owned wine and spirit merchant in the world. Generally they’ve been known in more recent times for their wine, with their cellars extending for quite a way under St James’s, but they are also a very well respected independent bottler of spirits. Despite having known about them for a while, something that is inevitable when your dad sells wine, I didn’t realise that they also did whisky until recently. Having tried a couple of drams at whisky live earlier this year I did a bit of research and found that they’d won Whisky Magazine’s Independent Bottler of the Year award last year, a feat they’ve recently repeated for a second time.

The shop started out in 1698 as grocers on the same site that it is now, 3 St James’s Street. The Berry clan became part of the business in the 1780s through marriage and Hugh Rudd joined the company in 1914 as a junior partner, completing its current name. While the wine side of things is more well known these days, with the full cellars of St James’s as well as a warehouse in Basingstoke allowing them to store 6 million bottles of wine, a million of which are looked after for customers needing proper cellaring, it was whisky that helped them keep going through the post-war period. In 1923 they released Cutty Sark, their own blend, which had great success in the US during the 50s and 60s giving a well needed boost in the still struggling British economic climate. They recently did a trade with the Edrington Group, swapping Cutty Sark for Glenrothes (which they already had a part share in) and a share in the Anchor brewery in San Francisco, but the whisky loving streak runs deep in the company.


Rob works with the BBR spirit’s manager Doug McIvor to put together an impressive selection of spirits, from distillery bottlings to a range of their own – the Berry’s Own Selection. This doesn’t only cover whisky, but also rums, and they also bottle their own cognacs and gin – the spirits room at their shop is rather full of interesting looking bottles. However, the whisky is where we were at for the evening. They bottle quite a range, with their youngest being a 4 year old Ledaig and the oldest a 42 year old Carsebridge, from all over Scotland. They buy casks from various distillers and mature them in a variety of locations, having their own warehouse in Scotland as well as leaving many with the distillers themselves, although in order for a whisky to be called scotch it does have to be matured in Scotland. Their bottling policy is very simple – it’s bottled when it’s at what Doug thinks is the whisky’s best. If they miss that point or if they don’t think it will reach it they sell the cask on – the trade in casks is very active, with many companies needing whisky for blending and not worrying if it’s not up to single cask bottling as it will only be one component of many in a finished product.

IMG_0240In traditional Whisky Squad style we tried the whiskies blind, with Rob helping this along by bringing along a set of whisky socks to conceal the bottles. We started on what he described as ‘Breakfast Whisky’, a lightly coloured introduction to the evening. On the nose it had boiled sweets, liquid caramel and apples. To taste it had spice, orange candy, sherbert, polished wood and a hint of floral (rather than peppery) olive oil. Water brought out more of the woody flavours, with vanilla and sour wood joining the rest, along with blackjacks, menthol and a biscuity graininess. Guesses were made and Rob revealed the bottle to be a 14yr old Aberlour matured in a many times refilled cask. The standard Aberlour style is quite heavily sherried (as I’ve mentioned before), so this less active cask, as most of the wood flavour had been leeched out through the previous fillings, gave a more ‘naked’ tasting Aberlour, revealing the underlying new make more than usual.

IMG_0243We moved on quickly to number 2, a rather different beast. On the nose it had rubber boots, earthy smoke, turpentine, chilli and charcoal, with a sweet hit at the back of the nose. My tasting notes start with ‘charcoal butter’, continuing with lemons, brine and a smoky mineral (granite?) finish. Water tamed things slightly, revealing a rich spicy sweetness and more of a prickly mouthfeel – maybe revealing a hint of horseradish. This one at first seemed easier to guess, being quite blatantly made in the style of an Islay whisky, and predictions were made. However, this was another deliberate curve ball – a 12 year old heavily peated Bunnahaibhain. The regular production bottlings of Bunnahabhain are unique on Islay due to being almost entirely unpeated, however for two weeks a year, just before they close down for summer, they distill a heavily peated spirit that is generally used in making Black Bottle (a smoky blend using a bit of most of the Islay malts). They then thoroughly clean out the stills and tuns before returning to their regular spirit production when the distilling starts up again. Berry’s bought some casks either side of the closedown one year and released this rare peated version – the others are still waiting to reach their peaks.

IMG_0245Number 3 was my favourite of the night. On the nose it had flowers, wax, pears and linseed oil, along with a sweetness that I described at the time as ‘like when you mix together the strawberry and vanilla sections of Sainsbury’s neapolitan ice cream after it has started to melt. There’s not chocolate because the chocolate bit in neapolitan ice cream is rubbish’. I ate a lot of Sainsbury’s neapolitan ice cream as a child. To taste it had a big creamy sweetness with fizzy lemons, opal fruits, sour plums, and some oiliness and spicy dry wood. A drop of water opened it more with strawberries and custard, but it stilled retained the woody spiciness. An interesting dram that I dreaded discovering the price of. The sock was whipped off and it was shown to be a 26 year old Glen Mhor. This didn’t enlighten me much, but Rob continued with the story. Glen Mhor (pronounced ‘Vor’) was an undistinguished distillery in Inverness, not particularly admired but producing okay whisky until it closed in 1983. It was demolished in 1986 and is now a Co-op. This cask was distilled in 1982, just before the closure, and bottled in 2009, and unlike the regular whisky the distillery produced it has come out to be rather special. It’s an older style of whisky, as you might expect from a slowing down distillery in the early 80s, and Rob told us about whisky lovers who tried things back in the early 80s waxing lyrical about its old school flavour. The writing of this post was accompanied by a dram of it.

IMG_0249Number 4, the ‘official’ last whisky of the tasting, was poured out and sat a deep bronze in the glass. On the nose it had sweet orange, dark rum, vanilla and coconut. ‘Like a milk chocolate Bounty’ someone offered from the room. To taste it had a cool creamy sweetness with a touch of woodiness and a drying finish. Water brought out more flavours, with butter icing and sour fruit making an appearance. The finish was still woody, with some astringent booziness to the sides of the tongue. While the guessing went on I rather proudly detected the key USP of this whisky – it’s a single grain. With my recent discovery of and continued searching for grain whiskies I shouldn’t be quite so preening, but preen I did. The sock was removed and it was shown to be a 39 year old Invergordon single grain. I tried one of their previous bottlings of Invergordon at Whisky Live when I first discovered the Berry’s Own Selection range and thought it was quite special – this one beat it hands down. Distilled in 1971 this was bottled 5 weeks ago, with an outturn of about 190 bottles, missing out on its 40th birthday by a few months. After 39 years it still came in at a strength of 47%, which was helped along by the cask being filled with much higher alcohol distillate than usual – maybe 70% or above. The empty barrel has since been filled with Laphroaig new spirit and is now sitting somewhere thinking about what it’s done, waiting to be bottled some time in the future. This whisky reminded me of the Port Dundas that I own as well as the one that Colin Dunn brought along to Whisky Squad #5 even though this was matured in a first fill bourbon cask rather than sherry, as used in the other two. An interesting whisky that shows the delicate common characteristics of well aged grain and one that I was very tempted by.

IMG_0252Now that the tasting had officially finished Rob unveiled a special fifth bottle. Grabbed on the way out of the shop it’s one that was used for customer tastings of a whisky that sold out that day. Rather than leave it hidden in a cupboard Rob kindly brought it along for us to have a try. On the nose it was waxy with linseed oil, sherbert and thick vanilla. To taste it started with leather and stones before moving to a floral sweetness with red fruit and citrus, and a dry woody finish. Watter brought a chalkiness with the fruitiness, described as ‘fruit rennies’, sherry wood and more vanilla. Rob gave us a few hints, starting with the fact that the distillery is now closed. It’s a triple distilled (rather than the more regular double) lowland whisky that was matured in a fourth fill sherry cask. With blank faces all around the sock was removed for one last time to reveal a 26 year old St Magdalene from 1982. The distillery closed in 1983, another victim of the over production of the 70s, and is now a block of flats. This bottling sold for £90 and is now completely sold out.

We repaired, as usual, downstairs to find the place had been overrun by the London Perl Mongers on their monthly meetup. Being an occasional monger of Perl I knew a bunch of people and they soon started digging in to the left over whiskies that made it behind the bar – the Invergordon didn’t last long. I ended up running down to Berry’s the next evening to grab a bottle of the Glen Mhor (one of the last 5 or 6) and caught them just before they closed. I’m not sure if it counts as a lock-in but Rob walked me through a couple of their other whiskies including the fabled 4 year old Ledaig, the youngest they’ve bottled and also completely sold out, which was a young peaty slap to face (and good with it), and also their Guyanan demerera rum, which was dark, dangerous tasting and unlike any other rum I’ve tried before. It’s definitely worth the trip down to St James’s.

Berry’s Own Selection Aberlour 1994
14 year old speyside single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£35. No longer available online.

Berry’s Own Selection Bunnahabhain 1997
12 year old cask strength Islay single malt scotch whisky. 55.3%. ~£45. No longer available online.

Berry’s Own Selection Glen Mhor 1982
26 year old cask strength highland single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£70. No longer available online.

Berry’s Own Selection Invergordon 1971
39 year old cask strength single grain scotch whisky. 47%. ~£100. Available on bbr.com

Berry’s Own Selection St Magdalene 1982
26 year old lowland single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£90. Sold out.

There’s a chance that the whiskies that aren’t online are available at their St James’s Street shop, so it’s worth wandering in if you’re interested.

Whisky Squad #4 – Islay Malts

It’s incredible how important one’s sense of smell is when tasting things. I have, of course, heard from numerous people (including my anosmic mate John) about how taste is predominantly smell, with the tongue painting in wide strokes while the nose adds the detail, so it was rather annoying to discover the actual extent to which my own sense of taste is reliant on my nose on the same day as I finally made it along to a Whisky Squad tasting.

Whisky squad #4

The Whisky Squad is a monthly meetup set up by Andy of Good Drinks Etc and Jason B. Standing to be more informal than most of the tastings out in the wild, with a focus on learning, talking about whisky in a small group and generally having a good time. With assistance from Darren, The Whisky Guy, as whisky expert (a title he veraciously denies, despite working for Master of Malt and having hours of whisky related anecdotes to roll out at the drop of a segue) and moustache wearer extraordinaire, they take over the upstairs room at The Gunmakers (thanks to Jeff the easily bribed with whisky landlord) on the first Thursday of each month to taste through a bunch of whiskies focused around a theme. This month’s was Islay, Andy having just returned from a weekend up there and thus laden with bottles.

Islay is one of the most concentrated areas of whisky production in the world, with 8 distilleries dotted around the 240 square miles of the island floating just off of the Kintyre peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. Famed for their peaty whiskies it’s a bit of a whisky connoiseurs paradise, with each of the distilleries a short drive from each other and each offering something quite different.

I wandered along certain that my worst day of hayfever in about ten years wouldn’t hinder the tasting of pungent island malts. However, within seconds of the first dram being placed in front of me my worst fears were realised – I could smell nothing at all. Even the strongest snort did nothing but hurt the back of my nose as the physical reaction to the alcohol remained, but no twitch of sensory cells to inform me of what I was sniffing. Luckily, Andy acted as my seeing nose dog, pinging me tasting notes, and I grabbed a couple of samples to take home and try later on.

MoM Islay 12First up was a sample from Master of Malt to keep us going while Andy and Darren kicked off the evening with some talk of Islay and the makings of whisky. The Master of Malt 12 Year Old Islay is a blend of malts from the island and is peated to about 15ppm. On the nose it has bitter-sweet peat, a touch of sweet wood oil and digestive biscuits. To taste the peat is more subdued and joined with a hint of woodsmoke and wet cardboard. There’s a bump of malty sweetness in the middle, with a touch of orangey citrus, before a it trails off into a subdued, short caramel orange finish. Water brings out some vanilla sweetness to fight against the wood smoke, adding a prickly damp bonfire edge to the taste. It’s smoky and peaty, with a hint of citrus and some sweetness – a classic example of what is thought of as a ‘typical islay malt’, even if such a statement doesn’t really mean anything, as the whiskies to follow will demonstrate.

MoM Bowmore 26As a special treat before we started the tasting proper was a very small amount of Master of Malt Bowmore 26 Year old, accompanied by a parma violet. Unfortunately I didn’t get anything off the glass other than a burnt nose, but it was quite obvious to everyone else why a parma violet had accompanied it – it has a distinct sweet violet smell sitting in amongst the other flavours of a sweet shop.

The whiskies that are put on for the tasting, excluding random samples and donations, are tasted blind, with paper wrapped around the bottles to obscure labels and details, in an attempt to remove prejudices and prejudging of the flavours. Unfortunately for me I recognise the bottle shapes of most Islay distilleries, but having no sense of smell this was my main way of trying to work out what everyone was drinking before the big reveal.

Bunnahabhain 18Next up was a bottle that I didn’t recognise, the Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old. The Bunnahabhain (bunna-har-ven) distilleryis unique amongst those of the island in that its standard expression is pretty much unpeated , coming in at 1-2ppm. They do, however, produce a good quantity of peated spirit but other than for special bottlings this generally goes to other companies for blends, including Black Bottle which it makes up a significant component of. Andy had picked this up at the distillery, along with an armful of leaflets, maps, tasting note cards and other assorted propaganda, and had really liked it due to it being so different to the peat heavy assortment that he tried up until then. From everyone else’s tasting notes it had cheap chocolate brownies, honey and sherry trifle on the nose and was dry and woody to taste, with a salty buttery finish.

To follow this we moved on to the Bruichladdich Peat, a whisky that was difficult to tell from the bottle shape alone due to the distillery’s habit of doing so many releases – it was suggested around the room that it’s almost as if whenever Jim McEwan, the production manager, has a crazy idea they drop what they’re doing and make a batch of it. The Peat is a back to basics version of Bruichladdich – peated to ~35ppm, matured in bourbon casks for an unspecified amount of time and bottled without any of the finishes that have become their trademark in recent times. The notes I have for this are that it combines peat and wood smoke on the nose, with a nice balance of the two combined with some sweetness and dry vanilla wood to taste. One that I want to revisit, as I’ve been a fan of all the ‘Laddies I’ve tried so far.

This one brought up a point for discussion – the difference between peat and smoke. As peat is introduced into the malt by way of smoke people often assume that the two flavours are the same, but there is a distinct difference. In addition to peatiness there is also smokiness in the flavours introduced by the barrel used for maturation and this is a different kind of smoke to that introduced by the peat. Generally the peat will bring in more medicinal flavours, such as the TCP-like tang that Laphroaig is known for, or a sweet smoke, such as with Bowmore, whereas the wood will bring in more campfire tastes and smells. As ever, the various different bits of the whisky making process, from water to finishing, all have their effect on the finished product, all working together to produce interesting flavours.

After this I threw my contribution to the evening into the ring – the remains of my young Kilchoman sample, which Darren identified as having been in wood for 6 months. Kilchoman have recently produced their first 3 year old bottlings to quite a lot of acclaim (I have a bottle of an upcoming Royal Mile Whisky single cask bottling reserved, as recommended by Jason, which I’m very much looking forward to) and their new spirit is a great indicator of how Islay whiskies mature in the barrel. I usually describe this as tasting like ‘cattle feed and death’, but with a bit more delicacy it has lots of malty grain with sweet peat and a hint of woodiness that isn’t particularly developed in this young sample.

Caol Ila 10 unpeatedAfter that interlude we got back on to chosen whiskies with a Caol Ila 10 year old ‘Unpeated’ expression. Strangely for an evening of Islay malts half of the whiskies we tried weren’t heavily peated, with this one having little or no peat in at all, rather than the usual ~15ppm that the distillery uses. I grabbed a dram of this to take home, Caol Ila being a whisky that I’ve been intrigued by in the past (with a cask strength Tokaji finish being one of the most orangey whiskies I’ve ever tasted). On the nose there’s candy floss, a wisp of smoke and something almost toffee appley. To taste it has dry prickly wood, orange juice concentrate (a flavour that I’ve found to be especially strong in the Caol Ila’s I’ve tried) and sweet wood smoke. It’s cask strength, at 65.8%, so can happily take some water which opens the nose to add more oil and sweaty socks and a slab of sweetness to the taste, along with some coal dust, bitter oak, sweet butter and orchard fruitiness. A fearsome dram neat, but one that mellows nicely with water.

The citrus nature of many of the Islay whiskies seems a bit strange, but Darren explained it as coming from the saltiness inherent on being matured on the island. The salt interacts with the wood of the barrels creating citrus-like flavouring compounds which are picked up by the wood, thus introducing not only briney notes into the whisky but also the lemon and orange flavours that are often present.

Lagavulin 2010 Distillery OnlyNext was the last of the night, which by a process of elimination was the distillery only edition that Andy had promised us – Lagavulin Distillery Only 2010. This is a cask strength bottling that you can, as the name suggests, only get from the distillery. 6000 bottles were produced and it was released in time for this year’s Feis Ile. Along with the limited nature of the bottling it’s also quite special as it was finished in port casks. On the nose it’s pure Lagavulin, with seaweed, brine, a background of sweet peat and a hint of meatiness. To taste it’s spicy, with the port wood very obvious at the back of the mouth. It has seafood risotto, seawater, caramel covered twigs and a mixed spice tail. A drop of water takes the edge off of the prickle, bringing out big sugary sweetness, revealing the background woody savouriness and adding a chunk of smoky sweetness, like burned sugar. This is a really rather special dram and one that it’s worth going to the distillery to grab.

An interesting array of whiskies, with only 2 of the 4 actually being particularly peaty, showing just how big a range Islay actually produces. The guys know how to run an evening and having finished the tasting the conversation continued in the Gunmaker’s bar until the pub closed. I’m signed up for the next one (and am even missing a day of the GBBF to make sure I can go) which should be an evening of summer whiskies with Diageo’s Colin Dunn, who led the Talisker tasting I went to last year, which promises to be an event – putting Colin in a small room strikes me as a recipe for enthusiasm overload, in a good way.

Master of Malt 12 Year Old Islay
Islay Blended Malt Whisky, 40%. £34.95 from Master of Malt

Master of Malt 26 Year Old Bowmore
Single cask Islay malt whisky, 53.4%. £99.95 from Master of Malt

Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old
Islay Single Malt Whisky, 43%. £48.95 from Master of Malt

Bruichladdich Peat
No age statement Islay Single Malt Whisky, 46%. £31.95 from Master of Malt

Caol Ila 10 Year Old ‘Unpeated’ 2009
Islay single cask single malt whisky, 65.8%. £51.95 from Master of Malt.

Lagavulin 2010 ‘Distillery Only’
Port wood finished Islay single malt whisky, 52.5%. Only available from the distillery – £70 for one or two for £130.

If you want to come along to a Whisky Squad tasting then keep an eye on their website and sign up when they announce the next event. The group is small (~15) and it’s first come first served, so you need to be quick. They do run a waiting list so it’s worth letting them know even if they have run out of spots.