It’s Christmas. As someone who works for a whisky shop, I’ve got used to the 1 November festive season starter, but it seems that it’s still grating for most. However, there’s something to help get you through the long weeks until legitimate advent anticipation arrives in December: Christmas booze releases. This time – Aldi Irish Reserve 26 Year Old Single Malt Whiskey.
Today is St Patrick’s day, a fact I know due to a) it being the day after my mate Adam‘s birthday (happy birthday Mr A) and b) Diageo having died their lake green. Again. In celebration of this holiday that I have no particular personal attachment to I have decided to live the stereotype to the full and am having whiskey for breakfast (Bushmills Original) while writing up the most recent Whisky Squad meeting – the not particularly imaginatively named ‘Irish Whiskey #1’. The second part of March’s St Patrick’s tribute sessions was this week, Irish #2 – Cooley is Hot, with Cooley whiskey flowing upstairs at The Gunmakers, but as I was sensibly sat on my sofa less sensibly watching the fairly awful, but colour relevant, Green Lantern, this is your lot for Squad writeups for the month. Let the rejoicing commence.
The blessing, and curse, of the monthly whisky club is that it pops up so regularly. Unfortunately this does often mean that it is surrounded, in my diary at least, by other whisky related events, so now after one whole post of respite we move on to whisky deluge #2.
This month’s cryptic theme at Whisky Squad was The Bottle of Britain, but after a bit of deduction it wasn’t that hard to work out what we were going to be seeing – Whisky Squad usually does four bottles per month and there are four constituent countries to our glorious United Kingdom: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. All four have distilleries, so that’s a ready made tasting ready to rock.
Arriving at The Gunmakers I saw four bottles on the side and nodded my head sagely, smug in the knowledge that I was, as is obvious, best. Then Andy arrived and added a 5th bottle to the pile. All bets were now off. There’s only one distillery in each of Wales, England and Northern Ireland, and pulling in two Scotches isn’t Whisky Squad’s style, so one of the bottles was a mystery. And to add to the mystery we only had them revealed once we have tried all 5 – there wasn’t even going to be a chance of guessing by ticking options off the list…
First up was a suspiciously colourless liquid that smelled suspiciously like whisky, that well known not-colourless liquid. On the nose it had a bit of barley grain (which I suspect wasn’t really there but was instead my underlying assumption that it was new make spirit), vanilla, red berries, bread and a hint of the farmyard. To taste it was sweet and didn’t taste much like a new make spirit – astringent fruitiness, peach stones and sweet vanilla cream. Water brought out some woody smoke and reduced a bit of the astrigency, but still left a bit at the end. It was almost like someone had bleached a whisky of all colour (and some of its flavour) and in a way that’s what had happened. It was revealed to be a spirit drink, rather than whisky as such, from the Isle of Man (Not part of the UK, but part of the British Isles, so I’ll allow it) – ManX Blue. Designed to be used in cocktails, where being clear is a bonus, ManX buy whisky (at least 5 years old) from Scotland and then redistil it to produce a clear drink with some of the flavour of whisky, but none of the colour. They variously claim a patent ‘intensification process’ where neutral alcohols are removed as well as that they ‘enhance the flavour of the drink by removing certain compounds found in the original whisky‘. It certainly removes something, but it is still worryingly drinkable. The thought in the room was that bad whisky was used as the starting product, either stuff that didn’t taste right or that which had dropped below 40% and thus couldn’t legally be called whisky any more (although fortifying it with stronger whisky is allowed – cf the conspiracy theories about Ardbeg Serendipity and the strength of the Ardbeg that went into it), and that this is probably better than the initial product. It’s not particularly easily findable at the moment, but you can get it on their website for £30 a bottle, or £54 when paired with the ‘distilled from at least 10 year old whisky’ (but still cheaper than the blue) red label. Weird stuff.
We then moved on to something which was also rather different from our regular whisky fair. With a bit more colour than the ManX, not hard though that was, it was still very pale and had a nose of marzipan, amaretti biscuits, marshmallows and nuts, with a meaty silage note underneath that suggested relative youth. To taste there were caramel nuts, candly floss, sour apples and a woody finish. Water brought out sweetness and custardy cream, with brandy fruitiness hanging around as well. At the reveal I wasn’t particularly surprised to see that it was the English Whisky Company‘s Chapter 6, despite having tasted it recently and not picked it out before the concealing paper (this week a page from each of the newspapers that Gunmakers landlord Jeff had left downstairs) was removed. The Chapter 6 is the first release from the English Whisky Company that can properly be called whisky, the 5 releases before coming at 6 month intervals from distilling, and it was one of the last ones to be put together by consulting distiller Ian Henderson, with production taken over by the owners of the distillery now that things are up and running. It’s young, different and something that I suspect will get more interesting over time – roll on the later chapters…
Next was something that appeared to be much more traditionally whisky – darker in the glass and more familiar in smell and taste. The nose had caramel, spiced fruit, strawberry, rum and raisin fudge, liquorice bootlaces, wine gums and creamed coconut. To taste there was a big sweetness up front, almost cloying, followed by sappy wood, sweet coconut and milk chocolate. Water brought the sourness from the wood as well as woody spices, more fruit and Asian cooking spice. The paper was removed and the tall elegant bottle was revealed to be Penderyn Sherrywood. They are Wales’s only whisky distillery and I’m still not convinced, although this is the nicest one I’ve tried so far. There’s a taste in there that I can’t quite describe that not only tells me it’s Penderyn but also grates on my palate. The more heavily sherried whiskies I’ve tried from them have masked it, but it’s still hiding in the background, souring things for me.
Our penultimate whisky was a bit of a divider, with it initially being my least favourite of the night, but developing into one of my favourites. On the nose it had, according to Whisky Guy Darren, ‘maraschino cherries and diesel oil’, sponge cake (from me) and ‘cheap apple shampoo’ according to Alan. To taste it was very tannic, almost causing my face to compress to a point, with wood smoke and struck matches. The tannins were too much for me and I quickly declared it to be nasty, however after a drop of water I ate my words. The violence of the wood was rubbed away, leaving a solid woodiness but also more sweetness and more of the cakey vanilla and fruit that the nose promised. The paper came off and it was shown to be Bushmills 1608, produced for the 400th anniversary of the distillery. While the location of the distillery that was built 400 years ago is down the road from the current distillery there was a license for distilling issued to someone in the area in 1608, so we can probably let them have the ‘oldest distillery in the world’ tag for the time being.
Last, but very much not least, was something a lot more familiar – on the nose there was spiced apple and pear, vanilla and soft wood. To taste there was creamy custard leading to a sugary wood centre and dry wood to finish. Water brought out more wood, more custard and some butteriness – a text book bit of rich Scotch whisky. The label came off and a Scotch it was – House of Commons Speaker Bercow’s Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Exclusively available at the House of Commons (and thus from eBay and other ‘secondhand’ buying locations), this was a leaving present to Andy from a job there, donated to us for the evening. There is a tradition of malt whiskies being produced in the Speaker’s name, with previous speaker Michael Martin definitely not being involved in the selection process due to the small problem of him being teetotal, and they are rather collectible, especially when signed by members of parliament or the speaker themself. The previous bottling, Speaker Martin’s, seems to have been overtly a Macallan but this one is quietly bottled by Gordon & MacPhail with no indication of origin, although Darren reckoned it might well be a Macallan. Tasty, no matter what it was – a reason to visit the Commons bar (or the Private Members gift shop).
Another month down and another tasting to look forward to next month. It’s not up on the Whisky Squad website yet, but March’s tasting will be with Compass Box, purveyors of fine blends to discerning drinkers since the year 2000. It’ll be up on the site soon, so keep an eye there and on Twitter – tickets go quickly…
Whisky based spirit drink, 40%. ~£30 from their website
English Whisky Company Chapter 6
English single malt whisky, 46%. ~£40 from The Whisky Exchange
Welsh single malt whisky, 46%. ~£35 from Master of Malt
Irish blended whisky, 46%. ~£40 from The Whisky Exchange
Speaker Bercow’s Single Malt Whisky
Single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. Occasionally available from eBay or more regularly at the House of Commons Private Members gift shop…
Alan beat me to finishing a write-up this month and you can find his, complete with very pretty pictures, over on his blog