Over the years I’ve very much become a city dweller – in a few months time I tip over into having lived in London for over half of my life. With that comes a specific hole in my otherwise huge list of talents: I don’t know how to drive. As such my recent sojourn in Scotland has been full of buses and trains, and my distillery visits have been selected around a restriction of using public transport. Pleasingly I was finally able to make it to one of the easiest distilleries to get to by train – Dalmore.
I don’t write that much about events these days. Partly that’s because I don’t get invited to many and partly because when I do it’s for work. However, every now and again something pops up that I want to write about which doesn’t fit into the work basket and this is one of those times. A night of sherry, whisky and food at east London Galician restaurant Trangallan, which I’ve been meaning to visit for a while? Count me in.
As I don’t think I’ve written about whisky enough recently (sarchasm) I thought I’d put something down on paper/the screen/the interwebnets about Whisky Live London 2011. I’ve been almost entirely fail-y when it has come to writing about whisky shows in the past, mainly as a day of walking around pouring whisky down my neck does lead to incoherence (as my nice performance at the nice Connosr‘s nice WhiskyPod this year demonstrated nicely), but this time I also booked up a ticket to a tasting of The World’s Most Collectible Whiskies with Whisky Magazine’s auction king Jonny McCormick and sitting down helped my pen write slightly more legibly.
Jonny writes for Whisky Magazine mainly about whisky collecting and auctions, looking after their whisky auction price tracking ‘WM Index’, and brought that expertise to selecting five whiskies that either are already rising in price or could be the auction stars of the future. First on the mat was Highland Park St Magnus, the second entry in their Earl Magnus series of limited bottlings, named for distillery founder Magnus Eunson’s namesake, Earl Magnus of Orkney. The first in the series, the eponymous Earl Magnus, was limited to 6000 bottles, this one to 12000 and the final one, Earl Haakon (named for Magnus’s cousin), to 3000, showing some tricksiness from a company who know that investors like them. The St Magnus comes in at 55% ABV and on the nose had punchy sherry fruit, mulchy peat, almonds and marzipan, and a hint of farmyard mixed in with a meatiness that spread from the nose down to the back of the mouth. To taste there was sweet overripe fruit, sour citrus, sour wood, quite a bit of boozy heat and a lighter flavour than I expected from the quite forthright nose, although mainly the heat of the booze overpowered everything. It could take quite a bit of water, as you’d expect, bringing out spiky wood, sour Fruit Salad chews, spicy lemons and still more boozy heat. I kept dropping in bits of water from time to time as the tasting went on, which eventually tamed it into a flavoursome dram with a buttery mouth feel. The Earl Magnus has already done rather well value-wise, with its release price of £85 leading to a fast sellout and a rapid rise in value to £250-£300 in shops today. The larger release of the St Magnus suggests that it won’t reach the heady heights of the first bottle, but will be a key part of sets of all three bottles in the future, so grabbing one now if you have the Earl Magnus is a no-brainer. You might have to fight for a bottle of the Earl Haakon, but that’s all part of the fun of collecting whisky…I hear.
Next we turned to the Dalmore 1981 Matusalem. Matured for 22 years in american oak before being recasked for 6 months to finish in 30 year old Gonzalez Byass Matusalem Oloroso sherry butts, this is part of Dalmore’s increasingly silly range of premium whiskies, although very much at the lower end. It currently seems to be selling at about £400 a bottle in travel retail, a further exclusivity that should help it in the future at auction. On the nose it had oxidised tawny port, dry wood, red grapes and candied lemons. To taste it was quite sweet with sappy wood and twigs – “like licking the inside of a sugar tree” my notes helpfully add – and stone-in stewed fruit (hints of almonds and cherry stone along with the big fruitiness). Water brought out some more sweetness and the wood softened into creamy vanilla, although leaving a bit behind for a long sweetly woody finish. Dalmore seem to be building their range around collectors, with the world’s most expensive whisky (sold in a normal bottle rather than one of a kind Lalique decanter, that is), Trinitas, leading the way with it’s silly £100,000 price tag. Dalmore is currently sitting just outside of the top 10 of the Whisky Magazine index’s auction movers and shakers, but that may well change over the years thanks to their special releases.
Third was the Glenmorangie Signet, an interesting dram produced using some chocolate malt (dark roasted rather than actually involving chocolate) based spirit as well as some older whisky from the original Glenmorangie maltings. On the nose it was soft with sweet orange, lime leaves, rich sweet malt and golden syrup. Behind the richness there was a distinctly leafy vegetal note. To taste it had sweet dark chocolate, some gravelly minerality and a leafy nettle finish – “Mossy chocolate paving stones” says my notebook. Water added more sweetness, turning the dark chocolate towards milk chocolate, and added some sweet chocolate malt (hints of milk stout) to the leafy finish. A very interesting flavour which I’m still not sure I’m a massive fan of, but one I will be trying again to make sure. Maybe several times. Along with the interesting liquid in the bottle Glenmorangie, recently a distillery who have been upgrading packaging all over the place, have created a rather fancy bottle, with the glass darkening from bottom to top and having a large silvered cap on top – something that will help the value in future, especially as many people seem to have opened their bottles due to the reports of how good it is. A whisky to buy two bottles of – one to drink and one to hide for a rainy day.
Next was the Bowmore 21 year old Port Cask, one of a number of peated port casks that were on show at Whisky Live (despite being recommended it by a number of people I missed out on trying the impressive sounding Benriach Solstice – one for the follow-up list). Another travel retail exclusive, this one is made up of whisky distilled on March 10th 1988 and kept for all of its 21 years in port casks. On the nose it was lightly peaty with big dry red wine, plum jam and glacé cherries. To taste it started with flowery air freshener, moved through a meatily spiced middle with lipsticky wax to a stony peat end. The overpowering air freshener flavour that I got up front pretty much ruined it for me and water didn’t improve it, adding in more waxiness and spicy sweetness but leaving the cloying start. Not one for me, although appreciated around the room. Bowmores are currently riding high in the WM Index, both by sales volume and price per bottle, with old bottlings, such as the Black Bowmores, being spoken of in hushed tones and going for thousands of pounds at auction – their continuing range of premium bottlings will hopefully help them to keep up this momentum.
The final whisky of the tasting was Macallan Oscuro, part of their 1824 range of travel retail exclusive whiskies and made up of spirit distilled between 1987 and 1997. On the nose it had raisins, milk chocolate, a touch of struck match, buttered toast, marzipan and shortbread. To taste it was thick and sweet with cinnamon custard and a caramel wood finish. Water brought out more sugar, raisin cordial (not that I’ve tried raisin cordial, but it’s what I imagine non-alcoholic PX to taste like) and butter. My favourite of the night, with my current whisky sweet tooth being firmly satisfied. It’s currently rather pricy, at about £500 a bottle, but Macallans have a lot of success at auction and it might be a nice place to invest, if you don’t drink it. Macallan sits at the top of both Whisky Magazines’s price and volume indices, in part due to the large number of bottlings that their long history has produced, with vintages back to the beginning of the 20th century sitting behind the counter in the distillery shop ready for sale. With an almost constant barrage of interesting bottlings across the price spectrum it looks like they’ll be pretty much permanent fixtures of the auction market.
I’m not really a whisky investor, buying to drink as I do, but vaguely inspired by the tasting I did take advantage of the Friends of Laphroaig “It’s your birthday!” discount offer (another reason to sign up to the FoL) to pick up a couple of bottles of their 12 year old cask strength batch 2, one to drink and one to keep, as it was a nice low-cost way of having a punt at the whisky collecting game. The sold out batch 1 has already increased in price by 50% (to about £40 a bottle) so we shall see…
The thing that most surprised me when discussing collecting with Phil Huckle of Pernod Ricard after the The Glenlivet tasting I went to last year was the emphasis on distillery bottlings – in general independents won’t go up in price to anywhere near the extent that original distillery bottlings will. His advice on the night was simple – buy independents to drink, buy distillery to keep. While my lack of cupboard space is currently beating my love of hoarding things, my love of drinking whisky will continue to keep the collecting bug away. For now. I hope.
Highland Park St Magnus
Highland single malt Scotch whisky, 55%. ~£85 from The Whisky Exchange.
Dalmore 1981 Matusalem
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 44%. ~£400 from World of Whiskies (travel retail exclusive).
Highland single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£110 from Master of Malt.
Bowmore 21 year old Port Cask
Islay single malt vintage Scotch whisky, 51.5%. ~£150 from World of Whiskies (travel retail exclusive).
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 46.5%. ~£400 from World of Whiskies (travel retail exclusive).
Signet image courtesy of Master of Malt
September flew by a bit for me and shortly after I finished writing up last month’s Whisky Squad another one appeared on the horizon. In honour of the fluffy top lips of a chunk of The Squad this session’s theme was Movember. Whisky Gandalf Darren, the man behind Whisky4Movember and random chap for Master of Malt, had done some looking around and brought us four moustache related whiskies to try.
First up was one half of Master of Malt’s special edition pair of Movember bottlings for 2010. Selected by Darren, bottled by Masgter of Malt and featuring five different labels per expression, each honouring one of the well known moustached chaps of the whisky industry – Richard Paterson, Dave Broom, Charlie MacLean, Serge Valentin and Marcin Miller. This first bottle was the Mo’land, a single cask lowland whisky, and our featured moustache was that of Richard Paterson who I’ve bumped into a few times over the summer. Richard is an especially appropriate candidate for honouring on the bottle as not only has he survived cancer but also removed his rather famous moustache for Movember. The whisky had a light nose with bees wax, butter, malt syrup and boiled sweets. To taste it started with a syrup sweetness which rolled through surprisingly rich polished wooden floors to a sweetly woody finish. Water brought out more butter and woody spice, with vanilla and a hint of fruit. A light and easy drinking dram that might entice whisky novices in as well as keeping me happy.
We moved on to another moustachioed bottle, this time last year’s Master of Malt Movember bottling – M’Orkney. As a spooned malt from Orkney, mainly consisting of the more well known of the distilleries on the islands, it’s not that much of a mystery where the spirit came from. ‘Spooning’ is a brand protection practise where a distiller will add a spoon of another distillery’s whisky to a cask when they sell it. This doesn’t affect the flavour of the whisky, a spoon is very small in comparison to a cask, but it makes the whisky legally a blended malt and prevents the buyer, and whoever the whisky is eventually sold on to, from bottling the whisky and selling it under the original distiller’s name. Certain distillers are well known for blocking bottlings in this fashion, with Glenfiddich and Balvenie (both owned by William Grant & Sons) being two of the more famous. The addition of a drop of Scapa to a cask of Highland Park (let’s just say…) hasn’t made much of a dent in the M’Orkney, with a nose of stony peat, sweet smoke, super sour candy balls and a pinch of salt coming through. To taste it’s sweet with a controlled dryness. There was wood ash, peppery spice, a citrus tang and a prickly finish. Water softened the prickle and brought out more lemon and vanilla. Annoyingly this one is sold out or I’d be grabbing one for my cupboard.
Next up was one of Richard Paterson’s whiskies – the Dalmore 15. A classic highland distillery, just down the road from Glenmorangie, Dalmore’s been in the news recently with the release of their newest whisky – The Trinitas. Named for the fact that there are just three bottles available it has taken the record for world’s most expensive whisky, at £100,000 for 70cl. Two of the three bottles are spoken for, one having gone to a private collector and one to Sukhinder Singh from The Whisky Exchange, but the other is still available from TWE, so If you’re interested you can give them a call. It looks to be a record that may not stand for long as Macallan’s ‘Cire Perdue’ decanter of 64 year old whisky has almost finished its trip around the world and will shortly be auctioned off in aid of Charity: Water – with 10cl samples going for over $40000 it looks like the whisky (with its rather special Lalique decanter) might break the Trinitas’s record. The rather more affordable Dalmore 15 is a rich deep red (although the colour is helped on its way with some added spirit caramel) with chocolate, cherry, shreddies and dry wood on the nose. To taste the cherries become glacé and are joined by almonds, ginger, orange and sweet spices – a bit like a rich cherry bakewell at Christmas. A bit of water, as it can’t take much before losing the richness, adds vanilla, more sweetness and some delicate dried fruit.
We then moved back to Movember whiskies, picking up the second of this year’s MoM bottlings – Smo’key. This was one was adorned with the face of Dave Broom. Dave is a well known drinks writer, especially known for his writing about whisky, which has appeared in pretty much every whisky publication under the sun, and also in a number of books, including his latest – The World Atlas of Whisky (which may shortly appearing on my shelf next to my World Atlas of Wine from the same series). The Smo’key is a blended malt like the Mo’land, but this time going for the opposite end of the flavour scale, featuring whiskies from Islay. On the nose there wasn’t all that much, with sweet mulchy peat and a touch of stone dust. The taste had much more, with sweet grassy peat, butter, sweet and sour oranges, a hint of coal and a vegetal back palate leading to a prickly finish. Water brought out more of the nose’s stoniness with some coal smoke. There was also more fruitiness and the butter gained some fat, making the mouthfeel creamy. Darren doesn’t know what whiskies went into the bottle, but after some discussion around the room it was thought that there was definitely some Caol Ila in there, cut with some lighter Blasda-like Ardbeg as well as a whole lot more.
Our fifth whisky of the night, breaking the rule (as seems to have happen at most Whisky Squads) that we only taste four whiskies, was Smokehead Extra Black. Smokehead is a range of bottlings by Ian MacLeod of whisky from an unnamed Islay distillery (it’s [almost certainly] Ardbeg). Along with the regular bottling and this 18 year old Extra Black they also used to do an Extra Rare, which I have a cloth bag covered bottle of in my whisky cupboard. Smokehead has been a great supporter of Movember this year, supplying whisky to a variety of the events celebrating the month, hence a bottle appearing at our table. On the nose it was sweet and lightly smokey, with a thin and nicely astringent smoke rather than a choking cloud. To taste it had a sweet start with TCP, tar, damp peat and wet smoke in the middle, and a sweet smokey finish. A bit of water brought oranges and a hint of lemon as well as a thick vanilla caramel.
My Mo’ (I hate that term) continues to grow, as do those of the other Whisky4Movember team members. To support our ‘tachey efforts you can sponsor us over on the Movember site, throw Richard Paterson some cash instead/as well or buy one of the Movember bottlings from Master of Malt – £8 of the £34.95 selling price will go to charity.
Another whisky squad done and another one scheduled. At the time of writing there are still a couple of places left at the Squad Christmas dinner – a three course meal from The Gunmaker’s seasonal menu with some matched whiskies and the usual random banter. Book soon or be disappointed.
Master of Malt Mo’land
Blended lowland Scotch malt whisky. 40%. £34.95 at Master of Malt
Master of Malt M’Orkney
Spooned Orcadian malt whisky. 40%. Sold out
Highland single malt Scotch whisky. 40%. ~£40 at Master of Malt
Master of Malt Smo’key
Blended Islay Scotch malt whisky. 40%. £34.95 at Master of Malt
Smokehead 18 Year Old Extra Black
Islay single malt Scotch whisky. 46%. ~£85 at Master of Malt
As I noted in my last post, some of the current whisky obsessiveness on this blog can be laid at the door of Richard Paterson, master blender at Whyte & Mackay and constant whisky show presence. My first in person encounter with Richard was a few minutes after getting in to Whisky Live Glasgow, where I was dragged on to stage to take part in a blending session. However, something that I’d forgotten was that I’d signed up to do a blending class and tasting with Richard at Milroy’s a week later. There was a lot of crossover between the two blending sessions, so I’ll stick them together.
The basic premise of the session was to get people to understand blending with a ‘simple’ task – blend together 6 whiskies to try and represent the character of the person on a card in front of you. We were given some grain, lowland, Speyside, medium highland, heavier highland and smoky Islay as our ingredients and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronnie Corbett, Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman, Jordan and a sumo wrestler as our inspiration. At Whisky Live I got Jordan, and after being told off for saying I wanted to make a “cheap tasting” whisky, settled on something with a heavy perfume and hint of smoke – heavy on the speyside with a body of grain and a hint of Islay at the end. I deservedly didn’t win that time, the honour going to Nicole Kidman, but my team picked up the accolade at Milroy’s with our sumo wrestler whisky – big and heavy with a slap at the end. Lots of heavy and medium highlands with a bit of Speyside, some grain (at cask strength) for welly and a hefty slug of the Islay for a late punch. According to the rather large certificate that Richard signed for me I am now an official Whyte & Mackay master blender, but I won’t be giving up my day job quite yet – I have a small sample jar of ‘Jordan’ on the side and opening it for a smell does not fill me with enthusiasm for my skills.
If you want to see the fun and games of the Whisky Live Glasgow session, social media king Craig set up a camera at the side of the room and captured almost all of it – part 1, part 2, part3. Including my being rubbish on stage in part 2.
The more interesting bit (for a blending ‘veteran’ such as myself) at the Milroy’s event was the tasting we started off with, running through part of Whyte & Mackay’s premium range. We started off with Jura Prophecy, distilled in 1992 with 90% matured in bourbon casks and 10% in sherry. On the nose it had salt, grass and seaweed, toasted wood, caramel and hint of, maybe, sweet cooked carrots. It also had a bit of wood polish, some olive oil and a slug of damp peat at the end. To taste it had a tannic end led to by fizzy lemon, tarmac and polished wooden floors. Water definitely helped, bringing out more salt and some custard on the nose. The taste had sherbet lemons, bitter wood, sweet smoke and the custard from the nose. I’m already a fan of Jura, but this one was really rather nice – not as peated as I would expect from the ‘heavy peat’ reputation that Willie Tait (former Jura manager) pushed at Whisky Live and nicely balanced, with wood, citrus, smoke and sweetness all rolled together.
Next was a bit of a move up, going on to the Fettercairn 24. I’d tried the 40 year old bottling at Whisky Live and not been blown away, and was interested to see what the younger expression would offer. It was a lovely bronze colour and had orange, sweet fruit, liquorice, pine and lemon scented floor polish on the nose. To taste it had almonds and cinnamon with a bitter wood finish and a buttery mouthfeel. Water calmed down the bitterness of the wood, turning the almonds into marzipan and the fruit from the nose into fizzy fruit chews. On top of this was some hazelnut and a spicy woody finish. Much closer to the nose of the 40 year old (which was fantastic, even if the taste wasn’t to my liking), but maybe not to the tune of £120 per bottle. The marzipan flavour is something I’m definitely going to be looking out for in other drams and I may have to have a try of their regular 12 year old.
We jumped up the price scale to the Dalmore 1974 Matusalem – named for its year of distilling and the type of sherry barrels used for its finishing. After an initial 27 years in rare palo cortado casks it sat finishing for 5 years in barrels formerly used to mature Gonzalez Byass’s rather special 30 year old oloroso, for a total of 32 years of maturation. A rather limited release this one compared to many from Whyte & Mackay’s stable, with only 780 bottles of it in the wild. It was deep bronze in colour with a nose of candied orange slice cake decorations and perfumed almonds. To taste there was an initial burst of sweetness leading to raisins, marmalade and buttery lemons. Water brought out more floral notes, creamy vanilla, fizzy refresher chews and a woody finish. Quite impressive, as you’d expect for the second most expensive whisky I’ve ever tasted.
After the Matusalem the only way to move in price was down and we moved on to the Dalmore 1992 King Alexander III. I’d missed a chance to grab a dram of this at Whisky Live in London earlier this year, turning up moments too late and seeing a tray of glasses emptied before I could get to it. It is made up of whiskies that have been finished in 6 different cask types – port, madeira, marsala, cabernet sauvignon, Knob Creek bourbon and oloroso sherry – for 2-6 years depending on the type of wood (with the port taking 6). It poured reddy bronze with heavy raisins, woody sweetness and vanilla on the nose. To taste it had sugary sweetness, orange and vanilla, moved to a mid-taste of sweet raisins, and finished with spicy oak. I didn’t add water to it, and I wish I had – it was a bit of a muddle and I think it might have helped bring the various flavours out a bit. There was definitely a hint of all of the different finishes in there, but I’m not sure that it all worked together at bottle strength, only 40% though it was.
We then moved on to our last dram of the night – Whyte & Mackay’s 30 year old. This is W&M’s premium blend and one that I’d got to have a quick sip of at Whisky Live Glasgow, enough to make me want to try it again. It’s definitely the top end of their range – with a boasted 25-27 components (a far cry from the John Glaser small batch approach) and bottled in black glass, it’s a cut above Whyte & Mackay’s regular range. On the nose it had custard, raisins and perfumed wood and to taste it had sweet custard with spicy oak bitterness and a lingering sherried fruitiness. Water bittered things up a little bit with dark orange chocolate joining the rich mix. Rather nice and further demonstrating that blends needn’t all be rubbish, grain heavy, Tesco’s shelf filler. This stuff does cost £180 a bottle, but it is pretty good. It’s not got the sort of backing and reputation that Chivas Regal’s top brands and Johnny Walker Blue Label have yet, but it’s definitely in the same league as them.
All in all a thoroughly enjoyable couple of events. Richard Paterson is definitely someone to see do his act in person, with over the top hand waving about ‘the pussies’ who don’t know what they’re missing, throwing whisky on the floor and audience, and the occasional party popper, although outside of that he is just a nice guy to have a chat with. I’ve not been to Milroy’s for a tasting before and while this one was a bit more than I’d usually pay (£40) it was an impressive whisky range that I’d not see elsewhere, with the 1974 Dalmore going for at least £40 a shot if you found it in a bar – I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more from them.
No age statement (16 years old?) Jura single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£50
Highland single malt scotch whisky. 44.4%. ~£120
Dalmore 1974 Matusalem Sherry Finesse
Highland single malt scotch whisky. 42%. ~£600
Dalmore 1992 King Alexander III
Highland single malt scotch whisky. 40%. ~£120
Whyte & Mackay 30 Year Old
Blended scotch whisky. 43%. ~£180
The photos above are a bit rubbish because Milroy’s do their tastings in the basement under their Soho shop. It’s dark down there…but nice.
Whyte & Mackay are currently running a competition to win a bottle of their 30 year old – find one of the bottles of their ‘regular’ Special Blended Whisky that has been filled instead with 30 year old (as indicated by a note under the cap) and you can win one of 250 additional bottles of neat 30 year old. There is more info, including a video of ‘Richard Paterson’ breaking into the bottling plant to be nefarious with the whisky, over on the Master Blender website.