Whisky Squad #15 – Highlanders

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time then you know the drill by now – first week of the month = Whisky Squad. We were joined again by Rob Whitehead of Berry Brothers & Rudd, this time leading the session rather than just being an enthusiastic punter. The topic was Highlanders: whiskies from the ‘other’ region in Scotland. Strictly speaking calling the Highlands a region is a little misleading as the easiest definition is “all of Scotland that isn’t in the other regions” – everything north of the Highland Line that joins Edinburgh and Glasgow, excluding Speyside, Islay and Campbelltown. Going along with large geographic variation is a general lack of underlying style – the area encompasses everything from punchy Talisker to light Glengoyne and pretty much anything in between. It’s the largest region by area and the second by number of distilleries and production of spirit, beaten only by densely populated Speyside. Whether the islands other than Islay should be considered part of the region is often debated, with the SMWS splitting them off as a separate ‘Highland Islands’ region in their releases (but they also divide up Speyside as well), and Rob sidestepped that point by (sort of) sticking to distilleries on the mainland.

IMG_8386The first whisky was quite light and had a nose of salted caramel, nuts (walnuts & almonds?), damp forest, sour orange, brine and fresh green vegetables. To taste it had butter, salt & pepper, a touch of fizzy fruit sweetness, and a lingering sweet and sour fruit finish. Water brought out some grapes and lengthened the sweetness of the finish. When the whisky sock was pulled off (as Rob brought along his set of BBR bottle concealing socks, although this time they were augmented by one knitted for the squad by occasional visitor Ruth) it was shown to be a John Milroy 7 Year Old Pulteney. That’s a Pulteney that’s 7 years old, rather than an Old Pulteney, as the latter is the name of the whisky produced for Inver House at the Pulteney distillery. John (generally known as Jack) Milroy was one of the two brothers that opened Milroy’s of Soho in 1964, the shop that was the template from which pretty much all whisky shops have been stamped out since. Doug McIvor, Berry’s whisky king, used to work there and now that he’s at Berry’s him and Jack sit down from time to time to select a few casks to be bottled under the Milroy name. Rob selected this one as our opener due to the way that we do tastings at Whisky Squad – we try the whisky blind and then guess the age, strength and (if feeling brave) the distillery. We don’t generally get these right and regular Dave has in recent times decided to guess that all whiskies are 7 years old. In order to help him guess right at least once Rob brought this one along, only to be foiled by Dave guessing 8 this time. The whisky was matured in an ex-bourbon barrel specifically purchased as an ‘old refill’ and was retired after this whisky was decanted. The knackered nature of the barrel meant that it didn’t influence the whisky too much, keeping it light and reflecting some of the citrus and brine that you get in Pulteney new make. Unfortunately this one has already sold out.

IMG_8387Number two was a little bit darker and had a nose that developed quite quickly in the glass. On first pour it was quite earthy with mulchy leaves, but that quickly blew away to be replaced by Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples, lime cordial, red fruit and vanilla, as well as floral notes that got stronger as it sat. To taste there were apple boiled sweets, candle wax, vanilla, grapes, orange peel and a hint of menthol at the back of the mouth which lingered into the fruit finish. Water brought out a bit of biscuit and cardboard on the finish and some waxy hand cream to the middle of the flavour. The sock came off to reveal that it was a Berry’s Own Selection Glencadam 1991, bottled in 2004. I usually rather like Glencadam, after a very tasty SMWS release led to me picking up their own 15 year old bottling, and this one continued that trend. They’ve not been releasing distillery editions for long, with independent bottlers being the only way of getting a single malt until 2005 when new owners Angus Dundee Distillers, who bought the distillery in 2003, brought out the 15 year old. Since then they’ve expanded the range with a 10 year old appearing in 2008, with a relaunch of the 15 year old at the same time, and in 2010 a 12 year old port finish, 14 year old oloroso finish and a 21 year old. Up until the 2003 purchase Glencadam has had a bit of a checkered history, being closed several times since its opening in 1825, and was mothballed in 2004 when the Berry’s 1991 was bottled. This whisky sold out before Rob started at Berry’s in 2006 and was pulled out of their rather extensive archives, making two whiskies in this tasting that we probably won’t find again.

IMG_8389Next was another darker whisky, although it was difficult to see exactly in the rather dimly lit tasting room, and within seconds of nosing it inspired a cry of ‘sherry’. On the nose it had sour fruit, sherry wood, burned meaty bits, hints of brine and forest leaves. To taste it started with a powdery icing sugar sweetness which faded to sour red grape, stewed tea, sour fruit and spice, and finished with sour fruit and lightly tannic wood. Water brought out a touch of salty ‘old sweaty sock’ on the nose as well as dulling the smell in general. In the taste, dilution lengthened the sweetness at the front and added a bit of card on the finish. The sock came off and this one was a Berry’s Own Selection Blair Atholl 1998, bottled in 2009. Blair Atholl is another distillery that doesn’t produce much whisky as single malt, with the vast majority going into Bell’s and a Flora & Fauna bottling being the main place to find it on its own. The distillery is in Pitlochry, on the southern borders of the Cairngorms, and has been owned by Diageo since they bought up Arthur Bells & Sons in 1985.

IMG_8392Number four was still darker and had a nose of plums, galia melon, royal icing, polished wood, vanilla, cream, a hint of strawberry shrimp and some cement-like minerality. To taste it started with sweet pastry, sour plums and worked its way through hints of stone and touches of green leaves to a finish of cardboard, and lemon rind and pith. Water simplified things, with sweetness leading to fruit leading to lemon rind – one to drink at bottle strength. This was revealed to be Berry’s Own Teaninich 1973, bottled in 2010 for a total of 37 years of maturation. It was made up of two casks and bottled at cask strength of 41.8% and sells for about £135, one of the most expensive Berry’s Own bottlings that they’ve done. This is in part due to buying the casks old, rather than Berry’s usual plan of buying them at filling time and then looking after them during maturation – it’s more of a gamble, but is much cheaper than buying the casks when you can see how good they are at the end of maturation. Teaninich is another Diageo distillery that mainly sees the light of day through blends and a Flora & Fauna bottling, and it’s near to Whyte & Mackay’s Invergordon and Dalmore distilleries on the north side of the Cromarty Firth near to Alness. Outside of Diageo’s various products it’s also a favourite of Compass Box, appearing in their Asyla and Oak Cross blends.

IMG_8397Number five was brought along by co-founder Jason rather than Rob and had a rather dodgy looking thin topped cork. Rob couldn’t say much about the whisky for fear of giving away what it was, so we went straight in for a taste. On the nose it had wet leaves, hints of brine, a touch of wood smoke, nettles, candy floss and baked beans. The taste was rather uncomplicated, but quite pleasant, with wood smoke, woody fruit, butter, marzipan and a slightly beany finish with some more fruit. Water calmed down a bit of the alcoholic burn and brought out a bit more fruit, but didn’t really improve things. When the sock came off it became quite obvious why they couldn’t say much – it was Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt, also known as ‘The Shackleton Whisky’. This one has quite the story behind it and is a marketing department’s wet dream. When explorer Ernest Shackleton was forced to abandon his Antarctic expedition in 1909 he left lots of supplies in his hut and during excavations on the site in 2006 a case of whisky was found. Over the last 5 years it has been moved to New Zealand to be thawed, and eventually a couple of bottles were handcuffed to Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson and flown back to Scotland in W&M owner Vijay Mallya’s private jet. Paterson extracted a small amount of liquid through the cork with a syringe and recreated the blend for this special bottling. As only he and whisky writer Dave Broom have tasted it noone knows for sure quite how accurate it is, but it’s a nice whisky. This edition is limited to ‘just’ 50k bottles and at £100 (with a fiver going to the Antarctic Heritage Trust) it should net W&M a tidy sum. I’m not sure it’s quite worth £100 for the liquid, nice as it is, but with the old-style replica bottle (complete with dodgy cork) and pretty wooden box (containing a more durable cork) it gets a bit closer. I think I’ll wait until they revive the Mackinlay’s name, as I’m sure they will, and sell a hopefully similar but cheaper whisky.

IMG_8400The last whisky of the evening was very dark and a quick nose showed that it was a sherry monster – prunes, burnt meat, rum, moss and hazelnuts and an alcoholic punch that got right into the sinuses. To taste there was pipe tobacco, coffee, very dry fruit, chocolate and a fruit and tar finish. It was quite closed at full strength and water helped open up all of those flavours to be more distinct, with some more brandy/rum notes and a touch of menthol coming through. When the sock came off Rob admitted to cheating somewhat – this was from the highlands, but not the highlands of Scotland (hence the ‘sort of’ back in paragraph one). It was the Whisky Magazine Editor’s Choice Karuizawa 15 year old from Japan, bottled by Berry’s in 2007. The distillery is quite central on Japan’s main island of Honshu, in the foothills of Mount Asama, the most active volcano on the island. This whisky came from a single first fill American oak sherry butt, with an outturn of 308 bottles, and has really taken on a lot of sherry wood flavour. It’s quite a mad whisky and as such there are still bottles left, one of which will shortly be finding its way into my whisky cupboard.

The final whisky this time is a seque into next month’s tastings. After a year of bimbling around Scotland The Squad will be making its first major foray overseas for two Japanese whisky tastings next month. More details will appear on the Whisky Squad site soon…

John Milroy 7 Year Old Pulteney
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. Sold out. Was ~£30.

Berry’s Own Selection Glencadam 1991
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. Sold out. Was ~£35-45.

Berry’s Own Selection Blair Atholl 1998
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35.

Berry’s Own Selection Teaninich 1973
Highland cask strength single malt Scotch whisky, 41.8%. ~£135.

Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt
Blended Scotch whisky, 47.3%. ~£100.

Whisky Magazine Editor’s Choice Karuizawa 15 Year Old
Cask strength single cask single malt Japanese whisky, 60.6%. ~£75.

Thanks to Alan for the lend of his camera and uploading the piccies to Flickr.

Christmas Booze Roundup 2009

Christmas is traditionally a time of over indulgence and I am far from being someone who wants to buck tradition (any excuse). There may have been turkey, pies, bologneses and casseroles over the festive period, but much more importantly there has been booze. Here’s what I’ve been drinking:

Beer

My friend Mr Utobeer came through for me again, after an unplanned drop-in while wandering around Borough Market with Mondoagogo a few days before Christmas, and added to my bottle of Orkney Dark Island Special Reserve (left until after Christmas so as to be shared with people who love nice beer more than my family). Other than some bottles grabbed as a present for someone (as my order from Brewdog hasn’t been sent yet as they haven’t yet brewed one part of it – a bottle of the second batch of Tactical Nuclear Penguin) I also grabbed, and have since drunk:

Harviestoun Ola Dubh Special 40 Reserve: I tried the 16 a few weeks back and discovered at the same time that they now did a beer matured in a 30 year old Highland Park cask. Then I went to the SMWS last week and was informed that they also do a 40, which they had a couple of bottles of at obscene prices. Then I found one at Utobeer for the scary price of £7.60. The verdict – much like with the 16 year old it wasn’t all that impressive. It was a marked difference from the younger barrelled beers, with more of a woody whiskiness than before, but still not worth the cost in my opinion. A really nice heavy dark beer still.

Brewdog Paradox: Isle of Arran: They may not have sent me my beer yet, but I still like the Brewdog chaps. And their beer. This, to continue a theme, is another whisky cask matured beer (Innis & Gunn have a lot to answer for) and one that I’ve tried before. I rather like the Arran distillery, producing some of my favourite SMWS whiskies as they have, and I really liked my last bottle of this that I tried. This one was slightly disappointing – not so influenced by the wood as the last one, but still a really good dark ale with more fruit and less vanilla than the Ola Dubh.

Home BrewMy Mate Nick’s Homebrew: Mr Martin, cow-orker and ginger bearded buddy extraordinaire, has recently started brewing and after discussing what he was doing to make his beer presented me with one of his first batch of bottles. I left it to settle for a while and then cracked it open on Christmas Eve. It was rather lively, needing several glasses to pour out into without overflowing with meringue-like head, and in true bottle conditioned fashion was quite sedimenty at the bottom, requiring some care in the pouring. It was very very dark and quite sweet – a definite hint of black treacle without quite so much of its burnt taste. I suffered none of the ill effects that homebrew is famed for and I also rather enjoyed it. The fluffiness and sweetness suggests that maybe it was bottled a bit early but it wasn’t the worse for it. I look forward to brew number 2. Hopefully I’ll get some more…please?

Wine

Realising a few days before Christmas that you have visiting wine loving parents and no suitable bottles on the shelf was a mild concern, as I’m a very lazy man who doesn’t like carrying things back from the supermarket. The nice folks at Naked Wines jumped in to save me with guaranteed Christmas Eve delivery if I ordered by 5pm the day before – I ordered at 4:45. The next afternoon the slightly harassed looking delivery man turned up, dumped my wine and ran away quickly – I think there were a few people who had the same idea as me. Anyways, combined with a few bottles contributed by my visitors I definitely have enough wine now, although still only 3 spare slots on the wine rack.

Milani Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (Naked Wine, Italy): My first out of the box and grabbed to match a spaghetti bolognese. I quite like Montepulciano and this was slightly disappointing – quite rough, although it did soften as it aired, without as much fruit as I hoped. However, a couple of glasses went in to the bolognese sauce and the rest of it went down quite nicely with dinner.

Vicien Syrah 2007 (Naked Wine, Argentina): Rolled into service when the first bottle from my case ran out prematurely, this was really quite good. A nice full Syrah with a good amount of fruit that got better as it breathed. I stoppered it and finished it the next day and it was still very drinkable.

Howcroft Estate Limestone Coast Merlot 2006 (Tesco, Australia): Grabbed from my step-dad’s wine rack due to the word ‘turkey’ being in the ‘goes with’ list on the back, this was a nice light Merlot, full enough to battle with the dark turkey meat as well as not being too strong as to drown out the (admittedly dry) white meat.

Hardy’s Varietal Range Shiraz 2008 (Sainsbury?, Australia): Another donation from the visitors, this one isn’t quite done yet, opened to provide some lubrication for dinner part 2 – the christmas pud (delayed until evening to allow some digestion of lunch to occur). It definitely needed some time to breathe, having a harsh edge, but it quickly softened (especially when poured through my newly acquired wine aerater [thankyou Dave’nLet] which worked much better than we had imagined) and was a nice, spicy, fruity wine, complimenting the pud better than expected.

Whisk(e)y

I’ve had a Christmas uncharacteristically light on whisky, despite a trip to Milroy’s a couple of days beforehand. I stopped by to try and pick up a bottle of rye to make the Manhattans that my mum had demanded via SMS (she had already bought cocktail cherries specially) and found that they were out of everything but a £180 per bottle Rittenhouse. I turned that down and got upsold when I tried to buy a 70cl bottle of Buffalo Trace, coming away with a 1.75l bottle (with free julep cup). I also grabbed a bottle of 15 year old Glencadam, having liked the SMWS bottling I picked up a couple of weeks back. The Trace is a solid bourbon, smooth enough to go either in cocktails or be drunk on the rocks (something that I’ve done a bit too much of since picking it up). The Glencadam is interesting – similar to the production Arran whisky in a way that I didn’t expect, with a fizzy icing sugar start, but also with a thick wedge of rubbery niceness running through the middle. It seems that I subconsciously do know my taste in whisky and Arran and Glencadam slot into it.

I used Glenfiddich instead of brandy to ignite the Christmas pud – the fact that I consider Glenfiddich to be cooking whisky when not too long ago it was one of the best whiskies that you could expect someone to have on their shelf has been commented on. It is cooking whisky…


Anyways, a vaguely restrained christmas that should continue to be restrained through new year – I’m on call on New Year’s Eve and don’t feel like lugging multiple bottles of whisky down to Shoreham-by-Sea (where I’m going for a party), but I’m sure someone else will look after my boozey needs…

Rubber Truncheons, Scotch and Eggs

swms-dec-2009

A while back I bumped into Laissez Fare at a wine tasting and I quickly admitted that I didn’t really have much of an idea about wine. However, in an effort to pull back my boozey reputation, I started rambling about the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, my tongue slightly loosened by the magic voodoo wine that we had been tasting, and he mentioned that he wouldn’t mind learning some more about whisky. I promptly forgot about this until last month’s Blaggers’ Banquet, when I both briefly bumped into Mr L-F again as well as going on about my love of scotch at great length at Mark of FoodByMark, who also expressed an interest in learning more.

And thus was a plan formed.

Each month on the first Friday the SMWS release a number of new whiskies, and in order to promote them they do an open tasting on the Wednesday before. Despite having been a member for a couple of years I’ve never made it along to any of their tastings, so with Christmas approaching, my whisky cupboard emptying and two whisky neophytes expressing an interest I thought it was time to change the state of affairs. So, with a friend of L-F, who happens to work with a bunch of my former uni-mates, which was quite random, the four of us assembled at the SMWS for some whisky.

The society open tastings are very informal affairs. Basically, you turn up as usual at the tasting rooms but are given a piece of paper (as seen in the above piccy) on which you write down which whiskies you’d like. You give it to the bar staff and they then give you whisky, and at some point in time a big plate of cheese. This appeals to me on a number of levels. Rather than filling in the list all in one go and letting the bar staff tell us which order we should be drinking things in, we went for the more reactive route of choosing things and then trying to find things less or more strongly flavoured from there on.

A quick word about the SMWS – they select individual casks from the various distilleries (not all in Scotland – I need to return shortly and try a couple of drams from Yamazaki and Hakushu in Japan. The Hakushu looked especially interesting, coming out of the bottle almost black and with a stickiness that intrigued me) and then bottle and sell them at cask strength. They don’t attach a distillery name to their bottles, instead using a numbering scheme of distillery.caskNumber – for example the 125.29 that I started the evening on. While they don’t officially provide a list of which distillery matches up with which number the staff know and there are a few places on the web where you can grab a list (including my own rather simple page that I Instapaper‘d onto my iPhone). The official reason is that the distilleries don’t want their names to be directly associated with these potentially very different expressions which might change expectations of their stock whiskies. The real reason seems to be that it adds a layer of mystery and exclusivity. I like mystery and exclusivity.

As mentioned, I started off with a 125.29 – a Glenmorangie. There are only 126 malt distilleries on the societies list, so Glenmorangie is a fairly recent addition. I’ve seen a few since I joined, including the bottle I received when I did, but haven’t tried any of them. Being a fan of standard production Glenmorangie (and a satisfied visitor to their distillery), I thought I’d kick off the evening with it. It was pretty much what I expected – a straight down the line, medium-full bodied highland whisky. From my notes: Spicy sweet, but with a distiinct burnt sour finish. Vanilla and wood. Water calms the burn, reveals boiled sweets. It was a nice start to the evening – not heavy enough to break my palate so early, but also not overly light. A good solid dram.

I then moved on to a probably ill advised choice, but with my preference generally being towards the heavier whiskies one that made sense – 14.17, a Talisker. As can be seen by the low distillery number and low cask number (they are both assigned in order) the society doesn’t get many whiskies from Talisker and being a fan I’ve been waiting for one since I joined. From my notes: Sea and smoke. Honey, vanilla and lavender with water. Short and to the point – this is very much a Talisker, with the hints of the sea and slab of smoke that implies. It had a chunk of smooth sweetness behind that as well, with honey joining the normal woody vanilla. A very tasty dram. I chatted with one of the barman about it and he expressed his disappointment, a sentiment I can understand – with so few whiskies appearing from Talisker he had expected something very special. As it was he, and I, just got a very good whisky – nothing different or special, just a tasty dram. Disappointing but in a good way.

Ham Hock Scotch Egg

With the whiskies clocking in at full cask strength, 57.2% for each of my first drams, it was decided that maybe a break for some dinner would be a good plan. The SMWS London rooms get their food from The Bleeding Heart, which they conveniently sit above. The Bleeding Heart is known for being a rather good restaurant and the SMWS bar food satisfies their reputation. My companions had fish & chips and burgers but I decided to go for one of the smaller dishes – a ham hock scotch egg with homemade piccalilli. I’m only a recent convert to the joys of piccalilli but am a bit of a scotch egg obsessive, eating them as a standard snack as well as seeking out special ones (such as the excellent ones produced by Andy of EatMyPies that I grab on a weekly basis from Whitecross Street market). This was up with the best – a tasty ham hock coating, with firmly adhered breading (my only complaint about Andy’s) and a slightly runny egg. The piccalilli was an excellent accompaniment, just sharp enough to cut through the egg as well as being tasty to eat on its own with a spoon…

On to dram 3 – 3.150, a Bowmore. Bowmore are one of my favourite distillers – they know what they do well and keep doing it well. They do big smoky, sweet whiskies with a fairly big kick to the teeth. However, the description on this one suggested it was non-typical so I though it deserved a try. From my notes: Smoke and rubber with salt and seaweed. Water brings out sweetness and lemons. The big difference here was the saltiness – there was a distinct slab of the sea-saltiness that I really love in whiskies and this ticked all the boxes. A touch of water opened it up, adding a citrusy flavour that I hadn’t expected and that worked rather well.

Swiftly on to my next – 19.43, Glen Garioch. I tried the standard production Glen Garioch (pronounced ‘Glen Geery’ according to the website) a few years back when I picked it up on offer while passing through Heathrow (the presence of a branch of World of Whiskies in the terminal may influence my choice of airline…) and it was a fairly boring but tasty highland whisky. The description of this one intrigued me and it was definitely not what I expected. From my notes: Sweet and spicy with linseed oil, salt and a touch of smoke. Rather than the normal spicy sweetness I expected I got a rather complicated whisky with distinct layers of flavour – normal sweet and spicy leading into a spicy oily centre taste and trailing off with a whiff of smoke. Not my favourite of the night, but definitely interesting and one that I may have to try again.

Cheese Plate 2 (Compressed)
Picture by Laissez-Fare

At this point our cheese appeared. The society does branch out a bit from whisky, with bourbon, port, sherry, brandy and wine all appearing on the menu, but they also know how to choose a cheese. We had a cheddar, a heavily smoked, a goat, a runny sheep and a blue cheese. Being a cheese wuss I avoided the blue and tried and disliked the goat, but the other three were quite excellent and definitely a good thing to protect us from further whisky consumption.

Onto my final dram of the night – 82.18, a Glencadam. I chose this one based on a sniff of one of my companions’ drams and the description, and I’m happy I did. I’ve not tried anything from Glencadam before and only knew the name as one on the list of distilleries that the SMWS bottles from. From my notes: Thick caramel sweetness with a centrepiece of rubber. Water dulls the intensity but leaves the flavours almost intact. This was good. For a fan of sweet whiskies as well as rubbery ones this came in as almost my perfect whisky. Only my already very heavy bag stopped me from grabbing a bottle on the spot (the cheapest of all the ones I’d tried, at £40) and I suspect that I will be returning to the society soon to grab a bottle, hoping that the Talisker and Glenmorangie will distract everyone long enough that it won’t sell out.

Anyway, a successful trip and something that I may have to repeat. All I need is drinking buddies…

SMWS New List December 2009 Open tasting – members tickets £25, non-members £35. Includes five 25ml drams of whisky from the new list (2 days before everyone else gets to try them) and a plate of cheese.

The Whiskies:
125.29 – “A Garden Breakfast Dram”
12 years. 57.2%. 280 bottles.
Glenmorangie

14.17 – “Earth-shaking and Eye Watering”
20 years. 57.2%. 202 bottles.
Talisker

3.150 – “Air Freshener in a Parrot’s Eye”
18 years. 55%. 260 bottles.
Bowmore

19.43 – “Morning Dew in a Pine Grove”
19 years. 53%. 244 bottles.
Glen Garioch

82.178 – “Rubber Truncheons and Bargepoles”
11 years. 59%. 771 bottles.
Glencadam

My drinking buddies are all, of course, on twitter: @foodbymark, @laissezfare, @iron_mart