Glenglassaugh is a distillery I have a love/hate relationship with. Their older drams are marvellous, with not only their own releases but also those from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society consistently punching above their not inconsiderable price. However, since reopening in 2008, their new whiskies have not made me a happy man. But, in my whisky pile was a sample of Glenglassaugh Torfa, so it’s time to give them another chance.
How time flies. A mere two years ago I was an occasional drunk who sometimes wrote things up on his blog, who then bumped into Andy and Jason of WhiskySquad at a couple of booze events, leading to my attendance of almost every one of their sessions. These days I’m a professional drunk who still only sometimes writes stuff on his blog, but WhiskySquad has gone from strength to strength. Up to at least two tastings a month and at least three iterations into their website, tickets still sell out quickly and, as a crowning achievement, they’ve even had me along to present an evening. After last year’s shindig there was a standard to be lived up to, so the big guns were rolled out for birthday number two – a matured whisky and new spirit pairing.
Yes, after two years of schmoozing the assembled masses of the whisky industry Andy and Jason managed to lever a number of sample bottles of new make spirit out of the hands of the distilleries for a bit of a special evening – tasting blind, as usual, whiskies and the new make spirits that they started out as.
So, Thursday has been and gone and my pre-Burn’s Night whisky tasting at The Alma has gone with it. It was a rather enjoyable evening and I thank those who came along to listen to me witter about whisky. Well, drink whisky while I wittered noisily in the background at least. As promised to those who came along, and as a record of what you missed (take that as a positive or negative as you will) for everyone else, here’s a sanitised version of my notes, without quite so many spelling mistakes and unused stage directions.
Whisky #1 was Ballantines 17 year old, recently rated by Jim Murray as the highest scoring whisky for 2011 in his yearly Whisky Bible
with 97.5 points. Ballantines the company started out like many blenders as shop, opening in 1827, and by the mid 1860s had started blending whiskies for their customers. The brand was acquired Pernod Ricard in 2005 and isn’t all that well known in the UK. However, they are big around the world and increasingly so in the UK, with their premium blends (such as the 17) appearing more often as they get praised.
On the nose I got PVA glue, pear, unripe green grapes and sherry dipped sponge cake (a combination of vanilla, acetone + biscuits). It had a very tight palate, with an initial sweetness moving quickly to dry wood and a lingering grainy finish. It was buttery without an oily mouth feel and had sharp apples, cedar/teak/old cabinets, sour apple sweets and a little bit of lime. Water brought out some vanilla, bitter dark chocolate and lemon peel.
Whisky #2 was a Signatory Bladnoch 1993 16 year old. This comes from the most southerly distillery in Scotland, situated near Wigtown in Dumfries and Galloway in the south west of Scotland – latitude-wise it’s just south of both Newcastle and Carlisle. The distillery opened in 1817, closed in 1949, reopened in 1957, closed in the 1990’s and then reopened again in 2000. This whisky was distilled in 1993, before the last close, and is in a similar but different style to current production, which started being standardly bottled as an 8 year old in 2009.
This whisky comes from independent bottler Signatory, founded in 1988 as simply a bottler and expanding into distillery ownership in 2002 with the purchase of the distillery with maybe the smallest stills in Scotland – Edradour. According the internets, the name Signatory came from a plan to produce whiskies with a label signed by a celebrity, but they sold out their first bottling before they organised the signature and abandoned the idea while keeping the name.
On the nose it had light vanilla, unsweetened pineapple, cut grass and a touch of woodiness. To taste it was light with some sweetness, coconut, linseed oil and floral notes. Water added in some more grassiness and more vanilla.
Whisky #3 was Glenfarclas 15 year old. Despite this being the distillery I have visited most often, thanks to yearly visits to Scotland and it being one of the closest distilleries to where we stayed, I’ve not tried the 15 year old until recently. Glenfarclas was founded in 1836 but has been run by the Grant family (not to be confused with the other Grant family, the ones who own Glenfiddich and Balvenie) since 1865. They normally use a chunk of sherry wood in the maturation of their whiskies and this one is no exception – on the nose there’s rich dried fruit, hints of pedro ximinez, dark rum and cognac. To taste it has more of the dried fruit and raisins, dried orange peel and rich fruit cake in between. Water rolls out more sweetness and adds even more thick richness.
Whisky #4 was Clynelish 14 year old. I wasn’t sure about including this one, as it’s a distillery that’s not quite so well known and there are many more Highland whiskies I could have chosen. However, in the end I went for it because I really like it – it was my Christmas whisky this year and it’s in my hipflask. I’m rather pleased I did, as it seemed to be rather liked by the tasting group as well (and tales of its almost permanent special offer status at Waitrose didn’t hurt). The distillery is in Brora, up the east coast of Scotland from the Dornoch Firth, about 1/2 the way to John O’Groats. It’s the second distillery to be built in Brora and operated as Clynelish 2 from its building in 1967 until the older distillery was renamed from Clynelish to Brora in the 1970s. Brora closed in 1983 and the remaining stock is in much demand, but with a minimum age of 27 years (that being how long it was since spirit was last produced there) it’s getting rarer and closer to the point where it will be going bad in the barrel rather than continuing to add good flavour.
On the nose this had wax (as is traditional with Clynelish whiskies), brine, sweaty boiled sweets, a hint of meaty smoke (burning beef?), creamy vanilla and some leather. To taste it was initially sweet turning to sour wood by the finish. It had vanilla, mint, menthol, unripe red grapes and tannic wood to finish. Water added some more sweet and sourness and a touch of sherbert – a bit like Refresher chews.
Whisky #5 was Lagavulin 16 year old. Distilled on the south coast of Islay, a concentrated whisky production area with 8 distilleries squeezed into 240 square miles of island just off the west coast of Scotland near the Kintyre peninsula. It has distilleries to either side, with Ardbeg to the east and Laphroaig to the west, all three of them known for producing heavily peated whiskies, which is the style of most of the distilleries on the island.
On the nose this has coal and campfires with sweetness hiding underneath. To taste it has a big smokiness, sweet mulchy peat, rich dried fruit and spicy fruit cake. Water rolls back some of the smoke bringing out more fruitcake and and vanilla. A big one to finish and a nice contrast to the almost smoke-free others.
I also brought out some new make spirit. It was Glenglassaugh Clearac, which is unpeated spirit that’s watered down to 50% before being bottled and sold – not quite the 70%ish spirit that comes straight out of the still. It’s quite sweet to smell, with caramel and lemons, and simply flavoured, with citrus sweetness and cereal notes. It shows quite nicely how much the wood maturation of whisky adds to the flavour.
Anyways, that was it. I was quite pleased with the whiskies – they contrasted nicely and gave a nice overview of the range of flavour available, which was the point of the tasting. There was only one person that really needed to be converted to liking whisky – Kirsty, who organised the tasting. She wasn’t quite a total convert but did acknowledge that there was a chance that she might find a whisky that she likes, which I’ll take as a victory.
Ballantines 17 Year Old
Blended Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£30 from Master of Malt.
Signatory Bladnoch 1993 16 Year Old
Single malt Lowland Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£35 from Master of Malt.
Glenfarclas 15 Year Old
Single malt Speyside Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£35 from Master of Malt.
Clynelish 14 Year Old
Single malt Highland Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£30 from Master of Malt.
Lagavulin 16 Year Old
Single malt Islay Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40 from Master of Malt.
“Spirit drink”, 50%. ~£15 per 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange.
Many thanks to Kirsty from The Alma for inviting me along and to Darren at Master of Malt for making sure that I got the whisky in time, even offering to bring it up to London from Tunbridge Wells for me if the post let me down
Despite the amount of time this blog implies I spend doing booze related activities I do also have a day job as a computer programmer. As part of this ‘secret’ second life I like to go and play at techy conferences and this last weekend I attended Barcamp London 8. Despite the potential of the word ‘Barcamp’ to refer to boozy activities (although there was a bar that I worked on and a lot of booze consumed, with drunken karaoke as the natural consequence of the latter) it is instead a free, community driven unconference, where there is no specific agenda and talks are all proposed and scheduled during the conference itself. While Barcamps are traditionally quite technical in nature they are not prescriptively so and I ran a session on one of my favourite topics – Whisky for Beginners.
Anyways, you can grab a copy of my slides (which get updated to make them more readable) from my website, although they were more a thing to have behind me on a screen than something filled with a load of information. Many thanks go to Rachel Clarke, who in a previous life worked at a distillery and knows a lot more about the making of whisky than I, who filled in some gaps and told me where I went wrong – it seems that my knowledge of grain whisky mashbills, amongst other things, is even more deficient than I thought…
Here are some links to some bits and pieces that I mentioned during my talk:
- Scotch Whisky Association legal definition of Scotch Whisky
- The legal definitions of the different whisky types
- Whisky regions on Wikipedia
- Richard Paterson’s blog
- Taiwanese whisky on this blog (the whisky on the title page is Kavalan Solist sherry cask)
- Whisky barrel speakers
- Master of Malt’s Drinks by The Dram (where my sample jars came from)
- My Movember page
The whiskies I brought along were:
- Master of Malt Mo’land Movember whisky. Lowland blended malt Scotch whisky. 40% ABV. ~£35 from Master of Malt.
- SMWS 127.3, ‘Beach BBQ for Older Boy Scouts’. Islay (Port Charlotte) cask strength single cask single malt Scotch whisky. 67%. ~£50. Sold out at the SMWS site.
Many thanks to all of those who came along. Please drop me a comment or email with any comments – it was my first Barcamp talk so any hints and tips are greatly appreciated. The talk has a page on lanyrd.com, so please add anything else you find about it up there.
A couple of weekends back I found myself on the 6am train out of London Euston bound for Glasgow and this year’s Whisky Live Live Glasgow. It was rather a last minute thing, as I’d answered a request for help on Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson’s blog the week beforehand offering my services as a tweeter or liveblogger during the event. Whyte & Mackay’s social media supremo, Craig McGill, invited me along, blagged me a freebie ticket and jammed a Flip camera into my hand for part of the day – it was rather good fun. While I was there under the auspices of a free W&M ticket the brief was very much wider – wander round, talk to as many people as possible and just get a sense of the whole day for everyone. However, as a large part of the day focused around the W&M whisky media front man, Mr Paterson of the post title, I did spend more time with my sponsors than I planned.
The day started off in slightly random fashion with me being pushed towards a stage by Craig and Richard to take part in a whisky blending session, but more of that in my next post. The day continued with stops at pretty much all of the stands in the small ballroom of the Glasgow Thistle and a break after lunch for the main Whyte & Mackay event – Richard Paterson’s 40th anniversary at the company.
Richard Paterson is rather well known in the whisky industry. I’m not certain how much time he can devote to the duties his job title suggests, as for a master blender he seems to spend most of his time away from his blending room. He acts as the ambassador for almost everything in the Whyte & Mackay stable, including their range of blends as well as Dalmore, Jura and Fettercairn single malts. They are now part of United Breweries which, Richard announced, would soon overtake Diageo as the largest drinks company in the world. Richard has whisky in his family, with him being the third generation working as a master blender, and the week after Whisky Live Glasgow marked his 40th anniversary of working with Whyte & Mackay. In celebratory fashion there was a cake and to accompany it there was a, less traditional, ‘tache mob, with free drams of Whyte & Mackay’s 30 year old blend and Fettercairn 40 single malt offered to anyone who turned up dressed as Richard, or at least moustachioed as he is. There was also a box of rubber noses, to honour his trademark nose, immortalised in the title of his book (Goodness Nose) and his twitter account (@the_nose). Suffice to say this was the most surreal part of the day.
Outside of the fuss focused on Richard there was a good range of stuff going on. Each of the stands had things going on with the most noticeable being Glenfiddich’s, with one of their coopers (as they are one of the last distilleries with on-site barrel makers) demonstrating the art of building and disassembling barrels all day, complete with loud banging noises as he beat the increasingly beaten up looking barrel with a hammer:
I started the day with a dram of the Tweedale Blend. One of the ‘lost’ whiskies, similar to the Bailie Nicol Jarvie from Whisky Squad #6, that stopped production due to the second world war it has been recreated by Alasdair Day, great-grandson of Richard Day, the blender who produced the original whisky. Working from his grandfather’s recipe book (containing the recipes from 1899 to 1916) he’s put together a new version of the old whisky which was released earlier this year. I’d heard about it on WhiskyCast (with an update after Whisky Live in episode 278), was intrigued (especially with it appearing at the time when I was starting to want to reexamine blends) and have since been looking for a chance to try it. Annoyingly I don’t have any notes but I remembered that it was rather tasty, with a nice bit of woodiness and some good sherry-ness to it. It’s still on the list to be tried again and I would have bought a bottle of it, purchased from Alasdair himself at a knockdown “I don’t want to have to carry this back to the office” price if I hadn’t spent all my cash on new spirit…
The new spirit came from the Glenglassaugh stand, where they were showing off their newly released range of ‘spirit drinks’. Mothballed in 1986, the distillery restarted production in 2008 and has been keeping themselves afloat until their new whisky comes of age by selling off both old stock and new make spirit. They started off with ‘The Spirit That Dare Not Speak Its Name’, new make whisky (the ‘whisky’ before it goes in a barrel) diluted to 50% (from the normal mid 60s% ABV), and progressed to ‘The Spirit That Blushes To Speak Its Name’, young spirit that had been matured for 6 months in red wine casks. These were quite popular, leading to them creating a range of drinks that were release recently. I grabbed a bottle of the Blushes, the new name for the wine cask matured spirit, while visiting Edinburgh recently but hadn’t had a chance to try it yet, so decided to have taste of some of the rest of the range at their stand. I first tried their Fledgling XB, spirit matured for 1 year in american oak casks. It had taken on a light yellow colour, and combined the caraway seed hints of new make spirit with vanilla essence on the nose. To taste it had a little edge of wood but was mainly a worryingly drinkable new make spirit. I moved on to the Clearac, the new name for the ‘Spirit That Not Dare Speak Its Name’. On the nose it had a touch of citrus as well as the usual new make aquavit punch and slight oiliness. It tasted similar to how it smelled, but yet again was worryingly drinkable. I stopped at this point and grabbed a bottle of Clearac and Peated, the version of their spirit made with peated barley, to go with the Blushes I had at home, to be doled out when I have people round to taste whisky in the future. I’ve been looking for commercially available new make spirit for a while, of which there are a few brands although generally either not very good or very hard to get hold of, and while these aren’t at still strength they are both educational, if you want to see how whisky matures in wood, and quite tasty.
The next whisky I have notes on was a surprise on the Bruichladdich stand. I was walking past and heard someone mention Octomore 3.0 and doubled back quickly to make sure I hadn’t misheard. Bottled the week before this was one of the first outings for the distillery’s super-peaty whisky, with this one allegedly coming in at 155ppm of phenol, rather more than the 50-60ppm that you find in the regular ‘really peaty’ whiskies on Islay. After trying the Octomore 2.2 Orpheus the other week I was interested to see if this one lived up to my opinion of that previous release – in short, not really. On the nose it had strong peat with mulchy undertones, an underlying meatiness, some wood and a hint of ammonia. To taste it had the expected burst of sweet peat and smoke but it was backed up by a sweet synthetic rhubarb taste, almost like rhubarb half of a rhubarb and custard sweet. It was interesting and definitely one to try if you’re a peat lover, but it didn’t beat the Orpheus in my book.
The last whisky I have notes on was courtesy of the folk at Whyte & Mackay. I first helped out at group tasting by the stand, running out of hands and thus not writing anything down about the Jura Superstition. However I did grab a video of Willie Tait talking about it and passing around some Haribo sweets to go with the whisky:
The one I got to taste was Fettercairn 40 year old. Fettercairn sits on the edge of the Grampian mountains and isn’t particularly well known for its distillery bottlings, as most of its production going into Whyte & Mackay’s blends, but the brand seems to be being resurrected recently as an avenue to continue their release of some old and rare single malts. Only 463 bottles of the 40 year old have been released (and as the drams we got where poured from a variety of randomly branded bottles pulled out of bags behind the stand I assume this is some of the whisky that didn’t get officially bottled) and it costs over £700 – it is the most expensive whisky I have ever tried. This was handed out to everyone who was dressed as Richard Paterson, or at least either had a moustache (real or fake) or expressed an interest in facial hair while standing near the Whyte & Mackay stand. On the nose it had heavy vanilla and almonds, with light honey, heather, salt and candle wax. To taste it had a sweetness down the sides of the tongue with a sour fruit centre, with a slab of orange peel, that turned quickly into spicy wood. A drop of water brought a some sawdust, fragrant wood and a hint of dryness. An interesting dram with a fantastic nose that I didn’t particularly like the taste of. Not to the tune of £700, anyway.
I wandered out of the show with my two social media companions, Scott of In With Bacchus and Blair from the Aberdeen University Whisky Society, and settled down for a swift half and some reflection before we went our separate ways (me to my hotel, Blair to find more pubs and Scott to run back to Edinburgh and move into his university rooms to start a brewing and distilling course). The show itself was quite small and distinctly missing the big companies other than United Breweries (no Diageo, no Edrington group, no LVMH). Glenfiddich was there, along with the cooper and the second biggest stand in the room after W&M, but other than that it was the smaller names in whisky, along with some independent bottlers and a couple of food producers (with some excellent cheese, meat, fish and chocolate to nibble on). I got to try some interesting things, although as usual was rubbish at making notes, and the people on almost all of the stands were happy to talk about their whiskies and also knew what they were talking about, something you sometimes don’t get in larger shows, with distillery employees and whisky experts sent over rather than brand managers and professional stand staff. This is quite different to Whisky Live Taipei, which Blair helped out at this summer – a huge conference centre, all the big names, tens of thousands of visitors and a convention the likes of which you only find in the far east these days. The Glasgow show wasn’t something I’d normally travel a large proportion of the length of the UK to visit, but my trip does now mean that I have used the three oldest underground railway systems in the world and two of the three in the UK (Newcastle – you are next on my list).
Many thanks to Craig McGill and Richard Paterson for getting me a ticket and giving me a reason to get on a train to Glasgow. Also my fellow bloggers Scott and Blair for being lovely. Our coverage from the day, along with a load of other tweets, can be found on the Master Blender blog. There’s also a load more video up on their YouTube channel. I also bumped into Victor Brierley, often referred to as The Bagging Scotland Bloke, who has started doing whisky tours around Glasgow – you should all go.
The Tweeddale Blend
Blended scotch whisky, 46%. ~£28 per bottle.
Glenglassaugh Fledgling XB
1 year old spirit drink, american oak aged, 50%. ~£15 for a 200ml bottle.
Unaged spirit drink, 50%. ~£15 for a 200ml bottle.
6 month old spirit drink, Californian red wine cask aged, 50%. ~£15 for a 200ml bottle.
Bruichladdich Octomore 3.0
5 years old Islay single malt whisky, 59%. Not yet available.
Fettercairn 40 year old
40 year old highland single malt scotch whisky, 40%. £725 per bottle.