Whisky Squad #53 – The Rivers of Speyside

The first outing for the Whisky Squad in February (after a late January tasting with me at the helm which I was too busy talking at people during to make notes – the drams are all listed on the ‘Stuff we’ve drunk‘ page on the Squad website) handed the reins of to Joel for a tour through Speyside. While the region is named after the river Spey there are a bunch of other rivers, with the big ones being the Findhorn, Isla, Deveron, Avon and Lossie. However, despite the session’s moniker the focus of the evening was the whisky rather than any other bodies of liquid…

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A Top Ten of Whiskies under £50

This post has been fomenting for a while, but the perils of work and thinking too much about whisky have forced it into the background until now.

Domu888 on twitter (Dominic Edsall in real life) asked me a while back what my top 10 whiskies under £50 were. I fired off a few off the top of my head but said that I’d need to have a think about it. Well, thinking has been done so here’s a list, in no particular order. A thing to note is that this is all distillery bottlings – sticking in independents would hurt my head too much:

Laphroaig Quarter Cask, 48%, ~£30: Cheap, cheerful and very full of flavour. LQC, to give it initials that may have a different meaning to two readers of this blog, is young Laphroaig which finishes its maturation in small ‘quarter casks’ which are a quarter of the size of the regularly used hogsheads. This smaller size changes the wood/spirit ratio in favour of the wood, upping the rate of maturation of the whisky and sticking on a ‘growth spurt’ at the end of its time in wood. This does mean that they can bottle their whisky younger, but it also adds a nice chunk of sweet woodiness to the whisky, which works well with the phenolic tang of the Laphroaig. It’s bottled strong and isn’t chill-filtered, and still comes out at about £30 a bottle, which is rather good. It’s also on offer in Tesco quite often, which doesn’t hurt.

Clynelish 14, 46%, ~£30: My default whisky at home, although it is currently replaced by the Distiller’s Edition which we had on special offer at work. Clynelish has recently started rocketing in popularity, in part due to Serge Valentin and John Glaser talking about how much they like it. Not much goes to single malt production still, and the 12 and 14 years old versions are the two that are generally available. While the 12 is good, and cheap, the 14 is my favourite of the pair – waxy, sweet and fruity with a hint of the sea. Pretty much a whisky made for me and one that seems remarkably good at luring people into the world of less well-known distilleries.

The Glenlivet 18, 43%, ~£40. This one is a steal – less than £40 for an 18 year old is something you just don’t see (and a quick search on TWE has it as the only 18+ whisky for under £40). Age isn’t the be all and end all of whisky selection, but this one has aged well and benefited from its time in the cask to produce and well rounded and tasty whisky – big, rich and fruity with a slab of The Glenlivet’s creaminess.

Nikka from The Barrel, 51.4%, ~£25 for 50cl. A small bottle so not quite as good a deal as it first seems, but an excellent one all the same. A blend of whiskies from Nikka’s distilleries, sweet and elegant with quite a big alcoholic punch. Quite bourbon-like in character and good for mixing as well as drinking neat (or even, sacriligeously, with a chunk of ice). And to cap it all, the bottle is REALLY pretty.

Tweeddale Blend, 46%, ~£30. I wanted to make sure there was a blend in this list, but I was torn between which one to choose – I could go for a traditional ‘one up’ blend like Bailie Nicol Jarvie, one of the more premium named blends, like the more expensive Chivas Regals, or even one of Compass Box’s two. In the end I’ve plumped for this one, as I like the story and the guy behind it. Basically, Alasdair Day decided to recreate a blend originally put together by his great grandfather, using the original recipe from his notes. I’ve tried it a couple of times and rather like it, and they released their second batch a couple of days back – time for a taste and compare I think…

Longrow 10 Year Old 100 proof, 57%, ~£45. Another one that used to be my default, before the Clynelish swept it away, and one that I feel slightly naked without a bottle of in the cupboard. Longrow is, missing out a couple of production details, the peated version of Springbank. It has that slightly briney Springbank note as well as a nice smoky hit, although not an overwhelming peaty blast. I’ve gone for the 100proof for two reasons: 1) This way you can water it down a bit depending on your mood, leaving it concentrated and strongly flavoured if you want; and 2) it’s cheaper per millitre of alcohol…

Ardbeg 10, 46%, ~£35. I’m rather liking Ardbeg again at the moment, as my previous sherry obsession fades in favour of a nice chunk of peat – I generally find I’m liking one end of the extreme whisky spectrum at a time, and it seems that peat is in again for me. This is big and mulchy, with smoke, mud and a slab of vanilla from the first fill casks they used to mature a lot of it. I’ve heard tales that it’s not as good as it used to be, but it’s still a top bit of peaty beast without the medicinal nature of Laphroaig.

Compass Box Hedonism, 43%, ~£50. Right on the limit this, sometimes tipping over the £50 but often on or under it (especially in Waitrose). I like grain whisky and this is one of the best out there, a blend that gives a masterclass in what the flavours of well looked after grain should be. It still varies in my estimation, but it generally sits very near the top. Stepping outside of the £50 limit, if you find £199 burning a hole in your pocket then the Hedonism 10th anniversary edition bottling is awesome – I’m still thinking about it 6 months after I tried it…

Old Pulteney 12, 40%, ~£25. While checking the price on this one I found that it seems to be currently sold out at both Master of Malt and The Whisky Exchange – it sells rather well, as you can tell. It’s a big and briney dram which I recently tried while wandering around the distillery up in Wick (the most northerly I’ve ever been). The range gets expensive very quickly, with the 17 year old next on the list and breaking the £50 mark, but this is eminently reasonable and also very tasty.

Aberlour A’bunadh, ~60%, ~£35. Bottled at full proof and varying in strength from batch to batch (the current one is #34, as I write) this is a massively sherried dram from Aberlour. They don’t give an age statement, but from what I hear it’s about 8 years old, a scarily small time to pick up quite this much from a cask, with loads of dry fruit and rich woodiness hiding behind quite a big alcoholic kick. It’s been, along with my now departed bottle of Glenfarclas 105, my sherried dram of choice over the last 6 months. I look forward to my sherry head returning…

Please let me know your suggestions in the comments below.

Tasting Glenlivet with Phil Huckle and the chaps from Caskstrength

One thing I didn’t realise when I started this blog and have started to find over the last year is that there are lovely people out in the world of booze blogging. Thanks to my rather specific focus on the world of whisky (it’s only half my posts…I do try to do other things) I’ve mainly bumped into folk from that area and one of the best known (currently number 5 on Google for Whisky Blog) are Neil and Joel of Caskstrength. I’ve been reading their blog for a while, ever since the folk at the SMWS were shocked that someone who lived on the internets as much as I wasn’t doing so already, and their informal, metaphor and pun laced prose is a breath of fresh air compared to the rather staid world of obsessively long posts that me and my ilk inhabit. Anyways, enough flattery, they’ve already invited me to something: After meeting up with both halves of the Caskstrength gang at the SMWS new list tasting last month I was asked along to the first official tasting of their own – trying a range of whiskies from The Glenlivet with brand ambassador Phil Huckle at Boisdale.

I’ve met Phil a few times before, at Chivas Regal and Aberlour tastings, due to his job as the Chivas Brothers/Pernod Ricard whisky brand ambassador in the UK, and he had got together with Neil and Joel to plan an evening exploring The Glenlivet’s range, touching on some of the less well known expressions as well as a couple of those that pop up in the supermarket. The Glenlivet is currently the second biggest whisky in the world, sitting behind Glenfiddich, and has been around for rather a long time. In 1823 there were over 200 illegal distilleries operating in the Glenlivet valley in Speyside – isolated and hilly it was the perfect location to hide from the excise men, with lookouts able to see any incoming trouble and warn the stillmen, who’d pack up and hide their stills until the officials had moved on. Illegal distilling was very much the norm, as high taxes meant that it wasn’t financially viable to distill in anything but ridiculously large quantities. However, the illegal whiskies were known for their quality, with even King George asking for a dram during his 1822 visit to Scotland, and eventually the British government relented and lowered the taxes in 1823. In 1824 George Smith, the founder of The Glenlivet, went legal, despite the danger of violence from the illegal distillers, which led to him wearing pistols at all times and arson attacks on the fledgling distillery. His spirit, however, became popular and other distillers started using the name of the valley as part of their names – there were at one point 27 different Glenlivet whiskies (including Macallan Glenlivet, Longmorn Glenlivet and Aberlour Glenlivet) and Andrew Usher, one of the fathers of whisky blending who at one point was buying the entire output of The Glenlivet, bottlled his blend as OVG – Original Vatted Glenlivet. In 1884 The Glenlivet went to court to claim the name and won, hence the obssessive use of the word The in front of every mention of the distillery so far, an affectation that I may not be as careful with from here on in. These days Glenlivet is part of the Pernod Ricard group and its whisky is no longer used in the production of their blends – the entire output, including that of the recently opened new wing, now goes to single malt production.

The Glenlivet

I’ve been wary of The Glenlivet in the past, thinking of it as the dusty bottle next to the dusty bottle of Glenfiddich on the back bar of the pub, but after a bottle landed in my lap after a focus group (from a company trying to pitch for an update to the Glenlivet website) I found that I quite liked the regular 12 year old. I’ve tried a couple of the others since, but not in nice vertical tasting or with my notebook to hand, so I was quite keen to see what they had to offer. First on the list was a variation on their standard bottling – The Glenlivet 12 year old First Fill. Rather than using the usual mix of various casks this one, available only in travel retail, uses solely first fill american oak barrels for maturation. On the nose there was banana, pineapple, cinnamon and custardy apples. To taste it was lightly creamy to start, a bit of Glenlivet trademark, moving on to woody spice, honeyed apples and then a biscuity, woody end. Water enhanced the woods astringency, adding some tropical fruit (maybe mango?) as well as sweet cream. The finish was quite fruity, with a mashup of orchard fruit and wood lingering for a little bit. It’s not that different from the regular 12 year old, from my fading memory of it, but has more of the traditional american oak flavours (tropical fruit, vanilla, light spices) than I remember in the standard bottling.

We then moved on to The Glenlivet 15 year old French Oak Reserve. This is made by taking the regular 15 year old Glenlivet (that I assume is a mixture of different wood types) and mixing it half-half with some 15 year old that has been finished in new Limousin oak for a few months. Limousin is the wood used to make Cognac and wine barrels in France and is known for its tannic nature and high quality, and the barrels are brand new oak allowing the whisky to get the maximum influence from the wood that it can. It was quite coppery in colour and the nose had salty butter, apples, woody spice and heavy brown sugar. Someone in the room shouted out ‘organic solvents’ and I could see what they meant, with a hint of sweet alcohols wafting from the glass. To taste it had a ginger and hazelnut center, surrounded by burned orange peel and spicy wood after a thinly sweet and creamy start. Water brought out more of the trademark cream, with dried strawberries, raisins and a vanilla biscuitiness. From around the table we cobbled together ‘Like salty raisins sauteed in brandy butter’ and ‘a bit like Lidl garibaldi biscuits’…

Next was the Nadurra Triumph. The original release of Nadurra was my first experience with Glenlivet that I remember, with a bottle being picked up in duty free on special offer, and the only thing I remember about it was that I didn’t like it. This is a special edition, using spirit that was produced solely with Triumph barley, the strain they used before switching to the current choice of Optic and Oxbridge, distilled in 1991 and bottled in 2010. Nadurra means natural and this one is bottled without chill filtering or colouring at a stronger than usual 48%. There was a mixture of wood used in the maturation, with at least some European oak complimenting the American casks. On the nose it was citrusy, with lemons, Seville orange and bitter pith, and creamy with a hint of tutti-frutti ice cream. To taste it was big and fruity, with a touch of leathery wood and little bit of banana. The assessment at our end of the table compared it to a Christmassy orange studded with cloves. Water brought out cream and bitterness, dried fruit, woody spice, nutshells and added to the heat of the finish. An interesting dram and definitely more to my taste than the regular Nadurra was when I last tried it.

Fourth on the mat was The Glenlivet 18 year old. This one was noticeably darker than the other whiskies we’d drunk so far and it wasn’t much of a surprise to hear that it contains about 20% of spirit that is matured in former sherry casks. On the nose it had dark chocolate, glacé cherries, rich fruit, the expected cream and biscuits. There were also suggestions of cherry blossom and creme brulée, the latter marrying the cream, dark notes, biscuity vanilla and sugary sweetness together nicely. To taste it was thick, with lots of cream running on to sweet fruits (cherry & stewed apple) and orange peel, and then astringent wood which became dry on the finish. It didn’t take much water and didn’t change all that much, bringing out more sweet vanilla from the creaminess. This was the whisky from the regular range that I was most looking forward to tasting, as I’ve heard that I might like it. It’s got the right amount of sherry for my current taste and is also going for surprisingly low prices in Waitrose at the moment, despite being reasonably priced usually. This one might appear in the cupboard by Christmas.

The last whisky placed in front of us, for now, was The Glenlivet 25 year old. Deep reddy brown, this whisky is finished for 2 years in oloroso sherry casks and is the oldest and most expensive in the regular range. On the nose there was sherry fruit, wood spice, crisp fino and fruity oloroso sherry, buttery wheat and maple syrup. To taste it was silky in the mouth, with cinnamon, sweet burned butter, marzipan and a touch of linseed oil. From around the table came ‘flat Dr Pepper’ and ‘sweet cured bacon’. A drop of water brought out more fruit and some savoury wood, as well as cream and red grape jam. A word needs to be said about the packaging of this bottling – justifying its £175 price tag it comes in a special display box, complete with metal slide on the front to keep it shut. While impressive, the general opinion from around the room was that it did look a bit like a (very well made) school woodworking project…

Founder's ReserveAt this point the answer to our wondering about the empty, question marked space on the tasting mat was revealed as The Glenlivet 1824 Founder’s Reserve was rolled in. Only available from the distillery there were only 1824 bottles of this 21 year old whisky produced, commemorating the opening of the new production wing at the distillery in June this year. It was made up from 10 casks, 2 first fill sherry and 8 bourbon, and poured a deep bronze. On the nose it had cocoa powder, chocolate orange, pineapple, mango, raisins, sweet red grapes, minerally smoke and butter. To taste it had a load of spicy Christmas cake – bitter orange, walnut and figs – as well as mint and more creamy butter. A drop of water brought out more sweetness, more spice, cinnamon toffee and bananas, but I wouldn’t want to add too much. Again, this one comes in a nice box, this time with a sliding presentation section and tasteful burned in branding. Very pretty and also rather tasty, although only available at the distillery (if there’s any left).

After the tasting broke up I ended up on Boisdale’s cigar terrace with a dram of their own bottling of Mortlach, famed as they are for their independent bottlings and cigar selection (the guy running the terrace that night was Victor Ferreira, 2010 UK Cigar Sommelier of the year), and had a chat with Phil Huckle about the hard life of being a whisky ambassador. Despite the heaters it was a snowy evening and what I thought to be cigar ash blowing across my field of vision turned out to be snow, sneaking around the side of the awning and pinging horizontally across the terrace – a fitting end to an interesting evening.

I’ve been examining my whisky prejudices in recent times and while my dislike of Glenfiddich’s whisky still stands (and is due to not liking it rather than just not liking them for being market leaders) my opinions on Glenlivet have changed over the last year. While it’s not my favourite whisky it’s definitely one that I won’t stay away from and while I might have a bottle of the 18 year old before this year is out I suspect the occasional bottle of the 12 will also make its way through my house over the next.

The Glenlivet 12 Year Old First Fill
12 year old Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£30 from World of Whiskies for 1 litre. Travel retail only.

The Glenlivet 15 Year Old French Oak Reserve
15 year old Speyside single malt Scotchwhisky, 40%. ~£30 from Master of Malt.

The Glenlivet Nadurra Triumph
19 year old Speyside single malt Scotchwhisky, 48%. ~£50 from The Whisky Exchange.

The Glenlivet 18 Year Old
18 year old Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£35 from Master of Malt (although it’s about £30 in Waitrose for Christmas).

The Glenlivet XXV
25 year old Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£175 from Master of Malt.

The Glenlivet 1824 Founder’s Reserve
21 year old cask strength Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 55.6%. ~£250 only available from the distillery

Many thanks to Joel and Neil at Caskstrength for inviting me, and to Phil Huckle for talking toot with me until closing time and passing over a couple of drams of the 21 year old. The tasting was free for everyone and we all got a rather shiny goody bag to take home with us. You should all go and read Neil and Joel’s blog, it’s rather good. They even wrote about this tasting way before I did…

Chivas Regal Tasting at The Attic

It surprises me how many random booze related events happen around London every day. Little by little I’m finding where some of them are (and am writing a website that will hopefully have information about them, not that I’ve actually started yet) and this was another that fell into my lap – a tasting of Chivas Regal 48 floors up in Canary Wharf…

Dome

Thanks to a tweet from the lovely Mr Matchett I fired off an email and was invited along to an evening with Phil Huckle, Chivas Regal brand ambassador, at the Attic Bar in the Pan Peninsula building. The plan was to taste through the three flagship Chivas Regal bottlings (12, 18 and 25 years old) as well as some of the Strathisla single malt that forms the core of the whisky. Unfortunately, due to a delivery mixup we got a case of Glenlivet rather than the Chivas 12, so no proper vertical tasting, but we did start on a whisky that I rather like.

Chivas sits in the ‘premium’ blend category – still mass produced but made with finer whiskies than you’d find in the Teachers and Bells of this world. I found their story amusing, in a schadenfreude kind of way. In the mid 1800s the Chivas Brothers, James and John, had a posh grocers in Aberdeen and branched out into whisky blending (James moving from tea to whisky) in an attempt to make something smooth enough to replace cognac, which had recently been hit by phylloxera, wiping out a lot of production. It was popular and they started supplying the royal family. In 1909 the Chivas company produced a 25 year old blended whisky which they started selling successfully in the USA as the first premium scotch whisky, but the trail of woe then begun. In 1914 the first world war started, when that ended in 1919 prohibition started, shortly after that finished in 1932 the second world war begun, followed by the Wall Street crash and great depression. None of these things particularly helped the world of Chivas and the company started losing money. In 1950 they were bought up by Seagrams (for the knock down price of £80,500), who also bought Strathisla and some of the other components to ensure a continuity of supply. They relaunched Chivas Regal as a 12 year old blend shortly after, Frank Sinatra decided he liked it and off it shot into premium blend stardom.

Whisky CocktaiWhen we (Me, Chris and Alan) arrived we were presented with a cocktail by Phil – a classic mix of whisky (Chivas 18 in this case), cinnamon syrup and apple juice. A tasty cocktail, although the whisky didn’t real feel that integrated with the rest of the cocktail (and the 18 was a bit wasted on being mixed). We quickly moved (after a few photos on the balcony) on to the main part of the evening – the tasting.

We started on the Glenlivet 12, which is nothing to do with Chivas other than also being owned by Pernod-Ricard. After the focus group I was at the other week I had more of an idea what to expect from the whisky. On the nose there was biscuits, flowers, olive oil, candy floss and tropical fruit. To taste it is less sweet than the nose suggests, with wood, more biscuits and berry fruits. A touch of water brings out more sweetness from the wood, adds vanilla, spice and a creamy mouth feel, all finished with a bitter woodiness. It’s the second best selling whisky in the world and while I’m not a fan of Glenfiddich (the best selling) I can see why this does so well – it’s easy to drink and solid. Nothing too special, but a good one.

We then moved on to the core of the Chivas Regal 12 – Strathisla 12 year old single malt. Strathisla is a small distillery and almost all of their output goes into the Chivas blends, working as the core of the whiskies. On the nose it was quite light and savoury, with nuts and a touch of sweetness. To taste it had much more – hazelnuts, spice, burnt caramel and a background oiliness with a woody finish. It can take a slug of water, which opens the wood to creamy vanilla and floor polish, even more nuts and flowers. Strangely light on the nose, but quite a big bigger in body – a solid and tasty speyside whisky.

We then got to try a non-production whisky- the Strathisla 18 year old single malt. It’s the core of the Chivas Regal 18 year old blend and as such doesnt get out of the distillery unless it’s in a Chivas bottle or going to a tasting. This was a chunk darker than the last one, coming in as a dark gold, and on the nose it had an appley sweetness, a touch of hazelnut and an oily end. To taste it was very light, much lighter than the 12. The wood had had much more of an effect, giving it a lightly spicy vanilla taste. A tiny drop of water brought out the creaminess that I’d expect with so much wood, along with more peary fruit and vanilla, but more than a drop swamped it. A delicate whisky that I’m surprised survives so well in a blend.

Now we came to the reasons behind the tasting, the Chivas blends – first up was the Chivas Regal 18. On the nose it’s got sour fruit (cherries?), coffee and oaky vanilla. It had a very smooth taste, with lots of wood and vanilla, but not much else. A touch of water opened it up with the creamy mouthfeel of the Strathisla along with a touch of linseed oil, woody spice and a warming finish. It’s quite pleasant and I can see the intention – blending some good whisky together (with some cheaper, but still good quality grain whisky) to create a very easy drinking dram. It’s a bit light for my taste, but isn’t bad.

Chivas 18Chivas 25

The final dram of the night was something a little special – the Chivas Regal 25. Not a recreation of the original 25 year old blend, as the recipe for that is long gone and there are no known surviving bottles, but the very limited edition that they only make a few thousand bottles of a year. The UKs allocation is only 360 this year and somehow 3 bottles managed to end up at our tasting.  It had a really distinctive smell, with a strong scent of pears with a flowery perfume and a hint of butterscotch. To taste it was very delicate, with a creamy mouthfeel off the bat, spicy pears and cherries fading to a bitter dry wood finish. It didn’t need water, but with a drop there was more vanilla, apricots, the oiliness from the Strathisla and a peach stone bitterness to finish. A very elegant dram and very delicate with it. It was quite nice, but probably not something that I’d pay £200 for.

All in all a much more interesting tasting than I was expecting from the description. I’ve tried the Chivas 12 and it’s always just come across as Just Another Blend (although I need to have another try now that I’ve realised that being snobby about blends is stupid), but the older whiskies were in a different league. Strathisla has also gone on my ‘try again’ list and from reports the distillery tour is one for me to look out for next time I’m up in Scotland. A good night.

Glenlivet 12 year old
Speyside single malt scotch whisky, 40%, ~£24 with wide availability

Strathisla 12 year old
Speyside single malt scotch whisky, 42%, ~£25 in whisky shops

Strathisla 18 year old
Speyside single malt scotch whisky, ?%, not commercially available

Chivas Regal 18 year old
Blended scotch whisky, 40%, ~£40 and fairly widely available

Chivas Regal 25 year old
Blended scotch whisky, 40%, £150-£200 with very limited availability

The event was put on in conjunction with The Whisky Show, which is happening in late October this year. I’ve been waiting for tickets to go on general sale for the last month or so (after having it thoroughly sold to me by some regulars at the SMWS) and they’ve appeared in the last few days. It’s £95 a day or £160 for both, which is steep but does let you taste some rather special whiskies (the only tokens are for bottles that cost more than £800…you get one per day). Now to find out when anyone else I know is going…

Quick Tastings

Not all that many, but a couple I want to mark in my brain:

Harviestoun Old Engine Oil – the dark beer that I thought was the base of the Ola Dubh, but after a taste of this at the Vintage Ale tasting I’m not so sure. It’s a thick dark beer with loads of chocolate malt and not a lot that could be described as sweet. Dry and dark, it’s rather good but not as much like Ola Dubh as I was expecting.

Gales Prize Old Ale 2007Gales Prize Old Ale 2007 – another I tried at the Vintage tasting, but one I picked up at Whisky Live this year. It’s a worrying thing but I picked up significantly more beer than whisky, with a bottle of this and a brace of Fuller’s Brewers Reserve coming home with me. It looks like a typically flat and dark old ale, but is rather surprising to smell and taste. My tasting companions were rather split, with its smell of dry cider dividing lovers from loathers and leaving me on the lovers side. It reminds me a lot of the various Flemish red ales that I’ve tried recently (although not quite as scary as  Duchesse de Bourgogne) – thick, sour and fruity with cherries along with an unexpected bitter old ale aftertaste. It’s a bit of the flemish and a bit of the english old ale – I’ll be grabbing some more as soon as I find it.

Blanton’s Gold Edition – after an evening at Bob Bob Ricard (they’re rather good even when they’re not treating you to a vodka tasting, even if they didn’t have the zakuski or vodka I liked best on their normal menu) me and occasional drinking buddy Kosh stopped into Graphic on Golden Square for an evening ender. While I didn’t like the bar (and thought their regular cocktails looked a bit rubbish) they had not only a couple of interesting looking bottles of bourbon on the shelf but also a bartender who knew a chunk about Blanton’s and sorted us out with some of their Gold Edition. I don’t remember much other than that it was definitely the best Blanton’s whiskey I’ve tasted – typically dryer than most of the bourbons I’ve tried and with a nice rich body, with hints of grain, caramel and fruit. Annoyingly I was drunk and don’t remember all that much, but I may have to go back and try some more.

The Glenlivet 12 Year Old – a bottle given to me after doing a focus group about whisky branding. I’ve always thought of Glenlivet as the old dusty bottle that sits next to the Glenfiddich (a whisky that I’m not a fan of) and was rather surprised by this one. On the nose it has apples, linseed oil and caramel, with an overarching theme of the woodland. To taste it lightly sweet, with a hint of woodiness and a bit of richness fading to a bitter finish. There’s a hint of the oil and apple from the nose, and it’s remarkably refreshing for something that is still quite full bodied. A drop of water brings out some a fruity sweetness and lets the oily wood flavour develop at the same time as removing some of the prickliness and burn. It’s not going to go on my must have list, but it’s a perfectly decent dram.

Eastercon Whisky Tasting with Iain Banks

Being a science fiction fan I spent the long easter weekend just gone hidden away in hotel by Heathrow airport attending Eastercon, the yearly british sci-fi convention. While the con committee managed to rustle up a bar full of London Pride and Old Rosie (even if the cider did its traditional thing and disappeared a lot faster than the bar staff expected) the other bars were fairly lacking in interesting booze. I continued my habit of drinking through the most interesting whiskies that they had (knocking back some Glenkinchie, Knockando and Caol Ila) but one program item above all caught my eye – a whisky tasting with Iain Banks.

IMG_4791Mr Banks is one of my favourite authors, not only for his excellent regular fiction and SF but also for his other book – Raw Spirit. It may claim to be a book about whisky, but the main things I remember are a page of waxing lyrical about Chateau Musar (which I now try and keep at least one bottle of in the house at all times) and many more passages about how much fun it is to drive around the great wee roads of Scotland in a Land Rover. However, the book is one of the things that kicked me into trying to explore non-beery boozes and also to write about it, so obtaining a spot on the whisky tasting became a mission. I foolishly turned up several hours before sign up to make sure I got one of the 15 spots only to find that a) noone was queuing at 8am and b) noone was awake at 8am. However, a queue did appear at about 9am and as number 4 in line I got on the list.

We convened later that day for the tasting, led by a panel including Iain Banks and Liz Williams, two of the convention’s guests of honour, with an original plan of going through six whiskies: a lowland, a highland (although one on the edge of speyside), two speysides and a pair of Islays.

First up was Auchentoshan 12 year old, our easy drinking lowland to lull the non-whisky drinkers into a false sense of security. I’ve not tried the regular Auchentoshan before (this having replaced the previous standard 10 year old expression), although I did work my way quite happily through a bottle of their Three Wood a few years back. This is a unique distillery in that it distills its spirit three times, rather than the standard twice of the other distilleries in Scotland. On the nose the whisky was quite strong, with a touch of vanilla and quite a slug of alcoholically themed scents – pear drops, lighter fluid and a hint of acetone, although I suspect that part of that was from the use of plastic cups and my already setting in con tiredness. To taste it was not as light as I expected, with a chunk of wood and tannin softening into vanilla and a touch of honey. A drop of water opened up the sweetness into a more honeyed caramel and revealed a touch of smoke, fruit stones and linseed oil as it developed in the glass. Definitely one to let sit with a drop of water in, it mellowed into rather an interesting dram over a few minutes.

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Iain Banks is quite well known for his ability to spin a yarn in person as well as on paper and in between whiskies there was a touch of discussion and story telling, even if it did inevitably splinter into 10 conversations as the booze started to settle in. It seems that I was not the only one to notice a hint of the petrolhead in Raw Spirit, but Banks has started to tone down his car collection due to a touch of green guilt. The Land Rover and fast cars seem to have disappeared to be replaced by first a hybrid and now a diesel, a tale accompanied by a slightly sad tone to his voice.

Next we moved to the highlands for the Dalwhinnie 15 year old. One of my fall back malts this is one that I know well, having visited the distillery a few times and had numerous bottles in my cupboard as a drink I know I like. On the nose there’s a touch of smoke and a sweetness that turns into fruit salad chews in the mouth. It also has a peppery prickle on the tongue and a bit of toffee. Water evens out the smoke a touch, letting a bit of the fruitiness come out.

Hiding at the back of the audience, behind the lucky people who got the drinking passes, was a lady who works in the perfume industry and as a discussion of flavours and scents flourished she chipped in with some interesting thoughts from a different but very similar industry. As we started describing the flavours of the whiskies, and comparing them to the traditionally flowery tasting notes, the inevitable contradictions started to appear. There are many reasons for this, with two main points coming up. Firstly the physical limitations of smell, from genetic heritage governing sensitivity to certain chemical compounds, to just the fact that over time (and with age) the senses start to dim, leading to them being less overpowered when you experience a strong flavour such as whisky. Secondly the role that experience plays in both forming sense memories and retrieving them, leading to flavours that may not perfectly line-up but mean something to the individual.

Next on the list was our next speyside – Glenlivet French Oak. This, like Macallan, is one of those whiskies that I kept meaning to get round to again – a big name that I assume I know the taste of, but don’t actually remember. The French Oak is yet another whisky that uses a bit of new wood in its production – a proportion of the blend of malts has been matured in new Limousin oak casks. On the nose it had vanilla and red fruit but became a bit more complicated in the mouth, with a malty sweetness, creaminess and a hint of smoke. A touch of water turned up the heat and added some more wood to the flavour but turned down both creaminess and sweetness. A much more interesting dram than I expected, especially with the creamy mouth feel that the oak brought, but one to drink at bottle strength.

It was about this point in proceedings that you could tell you were at a convention that attracted some people with a knowledge of science. Led by the perfumer a discussion started about the biology of scent detection, with the traditional lock and key explanation (certain ‘shaped’ chemicals clicking into similarly shaped receptors to produce nerve impulses) being questioned as current research suggests that similarity in the shape of chemicals doesn’t always lead to similar tastes. There is also some difficulty in doing experimentation on this as imaging people’s brains in controlled and repeateable conditions is not trivial, especially as everyone’s brain is wired somewhat differently leading to different areas ‘lighting up’ with the same flavour in different people. There’s rather a lot to the science of flavour…

Next was the first of our cask strength whiskies, bottled by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society – 24.106: Discordant Staves. It’s a 12 year old Macallan which I assume was matured in one of their regular sherry casks. On the nose it was fruitcakey with a thick caramel sweetness, but on tasting a lot of the cake fell away to give a sweet, slightly oily dram with hints of raisins and a touch of rubberiness running through the middle. A rather different flavour to the other Macallan’s I’ve tried recently and one that has pushed them towards the top of my ‘taste these when they arrive at the SMWS’ list.

Our discussions about flavours and experiences led to how we decide on what a ‘good’ whisky is. In the end a large part of that seems to come down to the associations that the whisky had. Liz Williams had a fondness for Glenfiddich, as it’s what her dad drinks, other people had drinks that they’d had a weddings or parties. When ‘researching’ (the quotes were explained as being implicit in all mentions of the word) Raw Spirit, Iain Banks actually did very little drinking at the distilleries – as the main driver he ended up buying a bottle from every distillery he visited for later sampling at home. However, he mentioned that one of his favourite whiskies was an Ardbeg, one that he tried at the distillery. The experience of drinking a one of a kind barrel, since sold to someone else, standing beside the distillery as the sun sets over the sea is an experience I can see sticking with you, especially if it’s a good dram.

Suitably, our next whisky was Ardbeg 10 year old. Ardbeg’s a bit on the up at the moment, with a lot of their limited production being snapped up quite quickly. I’ve not tried it since I met up with some friends a couple of years back to drink our way through the rather complete range that Adam had ‘accidentally’ bought while leafing through the Ardbeg web store. The 10 year old is the standard expression and it shows the distillery’s nature quite well. On the nose it has a strong peatiness, moving into a cattle feed and mulchy sweetness. On the tongue the smoky peat taste continues to dominate, with woody sweetness, a thick rubberiness and a slightly buttery taste combining to make a rather nice whisky. It’s not one for the fainthearted, with the TCP-like taste of the very peaty Islay whiskies shining through, but if you like that sort of thing it won’t disappoint.

By this time conversation was getting a bit confused – it’s quite surprising how many people can get a decent sized shot out of a bottle of whisky… We quickly moved on to our final dram in the tasting, another SMWS cask strength bottling, this time of a Laphroaig29.80: Wedding Cake in a Coal Sack. Laphroaig’s reputation preceded it, which made this dram a bit of a sheep in wolf’s clothing – a stealth whisky. Rather than the regular TCP, sea spray and peat that you’d expect, I got hint of burnt matches on the nose, along with a rich fruity sweetness. To taste it continued the nose with ash, citrus and dried fruit all coming through. A drop of water removed little, adding a taste of coal and a slightly socky tint. A very interesting whisky, not at all what we expected and a good one to finish the tasting.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your state of inebriation, a few of us had brought along a few samples of our own. 1/2r Cruttenden brought along a bottle of the St George’s English whisky, which very quickly was accepted into the running order as a final drink of the session. This is part of the first release, at 3 years old, with the distillery having released ‘Chapter X’ bottlings every six months over the maturation of the spirit. It’s only a limited release as they want to mature it a bit longer, a decision I thoroughly agree with. The whisky is obviously very young, with only a little of the wood’s flavour penetrating the spirit, leaving it with a definite hint of aquavit and caraway seed. However, it is a very smooth whisky with an incredibly thick and creamy mouth feel that makes me want to get my name on the waiting list for new bottles. There is also a peated version coming out in the summer which seems to be preferred by many, so I may have to look into obtaining a bottle. For scientific purposes, of course.

On top of that I tried a drop of my own Yamazaki Sherry Cask, still as good as ever, and a big sip of some 18 year old Bladnoch that was more fully flavoured than any lowland I’ve tried in a long time – another to move back up the tasting list.

A fun tasting with some fun stories, interesting science and some rather tasty whiskies. Well worth queuing up for…

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Auchentoshan 12 year old
Single Lowland Malt Scotch Whisky, 40%, ~£30

Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old
Single Highland Scotch Whisky, 43%, ~£30

Glenlivet French Oak Reserve
15 year old Single Speyside Malt Scotch Whisky, 40%, ~£30

SMWS 24.106 Discordant Staves
Single Cask Macallan Single Speyside Malt Scotch Whisky, 58.9% (Sold out)

Ardbeg 10 Year Old
Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky, 43%, ~£40

SMWS 29.80 Wedding Cake in a Coal Sack
Single Cask Laphroaigh Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky, 52.7% (Sold out)