The man who challenges the SWA – dinner with Dr Bill Lumsden

Bill Lumsden

[A guest post from Moscow-based whisky fan Anton Karpov, a regular visitor to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s London rooms]

It is not always easy to have an interesting interview with a whisky brand ambassador. Quite often (but far from always) these guys are not much more than trained marketeers, equipped with a broad range of fact sheets and prepared tales, but with no deep insight into whisky industry. A master distiller, on the other hand, is a whole different story. And if you take a master distiller who puts real science behind whisky making, you’ll get a lot of fun for whisky enthusiasts.

So here we are today with Dr. Bill Lumsden, the man behind creations from Glenmorangie and Ardbeg. We relaxed in the cozy atmosphere of the Whisky Rooms private club in the heart of Moscow city. The chef did a good turn trying to match a three-course meal with a line-up of Glenmorangie Original, Glenmorangie Milsean and Glenmorangie Signet. Being whisky enthusiasts of Moscow, we enjoyed the rare chance to speak with Dr. Lumsden about all things whisky. Continue reading “The man who challenges the SWA – dinner with Dr Bill Lumsden”

Whisky Squad #33 – Raw Spirit (aka the 2nd Birthday)

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.

Continue reading “Whisky Squad #33 – Raw Spirit (aka the 2nd Birthday)”

Whisky Squad #24 – Movember!

The year hasn’t ended yet and here it is – a blog post about the most recent Whisky Squad tasting. It’s even (unless plans go awry, in which case I’ll delete this sentence making these parentheses entirely pointless) before the next Squad meeting, the Christmas dinner on the 8th of December, so this officially makes me a good boy again.

Anyways, the second tasting of November was deliberately pushed towards the end of the month as it was in honour of Movember, and the extra couple of weeks meant that there were some moustaches on display, unlike during the Smoking Section tasting where MoSista Charly‘s stick on lip warmer was the only thing worthy of the name ‘Mo’. Anyways, we gathered upstairs at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society with bottles donated from a variety of sponsors and all the proceeds going straight to the Whisky4Movember fund raising efforts. Unfortunately we had some generous sponsors and even excluding the emergency bottle I had in my bag, just in case any of the whiskies didn’t arrive, we had eight drams to get through. It’s a hard life…

Continue reading “Whisky Squad #24 – Movember!”

Whisky Squad #19 – Grain and Grape

Another month and another chance to show my dedication to the cause that is Whisky Squad. We were in The Gunmakers as usual but my head was partly elsewhere – it was IPA day. I’m a big fan of beer and IPA day sprang up quite quickly and quietly, thus clashing with Whisky Squad – nothing should happen on the first Thursday of the month apart from The Squad, this I decree. Anyway, I focused on the whisky and missed out on the rather epic looking IPA Day dinner at the Dean Swift, although I will be making a pilgrimage there to sample their wares soon enough.

Continue reading “Whisky Squad #19 – Grain and Grape”

Whisky Squad #6 – Brilliant Blends

A bit of a unexpected move by The Whisky Squad this month. Having gone through various high powered single malts this meeting’s theme was to be the whisky snob’s enemy – the much maligned blend. The idea behind this was to help further put down the theory that blended whisky is by its very nature inferior to single malt. Granted there are a bunch of rubbishy blends out there, but with blended whisky still making up over 90% of the whisky market they must be doing something right.

Looking up blends brings up some interesting definition questions, such as the rather fundamental “What is a blended scotch whisky”. At the end of 2009 the Scotch Whisky Association (the love it or loathe it organisation who lobby government over whisky regulation) pushed through some legislation to formalise the nomenclature of whisky. There’s a full text of the definitions over on website of The Squad’s resident whisky expert, Darren The Whisky Guy, but as a quick precis here are 4 categories:

  • Single Malt Whisky – Whisky from a single distillery made with malted barley.
  • Blended Malt Whisky – Single malt from a variety of distilleries blended together.
  • Single Grain Whisky – Whisky from a single distillery made with any grains.
  • Blended Whisky – A mixture of grain and malt whiskies.

While many within the whisky appreciation world look down on blends the art of blending whisky isn’t something to be sniffed at (bad pun acknowledged) – to take a potentially large number of component whiskies from a variety of sources, all of which might change in quality, quantity and flavour between purchased batches of barrels, and then mix them together to create a consistently flavoured product in potentially large quantities is a serious skill. I still drink mainly single malt whisky but my prejudice against all blends has been hit on the head in recent times and this tasting certainly helped kick it further out the door.

IMG_0044The first whisky, tasted blind as is tradition, had loads of vanilla on the nose, along with a slab of wood at the back and a bit of floral oil. To taste it was lighter than the nose suggested with lots of wood leading to a spicy finish. Water brought out a lot more flavour with creamy custard, a little bit of fruit and a dry woody finish. Not the most complex of whiskies but quite happily drinkable. The paper sheath came off to reveal that it was Bailie Nicol Jarvie. Named after the bailiff from Rob Roy this is Glenmorangie’s blend and the whisky that my flatmates bought me for my 21st birthday. While the complete recipe is secret we heard that it at least contains malt whisky from Ardbeg, Glenmorangie and Caol Ila (although an unpeated version rather than their regular peated spirit), and grain whisky from North British. It’s one of the only blends known to have a good chance of containing Ardbeg, although as Glenmorangie and Ardbeg are both owned by the LVMH group it’s fairly obvious how they get their hands on it. Like most blends it does have caramel added to the mix for colour, but in this case (as it’s quite a light whisky) it’s very much more for consistency between batches than darkening younger spirit to make it look older (as the ‘older whisky is darker and better’ meme runs deep within whisky buying society). Darren’s quite a fan, buying some each Christmas for doling out to all and sundry during the festive season. He also recommended it as an accompaniment to creamy coffee.

IMG_0046Next up was a taller bottle which we were told we might recognise. On the nose the whisky had lots of fruit – with apples and pears, cherry and pineapple all popping up around the table. Darren also got Caramac and I got some almonds. To taste it was very creamy, with vanilla, a touch of dried fruit and a delicate woody spiciness. Water brought out more of the wood, a little bit of lower cocoa solid dark chocolate and raisins, but reined in the vanilla and cream a bit. With the paper off the bottle it was revealed to be my most polarising whisky – Compass Box Hedonism. The whiskies in the bottle come in at about an average of 20 years old, matured in american oak hogsheads, and come from Carsebridge, Cameron Bridge and Cambus grain distilleries – the conceit of this bottle is that it’s a blended grain whisky, a 5th category not mentioned above: a blend of single grain whiskies from different distilleries. It was the first booze I wrote about on this site and I am still as divided on it as I was then. Luckily I was in the mood for it that evening and rather enjoyed my dram although it won’t surprise me if I open my bottle tonight and decided that it’s thin, astringent and nasty…

IMG_0047Number 3 was the one I’d been waiting for – having been given a bit of a sneak preview of the whiskies a few weeks before this was the one I had remembered. On the nose it had gummi cola bottles (a flavour that I have ranted about being distinct from cola drinks for a while. Don’t ask me about it in real life, I can talk for up to half an hour on the topic), an acetoney tang, pine needles and Copydex glue. It also had a slightly meaty undertone to everything. To taste it had an initial burst of sweet pineapple and kola cubes with a strong lemoniness,  followed quickly by a tannic dryness and a prickly dry wood finish. Water helped, with more fruit appearing on the nose. The taste had more sweetness and the lemony citrus became more orangey. The dryness retreated, although was still present, and the finish was still very woody, but I also got some salt and menthol in the middle. A bit of a strange one this and one that I’m not sure I liked. It was revealed to be an Adelphi bottling of single cask Ben Nevis. The special thing about this cask was that it had been filled with a mix of malt and grain whisky, both produced at the distillery as they had a continuous still installed for grain production in the 1950s in addition to the pot stills for malt production, and then left to mature for 34 years. Thus it is a single cask blended whisky, bottled at cask strength, a very uncommon beast. Ben Nevis didn’t have the greatest of reputations in the past, with this going in the barrel in 1970, but they were bought by Nikka in 1991 and quality has been rising ever since. While I’m not sure I’ll seek this one out again it was a very interesting drink – unlike any whisky I’ve tried before. There was a little bit of it left behind the bar at The Gunmakers, so there’s a chance you might be able to try it if you get over there soon (before I decide I need another taste).

IMG_0056The final whisky of the night was one that I had no clue about at all. On the nose it had grapefruit, cordosyl mouthwash, cucumbers and single cream. To taste there were walnuts, coconut husks, liquorice root and cream, all tied together with a woody rubbery smokiness. Some water brought out salt and citrus on the nose and wood at the back of the palate. There was creamy pine, dark chocolate and tea, with delicate wood on the finish. Again the paper was torn off, this time to show a bottle of Ardbeg Serendipity, a blended malt. This is no ordinary blended malt, having come about (so the story tells it) by accident. Back in the days when Ardbeg was newly reopened they decided they needed to raise some cash, so prepared to bottle some casks of 1977 Ardbeg (about 25 years old at the time). They transported it to the vatting plant and turned on the taps to dump it into a tank ready for bottling only to discover that the vat wasn’t empty. So it was that they mixed four parts of an old and rare Ardbeg with one part of 12 year old Glen Moray (also owned by the LVMH group at the time). There is a cynical view that this was a story dreamed up by Ardbeg’s rather creative marketing department to explain away the strengthening of some spirit that had dropped below 40% ABV during its maturation (as 40% is the legal minimum that a spirit can be and be called whisky) by dosing it with some stronger, younger, cheaper Glen Moray. Whatever the truth, its price has risen and fallen as it has been snapped up by collectors and merchants over the years, having settled recently at a respectable £70ish a bottle, even though they can only put “12 years old” on the label.

Anyways, yet another interesting selection of whiskies, although happily not as potentially financially crippling as previous months – I already have a bottle of Hedonism (which gets drunk slowly due to my fear that I won’t like it when I open it) and my other favourite of the evening was the very reasonably priced Bailie Nicol Jarvie. I may not wait until Christmas until it joins the illustrious selection of boozes in my cupboard.

Bailie Nicol Jarvie
Blended scotch whisky. 40%. ~£18

Compass Box Hedonism
Vatted grain whisky. 43%. ~£50

Adelphi 34 year old Ben Nevis blend, cask 4640 (186 bottles in total)
Cask strength single cask blended scotch whisky. 50.3%. ~£130

Ardbeg Serendipity
Blended scotch whisky. 40%. ~£70

Whisky Squad organiser Andy already has a blog post up, as does Whisky Guy Darren.

Cranachan

nomnomnomheader7

It is well known that I consider the adding of whisky to any situation a positive thing and it would be much remiss of me to exclude desserts from the list of situations. So, when the planning of a pudding for this year’s NomNomNom cooking competition came up there was really only one choice for me – Cranachan.

Cranachan is a deceptively simple pud – whipped cream with a touch of whisky, toasted oats and raspberries. It’s the scottish Eton Mess and with the recent revival of that dish at the finer end of dining cranachan has tagged along, adding a touch of regional flair to the creamy dessert spectrum. However, there are a number of variables to consider, so using my finely honed scientific mind (poetic license) I decided to do some experimenting before putting together a final recipe.

First up was the fruit. One of the aims of NomNomNom is to use locally sourced and seasonal ingredients where possible, and while raspberries are in season I thought it’d be good to add a twist. One of my favourite summer fruits is the gooseberry – we had a bush in the garden when I was a kid and due to a distinct lack of enthusiasm for them in my family I pinched many straight from the branch, revelling in the stolen painful sourness. I didn’t want to exclude the raspberry, so my first experiments pitted it against stewed gooseberries (cooked on a low heat in some simple syrup until they started to break up) and quartered raw gooseberry. The plain gooseberry had a good crunch, but was a bit too tart for the sweet dessert that we planned; the raspberry was good and classic, but again slightly too sour; the stewed gooseberry was perfect – a centre of caramel sweetness surrounded by the rounded sourness of the gooseberry.

Next was the oats. Plain toasted oats were a bit boring and the large quantity of floury bits in the bag I bought led to a dusty oatiness that wasn’t really what I was after. A quick think later and a couple of tablespoons of soft brown sugar went into a dry pan with the toasting oats. I stirred it carefully as it heated, keeping the oats moving so they wouldn’t burn, until the sugar melted, at which point it came off the heat and I stirred a bit more frantically to mop up the dust to make a simple, crunchy, sugary granola. This was a bit of a winner and I may have eaten most of it on its own once it had cooled.

Finally we came to the cream – whipping cream is easy, but what whisky should I use? I dragged out 4 to choose from – Greenore 8 year old, Laphroaig Cairdeas, Benromach Organic and Yamazaki Sherry cask. The Greenore was, as might be expected, very light and added a pleasant whisky sweetness to the cream without overpowering it too much; the Cairdeas lost a lot of its flavours when combined with cream but the iodine peatiness came through, which was quite unpleasant; the Benromach was almost excellent, but the main flavour to cut through the cream was the woodiness of the new barrels used for maturing, overpowering the sweetness I was looking for; the Yamazaki was also really good, but not what was needed here – if I ever need to make a sherry trifle then this will be going in with the cream, as it had a very concentrated sour sherry flavour that cut through the fat. In the end I decided on the Greenore, although this would mean that I was making a Scottish dessert using English cream, English gooseberries, English oats and Irish whiskey, which felt slightly sacrilegious.

It’s said that no plan survives contact with the enemy and my recipe was no different. On the day minor issues with exploding stewed gooseberries (they go everywhere when you drop a bowl onto a hard work surface) were quickly swept under the carpet (almost literally) and plans for using Greenore were discarded when my cooking buddy Melanie, the other half of our most excellent team – The Tarragons of Virtue, pulled out a miniature of Glenmorangie 10 year old that she’d got from work – the combination of sweetness and wood cut through the cream perfectly making it the obvious choice. Melanie also added a touch of icing sugar to the cream while whipping to add a little more sweetness.

Cranachan

Recipe:
Some whisky
Some cream
Some oats
Some brown sugar
Some sugar syrup
Some gooseberries

Add the gooseberries to a pan and fill to half way up their side with a 1:3 sugar:water syrup. Cook over a low heat until they are a gooey sauce, although with some gooseberry lumps still present, and then leave to cool. Toast some oats in a frying pan with some soft brown sugar, making sure to keep the oats moving to stop them burning. Once the sugar has started to melt remove the pan from the heat and stir until the sugar starts solidifying again. Leave them to cool, breaking them up with a spoon a bit before using them. Whip some cream until light and fluffy and fold in a little icing sugar and some whisky until it tastes good.

To assemble: place a spoon of stewed gooseberry in the bottom of a serving glass. Fold together some cream and oats until slightly crunchy, then add some gooseberry and stir once to give a gooseberry swirl. Spoon into the serving class and top with more oats and a quartered fresh gooseberry.

We didn’t win, but I did eat a lot of whisky cream.

NomNomNom is an annual cooking competition and charity raffle in aid of Action Against Hunger. I also did it last year and didn’t win, ho hum. There will be a post up about our efforts on the day on the main NomNomNom website soon, along with some audience award voting. Please vote for me and Melanie, we’re lovely.

There’s also a post on my other blog about our main course – a stuffed pork loin. It was very nice.

Now be good and go and buy some raffle tickets.

New Wood

Barrels
I like big butts and I cannot lie…

My week up in Scotland recently not only introduced me to Benromach whisky, but also to the idea of putting whisky in new casks. Now, this may not sound like a particularly wild idea, but the majority of whisky is matured in casks that have already held some other form of booze – bourbon and sherry being the current mainstays before you get on to ‘wood finishing’. The first fill of booze will temper the barrel and remove a lot of the transferable woodiness, letting the second fill pick up different flavours and not be overcome by the wood. However, while up in Scotland I heard of three different whiskies using brand new wood – Benromach Organic and two from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a Glen Moray and a Glenmorangie.

I’ve written about Benromach before, but its use of new wood intrigued me enough while at the distillery that I quizzed our tour guide a bit about it. The wood comes from a US forest which, while maybe not intentionally planted as such many years ago, has been kept up to Soil Association ‘Organic’ standards and that certification suggests a reason why they are using new wood – in order to be certified as Organic they would have to use products that have not been subject to any processes that are not up to scratch, something that I suspect Jack Daniels (the usual first spirit in whisky barrels) don’t really aspire to. While the wood choice may be in part forced on them by their move to make the first organic whisky, it has also pushed them to make an interesting production whisky – the other two I found from new wood are single cask bottlings rather than generally available. The wood comes across clearly in the Benromach, appearing at the start of the taste as a tannic kick and adding vanilla to the aftertaste as well as a lingering woodiness. With water an oaky creaminess pops up and the tannins mellow slightly. During our tour the guide commented that the new barrels add a hint of bourbon flavour to the whisky and now that I have tasted it I can now tell some of the elements of Bourbon that come directly from the wood – some of the sweetness, the slight bitterness on the center of the tongue and the vanilla creaminess that you often miss if you drink your whiskey with ice. I rather like the Benromach organic and am slightly sad that it has almost disappeared in it’s original incarnation, currently replaced by the peated Special Edition, but Sandy the distillery tour guide did assure me that it will be reappearing soon.

While visiting the Edinburgh SMWS rooms on the way back from my sojourn in The Highlands I tried to grab a dram of their new Glen Moray, intrigued by the talk of new wood and my new found liking for the Benromach. However, due to an issue with the bottle labels (either they had the wrong ABV or they’d been stuck on the wrong side of the bottle, depending on who you spoke to) it hadn’t turned up in time and I was directed towards a Glenmorangie bottling using a similar idea – 125.31, Tropicana then luscious poached pears. At the recent Whisky Exchange Glenmorangie tasting I learned about the ‘designer casks’ that they had put together for the their Astar – specially selected trees, grown slowly so as to have the right consistency to allow the whisky to be flavoured by the wood in the manner they wanted. However, Astar is not matured in new wood – the barrels are sent over to Jack Daniels for the first four years of their lives, arriving at Glenmorangie after the whiskey has been removed. With a litle reading between the lines on the SMWS website it seems that it is a whisky matured in an Astar barrel untouched by JD. Rather than the upfrontness of the Benromach, the Glenmorangie’s wood was all at the end – it’s a sweet whisky with a slight prickly spiciness that lands in a mouthful of twigs. I wasn’t all that keen, but it wasn’t in any way unpleasant.

Glen Moray have until recently been part of the Glenmorangie family and were a testbed for some of their crazy ideas – according to the barman at the SMWS, if you saw something strange come out of Glen Moray and do well then you could be sure that it would probably appear from Glenmorangie shortly after. I finally managed to find a dram of this final new wood example at the London tasting rooms, after the bottle wrangling had been completed – 35.34, Moroccan Tea-room Masculinity. On the nose there was salt and aniseed, and not a lot of the woodiness I was expecting. To taste there was more wood and tannins, but also toffee, salt and peppery lemons. With water the wood came out more, with a chunk of vanilla, but it wasn’t quite so overpowering as it is in the Benromach. Interesting, but not one for me to add to the collection.

I also found another whisky which uses some new wood while wandering around Whisky LiveCompass Box Spice Tree. While chatting with the guy on the stand about the company’s obsession with wood, we talked about the process that led them to the current methods for getting woodiness into Spice Tree. First there was a stage that I heard about elsewhere, where they put wood chips in the marrying barrels – a process well known in the wine industry, even if it is seen as a little dodgy. [They didn’t use chips – see the comment from John Glaser below] This was quickly stopped by the SWA, who don’t like it when people do strange things and try and call their product whisky, but they carried on the idea by putting whole new wooden barrel staves directly into the barrel, another trick pinched from wine. This was, again, quickly banned and they came up with their latest trick (not mentioned on their website yet, which tells the tale of their run-ins with the SWA) – new barrel ends. Rather than making a whole barrel from new wood, which would have a bit more of an effect than they wanted, they just replaced the ends of the barrels with the new wood, giving the whisky some contact while at the same time not breaking the rules. The folk at Compass Box are smart. And a bit mad. The Spice Tree is a 100% malt blend, currently made up of Clynelish, Teaninch and Dailuaine (I think that’s right on the last one – I had been drinking by then and my hearing was going) and it’s pleasantly spicy, as the name and intention suggest, with a rich sweetness and some woodiness from the new oak.

It seems that new wood is one of the latest experiments in the whisky world that’s starting to rear its head after a decade long maturation process. Without thinking about the time the whisky has been in the warehouse it almost seems as if the distillers are reacting to the work of people like Compass Box, who are doing interesting things with wood, but after some consideration (as Compass Box are only a decade old) it looks like it’s all part of the long cycle of whisky experimentation. I’m interested to see what other single barrel bottlings appear from new wood but am also intrigued as to what this new flavour might contribute to regular bottlings. Glenmorangie have already made a bit of a splash with Astar, I’m keen to see who’s next.

Glenmorangie Tasting @ The Whisky Exchange with Annabel Meikle

I don’t make many new year’s resolutions, but I decided this year that I needed to go to more booze tastings. After last week’s Talisker evening I managed to pick up a couple of tickets to The Whisky Exchange‘s first tasting of the year – a celebration of Glenmorangie, with Annabel Meikle, their inhouse sensory expert. It was held above TWE’s shop in Vinopolis and after a swiftie (of Schlenkerla Weizen) in The Rake I met up with Anna, whisky buddy extraordinaire, and repaired to the venue.

Whisky1We were confronted with 6 glasses laid out before us and before we dug into them a bottle of Glenmorangie new spirit was passed around – whisky that was too young to be called whisky yet. I’ve only tried new spirit once before, having grabbed a couple of miniatures of Kilchoman which had been in wood for a week, and this was notably different. I’ve described the Kilchoman as tasting like a cross between cattle feed and death, with a creamy silage taste and peaty kick – I rather like it, although not more than a tiny dribble at a time.  The Glenmorangie barely resembled it – barely peated and never in wood, it had a clean crisp taste with a very light hint of peachy fruit. It tasted like a nice aquavit, drying and cooling on the tongue with a slightly malty aftertaste. Straight out of the freezer I suspect it would cause me great injury and from the large slugs that some of the other attendees were pouring the note I made of ‘MANY DEAD. SEND AMBULANCES’ was not that much of a jump in imagination.

As the bottle circulated Annabel introduced us to the distillery, including the work to increase capacity that has gone on there since my visit in 2004, and moved us quickly to the first whisky of the night – the Glenmorangie 10yr old. This used to be one of my favourite whiskies in the days before I discovered a love of peat, but I’ve not tried it for a while. Annabel explained how the flavour has been changed over the last few years, gradually altering the proportions of whiskies from new and second fill barrels until they got to the second fill heavy mix they have today. On the nose it was quite dry and biscuity, with soft fruit and caramel. This continued in the mouth with some nuttiness appearing, leading to short finish. Water brought out wood on the nose and sweetened the flavour, adding more woody vanilla and, after some prompting from our host, some coconut. It was quite a pleasant whisky, with some of the thick sweetness that I like, although quite restrained.

The second whisky was the Astar, the beginning of their range of more modern whiskies. Matured in designer casks, made from specially selected slow dried trees, after they’d been used to produce Jack Daniels (that last part, at least, a common theme in whisky making). I was quite interested to taste this one, as I’m quite sceptical when I hear of what seems to me to be too much attention to detail. It was similar on the nose to the 10yr old, but with less caramel, more wood and a peary fruitiness. It tasted interesting –  a dose of caramel and hint of banana, cooling on the tongue and fading to a mild bitterness. Water opened up the nose, bringing out more soft fruit and adding a creamy richness to the flavour and mouth feel. It was quite a delicate whisky compared to what I expected and I wasn’t too shocked by its unstated age of 8-9 years – a nice whisky, but not one that I’ll be seeking out.

Next up we had La Santa, the latest incarnation of the sherry finished Glenmorangie that I remember very much enjoying in the past – I think it may have been the first sherried whisky that I knowingly tried, and thus might be considered the beginning of my downfall. The original range of wood finishes was discontinued a few years back (I know of several people who are hoarding the last remnants of bottles of the port wood) and I’ve not had the chance to taste this new version as yet. This was a light gold whisky, richer in colour than the first two, and came from 10 years in regular oak and 2 finishing in oloroso casks. On the nose it was heavy and rich with caramel, although Anna reckoned it was crisp and green. It was quite sweet to taste with a hint of hazelnut and almonds, and a slightly creamy mouth feel leading to a fast fading flavour. With water the nose showed more fruit and a dash of vanilla essence and the taste became more citrusy with orange notes and a hint of tiger balm. The overall flavour for me though was hazelnut, which I didn’t particularly think went all that well with the other flavours. Annabel advised us to keep a little bit for later to compare against the more heavily sherried casks we were going to try, but I’d finished mine and didn’t feel much like revisiting it anyway.

We moved on to the second row and, from my initial sniffing, the ones that were more to my taste – darker more sherried drams. The first was The Sonnalta – the reason for the tasting evening and newest addition to the Glenmorangie range. This was the last whisky I’d known in advance that we’d be tasting and the one that I was most looking forward to – it’s finished in Pedro Ximinez casks, one of my favourite drinks of all time. I’d tried a few PX finished whiskies and been universally unimpressed with them, finding them to be uninspiring sherry finished whiskies, so I didn’t have much hope for this. Following the standard 10+2 first fill/wood finish maturation ratio this was a bronze whisky with a richly perfumed nose – vanilla and menthol that Anna likened to ancient Chanel No 5. To taste it was quite different – thick and spicy, with cinnamon, raisins and fruit cake. I noted down that it was meaty – a chewy whisky that had definite hints of PX to it. Adding water softened the nose, moving it more towards the fruit and caramel of the 10yr old, and opened the taste to more fruit without knocking out much of the richness. I rather liked this, tickling my sherry loving self as well as actually bringing some of the characteristics of PX. One of the ‘keep an eye out’ list. Annabel suggested that it would work well with food, suggesting the (by her own admission) obvious of choice of tapas. The flavour that jumped out to me was Morcilla, spanish black pudding. Umami-laden spicy rich blood sausage in spreadable form to match up with the spices, chewiness and meaty punch of the whisky. I may have to experiment…

Whisky2Whisky number 5 was a bit of a mystery – Annabel described it as a bit of a Marmite dram, with there being two camps – loved or hated. A non production cask, hidden at the back of the warehouse with (former chairman) David MacDonald’s name stencilled on it, it’s occasional sampled for tastings. It’s currently at 10 years in regular barrels followed by 10 years in sherry. Legally speaking the length of time that a whisky needs to remain in a wood to be said to be finished by it is unspecified (leading to my profit maximising idea of pouring unfinished whisky through sherry barrels to add a super quick finish), so this whisky can still be claimed to have a sherry finish, although it is very much towards the extreme end. Unreduced it smelled of creme caramel with spicy cherries and tasted surprisingly delicate with dark chocolate and a light fruitiness fading to a slightly bitter end. Watered the nose showed more saltiness and the taste opened up to give more soft fruits and a nice fruit cakiness. An impressive whisky and a nice surprise to be able to get to taste.

The final dram of the night was one that some of the Whisky Exchange employees were glad to get a taste of – the £250 a bottle Quarter Century. A combination of whiskies from 25 years old and upwards, with a touch of oloroso finished spirit in there somewhere, it was a deep gold in colour and surprisingly light on the nose with hints of very dark chocolate and garibaldi biscuits. It tasted somewhat different with a muddled pile of flavours to start and a thick caramel sweetness leading to a strangely astringent aftertaste. With a touch of water the flavour widened, displaying hints of chocolate, berries, and a thick layer of slightly bitter sugar brittle. As refined in flavour as you would expect for the price, it’s not one for me to grab a bottle of but definitely one to sneak a dram of if you can.

Overall it was an interesting evening which has definitely had the effect of bringing Glenmorangie back into my mind. Even if I didn’t really get on with their new range of finishes it has kicked me towards the Sonnalta and shown me that they do have a good selection out there, much more than they used to, and are always looking to expand what they’re doing.


Glenmorangie New Spirit
0 years old, 67%(?)

Glenmorangie 10yr Old
10 years old, 40%

Glenmorangie Astar
Unstated, 8-9 years old, 57.1%

Glenmorangie La Santa
12 years old, 46%
Sherry finished

Glenmorangie Sonnalta PX
12 years old, 46%
PX finished (and sold out at The Whisky Exchange that night. Not to me, unfortunately)

Glenmorangie David MacDonald Cask
20 years old, 51%
Sherry ‘finished’

Glenmorangie Quarter Century
25 years old, 43%

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