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.

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Whisky Squad #27 – The Third Sense

A quick note before I start my normal rambling – Whisky Squad numbering. You may notice that my last Whisky Squad post was about #25, which implies that I’ve missed a session – I can safely say that I haven’t, but that I won’t be writing about #26, Whisky Surprise. It was an excellent session, but I spent my time drinking and talking rather than note taking, so unfortunately the line up may disappear for ever. That said, I did try a Ledaig that totally blew me away – delicate, floral and unlike anything I’ve tried before. Now I have old Ledaig on my to find list…damn.

Anyways, #27. This was another evening in the hands of Berry Brothers and Rudd‘s Rob Whitehead, but this time with a big twist. We were were going to taste the whiskies more blind than usual: In the basement of Berry’s, two floors below the streets of St James’s, with the lights off.

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The Whisky Lounge – Independent’s Day

Mr Ludlow gets around a bit. I’ve been sitting on this post (well, to be strictly truthful I hadn’t actually got round to writing it until early March) for a bit to let him finish his national tour of this tasting, taking in his regular haunts from London to Newcastle. The reason for keeping it under wraps was simple – like the last one I attended we tasted everything blind and with London being the first leg of the trip he didn’t want anyone to spoil it for future punters.

The blind tasting had a more specific purpose this time as we’d be tasting the whisky in pairs – one distillery bottling and one from an independent. Distillery bottlings usually stick to the regular distillery character while independents often go a bit further afield, but without even knowing which distillery had produced the spirit we were tasting, would we be able to tell? Six whiskies, three distilleries – go!

IMG_0091First up was a yellowy gold dram that we were told came in at 40-46%. On the nose there was a buttery sweetness, with caramel popcorn, vanilla sweet citrus, linssed oil and foam bananas. In the mouth it was quite oily, with a tannic wood rolling in after a burst of syrupy fruit – apples turning to liquorice root and sour wood. Water knocked out some of the sourness and brought out some of the creaminess of the caramel.

IMG_0085Number 2 was a little darker with a nose of smoky leather, hard toffee, meaty undertones, mulching fruit, salty caramels and lemon. To taste it was thick and spicy, sweet and prickly, with unpolished leather and a sweet & sour finish. Water brought out more fruit, cut the prickle, and brought out the lemon from the nose and some vanilla – lemon drizzle cake, maybe?

At the end of the night we had the whiskies revealed, but I’m going to stick them inline so as to not confuse myself. This first one was not at all what I thought – I went for Balblair (thinking that the first was their 2000 vintage) and I wasn’t particularly close. The distillery was The Glenrothes, with the first bottling being Gordon & Macphail’s 8 Year old and the second the 1998 Vintage from the distillery. I didn’t even get the OB/Independent order right… Glenrothes is owned by Berry Brothers & Rudd and they seem to be quite nice about selling casks of their spirit on to independents, appropriate as they are an independent bottler themselves. It was interesting to see the bottlings the opposite way round to usual – the distillery bottling was big and ballsy and the independent lighter and more refined.

IMG_0081Our next distillery was revealed to be in The Highlands and the first whisky was rather light with an announced ABV of 46-50%. On the nose there wear fresh pears, pear drops, ‘watermelon nerds’ (thankyou Mr Matchett) and Imperial Leather soap. To taste it was syrupy sweet to start with apples, a prickly middle and a big dry woody finish. Water open things up, levelling the out the sweetness to leave polished wood and quite a bit of boozy prickle. Mr Matchett pronounced that it was like ‘An apple on the floor in B&Q’s wood section’.

IMG_0098Whisky number 4 was 56-65% and bronze coloured. On the nose it had marzipan, menthol, thick toffee, stewed raisins, rum/brandy and an underlying roasted meatiness. To taste it was spicy, sweet and woody with a good fieriness – very woody to finish, leaving me with numbed lips. It tooks a good chunk of water, cutting back the fire and revealing cream, cinnamon and squashed raisins. My notes also mention that there was ‘Lots of vanilla pod on the belch’. What can I say – I had been drinking…

I didn’t even guess the distillery this time, but was certain that the second of the whiskies was the independent – yet again I was wrong. The spirit was made at Glengoyne, the first an independent from Berry Brothers, their Berry’s Own Selection 1999, and the second the distillery’s own 12 year old Cask Strength.  The distillery is quite unique in its location, being in the Highland region but being close enough to the boundary with the Lowlands (The Highland Line) that its warehouses, over the road from the distillery building, are considered to be in the Lowlands. That has the smell of marketing to it, in my opinion, but from what I’ve heard it strikes quite close to the the distillery’s regular style – a more refined Highland spirit. However, the whiskies we tried didn’t really go that way, with both the independent and cask strength OB stepping away from that into more punchy territory.

IMG_0076The first whisky from our last distillery was a deep bronze colour and declared to be between 55% and 65%. On the nose it was intense, with big medicinal notes, sherry, coal tar, stoniness and hints of fruit under the punch of the rest of the flavour. To taste it was very sweet and spicy, with a bit of hammy smoke (although not as much as the the nose would suggested) and big rich fruit. Water killed it dead – less sweetness and a little bit of fruit but generally less impressive.

IMG_0095Dram #6 was rather light and had brine, light TCP, lemons and bit of mulch on the nose – wet forest in a glass. To taste it had woody smoke, vegetation, mulchy fruit and something I described as ‘smoked chocolate’ in my notes. Water revealed sweetness, with candied lemons appearing.

I did cheat a little on this one as I was on a table with Colin Dunn, Diageo whisky brand ambassador, who could barely contain his usual excitement and may have let slip that he’d supplied one of the whiskies – a Caol Ila. This left us to decide which was which, helped slightly by Colin’s typically exuberant arm waving and surreptitious “this one’s ours” comments slipping out ‘accidentally’. First up was Gordon and Macphail’s 1996 Cask Strength, put together from three refill sherry butts, and the second was the distillery’s own Natural Cask Strength bottling. Our only Islay of the evening and one of my favourites – while I preferred the first without water, with its light approach to Caol Ila’s traditional flavours, the second had the punchy peaty smoke that is slowly returning to my list of likes.

Eddie got everyone to score the whiskies as we went along and his collated results from all the tastings across the country are up on Facebook. The next Whisky Lounge tastings are of Pernod Ricard’s range (sure to include at least The Glenlivet and Aberlour, if not a drop of Strathisla) and dates are already up on Eddie’s site. I suspect I may be along…

The Macphail’s Collection 8 years old from Glenrothes
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£20.

The Glenrothes 1998
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40.

Berry’s Own Selection Glengoyne 1999
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35.

Glengoyne 12 years old Cask Strength
Highland cask strength single malt Scotch whisky, 57.2%. ~£40.

Gordon & Macphail Caol Ila 1996 Cask Strength
Islay cask strength single malt Scotch whisky, 59%. ~£40.

Caol Ila Natural Cask Strength
Islay cask strength single malt Scotch whisky, 61.6. ~£40.

Whisky Squad #10 – Wee Speyside Beauties

The year has turned and time for another whisky squad has rolled around. This month, in a departure to the norm, we relocated from The Gunmakers to sample some more whiskies from Berry Brothers and Rudd, the eponymous Berry’s Own Selection, this time in the cellars beneath their shop at Number 3 St James’s Street. Due to Epic Camera Failage! (I forgot to charge it) I ended up with only a few rather noisy pictures courtesy of my iPhone but Mr Standing, Whisky Squad co-founder and probable boxing champion if he put his mind to it, has put up a flickr set with a few more piccies of the lovely location in.

Berry Brothers and Rudd
Upstairs, downstairs

While The Gunmakers has history (named for the nearby site where Hiram Maxim’s machine gun, the first of its kind, was manufactured as it is) Berrys have been selling continuously from their shop since 1698 and despite The Blitz hitting surrounding buildings quite heavily it is still made of a lot of original material. The floor in the main shop floor may be a bit on the wonky side, thanks to the settling of the foundations over the last 300 years, and the floor boards near the door may only be a few years old due to being replaced after the break in, but walking into the shop does almost feel like walking into a museum. In the back left corner there is a small room where Rob Whitehead, returning as our whisky guide for the evening, spends most of his time looking after Berry Brothers’ spirits selection, but most of their business remains selling wine. While most of the stock is no longer under the shop the cellars aren’t going to waste, having been refurbished and turned into a selection of vaulted venue spaces, one of which Rob led us down into for our tasting.

The plan for the evening was the same as usual, despite the change in location, and the focus was to be whiskies from Speyside. As it’s the largest, by number of distilleries, area of whisky production in Scotland, with the number of different styles of whisky that suggests, Rob decided to narrow the selection and work (mainly) with whiskies matured in refill bourbon hogsheads. Along with the four whiskies we were to taste he also put two glasses in the middle of the table with an attached challenge – whoever identified the difference in age between the two glasses would win a prize. More on that later…

BoS AberlourFirst up was a lightly coloured dram with an interesting waxy nose of apples, foam strawberries and green wood. To taste it was oily with vanilla, acetone, a caramel sweetness in the middle and hazelnuts to finish. Water brought out candy canes, spicy apple pie and some balsamic vinegar. In an effort to help with guessing Rob let us know that the distillery name didn’t begin with G or B, removing all the Glens and most of the other distilleries. However, even with this help and Whisky Guy Darren reeling through distilleries at a rate of knots we didn’t guess – it was a 1989 Aberlour, bottled after 15 years at 46% (as most BoS whiskies are – they are single cask but are diluted down to that strength if they haven’t already dropped below it). This is a bit different to regular Aberlour (which is well known for its use of sherry casks in maturation) and was a pleasant start to the evening.

BoS LinkwoodThe next whisky was a bit darker and before I got my nose in the glass it was announced that it smelled of “Swimming Pools”. I didn’t get the chloriney smell that others did, but I did get nail varnish, sweet & fruity air freshener, non-soapy pot pourri, rose water turkish delight, gin botanicals, candle wax, shortbread and ginger nut biscuits. The nose was fantastic and the taste didn’t quite live up to it. It had a slowly building gingeriness, reminding the table of Thai food, leading to an icing sugar powdery sweetness at the end. On the way there was rhubarb and butterscotch, married up with a pleasant sourness underneath. Water brought out more butteriness, spongecake and violets. Interesting, but one that I liked the nose of much more than the taste. The cover came off to reveal that it was a 1985 Linkwood bottled in 2006 at 21 years old. Linkwood doesn’t get out much as a single malt, with about 98% of production going into blends (mainly Diageo’s), but as it is sold for blending the independent bottlers can occasionally get their hands on casks like this one.

BoS DailuaineThe next bottle appeared and the whisky was yet again slightly darker. On the nose it had floor polish, a hint of salt and mincemeat, and a dark savouriness sitting under it all – the phrase “umami on the nose” was mentioned, causing me rather too much amusement (umami being specifically a taste rather than a scent, and all that) but made a lot of sense. To taste it had ozone (posh swimming pools…), sweet and sour fruit, and a vegetal tang leading a crisp sweetness and mix of green and old wood at the end. Its tannic taste and hints of vegetable added a tea-like feel to the flavour. Water tamed some of the dryness and added in some sweet butter. Again we had no correct guesses and the bottle was revealed to be 1971 Dailuaine bottled in 2005 at 31 years old. Dailuaine is another blending distillery that doesn’t make its way out into the single malt world very often and as this bottling divided the room I can see why. The savouriness didn’t appeal to everyone but I rather liked it. I’ve tried one or two other bottlings at the SMWS and will continue to keep an eye out.

Blue Hanger 4th ReleaseLast of the night was a dark whisky with a pile of sherry cask on the nose and Rob admitted that this was the one where he had departed from his ‘refill bourbon hogshead’ plan. On the nose it had hot gravel, dark fruit, deep savoury notes, hints of sugary rum, struck matches and wet undergrowth. To taste it had dry spicy wood up front, with a slab of vanilla, fine sawdust in the middle and a long finish of preserved fruit. Water brought out more depth, with liquorice and caraway, and butter and vanilla. There were no ideas around the table at all for this one and it turned out that was with some justification – it was Berry Brothers’ blended malt Blue Hanger, this being the previous 4th release. They’re on to the 5th release now but this version is made up of about 50% heavily sherried whisky from Mortlach, matured for about 17 years in two sherry butts, with some 33 year old Glen Elgin and 16 year old (I think) Glenlivet to make it up to 3500 bottles. Blue Hanger has been around for a while, named after William Hanger, the 3rd Lord Coleraine, who was nicknamed “Blue Hanger” and died in 1814. The Blue Hanger comes from the days when whisky was sold in bottles that the customer would bring in to be filled from casks in the shop – they had three barrels: a smoky whisky, a sherried whisky and one where the dregs of the barrels were married before refilling. The ‘dregs’ barrel thus picked up a combination of smoky and sherried whisky, mainly the sherried as it sold in much larger quantities, and as it was constantly topped up it had bits of a variety of older whiskies in. A bottle of original Blue Hanger was found a few years back and after tasting it Doug McIvor, Berry Brothers’s whisky king, put together the first new limited release and has been working on it with each batch. It was rather nice.

After the four main whiskies of the tasting all eyes turned to the mystery drams in the middle of the table. From colour alone we could tell that one was new make (being entirely clear helps with that) and thus Darren correctly guessed that we were looking at Glenrothes – BBR own Glenrothes which makes it significantly easier to get new make spirit. On the nose the new make had buttery grain, cereal and a hint of cream. To taste it had lemon, grass, and apples and pears to finish. I rather liked it, which is dangerous when you’re drinking something that is 68.8% abv. The other dram was a solid bronzey gold and obviously a chunk older. On the nose it was sweet with biscuits and a touch of citrus – maybe lemon shortbread? To taste it was buttery with spicy wood and a plimsolly rubberiness hiding behind. There was only a drop to share between the table and it became apparent why on the reveal.

Glenrothes SampleGlenrothes 1975

The second whisky was a 1975 Glenrothes bottled in 2006 and long sold out at Berrys. Known as an excellent whisky it’s not been easily obtainable for years and we got the last from Rob’s stashed tasting bottle.

Talisker 20Noone guessed the 31 years difference but there was a 30 and a 32, and the guessers very kindly decided to let everyone try their prize before dividing it up – a bottle of a very much long gone and rather pricey Talisker 20 year old that Rob happened to find knocking around in his increasingly enviable tasting cupboard. On the nose it had rubber tires and balloons, spicy fruit and muddy river banks. To taste it had marzipan dust, butter, spiky smoke, struck match sulphur, ketchup and violets. Water brought out more of the sulphur note (hated by many but liked by me) and fluffy powdered sugar. It was an impressive dram, especially after the almost entirely peat free evening we’d had, and one that I’m happy to have had a taste of.

Next month’s session (the mysteriously named Bottle of Britain) is already sold out, but keep an eye on the site as March’s will be up soon enough. Looking ahead to the future, there will be a group (well, at least three of us) going to Maltstock in The Netherlands in September under the Whisky Squad banner. Let us know if you’re coming along…


Berry’s Own Selection 1989 Aberlour
Single cask Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. No longer available, but was ~£50

Berry’s Own Selection 1985 Linkwood
Single cask Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. No longer available, but was ~£45

Berry’s Own Selection 1974 Dailuaine
Single cask Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. No longer available, but was ~£70

Blue Hanger 4th Release
Blended Scotch malt whisky, 45.6%. ~£60 at Berry Brothers and Rudd

Glenrothes 1975
Single cask single malt Speyside Scotch whisky, 43%. Available for ~£385 from Master of Malt

Talisker 20
Skye single malt Scotch whisky, 62%. ~£510 from The Whisky Exchange

Quick Tastings

Well overdue with this, so here is a not so quick list of quickish descriptions:

GlenrothesThe MacPhail Collection 1969 Glenrothes. I grabbed a tiny taste of this at Hawksmoor while I was visiting to try out the ice ball machine. 39 years old and a recent acquisition, it’s much loved by the bar staff and they wondered if I’d agree. I did. Vanilla and spicy wood on the nose with struck matches, salty caramel and pepper in the mouth. Water softened the wood into vanilla and brought a background of charcoal. Tasty.

Blanton’s Single Barrel – Barrel 153. A 65% cask strength bourbon. I was chatting with the Hawksmoor bar staff about whiskey, having had a shot of George T Stagg (one of my most favourite whiskies, which there will be a post about sometime soon), and they ‘forced’ a taster of this on me. A bourbon that I was not that much of a fan of when I got a bottle for my birthday a few years back, this reminded me of the good elements of that bottle – prickly and perfumed on the nose, it tasted spicy and woody with a weird astringency not unlike PVA glue. A drop of water added a stack of vanilla. A rather complex and interesting whiskey, more savoury than most bourbons I’ve tried.

Port Charlotte PC7. One on the ‘find and try’ list for a while, this is from Bruichladdich‘s ‘other’ distillery. On the nose it was salty with mulching seaweed, which developed in the mouth to a citrusy charcoal burst and a buttery mouth feel. A drop of water piled on more smoke and a strange salty sweatiness. Impressive.

Horseradish gin. Not one on the menu on its own, but this is the base for Hawksmoor’s new brunch menu‘s drinky centre piece – a bloody mary. They make theirs (the ‘original’ way) with gin, and infuse a large jar of Beefeater with thumb sized chunks of horseradish to make an interesting starting point for the drink. The horseradish smooths out the bumps in the normally fairly rough Beefeater and adds a beautiful spicy warmth to the flavour. I’m off to buy some bottles, gin and a chunk of horseradish later today so I can make my own – I assume it’ll be great in a bloody mary, but it also tastes nice on its own.

1800 Anejo Tequila. Cactus based booze is definitely on my list this year (especially after speaking to Johan Svensson about agarve tequila recently) and I grabbed a shot of the second cheapest anejo that The Texas Embassy sell while abusing their free chips and salsa policy the other week. It had the classic salt and pepper tequila smell but was a chunk more complex to taste. A woody centre with fruitiness turning bitter on the finish. It burnt on the way down and after it had gone left drying tannins that turned to vanilla. Interesting and a place for me to start from.

Chocolate MarbleMarble Chocolate Marble. A present left for me by Alan after my whisky tasting the other week, this is the produce of the Marble Arch brewpub in Manchester. I was meant to be up there this weekend and had already planned a 20 minute dash into the pub to buy some more of their beer, but unfortunately had to cancel my trip. The Chocolate Marble is excellently chocolatey, despite not containing any chocolate as far as I can tell. Stout-ish, as it says on the bottle, bitter-sweet and mouth filling, it may well be my favourite bottled beer I’ve had in a while.

Hop Back Taiphoon. The first of my birthday present beers (thanks Dad!) to disappear down my throat. It’s a weird one this, with a lemongrassy tinge that makes it taste more like a shandy than a regular beer, but with a dry malty aftertaste rather than the sweetness you’d expect. I’m still not sure about it and suspect I need to try another…

Ptarmigan

Ptarmigan

After 25 years of visiting Aviemore, one of Scotland’s biggest skiing resorts, it still surprises me when there’s enough snow to ski and not so much that you can’t get up the mountain. This year, however, we were treated to the most perfect snowy weather that I’ve heard of in Scotland – good powder on top of deeper snow, clear blue skies and enough coverage to get you from the top of Cairngorm to bottom of the ski slopes without having to walk. I was eventually convinced to go skiing for a day and despite my natural inability when attached to skis I rather enjoyed myself. Annoyingly, one final fall onto my not-quite-padded-enough bottom put an end to my day of activity and I repaired to the top of the mountain for a dram in the early afternoon. While wandering around the obligatory shop I found a couple of Cairngorm Mountain Ltd whisky bottlings and decided to grab a sampler of each – The Ptarmigan 15 year old blended malt and 16 year old single malt.

At first I thought the 15 year old was a regular blend, but as the name implies it is instead a blend of single malts of at least 15 years old each. On the nose it has hints of pear, pineapple and a malty toffee, and to taste this turns slightly sugary with hints of lemon and a touch of oiliness. With water the oiliness develops into a light linseedy flavour that compliments the rich sweetness. All in all a fairly drinkable whisky – nothing to raise eyebrows, but perfectly decent.

The 16 year old is much lighter in colour, which suggested to me at first that it might not have picked up much from the wood – I was wrong. On the nose it has salt, pepper and floor polish along with a slug of smoky leather. In the mouth there was still a lot of peaty leather, but also an unexpected oaky wood taste and a touch of sharp fruit. Water softened the wood to bring out vanilla and banana, but the peatiness remained. Again, not what I expected at all and quite pleasant. My little sample went down surprisingly easily, despite the smokiness.

There’s not much information about them online, but it seems they are bottled by the Edrington Group, owners of local(ish) distilleries Tamdhu and Glenrothes. I’ve not tried either, but from the descriptions I’ve found online it seems that the single malt may well be from the former – it’s certainly added Tamdhu to my list of whiskies to try.

The Ptarmigan 15 year old Blended Malt
40%

The Ptarmigan 16 year old Single Malt
40%

Both available from the Shop at the Top and Mountain Shop on Cairngorm mountain, near Aviemore.