Whisky Squad #18 – American Independents

Keeping up with Whisky Squad meetings has been more difficult than usual recently, what with there being one every two weeks since the beginning of June. (Un)fortunately I’ve had an intervention of life and work, much of which was taken up with 5 days of drinking different boozes each day last week, filling all of my waking hours with Stuff and giving me no time to witter about the latest episode in the world of The Squad. However, after a few calming episodes of Babylon 5 (in which Bruce Boxleitner looks uncannily like my father, making me double take at almost every scene) and a glass of absinthe (of which more in a later post – I need to write about something other than whisky soon) my notebook has fallen open to the right page, photos have moved from camera to iPhoto and soothing musics are playing from my computer speakers. It is time to do a bit of ‘writing’.

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Whisky Squad #14 – Side by Side

Hot on the heels of this month’s first birthday Whisky Squad the chaps managed to squeeze in another a mere two weeks later. Offered the back room at The Gunmakers for a larger than usual whisky and dinner affair they took up the challenge and matched the occasion with Diageo’s Colin Dunn, returning for his second leading of an evening. The theme this time was ‘Side by Side’ – we would be blind tasting six whiskies in pairs, with each pair having a connection, giving us three mini vertical tastings through the evening.

Cameron Brig and a Bunny

To start us off Colin pulled out an extra aperitif from his bag. Keeping the whisky secret, as usual, he matched this with a Maltesers easter bunny and instructed us to munch, sniff and sip our way through the first glass. On the nose there wasn’t a lot, with high alcohols and a hint of sweet wood. The lightness continued into the taste, but with a bit more to it than the nose – a hint of rubber, sweet orange and marmelade, a little bit of ripe vine fruit, and a sour, bitter wood finish. A drop of water brought out apples and pears, icing sugar and orange cream. Noone had much of an idea of what it might be and it was revealed to be Cameron Brig. Made at Cameron Bridge grain distillery near Leven in Fife, this is one of the only commercially available bottlings of single grain whisky on the market, although it’s not particularly easy to find. I’m a fan of older grain whiskies, but haven’t tried any younger ones before this – I can detect the flavours I like from grain whiskies in there, but they are masked by the youngness of the spirit (it’s not got an age statement, but I suspect it’s not particularly old or matured in active casks). Give this a couple more years in a barrel and I suspect it’d be right up my street.

Dinner was then run in and scoffed, leading us on to our first pair of whiskies. #1 was quite a dark bronzed gold colour and had a dry nose with an underlying meatiness, hints of sherbet lemons, dry oxidised sherry (Spanish style Amontillado?), yeast and a lick of smoke. To taste there was bread, dry fruit cake, caramel, dark chocolate, a touch of smokey spice and a sweet woody finish. Water homogenised the flavours into something sweet and bready – a red grape jam sandwich?

Number 2 was light gold and a bit more aggressive on the nose, with TCP, a bit of peat smoke, sherbet lemons, sweet fruit and a bit of sticky toffee – Colin identified that last flavour as being like Blue Bird hard toffee that he used to eat when growing up. To taste it started with sweet syrup and moved through sour fruit to a sour, lingering wood ash finish and a bit of a boozey burn. Water calmed down the booze, sweetened up the middle a bit and added a bit of muddy mulch to the finish.

IMG_8338The concealing labels came off to reveal that #1 was Johnnie Walker Black Label and #2 Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition. The connection was that the light smokiness in the first comes, in part, from a slug of Caol Ila in the blend, along with some Talisker and whatever else Diageo have in the smokey section of their extensive warehouses. Black Label is a fairly decent blend and does what it sets out to – have a bit of everything at the same time as being worryingly easy to drink. The Caol Ila was one that I’d not tried before, initially thinking it to be the cask strength version I tried at the Whisky Lounge Independent’s Day tasting. However, it was a bit sweeter than I remembered and that fits with the production method – the spirit is finished for 3 months in moscatel casks, adding a bit of wine fruit to the mix. Surprisingly, based on it’s current status as an increasingly respected Islay whisky (including winning a bunch of medals over the last few years at the San Francisco World Spirits competition, including ‘Best Single Malt Scotch Whisky’ for the Distiller’s Edition this year), before 2002 there were only independent bottlings, with 99% of its production going into Diageo’s blends. They released a 12, 18 and 25 year old back then and the range has continued to change and increase since, with the distillery now undergoing expansion to keep up with ongoing single malt demand.

To start the next pair number 3 had a rather ‘industrial’ nose, with me picking out a light rubberiness and the rest of the table chipping in with motor oil and burning tires. Along with that were lemons, brine, marzipan and a general savoury umami. To taste there was salt, more rubber, white pepper and raisins, leading to a sweet fruit finish. Water calmed things down, with butter, bread and hot cross buns appearing.

Number 4 was announced as being 14 years old, which was enough to convince me that I knew the whiskies and what the connection was. In the end I got the right distillery, but didn’t get the expression right for this one. On the nose it was rich and fruity, with wax, bananas, pineapple and glacé cherries. To taste there was lots of woody spice, rich fruit and woody smoke, with salt, a peppery burn and a lemon sherbet finish. Water simplified things to a syrupy sweetness with a hint of pepper.

IMG_8320When the bottles were revealed it wasn’t a surprise that number 3 was Clynelish 12 year old but I was taken aback that #4 wasn’t the regular 14 year old, my favourite everyday whisky of the moment, but was instead the Clynelish Distiller’s Edition. I’ve written a bit about the distillery before, but since then it’s very much become one of my faves. I’ve got a half bottle of the 12 year old in the cupboard, will have another bottle of the 14 next time I go on a whisky buying run, and now have the distiller’s edition firmly stuck in my brain. Similar to the Caol Ila, it is a sweeter and richer version of the regular bottling, having been finished in oloroso sherry casks.

The final pair started off with number 5 and a plate of fruit cake to accompany the drams. On the nose it was quite light, with sweet cream and butter, and a bit of red fruit. To taste it was woody, with the fruit and cream from the nose leading to a sour, but buttery, wood finish. Water didn’t help it much, knocking out a lot of the flavour and leaving it just syrupy and sweet.

Number 6 had a bit more, with a nose of sweet grass, vanilla, light cream, unripe grapes, plums, stewed fruit and a hint of cheese rind. To taste it was quite green in the middle, with nettles and leaves, starting with a salty butter and ending with a gravelly minerality and quite a lot of alcoholic fire. Water killed the burn leaving the butter and gravel, and introducing some sweet and salty shortbread.

IMG_8324Dufftown Managers' SelectionAgain the connection was easy to see on the reveal, with the bottles being The Singleton of Dufftown 15 year old and Dufftown 1997 Managers’ Choice. I had a bottle of The Singleton of Dufftown shortly after it came out and wasn’t that impressed, but it seems that the mix of my changing tastes and their gradual changes to the bottling over the years have matched it more closely with my likes (especially as this is a different bottling to the regular 12 year old – thanks to Jason for pointing that out in the comments). The Singleton range has a different distillery for each territory it’s released in, with Europe having Dufftown, the US Glendullan and Asia Glen Ord. The Manager’s choice is rather more interesting – a single cask selected by the manager of the distillery as a ‘distillation’ of what their spirit is about and bottled as part of a rather exclusive range of pricy bottlings. The Dufftown bottle of the range is from a rejuvenated cask, where they plane down the staves of a tired cask and retoast them to give the barrel a bit more life, and with this whisky coming in at 11 years and 11 months old and picking up a good chunk of flavour from the wood it seems to work.

So, another Whisky Squad done and a successful second expansion into the big room. Next week’s one is back in our cosy upstairs cupboard and is all about Highlanders, courtesy of Berry Brother & Rudd’s Rob Whitehead. Keep an eye on the Whisky Squad twitter feed and website if you’re around on May 5th as last minute spots do have a habit of popping up…

Cameron Brig
Single grain Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£20

Johnnie Walker Black Label
Blended Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£25

Caol Ila 1996 Distiller’s Edition
Single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£50

Clynelish 12 year old “Friends of the Classic Malts”
Single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£30

Clynelish 1992 Distiller’s Edition
Single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£30

Singleton of Dufftown 15 Year Old
Single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£40

Dufftown 1997 Managers’ Choice
Single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 59.5%. ~£200

Many thanks to Alan for letting me use his piccies after I singularly failed to take any that worked…

Whisky Squad #9 – The Christmas Party

As the year draws to a close the season of Christmas parties is upon us. I missed my office Christmas party for the last Whisky Squad (the unblogged #8a, which involved BYOB, chocolate and some impressive drunkenness – Jason managed to write something down and then read it back again, the latter part of which isn’t quite possible from my notes) and have somehow managed to avoid any others until last week when The Squad grabbed the back room of The Gunmakers.

Whisky Squid

The plan was ‘simple’ – there’d be more seats than usual, there’d be a three course Christmas meal from The Gunmaker’s rather excellent kitchen and Whisky Guy Darren would choose some whiskies to accompany the meal. Things veered away from simple when it was also announced that there would be a whisky quiz, knocked up by Darren and Whisky Squad founder Andy. There was even mention of prizes…

SMWS 93.40Anyways, Darren matched up one whisky per course, choosing a dram that would work with each of the three choices available. First up, although tasted blind as is usual, was The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s 93.40 – Clay and Pork Sausages,  a ten year old from Glen Scotia in Campbelltown bottled at 61.9% from a refill bourbon cask. On the nose there was roast pork and apples, salt, woody smoke and caramel sweetness. To taste there was sweet coal smoke, salt and pepper, and lemons. Water brought out the appleiness, vanilla from the cask, sour wood and more lemons. This was matched with tomato and red pepper soup, smoked salmon and crayfish roulade, and wild boar pate and worked quite well with them all – the smoky saltiness combined with some meatiness backed up the soup and pate, and cut through the creaminess of the roulade.

Berry's Ledaig 2005Next up was the Berry Brothers and Rudd Ledaig 2005, bottled at a shockingly (after tasting it) young 4 years. It came from a sherry cask and was a rather spicy 62.7%. This one is sold out everywhere and appeared on our list thanks to Darren finding a bottle hidden in his house. I tried it on a visit to BBR after Whisky Squad #7 and was quite impressed, but had assumed that I’d not be able to try it again, so was quite pleased to have this chance. Along with everyone saying it was great at the time the chaps at Caskstrength.net gave it the top prize in their BiG (Best in Glass) awards this month, beating a Glenfarclas 10 times its age. On the nose it had smoke, custard, salt, marmalade and meaty bbq sauce. To taste it had coal, tar, a sweet rich fruity burst and a finish of coal dust. Water calmed it down, bringing out leather and more sherried fruit, while diminishing the smoke. This was matched with roast turkey, lamb shanks, baked whiting and butternut squash pie. I can’t speak for anything but the lamb, but it went well, the rather big flavours of the whisky happily stood up to the heaviness of the meat.

Glengoyne English Merchants' ChoiceGoing with dessert we had The English Merchant’s Choice 13 Year Old Glengoyne. This is a single cask whisky chosen as the second of the Glengloyne Merchant’s Choice selection, coming after the Scots version. It was selected by a group of English whisky sellers, including Darren’s boss at Master of Malt, Ben Ellefsen (there’s more about it on the Glengoyne blog). On the nose it had dark rum and nail varnish and the taste continued that with some heavy bitter wood and rubber, all with a demerara sugariness underneath. Water revealed some bitter orange rind along with the rich rumminess. Despite my love of sherried whisky, this one was a bit much for my liking – too much wood swamping the rich sweet fruit. This was matched with Christmas pudding, mince pies and some cheese, all of which went well. The richness of the whisky matched up with the fruit of both the pies and pudding, and cut through the fat of the cheese (even making me appreciate a blue cheese for the first time ever).

Octave Cameron BridgeAs a post dinner dram Darren unveiled The Octave 31 Year Old Cameron Bridge, a single cask grain whisky bottled by Duncan Taylor from a first fill bourbon cask at 54.6%. On the nose this one had a thin sweetness, with raisins, acetone and citrus syrup. To taste it had spicy, but controlled, wood, vanilla pods and a short finish of sugary wood. Water brought out more vanilla and cream, revealing school dinner custard, grape jam and a spicy woody finish. This was my favourite of the night, showing me that the bits of well aged grain whisky that I like are common between sherry and bourbon casks and thus due to the nature of the spirit rather than the wood it’s aged in. Unfortunately with only 70 bottles released I suspect I won’t be finding any more.

Now we come to the quiz. Composed of three rounds, a picture round and two of written questions and answers, it was marked out of 50 and was rather tough. I lucked out and had Rob and Rocky from Berry Brothers on my table (their experience was offset by our team size of 3 compared to everone else’s of 5, was our claim) and we quite convincingly won with a score of 40. We picked up some miniatures of whisky as well as accusations of cheating – the peril of having Darren (writer of round one) on our table as well (although being good and not taking part in the quiz). Anyways, winners!

So, Whisky Squad continues from strength to strength, with January’s session already sold out, but keep an eye on the website for February’s meeting.

SMWS 93.40 – Clay and Pork Sausages
Campbelltown single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 61.9%. Sold out, was £42.20 at the SMWS.

Berry Brothers and Rudd Ledaig 2005
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 62.7%. Sold out.

Glengoyne English Merchant’s Choice
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 54.1%. ~£100 at Master of Malt.

The Octave – Cameron Bridge 31 year old
Single cask single grain whisky, 54.6%. Sold out, was ~£75 at Master of Malt.

Whisky Squad #8 – Movember

September flew by a bit for me and shortly after I finished writing up last month’s Whisky Squad another one appeared on the horizon. In honour of the fluffy top lips of a chunk of The Squad this session’s theme was Movember. Whisky Gandalf Darren, the man behind Whisky4Movember and random chap for Master of Malt, had done some looking around and brought us four moustache related whiskies to try.

IMG_0427First up was one half of Master of Malt’s special edition pair of Movember bottlings for 2010. Selected by Darren, bottled by Masgter of Malt and featuring five different labels per expression, each honouring one of the well known moustached chaps of the whisky industry – Richard Paterson, Dave Broom, Charlie MacLean, Serge Valentin and Marcin Miller. This first bottle was the Mo’land, a single cask lowland whisky, and our featured moustache was that of Richard Paterson who I’ve bumped into a few times over the summer. Richard is an especially appropriate candidate for honouring on the bottle as not only has he survived cancer but also removed his rather famous moustache for Movember. The whisky had a light nose with bees wax, butter, malt syrup and boiled sweets. To taste it started with a syrup sweetness which rolled through surprisingly rich polished wooden floors to a sweetly woody finish. Water brought out more butter and woody spice, with vanilla and a hint of fruit. A light and easy drinking dram that might entice whisky novices in as well as keeping me happy.

IMG_0433We moved on to another moustachioed bottle, this time last year’s Master of Malt Movember bottling – M’Orkney. As a spooned malt from Orkney, mainly consisting of the more well known of the distilleries on the islands, it’s not that much of a mystery where the spirit came from. ‘Spooning’ is a brand protection practise where a distiller will add a spoon of another distillery’s whisky to a cask when they sell it. This doesn’t affect the flavour of the whisky, a spoon is very small in comparison to a cask, but it makes the whisky legally a blended malt and prevents the buyer, and whoever the whisky is eventually sold on to, from bottling the whisky and selling it under the original distiller’s name. Certain distillers are well known for blocking bottlings in this fashion, with Glenfiddich and Balvenie (both owned by William Grant & Sons) being two of the more famous. The addition of a drop of Scapa to a cask of Highland Park (let’s just say…) hasn’t made much of a dent in the M’Orkney, with a nose of stony peat, sweet smoke, super sour candy balls and a pinch of salt coming through. To taste it’s sweet with a controlled dryness. There was wood ash, peppery spice, a citrus tang and a prickly finish. Water softened the prickle and brought out more lemon and vanilla. Annoyingly this one is sold out or I’d be grabbing one for my cupboard.

IMG_0437Next up was one of Richard Paterson’s whiskies – the Dalmore 15. A classic highland distillery, just down the road from Glenmorangie, Dalmore’s been in the news recently with the release of their newest whisky – The Trinitas. Named for the fact that there are just three bottles available it has taken the record for world’s most expensive whisky, at £100,000 for 70cl. Two of the three bottles are spoken for, one having gone to a private collector and one to Sukhinder Singh from The Whisky Exchange, but the other is still available from TWE, so If you’re interested you can give them a call. It looks to be a record that may not stand for long as Macallan’s ‘Cire Perdue’ decanter of 64 year old whisky has almost finished its trip around the world and will shortly be auctioned off in aid of Charity: Water – with 10cl samples going for over $40000 it looks like the whisky (with its rather special Lalique decanter) might break the Trinitas’s record. The rather more affordable Dalmore 15 is a rich deep red (although the colour is helped on its way with some added spirit caramel) with chocolate, cherry, shreddies and dry wood on the nose. To taste the cherries become glacé and are joined by almonds, ginger, orange and sweet spices – a bit like a rich cherry bakewell at Christmas. A bit of water, as it can’t take much before losing the richness, adds vanilla, more sweetness and some delicate dried fruit.

Smo'keyWe then moved back to Movember whiskies, picking up the second of this year’s MoM bottlings – Smo’key. This was one was adorned with the face of Dave Broom. Dave is a well known drinks writer, especially known for his writing about whisky, which has appeared in pretty much every whisky publication under the sun, and also in a number of books, including his latest – The World Atlas of Whisky (which may shortly appearing on my shelf next to my World Atlas of Wine from the same series). The Smo’key is a blended malt like the Mo’land, but this time going for the opposite end of the flavour scale, featuring whiskies from Islay. On the nose there wasn’t all that much, with sweet mulchy peat and a touch of stone dust. The taste had much more, with sweet grassy peat, butter, sweet and sour oranges, a hint of coal and a vegetal back palate leading to a prickly finish. Water brought out more of the nose’s stoniness with some coal smoke. There was also more fruitiness and the butter gained some fat, making the mouthfeel creamy. Darren doesn’t know what whiskies went into the bottle, but after some discussion around the room it was thought that there was definitely some Caol Ila in there, cut with some lighter Blasda-like Ardbeg as well as a whole lot more.

IMG_0440Our fifth whisky of the night, breaking the rule (as seems to have happen at most Whisky Squads) that we only taste four whiskies, was Smokehead Extra Black. Smokehead is a range of bottlings by Ian MacLeod of whisky from an unnamed Islay distillery (it’s [almost certainly] Ardbeg). Along with the regular bottling and this 18 year old Extra Black they also used to do an Extra Rare, which I have a cloth bag covered bottle of in my whisky cupboard. Smokehead has been a great supporter of Movember this year, supplying whisky to a variety of the events celebrating the month, hence a bottle appearing at our table. On the nose it was sweet and lightly smokey, with a thin and nicely astringent smoke rather than a choking cloud. To taste it had a sweet start with TCP, tar, damp peat and wet smoke in the middle, and a sweet smokey finish. A bit of water brought oranges and a hint of lemon as well as a thick vanilla caramel.

My Mo’ (I hate that term) continues to grow, as do those of the other Whisky4Movember team members. To support our ‘tachey efforts you can sponsor us over on the Movember site, throw Richard Paterson some cash instead/as well or buy one of the Movember bottlings from Master of Malt – £8 of the £34.95 selling price will go to charity.

Movember Smokey bottle set

Another whisky squad done and another one scheduled. At the time of writing there are still a couple of places left at the Squad Christmas dinner – a three course meal from The Gunmaker’s seasonal menu with some matched whiskies and the usual random banter. Book soon or be disappointed.

Master of Malt Mo’land
Blended lowland Scotch malt whisky. 40%. £34.95 at Master of Malt

Master of Malt M’Orkney
Spooned Orcadian malt whisky. 40%. Sold out

Dalmore 15
Highland single malt Scotch whisky. 40%. ~£40 at Master of Malt

Master of Malt Smo’key
Blended Islay Scotch malt whisky. 40%. £34.95 at Master of Malt

Smokehead 18 Year Old Extra Black
Islay single malt Scotch whisky. 46%. ~£85 at Master of Malt

Whisky Squad #7 – Berry Brothers & Rudd

Another month, another slab of Whisky Squad related delight Chez Jeff, the lovely landlord of The Gunmakers. This month we were treated to another special guest following in the rather hefty footsteps of Colin Dunn – Rob Whitehead from Berry Brothers & Rudd. Regular Whisky Guy Darren was off recovering from a whisky related sojourn state-side, so we were left in the capable hands of Rob to run us through some of the whiskies that Berry Brothers bottle.

Berry Brothers & Rudd are the oldest family owned wine and spirit merchant in the world. Generally they’ve been known in more recent times for their wine, with their cellars extending for quite a way under St James’s, but they are also a very well respected independent bottler of spirits. Despite having known about them for a while, something that is inevitable when your dad sells wine, I didn’t realise that they also did whisky until recently. Having tried a couple of drams at whisky live earlier this year I did a bit of research and found that they’d won Whisky Magazine’s Independent Bottler of the Year award last year, a feat they’ve recently repeated for a second time.

The shop started out in 1698 as grocers on the same site that it is now, 3 St James’s Street. The Berry clan became part of the business in the 1780s through marriage and Hugh Rudd joined the company in 1914 as a junior partner, completing its current name. While the wine side of things is more well known these days, with the full cellars of St James’s as well as a warehouse in Basingstoke allowing them to store 6 million bottles of wine, a million of which are looked after for customers needing proper cellaring, it was whisky that helped them keep going through the post-war period. In 1923 they released Cutty Sark, their own blend, which had great success in the US during the 50s and 60s giving a well needed boost in the still struggling British economic climate. They recently did a trade with the Edrington Group, swapping Cutty Sark for Glenrothes (which they already had a part share in) and a share in the Anchor brewery in San Francisco, but the whisky loving streak runs deep in the company.

IMG_0239

Rob works with the BBR spirit’s manager Doug McIvor to put together an impressive selection of spirits, from distillery bottlings to a range of their own – the Berry’s Own Selection. This doesn’t only cover whisky, but also rums, and they also bottle their own cognacs and gin – the spirits room at their shop is rather full of interesting looking bottles. However, the whisky is where we were at for the evening. They bottle quite a range, with their youngest being a 4 year old Ledaig and the oldest a 42 year old Carsebridge, from all over Scotland. They buy casks from various distillers and mature them in a variety of locations, having their own warehouse in Scotland as well as leaving many with the distillers themselves, although in order for a whisky to be called scotch it does have to be matured in Scotland. Their bottling policy is very simple – it’s bottled when it’s at what Doug thinks is the whisky’s best. If they miss that point or if they don’t think it will reach it they sell the cask on – the trade in casks is very active, with many companies needing whisky for blending and not worrying if it’s not up to single cask bottling as it will only be one component of many in a finished product.

IMG_0240In traditional Whisky Squad style we tried the whiskies blind, with Rob helping this along by bringing along a set of whisky socks to conceal the bottles. We started on what he described as ‘Breakfast Whisky’, a lightly coloured introduction to the evening. On the nose it had boiled sweets, liquid caramel and apples. To taste it had spice, orange candy, sherbert, polished wood and a hint of floral (rather than peppery) olive oil. Water brought out more of the woody flavours, with vanilla and sour wood joining the rest, along with blackjacks, menthol and a biscuity graininess. Guesses were made and Rob revealed the bottle to be a 14yr old Aberlour matured in a many times refilled cask. The standard Aberlour style is quite heavily sherried (as I’ve mentioned before), so this less active cask, as most of the wood flavour had been leeched out through the previous fillings, gave a more ‘naked’ tasting Aberlour, revealing the underlying new make more than usual.

IMG_0243We moved on quickly to number 2, a rather different beast. On the nose it had rubber boots, earthy smoke, turpentine, chilli and charcoal, with a sweet hit at the back of the nose. My tasting notes start with ‘charcoal butter’, continuing with lemons, brine and a smoky mineral (granite?) finish. Water tamed things slightly, revealing a rich spicy sweetness and more of a prickly mouthfeel – maybe revealing a hint of horseradish. This one at first seemed easier to guess, being quite blatantly made in the style of an Islay whisky, and predictions were made. However, this was another deliberate curve ball – a 12 year old heavily peated Bunnahaibhain. The regular production bottlings of Bunnahabhain are unique on Islay due to being almost entirely unpeated, however for two weeks a year, just before they close down for summer, they distill a heavily peated spirit that is generally used in making Black Bottle (a smoky blend using a bit of most of the Islay malts). They then thoroughly clean out the stills and tuns before returning to their regular spirit production when the distilling starts up again. Berry’s bought some casks either side of the closedown one year and released this rare peated version – the others are still waiting to reach their peaks.

IMG_0245Number 3 was my favourite of the night. On the nose it had flowers, wax, pears and linseed oil, along with a sweetness that I described at the time as ‘like when you mix together the strawberry and vanilla sections of Sainsbury’s neapolitan ice cream after it has started to melt. There’s not chocolate because the chocolate bit in neapolitan ice cream is rubbish’. I ate a lot of Sainsbury’s neapolitan ice cream as a child. To taste it had a big creamy sweetness with fizzy lemons, opal fruits, sour plums, and some oiliness and spicy dry wood. A drop of water opened it more with strawberries and custard, but it stilled retained the woody spiciness. An interesting dram that I dreaded discovering the price of. The sock was whipped off and it was shown to be a 26 year old Glen Mhor. This didn’t enlighten me much, but Rob continued with the story. Glen Mhor (pronounced ‘Vor’) was an undistinguished distillery in Inverness, not particularly admired but producing okay whisky until it closed in 1983. It was demolished in 1986 and is now a Co-op. This cask was distilled in 1982, just before the closure, and bottled in 2009, and unlike the regular whisky the distillery produced it has come out to be rather special. It’s an older style of whisky, as you might expect from a slowing down distillery in the early 80s, and Rob told us about whisky lovers who tried things back in the early 80s waxing lyrical about its old school flavour. The writing of this post was accompanied by a dram of it.

IMG_0249Number 4, the ‘official’ last whisky of the tasting, was poured out and sat a deep bronze in the glass. On the nose it had sweet orange, dark rum, vanilla and coconut. ‘Like a milk chocolate Bounty’ someone offered from the room. To taste it had a cool creamy sweetness with a touch of woodiness and a drying finish. Water brought out more flavours, with butter icing and sour fruit making an appearance. The finish was still woody, with some astringent booziness to the sides of the tongue. While the guessing went on I rather proudly detected the key USP of this whisky – it’s a single grain. With my recent discovery of and continued searching for grain whiskies I shouldn’t be quite so preening, but preen I did. The sock was removed and it was shown to be a 39 year old Invergordon single grain. I tried one of their previous bottlings of Invergordon at Whisky Live when I first discovered the Berry’s Own Selection range and thought it was quite special – this one beat it hands down. Distilled in 1971 this was bottled 5 weeks ago, with an outturn of about 190 bottles, missing out on its 40th birthday by a few months. After 39 years it still came in at a strength of 47%, which was helped along by the cask being filled with much higher alcohol distillate than usual – maybe 70% or above. The empty barrel has since been filled with Laphroaig new spirit and is now sitting somewhere thinking about what it’s done, waiting to be bottled some time in the future. This whisky reminded me of the Port Dundas that I own as well as the one that Colin Dunn brought along to Whisky Squad #5 even though this was matured in a first fill bourbon cask rather than sherry, as used in the other two. An interesting whisky that shows the delicate common characteristics of well aged grain and one that I was very tempted by.

IMG_0252Now that the tasting had officially finished Rob unveiled a special fifth bottle. Grabbed on the way out of the shop it’s one that was used for customer tastings of a whisky that sold out that day. Rather than leave it hidden in a cupboard Rob kindly brought it along for us to have a try. On the nose it was waxy with linseed oil, sherbert and thick vanilla. To taste it started with leather and stones before moving to a floral sweetness with red fruit and citrus, and a dry woody finish. Watter brought a chalkiness with the fruitiness, described as ‘fruit rennies’, sherry wood and more vanilla. Rob gave us a few hints, starting with the fact that the distillery is now closed. It’s a triple distilled (rather than the more regular double) lowland whisky that was matured in a fourth fill sherry cask. With blank faces all around the sock was removed for one last time to reveal a 26 year old St Magdalene from 1982. The distillery closed in 1983, another victim of the over production of the 70s, and is now a block of flats. This bottling sold for £90 and is now completely sold out.

We repaired, as usual, downstairs to find the place had been overrun by the London Perl Mongers on their monthly meetup. Being an occasional monger of Perl I knew a bunch of people and they soon started digging in to the left over whiskies that made it behind the bar – the Invergordon didn’t last long. I ended up running down to Berry’s the next evening to grab a bottle of the Glen Mhor (one of the last 5 or 6) and caught them just before they closed. I’m not sure if it counts as a lock-in but Rob walked me through a couple of their other whiskies including the fabled 4 year old Ledaig, the youngest they’ve bottled and also completely sold out, which was a young peaty slap to face (and good with it), and also their Guyanan demerera rum, which was dark, dangerous tasting and unlike any other rum I’ve tried before. It’s definitely worth the trip down to St James’s.

Berry’s Own Selection Aberlour 1994
14 year old speyside single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£35. No longer available online.

Berry’s Own Selection Bunnahabhain 1997
12 year old cask strength Islay single malt scotch whisky. 55.3%. ~£45. No longer available online.

Berry’s Own Selection Glen Mhor 1982
26 year old cask strength highland single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£70. No longer available online.

Berry’s Own Selection Invergordon 1971
39 year old cask strength single grain scotch whisky. 47%. ~£100. Available on bbr.com

Berry’s Own Selection St Magdalene 1982
26 year old lowland single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£90. Sold out.

There’s a chance that the whiskies that aren’t online are available at their St James’s Street shop, so it’s worth wandering in if you’re interested.

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.

Whisky Squad #5 – Summer Whiskies

Having done Islay whiskies last month the Whisky Squad chaps decided to go to what is traditionally the other end of the spectrum for this meetup – summer whiskies. Rather than the peated beasts, supped by the open fire as the darkness draws in (waiting, as we all do, for the ultimate inevitability of death…), this time we went for sweeter and, generally, lighter whiskies.

Whisky Guy Darren took a back seat this month, chipping in when he found a gap in the proceedings, with the King of Whisky role being filled by Diageo’s Colin Dunn, who I encountered last year at a Burns night (ish) Talisker tasting. He is a man possessed by a strange energy and he filled the room with waving arms, enthusiasm and tasty whisky from his personal collection. He’d been given the brief of ‘Summer whiskies’ and interpreted it as those that he drinks during summer, hence the transfer of 6 bottles from his stash to the upstairs room at The Gunmakers.

We started off with a blind tasting of a pair of whiskies, described by Colin as what he would drink on getting home after a hard day at work. Without the usual paper wrappings to cover up the bottle labels Colin and Darren did the pouring while the rest of us dutifully faced away from the table and admired the pub’s wallpaper.

Dimple 1890Whisky #1 was golden with some fruit, caramel and a hint of salt on the nose, along with an acetoney sweetness underneath everything else. To taste it had some spicy wood and lots of vanilla, and was quite sweet but with a dry woody finish that went on for quite a while. At this point, after holding the whisky in our mouths for a mandated second per year (about 15 seconds for this one, we were instructed), Colin revealed what we were drinking – Dimple 1890. Dimple isn’t readily available in the UK, although it’s very popular in overseas markets, and is the latest name for Haig’s blended whisky, a very old brand (with records showing a mention of John Haig naughtily brewing on the sabbath back in 1655) that is now owned by Diageo. It’s a premium blend with an age statement of 12 years on the regular bottling, but the 1890 is a special, now rather rare, bottling (that Colin managed to pick up on the cheap – a benefit of working for the maker). The bottle itself is distinctively three-sided, a design brought in during the 1890s (hence the focus on the date), and collectors pay scary amounts for the bottles, even when empty. I suspect the actual blend is quite complicated, as the logistics of large scale blending require, but it seems that Dimple contains at least Linkwood, Glenkinchie, Dalwhinnie and a hint of Lagavulin in addition to the grain base, which explains some of its character. Colin advised us to try the Dimple with a bit of ice in, something that I usually find kills the flavour of a scotch, and was rather surprised to find that it retained a lot of its flavour even when chilled – the sweet wood carried on, making this work rather well.

Port Dundas 32We switched back and forth between nosing the first two whiskies before we tasted #1 and learned what it was, and there was a massive difference between the two. Whisky #2 was very bourbon-like, with astringent wood, thick sour fruit and a caramel sweetness on the nose. It made the nostril hairs quiver as well, suggesting that it was a bit stronger than the Dimple. To taste it had concentrated raisin fruit and sherried wood, going from sweet wine to sour wood. It had hints of PX and was wonderfully rich. A bit of water knocked out the alcoholic burn, bringing out the raisin sweetness further and softening the wood in the finish. It reminded me of one of my whiskies and turned out to be from the same distillery – it was a Duncan Taylor bottling of 32 year old Port Dundas. I’ve got a 14 year old AD Rattray bottling which I rather like but this blew it out of the water. Port Dundas is the recently closed grain distillery in Glasgow whose whisky I liked so much at the blending class I did with John Glaser and this is a single cask bottling of sherried whisky from the Duncan Taylor ‘Rare Auld’ range. There aren’t many bottlings of Dundas, but I recommend you grab one if you see one.

Johnnie Walker Double BlackNext we moved on to tasting individual whiskies rather than immediate comparisons, with Colin hiding the lable on the rather distinctive square bottle with his hand as he poured. He started with a brief hint that this whisky was only available in Dubai airport’s duty free shop but quickly gave in and announced what it was – Johnnie Walker Double Black. This is a new blend from the Johnnie Walker stable, complimenting the range by being a premium version of the regular Black (with a 15-20% price premium). Whisky tastes very much change over time, with the 80s and 90s being hard for the Islay distilleries due to the fashion of drinking less peaty spirit causing a reduction of production (including the intermittent operation and eventual closing of Ardbeg). This has now come back to haunt the industry as old peated spirit is rarer and the modern taste for peaty whisky is hitting the stocks quite heavily. This new bottling is a modification of the regular black to appeal to those current taste, with more whisky matured in heavily charred casks and more peaty whisky (including Caol Ila and Lagavulin) for the smoke and peat sought after by many whisky drinkers today. On the nose it’s quite light with a hint of smoke and dry wood. To taste it’s a bit more interesting, with both wood and peat smoke, some fresh cracked stone, a hint of sweet alcohol and a dry burnt wood finish. It feels like a more refined version of Black Bottle (the blend made with whisky from each of the Islay distilleries), which seems to be precisely what the whisky’s intention is. It should be available in the UK later this year.

Rosebank 20Next up was another one with the label obscured by Colin’s hand that we tasted blind. On the nose it had a hint of grain (wheat?) and perfumed sandalwood. It developed in the glass bringing in lightly prickly spice, meatiness, nuts and fruitiness – dried pineapple, citrus and fruity haribo chews. Water brought out more wood and more of the perfumed nature, with flowers and wood polish. It was really rather impressive and quite an intense flavour, which led to the reveal being a bit of a shock – it was a Rosebank. The distillery is now closed, shut down in 1993 in favour of Glenkinchie, the other lowland in United Distillers’ portfolio. These days United Distillers are part of Diageo (who also own the name, which is bad news for the builders of the new distillery on almost the same site) and the Rosebank distillery is some building-in-progress flats and a Beefeater. The regular bottling used to be an 8 year old and it was famed for being light and perfumed, but this one is both older and rather a lot bigger than that version. In addition to its age it was also put into the cask at a much  higher strength than usual, about 80% instead of the regular 62ish%. Whisky is often watered down before being put in the cask, with low 60%s being common and generally accepted as the level at which the whisky matures best. This upping in initial strength has led in turn to less alcohol evaporating and its cask strength bottling at a rather strong 62.3%, despite the 20 years of maturation. For me this was the most impressive whisky of the night, even if it wasn’t my favourite.

We then moved onto the final pair of the night, part of the Classic Malts Distiller’s Editions range. Originally started by United Distillers in the late 80s, The Classic Malts collection is a range of whiskies that helped to popularise the now commonly known whisky regions (although they didn’t have a Campbelltown distillery and brought in Oban as a ‘West Highland’ instead). Along with the regular expressions they also produced premium bottlings, making up The Distiller’s Editions range, made from casks selected by the distillery managers. I’ve tried a few of them, with the Cragganmore one being my favourite whisky during my university days.

Dalwhinnie 1990 DistillersFirst of the pair was the Dalwhinnie Distiller’s Edition, taking the regular 15 year expression and finishing it for a couple of years in olosoro sherry casks. On the nose it was fruity with vanilla, digestive biscuits (milk chocolate ones), maybe with a hint of fruity shortbread. To taste it had thick custard, sweet sherry wood, juicy sultanas and an oily mouth feel. Water lightened things, bringing out more wood and giving a thick custardy finish. While the Port Dundas was my favourite of the night, this was a close runner up and one that I have much more chance of finding. I’ve been a fan of the regular Dalwhinnie for a while (I’ve been to the distillery a few times and have recommended it as an introductory dram for many people) but I’ve somehow managed to miss this until now – it’s on the ‘to buy’ list.

Darren grabbed a bit of video of Colin talking about the Dalwhinnie, somehow managing to keep him in the frame, so for more enlightenment:

Glenkinchie 1992 DistillersDrawing the night to a close we moved to the lightest whisky – the Glenkinchie Distiller’s Edition. Glenkinchie is The Classic Malts’ lowland member, based just outside of Edinburgh. It survived where Rosebank didn’t due to the possibility of expanding the distillery, adding more capacity as well as a visitors centre, which was not possible on the space constrained Rosebank site. It now sits in the portfolio as the light and floral lowland whisky and this definitely comes across in the flavour. Building on the regular 12 year old this is a 15 year old finished in amontillado casks. On the nose it was light, with coconut, vanilla, hints of wood and a few raisins. To taste it was perfumed with flowers and wood polish joining the custard and woodiness, softening to an almost sherberty finish. Water simplified things, bringing out the vanilla wood flavours over everything else. It was a step up in oomph from the other Glenkinchie that I’ve tried and a worthy part of the Distiller’s Edition stable.

The night ended with the traditional descending into the bar for a couple of beers, with Colin running away into the night with his whisky case, leaving a couple of bottles for us to continue sampling. Again, a rather good tasting with Colin’s “Force of Nature” presentation style calming over the evening and keeping everyone drinking, entertained and informed.

Whisky Squad #6 is almost full already, despite not being open to the general public yet, so keep an eye on the website if you want to come and play – next month’s theme is Brilliant Blends. I’ve had a sneaky preview of some of the ideas for what we’ll be drinking and there’s something quite special in there if the plans come to fruition…

Dimple 1890
Blended scotch malt whisky. 40%. Not generally available.

Duncan Taylor Port Dundas 32 year old
Single cask single grain whisky. 59.3%. Very limited availability (I couldn’t find any…)

Johnnie Walker Double Black
Blended scotch whisky. 40%. Available in Dubai airport currently and in the UK later in 2010. ~£30 (predicted price…well, guessed)

Rare Malts Rosebank 20 year old
Single cask lowland single malt scotch whisky. 62.3%. ~£185 from Master of Malt

Dalwhinnie Distiller’s Edition
Single malt highland scotch whisky. 43%. ~£35 from Master of Malt

Glenkinchie Distiller’s Edition
Single malt lowland scotch whisky. 43%. ~£40 from Master of Malt

Whisky Squad #4 – Islay Malts

It’s incredible how important one’s sense of smell is when tasting things. I have, of course, heard from numerous people (including my anosmic mate John) about how taste is predominantly smell, with the tongue painting in wide strokes while the nose adds the detail, so it was rather annoying to discover the actual extent to which my own sense of taste is reliant on my nose on the same day as I finally made it along to a Whisky Squad tasting.

Whisky squad #4

The Whisky Squad is a monthly meetup set up by Andy of Good Drinks Etc and Jason B. Standing to be more informal than most of the tastings out in the wild, with a focus on learning, talking about whisky in a small group and generally having a good time. With assistance from Darren, The Whisky Guy, as whisky expert (a title he veraciously denies, despite working for Master of Malt and having hours of whisky related anecdotes to roll out at the drop of a segue) and moustache wearer extraordinaire, they take over the upstairs room at The Gunmakers (thanks to Jeff the easily bribed with whisky landlord) on the first Thursday of each month to taste through a bunch of whiskies focused around a theme. This month’s was Islay, Andy having just returned from a weekend up there and thus laden with bottles.

Islay is one of the most concentrated areas of whisky production in the world, with 8 distilleries dotted around the 240 square miles of the island floating just off of the Kintyre peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. Famed for their peaty whiskies it’s a bit of a whisky connoiseurs paradise, with each of the distilleries a short drive from each other and each offering something quite different.

I wandered along certain that my worst day of hayfever in about ten years wouldn’t hinder the tasting of pungent island malts. However, within seconds of the first dram being placed in front of me my worst fears were realised – I could smell nothing at all. Even the strongest snort did nothing but hurt the back of my nose as the physical reaction to the alcohol remained, but no twitch of sensory cells to inform me of what I was sniffing. Luckily, Andy acted as my seeing nose dog, pinging me tasting notes, and I grabbed a couple of samples to take home and try later on.

MoM Islay 12First up was a sample from Master of Malt to keep us going while Andy and Darren kicked off the evening with some talk of Islay and the makings of whisky. The Master of Malt 12 Year Old Islay is a blend of malts from the island and is peated to about 15ppm. On the nose it has bitter-sweet peat, a touch of sweet wood oil and digestive biscuits. To taste the peat is more subdued and joined with a hint of woodsmoke and wet cardboard. There’s a bump of malty sweetness in the middle, with a touch of orangey citrus, before a it trails off into a subdued, short caramel orange finish. Water brings out some vanilla sweetness to fight against the wood smoke, adding a prickly damp bonfire edge to the taste. It’s smoky and peaty, with a hint of citrus and some sweetness – a classic example of what is thought of as a ‘typical islay malt’, even if such a statement doesn’t really mean anything, as the whiskies to follow will demonstrate.

MoM Bowmore 26As a special treat before we started the tasting proper was a very small amount of Master of Malt Bowmore 26 Year old, accompanied by a parma violet. Unfortunately I didn’t get anything off the glass other than a burnt nose, but it was quite obvious to everyone else why a parma violet had accompanied it – it has a distinct sweet violet smell sitting in amongst the other flavours of a sweet shop.

The whiskies that are put on for the tasting, excluding random samples and donations, are tasted blind, with paper wrapped around the bottles to obscure labels and details, in an attempt to remove prejudices and prejudging of the flavours. Unfortunately for me I recognise the bottle shapes of most Islay distilleries, but having no sense of smell this was my main way of trying to work out what everyone was drinking before the big reveal.

Bunnahabhain 18Next up was a bottle that I didn’t recognise, the Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old. The Bunnahabhain (bunna-har-ven) distilleryis unique amongst those of the island in that its standard expression is pretty much unpeated , coming in at 1-2ppm. They do, however, produce a good quantity of peated spirit but other than for special bottlings this generally goes to other companies for blends, including Black Bottle which it makes up a significant component of. Andy had picked this up at the distillery, along with an armful of leaflets, maps, tasting note cards and other assorted propaganda, and had really liked it due to it being so different to the peat heavy assortment that he tried up until then. From everyone else’s tasting notes it had cheap chocolate brownies, honey and sherry trifle on the nose and was dry and woody to taste, with a salty buttery finish.

To follow this we moved on to the Bruichladdich Peat, a whisky that was difficult to tell from the bottle shape alone due to the distillery’s habit of doing so many releases – it was suggested around the room that it’s almost as if whenever Jim McEwan, the production manager, has a crazy idea they drop what they’re doing and make a batch of it. The Peat is a back to basics version of Bruichladdich – peated to ~35ppm, matured in bourbon casks for an unspecified amount of time and bottled without any of the finishes that have become their trademark in recent times. The notes I have for this are that it combines peat and wood smoke on the nose, with a nice balance of the two combined with some sweetness and dry vanilla wood to taste. One that I want to revisit, as I’ve been a fan of all the ‘Laddies I’ve tried so far.

This one brought up a point for discussion – the difference between peat and smoke. As peat is introduced into the malt by way of smoke people often assume that the two flavours are the same, but there is a distinct difference. In addition to peatiness there is also smokiness in the flavours introduced by the barrel used for maturation and this is a different kind of smoke to that introduced by the peat. Generally the peat will bring in more medicinal flavours, such as the TCP-like tang that Laphroaig is known for, or a sweet smoke, such as with Bowmore, whereas the wood will bring in more campfire tastes and smells. As ever, the various different bits of the whisky making process, from water to finishing, all have their effect on the finished product, all working together to produce interesting flavours.

After this I threw my contribution to the evening into the ring – the remains of my young Kilchoman sample, which Darren identified as having been in wood for 6 months. Kilchoman have recently produced their first 3 year old bottlings to quite a lot of acclaim (I have a bottle of an upcoming Royal Mile Whisky single cask bottling reserved, as recommended by Jason, which I’m very much looking forward to) and their new spirit is a great indicator of how Islay whiskies mature in the barrel. I usually describe this as tasting like ‘cattle feed and death’, but with a bit more delicacy it has lots of malty grain with sweet peat and a hint of woodiness that isn’t particularly developed in this young sample.

Caol Ila 10 unpeatedAfter that interlude we got back on to chosen whiskies with a Caol Ila 10 year old ‘Unpeated’ expression. Strangely for an evening of Islay malts half of the whiskies we tried weren’t heavily peated, with this one having little or no peat in at all, rather than the usual ~15ppm that the distillery uses. I grabbed a dram of this to take home, Caol Ila being a whisky that I’ve been intrigued by in the past (with a cask strength Tokaji finish being one of the most orangey whiskies I’ve ever tasted). On the nose there’s candy floss, a wisp of smoke and something almost toffee appley. To taste it has dry prickly wood, orange juice concentrate (a flavour that I’ve found to be especially strong in the Caol Ila’s I’ve tried) and sweet wood smoke. It’s cask strength, at 65.8%, so can happily take some water which opens the nose to add more oil and sweaty socks and a slab of sweetness to the taste, along with some coal dust, bitter oak, sweet butter and orchard fruitiness. A fearsome dram neat, but one that mellows nicely with water.

The citrus nature of many of the Islay whiskies seems a bit strange, but Darren explained it as coming from the saltiness inherent on being matured on the island. The salt interacts with the wood of the barrels creating citrus-like flavouring compounds which are picked up by the wood, thus introducing not only briney notes into the whisky but also the lemon and orange flavours that are often present.

Lagavulin 2010 Distillery OnlyNext was the last of the night, which by a process of elimination was the distillery only edition that Andy had promised us – Lagavulin Distillery Only 2010. This is a cask strength bottling that you can, as the name suggests, only get from the distillery. 6000 bottles were produced and it was released in time for this year’s Feis Ile. Along with the limited nature of the bottling it’s also quite special as it was finished in port casks. On the nose it’s pure Lagavulin, with seaweed, brine, a background of sweet peat and a hint of meatiness. To taste it’s spicy, with the port wood very obvious at the back of the mouth. It has seafood risotto, seawater, caramel covered twigs and a mixed spice tail. A drop of water takes the edge off of the prickle, bringing out big sugary sweetness, revealing the background woody savouriness and adding a chunk of smoky sweetness, like burned sugar. This is a really rather special dram and one that it’s worth going to the distillery to grab.

An interesting array of whiskies, with only 2 of the 4 actually being particularly peaty, showing just how big a range Islay actually produces. The guys know how to run an evening and having finished the tasting the conversation continued in the Gunmaker’s bar until the pub closed. I’m signed up for the next one (and am even missing a day of the GBBF to make sure I can go) which should be an evening of summer whiskies with Diageo’s Colin Dunn, who led the Talisker tasting I went to last year, which promises to be an event – putting Colin in a small room strikes me as a recipe for enthusiasm overload, in a good way.

Master of Malt 12 Year Old Islay
Islay Blended Malt Whisky, 40%. £34.95 from Master of Malt

Master of Malt 26 Year Old Bowmore
Single cask Islay malt whisky, 53.4%. £99.95 from Master of Malt

Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old
Islay Single Malt Whisky, 43%. £48.95 from Master of Malt

Bruichladdich Peat
No age statement Islay Single Malt Whisky, 46%. £31.95 from Master of Malt

Caol Ila 10 Year Old ‘Unpeated’ 2009
Islay single cask single malt whisky, 65.8%. £51.95 from Master of Malt.

Lagavulin 2010 ‘Distillery Only’
Port wood finished Islay single malt whisky, 52.5%. Only available from the distillery – £70 for one or two for £130.

If you want to come along to a Whisky Squad tasting then keep an eye on their website and sign up when they announce the next event. The group is small (~15) and it’s first come first served, so you need to be quick. They do run a waiting list so it’s worth letting them know even if they have run out of spots.