Whisky Squad #48 – The Storry of Grain

Since I’ve started helping out with Whisky Squad I’ve not had the chance to contribute a session’s title, but with #48 I dropped a bad pun and the chaps for some reason went along with it. An evening of grain whisky with occasional whisky photorgrapher and evil tempter Philip Storry – The Storry of Grain.

I am not proud.

I’ve known Phil for a few years. He’s an almost constant fixture at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in London, comes along to many of our tastings at The Whisky Exchange, and has photographed both those tastings and The Whisky Show for a while. He’s also the reason I’m a grain whisky fan, ‘forcing’ me to try some Port Dundas at a Compass Box blending school, and since then filling my head with knowledge and my hand with random grain whiskies almost every time I bump into him. I approve.

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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.


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.

BrewDog End of History tasting at The Rake

Tuesday was a special day. Originally I was meant to go to a tasting of Jura with the distillery manager, but that got cancelled at the last moment. Then a message popped up on the BrewDog blog that they’d be running a tasting at The Rake. Perfect timing it seemed, to start with, until I realised that my recent weeks away from town had moved my chubby fingers even further from the pulse of London than normal and I’d missed a key fact about the day – London Underground were going on strike. Plans were made, starting with working from home and culminating in a train and bus meander into London Bridge. However, in the manner of all good plans, I foolishly changed my mind at the last moment and my bus/train/train/train plan turned into bus/train/train/walk, leaving me at Waterloo a bit later than I hoped and The Rake a decent walk down the road. I turned for the first time to London’s new saviour – the hire bike (aka Boris Bike [even though the plan was initiated under Ken Livingstone] aka Red Ken’s Unmotorised Metal Steeds [an acronym that I am trying to push without much success]). So, I arrived at The Rake redder in the face than normal, sweating more than normal, significantly deader than normal and in need of a beer even more than normal.

HalvesThe BrewDog chaps had brought along quite an interesting selection, complimenting the free tastings that they ran upstairs with a couple of interesting beers on tap. I started out with a half of each. First up was Dogma. Formerly known as Speedball, it’s a malty beer with added stimulants: Scottish heather honey, poppy seeds, kola nut and guarana. The beer poured almost headless and reddy brown in colour, with a crisp malty nose. To taste it was chewily malty but cut off quickly with a dry lager crispness. It finished with a little bit of hop bitterness and a hint of fruity malt. It was worryingly drinkable, despite its additions and 7.8% alcohol content, and I blame it in part for the slow decent into drunkenness that the evening became. More worryingly, I have a case of it in the post which I think I ordered when I got home…

The second of my brace of pre-tasting beers was a preview of Abstrakt:03 aka AB:03, the next in the Abstrakt series and follow up to the Abstrakt:02 that I tasted earlier in the year. In Abstrakt fashion it’s one of BrewDog’s experiments released in one batch with the caveat that the recipe will not be repeated and this time it’s one of their early IPAs, brewed at 9% and then matured for 2.5 years in some 1965 Invergordon whisky casks with strawberries and raspberries. The whisky was bottled at 42 years old and each of the 10 casks was filled with the IPA and 20kg of strawberries from brewery co-founder Martin Dickie’s grandmother’s strawberry farm (as picked by the BrewDog staff). After a couple of years 2kg of raspberries were added to each barrel for a finishing sourness. The beer has been recarbonated, as many of BrewDog’s aged beers are, and this carbonation level was the only real difference between the keg version I started the evening with and the bottled version I tried later at the tasting.

The beer poured flat and red, as you’d expect for something with 22kg of red fruit per cask, and didn’t have all that much to the nose other than a slug of sour fruit. To taste that sourness came through, with the raspberries dominating the underlying sweetness of the strawberries and complimenting the bitterness of the base IPA – it was more sour cherry than berry. The wood seems to have done more accentuating than adding, with an oranginess coming out heavily at both ends of the flavour, almost adding a citrus pettiness to the beer, although there was a hint of smokiness that may have come from the rather exhausted wood (42 years of whisky maturation is going to pull out quite a lot of what the cask had to give). There was also a less hoppy bitterness that my notes suggest was ‘like sucking a peach stone’ that popped up in the middle along with some sweet fruit. A very interesting beer that tasted almost like a belgian sour cherry beer than an fruity IPA.

Shortly after finishing my beer, and having a chat with Neil from Yet Another Gin who popped by on one of his whistlestop tours of the bars of London, I was called in for the third tasting of the night, having grabbed a ticket from BrewDog’s London sales manager Tom Cadden, and made my way to the rather full upstairs room where BrewDog boss James Watt was waiting to pimp his beer at us.

First up for the tasting was the AB:03 again, this time from a bottle and, as mentioned earlier, slightly fizzier. This fizziness focused the flavour a bit more but didn’t change much. It is designed to get better in the bottle with age but I’m not sure how it’ll change. From my recent reading I think the hoppiness will calm down which should make the beer a bit sweeter and rounder, which might be nice. James also gave us a quick advance preview of what AB:04 will be: a 15% beer with coffee, cocoa beans and a naga chili – they added one naga to the 20 hectolitre brew…

Devine Rebel Mortlach ReserveWe moved on from there to the Devine Rebel Mortlach Reserve. Originally brewed in collaboration with Mikkeller in November 2008, the beer started out as a 12.5% barley wine before they decanted it into two Mortlach whisky casks that had held sherry before the whisky. These were then left until a few weeks ago when they were bottled, advertised on the website and quickly snapped up by the BrewDog fanboys, including three that went to me and arrived a couple of days after the tasting. Before bottling they highly recarbonated the beer in an effort to control the sweetness, as carbon dioxide has a souring effect on liquids it is dissolved in (hence the sweetness of flat soft drinks and the sour flavour of carbonated water).

It poured deep brown with a hint of orangey red and smelled of fruity grain, grapes and overwhelmingly of perfectly ripe pears. To taste there was more pear, sour caramel, uncooked malt, red grapes and a general background of mixed fruit as you often find with barley wines. It had a long woody finish which lingered with the fruitiness and, in short, it was fantastic. One of the best beers I’ve tasted and one that I’m very pleased I have a few bottles of. All I’ve got to do now is make sure that I save two of my three to sit on the side and wait a bit, as it should age well.

Last of the night was the beer that we had all come to try and the reason that I had made the journey across town on strike day – The End of History. The final chapter in BrewDog’s super strong beer war with German brewer Schorschbräu this 55% beer beat the german’s previous effort (a 43% version of the Schorschbock) and BrewDog have announced that they will do no more of these stupidly high alcohol brews. I suspect that this is in part due to a ‘get out while the going’s good’ approach to the publicity that they have garnered, as well as a more practical topping out of their freeze distilling process – it seems that to produce this beer they not only needed their local ice cream factory (-20ºC) and their industrial chiller (-40ºC) but also a piece of medical cryogenic freezing equipment (-60ºC) which was leased and has to go back soon. Each of their super strong beers has had a different base beer, with the Tactical Nuclear Penguin using an imperial stout, Sink the Bismarck an IPA and this one a belgian blond (infused with nettles and juniper berries), and this has led to each of them being quite distinct in flavour.

SusanHowever, flavour isn’t the main reason why people have been interested in The End of History. The first of the two things is the price, with it coming in at £500 and £700 per bottle, amounts that have led to BrewDog’s claim that it is not only the world’s strongest beer but also the most expensive. However, the beer inside the bottles is not the main source of the price, instead it’s the second reason why people know about it, the packaging. Only 12 bottles were made available to the general public (although I suspect that a chunk more beer was made and not part of those 12, to allow tastings and the like), which sold out in tow hours, and each was then placed inside an expensively taxidermied stoat or squirrel – the stoat brought along to our tasting was called Susan. This is a bit of a classic BrewDog move – deliberately shocking, ready-made for the media to pick up and with a point behind it that some will see as the excuse for the first two bits and BrewDog claim is the main reason why they did it (in this case, trying to make a point about beer as a luxury item and something hand wavy about honouring the lives of dead animals – the stoats and squirrels used were already dead rather than killed for the project, with the word ‘roadkill’ appearing often). I rather like the advertising campaign myself, tasteless as it is to many, and was rather pleased to be able to meet Susan. She was lovely. There is, of course, a video.

So, the ‘beer’: We were presented with a baby shot each and it was a beautiful golden colour, shining under the room’s lights. On the nose it had oranges, concentrated malt, citrusy hop and a hint of dry hops. To taste it started with an intense sweet citrus hit fading through fizzy refreshers (although uncarbonated) to seville orange, with hints of beery malt and bitterness, and with a long bitter orange finish. In true whisky drinker fashion I added a drop of water to see what happened and it softened out some of the alcoholic hit, brought out more bitter orange but helped it all amalgamate into more of a constant whole. Overall it was pretty impressive and definitely more of a proper drink than I felt the Sink the Bismarck was – I find it disappointing that this isn’t something that’s going to appear again and that it will be almost impossible taste outside of the occasional BrewDog special occasion.

The End of History

Anyway, it was certainly worth the multi-modal journey to London Bridge (along with the walk/bus/bus/night bus/cab and 2.5 hours that it took me to get home afterwards). The evening continued after the tasting with a slow slide into drunkenness, talking with some proud beer tickers (recording every beer they drink and trying not to drink the same one more than once) and then enthusiastically telling someone else that they seem to be very smily. I also caught the tail end of a conversation with James Watt in which he mentioned the BrewDog shareholders AGM – “It’ll be later this year and it’ll be awesome”. One train ticket to Aberdeen coming up soon…

7.8%. Limited availability on draft. Available from BrewDog for £1.79 per bottle.

AB:03 (Abstrakt:03)
9%. Available soon from http://abstrakt.com. £3 per half at The Rake (now run out). Probably £9.99 per bottle when released.

Devine Rebel Mortlach Reserve
12.5%. Sold out. £11 per bottle while available.

The End of History
55%. Sold out. It was £500 or £700 a bottle (stoat and squirrel respectively).