Whisky Squad #15 – Highlanders

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time then you know the drill by now – first week of the month = Whisky Squad. We were joined again by Rob Whitehead of Berry Brothers & Rudd, this time leading the session rather than just being an enthusiastic punter. The topic was Highlanders: whiskies from the ‘other’ region in Scotland. Strictly speaking calling the Highlands a region is a little misleading as the easiest definition is “all of Scotland that isn’t in the other regions” – everything north of the Highland Line that joins Edinburgh and Glasgow, excluding Speyside, Islay and Campbelltown. Going along with large geographic variation is a general lack of underlying style – the area encompasses everything from punchy Talisker to light Glengoyne and pretty much anything in between. It’s the largest region by area and the second by number of distilleries and production of spirit, beaten only by densely populated Speyside. Whether the islands other than Islay should be considered part of the region is often debated, with the SMWS splitting them off as a separate ‘Highland Islands’ region in their releases (but they also divide up Speyside as well), and Rob sidestepped that point by (sort of) sticking to distilleries on the mainland.

IMG_8386The first whisky was quite light and had a nose of salted caramel, nuts (walnuts & almonds?), damp forest, sour orange, brine and fresh green vegetables. To taste it had butter, salt & pepper, a touch of fizzy fruit sweetness, and a lingering sweet and sour fruit finish. Water brought out some grapes and lengthened the sweetness of the finish. When the whisky sock was pulled off (as Rob brought along his set of BBR bottle concealing socks, although this time they were augmented by one knitted for the squad by occasional visitor Ruth) it was shown to be a John Milroy 7 Year Old Pulteney. That’s a Pulteney that’s 7 years old, rather than an Old Pulteney, as the latter is the name of the whisky produced for Inver House at the Pulteney distillery. John (generally known as Jack) Milroy was one of the two brothers that opened Milroy’s of Soho in 1964, the shop that was the template from which pretty much all whisky shops have been stamped out since. Doug McIvor, Berry’s whisky king, used to work there and now that he’s at Berry’s him and Jack sit down from time to time to select a few casks to be bottled under the Milroy name. Rob selected this one as our opener due to the way that we do tastings at Whisky Squad – we try the whisky blind and then guess the age, strength and (if feeling brave) the distillery. We don’t generally get these right and regular Dave has in recent times decided to guess that all whiskies are 7 years old. In order to help him guess right at least once Rob brought this one along, only to be foiled by Dave guessing 8 this time. The whisky was matured in an ex-bourbon barrel specifically purchased as an ‘old refill’ and was retired after this whisky was decanted. The knackered nature of the barrel meant that it didn’t influence the whisky too much, keeping it light and reflecting some of the citrus and brine that you get in Pulteney new make. Unfortunately this one has already sold out.

IMG_8387Number two was a little bit darker and had a nose that developed quite quickly in the glass. On first pour it was quite earthy with mulchy leaves, but that quickly blew away to be replaced by Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples, lime cordial, red fruit and vanilla, as well as floral notes that got stronger as it sat. To taste there were apple boiled sweets, candle wax, vanilla, grapes, orange peel and a hint of menthol at the back of the mouth which lingered into the fruit finish. Water brought out a bit of biscuit and cardboard on the finish and some waxy hand cream to the middle of the flavour. The sock came off to reveal that it was a Berry’s Own Selection Glencadam 1991, bottled in 2004. I usually rather like Glencadam, after a very tasty SMWS release led to me picking up their own 15 year old bottling, and this one continued that trend. They’ve not been releasing distillery editions for long, with independent bottlers being the only way of getting a single malt until 2005 when new owners Angus Dundee Distillers, who bought the distillery in 2003, brought out the 15 year old. Since then they’ve expanded the range with a 10 year old appearing in 2008, with a relaunch of the 15 year old at the same time, and in 2010 a 12 year old port finish, 14 year old oloroso finish and a 21 year old. Up until the 2003 purchase Glencadam has had a bit of a checkered history, being closed several times since its opening in 1825, and was mothballed in 2004 when the Berry’s 1991 was bottled. This whisky sold out before Rob started at Berry’s in 2006 and was pulled out of their rather extensive archives, making two whiskies in this tasting that we probably won’t find again.

IMG_8389Next was another darker whisky, although it was difficult to see exactly in the rather dimly lit tasting room, and within seconds of nosing it inspired a cry of ‘sherry’. On the nose it had sour fruit, sherry wood, burned meaty bits, hints of brine and forest leaves. To taste it started with a powdery icing sugar sweetness which faded to sour red grape, stewed tea, sour fruit and spice, and finished with sour fruit and lightly tannic wood. Water brought out a touch of salty ‘old sweaty sock’ on the nose as well as dulling the smell in general. In the taste, dilution lengthened the sweetness at the front and added a bit of card on the finish. The sock came off and this one was a Berry’s Own Selection Blair Atholl 1998, bottled in 2009. Blair Atholl is another distillery that doesn’t produce much whisky as single malt, with the vast majority going into Bell’s and a Flora & Fauna bottling being the main place to find it on its own. The distillery is in Pitlochry, on the southern borders of the Cairngorms, and has been owned by Diageo since they bought up Arthur Bells & Sons in 1985.

IMG_8392Number four was still darker and had a nose of plums, galia melon, royal icing, polished wood, vanilla, cream, a hint of strawberry shrimp and some cement-like minerality. To taste it started with sweet pastry, sour plums and worked its way through hints of stone and touches of green leaves to a finish of cardboard, and lemon rind and pith. Water simplified things, with sweetness leading to fruit leading to lemon rind – one to drink at bottle strength. This was revealed to be Berry’s Own Teaninich 1973, bottled in 2010 for a total of 37 years of maturation. It was made up of two casks and bottled at cask strength of 41.8% and sells for about £135, one of the most expensive Berry’s Own bottlings that they’ve done. This is in part due to buying the casks old, rather than Berry’s usual plan of buying them at filling time and then looking after them during maturation – it’s more of a gamble, but is much cheaper than buying the casks when you can see how good they are at the end of maturation. Teaninich is another Diageo distillery that mainly sees the light of day through blends and a Flora & Fauna bottling, and it’s near to Whyte & Mackay’s Invergordon and Dalmore distilleries on the north side of the Cromarty Firth near to Alness. Outside of Diageo’s various products it’s also a favourite of Compass Box, appearing in their Asyla and Oak Cross blends.

IMG_8397Number five was brought along by co-founder Jason rather than Rob and had a rather dodgy looking thin topped cork. Rob couldn’t say much about the whisky for fear of giving away what it was, so we went straight in for a taste. On the nose it had wet leaves, hints of brine, a touch of wood smoke, nettles, candy floss and baked beans. The taste was rather uncomplicated, but quite pleasant, with wood smoke, woody fruit, butter, marzipan and a slightly beany finish with some more fruit. Water calmed down a bit of the alcoholic burn and brought out a bit more fruit, but didn’t really improve things. When the sock came off it became quite obvious why they couldn’t say much – it was Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt, also known as ‘The Shackleton Whisky’. This one has quite the story behind it and is a marketing department’s wet dream. When explorer Ernest Shackleton was forced to abandon his Antarctic expedition in 1909 he left lots of supplies in his hut and during excavations on the site in 2006 a case of whisky was found. Over the last 5 years it has been moved to New Zealand to be thawed, and eventually a couple of bottles were handcuffed to Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson and flown back to Scotland in W&M owner Vijay Mallya’s private jet. Paterson extracted a small amount of liquid through the cork with a syringe and recreated the blend for this special bottling. As only he and whisky writer Dave Broom have tasted it noone knows for sure quite how accurate it is, but it’s a nice whisky. This edition is limited to ‘just’ 50k bottles and at £100 (with a fiver going to the Antarctic Heritage Trust) it should net W&M a tidy sum. I’m not sure it’s quite worth £100 for the liquid, nice as it is, but with the old-style replica bottle (complete with dodgy cork) and pretty wooden box (containing a more durable cork) it gets a bit closer. I think I’ll wait until they revive the Mackinlay’s name, as I’m sure they will, and sell a hopefully similar but cheaper whisky.

IMG_8400The last whisky of the evening was very dark and a quick nose showed that it was a sherry monster – prunes, burnt meat, rum, moss and hazelnuts and an alcoholic punch that got right into the sinuses. To taste there was pipe tobacco, coffee, very dry fruit, chocolate and a fruit and tar finish. It was quite closed at full strength and water helped open up all of those flavours to be more distinct, with some more brandy/rum notes and a touch of menthol coming through. When the sock came off Rob admitted to cheating somewhat – this was from the highlands, but not the highlands of Scotland (hence the ‘sort of’ back in paragraph one). It was the Whisky Magazine Editor’s Choice Karuizawa 15 year old from Japan, bottled by Berry’s in 2007. The distillery is quite central on Japan’s main island of Honshu, in the foothills of Mount Asama, the most active volcano on the island. This whisky came from a single first fill American oak sherry butt, with an outturn of 308 bottles, and has really taken on a lot of sherry wood flavour. It’s quite a mad whisky and as such there are still bottles left, one of which will shortly be finding its way into my whisky cupboard.

The final whisky this time is a seque into next month’s tastings. After a year of bimbling around Scotland The Squad will be making its first major foray overseas for two Japanese whisky tastings next month. More details will appear on the Whisky Squad site soon…

John Milroy 7 Year Old Pulteney
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. Sold out. Was ~£30.

Berry’s Own Selection Glencadam 1991
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. Sold out. Was ~£35-45.

Berry’s Own Selection Blair Atholl 1998
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35.

Berry’s Own Selection Teaninich 1973
Highland cask strength single malt Scotch whisky, 41.8%. ~£135.

Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt
Blended Scotch whisky, 47.3%. ~£100.

Whisky Magazine Editor’s Choice Karuizawa 15 Year Old
Cask strength single cask single malt Japanese whisky, 60.6%. ~£75.

Thanks to Alan for the lend of his camera and uploading the piccies to Flickr.

Dominic Roskrow’s ‘The World’s Best Whiskies’ at Quilon

This blog is quite good for getting me invited to slightly random events that aren’t just plain drinks tastings and when I was asked along to a combination practise whisky dinner and book launch at a Michelin starred Indian restaurant, I couldn’t really say no. The book in question is Dominic Roskrow’s latest, The World’s Best Whiskies and the restaurant Quilon.

Dominic has been writing about whisky for years, having been editor of Whisky Magazine amongst other writing poitions, and was made a Keeper of the Quaich in 2007 and a Kentucky Colonel in 2010. He now edits The Whisky Shop‘s inhouse magazine, Whiskeria, writes all over the place and runs whisky tastings around the country. It was more in this latter capacity that he we met him, as the plan was to taste some whisky rather than listen to a reading of tasting notes from the new book.

Quilon, specialising in food from the south west of India, wasn’t an entirely random pairing, as this was a test run of a whisky dinner that Dominic will be hosting at the restaurant at the beginning of next year. The fact that they also have a 50 strong whisky menu and a head chef who likes the odd dram, as we discovered when he came out to have a rest and a drink at the end of the night, didn’t hinder things either.

We started the evening with a cocktail of Johnny Walker Black Label and Créme de Mûre, topped up with champagne, which I was not that great a fan of – the champage overpowered the whisky and the liqueur didn’t help that. As I’m not a fan of fizzy wine it wasn’t my kind of thing, but the assembled journalists, with a couple of us bloggers for good measure, seemed to enjoy it well enough. While we sipped at these Dominic described his approach to writing the book, basically drinking a lot of whisky. He went through and tried all of the whiskies himself (bar one that I can’t remember) and wrote up fresh tasting notes for all of them in his own rather irreverant style, focusing on drinking whisky and having a good time rather than the more regimented tasting notes side of things.

The Best Whiskies in the World?

Dominic is very much a lover of whisk(e)y from all over the world, as his Kentucky Colonel-dom (-ship? -ity? who knows…) attests, and we started the whisky tasting with the Amrut Double Cask. Amrut have been making drinks for many years, but their foray into the single malt whisky market was described by Dominic as a ‘Newcastle university student experiment’. One of the family who own the operation was studying in Newcastle and wondered whether it was possible to sell an Indian single malt whisky in the British market. The initial answer to the question was ‘no’, but they’ve persevered and over time the quality of product and the eagerness of reception has grown, leading to the current state where it’s no longer considered quite as strange that you can buy Indian whisky in the UK and their products are getting good critical attention. Due to the environment in Bangalore the maturation of the whisky is rather different to in Scotland, with 2-5 years of maturation being usual and 7 years the oldest that they’ve produced as yet. This speed of turnaround has allowed them to do a lot of experimentation, with various different barley types (both local Indian grain as well as imports from Scotland) and barrels as well as other fiddling. This bottling is a vatting of two old casks (from 2002 and 2003 – two of their oldest) demonstrating the main problem with maturing for so long in the tropics – the whisky lost 59% of its volume in evaporation over the 7 years. Rather than being alcohol evaporating, as you get in cooler climates, this was mainly water, with the alcohol content of the spirit rising from the filling proof of 62.5% to 69.8% before reducing for bottling. This is now pretty much sold out, as you’d expect from a total availability of 306 bottles. On the nose it had vanilla, a beefy maltiness, apples and chilli. To taste it was buttery, with sweet vanilla, black pepper, green peppers, a bit of chilli spice and long bitter wood finish. As it sat in the glass it opened up a bit more and I got a hint of aniseed – not the sweet heat of an aniseed ball but the seedy aniseed of the speck at the centre. Water softened the wood, bringing out more vanilla and calming the spiciness.

Next we tried out our one Scottish whisky of the evening, the Glenkeir Treasures 17 year old Macallan. The Glenkeir Treasures are a range of The Whisky Shop’s own bottlings and this one was a single cask which had produced 144 bottles. It was matured in bourbon and finished in sherry casks (I think that’s what Dominic said), showing Macallan’s increased use of bourbon casks in their production, something that was very much not the norm for them in the past. On the nose it was vegetal with some horseradish and mustard. There was also dark chocolate, a rich maltiness and a smell that my brain resolved to be “off limes” – a pleasant soured citrus. To taste there was sweet woody spice with salt and pepper, but these were overshadowed by a dry tannic wood that stepped in and dominated. Water rolled away a lot of the dryness, revealing vanilla ice cream which quickly faded through dried fruits to a long woody finish.

We then skipped continents again, this time to the USA and Hancock’s Reserve Single Barrel. Produced by Buffalo Trace (there are a lot more whiskey brands than there are distilleries in the US, with most companies producing a variety of different products) it’s a single cask with individual bottlings often coming in at 8-10 years, although the age is not stated on the bottle. This one had a lovely nose, with sweet varnish, pencil rubbers, bubblegum, dried apples, pastry, bananas and a rich caramel. To taste it was much lighter, with the apples returning along with some grapes, sultanas and sweet wood spice, finishing with light woodiness. It was the groups favourite of the evening and I can see why – very smooth and easy to drink in comparison with the rather spiky whiskies that preceded it. I found it slightly disappointing that the promise of the nose wasn’t quite borne out in the body, but still rather enjoyed it.

Karuizawa 1982The last in our round the world tasting session was the most interesting for me – Karuizawa 1982 from The Whisky Exchange. Appropriately Tim from TWE (and writer of their rather good blog) was there to represent the bottlers, who had put this whisky out as part of their 10th anniversary celebrations. I tried it a week earlier at their official celebratory tasting (that I might one day get round to writing up here) and had to check carefully to make sure it was the same whisky. We tried it very soon after pouring at Quilon, whereas it was the penultimate whisky at the TWE tasting and had sat in the glass for about 2 hours, and it seems that it is very much a whisky that changes with exposure to the air. This time the nose was rich with truffles, struck matches, raisins, grapes and sherried wood. To taste it had sherry fruit and peppery spice, followed by a burst of wood that led into a rich, spicy, meaty finish. An impressive and very different whisky from the rest, and one that lost a lot of the ‘forest notes’ as it sat in the glass (which it didn’t do very long this time).

We then followed this with some excellent food from the Quilon menu, matched with a red and white wine rather than with the whisky, with the curry leaf and lentil crusted fish starter (as south west India has a whole load of coastline to obtain fish from), the lamb roast main course (which reminded me a lot of the excellent ‘dry meat’ at Tayyabs) and the rather special pepper ice cream (which I suspect had a chunk more than pepper in – I assumed it was cardamon until I read the menu) all standing out. With dinner finished we were joined by head chef Sriram Aylur who tucked into a pair of drams (with a spot of ice, as room temperature whisky after an evening in a hot and spicy kitchen wasn’t something he was a fan of) while we chatted with Dominic about the joys of whisky.

The World's Best WhiskiesAll in all a rather nice evening and encouraging to see the whisky industry outside of the core distilling reaching out to bloggers (something that Dominic himself mentioned in the latest Whiskeria – November 2010, page 50). I think that the restaurant need to have a chat with Dominic before next year to best work out how to set up the tasting though, as wine glasses aren’t great for nosing and chilled water isn’t the best for adding to a dram. That said, the food was very good and they’ve gone on my list of places to try and have a proper meal at.

I’d already occasionally spoken to Dominic on Twitter, so it was nice to meet him in person. I’d even signed up to his online whisky tasting club earlier that week, receiving shipping confirmation of my first box of samples while I was talking to him that evening. In a stroke of duplication it seems that in addition to the copy of the book that I was given after this tasting I’ll have another one arriving sometime early in the new year, as The Whisky Tasting Club are giving each of their regular members a copy after their second tasting. I’ll have a spare soon so I might even have to do a competition giveaway or something – while the book is (from my current browsing) rather good and beautifully designed (the front cover alone has given me both photographic and glassware envy) my house is too full of books and booze to allow any duplicates in. Worryingly, that even counts for booze…

Amrut Double Cask
7 year old Indian single malt whisky. 46%. ~£80 from Whiskys.co.uk

Glenkeir Treasures Macallan 17
17 year old Speyside single cask single malt Scotch whisky. 57.7%. Sold out, but was ~£70 per bottle

Hancock’s Reserve Single Barrel
Single cask bourbon aged approx 8-10 years. 44.45%. ~£70 from Royal Mile Whiskies

Karuizawa 1982, Whisky Exchange 10th Anniversary Bottling
17 year old single cask Japanese single malt whisky. Sold out, but was available from The Whisky Exchange.

Many thanks to Su Lin Ong of SLO London for inviting me, the staff at Quilon for feeding me and to Dominic for the whisky and whisky talk. I didn’t pay for the evening and did receive a copy of Dominic’s book to take home with me. And a copy of Whiskeria, but I think you can get those for free at The Whisky Shop if you buy something and ask nicely. I think that’s what I did last time.

Tickets are now available for the February 1st 2011 dinner. Details in this PDF.

Dominic is another person who is being foolish and growing a ‘tache for Movember. While it pains me to advertise a ‘rival’ (doubly so, as he’s a member of The Edinburgh Whisky Blog‘s team rather than infinitely superior Whisky4Movember posse) as it’s a rival for sponsorship cash and it all goes to the same place it’d be churlish of me not to link to his fundraising page. His moustache is also better than mine.