From time to time the little whisky geek echo chamber that I sit in gets its collective metaphorical panties in virtual bunch. The most recent bunch-incident happened this past weekend with the launch of Laphroaig Select, the latest entry in the distillery’s ongoing line-up. Like a good little whisky geek, I got caught up with the crowd, but have spent the last few days considering my opinion. While I initially tried it within hours of the announcement of its existence was made public, a couple of days of thought have changed my mind considerably about the whisky.
My fondness for Laphroaig is becoming a bit of a cliché. I’m not sure these days whether I pick up the bottles I do because I’m fairly sure I’m going to like them or whether it’s habit. Fortunately so far I’ve not been let down, with the Laphroaig QA Cask, Sherry Cask and various Cask Strength batches I’ve found recently all hitting the spot. However, there’s one bottling that I’m certain I’ll keep on getting as long as they let us buy it from their website – Laphroaig Cairdeas.
I’m slightly obsessed with Laphroaig. I’ve been a fan for a while, but over the last couple of years, ever since trying a 1990s version of Laphroaig 10, I’ve grabbed every one of their new releases, bought a few older ones at auction and investigated independent bottlings. Their new releases over the last few years have focused around Travel Retail, formerly known as Duty Free, with Triple Wood and PX appearing on the shelves. The former has now been moved into the general market, replaced by the latter, and this month they announced that another whisky had been added to the Travel Retail exclusive line-up – Laphroaig QA Cask.
This week has been ‘hard’. By ‘hard’ I mean that my normal ‘work’ has been supplemented by even more events than usual, culminating in the 2-day fungasm (fungasm might be going too far, I will admit) that was Whisky Live London 2011. I was at there under the auspices of work and I have at least one blog post bubbling in the back of my brain to be decanted onto the TWE blog, but I also did Other Things around the time which seem to fit better over here.
First up – a preview tasting of whiskies with the folks from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
January has now drawn to a close and with it came another Whisky Squad session. It’s hard work writing up two of these a month, it barely gives me any time to sit on my arse and obsessively watch The West Wing. Only two episodes watched this evening. And yes, this is two Squad posts in a row, but I’ve got other things to write about this week (although mainly for work) and I didn’t want this post to sit languishing until I sober up/find some time.
Anyways, January’s second session took us back to a previous venue, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society‘s London rooms. However, rather than just begging the space (and the lend of the glasses) we were joined by their Brand Ambassador John McCheyne who brought along a selection of drams, the ability to talk about said drams and the promise of 10% Off! if we bought any of the bottles.
I’m so very tired. It’s over a week since I got back from The Netherlands and still I am a broken wreck who looks on the concept of being a ‘shell of a man’ as being a step up. And what is to blame for this? Maltstock 2011 – the best whisky festival I’ve been to so far. A gathering of whisky fans from mainly across Europe organised by a group of whisky fans and with the intention of being pretty much the least commercial whisky festival in the world.
The weekend took place at an old Cub Scout lodge in Nijmegen, near the German border, and the plan was simple – turn up, bring whisky, put the whisky on one of the tables provided, share, talk toot and maybe sleep. A few companies had organised tastings, including my employers who had commented “do you want to do a tasting?” when I tried to blag some whiskies from our tasting cupboard to take along for the table, and I ended up showcasing some upcoming releases in the Elements of Islay range. There was also the promise of music and a BBQ, but mainly it was focused around sitting down with a bunch of new friends and drinking, talking and generally contemplating whisky.
This post has been fomenting for a while, but the perils of work and thinking too much about whisky have forced it into the background until now.
Domu888 on twitter (Dominic Edsall in real life) asked me a while back what my top 10 whiskies under £50 were. I fired off a few off the top of my head but said that I’d need to have a think about it. Well, thinking has been done so here’s a list, in no particular order. A thing to note is that this is all distillery bottlings – sticking in independents would hurt my head too much:
Laphroaig Quarter Cask, 48%, ~£30: Cheap, cheerful and very full of flavour. LQC, to give it initials that may have a different meaning to two readers of this blog, is young Laphroaig which finishes its maturation in small ‘quarter casks’ which are a quarter of the size of the regularly used hogsheads. This smaller size changes the wood/spirit ratio in favour of the wood, upping the rate of maturation of the whisky and sticking on a ‘growth spurt’ at the end of its time in wood. This does mean that they can bottle their whisky younger, but it also adds a nice chunk of sweet woodiness to the whisky, which works well with the phenolic tang of the Laphroaig. It’s bottled strong and isn’t chill-filtered, and still comes out at about £30 a bottle, which is rather good. It’s also on offer in Tesco quite often, which doesn’t hurt.
Clynelish 14, 46%, ~£30: My default whisky at home, although it is currently replaced by the Distiller’s Edition which we had on special offer at work. Clynelish has recently started rocketing in popularity, in part due to Serge Valentin and John Glaser talking about how much they like it. Not much goes to single malt production still, and the 12 and 14 years old versions are the two that are generally available. While the 12 is good, and cheap, the 14 is my favourite of the pair – waxy, sweet and fruity with a hint of the sea. Pretty much a whisky made for me and one that seems remarkably good at luring people into the world of less well-known distilleries.
The Glenlivet 18, 43%, ~£40. This one is a steal – less than £40 for an 18 year old is something you just don’t see (and a quick search on TWE has it as the only 18+ whisky for under £40). Age isn’t the be all and end all of whisky selection, but this one has aged well and benefited from its time in the cask to produce and well rounded and tasty whisky – big, rich and fruity with a slab of The Glenlivet’s creaminess.
Nikka from The Barrel, 51.4%, ~£25 for 50cl. A small bottle so not quite as good a deal as it first seems, but an excellent one all the same. A blend of whiskies from Nikka’s distilleries, sweet and elegant with quite a big alcoholic punch. Quite bourbon-like in character and good for mixing as well as drinking neat (or even, sacriligeously, with a chunk of ice). And to cap it all, the bottle is REALLY pretty.
Tweeddale Blend, 46%, ~£30. I wanted to make sure there was a blend in this list, but I was torn between which one to choose – I could go for a traditional ‘one up’ blend like Bailie Nicol Jarvie, one of the more premium named blends, like the more expensive Chivas Regals, or even one of Compass Box’s two. In the end I’ve plumped for this one, as I like the story and the guy behind it. Basically, Alasdair Day decided to recreate a blend originally put together by his great grandfather, using the original recipe from his notes. I’ve tried it a couple of times and rather like it, and they released their second batch a couple of days back – time for a taste and compare I think…
Longrow 10 Year Old 100 proof, 57%, ~£45. Another one that used to be my default, before the Clynelish swept it away, and one that I feel slightly naked without a bottle of in the cupboard. Longrow is, missing out a couple of production details, the peated version of Springbank. It has that slightly briney Springbank note as well as a nice smoky hit, although not an overwhelming peaty blast. I’ve gone for the 100proof for two reasons: 1) This way you can water it down a bit depending on your mood, leaving it concentrated and strongly flavoured if you want; and 2) it’s cheaper per millitre of alcohol…
Ardbeg 10, 46%, ~£35. I’m rather liking Ardbeg again at the moment, as my previous sherry obsession fades in favour of a nice chunk of peat – I generally find I’m liking one end of the extreme whisky spectrum at a time, and it seems that peat is in again for me. This is big and mulchy, with smoke, mud and a slab of vanilla from the first fill casks they used to mature a lot of it. I’ve heard tales that it’s not as good as it used to be, but it’s still a top bit of peaty beast without the medicinal nature of Laphroaig.
Compass Box Hedonism, 43%, ~£50. Right on the limit this, sometimes tipping over the £50 but often on or under it (especially in Waitrose). I like grain whisky and this is one of the best out there, a blend that gives a masterclass in what the flavours of well looked after grain should be. It still varies in my estimation, but it generally sits very near the top. Stepping outside of the £50 limit, if you find £199 burning a hole in your pocket then the Hedonism 10th anniversary edition bottling is awesome – I’m still thinking about it 6 months after I tried it…
Old Pulteney 12, 40%, ~£25. While checking the price on this one I found that it seems to be currently sold out at both Master of Malt and The Whisky Exchange – it sells rather well, as you can tell. It’s a big and briney dram which I recently tried while wandering around the distillery up in Wick (the most northerly I’ve ever been). The range gets expensive very quickly, with the 17 year old next on the list and breaking the £50 mark, but this is eminently reasonable and also very tasty.
Aberlour A’bunadh, ~60%, ~£35. Bottled at full proof and varying in strength from batch to batch (the current one is #34, as I write) this is a massively sherried dram from Aberlour. They don’t give an age statement, but from what I hear it’s about 8 years old, a scarily small time to pick up quite this much from a cask, with loads of dry fruit and rich woodiness hiding behind quite a big alcoholic kick. It’s been, along with my now departed bottle of Glenfarclas 105, my sherried dram of choice over the last 6 months. I look forward to my sherry head returning…
Please let me know your suggestions in the comments below.
One of the things that often comes up as a whisky fan is the combination of whisky and a cigar. ‘Brandy and cigars’ is a stock phrase to talk of the end of an evening but it in recent times the the strength of flavour of robust whiskies seems to be the choice of the cigar smoker. As a Christmas present to myself this year I bought myself a small humidor and a sampler pack of sticks (as I do believe the vernacular goes) in an attempt to educate myself in the way of tobacco, but after getting myself a bit ripped off I decided to speak to an expert and see what they recommended for a second selection.
One of the creams of this new crop of cigars was a Trinidad Coloniales. The story I was told matches up with a lot of what is said online – this was Fidel Castro’s private cigar brand for many years, only leaving Cuba as presents to foreign diplomats, until 1998 when they released the Fundadores, the founder, a single size of cigar for export. Elsewhere the tale is that Trinidad was an inferior blend of tobacco to the Cohibas that were more famously Castro’s to give, but as with much in the Cuban cigar world it is all about the stories. Over the years the range has expanded and the nice chap at Davidoff recommended one to me as part of a selection of medium to full-bodied cigars.
The cigar looks really good, with a twisted end (rather than the usual smooth cap), and a fairly smooth wrapper, although with more thick veins than with many of the cigars I’ve tried. At 5.1 inches and a ring gauge of 44 it’s a bit thicker and longer than the petit coronas I’ve been trying up until now, but it was recommended that I try some longer cigars as the extra length gives more time for the flavours to develop – in other words, more tobacco for the smoke to build up in and flavour. It started off quite lightly flavoured and remarkably creamy, a term I’d read in reviews and didn’t really understand until trying this one, with some sweet wood and a “milky coffee” softened bitterness. As expected the flavour changed through the cigar, adding more woody spice, losing some of the cream and bringing in some almost menthol flavours on the palate after exhaling.
I decided, having read the comments about the Coloniales’s creaminess, to try and pair it with something creamy and dug around in the cupboard to discover that I didn’t have anything particularly suitable. I turned to the random miniatures shelf and chose The Glenlivet 15 year old French Oak Reserve, acquired in a goody bag from Caskstrength.net‘s The Glenlivet tasting at Boisdale’s last year – quite apropos as that was the night I had my first cigar in years and decided to start investigating.
On its own the whisky has a nose of sweet fruit, waxy grain and vanilla (as one would expect from a whisky finished in Limousin oak barrels) and a creamy taste which follows the nose, with fruit and vanilla rolling into a finish of granny smith apples and dry brown cardboard (in a good way). Water kept the cream intact but soured things up, with the fruit turning to unripe grapes and the granny smiths coming through more strongly, although with a vanilla cream coating. With the cigar a lot of the trademark The Glenlivet creaminess blended in with the cream of the smoke, and the combined flavours were spicy cinnamon, clove, vanilla and a tiny bit of menthol, as well as woody marzipan with a pleasantly metallic tang on the finish.
The cigar burned well, only going out as it started on the last third (in part due to me being distracted by the whisky) and as it had started to get a bit more full bodied (although still very much a medium cigar) I decided to switch up a notch to the Laphroaig 12 year old Cask Strength Batch 002. I ordered this one on my birthday, as the Laphroaig website offers the Friends of Laphroaig (let me know if you want to join and I’ll fill in the form to get you a miniature sent out for sampling) a further discount on that day, and grabbed a couple of bottles as the batch 2 was coming to a close and has since been replaced by a new batch 003.
On its own the whisky has a nose of meaty peat, cut with a drop of the Laphroaig’s normal TCP, and some sweet fruitiness underneath – sharp grapes and maybe some bananas? To taste it was heavily minerally, with gravel and granite, and peaty (as expected) with a big slab of lemon, milk chocolate and a sherberty tingle. Water took the edge off the boozey bite and brought out more chocolate, as well as some raisin sweetness – rum and raisin Dairy Milk by a peat fire? The cigar picked up more woody aromas as well as more prickly spices and dark chocolate and kept the smoke’s creamy mouthfeel, but the whisky contrasted rather than complimented. The fruit of the nose was swamped by the wood, leaving a burst of ripe grape, but the stony peat lingered on the finish with an apple skin bitterness and cask strength booze hit. A bit too much for the cigar, but a rather nice whisky.
I need to do more work on matching flavours, but both whiskies held up to the, admittedly not particularly overpowering, flavour of the cigar, with the overlapping tastes reinforcing and the contrasts standing out against each other in differing levels of successfulness. My humidor is almost bare, which I was told (in a ‘useful for sales’ but still true kind of way) is a problem due to the difficulty of maintaining the correct humidity in an empty box, and I will shortly be obtaining some more cigars for my occasional forays into smoking – I may have to pick up a few Trinidads as an occasional treat.
The Glenlivet 15 year old French Oak Reserve
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£30.
Laphroaig 12 year old Cask Strength Batch 002
Islay single malt cask strength Scotch whisky, 58.3%. ~£30 on your birthday from the Laphroaig site when it was available. ~£40 from elsewhere.
Cuban corona cigar, 5.1 inches, 44 ring gauge.~£12.
I’ve been a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society for a couple of years now (with my third year renewal sitting just on the other side of New Year) and have been rather a fan since the day I first walked through the doors of their London rooms. Since then I’ve visited both of their rooms in Edinburgh on a number of occasions (I like Edinburgh), stayed in their members’ flats and attended a tasting or two. However, it seems I have now graduated to the next level – I was invited along to a tasting of their upcoming mid-November new releases.
The society is a private members club who along with the three UK tasting rooms, flats in Leith, overseas branches and a website, bottle and sell single cask whiskies. Currently they do a couple of releases of new whiskies each month, ranging from a couple of bottlings up to larger numbers depending on what they have, with members having a chance to drink the whiskies by the dram in one of the tasting rooms as well as buying bottles in person or online. I was invited to taste six bottles from the new list (which is a big one – 41 new whiskies) with Jean-Luc and Pierre from Connosr, and Joel and Neil from Cask Strength. I think I was a late substitute for local boy Dave Broom, who is currently drinking tasty things abroad, but if so that’s a bit of a compliment. I’m taking it as such, whether true or not.
The slight strangeness to the invite was that instead of being at the London SMWS rooms, where tasting organiser Joe McGirr is manager and all five invitees are based, it was instead at the Hotel du Vin in Brighton. The SMWS is partnering with Hotel du Vin and Malmaison to add a ‘SMWS Snuggle‘ to many of their hotels, offering a selection of society whisky for members, and the Brighton branch is one of those that has one. It suited me, as it was a good excuse to take a half day from work and go to commune with the sea – a chunk of my family are from the Brighton area and I haven’t been down to the seafront for ages. Unfortunately I didn’t factor in either the vaguaries of British weather or the recent clock change and trudged along the beach in the darkness and rain, but some communing was done.
I arrived at the hotel a bit early, chased out of the street by the wet weather, only to find that due to the lack of resilience of British trains to rain (which, of course, we never have here in the gloriously sunny UK) everyone else was running late. Not a problem, as the hotel has a rather tasty beer menu and some Boon Gueuze made it’s way down my neck. Eventually SMS’d tales of Haywards Heath turned into materialised whisky drinkers and the tasting got started.
Firstly a word on the SMWS bottlings – they aren’t marked with distillery names. For a stated reason of ‘not wanting to dilute the distilleries’ brands by attaching their names to non-standard bottlings’, and an unstated one of adding mystery, they are instead marked with two numbers – a distillery code and barrel number. Each distillery keeps the same number over time, so it is easy to work out which is which with either a good memory or handy list, and the barrel numbers are incremented as the society puts out more bottlings. I’ve started to remember my favourite (121 – Arran, 27 – Springbank, 29 – Laphroaig…) but with 128 distilleries on the list from around the world (there’s some Japanese and Irish in the mix) I’m still working on it. Along with the numerical identification each whisky is also given a unique name, some of which are rather ‘creative’. ie. mad.
The first whisky of the night was 26.68 – Morph and Minty. This is an 18 year old Clynelish matured in refill bourbon casks and bottled at 52.9%. On the nose it had chalky Refreshers, polished wood, peppery spice, vanilla and roses. It had a woody taste around the sides of the, mouth with the fizziness and flavour of the Refreshers from the nose, floor wax and a refreshing sweetness. A few drops of water brought out more wax and coalesced the general sweetness into some rich pineapple. The call from around the room was that this was quite a typical Clynelish, at least for the single cask bottlings, and it was very much my favourite of the night. This may well be my Christmas dram.
We then moved on to 71.33 – Chutney on Hot Wood. This is from Glen Burgie, a distillery I only know as an entry in the SMWS list. It’s been around (officially) since 1829 (starting up in 1810 according to the internets) and was originally called Kinflat. It closed in 1870 and was reopened in 1878 with its current name. Things continued (with stills being added and replaced, and the distillery changing hands) until 2004, when the old distillery was demolished and a shiny new one built in its place. It’s owned these days by Pernod Ricard (who also own Chivas Regal, Glenlivet, Strathisla and a few more) and its production is almost exclusively used in blends, including Ballantines. There have been occasional official bottlings but most single malt that comes out of the distillery is via independent bottlers, like the SMWS. This one was from a refill sherry butt aged for 20 years, bottled at 57.4%. On the nose it was strange, with an eventual consensus of old food tins coming up – at the time I reckoned it was a bit like a part washed sardine tin, but I’ve just had another sniff and I’m thinking stale baked bean tins instead. Anyways, it had a metallic note, with blood coming up in descriptions around the table, a big Bovril meatiness, resinous wood, creme brulee, granny smith apples and BBQ sauce. To taste it was hot and powerful without water, with Branston Pickle (the chutney flavour of the title), Worcester Sauce, pepper, green wood, cream and slightly fruity custard. Water helped things along with coconut, sweet wood, vanilla, raisins, and hints of liquorice, citrus and mint appearing in the mix. I got to take home the generous remains of this bottle, hence my chance at a second pre-release sniff, and it’s still a very strange whisky. I think I quite like it, but I can’t be sure.
Next up was 128.1 – A String Quartet of Flavours. Quite a special one this, as a .1 whisky is the first society release from a distillery, in this case Penderyn. Penderyn are quite protective of selling their casks so a single cask independent bottling is not something you often (maybe ever) see, making it surprising that the SMWS not only have this bottling but also a .2. They are famed for being the only Welsh distillery, and are based in the village of Penderyn in the Brecon Beacons, producing whisky from a mash made offsite at the Brains Brewery in Cardiff. I’ve tried a few of their whiskies over the years and as yet I’ve not been much of a fan, with everything from a recent taste of the Sherry Finish to a shot of their first malt (which I now forget the details of) in a pub at the end of a drunken night not quite tickling my tastebuds. This one was matured in a first fill port barrique and is bottled at 55.6% at a mere 6 years old. It poured very dark, looking a bit like a PX, and had a nose that matched up – christmas pudding, caramel sauce, rich fruit and, less expected, popcorn. In the mouth it had a buttery feel and a taste of burned sweetened butter, with bread and butter pudding, and port with the grapey astringency removed. Water killed the richness quite quickly, but a drop brought out some marzipan in the up front flavour and more wood in the finish. This is the nicest Penderyn I’ve tried as yet, but there was still something to it that didn’t quite appeal to me. I’m suspecting it must be a subconscious anti-welsh prejudice.
We then moved on to 27.85 – Manly and Penetrating. This one is from Springbank, one of my remembered numbers, and was 12 year old matured in refill bourbon casks and bottled at 58.8%. On the nose there were damp, musty leaves, lemon sherbert and malt syrup. To taste it was spicy and astringent, with dusty wood, meaty tannins, spicy sour fruit and a long sawdust finish. Water softened the woodiness, bringing out a buttery mouthfeel and more sour fruit. Despite my love of Springbank’s official bottlings this one joins my list of SMWS ones that I didn’t like – it was too woody for me and didn’t have enough of the Springbank saltiness to make up for it.
Next was 29.91 – Bovril and Neeps. 29 is another one of the numbers I remember – Laphroaig. This one was a 12 year old from a refill sherry butt, bottled at a scary 63.8%, making me suspect this was put in the cask a bit stronger than the 63-64ish% that the industry usually uses. On the nose it was sweet and smoky, like bbq sauce. This was discussed around the table until we decided exactly what it reminded us of – pulled pork from Bodean’s. Woody, smoky and sweet with a meaty undertone. As it sat in the glass the smoke thickened adding a whiff of tarred ropes. To taste there was stony coal dust with raisins and toffee, all covered over with a leathery dryness. Water calmed down the smoke and brought out more of the sherried wood, bringing in fruit and a more creamy mouthfeel. The taste on this one didn’t really match up enough with the intriguing nose for me, but it’s worth a try for the smell alone. If you can’t find any just go and eat some porky BBQ instead.
Our final whisky of the night was 33.96 – Chocolate Caviar. 33 is one of the numbers I should remember, especially as my taste is coming round towards smoky whisky again – Ardbeg. This one is a 10 year old from a refill sherry butt bottled at 56.9%. On the nose it had sweet orangey peat with stoney coal and a light woody smoke, To taste it had cream and coal ash, meaty peat, burnt sugar and a long TCP finish that kicked in a few seconds after swallowing and hung around for minutes. Water revealed some ginger, more fruit and some liquorice. As with many single cask Ardbegs this one was a bit of a punch to the face – big and smoky with some good citrus sweetness. Maybe not for me, as my tastes haven’t quite got back this far up the peat tree, but I suspect that won’t matter – Ardbegs sell out quickly at the SMWS.
Unfortunately I had to run off a bit early, as I was off to stay with some friends one town over and the last train that would get me in at a not entirely anti-social hour left earlier than the last London train. I left the others pouring their Chocolate Caviar over creme brulees and ran (well, walked slightly faster than usual) up the hill to the station. Despite its rather unappealing name, the Whisky Snuggle is a very nice room and Hotel du Vin’s Brighton branch lives up to the expectations I established on a visit to the one in Bournemouth last year – friendly, with an impressive drinks list even without the SMWS bottlings. We got to have a look at some of the rooms and despite the fact that the beach front telescopes that some of them had installed were pointed in unuseful directions, the fact they were a) installed and b) next to bathtubs that sat incongruously in the middle of the rooms added to the (good) madness of the design. I also saw my first triple bed, alongside a shower cubicle that it was agreed could fit at least a five-a-side football team, if not most of a rugby team.
Most of the new list is available, having come out a couple of Friday’s ago, but the Penderyn has already, predictably, sold out. As I got the last bottle of the 126.1 and tried the 127.1 I can’t really complain…
SMWS 26.68 – Morph and Minty
Single cask highland single malt whisky. 52.9%. £58.30 from the SWMS site
SMWS 71.33 – Chutney on Hot Wood
Single cask highland single malt whisky. 57.4%. £56.20 from the SMWS site
SMWS 128.1 – A string quartet of flavours
Single cask Welsh single malt whisky. 55.6%. £49.50. Sold out online, there might be some in the tasting rooms.
SMWS 27.85 – Manly and Penetrating
Single cask Campbeltown single malt whisky. 58.8% £53.30 from the SMWS site
SMWS 29.91 – Bovril and Neeps
Single cask Islay single malt whisky. 63.8%. £48.70 from the SMWS site
SMWS 33.96 – Chocolate Caviar
Single cask Islay single malt whisky. 56.9%. £33.96 from the SMWS site
Many thanks to Joe McGirr from SMWS London for inviting me along and to Dave Broom for being out of the country…
Joel and Neil have a post about the evening over on their site, written in their usual inimitable style.
If anyone is thinking of joining the SMWS then let me know – I’ll talk you into it. They also have a referral scheme and any aid in funding my whisky habit is gratefully received.
Being a science fiction fan I spent the long easter weekend just gone hidden away in hotel by Heathrow airport attending Eastercon, the yearly british sci-fi convention. While the con committee managed to rustle up a bar full of London Pride and Old Rosie (even if the cider did its traditional thing and disappeared a lot faster than the bar staff expected) the other bars were fairly lacking in interesting booze. I continued my habit of drinking through the most interesting whiskies that they had (knocking back some Glenkinchie, Knockando and Caol Ila) but one program item above all caught my eye – a whisky tasting with Iain Banks.
Mr Banks is one of my favourite authors, not only for his excellent regular fiction and SF but also for his other book – Raw Spirit. It may claim to be a book about whisky, but the main things I remember are a page of waxing lyrical about Chateau Musar (which I now try and keep at least one bottle of in the house at all times) and many more passages about how much fun it is to drive around the great wee roads of Scotland in a Land Rover. However, the book is one of the things that kicked me into trying to explore non-beery boozes and also to write about it, so obtaining a spot on the whisky tasting became a mission. I foolishly turned up several hours before sign up to make sure I got one of the 15 spots only to find that a) noone was queuing at 8am and b) noone was awake at 8am. However, a queue did appear at about 9am and as number 4 in line I got on the list.
We convened later that day for the tasting, led by a panel including Iain Banks and Liz Williams, two of the convention’s guests of honour, with an original plan of going through six whiskies: a lowland, a highland (although one on the edge of speyside), two speysides and a pair of Islays.
First up was Auchentoshan 12 year old, our easy drinking lowland to lull the non-whisky drinkers into a false sense of security. I’ve not tried the regular Auchentoshan before (this having replaced the previous standard 10 year old expression), although I did work my way quite happily through a bottle of their Three Wood a few years back. This is a unique distillery in that it distills its spirit three times, rather than the standard twice of the other distilleries in Scotland. On the nose the whisky was quite strong, with a touch of vanilla and quite a slug of alcoholically themed scents – pear drops, lighter fluid and a hint of acetone, although I suspect that part of that was from the use of plastic cups and my already setting in con tiredness. To taste it was not as light as I expected, with a chunk of wood and tannin softening into vanilla and a touch of honey. A drop of water opened up the sweetness into a more honeyed caramel and revealed a touch of smoke, fruit stones and linseed oil as it developed in the glass. Definitely one to let sit with a drop of water in, it mellowed into rather an interesting dram over a few minutes.
Iain Banks is quite well known for his ability to spin a yarn in person as well as on paper and in between whiskies there was a touch of discussion and story telling, even if it did inevitably splinter into 10 conversations as the booze started to settle in. It seems that I was not the only one to notice a hint of the petrolhead in Raw Spirit, but Banks has started to tone down his car collection due to a touch of green guilt. The Land Rover and fast cars seem to have disappeared to be replaced by first a hybrid and now a diesel, a tale accompanied by a slightly sad tone to his voice.
Next we moved to the highlands for the Dalwhinnie 15 year old. One of my fall back malts this is one that I know well, having visited the distillery a few times and had numerous bottles in my cupboard as a drink I know I like. On the nose there’s a touch of smoke and a sweetness that turns into fruit salad chews in the mouth. It also has a peppery prickle on the tongue and a bit of toffee. Water evens out the smoke a touch, letting a bit of the fruitiness come out.
Hiding at the back of the audience, behind the lucky people who got the drinking passes, was a lady who works in the perfume industry and as a discussion of flavours and scents flourished she chipped in with some interesting thoughts from a different but very similar industry. As we started describing the flavours of the whiskies, and comparing them to the traditionally flowery tasting notes, the inevitable contradictions started to appear. There are many reasons for this, with two main points coming up. Firstly the physical limitations of smell, from genetic heritage governing sensitivity to certain chemical compounds, to just the fact that over time (and with age) the senses start to dim, leading to them being less overpowered when you experience a strong flavour such as whisky. Secondly the role that experience plays in both forming sense memories and retrieving them, leading to flavours that may not perfectly line-up but mean something to the individual.
Next on the list was our next speyside – Glenlivet French Oak. This, like Macallan, is one of those whiskies that I kept meaning to get round to again – a big name that I assume I know the taste of, but don’t actually remember. The French Oak is yet another whisky that uses a bit of new wood in its production – a proportion of the blend of malts has been matured in new Limousin oak casks. On the nose it had vanilla and red fruit but became a bit more complicated in the mouth, with a malty sweetness, creaminess and a hint of smoke. A touch of water turned up the heat and added some more wood to the flavour but turned down both creaminess and sweetness. A much more interesting dram than I expected, especially with the creamy mouth feel that the oak brought, but one to drink at bottle strength.
It was about this point in proceedings that you could tell you were at a convention that attracted some people with a knowledge of science. Led by the perfumer a discussion started about the biology of scent detection, with the traditional lock and key explanation (certain ‘shaped’ chemicals clicking into similarly shaped receptors to produce nerve impulses) being questioned as current research suggests that similarity in the shape of chemicals doesn’t always lead to similar tastes. There is also some difficulty in doing experimentation on this as imaging people’s brains in controlled and repeateable conditions is not trivial, especially as everyone’s brain is wired somewhat differently leading to different areas ‘lighting up’ with the same flavour in different people. There’s rather a lot to the science of flavour…
Next was the first of our cask strength whiskies, bottled by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society – 24.106: Discordant Staves. It’s a 12 year old Macallan which I assume was matured in one of their regular sherry casks. On the nose it was fruitcakey with a thick caramel sweetness, but on tasting a lot of the cake fell away to give a sweet, slightly oily dram with hints of raisins and a touch of rubberiness running through the middle. A rather different flavour to the other Macallan’s I’ve tried recently and one that has pushed them towards the top of my ‘taste these when they arrive at the SMWS’ list.
Our discussions about flavours and experiences led to how we decide on what a ‘good’ whisky is. In the end a large part of that seems to come down to the associations that the whisky had. Liz Williams had a fondness for Glenfiddich, as it’s what her dad drinks, other people had drinks that they’d had a weddings or parties. When ‘researching’ (the quotes were explained as being implicit in all mentions of the word) Raw Spirit, Iain Banks actually did very little drinking at the distilleries – as the main driver he ended up buying a bottle from every distillery he visited for later sampling at home. However, he mentioned that one of his favourite whiskies was an Ardbeg, one that he tried at the distillery. The experience of drinking a one of a kind barrel, since sold to someone else, standing beside the distillery as the sun sets over the sea is an experience I can see sticking with you, especially if it’s a good dram.
Suitably, our next whisky was Ardbeg 10 year old. Ardbeg’s a bit on the up at the moment, with a lot of their limited production being snapped up quite quickly. I’ve not tried it since I met up with some friends a couple of years back to drink our way through the rather complete range that Adam had ‘accidentally’ bought while leafing through the Ardbeg web store. The 10 year old is the standard expression and it shows the distillery’s nature quite well. On the nose it has a strong peatiness, moving into a cattle feed and mulchy sweetness. On the tongue the smoky peat taste continues to dominate, with woody sweetness, a thick rubberiness and a slightly buttery taste combining to make a rather nice whisky. It’s not one for the fainthearted, with the TCP-like taste of the very peaty Islay whiskies shining through, but if you like that sort of thing it won’t disappoint.
By this time conversation was getting a bit confused – it’s quite surprising how many people can get a decent sized shot out of a bottle of whisky… We quickly moved on to our final dram in the tasting, another SMWS cask strength bottling, this time of a Laphroaig – 29.80: Wedding Cake in a Coal Sack. Laphroaig’s reputation preceded it, which made this dram a bit of a sheep in wolf’s clothing – a stealth whisky. Rather than the regular TCP, sea spray and peat that you’d expect, I got hint of burnt matches on the nose, along with a rich fruity sweetness. To taste it continued the nose with ash, citrus and dried fruit all coming through. A drop of water removed little, adding a taste of coal and a slightly socky tint. A very interesting whisky, not at all what we expected and a good one to finish the tasting.
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your state of inebriation, a few of us had brought along a few samples of our own. 1/2r Cruttenden brought along a bottle of the St George’s English whisky, which very quickly was accepted into the running order as a final drink of the session. This is part of the first release, at 3 years old, with the distillery having released ‘Chapter X’ bottlings every six months over the maturation of the spirit. It’s only a limited release as they want to mature it a bit longer, a decision I thoroughly agree with. The whisky is obviously very young, with only a little of the wood’s flavour penetrating the spirit, leaving it with a definite hint of aquavit and caraway seed. However, it is a very smooth whisky with an incredibly thick and creamy mouth feel that makes me want to get my name on the waiting list for new bottles. There is also a peated version coming out in the summer which seems to be preferred by many, so I may have to look into obtaining a bottle. For scientific purposes, of course.
On top of that I tried a drop of my own Yamazaki Sherry Cask, still as good as ever, and a big sip of some 18 year old Bladnoch that was more fully flavoured than any lowland I’ve tried in a long time – another to move back up the tasting list.
A fun tasting with some fun stories, interesting science and some rather tasty whiskies. Well worth queuing up for…
Auchentoshan 12 year old
Single Lowland Malt Scotch Whisky, 40%, ~£30
Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old
Single Highland Scotch Whisky, 43%, ~£30
Glenlivet French Oak Reserve
15 year old Single Speyside Malt Scotch Whisky, 40%, ~£30
SMWS 24.106 Discordant Staves
Single Cask Macallan Single Speyside Malt Scotch Whisky, 58.9% (Sold out)
Ardbeg 10 Year Old
Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky, 43%, ~£40
SMWS 29.80 Wedding Cake in a Coal Sack
Single Cask Laphroaigh Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky, 52.7% (Sold out)