One of the most coveted tickets of the yearly Islay Festival (Feis Ile) is the Bruichladdich Feis Ile Masterclass – a chance for a few hundred of the distillery’s biggest fans to try not only the yearly festival bottling, but also taste hidden delights from deep in the well-stocked warehouses. This year, I finally made it along.
After years of trying, I’ve finally made it to what is often seen as an essential pilgrimage in the life of a whisky geek: I’ve come to Islay for Feis Ile – the festival of malt and music. Each distillery has an open day and at least one limited edition whisky, most of which are only available on the island. I’m staying a few minutes walk away from Bruichladdich and tried their Feis Ile bottling during their open day on Sunday, the quite ridiculous Octomore Discovery.
The problem with combining the ever lengthening Christmas season with having two whisky squad sessions per month is that someone who works in whisky retail (me) gets a bit busy. As such this post has taken me rather a while to produce, even for a lazy drunk like myself. At least it should be appearing before the end of the month…if I get a move on and start writing about the whisky rather than myself…
Anyways, the first of November’s Squad meetups was to feature a topic that hasn’t really been broached since back in my first attendance, Whisky Squad #4 – Islay Malts. That session featured a range of whisky from the island, rather than focusing on the traditional peaty fare, so the chaps decided that a night for smoke heads was long overdue. Hence Whisky Squad #23 – The Smoking Section.
A couple of weekends back I found myself on the 6am train out of London Euston bound for Glasgow and this year’s Whisky Live Live Glasgow. It was rather a last minute thing, as I’d answered a request for help on Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson’s blog the week beforehand offering my services as a tweeter or liveblogger during the event. Whyte & Mackay’s social media supremo, Craig McGill, invited me along, blagged me a freebie ticket and jammed a Flip camera into my hand for part of the day – it was rather good fun. While I was there under the auspices of a free W&M ticket the brief was very much wider – wander round, talk to as many people as possible and just get a sense of the whole day for everyone. However, as a large part of the day focused around the W&M whisky media front man, Mr Paterson of the post title, I did spend more time with my sponsors than I planned.
The day started off in slightly random fashion with me being pushed towards a stage by Craig and Richard to take part in a whisky blending session, but more of that in my next post. The day continued with stops at pretty much all of the stands in the small ballroom of the Glasgow Thistle and a break after lunch for the main Whyte & Mackay event – Richard Paterson’s 40th anniversary at the company.
Richard Paterson is rather well known in the whisky industry. I’m not certain how much time he can devote to the duties his job title suggests, as for a master blender he seems to spend most of his time away from his blending room. He acts as the ambassador for almost everything in the Whyte & Mackay stable, including their range of blends as well as Dalmore, Jura and Fettercairn single malts. They are now part of United Breweries which, Richard announced, would soon overtake Diageo as the largest drinks company in the world. Richard has whisky in his family, with him being the third generation working as a master blender, and the week after Whisky Live Glasgow marked his 40th anniversary of working with Whyte & Mackay. In celebratory fashion there was a cake and to accompany it there was a, less traditional, ‘tache mob, with free drams of Whyte & Mackay’s 30 year old blend and Fettercairn 40 single malt offered to anyone who turned up dressed as Richard, or at least moustachioed as he is. There was also a box of rubber noses, to honour his trademark nose, immortalised in the title of his book (Goodness Nose) and his twitter account (@the_nose). Suffice to say this was the most surreal part of the day.
Outside of the fuss focused on Richard there was a good range of stuff going on. Each of the stands had things going on with the most noticeable being Glenfiddich’s, with one of their coopers (as they are one of the last distilleries with on-site barrel makers) demonstrating the art of building and disassembling barrels all day, complete with loud banging noises as he beat the increasingly beaten up looking barrel with a hammer:
I started the day with a dram of the Tweedale Blend. One of the ‘lost’ whiskies, similar to the Bailie Nicol Jarvie from Whisky Squad #6, that stopped production due to the second world war it has been recreated by Alasdair Day, great-grandson of Richard Day, the blender who produced the original whisky. Working from his grandfather’s recipe book (containing the recipes from 1899 to 1916) he’s put together a new version of the old whisky which was released earlier this year. I’d heard about it on WhiskyCast (with an update after Whisky Live in episode 278), was intrigued (especially with it appearing at the time when I was starting to want to reexamine blends) and have since been looking for a chance to try it. Annoyingly I don’t have any notes but I remembered that it was rather tasty, with a nice bit of woodiness and some good sherry-ness to it. It’s still on the list to be tried again and I would have bought a bottle of it, purchased from Alasdair himself at a knockdown “I don’t want to have to carry this back to the office” price if I hadn’t spent all my cash on new spirit…
The new spirit came from the Glenglassaugh stand, where they were showing off their newly released range of ‘spirit drinks’. Mothballed in 1986, the distillery restarted production in 2008 and has been keeping themselves afloat until their new whisky comes of age by selling off both old stock and new make spirit. They started off with ‘The Spirit That Dare Not Speak Its Name’, new make whisky (the ‘whisky’ before it goes in a barrel) diluted to 50% (from the normal mid 60s% ABV), and progressed to ‘The Spirit That Blushes To Speak Its Name’, young spirit that had been matured for 6 months in red wine casks. These were quite popular, leading to them creating a range of drinks that were release recently. I grabbed a bottle of the Blushes, the new name for the wine cask matured spirit, while visiting Edinburgh recently but hadn’t had a chance to try it yet, so decided to have taste of some of the rest of the range at their stand. I first tried their Fledgling XB, spirit matured for 1 year in american oak casks. It had taken on a light yellow colour, and combined the caraway seed hints of new make spirit with vanilla essence on the nose. To taste it had a little edge of wood but was mainly a worryingly drinkable new make spirit. I moved on to the Clearac, the new name for the ‘Spirit That Not Dare Speak Its Name’. On the nose it had a touch of citrus as well as the usual new make aquavit punch and slight oiliness. It tasted similar to how it smelled, but yet again was worryingly drinkable. I stopped at this point and grabbed a bottle of Clearac and Peated, the version of their spirit made with peated barley, to go with the Blushes I had at home, to be doled out when I have people round to taste whisky in the future. I’ve been looking for commercially available new make spirit for a while, of which there are a few brands although generally either not very good or very hard to get hold of, and while these aren’t at still strength they are both educational, if you want to see how whisky matures in wood, and quite tasty.
The next whisky I have notes on was a surprise on the Bruichladdich stand. I was walking past and heard someone mention Octomore 3.0 and doubled back quickly to make sure I hadn’t misheard. Bottled the week before this was one of the first outings for the distillery’s super-peaty whisky, with this one allegedly coming in at 155ppm of phenol, rather more than the 50-60ppm that you find in the regular ‘really peaty’ whiskies on Islay. After trying the Octomore 2.2 Orpheus the other week I was interested to see if this one lived up to my opinion of that previous release – in short, not really. On the nose it had strong peat with mulchy undertones, an underlying meatiness, some wood and a hint of ammonia. To taste it had the expected burst of sweet peat and smoke but it was backed up by a sweet synthetic rhubarb taste, almost like rhubarb half of a rhubarb and custard sweet. It was interesting and definitely one to try if you’re a peat lover, but it didn’t beat the Orpheus in my book.
The last whisky I have notes on was courtesy of the folk at Whyte & Mackay. I first helped out at group tasting by the stand, running out of hands and thus not writing anything down about the Jura Superstition. However I did grab a video of Willie Tait talking about it and passing around some Haribo sweets to go with the whisky:
The one I got to taste was Fettercairn 40 year old. Fettercairn sits on the edge of the Grampian mountains and isn’t particularly well known for its distillery bottlings, as most of its production going into Whyte & Mackay’s blends, but the brand seems to be being resurrected recently as an avenue to continue their release of some old and rare single malts. Only 463 bottles of the 40 year old have been released (and as the drams we got where poured from a variety of randomly branded bottles pulled out of bags behind the stand I assume this is some of the whisky that didn’t get officially bottled) and it costs over £700 – it is the most expensive whisky I have ever tried. This was handed out to everyone who was dressed as Richard Paterson, or at least either had a moustache (real or fake) or expressed an interest in facial hair while standing near the Whyte & Mackay stand. On the nose it had heavy vanilla and almonds, with light honey, heather, salt and candle wax. To taste it had a sweetness down the sides of the tongue with a sour fruit centre, with a slab of orange peel, that turned quickly into spicy wood. A drop of water brought a some sawdust, fragrant wood and a hint of dryness. An interesting dram with a fantastic nose that I didn’t particularly like the taste of. Not to the tune of £700, anyway.
I wandered out of the show with my two social media companions, Scott of In With Bacchus and Blair from the Aberdeen University Whisky Society, and settled down for a swift half and some reflection before we went our separate ways (me to my hotel, Blair to find more pubs and Scott to run back to Edinburgh and move into his university rooms to start a brewing and distilling course). The show itself was quite small and distinctly missing the big companies other than United Breweries (no Diageo, no Edrington group, no LVMH). Glenfiddich was there, along with the cooper and the second biggest stand in the room after W&M, but other than that it was the smaller names in whisky, along with some independent bottlers and a couple of food producers (with some excellent cheese, meat, fish and chocolate to nibble on). I got to try some interesting things, although as usual was rubbish at making notes, and the people on almost all of the stands were happy to talk about their whiskies and also knew what they were talking about, something you sometimes don’t get in larger shows, with distillery employees and whisky experts sent over rather than brand managers and professional stand staff. This is quite different to Whisky Live Taipei, which Blair helped out at this summer – a huge conference centre, all the big names, tens of thousands of visitors and a convention the likes of which you only find in the far east these days. The Glasgow show wasn’t something I’d normally travel a large proportion of the length of the UK to visit, but my trip does now mean that I have used the three oldest underground railway systems in the world and two of the three in the UK (Newcastle – you are next on my list).
Many thanks to Craig McGill and Richard Paterson for getting me a ticket and giving me a reason to get on a train to Glasgow. Also my fellow bloggers Scott and Blair for being lovely. Our coverage from the day, along with a load of other tweets, can be found on the Master Blender blog. There’s also a load more video up on their YouTube channel. I also bumped into Victor Brierley, often referred to as The Bagging Scotland Bloke, who has started doing whisky tours around Glasgow – you should all go.
The Tweeddale Blend
Blended scotch whisky, 46%. ~£28 per bottle.
Glenglassaugh Fledgling XB
1 year old spirit drink, american oak aged, 50%. ~£15 for a 200ml bottle.
Unaged spirit drink, 50%. ~£15 for a 200ml bottle.
6 month old spirit drink, Californian red wine cask aged, 50%. ~£15 for a 200ml bottle.
Bruichladdich Octomore 3.0
5 years old Islay single malt whisky, 59%. Not yet available.
Fettercairn 40 year old
40 year old highland single malt scotch whisky, 40%. £725 per bottle.
Bruichladdich are one of the most prolific producers of single malt whisky in Scotland at the moment. Based on Islay they opened in 1881, closed (as many did) in the mid-90s and then re-opened in 2001 under the eye of Mark Reynier, who led a group of private investors in buying and restarting the distillery. I first tried one of their whiskies shortly after the distilery reopened, but can remember very little other than it was the first whisky I tried that reminded me of the sea.
More recently they’ve become known for both their experimentation and for releasing of lots of their experiments – just looking at Master of Malt they have 68 distillery bottlings listed, which is more than one new bottling every two months since the distillery reopened. Everything from cask finishes and slight variations on the core range to their X4 quadruple distilled spirit (rather than the two that single malt scotch usually gets) and Octomore, supposedly the most peated whisky ever made at 140ppm.
They’ve done a couple of releases of the Octomore, each with a different twist on the idea, and I recently grabbed a sample of their most recent release from Master of Malt’s Drinks by the Dram – Octomore 2.2 Orpheus. The tweak on this one is simple – they finish the bourbon matured spirit in red wine casks. However, just to make sure that this is a little bit more exclusive they used Petrus casks. It’s a bit older than the earlier editions, at 5 years, and has been bottled at its full 61% cask strength as part of a limited edition of 15000 bottles, which are now starting to rise in price as collectors snap them up. The earlier releases of Octomore inspired a lot of underwhelming reviews, going up against the first edition of Ardbeg Supernova as they did, but this one seems to have done a bit better, even if it has produced the expected love-it/hate-it reviews.
The first thing that you notice about the whisky is its colour – it’s pink. It may have only been finished in the wine casks but has picked up a lot of the colour from the wood. On the nose it has sweet peat, as expected, as well as vanilla, grain mulch and an underlying savouriness that I’ve noticed in most wine cask matured whisky (the flavour that I have now stopped calling ‘bbq chicken’ because it was starting to get me funny looks). It was cloying, with the peat and sweetness sticking at the back of the throat as I sniffed. To taste it started with mud and sweetness before moving through bitter lemons and spicy wood. It had a menthol quality that dried the tongue and this lingered into the finish with more peat and salty caramel. At 61% and with this much peat it could take a lot of water, and it’s the peat which gets hit most by the addition. The mud and peatiness mellowed, leaving the sweetness, spicy citrus and menthol, and the finish got a slab of butteriness, rounding out the caramel flavour.
I’ve not tried any of the other releases of the Octomore but even if this is the best of the bunch I’d like to go back and have a go – this is really rather nice. A touch of water brings out the best in it, mellowing the fire of the young whisky and some of its peatiness and bringing out its underlying richness. The wine casks add a bit of meatiness to the body, but otherwise leave the spirit to shine (which from my point of view is how it should be) and it’s definitely gone on my ‘nice to have in the cupboard’ list.
Bruichladdich Octomore 2.2 Orpheus
5 year old Petrus cask finished Islay single malt Scothc whisky. 61%. ~ £80 at Master of Malt