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 #41 – No points for saying ‘Grassy Notes’

While Whisky Squad started out at The Gunmakers, with even the initial formation of the idea happening at the bar, over the last year or so we’ve been letting Jeff have his upstairs room back from time to time to make a foray out into the world. For Whisky Squad #41 we took that to the next obvious level and had the tasting outside – in St James’s Park.

It was to be Squad co-founder Andy’s last session of organising and he picked out a theme that he’d been wanting to look out for a while – Lowlanders. While the other regions of Scotland are all quite full of distilleries, the Lowlands have slowly but surely been contracting over the last few decades, until now there are only three operating single malt distilleries – Glenkinchie, Auchentoshan and Bladnoch. That said, there are still numerous bottlings available from the closed distilleries, so it wasn’t going to be as short a Squad session as it might at first seem.

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Whisky Squad #5 – Summer Whiskies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whisky Blending Class with John Glaser

I like the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Not only do they allow me to claim that I’m ‘off to my club’ of an evening and there-in drink interesting whiskies, but they also put on events. I may have failed to attend an event for the last 2.5 years, but this most recent one gave me the kick I needed to book a place – an evening of learning about whisky blending with John Glaser of Compass Box. I’m quite interested in whisky blending, as I’ve increasingly noticed decent ones over the years and have come to realise that ‘blend’ doesn’t equal Bells and friends. As Compass Box seem to be the name in boutique blending, hearing from their founder about his views on blending was high on my list.

The evening was centred around making our own blended whisky but first we got to hear about the Compass Box approach to blending and taste a few samples of finished whiskies, all of which are no longer available (either by being discontinued or having their recipes noticeably changed). First up was an early version of Asyla, the ‘standard’ Compass Box blend, from August 2002. It’s 50% grain whisky, from the Cameron Bridge and (now closed) Cambus distilleries, and 50% malt, with the malt coming mainly from Linkwood with a bit of Glen Elgin and Cragganmore. The big noted difference about this whisky is that all of its components come from first fill barrels (an uncommon enough situation that it may well be the first modern commercial bottling to have done so), so have taken on more of the wood characteristics than they would have in a more reused barrel. On the nose it’s quite light with fruit, pepper and some vanilla, and to taste it has bananas, green apples and a touch of caramel, with a rubbery finish – very nice but maybe a bit light for me. The recipe has changed over the years, with availability issues meaning that the Linkwood has been slowly replaced by Teaninich over the years to today’s no-Linkwood version. The theory behind it is quite simple though – grain for vanilla sweetness, Linkwood/Teaninich for perfumed fruitiness, Glen Elgin for some more fruit and Cragganmore for a ‘meatiness’. The main difference between this strategy for blending and the big batch blends is that generally Compass Box aim to take a single whisky and build the flavour around it – in the case of the Asyla it’s the Linkwood/Teaninich flavour that is complimented by the light grain flavours and the slightly more obvious (hence their smaller concentration) Glen Elgin and Cragganmore influences – rather than build consistency and ‘complexity’ by adding lots of whiskies together.

Next on the sample list was Juveniles, named for the Juveniles wine bar in Paris. This one comes in at 44% (as requested by the owner of Juveniles, to be ‘like the elephant gun’), was bottled in 2002 or 2003 and is now discontinued. This one is built around Clynelish, a whisky whose name appears quite often when John talks about his recipes. It provides a waxy, oily fruitiness as a base which is then built on with Glen Elgin, for fruit, and Glen Ord, for some smokiness – it’s about 1/3rd of each, all first fill again. On the nose it’s oily with pepper and red fruit and to taste it has that oiliness along with a chunk of smoke and fruit, finishing off with charcoal.

Last of the pre-blended whiskies was Eleuthera, which I am quite pleased to have got a miniature of from John’s sample sack, which has also now been discontinued. It’s one of Compass Box’s attempts to make an easy drinking but still smoky whisky, like the Peat Monster in idea but not quite as peaty. It’s 80% Clynelish (1/2 first fill and 1/2 refill) with 20% Caol Ila to add some smokiness, as a little bit of Caol Ila goes a long way. On the nose it has sweet peat, salt, pepper and a little bit of fruit. To taste it has warm smoke, woody spiciness and a some nice fruitiness. It’s rather good and one that I wish I’d found before it disappeared.

Next we moved on to the task for the evening – making our own whisky. We were told to think about what sort of dram we wanted to make and were let loose upon tasters of our 5 potential components:

  • Port Dundas – grain from a recently closed distillery, made in 1991 and recently drawn from the barrel. On the nose it had vanilla, coconut and biscuits, and added toffee and caramel in the quite delicate taste, giving a combined effect of fruity caramel digestives. Which was really very nice indeed.
  • Clynelish – a predictable addition to the list and very welcome, this was provided by the SMWS rather than from the Compass Box stocks – it was very good, with John expressing disappointment that the society didn’t have a spare bottle to sell him. On the nose it was salty with sour fruit and sherbert lemons, with the taste turning towards salty preserved lemons. Water brought our a fragrant wood polish flavour and some spice.
  • An unnamed vatted malt – from the Compass Box stash, this was a barrel with new wood french oak heads that will go on to make up Spice Tree, a mix of Clynelish, Teaninich and Dalhuaine. It had a bit of sweetness and caramel on the nose but opened up to a rich woody sweetness with dried fruit on the taste. Water worked well, bringing out vanilla from the wood and a chunk of spiciness. If Spice Tree tasted more like this then I suspect I would have a case hidden somewhere in the house (I got a chance to taste one of the older Spice Trees later on and it did used to taste more like this, but they are now moving towards a more refined style which while very nice isn’t quite as much to my rather unrefined taste).
  • Ardmore – aged somewhere between 10 and 13 years this was brought in as a potential peaty element. On the nose it had salty wood and tasted of smoky fruit. Water softened the smoke and brought out some vanilla. Nice, but not one for my blend.
  • Laphroaig – an 11 year old that Compass Box have held for a number of years (and that was lovely at 7 years old) this was our more extreme peaty component. It smelled of sweet mulched peat and had a flinty peaty taste. A nice Laphroaig, but a bit of a beast.

Billy's BlendI decided to pinch the idea from some of the Compass Box range and build my blend around Clynelish, bringing in some of the sweetness from the Port Dundas and then ‘enriching’ it with the Spice Tree. Armed with the idea, a pipette and a measuring cup I did a few test drams, gradually dialling out the Spice Tree until it didn’t come through too much. I ended up with 50% Port Dundas, 45% Clynelish and 5% Spice Tree, although as there was a little bit of space in the top of the bottle still there may be a little bit more spice tree in the mix than that suggests.

On the nose it has bananas, pineapple, candied fruit and a hint of salt. To taste it starts with a burst of red fruit and moves on to tropical fruit with a vanilla-y wood finish. A drop of water changes things quite a bit, with some more oiliness appearing on the nose and in the taste, along with a rubberiness to the finish. Unsurprisingly, I rather I like it, almost as if someone made it just for me. John advised us to leave it for a few weeks and then to try it again as the flavours should develop – I’ve always been slightly dubious about this, but I’ll give it a go and report back…

Anyways, a thoroughly enjoyable evening. I must remember to keep an eye on the events list – there’s been a change of manager at the SMWS London rooms (with former boss man Darren now at Master of Malt) and it looks like there might be some interesting things coming up.