Whisky Lounge – Islay ‘Blind Fury’ Tasting

Having rather foolishly double booked myself during the last Whisky Lounge event in London (a Springbank tasting that I was rather looking forward to that got dropped in favour of an evening of sherry) I grabbed a ticket to Mr Ludlow’s December extravaganza as soon as I could. This time the format was slightly different in that it was to be a blind tasting, with the whiskies revealed at the end of the night, focusing on whiskies from the whisky obsessed island of Islay.

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There are currently 8 distilleries on the island (with a 9th in the planning/building stages), which isn’t bad for a piece of land less than half the size of London and inhabited by only 3500 people. While traditionally Islay is known for its peaty spirit the distilleries produce a range of whiskies, with Bunnahabhain producing unpeated spirit (most of the time) and Ardbeg producing face melting bottles of smoky mud (also, most of the time). A blind tasting of these is quite interesting, as while each distillery has its own style different bottlings borrow ideas from the other producers, making things all a bit muddled. There are a few bottlings and distilleries that I reckon I could pick out, but I was interested to see how many I could guess. In the end though this blind tasting wasn’t about guessing. Knowing where the spirit in my glass has come from will often prompt an attitude or tasting note that comes from inside my head rather than from the glass. Tasting blind removes all of that and hopefully lets us taste without preconceptions.

IMG_6364It was a full house in the upstairs room of The Red Lion in St James’s and the man behind the Whisky Lounge, Eddie Ludlow, led the group through the whiskies. The plan was simple – we were to taste the whisky, talk about it and then give him a tasting note from each table to add to a record of the evening and compare against the other tastings of the same whiskies that he’d done around the country. We were the penultimate leg on his tour of the UK and the room did well in coming up with yet another totally different set of tasting notes for Eddie to try and consolidate. I was sat next to Chris Matchett, one of my occasional whisky buddies, a man well known for his lyrical descriptions of flavours – he was the one who came out with comments about bacon at the unsmoky The Glenlivet tasting last month…

IMG_6366First up was a coppery bronze dram that Eddie let us know was between 46 and 50% alcohol. On the nose it was sweaty and muddy, with camphor, apple, sea salt, a hint of oranges and salted caramel. To taste it had vanilla and light smokiness (more woody than peaty), with a syrupy texture and a dry, spicy wood finish. Water brought out more sweet creamy vanilla and some perfume from the wood, as well as some sticky glacé cherry. The tasting note we ended up providing was ‘Soggy marmite toast with salted butter and golden syrup, all spread with the same knife’, although Chris’s ‘Birkenstock sandals that someone else has been wearing all summer’ as one for just the nose almost pipped it. As an overall description his note of ‘A speyside whisky on holiday’ pretty much nailed it – not your usual Islay fair. My prediction for this one was that it was a sherried Bunnahabhain and I was rather pleased to see that I was right – it was Bunnahabhain 12 years old. This is a new version of their standard whisky, bottled at a stronger than before 46.3% and made up of a mix of bourbon and sherry casks. Totally unpeated and quite rich, it was a tasty start to the evening.

IMG_6369Next was a very lightly coloured whisky which we were told was between 50 and 55%. On the nose it was quite a big difference to the previous whisky – woody/muddy peat, mulchy seaweed, mint, mushrooms, pears, strawberry, cracked granite, meaty butter, a hint of the farmyard and a floral centre (maybe roses). To taste it maintained the muddiness from the nose adding in some piney smoke. It had a minerally, grassy finish that lingered around with a hint of the sweetly syrupy middle  flavour. Water tamed it nicely, adding orange, lime and a generic ‘fruitiness’ to the nose, pushing the smokiness back a bit. This revealed more stoniness and some sweet citrus hanging around in the middle. I didn’t have much of a clue on this one and put it down as maybe one of the peaty Bruichladdichs, focusing on the mineraliness. As expected I was entirely wrong – it was a Berry Brothers and Rudd 1989 Bowmore, bottled at 50.9% and 20 years old. Probably from a quite inactive cask and totally unlike any Bowmore I’ve tried before.

IMG_6372We then moved on to a darker dram, a nice yellow gold, which were told was 40-50%. On the nose there was sweaty salted butter, leather, marmalade, toast, lemon, mulch and Bisto gravy thickener (the brown cornflour rather than gravy granules). To taste it had a light caramel sweetness to start, with an oily mouthfeel, leading to a hot peaty finish through a core of creamy sugar and woody spice. Water extended the sweetness into the finish and softened the wood to a green twig sappiness. The smoke of the finish gave way to woodiness with orchard fruit and sweet and sour sauce. For this I guessed an Ardbeg, focusing on the peat/wood/sweet combination (which may not be general Ardbeg but for some reason sticks in my head), but was yet again entirely wrong. It was, instead, a bit of a ringer – Jura Prophecy. This has no age statement (although it’s probably 12-16 years old), is bottled at 46% and is the heavily peated expression of their range – a range of whiskies from the next island along from Islay, separated by a mere 250m of water. Eddie got round this ‘semantic’ argument by claiming that Jura was connected to Islay via an underwater causeway, and thus counted. There were murmurings…

IMG_6375Next up was a coppery dram that we were told was between 55 and 60%. On the nose there was turkish delight, dark chocolate, raisins, burned apple pie (very specifically listed by me as the burned bits on the top of the pie where the pastry cracks and the filling bubbles out, and by someone else as the layer between the filling and the pastry when the top has burned), bread and butter pudding, and a bed of meaty peat under it all. To taste it was very smoky, with a heavy coal smoke flavour almost obscuring vanilla and more apple pie. Water helped separate the flavours, leaving a spike of peat at the front leading to a sweet muddy mulch. The coal is calmed down to reveal vodka-like grain. Our note for this was ‘Apple pie and ice cream beside an iron coal stove’. This was the first whisky I was fairly certain of, writing down a definite Bowmore – the specific sweet smokiness is the flavour that I find in Bowmore and few other Islay whiskies, and this time I was right – Bowmore Tempest, a 10 year old whisky bottled at 56%. This one was from the second batch they’ve made of this and was matured in first fill bourbon casks.

IMG_6374Our penultimate dram was very light and between 46 and 49%. From the nose I was certain I knew which distillery it was from – a strong smell of the farmyard, light alcohols, white cabbage, menthol, caraway, vodka, a light oiliness (the smell of ‘flavourless’ cooking oils) and white pepper. It smelled young and was quite thin and prickly. To taste it had a creaminess combined with the smoke, bringing to mind Bavarian smoked cheese tubes. It also had sweet root vegetables, lots of caraway and a pleasantly creamy mouth feel. A drop of water brought out tropical fruit, sour wood and mulchy peat as well as more cream. I was certain that this was Kilchoman, the island’s newest distillery, as the whisky tasted very young and similar to the new make spirit and not-mature-yet ‘whiskies’ that I’ve had from them. Yet again I was wrong – it was Douglas Laing’s Big Peat Batch 10, a blended malt bottled at 46% and made up of whiskies from Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and Port Ellen (although as the latter is closed and bottles go for silly amounts of money we assumed that there wasn’t much of it in there). This is a really young tasting whisky and ones that makes me want to crack open the bottle of Kilchoman I have hiding at the back of my cupboard.

The last whisky of the night was a pale gold, and between 55 and 60%. On the nose it had golden syrup and salt, burning grassland, mint, white grapes and a stony minerality. To taste it was sweet with and almost cloying peatiness backed up by wood smoke. There was also sweet fruit (apple and strawberry?), fragrant tea and pepper. Water brought out lime and vanilla on the nose, and sherbert, wet carpet, cinnamon, lemon & lime, spiced orange peel and a tarry finish to the taste. Again, I was fairly certain I knew what this one was (especially bolstered by 6 drams as I was by this time) and both wrote down and called out Laphroaig Quarter Cask, focusing on the sweet peatiness and minerality that I find in that whisky. Predictably I was wrong again – it was a cask sample from Ardbeg. Drawn from the cask (a first fill bourbon barrel) quite recently it was at the cask strength of 56.3% and was distilled in 2000.

In the end I was quite pleased with two out of six, especially as most of my other guesses made sense (at least to me) and weren’t blind stabs in the dark. It was also nice to taste things without any foreshadowing, letting my subconscious whisky snob stay asleep and not jump in with its ideas. The evening was wrapped up by singer/guitarist/songwriter Tim Hain knocking out a quick rendition of his song One More Dram (last heard at The Whisky Show a month or so ago, accompanied by Colin Dunn in the Connosr Whiskypod) before Eddie had to run away to the snowy north again. There are already plans afoot for next year’s events and there is also a new Whisky Lounge dram appearing soon – Dram 101. It’s a blended malt with about 50 components and was put together by Eddie as a follow up to last year’s Whisky Lounge Festival Dram. It should be available from the Whisky Lounge website soon, maybe even before Christmas but so far the only evidence of its imminent existence are a couple of tweets and this video

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At the end of the tasting we all scored the whiskies out of 100 (something that I hate doing, hence the lack of scores on this site) and Eddie is now collating the results from all of the tastings ready for release to see which whisky came out top overall. My favourite of the night was the Berry Brother’s Bowmore, followed by the Big Peat, so I’ll be interested to see what the group reckoned.

Bunnahbhain 12 Year Old (new bottling)
Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 46.3%. ~£30 from The Whisky Exchange.

Berry Brothers & Rudd 1989 Bowmore
Single Cask Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 50.9%. ~£60 from BBR.

Jura Prophecy
Single Malt Jura Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£50 from Master of Malt.

Bowmore Tempest 10 Year old
Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 56%. ~£40 from Master of Malt.

Big Peat
Blended Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£30 from Master of Malt.

Ardbeg first fill bourbon cask sample
Single Cask Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 56.3%. Not available unless you go to the distillery and beg or rob Eddie.

Whisky Blending and tasting with Richard Paterson, two times…

As I noted in my last post, some of the current whisky obsessiveness on this blog can be laid at the door of Richard Paterson, master blender at Whyte & Mackay and constant whisky show presence. My first in person encounter with Richard was a few minutes after getting in to Whisky Live Glasgow, where I was dragged on to stage to take part in a blending session. However, something that I’d forgotten was that I’d signed up to do a blending class and tasting with Richard at Milroy’s a week later. There was a lot of crossover between the two blending sessions, so I’ll stick them together.

Richard PatersonThe basic premise of the session was to get people to understand blending with a ‘simple’ task – blend together 6 whiskies to try and represent the character of the person on a card in front of you. We were given some grain, lowland, Speyside, medium highland, heavier highland and smoky Islay as our ingredients and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronnie Corbett, Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman, Jordan and a sumo wrestler as our inspiration. At Whisky Live I got Jordan, and after being told off for saying I wanted to make a “cheap tasting” whisky, settled on something with a heavy perfume and hint of smoke – heavy on the speyside with a body of grain and a hint of Islay at the end. I deservedly didn’t win that time, the honour going to Nicole Kidman, but my team picked up the accolade at Milroy’s with our sumo wrestler whisky – big and heavy with a slap at the end. Lots of heavy and medium highlands with a bit of Speyside, some grain (at cask strength) for welly and a hefty slug of the Islay for a late punch. According to the rather large certificate that Richard signed for me I am now an official Whyte & Mackay master blender, but I won’t be giving up my day job quite yet – I have a small sample jar of ‘Jordan’ on the side and opening it for a smell does not fill me with enthusiasm for my skills.

If you want to see the fun and games of the Whisky Live Glasgow session, social media king Craig set up a camera at the side of the room and captured almost all of it – part 1, part 2, part3. Including my being rubbish on stage in part 2.

Jura SuperstitionThe more interesting bit (for a blending ‘veteran’ such as myself) at the Milroy’s event was the tasting we started off with, running through part of Whyte & Mackay’s premium range. We started off with Jura Prophecy, distilled in 1992 with 90% matured in bourbon casks and 10% in sherry. On the nose it had salt, grass and seaweed, toasted wood, caramel and hint of, maybe, sweet cooked carrots. It also had a bit of wood polish, some olive oil and a slug of damp peat at the end. To taste it had a tannic end led to by fizzy lemon, tarmac and polished wooden floors. Water definitely helped, bringing out more salt and some custard on the nose. The taste had sherbet lemons, bitter wood, sweet smoke and the custard from the nose. I’m already a fan of Jura, but this one was really rather nice – not as peated as I would expect from the ‘heavy peat’ reputation that Willie Tait (former Jura manager) pushed at Whisky Live and nicely balanced, with wood, citrus, smoke and sweetness all rolled together.

Fettercairn 24Next was a bit of a move up, going on to the Fettercairn 24. I’d tried the 40 year old bottling at Whisky Live and not been blown away, and was interested to see what the younger expression would offer. It was a lovely bronze colour and had orange, sweet fruit, liquorice, pine and lemon scented floor polish on the nose. To taste it had almonds and cinnamon with a bitter wood finish and a buttery mouthfeel. Water calmed down the bitterness of the wood, turning the almonds into marzipan and the fruit from the nose into fizzy fruit chews. On top of this was some hazelnut and a spicy woody finish. Much closer to the nose of the 40 year old (which was fantastic, even if the taste wasn’t to my liking), but maybe not to the tune of £120 per bottle. The marzipan flavour is something I’m definitely going to be looking out for in other drams and I may have to have a try of their regular 12 year old.

Dalmore MatusalemWe jumped up the price scale to the Dalmore 1974 Matusalem – named for its year of distilling and the type of sherry barrels used for its finishing. After an initial 27 years in rare palo cortado casks it sat finishing for 5 years in barrels formerly used to mature Gonzalez Byass’s rather special 30 year old oloroso, for a total of 32 years of maturation. A rather limited release this one compared to many from Whyte & Mackay’s stable, with only 780 bottles of it in the wild. It was deep bronze in colour with a nose of candied orange slice cake decorations and perfumed almonds. To taste there was an initial burst of sweetness leading to raisins, marmalade and buttery lemons. Water brought out more floral notes, creamy vanilla, fizzy refresher chews and a woody finish. Quite impressive, as you’d expect for the second most expensive whisky I’ve ever tasted.

Dalmore King Alexander IIIAfter the Matusalem the only way to move in price was down and we moved on to the Dalmore 1992 King Alexander III. I’d missed a chance to grab a dram of this at Whisky Live in London earlier this year, turning up moments too late and seeing a tray of glasses emptied before I could get to it. It is made up of whiskies that have been finished in 6 different cask types – port, madeira, marsala, cabernet sauvignon, Knob Creek bourbon and oloroso sherry – for 2-6 years depending on the type of wood (with the port taking 6). It poured reddy bronze with heavy raisins, woody sweetness and vanilla on the nose. To taste it had sugary sweetness, orange and vanilla, moved to a mid-taste of sweet raisins, and finished with spicy oak. I didn’t add water to it, and I wish I had – it was a bit of a muddle and I think it might have helped bring the various flavours out a bit. There was definitely a hint of all of the different finishes in there, but I’m not sure that it all worked together at bottle strength, only 40% though it was.

Whyte & Mackay 30We then moved on to our last dram of the night – Whyte & Mackay’s 30 year old. This is W&M’s premium blend and one that I’d got to have a quick sip of at Whisky Live Glasgow, enough to make me want to try it again. It’s definitely the top end of their range – with a boasted 25-27 components (a far cry from the John Glaser small batch approach) and bottled in black glass, it’s a cut above Whyte & Mackay’s regular range. On the nose it had custard, raisins and perfumed wood and to taste it had sweet custard with spicy oak bitterness and a lingering sherried fruitiness. Water bittered things up a little bit with dark orange chocolate joining the rich mix. Rather nice and further demonstrating that blends needn’t all be rubbish, grain heavy, Tesco’s shelf filler. This stuff does cost £180 a bottle, but it is pretty good. It’s not got the sort of backing and reputation that Chivas Regal’s top brands and Johnny Walker Blue Label have yet, but it’s definitely in the same league as them.

All in all a thoroughly enjoyable couple of events. Richard Paterson is definitely someone to see do his act in person, with over the top hand waving about ‘the pussies’ who don’t know what they’re missing, throwing whisky on the floor and audience, and the occasional party popper, although outside of that he is just a nice guy to have a chat with. I’ve not been to Milroy’s for a tasting before and while this one was a bit more than I’d usually pay (£40) it was an impressive whisky range that I’d not see elsewhere, with the 1974 Dalmore going for at least £40 a shot if you found it in a bar – I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more from them.

Jura Prophecy
No age statement (16 years old?) Jura single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£50

Fettercairn 24
Highland single malt scotch whisky. 44.4%. ~£120

Dalmore 1974 Matusalem Sherry Finesse
Highland single malt scotch whisky. 42%. ~£600

Dalmore 1992 King Alexander III
Highland single malt scotch whisky. 40%. ~£120

Whyte & Mackay 30 Year Old
Blended scotch whisky. 43%. ~£180

The photos above are a bit rubbish because Milroy’s do their tastings in the basement under their Soho shop. It’s dark down there…but nice.

Whyte & Mackay are currently running a competition to win a bottle of their 30 year old – find one of the bottles of their ‘regular’ Special Blended Whisky that has been filled instead with 30 year old (as indicated by a note under the cap) and you can win one of 250 additional bottles of neat 30 year old. There is more info, including a video of ‘Richard Paterson’ breaking into the bottling plant to be nefarious with the whisky, over on the Master Blender website.