It’s impressive how quickly 12 months can pass by. This time last year, I was trying to work out how to both get to the Islay Festival of Malt and Music – Fèis Ile to its friends and about 50,000 Scottish gaelic speakers – and travel around the island once I got there. My companion during this ‘planning’ was a dram from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, their first bottled in celebration of the festival. This year I can’t make it to Islay, so instead I’m looking at other people’s plans with a new whisky compantion – the SMWS’s second festival bottling, 127.44: Cantina Mexicana.
It’s Saturday again, so I’m in the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and have been for a while. So, a shorter post, as I’m taking time off from drinking to write this.
I’m yet again breaking my ’24 whiskies’ rule, to drop in something a little bit different. My 19th advent calendar dram is SMWS C1 Nectar Céleste – an XO Cognac…
I’m a man of habit. I wake up at the same time every day, go to bed about the same time, walk the same route when I go wandering around town, and almost every Saturday I go out for a whisky or two at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
Today, my schedule has been disrupted by various booze related activities (of which more tomorrow), but I have a brief trip to the SMWS planned shortly – hello Phil, Martyn and the gang, I’m on my way now. In the meantime, here are some notes about a dram from their latest outturn that they sent me a sample of – 33.132 Beauty and the Beast. Eight-year-old whisky from Ardbeg.
The Islay Festival of Malt and Music, Feis Ile to its friends, is almost upon us again. From 22-30 May, the Hebridean island’s population will double, with whisky fans from around the world descending to celebrate Islay’s whisky. However, while each distillery on the island has an open day, with an inevitable special bottling, it’s not only the locals who are getting in on the act. Last year, Douglas Laing popped up on the island with some tastings of their independently bottled Islay drams, and this year they’re joined by my favourite independent bottler, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. They are running an open day of their own on the island, including the launch of their first, to my knowledge, Feis Ile bottling – 3.243: Dark, smouldering flamenco gypsy.
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.
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.
The year hasn’t ended yet and here it is – a blog post about the most recent Whisky Squad tasting. It’s even (unless plans go awry, in which case I’ll delete this sentence making these parentheses entirely pointless) before the next Squad meeting, the Christmas dinner on the 8th of December, so this officially makes me a good boy again.
Anyways, the second tasting of November was deliberately pushed towards the end of the month as it was in honour of Movember, and the extra couple of weeks meant that there were some moustaches on display, unlike during the Smoking Section tasting where MoSista Charly‘s stick on lip warmer was the only thing worthy of the name ‘Mo’. Anyways, we gathered upstairs at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society with bottles donated from a variety of sponsors and all the proceeds going straight to the Whisky4Movember fund raising efforts. Unfortunately we had some generous sponsors and even excluding the emergency bottle I had in my bag, just in case any of the whiskies didn’t arrive, we had eight drams to get through. It’s a hard life…
As the year draws to a close the season of Christmas parties is upon us. I missed my office Christmas party for the last Whisky Squad (the unblogged #8a, which involved BYOB, chocolate and some impressive drunkenness – Jason managed to write something down and then read it back again, the latter part of which isn’t quite possible from my notes) and have somehow managed to avoid any others until last week when The Squad grabbed the back room of The Gunmakers.
The plan was ‘simple’ – there’d be more seats than usual, there’d be a three course Christmas meal from The Gunmaker’s rather excellent kitchen and Whisky Guy Darren would choose some whiskies to accompany the meal. Things veered away from simple when it was also announced that there would be a whisky quiz, knocked up by Darren and Whisky Squad founder Andy. There was even mention of prizes…
Anyways, Darren matched up one whisky per course, choosing a dram that would work with each of the three choices available. First up, although tasted blind as is usual, was The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s 93.40 – Clay and Pork Sausages, a ten year old from Glen Scotia in Campbelltown bottled at 61.9% from a refill bourbon cask. On the nose there was roast pork and apples, salt, woody smoke and caramel sweetness. To taste there was sweet coal smoke, salt and pepper, and lemons. Water brought out the appleiness, vanilla from the cask, sour wood and more lemons. This was matched with tomato and red pepper soup, smoked salmon and crayfish roulade, and wild boar pate and worked quite well with them all – the smoky saltiness combined with some meatiness backed up the soup and pate, and cut through the creaminess of the roulade.
Next up was the Berry Brothers and Rudd Ledaig 2005, bottled at a shockingly (after tasting it) young 4 years. It came from a sherry cask and was a rather spicy 62.7%. This one is sold out everywhere and appeared on our list thanks to Darren finding a bottle hidden in his house. I tried it on a visit to BBR after Whisky Squad #7 and was quite impressed, but had assumed that I’d not be able to try it again, so was quite pleased to have this chance. Along with everyone saying it was great at the time the chaps at Caskstrength.net gave it the top prize in their BiG (Best in Glass) awards this month, beating a Glenfarclas 10 times its age. On the nose it had smoke, custard, salt, marmalade and meaty bbq sauce. To taste it had coal, tar, a sweet rich fruity burst and a finish of coal dust. Water calmed it down, bringing out leather and more sherried fruit, while diminishing the smoke. This was matched with roast turkey, lamb shanks, baked whiting and butternut squash pie. I can’t speak for anything but the lamb, but it went well, the rather big flavours of the whisky happily stood up to the heaviness of the meat.
Going with dessert we had The English Merchant’s Choice 13 Year Old Glengoyne. This is a single cask whisky chosen as the second of the Glengloyne Merchant’s Choice selection, coming after the Scots version. It was selected by a group of English whisky sellers, including Darren’s boss at Master of Malt, Ben Ellefsen (there’s more about it on the Glengoyne blog). On the nose it had dark rum and nail varnish and the taste continued that with some heavy bitter wood and rubber, all with a demerara sugariness underneath. Water revealed some bitter orange rind along with the rich rumminess. Despite my love of sherried whisky, this one was a bit much for my liking – too much wood swamping the rich sweet fruit. This was matched with Christmas pudding, mince pies and some cheese, all of which went well. The richness of the whisky matched up with the fruit of both the pies and pudding, and cut through the fat of the cheese (even making me appreciate a blue cheese for the first time ever).
As a post dinner dram Darren unveiled The Octave 31 Year Old Cameron Bridge, a single cask grain whisky bottled by Duncan Taylor from a first fill bourbon cask at 54.6%. On the nose this one had a thin sweetness, with raisins, acetone and citrus syrup. To taste it had spicy, but controlled, wood, vanilla pods and a short finish of sugary wood. Water brought out more vanilla and cream, revealing school dinner custard, grape jam and a spicy woody finish. This was my favourite of the night, showing me that the bits of well aged grain whisky that I like are common between sherry and bourbon casks and thus due to the nature of the spirit rather than the wood it’s aged in. Unfortunately with only 70 bottles released I suspect I won’t be finding any more.
Now we come to the quiz. Composed of three rounds, a picture round and two of written questions and answers, it was marked out of 50 and was rather tough. I lucked out and had Rob and Rocky from Berry Brothers on my table (their experience was offset by our team size of 3 compared to everone else’s of 5, was our claim) and we quite convincingly won with a score of 40. We picked up some miniatures of whisky as well as accusations of cheating – the peril of having Darren (writer of round one) on our table as well (although being good and not taking part in the quiz). Anyways, winners!
So, Whisky Squad continues from strength to strength, with January’s session already sold out, but keep an eye on the website for February’s meeting.
SMWS 93.40 – Clay and Pork Sausages
Campbelltown single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 61.9%. Sold out, was £42.20 at the SMWS.
Berry Brothers and Rudd Ledaig 2005
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 62.7%. Sold out.
Glengoyne English Merchant’s Choice
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 54.1%. ~£100 at Master of Malt.
The Octave – Cameron Bridge 31 year old
Single cask single grain whisky, 54.6%. Sold out, was ~£75 at Master of Malt.
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.
Despite the amount of time this blog implies I spend doing booze related activities I do also have a day job as a computer programmer. As part of this ‘secret’ second life I like to go and play at techy conferences and this last weekend I attended Barcamp London 8. Despite the potential of the word ‘Barcamp’ to refer to boozy activities (although there was a bar that I worked on and a lot of booze consumed, with drunken karaoke as the natural consequence of the latter) it is instead a free, community driven unconference, where there is no specific agenda and talks are all proposed and scheduled during the conference itself. While Barcamps are traditionally quite technical in nature they are not prescriptively so and I ran a session on one of my favourite topics – Whisky for Beginners.
Anyways, you can grab a copy of my slides (which get updated to make them more readable) from my website, although they were more a thing to have behind me on a screen than something filled with a load of information. Many thanks go to Rachel Clarke, who in a previous life worked at a distillery and knows a lot more about the making of whisky than I, who filled in some gaps and told me where I went wrong – it seems that my knowledge of grain whisky mashbills, amongst other things, is even more deficient than I thought…
Here are some links to some bits and pieces that I mentioned during my talk:
- Scotch Whisky Association legal definition of Scotch Whisky
- The legal definitions of the different whisky types
- Whisky regions on Wikipedia
- Richard Paterson’s blog
- Taiwanese whisky on this blog (the whisky on the title page is Kavalan Solist sherry cask)
- Whisky barrel speakers
- Master of Malt’s Drinks by The Dram (where my sample jars came from)
- My Movember page
The whiskies I brought along were:
- Master of Malt Mo’land Movember whisky. Lowland blended malt Scotch whisky. 40% ABV. ~£35 from Master of Malt.
- SMWS 127.3, ‘Beach BBQ for Older Boy Scouts’. Islay (Port Charlotte) cask strength single cask single malt Scotch whisky. 67%. ~£50. Sold out at the SMWS site.
Many thanks to all of those who came along. Please drop me a comment or email with any comments – it was my first Barcamp talk so any hints and tips are greatly appreciated. The talk has a page on lanyrd.com, so please add anything else you find about it up there.