Quick Tastings

Some more of what I done been drinking:

Balvenie 12 Years Doublewood – a whisky grabbed as a chaser round the corner from the Sci-Fi-London film festival after a day of packing bags and herding punters. It had a grassy, olive oily nose with hints of sugary spice and a touch of wood. To taste it had a woody sweetness with some cinnamony spiciness with a bitter fruity finish. As it developed in the glass the sweetness increased and turned towards candyfloss.

OldRascalThatchers Old Rascal – I popped into the branch of Byron Hamburger that’s now hiding in the building that used to house The Intrepid Fox (I may never have drunk anything but Newcastle Brown or bottled cider when visiting, but RIP anyway. The new location just isn’t the same) and grabbed a quick bottle of cider to accompany my tasty burger. Described on the label as ‘Full bodied medium dry Somerset cider’, I would have stuck it more towards the medium sweet end of things. Anyways, it was quite nice – more mulchy farmyard flavour than you usually get from a mainstream cider as well as a nice tartness contrasting with the underlying sweetness. One to remember.

The SMWS release a new tranche of whiskies every first Friday of the month, so I stopped by to try a couple. Well, more than a couple after I got talking to the bar staff…I am weak:

SMWS 35.38, Fire in the hole! (Glen Moray) – Chosen specifically because of my interest in strange wood maturations, this one was matured for 9 years in a 2nd fill chardonnay cask. Wine finishes are generally badly thought of by whisky connoisseurs, but a few interesting ones do get out into the wild – this one is a bit of a mixture. A strange nose, with a slab of wood as well as a strange chicken and ammonia combination (to be honest there was a hint of the pub bog to it). To taste it was almost meaty, with overripe fruit and a bitter woody finish. With a bit of water it softened out, becoming more wine-like with some vanilla from the wood and an oily sandalwood flavour coming through. One to try, but not one I want a whole bottle of.

SMWS 93.38, Stirs the atavistic soul (Glen Scotia) – The intended final dram of the evening, this was to sate my love of Campbelltown whiskies, although as there are only two remaining distilleries, Glen Scotia and Springbank, this is quite a limited love. Luckily Springbank have a couple of brands they distill giving a slightly wider field for me to taste my way through. Anyways, this reminded me, from my notes, of a damp wood fire in someone else’s garden – smoke at a distance with a touch of damp woodiness. There were sour grapes and cured meat on the nose as well. To taste there was a touch of sweet wine as well as tannic wood, almost like a fruity rioja. A drop of water softened the wood, bringing out more sweetness and hiding the tannins. Overall the main memory I have is of a tingling menthol like finish down the sides of the tongue. Quite definitely from Campbelltown and really quite nice.

SMWS 27.80 (Springbank) – no name for this one as I can’t find it on the website. Continuing the Campbelltown kick I went for a recommended dram of this new (I think) Springbank. It had salt and a light sweetness on the nose, as well as a plimsoll-like rubberiness. To taste it had more salt and rubber as well as a sweetness and a prickly, numbing sensation. Water brought on more sweetness and a slick, buttery mouthfeel, along with more rubber and fisherman’s friends. It reminds me very much of the bottle of single cask Springbank I got from Cadenhead’s while at the Edinburgh Festival last year, although this one is even better. I may have to pick up a bottle on my next visit.

SMWS 53.140, Swelling, crashing, waves of flavour (Caol Ila) – a deliberate evening ending choice, although I was offered an even more peaty Ardbeg by the ever helpful barman. I declined, but made a note for my next visit. On the nose it had a sweet peaty smoke with a hint of disinfectant, mulch and parma violets. To taste it was crisply smoky with candy floss and citrus fruit, but rather complex and overpowering and in need of dilution. Water saves your palate from certain destruction, with the flavours combining to give a sweet wet ash smokiness, a touch of orange and a tingly finish. It’s good I stopped after it as I was still tasting it when I got home an hour later.

And my favourite of the week:

BengalLancerFuller’s Bengal Lancer – I’ve tried this IPA on tap, but not grabbed a bottle yet, however, I’m glad I did. It’s a bottle conditioned, very heavily hopped IPA which is light on the palate but still wonderfully bitter, with the great taste of citrusy hops dominating in a rather pleasant way. As the hops die back there’s a nice touch of fruity malt and it finishes with the same bitterness that most Fuller’s beers display. Very good and one that I’ll be stocking up on when I find someone to drive me to the shops.

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.

Eastercon Whisky Tasting with Iain Banks

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.

IMG_4791Mr 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.

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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 Laphroaig29.80: 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…

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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)

New Wood

Barrels
I like big butts and I cannot lie…

My week up in Scotland recently not only introduced me to Benromach whisky, but also to the idea of putting whisky in new casks. Now, this may not sound like a particularly wild idea, but the majority of whisky is matured in casks that have already held some other form of booze – bourbon and sherry being the current mainstays before you get on to ‘wood finishing’. The first fill of booze will temper the barrel and remove a lot of the transferable woodiness, letting the second fill pick up different flavours and not be overcome by the wood. However, while up in Scotland I heard of three different whiskies using brand new wood – Benromach Organic and two from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a Glen Moray and a Glenmorangie.

I’ve written about Benromach before, but its use of new wood intrigued me enough while at the distillery that I quizzed our tour guide a bit about it. The wood comes from a US forest which, while maybe not intentionally planted as such many years ago, has been kept up to Soil Association ‘Organic’ standards and that certification suggests a reason why they are using new wood – in order to be certified as Organic they would have to use products that have not been subject to any processes that are not up to scratch, something that I suspect Jack Daniels (the usual first spirit in whisky barrels) don’t really aspire to. While the wood choice may be in part forced on them by their move to make the first organic whisky, it has also pushed them to make an interesting production whisky – the other two I found from new wood are single cask bottlings rather than generally available. The wood comes across clearly in the Benromach, appearing at the start of the taste as a tannic kick and adding vanilla to the aftertaste as well as a lingering woodiness. With water an oaky creaminess pops up and the tannins mellow slightly. During our tour the guide commented that the new barrels add a hint of bourbon flavour to the whisky and now that I have tasted it I can now tell some of the elements of Bourbon that come directly from the wood – some of the sweetness, the slight bitterness on the center of the tongue and the vanilla creaminess that you often miss if you drink your whiskey with ice. I rather like the Benromach organic and am slightly sad that it has almost disappeared in it’s original incarnation, currently replaced by the peated Special Edition, but Sandy the distillery tour guide did assure me that it will be reappearing soon.

While visiting the Edinburgh SMWS rooms on the way back from my sojourn in The Highlands I tried to grab a dram of their new Glen Moray, intrigued by the talk of new wood and my new found liking for the Benromach. However, due to an issue with the bottle labels (either they had the wrong ABV or they’d been stuck on the wrong side of the bottle, depending on who you spoke to) it hadn’t turned up in time and I was directed towards a Glenmorangie bottling using a similar idea – 125.31, Tropicana then luscious poached pears. At the recent Whisky Exchange Glenmorangie tasting I learned about the ‘designer casks’ that they had put together for the their Astar – specially selected trees, grown slowly so as to have the right consistency to allow the whisky to be flavoured by the wood in the manner they wanted. However, Astar is not matured in new wood – the barrels are sent over to Jack Daniels for the first four years of their lives, arriving at Glenmorangie after the whiskey has been removed. With a litle reading between the lines on the SMWS website it seems that it is a whisky matured in an Astar barrel untouched by JD. Rather than the upfrontness of the Benromach, the Glenmorangie’s wood was all at the end – it’s a sweet whisky with a slight prickly spiciness that lands in a mouthful of twigs. I wasn’t all that keen, but it wasn’t in any way unpleasant.

Glen Moray have until recently been part of the Glenmorangie family and were a testbed for some of their crazy ideas – according to the barman at the SMWS, if you saw something strange come out of Glen Moray and do well then you could be sure that it would probably appear from Glenmorangie shortly after. I finally managed to find a dram of this final new wood example at the London tasting rooms, after the bottle wrangling had been completed – 35.34, Moroccan Tea-room Masculinity. On the nose there was salt and aniseed, and not a lot of the woodiness I was expecting. To taste there was more wood and tannins, but also toffee, salt and peppery lemons. With water the wood came out more, with a chunk of vanilla, but it wasn’t quite so overpowering as it is in the Benromach. Interesting, but not one for me to add to the collection.

I also found another whisky which uses some new wood while wandering around Whisky LiveCompass Box Spice Tree. While chatting with the guy on the stand about the company’s obsession with wood, we talked about the process that led them to the current methods for getting woodiness into Spice Tree. First there was a stage that I heard about elsewhere, where they put wood chips in the marrying barrels – a process well known in the wine industry, even if it is seen as a little dodgy. [They didn’t use chips – see the comment from John Glaser below] This was quickly stopped by the SWA, who don’t like it when people do strange things and try and call their product whisky, but they carried on the idea by putting whole new wooden barrel staves directly into the barrel, another trick pinched from wine. This was, again, quickly banned and they came up with their latest trick (not mentioned on their website yet, which tells the tale of their run-ins with the SWA) – new barrel ends. Rather than making a whole barrel from new wood, which would have a bit more of an effect than they wanted, they just replaced the ends of the barrels with the new wood, giving the whisky some contact while at the same time not breaking the rules. The folk at Compass Box are smart. And a bit mad. The Spice Tree is a 100% malt blend, currently made up of Clynelish, Teaninch and Dailuaine (I think that’s right on the last one – I had been drinking by then and my hearing was going) and it’s pleasantly spicy, as the name and intention suggest, with a rich sweetness and some woodiness from the new oak.

It seems that new wood is one of the latest experiments in the whisky world that’s starting to rear its head after a decade long maturation process. Without thinking about the time the whisky has been in the warehouse it almost seems as if the distillers are reacting to the work of people like Compass Box, who are doing interesting things with wood, but after some consideration (as Compass Box are only a decade old) it looks like it’s all part of the long cycle of whisky experimentation. I’m interested to see what other single barrel bottlings appear from new wood but am also intrigued as to what this new flavour might contribute to regular bottlings. Glenmorangie have already made a bit of a splash with Astar, I’m keen to see who’s next.

Quick Tastings

HopheadDark Star Hophead – I rather like hops so this was pretty much always going to be a favourite. I grabbed a pint at The Wenlock Arms the other night, while popping in briefly for a meeting (meetings in pubs are the best). It’s light and golden with a bitter hoppy taste that doesn’t get too much after a pint. Easy to drink and one I can drink all night.

Moscatel Emilin, Lustau – While sitting around at Dehesa for a birthday meal with my dad and stepmum I was tempted into a glass of sherry and went for the moscatel, something that I’d read about recently while looking into whisky maturation but never tasted. It was dark and sticky, a touch lighter in both colour and flavour than a PX. It was rich with tastes of dates and raisins, but stopped short of the occasional overpowering nature of PX. I may have to look out for some more…

SMWS 18.29, Welcoming, mouth-filling and moreish – a 24 year old from Inchgower, a distillery I only knew as a name on my SMWS list (and which seems to be a big component of Bells), and one of two recommendations from Darren, the London rooms manager, for a whisky that was a bit different and from a distillery I wouldn’t have tried something from before. On the nose it was quite flowery with hints of salty toffee. To taste it had touches of floor polish and sherbert dabs. With water it opened up to give more fruitiness, hints of the red lolly in the sherbert dab and a touch of coal on the finish.

SMWS 41.42, Seduction in an Austrian coffee house – recommendation number 2, a 23 year old from Dailuaine (a distillery I hadn’t even seen on my list). The nose had an intriguing combination of pork scratchings and lemons and to taste it was interesting, with parma violets, chilli and charred liquorice root. Water softened the woodiness of the liquorice bringing liquorice allsorts into the mix. Rather nice, although seemingly sold out.

Harviestoun Ola Dubh 16 Special Reserve

Being a whisky fan as well as a lover of scottish beer (of which there are increasingly more and more good examples of) this jumped out when I heard it was appearing – a Harviestoun beer matured in casks that had previously held Highland Park whisky. The SMWS got a few bottles in for general consumption, as I missed out on a ticket for their tasting, but they only had the “basic” Special Reserve 12, matured in casks that had held 12 year old whisky. Finally, after hints of the existence of the older casked beers (and an offer to negotiate for the sale of a couple of bottles from one of the lovely barmen at The Draft House) I found some at Utobeer this weekend and grabbed one – the Harviestoun Old Dubh 16 Special Reserve:

Ola Dubh

I may have grinned a lot on the way home as I’d picked it up for only £4, a chunk less than I thought I’d pay for the most exclusive of their releases, and managed to hold off on its sampling for a couple of days. The beer that they mature in the barrels is similar to the Harviestoun Old Engine Oil (Ola Dubh is allegedly scots for Black Oil), a thick black beer that lives up to its name, and it comes out the other end of the process with a definite change. There’s not the big I WAS MATURED IN A WHISKY BARREL kick that you get from Innis & Gunn, but there is definitely a sweetening influence over the flavour of the Old Engine Oil.

The beer is thick and dark with a malty sweetness and slight smokiness. It’s strong, at 8%, but doesn’t taste it, slipping down worryingly easy, but it has that strong bottled beer catch at the back of your throat. The head in the picture is a bit deceptive as the beer is only slightly fizzy, with a stout like bubble, and quite silky in the mouth. Overall though it doesn’t do much more than the 12 year cask matured version, which from memory I think tasted very much like this. It’s quite a tasty beer, but not one that I’d go out of my way for over the 12 year or a regular Old Engine Oil.

However, on checking the round-the-bottle-neck booklet it seems that my guesses on the editions of the beer were wrong – they offer a 12, 16 and 18 (although the website suggests the 18 has been discontinued in favour of a 30, which has been added to the watchlist). The omission of the 14 fooled me into thinking I had the highest cask age beer, but it seems that there is at least one further for me to find. Never mind, it’s quite an enjoyable search.

Harviestoun Ola Dubh 16 Special Reserve
Dark ale matured in Highland Park whisky casks. 8%
Limited availability. I got mine at Utobeer in Borough Market

Rubber Truncheons, Scotch and Eggs

swms-dec-2009

A while back I bumped into Laissez Fare at a wine tasting and I quickly admitted that I didn’t really have much of an idea about wine. However, in an effort to pull back my boozey reputation, I started rambling about the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, my tongue slightly loosened by the magic voodoo wine that we had been tasting, and he mentioned that he wouldn’t mind learning some more about whisky. I promptly forgot about this until last month’s Blaggers’ Banquet, when I both briefly bumped into Mr L-F again as well as going on about my love of scotch at great length at Mark of FoodByMark, who also expressed an interest in learning more.

And thus was a plan formed.

Each month on the first Friday the SMWS release a number of new whiskies, and in order to promote them they do an open tasting on the Wednesday before. Despite having been a member for a couple of years I’ve never made it along to any of their tastings, so with Christmas approaching, my whisky cupboard emptying and two whisky neophytes expressing an interest I thought it was time to change the state of affairs. So, with a friend of L-F, who happens to work with a bunch of my former uni-mates, which was quite random, the four of us assembled at the SMWS for some whisky.

The society open tastings are very informal affairs. Basically, you turn up as usual at the tasting rooms but are given a piece of paper (as seen in the above piccy) on which you write down which whiskies you’d like. You give it to the bar staff and they then give you whisky, and at some point in time a big plate of cheese. This appeals to me on a number of levels. Rather than filling in the list all in one go and letting the bar staff tell us which order we should be drinking things in, we went for the more reactive route of choosing things and then trying to find things less or more strongly flavoured from there on.

A quick word about the SMWS – they select individual casks from the various distilleries (not all in Scotland – I need to return shortly and try a couple of drams from Yamazaki and Hakushu in Japan. The Hakushu looked especially interesting, coming out of the bottle almost black and with a stickiness that intrigued me) and then bottle and sell them at cask strength. They don’t attach a distillery name to their bottles, instead using a numbering scheme of distillery.caskNumber – for example the 125.29 that I started the evening on. While they don’t officially provide a list of which distillery matches up with which number the staff know and there are a few places on the web where you can grab a list (including my own rather simple page that I Instapaper‘d onto my iPhone). The official reason is that the distilleries don’t want their names to be directly associated with these potentially very different expressions which might change expectations of their stock whiskies. The real reason seems to be that it adds a layer of mystery and exclusivity. I like mystery and exclusivity.

As mentioned, I started off with a 125.29 – a Glenmorangie. There are only 126 malt distilleries on the societies list, so Glenmorangie is a fairly recent addition. I’ve seen a few since I joined, including the bottle I received when I did, but haven’t tried any of them. Being a fan of standard production Glenmorangie (and a satisfied visitor to their distillery), I thought I’d kick off the evening with it. It was pretty much what I expected – a straight down the line, medium-full bodied highland whisky. From my notes: Spicy sweet, but with a distiinct burnt sour finish. Vanilla and wood. Water calms the burn, reveals boiled sweets. It was a nice start to the evening – not heavy enough to break my palate so early, but also not overly light. A good solid dram.

I then moved on to a probably ill advised choice, but with my preference generally being towards the heavier whiskies one that made sense – 14.17, a Talisker. As can be seen by the low distillery number and low cask number (they are both assigned in order) the society doesn’t get many whiskies from Talisker and being a fan I’ve been waiting for one since I joined. From my notes: Sea and smoke. Honey, vanilla and lavender with water. Short and to the point – this is very much a Talisker, with the hints of the sea and slab of smoke that implies. It had a chunk of smooth sweetness behind that as well, with honey joining the normal woody vanilla. A very tasty dram. I chatted with one of the barman about it and he expressed his disappointment, a sentiment I can understand – with so few whiskies appearing from Talisker he had expected something very special. As it was he, and I, just got a very good whisky – nothing different or special, just a tasty dram. Disappointing but in a good way.

Ham Hock Scotch Egg

With the whiskies clocking in at full cask strength, 57.2% for each of my first drams, it was decided that maybe a break for some dinner would be a good plan. The SMWS London rooms get their food from The Bleeding Heart, which they conveniently sit above. The Bleeding Heart is known for being a rather good restaurant and the SMWS bar food satisfies their reputation. My companions had fish & chips and burgers but I decided to go for one of the smaller dishes – a ham hock scotch egg with homemade piccalilli. I’m only a recent convert to the joys of piccalilli but am a bit of a scotch egg obsessive, eating them as a standard snack as well as seeking out special ones (such as the excellent ones produced by Andy of EatMyPies that I grab on a weekly basis from Whitecross Street market). This was up with the best – a tasty ham hock coating, with firmly adhered breading (my only complaint about Andy’s) and a slightly runny egg. The piccalilli was an excellent accompaniment, just sharp enough to cut through the egg as well as being tasty to eat on its own with a spoon…

On to dram 3 – 3.150, a Bowmore. Bowmore are one of my favourite distillers – they know what they do well and keep doing it well. They do big smoky, sweet whiskies with a fairly big kick to the teeth. However, the description on this one suggested it was non-typical so I though it deserved a try. From my notes: Smoke and rubber with salt and seaweed. Water brings out sweetness and lemons. The big difference here was the saltiness – there was a distinct slab of the sea-saltiness that I really love in whiskies and this ticked all the boxes. A touch of water opened it up, adding a citrusy flavour that I hadn’t expected and that worked rather well.

Swiftly on to my next – 19.43, Glen Garioch. I tried the standard production Glen Garioch (pronounced ‘Glen Geery’ according to the website) a few years back when I picked it up on offer while passing through Heathrow (the presence of a branch of World of Whiskies in the terminal may influence my choice of airline…) and it was a fairly boring but tasty highland whisky. The description of this one intrigued me and it was definitely not what I expected. From my notes: Sweet and spicy with linseed oil, salt and a touch of smoke. Rather than the normal spicy sweetness I expected I got a rather complicated whisky with distinct layers of flavour – normal sweet and spicy leading into a spicy oily centre taste and trailing off with a whiff of smoke. Not my favourite of the night, but definitely interesting and one that I may have to try again.

Cheese Plate 2 (Compressed)
Picture by Laissez-Fare

At this point our cheese appeared. The society does branch out a bit from whisky, with bourbon, port, sherry, brandy and wine all appearing on the menu, but they also know how to choose a cheese. We had a cheddar, a heavily smoked, a goat, a runny sheep and a blue cheese. Being a cheese wuss I avoided the blue and tried and disliked the goat, but the other three were quite excellent and definitely a good thing to protect us from further whisky consumption.

Onto my final dram of the night – 82.18, a Glencadam. I chose this one based on a sniff of one of my companions’ drams and the description, and I’m happy I did. I’ve not tried anything from Glencadam before and only knew the name as one on the list of distilleries that the SMWS bottles from. From my notes: Thick caramel sweetness with a centrepiece of rubber. Water dulls the intensity but leaves the flavours almost intact. This was good. For a fan of sweet whiskies as well as rubbery ones this came in as almost my perfect whisky. Only my already very heavy bag stopped me from grabbing a bottle on the spot (the cheapest of all the ones I’d tried, at £40) and I suspect that I will be returning to the society soon to grab a bottle, hoping that the Talisker and Glenmorangie will distract everyone long enough that it won’t sell out.

Anyway, a successful trip and something that I may have to repeat. All I need is drinking buddies…

SMWS New List December 2009 Open tasting – members tickets £25, non-members £35. Includes five 25ml drams of whisky from the new list (2 days before everyone else gets to try them) and a plate of cheese.

The Whiskies:
125.29 – “A Garden Breakfast Dram”
12 years. 57.2%. 280 bottles.
Glenmorangie

14.17 – “Earth-shaking and Eye Watering”
20 years. 57.2%. 202 bottles.
Talisker

3.150 – “Air Freshener in a Parrot’s Eye”
18 years. 55%. 260 bottles.
Bowmore

19.43 – “Morning Dew in a Pine Grove”
19 years. 53%. 244 bottles.
Glen Garioch

82.178 – “Rubber Truncheons and Bargepoles”
11 years. 59%. 771 bottles.
Glencadam

My drinking buddies are all, of course, on twitter: @foodbymark, @laissezfare, @iron_mart