I like Scotland. Despite living in London and growing up on the south coast of England, I’ve been making the pilgrimage north of the wall pretty much every year for the last 35. One thing has been constant through all those years: brown signs telling me the way to the next distillery on the Malt Whisky Trail.
Impressively it seems that a year has passed since the first Whisky Squad meetup. I wasn’t present back in that dim and distant time (having only met co-founder Andy a few days earlier and already been booked up for three months of first Thursdays) but I have heard tales of whisky excellent and vile, and exploits terrifying and daring. The story-telling was mainly fuelled by beer but I trust the tellers implicitly, although I’m not sure how a T-Rex would get through The Gunmakers‘s front door or how a single pork scratching could drop one before it ate any customers.
This time our imbibing was led by other co-founder Jason and the theme was a secret, only revealed at the end (or at least when Jason got bored of not having told people) as being whiskies from distilleries with significant anniversaries this year. There was also cake, with recipe up on The Squad site – it was rather good, and last time I saw Jason he told me he had been dreaming about it. That might be going a bit far, but it’s one to have a go at, even if sticking in the last of your Bowmore Darkest isn’t recommended…
Anyways, the whiskies were all tasted blind, as usual, and the first one started of with a nose of bubblegum, apples and pear drops with a big savoury base. To taste it had citrus, cinnamon spice, sweet fruit, orange pips, sour wood and a hint of rubbery bitterness. Water brought out some fizzy Refresher flavours but left the big bitter finish. The paper came off to reveal that it was a Connoiseurs Choice Royal Brackla 1991, bottled at 17 years old. The distillery isn’t particularly well known, despite being the first to receive a royal warrant (hence the Royal in its name), and sits on the edge of Speyside, variously being described as a Highland or Speyside whisky depending on who you ask. The distillery was founded in 1812, its imminent 100th anniversary being the reason for being included in the line-up, by Captain William Fraser and was simply known as Brackla until receiving its warrant from William IV in 1835. It continued on, with the normal changings of hands and rebuildings, until 1985 when it was closed. It reopened in 1991 under the banner of United Distillers and Vintners (now Diageo) and was sold to Dewars in 1998, the current owners, who use the distillery to mainly produce whisky for their blends as well as Johnnie Walker and others. Its connection with blended whisky goes back a bit further, with Andrew Usher (the ‘father’ of whisky blending) being employed by the distillery in the 1860s and using its spirit in some of his initial blends. There aren’t many distillery bottlings (other than an old Flora and Fauna from the UDV days and a 10yr old from 2004 that I’ve seen mentioned) but thanks to its life as a whisky sold for blending it appears fairly often from independent bottlers, such as Gordon & MacPhail who bottle the Connoiseurs choice range.
Number two started the regular round of more evocative description with a ‘Smells like Timpsons’, and had a nose of pain stripper, PVA glue, a hint of leather, bananas, sweet fruit and gomme syrup. To taste it was backed with marzipan, with raisins, tart white grapes, butter and woody spice. Water brought out some citrus and transformed it into a Fry’s Orange Cream on the nose. Honey and spice appeared in the taste, along with oranges and lemons, and the finish brought in some burnt wood. The bottle was uncovered to reveal that it was a Gordon and MacPhail Linkwood 15 year old. The distillery is in Elgin, in the heart of Speyside and is owned by Diageo. It opened in 1824 and has been distilling continuously since, apart from closures during the second world war and from 1985-1990, two times when many distilleries went dark. When it reopened after the second world war not much changed, with distillery manager Roderick Mackenzie taking the ‘nothing must change, just in case it changes the characteristics of our spirit’ to a level beyond most managers, anecdotally insisting that spider webs must be left alone for fear of making changes to the flavours. Linkwood is another distillery that doesn’t get much love in the way of distillery bottlings, with the sole official release being a rather lacklustre Flora and Fauna entry, but it’s much loved by the independents and appears quite often – I’ve tried some especially good SMWS ones as well as a rather tasty one bottled for The Whisky Exchange’s 10th anniversary last year. Outside of those bottlings it can be found as a component in many blends, especially those managed by Diageo.
Number three came out of the gate with a call of ‘Buttered rum and biscuits’, with brioche, candied pineapple, wood, light tobacco and glue appearing on the nose. The gradual crystallisation of the more esoteric tasting notes led to ‘Like Colonel Gadaffi hiding in an old cupboard in Cuba’. To taste it started with soured fruit and moved through spicy cream to a lightly sour, rubbery finish. Water brought out more cream and softened the rubber, adding syrup sweetness and some dusty wood. Paper torn off, this turned out to be a Gordon and MacPhail Strathisla 25 year old. Another independent bottling, as Strathisla’s owners (Chivas Brothers/Pernod Ricard) only produce a single officially bottling (a quite tasty 12 year old that I tasted last year), this 25 year old is scarily cheap for its age, coming in at about £60, showing another bonus of independent bottlings – they often come in at much more affordable than an equivalent distillery bottling (if one was available). Founded in 1786 as Milltown and changing its name in the 1870s, Strathisla hasn’t closed since opening (making it the oldest continually operating distillery in Scotland, according to the internets and PR bumph) and these days is used as the heart of the various Chivas blends.
Number 4 didn’t inspire quite so much bombast, but got some quiet respect. It had a calm nose of sweet cream, light acidity and a bit of volatile alcohol, leading to a taste of lemony wood, sweet syrup and milk chocolate on the finish. Water brought out butter, foam strawberries, and some lingering unfinished wood. With the label removed we saw that the bottle claimed to be a Bowmore, but that was a sneaky substitution – it was in fact Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix, normally enclosed in their distinctively triangular bottle, but switched to keep us guessing a bit longer. The Snow Phoenix is a limited edition put together after the heavy snows in 2010 collapsed the roof of one of Glenfiddich’s warehouses. They fished the barrels out from the snow and rubble, and then vatted them together to produce a one-off commemorative whisky. It went on sale for about £50 a bottle and has quickly risen in price and sold out (with this bottle coming from a batch of bottles that I managed to grab recently in my local Waitrose for label price), with its rather pretty tin adding to the appeal. However, I’ve heard rumours that another tranche has recently been released and that it may not be quite so limited as originally though, which makes me question my investment in a couple of bottles for future sale to a collector a few years down the line. We shall see…
Number 5 was rather scary – as dark as Coke and dangerous looking. Initially on smelling it someone came out with ‘Dirty, but in a good way’, but that quickly lost the ‘in a good way’ as we stuck our noses deeper into our glasses. There were prunes, rubber, bitter orange, cubes of jelly concentrate, motor oil and sour molasses. To taste there wasn’t very much – it tasted very much like a light new make spirit backed up with burnt coffee. Water got rid of some of the coffee and might have added some orange (although that could have been wishful thinking), but didn’t do anything to improve it. Label removed this was shown to be Cú Dubh, gaelic for Black Dog. This is a whisky from Mannochmore, founded in 1971 and celebrating its 40th birthday this year, in the vein of the previously released Loch Dhu (black loch). They take a relatively young whisky and send it to Denmark for ‘special treatment’ which turns it very dark. As it’s still called whisky it’s fairly obvious what this special treatment is – the addition of spirit caramel. While I generally agree that a small amount of caramel doesn’t affect the flavour of a whisky noticeably, as the folks at Master of Malt examined recently, the burnt flavour hiding at the back of the palate in this whisky suggests to me that if you load a vat with it then it’ll start appearing on the tongue. Loch Dhu is often called one of the worst whiskies released in recent memory (with at least one review giving a half bottle a higher score than a full one due to there being less to hate) but it’s picked up a reputation as being something strange and due to the rapidly decreasing stock has risen rapidly in price – if you can find a bottle you’ll often pay over £250 these days. The Cú Dubh is an effort to get back in on the Loch Dhu action and the Danish processing is probably due to its popularity in Scandinavia. However, the reviews I’ve read suggest that this one is considered to be even worse than its predecessor and has even caused some people to reassess quite how bad the Loch Dhu was. Despite all that, I didn’t particularly dislike it – I blame my dangerous love of new make spirit…
The final dram for the night was rather distinctive in both colour and shape of bottle and even without that hint most people in the room would have guessed the distillery anyway. On the nose it started off with baby sick (dissected by those present into astringent sour milkiness) which faded with exposure to air to give mud, a hint of peat, and generally sour and salt scents. To taste there was a lightly sweet peatiness, sweet fruit, liquorice, peppermint and a touch of charcoal. Water brought out more minerality and a mulchy vegetable air. While the distillery wasn’t in question the exact expression was, with these guys being famed for the silly number of bottlings they’ve produced since they reopened 10 years ago (hence their inclusion in the list) – it was the Bruichladdich 2001 Resurrection Dram. This spirit was from the first batches that they produced when the distillery came back online in 2001, with this release was bottled in 2008 and limited to 24000 bottles, several of which have been sitting in Jason’s flat until needed. With Bruichladdich reaching their 10 year landmark they seem to be looking to cut down on their bottlings (a new one every couple of months as far as I can tell) and focus on producing a lightly peated core range (based around the 10 year old) and using their other brands (Octomore and Port Charlotte) to focus on the big peat that most people look for in Islay whiskies. It’s nice to see them calm down slightly, although whether they can stop master distiller Jim McEwan having crazy ideas is another matter.
So, Happy Birthday Whisky Squad. All going to plan I’ll be along as often as I can on the way to the next one(s). Speaking of which, the next one is this Tuesday…
I was beaten to getting this written up yet again, this time by Charly over at Caffeine Frenzy Wanderlust.
Connoiseurs’ Choice Royal Brackla 1991
Highland single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35
Gordon & Macphail Linkwood 15 years old
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40
Gordon & Macphail Strathisla 25 years old
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£65
Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 47.6%. ~£75
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£25
Bruichladdich 2001 Resurrection Dram
Islay single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35
It surprises me how many random booze related events happen around London every day. Little by little I’m finding where some of them are (and am writing a website that will hopefully have information about them, not that I’ve actually started yet) and this was another that fell into my lap – a tasting of Chivas Regal 48 floors up in Canary Wharf…
Thanks to a tweet from the lovely Mr Matchett I fired off an email and was invited along to an evening with Phil Huckle, Chivas Regal brand ambassador, at the Attic Bar in the Pan Peninsula building. The plan was to taste through the three flagship Chivas Regal bottlings (12, 18 and 25 years old) as well as some of the Strathisla single malt that forms the core of the whisky. Unfortunately, due to a delivery mixup we got a case of Glenlivet rather than the Chivas 12, so no proper vertical tasting, but we did start on a whisky that I rather like.
Chivas sits in the ‘premium’ blend category – still mass produced but made with finer whiskies than you’d find in the Teachers and Bells of this world. I found their story amusing, in a schadenfreude kind of way. In the mid 1800s the Chivas Brothers, James and John, had a posh grocers in Aberdeen and branched out into whisky blending (James moving from tea to whisky) in an attempt to make something smooth enough to replace cognac, which had recently been hit by phylloxera, wiping out a lot of production. It was popular and they started supplying the royal family. In 1909 the Chivas company produced a 25 year old blended whisky which they started selling successfully in the USA as the first premium scotch whisky, but the trail of woe then begun. In 1914 the first world war started, when that ended in 1919 prohibition started, shortly after that finished in 1932 the second world war begun, followed by the Wall Street crash and great depression. None of these things particularly helped the world of Chivas and the company started losing money. In 1950 they were bought up by Seagrams (for the knock down price of £80,500), who also bought Strathisla and some of the other components to ensure a continuity of supply. They relaunched Chivas Regal as a 12 year old blend shortly after, Frank Sinatra decided he liked it and off it shot into premium blend stardom.
When we (Me, Chris and Alan) arrived we were presented with a cocktail by Phil – a classic mix of whisky (Chivas 18 in this case), cinnamon syrup and apple juice. A tasty cocktail, although the whisky didn’t real feel that integrated with the rest of the cocktail (and the 18 was a bit wasted on being mixed). We quickly moved (after a few photos on the balcony) on to the main part of the evening – the tasting.
We started on the Glenlivet 12, which is nothing to do with Chivas other than also being owned by Pernod-Ricard. After the focus group I was at the other week I had more of an idea what to expect from the whisky. On the nose there was biscuits, flowers, olive oil, candy floss and tropical fruit. To taste it is less sweet than the nose suggests, with wood, more biscuits and berry fruits. A touch of water brings out more sweetness from the wood, adds vanilla, spice and a creamy mouth feel, all finished with a bitter woodiness. It’s the second best selling whisky in the world and while I’m not a fan of Glenfiddich (the best selling) I can see why this does so well – it’s easy to drink and solid. Nothing too special, but a good one.
We then moved on to the core of the Chivas Regal 12 – Strathisla 12 year old single malt. Strathisla is a small distillery and almost all of their output goes into the Chivas blends, working as the core of the whiskies. On the nose it was quite light and savoury, with nuts and a touch of sweetness. To taste it had much more – hazelnuts, spice, burnt caramel and a background oiliness with a woody finish. It can take a slug of water, which opens the wood to creamy vanilla and floor polish, even more nuts and flowers. Strangely light on the nose, but quite a big bigger in body – a solid and tasty speyside whisky.
We then got to try a non-production whisky- the Strathisla 18 year old single malt. It’s the core of the Chivas Regal 18 year old blend and as such doesnt get out of the distillery unless it’s in a Chivas bottle or going to a tasting. This was a chunk darker than the last one, coming in as a dark gold, and on the nose it had an appley sweetness, a touch of hazelnut and an oily end. To taste it was very light, much lighter than the 12. The wood had had much more of an effect, giving it a lightly spicy vanilla taste. A tiny drop of water brought out the creaminess that I’d expect with so much wood, along with more peary fruit and vanilla, but more than a drop swamped it. A delicate whisky that I’m surprised survives so well in a blend.
Now we came to the reasons behind the tasting, the Chivas blends – first up was the Chivas Regal 18. On the nose it’s got sour fruit (cherries?), coffee and oaky vanilla. It had a very smooth taste, with lots of wood and vanilla, but not much else. A touch of water opened it up with the creamy mouthfeel of the Strathisla along with a touch of linseed oil, woody spice and a warming finish. It’s quite pleasant and I can see the intention – blending some good whisky together (with some cheaper, but still good quality grain whisky) to create a very easy drinking dram. It’s a bit light for my taste, but isn’t bad.
The final dram of the night was something a little special – the Chivas Regal 25. Not a recreation of the original 25 year old blend, as the recipe for that is long gone and there are no known surviving bottles, but the very limited edition that they only make a few thousand bottles of a year. The UKs allocation is only 360 this year and somehow 3 bottles managed to end up at our tasting. It had a really distinctive smell, with a strong scent of pears with a flowery perfume and a hint of butterscotch. To taste it was very delicate, with a creamy mouthfeel off the bat, spicy pears and cherries fading to a bitter dry wood finish. It didn’t need water, but with a drop there was more vanilla, apricots, the oiliness from the Strathisla and a peach stone bitterness to finish. A very elegant dram and very delicate with it. It was quite nice, but probably not something that I’d pay £200 for.
All in all a much more interesting tasting than I was expecting from the description. I’ve tried the Chivas 12 and it’s always just come across as Just Another Blend (although I need to have another try now that I’ve realised that being snobby about blends is stupid), but the older whiskies were in a different league. Strathisla has also gone on my ‘try again’ list and from reports the distillery tour is one for me to look out for next time I’m up in Scotland. A good night.
Glenlivet 12 year old
Speyside single malt scotch whisky, 40%, ~£24 with wide availability
Strathisla 12 year old
Speyside single malt scotch whisky, 42%, ~£25 in whisky shops
Strathisla 18 year old
Speyside single malt scotch whisky, ?%, not commercially available
Chivas Regal 18 year old
Blended scotch whisky, 40%, ~£40 and fairly widely available
Chivas Regal 25 year old
Blended scotch whisky, 40%, £150-£200 with very limited availability
The event was put on in conjunction with The Whisky Show, which is happening in late October this year. I’ve been waiting for tickets to go on general sale for the last month or so (after having it thoroughly sold to me by some regulars at the SMWS) and they’ve appeared in the last few days. It’s £95 a day or £160 for both, which is steep but does let you taste some rather special whiskies (the only tokens are for bottles that cost more than £800…you get one per day). Now to find out when anyone else I know is going…