Whisky Squad #12 – Compass Box

Twelve down, many to go – Whisky Squad has almost reached its first birthday and to mark the occasion we had a rather special evening nestled in the hands of Chris Maybin from Compass Box. I’ve mumbled out Compass Box in the past and they remain one of my favourite whisky companies, with consistently interesting and tasty products as well as a really friendly team working to put them together. I met Chris briefly at Whisky Live London in 2010, when I went to the Compass Box stand for a second time at the end of the show and he insisted on making me taste everything they had for a second time…what an evil man.

Bottles
Picture by Chris Matchett and his shiny iPhone

The company has just had its 10th anniversary, starting out in 2000 with former Johnnie Walker marketing director John Glaser putting together his first whisky and selling some cases of it to Royal Mile Whiskies in Edinburgh (if I remember the story correctly). Ten years on they’ve created a variety of interesting blended whiskies (as well as a few very limited single cask bottlings), won a stack of awards and stuck out as an innovator in the generally conservative world of blended whisky. They take the opposite tack to most blending companies, focusing on producing whiskies where you can taste the various components, and how they compliment each other, rather than a more amorphous combined flavour. This is in part achieved by using a smaller number of component whiskies (typically three) as well as doing the blending in smaller batches a number of times a year, creating whiskies that vary slightly from batch to batch but always keeping the same idea behind the flavour.

EvilFrom the tasting I did with John Glaser last year I know he is not a fan of spirit caramel, used to colour many whiskies for a variety of reasons good and ill, and Chris agreed, passing around a bottle for us to have a sniff. I rather liked it, burnt sugar that it is, but am not a fan of it in whisky. While I understand the usual use for colouring whiskies, so that they are consistent between batches, and don’t think it has as much of an influence on flavour as many say, it does mask flavours and alter the mouthfeel of a whisky when used in larger quantities, and isn’t something that I think should be needed if consumers understood their drinks more. However, most people aren’t whisky geeks and don’t care so the colouring continues. Compass Box also don’t chill filter their whiskies, a process that definitely has an impact on the flavour and mouthfeel of whisky, leaving their bottlings as close to ‘natural’ as you can have without leaving chunks of charred barrel in the bottle (cf Blackadder whiskies…).

Their production process is quite simple for their regular range – buy maturing casks of spirit, test them until they get to the point where they are ready to be used, make small test batches of blended whisky in their Chiswick office, send the finalised recipe up to Scotland where the whiskies are vatted together, recask the whiskies after blending, leave them to marry and further mature, bottle. The marrying process takes at least 6 months, but they leave some whiskies longer depending on what they are trying to do with them. The choice of wood for that final maturation stage is very important, with their experimentation in the area getting them into trouble with the SWA (as John Glaser explained in a comment when I wrote about it before), but I’ll talk about that a bit more later on. On with the whisky!

AsylaAs usual we tasted blind, with each bottle being revealed after tasting, and first up was a lightly coloured dram. This was my first correct guess of the evening, although my cheating by looking up its recipe in an earlier blog post fell down due this batch having different components. The nose had stacks of vanilla, backed up with some lightly sweet wood smoke, coconut, sweet butter, apples, pears, marzipan and a hint of cherry – cherry bakewells in a fruit bowl? To taste it started with sweet citrus (candied lemons?) and worked its way through sour wood and fruit salad chews to a dry wood and spice finish, with a bit of a boozy prickle. Water brought out big sweet caramel (rather than the evil burnt caramel) and left a nice chunk of woodiness at the end. This was, as expected for the first dram of the tasting, Asyla, the closest that Compass Box have to a ‘regular’ blend and a great entry point to their range. It’s 50/50 grain and malt whisky, with the grain half coming this time from Cameron Bridge (for sweetness), and the malt from Teaninich (for grassiness) and Glen Elgin (for rich robustness). All the whisky is matured in first fill bourbon casks and after vatting is put back into those casks to marry for 6 months before bottling. The name isn’t the bad pun on Islay that many people think it is, myself included, but instead the plural of ‘asylum’ (a word meaning both sanctuary and madhouse) and taken from the name of a piece of music by Thomas Adès. They make about three batches of Asyla each year, with tweaks to the recipe to keep it in the same area of flavour based on what whiskies they have available, and are planning on numbering the batches soon. Chris mentioned that the SWA, traditional foils of Compass Box, are planning on regulating the listing of batch numbers and blending constituents, but I can’t find any information on that – anyone know anything? It wouldn’t surprise me, although in recent times I’m coming around to not disliking the SWA as much as the initial stories I heard about them, from Bruichladdich and Compass Box, encouraged me to.

Oak CrossNext up was the beginning of my no longer having any idea of what the whisky was, despite having tasted most of them before. On the nose there was whiteboard marker sweetness, foam and real bananas, vanilla and a hint of woody smokiness. The taste was bigger and richer than the Asyla, with more fruit salads, astringent wood, hints of marzipan, thick sweet woody spice and a thicker, slightly oily mouthfeel. Water brought out more of the fruit chew-ness and more prickly wood along with some sweetened cream and liquorice. The paper came off to reveal that this was Oak Cross, the first of a trio of whiskies that vary mainly in the wood used for maturation. It’s made up of mainly Clynelish (about 60%) with the rest split between Teaninich (for the grassy freshness) and Dailuaine (for structure). After vatting this whisky is filled half back into the original first fill bourbon casks and half into special Oak Cross barrels – first fill bourbon casks with the regular heads (the barrel ends) replaced by new French oak, not touched by other drinks and lightly toasted. New French oak is used a lot in the wine industry but not really touched by whisky as the nature of the spirit quickly draws lots of tannins from the wood, making whiskies dry and woody before their time. However by only using new oak heads during the 6 month marrying process the whisky can pick up some of the French oak characteristics without going too far. In a way this technique can be seen as retaliation for the SWA’s reaction to the next whisky.

Illegal Spice TreeThis one was one of my favourites of the night, with vanilla, candied lemon, some floralness, raisins and wood on the nose – ‘Crepe Suzette’ according to whisky wordsmith Mr Matchett. To taste it had spicy apple, creamy custard, raisins, hints of chocolate, big woody spices and a woody end. Water brought out more wood and fruit, as well as some sourness. When the label came off I was pleased to see that this was one I’d not tried before, having no clue what it was – Illegal Spice Tree. The illegal bit isn’t quite right, but it was Compass Box’s first edition of Spice Tree, which the SWA told them they weren’t allowed to sell, under threat of legal action, due to the wood maturation process. Taking the same recipe that is now used for Oak Cross they filled some of the vatted whisky into first fill bourbon casks that had new heavily toasted French oak barrel staves tethered to the inside, giving the whisky contact with a lot of wood, including a big surface area of the new oak. However, the SWA felt that this was not a traditional enough maturation method to allow the product to be called whisky and thus was it withdrawn from sale in 2006. This was from Jason’s personal stash and one that only occasionally appears in the wild these days.

Spice Tree (legal)Next up was the third in bottle in the Spice Tree saga and one that most of us guessed even before pouring would be the newer, legal version of Spice Tree. On the nose this reminded me heavily of Fry’s Orange Cream bars, with an underlying spicy earthiness. To taste it had sweet polished wood leading to a lingering, warm, woody finish. On the way there there was lightly burned toast, a sherbety fizz, dark caramelised oranges and coffee. Water brought out dark chocolate in the nose, some floral notes (violets? I need to find some violets to smell to see if the scent I think is violets really is…) and Turkish delight. A more elegant whisky than the older Spice Tree but one that I didn’t like as much, although that could well be a subconscious love of that which I can no longer easily obtain oozing out. This whisky is very similar to the Oak Cross in nature, but with the 6 months of maturation in the new oak headed casks extended to 2-3 years, the new oak heads undergoing a heavier toasting, 60% of the whisky coming from the special casks and the bottling strength upped by 3% to 46%. It’s made a bit of a stir, appearing on a number of 2010 best of lists including getting the Best New Whisky award in Jim Murray’s 2011 Whisky Bible.

Peat MonsterWe moved on to a whisky that everyone who knew the Compass Box range immediately guessed after a quick sniff – stony peat, coal smoke, smoked meat and a hint of iodine medicinalness. To taste it was sweet, with a creamy slightly cheesy note, ending with coal smoke and a blue cheese sweetness (the latter note one that others told me, as I don’t touch the evil, mouldy stuff). Water brought out soft, mulchy fruit in the middle, more fruit in the upfront sweetness, and left the finish intact – like breathing in while standing next to a coal burning stove. It was, of course, The Peat Monster. Much less peaty than the name suggests, a whisky that shows that peat and smoke in a whisky don’t need to be overpowering. This is made up of a combination of 20% Laphroaig, 40% Caol Ila and 40% Ardmore, the only mainland highland distillery doing exclusively heavily peated spirit, and comes in at 25ppm. The Laphroaig and Caol Ila really come through on the nose, with the minerality and medicinal punch, but in the taste they are overcome by the more rounded smoke of the Ardmore – an excellent combination. This one was originally put together for Park Avenue Liquor in New York, as The Monster, and was a chunk peatier, but after some softening it joined the regular range with a different name, even if that name does confuse people who are looking for something to strip away the inside of their faces with a peaty punch.

HedonismNext was a whisky that I knew very well from just the nose – Hedonism. This is the whisky that I wrote about in my first entry on this blog and one that I still vary from day to day whether I love or hate it, although my increasing love of nicely aged grain whisky has hacked away at the days when it’s not one of my favourites. Fortunately it was a day when I really liked it. On the nose it had sweet candied fruit, vanilla, acetone, buttery pastry, rum, garibaldi biscuits, coconut, tropical fruit and banoffee pie. To taste it was sweet and floral, with high alcohols and ripe tropical fruit. Water dropped out some of the sweetness, replacing it with woodiness, and added more prickle, more body and some creamy vanilla. This was Compass Box’s first whisky, starting with a product unlike others on the market – A blended grain whisky. They do a couple of batches a year and this one (H29MMIXB – 29th batch, second batch of 2009, the one after the bottle I have) is a blend of 14 and 29 year old from Cameron Bridge, Cambus (now closed) or Carsebridge, with a little drop of 30 year old Invergordon (not usually added, but in this batch for a little more richness). This one is a more limited release than the others in the range in part due to the niche nature of grain whisky but also due to the difficulty in sourcing good quality older grain whisky, as most is decanted young and used in blending.

Hedonism 10th AnniversaryThe last whisky was the wildcard. For their 10th anniversary Compass Box had bottled a number of interesting whiskies and having tasted through the rest of their core range it seemed likely that one of those would appear as whisky number 7. On the nose there was acetone, vanilla,  cherries, flowers (maybe violets?) and icing sugar – combining to give “Cherry bakewells with superglue icing” (thankyou Mr Matchett) and “Manhattan cocktails”. To taste it was less sweet than the nose suggested and like a rich dessert wine with concentrated grapes, a burst of grassy new make spirit and long lingering sweet fruity finish. Water brought out roses, Turkish delight and glacé cherries. I was quite blown away by this and a bunch of head nodding down my end of the table confirmed what we had hoped, it was Hedonism 10th Anniversary Edition. Different to most of the other Compass Box whiskies (apart from their Canto bottlings, I think) in that it is a single cask whisky. It’s 1971 Invergordon (rumoured to be a sister cask to the now no longer available Berry’s Own Selection bottling which I tried last year and which was also excellent) bottled in 2010 at 38 years old, so a single cask single grain whisky, a type of whisky that doesn’t appear much and one that I have so far almost always enjoyed every time I’ve found it. There were 120 bottles produced from the cask, 24 of which were allocated to the UK market at £200 each and there are a few around still to buy. Despite the price I’m very tempted as it was very good indeed and I was thinking about it still two days later, despite having Whisky Live London in between.

Speaking of Whisky Live, which was the day after the tasting, I met up with Whisky Squad organiser Mr Standing at the show and having just visited the Compass Box stand we had our tipsy states taken advantage of by the folk of Connosr and recorded a video about another of the Compass Box limited editions, Flaming Heart, in their Whisky Pod. My only comment on the video is that Niceness is an excellent word. Please do not count the number of uses of the suffix -ness in the text above, I just did and it’s shocking. My fairly drunken tasting notes for the Flaming Heart read: “Nose – Muddy peat, light burning hay, orange peel. Taste – sweet start moving through rich spicy caramel to a smoky fiery end. Water – More Clynelish, but with burnt wood over the finish. Fruity middle, mango and pineapple, butter and ash”. Not bad after 5 hours at a whisky show.

Next month’s Whisky Squad is yet unannounced, but with it being the first anniversary I suspect Things may be happening. We shall see…

Whisky Guy Darren very rudely didn’t attend due to having become a dad the day before. I will forgive this terrible breach of etiquette on this occasion and wish him, Mrs Darren and Baby Darren all the best.

Asyla
Blended Scotch Whisky, 40%. ~£25 from Master of Malt.

Oak Cross
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, 43%, ~£30 from Master of Malt.

Spice Tree Version 1
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, 43%. No longer available

Spice Tree
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£35 from Master of Malt.

Peat Monster
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£35 from Master of Malt.

Hedonism
Blended Grain Scotch Whisky, 43%. ~£50 from Master of Malt.

Hedonism 10th Anniversary
Single cask single grain Scotch whisky, 56%. ~£200 from Master of Malt

Whisky Squad #11 – The Bottle of Britain

The blessing, and curse, of the monthly whisky club is that it pops up so regularly. Unfortunately this does often mean that it is surrounded, in my diary at least, by other whisky related events, so now after one whole post of respite we move on to whisky deluge #2.

This month’s cryptic theme at Whisky Squad was The Bottle of Britain, but after a bit of deduction it wasn’t that hard to work out what we were going to be seeing – Whisky Squad usually does four bottles per month and there are four constituent countries to our glorious United Kingdom: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. All four have distilleries, so that’s a ready made tasting ready to rock.

Arriving at The Gunmakers I saw four bottles on the side and nodded my head sagely, smug in the knowledge that I was, as is obvious, best. Then Andy arrived and added a 5th bottle to the pile. All bets were now off. There’s only one distillery in each of Wales, England and Northern Ireland, and pulling in two Scotches isn’t Whisky Squad’s style, so one of the bottles was a mystery. And to add to the mystery we only had them revealed once we have tried all 5 – there wasn’t even going to be a chance of guessing by ticking options off the list…

ManxFirst up was a suspiciously colourless liquid that smelled suspiciously like whisky, that well known not-colourless liquid. On the nose it had a bit of barley grain (which I suspect wasn’t really there but was instead my underlying assumption that it was new make spirit), vanilla, red berries, bread and a hint of the farmyard. To taste it was sweet and didn’t taste much like a new make spirit – astringent fruitiness, peach stones and sweet vanilla cream. Water brought out some woody smoke and reduced a bit of the astrigency, but still left a bit at the end. It was almost like someone had bleached a whisky of all colour (and some of its flavour) and in a way that’s what had happened. It was revealed to be a spirit drink, rather than whisky as such, from the Isle of Man (Not part of the UK, but part of the British Isles, so I’ll allow it) – ManX Blue. Designed to be used in cocktails, where being clear is a bonus, ManX buy whisky (at least 5 years old) from Scotland and then redistil it to produce a clear drink with some of the flavour of whisky, but none of the colour. They variously claim a patent ‘intensification process’ where neutral alcohols are removed as well as that they ‘enhance the flavour of the drink by removing certain compounds found in the original whisky‘. It certainly removes something, but it is still worryingly drinkable. The thought in the room was that bad whisky was used as the starting product, either stuff that didn’t taste right or that which had dropped below 40% and thus couldn’t legally be called whisky any more (although fortifying it with stronger whisky is allowed – cf the conspiracy theories about Ardbeg Serendipity and the strength of the Ardbeg that went into it), and that this is probably better than the initial product. It’s not particularly easily findable at the moment, but you can get it on their website for £30 a bottle, or £54 when paired with the ‘distilled from at least 10 year old whisky’ (but still cheaper than the blue) red label. Weird stuff.

English Whisky Chapter 6We then moved on to something which was also rather different from our regular whisky fair. With a bit more colour than the ManX, not hard though that was, it was still very pale and had a nose of marzipan, amaretti biscuits, marshmallows and nuts, with a meaty silage note underneath that suggested relative youth. To taste there were caramel nuts, candly floss, sour apples and a woody finish. Water brought out sweetness and custardy cream, with brandy fruitiness hanging around as well. At the reveal I wasn’t particularly surprised to see that it was the English Whisky Company‘s Chapter 6, despite having tasted it recently and not picked it out before the concealing paper (this week a page from each of the newspapers that Gunmakers landlord Jeff had left downstairs) was removed. The Chapter 6 is the first release from the English Whisky Company that can properly be called whisky, the 5 releases before coming at 6 month intervals from distilling, and it was one of the last ones to be put together by consulting distiller Ian Henderson, with production taken over by the owners of the distillery now that things are up and running. It’s young, different and something that I suspect will get more interesting over time – roll on the later chapters…

Penderyn Sherry CaskNext was something that appeared to be much more traditionally whisky – darker in the glass and more familiar in smell and taste. The nose had caramel, spiced fruit, strawberry, rum and raisin fudge, liquorice bootlaces, wine gums and creamed coconut. To taste there was a big sweetness up front, almost cloying, followed by sappy wood, sweet coconut and milk chocolate. Water brought the sourness from the wood as well as woody spices, more fruit and Asian cooking spice. The paper was removed and the tall elegant bottle was revealed to be Penderyn Sherrywood. They are Wales’s only whisky distillery and I’m still not convinced, although this is the nicest one I’ve tried so far. There’s a taste in there that I can’t quite describe that not only tells me it’s Penderyn but also grates on my palate. The more heavily sherried whiskies I’ve tried from them have masked it, but it’s still hiding in the background, souring things for me.

Bushmill's 1608Our penultimate whisky was a bit of a divider, with it initially being my least favourite of the night, but developing into one of my favourites. On the nose it had, according to Whisky Guy Darren, ‘maraschino cherries and diesel oil’, sponge cake (from me) and ‘cheap apple shampoo’ according to Alan. To taste it was very tannic, almost causing my face to compress to a point, with wood smoke and struck matches. The tannins were too much for me and I quickly declared it to be nasty, however after a drop of water I ate my words. The violence of the wood was rubbed away, leaving a solid woodiness but also more sweetness and more of the cakey vanilla and fruit that the nose promised. The paper came off and it was shown to be Bushmills 1608, produced for the 400th anniversary of the distillery. While the location of the distillery that was built 400 years ago is down the road from the current distillery there was a license for distilling issued to someone in the area in 1608, so we can probably let them have the ‘oldest distillery in the world’ tag for the time being.

Speaker Bercow'sLast, but very much not least, was something a lot more familiar – on the nose there was spiced apple and pear, vanilla and soft wood. To taste there was creamy custard leading to a sugary wood centre and dry wood to finish. Water brought out more wood, more custard and some butteriness – a text book bit of rich Scotch whisky. The label came off and a Scotch it was – House of Commons Speaker Bercow’s Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Exclusively available at the House of Commons (and thus from eBay and other ‘secondhand’ buying locations), this was a leaving present to Andy from a job there, donated to us for the evening. There is a tradition of malt whiskies being produced in the Speaker’s name, with previous speaker Michael Martin definitely not being involved in the selection process due to the small problem of him being teetotal, and they are rather collectible, especially when signed by members of parliament or the speaker themself. The previous bottling, Speaker Martin’s, seems to have been overtly a Macallan but this one is quietly bottled by Gordon & MacPhail with no indication of origin, although Darren reckoned it might well be a Macallan. Tasty, no matter what it was – a reason to visit the Commons bar (or the Private Members gift shop).

Another month down and another tasting to look forward to next month. It’s not up on the Whisky Squad website yet, but March’s tasting will be with Compass Box, purveyors of fine blends to discerning drinkers since the year 2000. It’ll be up on the site soon, so keep an eye there and on Twitter – tickets go quickly…

ManX Blue
Whisky based spirit drink, 40%. ~£30 from their website

English Whisky Company Chapter 6
English single malt whisky, 46%. ~£40 from The Whisky Exchange

Penderyn Sherrywood
Welsh single malt whisky, 46%. ~£35 from Master of Malt

Bushmills 1608
Irish blended whisky, 46%. ~£40 from The Whisky Exchange

Speaker Bercow’s Single Malt Whisky
Single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. Occasionally available from eBay or more regularly at the House of Commons Private Members gift shop…

Alan beat me to finishing a write-up this month and you can find his, complete with very pretty pictures, over on his blog

Whisky Squad #10 – Wee Speyside Beauties

The year has turned and time for another whisky squad has rolled around. This month, in a departure to the norm, we relocated from The Gunmakers to sample some more whiskies from Berry Brothers and Rudd, the eponymous Berry’s Own Selection, this time in the cellars beneath their shop at Number 3 St James’s Street. Due to Epic Camera Failage! (I forgot to charge it) I ended up with only a few rather noisy pictures courtesy of my iPhone but Mr Standing, Whisky Squad co-founder and probable boxing champion if he put his mind to it, has put up a flickr set with a few more piccies of the lovely location in.

Berry Brothers and Rudd
Upstairs, downstairs

While The Gunmakers has history (named for the nearby site where Hiram Maxim’s machine gun, the first of its kind, was manufactured as it is) Berrys have been selling continuously from their shop since 1698 and despite The Blitz hitting surrounding buildings quite heavily it is still made of a lot of original material. The floor in the main shop floor may be a bit on the wonky side, thanks to the settling of the foundations over the last 300 years, and the floor boards near the door may only be a few years old due to being replaced after the break in, but walking into the shop does almost feel like walking into a museum. In the back left corner there is a small room where Rob Whitehead, returning as our whisky guide for the evening, spends most of his time looking after Berry Brothers’ spirits selection, but most of their business remains selling wine. While most of the stock is no longer under the shop the cellars aren’t going to waste, having been refurbished and turned into a selection of vaulted venue spaces, one of which Rob led us down into for our tasting.

The plan for the evening was the same as usual, despite the change in location, and the focus was to be whiskies from Speyside. As it’s the largest, by number of distilleries, area of whisky production in Scotland, with the number of different styles of whisky that suggests, Rob decided to narrow the selection and work (mainly) with whiskies matured in refill bourbon hogsheads. Along with the four whiskies we were to taste he also put two glasses in the middle of the table with an attached challenge – whoever identified the difference in age between the two glasses would win a prize. More on that later…

BoS AberlourFirst up was a lightly coloured dram with an interesting waxy nose of apples, foam strawberries and green wood. To taste it was oily with vanilla, acetone, a caramel sweetness in the middle and hazelnuts to finish. Water brought out candy canes, spicy apple pie and some balsamic vinegar. In an effort to help with guessing Rob let us know that the distillery name didn’t begin with G or B, removing all the Glens and most of the other distilleries. However, even with this help and Whisky Guy Darren reeling through distilleries at a rate of knots we didn’t guess – it was a 1989 Aberlour, bottled after 15 years at 46% (as most BoS whiskies are – they are single cask but are diluted down to that strength if they haven’t already dropped below it). This is a bit different to regular Aberlour (which is well known for its use of sherry casks in maturation) and was a pleasant start to the evening.

BoS LinkwoodThe next whisky was a bit darker and before I got my nose in the glass it was announced that it smelled of “Swimming Pools”. I didn’t get the chloriney smell that others did, but I did get nail varnish, sweet & fruity air freshener, non-soapy pot pourri, rose water turkish delight, gin botanicals, candle wax, shortbread and ginger nut biscuits. The nose was fantastic and the taste didn’t quite live up to it. It had a slowly building gingeriness, reminding the table of Thai food, leading to an icing sugar powdery sweetness at the end. On the way there was rhubarb and butterscotch, married up with a pleasant sourness underneath. Water brought out more butteriness, spongecake and violets. Interesting, but one that I liked the nose of much more than the taste. The cover came off to reveal that it was a 1985 Linkwood bottled in 2006 at 21 years old. Linkwood doesn’t get out much as a single malt, with about 98% of production going into blends (mainly Diageo’s), but as it is sold for blending the independent bottlers can occasionally get their hands on casks like this one.

BoS DailuaineThe next bottle appeared and the whisky was yet again slightly darker. On the nose it had floor polish, a hint of salt and mincemeat, and a dark savouriness sitting under it all – the phrase “umami on the nose” was mentioned, causing me rather too much amusement (umami being specifically a taste rather than a scent, and all that) but made a lot of sense. To taste it had ozone (posh swimming pools…), sweet and sour fruit, and a vegetal tang leading a crisp sweetness and mix of green and old wood at the end. Its tannic taste and hints of vegetable added a tea-like feel to the flavour. Water tamed some of the dryness and added in some sweet butter. Again we had no correct guesses and the bottle was revealed to be 1971 Dailuaine bottled in 2005 at 31 years old. Dailuaine is another blending distillery that doesn’t make its way out into the single malt world very often and as this bottling divided the room I can see why. The savouriness didn’t appeal to everyone but I rather liked it. I’ve tried one or two other bottlings at the SMWS and will continue to keep an eye out.

Blue Hanger 4th ReleaseLast of the night was a dark whisky with a pile of sherry cask on the nose and Rob admitted that this was the one where he had departed from his ‘refill bourbon hogshead’ plan. On the nose it had hot gravel, dark fruit, deep savoury notes, hints of sugary rum, struck matches and wet undergrowth. To taste it had dry spicy wood up front, with a slab of vanilla, fine sawdust in the middle and a long finish of preserved fruit. Water brought out more depth, with liquorice and caraway, and butter and vanilla. There were no ideas around the table at all for this one and it turned out that was with some justification – it was Berry Brothers’ blended malt Blue Hanger, this being the previous 4th release. They’re on to the 5th release now but this version is made up of about 50% heavily sherried whisky from Mortlach, matured for about 17 years in two sherry butts, with some 33 year old Glen Elgin and 16 year old (I think) Glenlivet to make it up to 3500 bottles. Blue Hanger has been around for a while, named after William Hanger, the 3rd Lord Coleraine, who was nicknamed “Blue Hanger” and died in 1814. The Blue Hanger comes from the days when whisky was sold in bottles that the customer would bring in to be filled from casks in the shop – they had three barrels: a smoky whisky, a sherried whisky and one where the dregs of the barrels were married before refilling. The ‘dregs’ barrel thus picked up a combination of smoky and sherried whisky, mainly the sherried as it sold in much larger quantities, and as it was constantly topped up it had bits of a variety of older whiskies in. A bottle of original Blue Hanger was found a few years back and after tasting it Doug McIvor, Berry Brothers’s whisky king, put together the first new limited release and has been working on it with each batch. It was rather nice.

After the four main whiskies of the tasting all eyes turned to the mystery drams in the middle of the table. From colour alone we could tell that one was new make (being entirely clear helps with that) and thus Darren correctly guessed that we were looking at Glenrothes – BBR own Glenrothes which makes it significantly easier to get new make spirit. On the nose the new make had buttery grain, cereal and a hint of cream. To taste it had lemon, grass, and apples and pears to finish. I rather liked it, which is dangerous when you’re drinking something that is 68.8% abv. The other dram was a solid bronzey gold and obviously a chunk older. On the nose it was sweet with biscuits and a touch of citrus – maybe lemon shortbread? To taste it was buttery with spicy wood and a plimsolly rubberiness hiding behind. There was only a drop to share between the table and it became apparent why on the reveal.

Glenrothes SampleGlenrothes 1975

The second whisky was a 1975 Glenrothes bottled in 2006 and long sold out at Berrys. Known as an excellent whisky it’s not been easily obtainable for years and we got the last from Rob’s stashed tasting bottle.

Talisker 20Noone guessed the 31 years difference but there was a 30 and a 32, and the guessers very kindly decided to let everyone try their prize before dividing it up – a bottle of a very much long gone and rather pricey Talisker 20 year old that Rob happened to find knocking around in his increasingly enviable tasting cupboard. On the nose it had rubber tires and balloons, spicy fruit and muddy river banks. To taste it had marzipan dust, butter, spiky smoke, struck match sulphur, ketchup and violets. Water brought out more of the sulphur note (hated by many but liked by me) and fluffy powdered sugar. It was an impressive dram, especially after the almost entirely peat free evening we’d had, and one that I’m happy to have had a taste of.

Next month’s session (the mysteriously named Bottle of Britain) is already sold out, but keep an eye on the site as March’s will be up soon enough. Looking ahead to the future, there will be a group (well, at least three of us) going to Maltstock in The Netherlands in September under the Whisky Squad banner. Let us know if you’re coming along…


Berry’s Own Selection 1989 Aberlour
Single cask Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. No longer available, but was ~£50

Berry’s Own Selection 1985 Linkwood
Single cask Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. No longer available, but was ~£45

Berry’s Own Selection 1974 Dailuaine
Single cask Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. No longer available, but was ~£70

Blue Hanger 4th Release
Blended Scotch malt whisky, 45.6%. ~£60 at Berry Brothers and Rudd

Glenrothes 1975
Single cask single malt Speyside Scotch whisky, 43%. Available for ~£385 from Master of Malt

Talisker 20
Skye single malt Scotch whisky, 62%. ~£510 from The Whisky Exchange

Whisky Squad #9 – The Christmas Party

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.

Whisky Squid

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…

SMWS 93.40Anyways, 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.

Berry's Ledaig 2005Next 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.

Glengoyne English Merchants' ChoiceGoing 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).

Octave Cameron BridgeAs 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.

Whisky Squad #8 – Movember

September flew by a bit for me and shortly after I finished writing up last month’s Whisky Squad another one appeared on the horizon. In honour of the fluffy top lips of a chunk of The Squad this session’s theme was Movember. Whisky Gandalf Darren, the man behind Whisky4Movember and random chap for Master of Malt, had done some looking around and brought us four moustache related whiskies to try.

IMG_0427First up was one half of Master of Malt’s special edition pair of Movember bottlings for 2010. Selected by Darren, bottled by Masgter of Malt and featuring five different labels per expression, each honouring one of the well known moustached chaps of the whisky industry – Richard Paterson, Dave Broom, Charlie MacLean, Serge Valentin and Marcin Miller. This first bottle was the Mo’land, a single cask lowland whisky, and our featured moustache was that of Richard Paterson who I’ve bumped into a few times over the summer. Richard is an especially appropriate candidate for honouring on the bottle as not only has he survived cancer but also removed his rather famous moustache for Movember. The whisky had a light nose with bees wax, butter, malt syrup and boiled sweets. To taste it started with a syrup sweetness which rolled through surprisingly rich polished wooden floors to a sweetly woody finish. Water brought out more butter and woody spice, with vanilla and a hint of fruit. A light and easy drinking dram that might entice whisky novices in as well as keeping me happy.

IMG_0433We moved on to another moustachioed bottle, this time last year’s Master of Malt Movember bottling – M’Orkney. As a spooned malt from Orkney, mainly consisting of the more well known of the distilleries on the islands, it’s not that much of a mystery where the spirit came from. ‘Spooning’ is a brand protection practise where a distiller will add a spoon of another distillery’s whisky to a cask when they sell it. This doesn’t affect the flavour of the whisky, a spoon is very small in comparison to a cask, but it makes the whisky legally a blended malt and prevents the buyer, and whoever the whisky is eventually sold on to, from bottling the whisky and selling it under the original distiller’s name. Certain distillers are well known for blocking bottlings in this fashion, with Glenfiddich and Balvenie (both owned by William Grant & Sons) being two of the more famous. The addition of a drop of Scapa to a cask of Highland Park (let’s just say…) hasn’t made much of a dent in the M’Orkney, with a nose of stony peat, sweet smoke, super sour candy balls and a pinch of salt coming through. To taste it’s sweet with a controlled dryness. There was wood ash, peppery spice, a citrus tang and a prickly finish. Water softened the prickle and brought out more lemon and vanilla. Annoyingly this one is sold out or I’d be grabbing one for my cupboard.

IMG_0437Next up was one of Richard Paterson’s whiskies – the Dalmore 15. A classic highland distillery, just down the road from Glenmorangie, Dalmore’s been in the news recently with the release of their newest whisky – The Trinitas. Named for the fact that there are just three bottles available it has taken the record for world’s most expensive whisky, at £100,000 for 70cl. Two of the three bottles are spoken for, one having gone to a private collector and one to Sukhinder Singh from The Whisky Exchange, but the other is still available from TWE, so If you’re interested you can give them a call. It looks to be a record that may not stand for long as Macallan’s ‘Cire Perdue’ decanter of 64 year old whisky has almost finished its trip around the world and will shortly be auctioned off in aid of Charity: Water – with 10cl samples going for over $40000 it looks like the whisky (with its rather special Lalique decanter) might break the Trinitas’s record. The rather more affordable Dalmore 15 is a rich deep red (although the colour is helped on its way with some added spirit caramel) with chocolate, cherry, shreddies and dry wood on the nose. To taste the cherries become glacé and are joined by almonds, ginger, orange and sweet spices – a bit like a rich cherry bakewell at Christmas. A bit of water, as it can’t take much before losing the richness, adds vanilla, more sweetness and some delicate dried fruit.

Smo'keyWe then moved back to Movember whiskies, picking up the second of this year’s MoM bottlings – Smo’key. This was one was adorned with the face of Dave Broom. Dave is a well known drinks writer, especially known for his writing about whisky, which has appeared in pretty much every whisky publication under the sun, and also in a number of books, including his latest – The World Atlas of Whisky (which may shortly appearing on my shelf next to my World Atlas of Wine from the same series). The Smo’key is a blended malt like the Mo’land, but this time going for the opposite end of the flavour scale, featuring whiskies from Islay. On the nose there wasn’t all that much, with sweet mulchy peat and a touch of stone dust. The taste had much more, with sweet grassy peat, butter, sweet and sour oranges, a hint of coal and a vegetal back palate leading to a prickly finish. Water brought out more of the nose’s stoniness with some coal smoke. There was also more fruitiness and the butter gained some fat, making the mouthfeel creamy. Darren doesn’t know what whiskies went into the bottle, but after some discussion around the room it was thought that there was definitely some Caol Ila in there, cut with some lighter Blasda-like Ardbeg as well as a whole lot more.

IMG_0440Our fifth whisky of the night, breaking the rule (as seems to have happen at most Whisky Squads) that we only taste four whiskies, was Smokehead Extra Black. Smokehead is a range of bottlings by Ian MacLeod of whisky from an unnamed Islay distillery (it’s [almost certainly] Ardbeg). Along with the regular bottling and this 18 year old Extra Black they also used to do an Extra Rare, which I have a cloth bag covered bottle of in my whisky cupboard. Smokehead has been a great supporter of Movember this year, supplying whisky to a variety of the events celebrating the month, hence a bottle appearing at our table. On the nose it was sweet and lightly smokey, with a thin and nicely astringent smoke rather than a choking cloud. To taste it had a sweet start with TCP, tar, damp peat and wet smoke in the middle, and a sweet smokey finish. A bit of water brought oranges and a hint of lemon as well as a thick vanilla caramel.

My Mo’ (I hate that term) continues to grow, as do those of the other Whisky4Movember team members. To support our ‘tachey efforts you can sponsor us over on the Movember site, throw Richard Paterson some cash instead/as well or buy one of the Movember bottlings from Master of Malt – £8 of the £34.95 selling price will go to charity.

Movember Smokey bottle set

Another whisky squad done and another one scheduled. At the time of writing there are still a couple of places left at the Squad Christmas dinner – a three course meal from The Gunmaker’s seasonal menu with some matched whiskies and the usual random banter. Book soon or be disappointed.

Master of Malt Mo’land
Blended lowland Scotch malt whisky. 40%. £34.95 at Master of Malt

Master of Malt M’Orkney
Spooned Orcadian malt whisky. 40%. Sold out

Dalmore 15
Highland single malt Scotch whisky. 40%. ~£40 at Master of Malt

Master of Malt Smo’key
Blended Islay Scotch malt whisky. 40%. £34.95 at Master of Malt

Smokehead 18 Year Old Extra Black
Islay single malt Scotch whisky. 46%. ~£85 at Master of Malt

Whisky Squad #7 – Berry Brothers & Rudd

Another month, another slab of Whisky Squad related delight Chez Jeff, the lovely landlord of The Gunmakers. This month we were treated to another special guest following in the rather hefty footsteps of Colin Dunn – Rob Whitehead from Berry Brothers & Rudd. Regular Whisky Guy Darren was off recovering from a whisky related sojourn state-side, so we were left in the capable hands of Rob to run us through some of the whiskies that Berry Brothers bottle.

Berry Brothers & Rudd are the oldest family owned wine and spirit merchant in the world. Generally they’ve been known in more recent times for their wine, with their cellars extending for quite a way under St James’s, but they are also a very well respected independent bottler of spirits. Despite having known about them for a while, something that is inevitable when your dad sells wine, I didn’t realise that they also did whisky until recently. Having tried a couple of drams at whisky live earlier this year I did a bit of research and found that they’d won Whisky Magazine’s Independent Bottler of the Year award last year, a feat they’ve recently repeated for a second time.

The shop started out in 1698 as grocers on the same site that it is now, 3 St James’s Street. The Berry clan became part of the business in the 1780s through marriage and Hugh Rudd joined the company in 1914 as a junior partner, completing its current name. While the wine side of things is more well known these days, with the full cellars of St James’s as well as a warehouse in Basingstoke allowing them to store 6 million bottles of wine, a million of which are looked after for customers needing proper cellaring, it was whisky that helped them keep going through the post-war period. In 1923 they released Cutty Sark, their own blend, which had great success in the US during the 50s and 60s giving a well needed boost in the still struggling British economic climate. They recently did a trade with the Edrington Group, swapping Cutty Sark for Glenrothes (which they already had a part share in) and a share in the Anchor brewery in San Francisco, but the whisky loving streak runs deep in the company.

IMG_0239

Rob works with the BBR spirit’s manager Doug McIvor to put together an impressive selection of spirits, from distillery bottlings to a range of their own – the Berry’s Own Selection. This doesn’t only cover whisky, but also rums, and they also bottle their own cognacs and gin – the spirits room at their shop is rather full of interesting looking bottles. However, the whisky is where we were at for the evening. They bottle quite a range, with their youngest being a 4 year old Ledaig and the oldest a 42 year old Carsebridge, from all over Scotland. They buy casks from various distillers and mature them in a variety of locations, having their own warehouse in Scotland as well as leaving many with the distillers themselves, although in order for a whisky to be called scotch it does have to be matured in Scotland. Their bottling policy is very simple – it’s bottled when it’s at what Doug thinks is the whisky’s best. If they miss that point or if they don’t think it will reach it they sell the cask on – the trade in casks is very active, with many companies needing whisky for blending and not worrying if it’s not up to single cask bottling as it will only be one component of many in a finished product.

IMG_0240In traditional Whisky Squad style we tried the whiskies blind, with Rob helping this along by bringing along a set of whisky socks to conceal the bottles. We started on what he described as ‘Breakfast Whisky’, a lightly coloured introduction to the evening. On the nose it had boiled sweets, liquid caramel and apples. To taste it had spice, orange candy, sherbert, polished wood and a hint of floral (rather than peppery) olive oil. Water brought out more of the woody flavours, with vanilla and sour wood joining the rest, along with blackjacks, menthol and a biscuity graininess. Guesses were made and Rob revealed the bottle to be a 14yr old Aberlour matured in a many times refilled cask. The standard Aberlour style is quite heavily sherried (as I’ve mentioned before), so this less active cask, as most of the wood flavour had been leeched out through the previous fillings, gave a more ‘naked’ tasting Aberlour, revealing the underlying new make more than usual.

IMG_0243We moved on quickly to number 2, a rather different beast. On the nose it had rubber boots, earthy smoke, turpentine, chilli and charcoal, with a sweet hit at the back of the nose. My tasting notes start with ‘charcoal butter’, continuing with lemons, brine and a smoky mineral (granite?) finish. Water tamed things slightly, revealing a rich spicy sweetness and more of a prickly mouthfeel – maybe revealing a hint of horseradish. This one at first seemed easier to guess, being quite blatantly made in the style of an Islay whisky, and predictions were made. However, this was another deliberate curve ball – a 12 year old heavily peated Bunnahaibhain. The regular production bottlings of Bunnahabhain are unique on Islay due to being almost entirely unpeated, however for two weeks a year, just before they close down for summer, they distill a heavily peated spirit that is generally used in making Black Bottle (a smoky blend using a bit of most of the Islay malts). They then thoroughly clean out the stills and tuns before returning to their regular spirit production when the distilling starts up again. Berry’s bought some casks either side of the closedown one year and released this rare peated version – the others are still waiting to reach their peaks.

IMG_0245Number 3 was my favourite of the night. On the nose it had flowers, wax, pears and linseed oil, along with a sweetness that I described at the time as ‘like when you mix together the strawberry and vanilla sections of Sainsbury’s neapolitan ice cream after it has started to melt. There’s not chocolate because the chocolate bit in neapolitan ice cream is rubbish’. I ate a lot of Sainsbury’s neapolitan ice cream as a child. To taste it had a big creamy sweetness with fizzy lemons, opal fruits, sour plums, and some oiliness and spicy dry wood. A drop of water opened it more with strawberries and custard, but it stilled retained the woody spiciness. An interesting dram that I dreaded discovering the price of. The sock was whipped off and it was shown to be a 26 year old Glen Mhor. This didn’t enlighten me much, but Rob continued with the story. Glen Mhor (pronounced ‘Vor’) was an undistinguished distillery in Inverness, not particularly admired but producing okay whisky until it closed in 1983. It was demolished in 1986 and is now a Co-op. This cask was distilled in 1982, just before the closure, and bottled in 2009, and unlike the regular whisky the distillery produced it has come out to be rather special. It’s an older style of whisky, as you might expect from a slowing down distillery in the early 80s, and Rob told us about whisky lovers who tried things back in the early 80s waxing lyrical about its old school flavour. The writing of this post was accompanied by a dram of it.

IMG_0249Number 4, the ‘official’ last whisky of the tasting, was poured out and sat a deep bronze in the glass. On the nose it had sweet orange, dark rum, vanilla and coconut. ‘Like a milk chocolate Bounty’ someone offered from the room. To taste it had a cool creamy sweetness with a touch of woodiness and a drying finish. Water brought out more flavours, with butter icing and sour fruit making an appearance. The finish was still woody, with some astringent booziness to the sides of the tongue. While the guessing went on I rather proudly detected the key USP of this whisky – it’s a single grain. With my recent discovery of and continued searching for grain whiskies I shouldn’t be quite so preening, but preen I did. The sock was removed and it was shown to be a 39 year old Invergordon single grain. I tried one of their previous bottlings of Invergordon at Whisky Live when I first discovered the Berry’s Own Selection range and thought it was quite special – this one beat it hands down. Distilled in 1971 this was bottled 5 weeks ago, with an outturn of about 190 bottles, missing out on its 40th birthday by a few months. After 39 years it still came in at a strength of 47%, which was helped along by the cask being filled with much higher alcohol distillate than usual – maybe 70% or above. The empty barrel has since been filled with Laphroaig new spirit and is now sitting somewhere thinking about what it’s done, waiting to be bottled some time in the future. This whisky reminded me of the Port Dundas that I own as well as the one that Colin Dunn brought along to Whisky Squad #5 even though this was matured in a first fill bourbon cask rather than sherry, as used in the other two. An interesting whisky that shows the delicate common characteristics of well aged grain and one that I was very tempted by.

IMG_0252Now that the tasting had officially finished Rob unveiled a special fifth bottle. Grabbed on the way out of the shop it’s one that was used for customer tastings of a whisky that sold out that day. Rather than leave it hidden in a cupboard Rob kindly brought it along for us to have a try. On the nose it was waxy with linseed oil, sherbert and thick vanilla. To taste it started with leather and stones before moving to a floral sweetness with red fruit and citrus, and a dry woody finish. Watter brought a chalkiness with the fruitiness, described as ‘fruit rennies’, sherry wood and more vanilla. Rob gave us a few hints, starting with the fact that the distillery is now closed. It’s a triple distilled (rather than the more regular double) lowland whisky that was matured in a fourth fill sherry cask. With blank faces all around the sock was removed for one last time to reveal a 26 year old St Magdalene from 1982. The distillery closed in 1983, another victim of the over production of the 70s, and is now a block of flats. This bottling sold for £90 and is now completely sold out.

We repaired, as usual, downstairs to find the place had been overrun by the London Perl Mongers on their monthly meetup. Being an occasional monger of Perl I knew a bunch of people and they soon started digging in to the left over whiskies that made it behind the bar – the Invergordon didn’t last long. I ended up running down to Berry’s the next evening to grab a bottle of the Glen Mhor (one of the last 5 or 6) and caught them just before they closed. I’m not sure if it counts as a lock-in but Rob walked me through a couple of their other whiskies including the fabled 4 year old Ledaig, the youngest they’ve bottled and also completely sold out, which was a young peaty slap to face (and good with it), and also their Guyanan demerera rum, which was dark, dangerous tasting and unlike any other rum I’ve tried before. It’s definitely worth the trip down to St James’s.

Berry’s Own Selection Aberlour 1994
14 year old speyside single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£35. No longer available online.

Berry’s Own Selection Bunnahabhain 1997
12 year old cask strength Islay single malt scotch whisky. 55.3%. ~£45. No longer available online.

Berry’s Own Selection Glen Mhor 1982
26 year old cask strength highland single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£70. No longer available online.

Berry’s Own Selection Invergordon 1971
39 year old cask strength single grain scotch whisky. 47%. ~£100. Available on bbr.com

Berry’s Own Selection St Magdalene 1982
26 year old lowland single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£90. Sold out.

There’s a chance that the whiskies that aren’t online are available at their St James’s Street shop, so it’s worth wandering in if you’re interested.

Whisky Squad #6 – Brilliant Blends

A bit of a unexpected move by The Whisky Squad this month. Having gone through various high powered single malts this meeting’s theme was to be the whisky snob’s enemy – the much maligned blend. The idea behind this was to help further put down the theory that blended whisky is by its very nature inferior to single malt. Granted there are a bunch of rubbishy blends out there, but with blended whisky still making up over 90% of the whisky market they must be doing something right.

Looking up blends brings up some interesting definition questions, such as the rather fundamental “What is a blended scotch whisky”. At the end of 2009 the Scotch Whisky Association (the love it or loathe it organisation who lobby government over whisky regulation) pushed through some legislation to formalise the nomenclature of whisky. There’s a full text of the definitions over on website of The Squad’s resident whisky expert, Darren The Whisky Guy, but as a quick precis here are 4 categories:

  • Single Malt Whisky – Whisky from a single distillery made with malted barley.
  • Blended Malt Whisky – Single malt from a variety of distilleries blended together.
  • Single Grain Whisky – Whisky from a single distillery made with any grains.
  • Blended Whisky – A mixture of grain and malt whiskies.

While many within the whisky appreciation world look down on blends the art of blending whisky isn’t something to be sniffed at (bad pun acknowledged) – to take a potentially large number of component whiskies from a variety of sources, all of which might change in quality, quantity and flavour between purchased batches of barrels, and then mix them together to create a consistently flavoured product in potentially large quantities is a serious skill. I still drink mainly single malt whisky but my prejudice against all blends has been hit on the head in recent times and this tasting certainly helped kick it further out the door.

IMG_0044The first whisky, tasted blind as is tradition, had loads of vanilla on the nose, along with a slab of wood at the back and a bit of floral oil. To taste it was lighter than the nose suggested with lots of wood leading to a spicy finish. Water brought out a lot more flavour with creamy custard, a little bit of fruit and a dry woody finish. Not the most complex of whiskies but quite happily drinkable. The paper sheath came off to reveal that it was Bailie Nicol Jarvie. Named after the bailiff from Rob Roy this is Glenmorangie’s blend and the whisky that my flatmates bought me for my 21st birthday. While the complete recipe is secret we heard that it at least contains malt whisky from Ardbeg, Glenmorangie and Caol Ila (although an unpeated version rather than their regular peated spirit), and grain whisky from North British. It’s one of the only blends known to have a good chance of containing Ardbeg, although as Glenmorangie and Ardbeg are both owned by the LVMH group it’s fairly obvious how they get their hands on it. Like most blends it does have caramel added to the mix for colour, but in this case (as it’s quite a light whisky) it’s very much more for consistency between batches than darkening younger spirit to make it look older (as the ‘older whisky is darker and better’ meme runs deep within whisky buying society). Darren’s quite a fan, buying some each Christmas for doling out to all and sundry during the festive season. He also recommended it as an accompaniment to creamy coffee.

IMG_0046Next up was a taller bottle which we were told we might recognise. On the nose the whisky had lots of fruit – with apples and pears, cherry and pineapple all popping up around the table. Darren also got Caramac and I got some almonds. To taste it was very creamy, with vanilla, a touch of dried fruit and a delicate woody spiciness. Water brought out more of the wood, a little bit of lower cocoa solid dark chocolate and raisins, but reined in the vanilla and cream a bit. With the paper off the bottle it was revealed to be my most polarising whisky – Compass Box Hedonism. The whiskies in the bottle come in at about an average of 20 years old, matured in american oak hogsheads, and come from Carsebridge, Cameron Bridge and Cambus grain distilleries – the conceit of this bottle is that it’s a blended grain whisky, a 5th category not mentioned above: a blend of single grain whiskies from different distilleries. It was the first booze I wrote about on this site and I am still as divided on it as I was then. Luckily I was in the mood for it that evening and rather enjoyed my dram although it won’t surprise me if I open my bottle tonight and decided that it’s thin, astringent and nasty…

IMG_0047Number 3 was the one I’d been waiting for – having been given a bit of a sneak preview of the whiskies a few weeks before this was the one I had remembered. On the nose it had gummi cola bottles (a flavour that I have ranted about being distinct from cola drinks for a while. Don’t ask me about it in real life, I can talk for up to half an hour on the topic), an acetoney tang, pine needles and Copydex glue. It also had a slightly meaty undertone to everything. To taste it had an initial burst of sweet pineapple and kola cubes with a strong lemoniness,  followed quickly by a tannic dryness and a prickly dry wood finish. Water helped, with more fruit appearing on the nose. The taste had more sweetness and the lemony citrus became more orangey. The dryness retreated, although was still present, and the finish was still very woody, but I also got some salt and menthol in the middle. A bit of a strange one this and one that I’m not sure I liked. It was revealed to be an Adelphi bottling of single cask Ben Nevis. The special thing about this cask was that it had been filled with a mix of malt and grain whisky, both produced at the distillery as they had a continuous still installed for grain production in the 1950s in addition to the pot stills for malt production, and then left to mature for 34 years. Thus it is a single cask blended whisky, bottled at cask strength, a very uncommon beast. Ben Nevis didn’t have the greatest of reputations in the past, with this going in the barrel in 1970, but they were bought by Nikka in 1991 and quality has been rising ever since. While I’m not sure I’ll seek this one out again it was a very interesting drink – unlike any whisky I’ve tried before. There was a little bit of it left behind the bar at The Gunmakers, so there’s a chance you might be able to try it if you get over there soon (before I decide I need another taste).

IMG_0056The final whisky of the night was one that I had no clue about at all. On the nose it had grapefruit, cordosyl mouthwash, cucumbers and single cream. To taste there were walnuts, coconut husks, liquorice root and cream, all tied together with a woody rubbery smokiness. Some water brought out salt and citrus on the nose and wood at the back of the palate. There was creamy pine, dark chocolate and tea, with delicate wood on the finish. Again the paper was torn off, this time to show a bottle of Ardbeg Serendipity, a blended malt. This is no ordinary blended malt, having come about (so the story tells it) by accident. Back in the days when Ardbeg was newly reopened they decided they needed to raise some cash, so prepared to bottle some casks of 1977 Ardbeg (about 25 years old at the time). They transported it to the vatting plant and turned on the taps to dump it into a tank ready for bottling only to discover that the vat wasn’t empty. So it was that they mixed four parts of an old and rare Ardbeg with one part of 12 year old Glen Moray (also owned by the LVMH group at the time). There is a cynical view that this was a story dreamed up by Ardbeg’s rather creative marketing department to explain away the strengthening of some spirit that had dropped below 40% ABV during its maturation (as 40% is the legal minimum that a spirit can be and be called whisky) by dosing it with some stronger, younger, cheaper Glen Moray. Whatever the truth, its price has risen and fallen as it has been snapped up by collectors and merchants over the years, having settled recently at a respectable £70ish a bottle, even though they can only put “12 years old” on the label.

Anyways, yet another interesting selection of whiskies, although happily not as potentially financially crippling as previous months – I already have a bottle of Hedonism (which gets drunk slowly due to my fear that I won’t like it when I open it) and my other favourite of the evening was the very reasonably priced Bailie Nicol Jarvie. I may not wait until Christmas until it joins the illustrious selection of boozes in my cupboard.

Bailie Nicol Jarvie
Blended scotch whisky. 40%. ~£18

Compass Box Hedonism
Vatted grain whisky. 43%. ~£50

Adelphi 34 year old Ben Nevis blend, cask 4640 (186 bottles in total)
Cask strength single cask blended scotch whisky. 50.3%. ~£130

Ardbeg Serendipity
Blended scotch whisky. 40%. ~£70

Whisky Squad organiser Andy already has a blog post up, as does Whisky Guy Darren.

Whisky Squad #5 – Summer Whiskies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whisky Squad #4 – Islay Malts

It’s incredible how important one’s sense of smell is when tasting things. I have, of course, heard from numerous people (including my anosmic mate John) about how taste is predominantly smell, with the tongue painting in wide strokes while the nose adds the detail, so it was rather annoying to discover the actual extent to which my own sense of taste is reliant on my nose on the same day as I finally made it along to a Whisky Squad tasting.

Whisky squad #4

The Whisky Squad is a monthly meetup set up by Andy of Good Drinks Etc and Jason B. Standing to be more informal than most of the tastings out in the wild, with a focus on learning, talking about whisky in a small group and generally having a good time. With assistance from Darren, The Whisky Guy, as whisky expert (a title he veraciously denies, despite working for Master of Malt and having hours of whisky related anecdotes to roll out at the drop of a segue) and moustache wearer extraordinaire, they take over the upstairs room at The Gunmakers (thanks to Jeff the easily bribed with whisky landlord) on the first Thursday of each month to taste through a bunch of whiskies focused around a theme. This month’s was Islay, Andy having just returned from a weekend up there and thus laden with bottles.

Islay is one of the most concentrated areas of whisky production in the world, with 8 distilleries dotted around the 240 square miles of the island floating just off of the Kintyre peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. Famed for their peaty whiskies it’s a bit of a whisky connoiseurs paradise, with each of the distilleries a short drive from each other and each offering something quite different.

I wandered along certain that my worst day of hayfever in about ten years wouldn’t hinder the tasting of pungent island malts. However, within seconds of the first dram being placed in front of me my worst fears were realised – I could smell nothing at all. Even the strongest snort did nothing but hurt the back of my nose as the physical reaction to the alcohol remained, but no twitch of sensory cells to inform me of what I was sniffing. Luckily, Andy acted as my seeing nose dog, pinging me tasting notes, and I grabbed a couple of samples to take home and try later on.

MoM Islay 12First up was a sample from Master of Malt to keep us going while Andy and Darren kicked off the evening with some talk of Islay and the makings of whisky. The Master of Malt 12 Year Old Islay is a blend of malts from the island and is peated to about 15ppm. On the nose it has bitter-sweet peat, a touch of sweet wood oil and digestive biscuits. To taste the peat is more subdued and joined with a hint of woodsmoke and wet cardboard. There’s a bump of malty sweetness in the middle, with a touch of orangey citrus, before a it trails off into a subdued, short caramel orange finish. Water brings out some vanilla sweetness to fight against the wood smoke, adding a prickly damp bonfire edge to the taste. It’s smoky and peaty, with a hint of citrus and some sweetness – a classic example of what is thought of as a ‘typical islay malt’, even if such a statement doesn’t really mean anything, as the whiskies to follow will demonstrate.

MoM Bowmore 26As a special treat before we started the tasting proper was a very small amount of Master of Malt Bowmore 26 Year old, accompanied by a parma violet. Unfortunately I didn’t get anything off the glass other than a burnt nose, but it was quite obvious to everyone else why a parma violet had accompanied it – it has a distinct sweet violet smell sitting in amongst the other flavours of a sweet shop.

The whiskies that are put on for the tasting, excluding random samples and donations, are tasted blind, with paper wrapped around the bottles to obscure labels and details, in an attempt to remove prejudices and prejudging of the flavours. Unfortunately for me I recognise the bottle shapes of most Islay distilleries, but having no sense of smell this was my main way of trying to work out what everyone was drinking before the big reveal.

Bunnahabhain 18Next up was a bottle that I didn’t recognise, the Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old. The Bunnahabhain (bunna-har-ven) distilleryis unique amongst those of the island in that its standard expression is pretty much unpeated , coming in at 1-2ppm. They do, however, produce a good quantity of peated spirit but other than for special bottlings this generally goes to other companies for blends, including Black Bottle which it makes up a significant component of. Andy had picked this up at the distillery, along with an armful of leaflets, maps, tasting note cards and other assorted propaganda, and had really liked it due to it being so different to the peat heavy assortment that he tried up until then. From everyone else’s tasting notes it had cheap chocolate brownies, honey and sherry trifle on the nose and was dry and woody to taste, with a salty buttery finish.

To follow this we moved on to the Bruichladdich Peat, a whisky that was difficult to tell from the bottle shape alone due to the distillery’s habit of doing so many releases – it was suggested around the room that it’s almost as if whenever Jim McEwan, the production manager, has a crazy idea they drop what they’re doing and make a batch of it. The Peat is a back to basics version of Bruichladdich – peated to ~35ppm, matured in bourbon casks for an unspecified amount of time and bottled without any of the finishes that have become their trademark in recent times. The notes I have for this are that it combines peat and wood smoke on the nose, with a nice balance of the two combined with some sweetness and dry vanilla wood to taste. One that I want to revisit, as I’ve been a fan of all the ‘Laddies I’ve tried so far.

This one brought up a point for discussion – the difference between peat and smoke. As peat is introduced into the malt by way of smoke people often assume that the two flavours are the same, but there is a distinct difference. In addition to peatiness there is also smokiness in the flavours introduced by the barrel used for maturation and this is a different kind of smoke to that introduced by the peat. Generally the peat will bring in more medicinal flavours, such as the TCP-like tang that Laphroaig is known for, or a sweet smoke, such as with Bowmore, whereas the wood will bring in more campfire tastes and smells. As ever, the various different bits of the whisky making process, from water to finishing, all have their effect on the finished product, all working together to produce interesting flavours.

After this I threw my contribution to the evening into the ring – the remains of my young Kilchoman sample, which Darren identified as having been in wood for 6 months. Kilchoman have recently produced their first 3 year old bottlings to quite a lot of acclaim (I have a bottle of an upcoming Royal Mile Whisky single cask bottling reserved, as recommended by Jason, which I’m very much looking forward to) and their new spirit is a great indicator of how Islay whiskies mature in the barrel. I usually describe this as tasting like ‘cattle feed and death’, but with a bit more delicacy it has lots of malty grain with sweet peat and a hint of woodiness that isn’t particularly developed in this young sample.

Caol Ila 10 unpeatedAfter that interlude we got back on to chosen whiskies with a Caol Ila 10 year old ‘Unpeated’ expression. Strangely for an evening of Islay malts half of the whiskies we tried weren’t heavily peated, with this one having little or no peat in at all, rather than the usual ~15ppm that the distillery uses. I grabbed a dram of this to take home, Caol Ila being a whisky that I’ve been intrigued by in the past (with a cask strength Tokaji finish being one of the most orangey whiskies I’ve ever tasted). On the nose there’s candy floss, a wisp of smoke and something almost toffee appley. To taste it has dry prickly wood, orange juice concentrate (a flavour that I’ve found to be especially strong in the Caol Ila’s I’ve tried) and sweet wood smoke. It’s cask strength, at 65.8%, so can happily take some water which opens the nose to add more oil and sweaty socks and a slab of sweetness to the taste, along with some coal dust, bitter oak, sweet butter and orchard fruitiness. A fearsome dram neat, but one that mellows nicely with water.

The citrus nature of many of the Islay whiskies seems a bit strange, but Darren explained it as coming from the saltiness inherent on being matured on the island. The salt interacts with the wood of the barrels creating citrus-like flavouring compounds which are picked up by the wood, thus introducing not only briney notes into the whisky but also the lemon and orange flavours that are often present.

Lagavulin 2010 Distillery OnlyNext was the last of the night, which by a process of elimination was the distillery only edition that Andy had promised us – Lagavulin Distillery Only 2010. This is a cask strength bottling that you can, as the name suggests, only get from the distillery. 6000 bottles were produced and it was released in time for this year’s Feis Ile. Along with the limited nature of the bottling it’s also quite special as it was finished in port casks. On the nose it’s pure Lagavulin, with seaweed, brine, a background of sweet peat and a hint of meatiness. To taste it’s spicy, with the port wood very obvious at the back of the mouth. It has seafood risotto, seawater, caramel covered twigs and a mixed spice tail. A drop of water takes the edge off of the prickle, bringing out big sugary sweetness, revealing the background woody savouriness and adding a chunk of smoky sweetness, like burned sugar. This is a really rather special dram and one that it’s worth going to the distillery to grab.

An interesting array of whiskies, with only 2 of the 4 actually being particularly peaty, showing just how big a range Islay actually produces. The guys know how to run an evening and having finished the tasting the conversation continued in the Gunmaker’s bar until the pub closed. I’m signed up for the next one (and am even missing a day of the GBBF to make sure I can go) which should be an evening of summer whiskies with Diageo’s Colin Dunn, who led the Talisker tasting I went to last year, which promises to be an event – putting Colin in a small room strikes me as a recipe for enthusiasm overload, in a good way.

Master of Malt 12 Year Old Islay
Islay Blended Malt Whisky, 40%. £34.95 from Master of Malt

Master of Malt 26 Year Old Bowmore
Single cask Islay malt whisky, 53.4%. £99.95 from Master of Malt

Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old
Islay Single Malt Whisky, 43%. £48.95 from Master of Malt

Bruichladdich Peat
No age statement Islay Single Malt Whisky, 46%. £31.95 from Master of Malt

Caol Ila 10 Year Old ‘Unpeated’ 2009
Islay single cask single malt whisky, 65.8%. £51.95 from Master of Malt.

Lagavulin 2010 ‘Distillery Only’
Port wood finished Islay single malt whisky, 52.5%. Only available from the distillery – £70 for one or two for £130.

If you want to come along to a Whisky Squad tasting then keep an eye on their website and sign up when they announce the next event. The group is small (~15) and it’s first come first served, so you need to be quick. They do run a waiting list so it’s worth letting them know even if they have run out of spots.