While the lost distilleries of Scotland are often spoken about, their closures lamented and bottlings pored over, there is another group of distilleries that I think deserve attention even more – the ones that are working that we never hear from. The distilleries with no official bottlings and rare independent releases, which produce whisky that goes anonymously into blends or hides behind other people’s labels.
Every now and again one emerges into the light, and the latest is Tamnavulin.
As I noted in my last post, some of the current whisky obsessiveness on this blog can be laid at the door of Richard Paterson, master blender at Whyte & Mackay and constant whisky show presence. My first in person encounter with Richard was a few minutes after getting in to Whisky Live Glasgow, where I was dragged on to stage to take part in a blending session. However, something that I’d forgotten was that I’d signed up to do a blending class and tasting with Richard at Milroy’s a week later. There was a lot of crossover between the two blending sessions, so I’ll stick them together.
The basic premise of the session was to get people to understand blending with a ‘simple’ task – blend together 6 whiskies to try and represent the character of the person on a card in front of you. We were given some grain, lowland, Speyside, medium highland, heavier highland and smoky Islay as our ingredients and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronnie Corbett, Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman, Jordan and a sumo wrestler as our inspiration. At Whisky Live I got Jordan, and after being told off for saying I wanted to make a “cheap tasting” whisky, settled on something with a heavy perfume and hint of smoke – heavy on the speyside with a body of grain and a hint of Islay at the end. I deservedly didn’t win that time, the honour going to Nicole Kidman, but my team picked up the accolade at Milroy’s with our sumo wrestler whisky – big and heavy with a slap at the end. Lots of heavy and medium highlands with a bit of Speyside, some grain (at cask strength) for welly and a hefty slug of the Islay for a late punch. According to the rather large certificate that Richard signed for me I am now an official Whyte & Mackay master blender, but I won’t be giving up my day job quite yet – I have a small sample jar of ‘Jordan’ on the side and opening it for a smell does not fill me with enthusiasm for my skills.
If you want to see the fun and games of the Whisky Live Glasgow session, social media king Craig set up a camera at the side of the room and captured almost all of it – part 1, part 2, part3. Including my being rubbish on stage in part 2.
The more interesting bit (for a blending ‘veteran’ such as myself) at the Milroy’s event was the tasting we started off with, running through part of Whyte & Mackay’s premium range. We started off with Jura Prophecy, distilled in 1992 with 90% matured in bourbon casks and 10% in sherry. On the nose it had salt, grass and seaweed, toasted wood, caramel and hint of, maybe, sweet cooked carrots. It also had a bit of wood polish, some olive oil and a slug of damp peat at the end. To taste it had a tannic end led to by fizzy lemon, tarmac and polished wooden floors. Water definitely helped, bringing out more salt and some custard on the nose. The taste had sherbet lemons, bitter wood, sweet smoke and the custard from the nose. I’m already a fan of Jura, but this one was really rather nice – not as peated as I would expect from the ‘heavy peat’ reputation that Willie Tait (former Jura manager) pushed at Whisky Live and nicely balanced, with wood, citrus, smoke and sweetness all rolled together.
Next was a bit of a move up, going on to the Fettercairn 24. I’d tried the 40 year old bottling at Whisky Live and not been blown away, and was interested to see what the younger expression would offer. It was a lovely bronze colour and had orange, sweet fruit, liquorice, pine and lemon scented floor polish on the nose. To taste it had almonds and cinnamon with a bitter wood finish and a buttery mouthfeel. Water calmed down the bitterness of the wood, turning the almonds into marzipan and the fruit from the nose into fizzy fruit chews. On top of this was some hazelnut and a spicy woody finish. Much closer to the nose of the 40 year old (which was fantastic, even if the taste wasn’t to my liking), but maybe not to the tune of £120 per bottle. The marzipan flavour is something I’m definitely going to be looking out for in other drams and I may have to have a try of their regular 12 year old.
We jumped up the price scale to the Dalmore 1974 Matusalem – named for its year of distilling and the type of sherry barrels used for its finishing. After an initial 27 years in rare palo cortado casks it sat finishing for 5 years in barrels formerly used to mature Gonzalez Byass’s rather special 30 year old oloroso, for a total of 32 years of maturation. A rather limited release this one compared to many from Whyte & Mackay’s stable, with only 780 bottles of it in the wild. It was deep bronze in colour with a nose of candied orange slice cake decorations and perfumed almonds. To taste there was an initial burst of sweetness leading to raisins, marmalade and buttery lemons. Water brought out more floral notes, creamy vanilla, fizzy refresher chews and a woody finish. Quite impressive, as you’d expect for the second most expensive whisky I’ve ever tasted.
After the Matusalem the only way to move in price was down and we moved on to the Dalmore 1992 King Alexander III. I’d missed a chance to grab a dram of this at Whisky Live in London earlier this year, turning up moments too late and seeing a tray of glasses emptied before I could get to it. It is made up of whiskies that have been finished in 6 different cask types – port, madeira, marsala, cabernet sauvignon, Knob Creek bourbon and oloroso sherry – for 2-6 years depending on the type of wood (with the port taking 6). It poured reddy bronze with heavy raisins, woody sweetness and vanilla on the nose. To taste it had sugary sweetness, orange and vanilla, moved to a mid-taste of sweet raisins, and finished with spicy oak. I didn’t add water to it, and I wish I had – it was a bit of a muddle and I think it might have helped bring the various flavours out a bit. There was definitely a hint of all of the different finishes in there, but I’m not sure that it all worked together at bottle strength, only 40% though it was.
We then moved on to our last dram of the night – Whyte & Mackay’s 30 year old. This is W&M’s premium blend and one that I’d got to have a quick sip of at Whisky Live Glasgow, enough to make me want to try it again. It’s definitely the top end of their range – with a boasted 25-27 components (a far cry from the John Glaser small batch approach) and bottled in black glass, it’s a cut above Whyte & Mackay’s regular range. On the nose it had custard, raisins and perfumed wood and to taste it had sweet custard with spicy oak bitterness and a lingering sherried fruitiness. Water bittered things up a little bit with dark orange chocolate joining the rich mix. Rather nice and further demonstrating that blends needn’t all be rubbish, grain heavy, Tesco’s shelf filler. This stuff does cost £180 a bottle, but it is pretty good. It’s not got the sort of backing and reputation that Chivas Regal’s top brands and Johnny Walker Blue Label have yet, but it’s definitely in the same league as them.
All in all a thoroughly enjoyable couple of events. Richard Paterson is definitely someone to see do his act in person, with over the top hand waving about ‘the pussies’ who don’t know what they’re missing, throwing whisky on the floor and audience, and the occasional party popper, although outside of that he is just a nice guy to have a chat with. I’ve not been to Milroy’s for a tasting before and while this one was a bit more than I’d usually pay (£40) it was an impressive whisky range that I’d not see elsewhere, with the 1974 Dalmore going for at least £40 a shot if you found it in a bar – I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more from them.
No age statement (16 years old?) Jura single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£50
Highland single malt scotch whisky. 44.4%. ~£120
Dalmore 1992 King Alexander III
Highland single malt scotch whisky. 40%. ~£120
Whyte & Mackay 30 Year Old
Blended scotch whisky. 43%. ~£180
The photos above are a bit rubbish because Milroy’s do their tastings in the basement under their Soho shop. It’s dark down there…but nice.
Whyte & Mackay are currently running a competition to win a bottle of their 30 year old – find one of the bottles of their ‘regular’ Special Blended Whisky that has been filled instead with 30 year old (as indicated by a note under the cap) and you can win one of 250 additional bottles of neat 30 year old. There is more info, including a video of ‘Richard Paterson’ breaking into the bottling plant to be nefarious with the whisky, over on the Master Blender website.
A couple of weekends back I found myself on the 6am train out of London Euston bound for Glasgow and this year’s Whisky Live Live Glasgow. It was rather a last minute thing, as I’d answered a request for help on Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson’s blog the week beforehand offering my services as a tweeter or liveblogger during the event. Whyte & Mackay’s social media supremo, Craig McGill, invited me along, blagged me a freebie ticket and jammed a Flip camera into my hand for part of the day – it was rather good fun. While I was there under the auspices of a free W&M ticket the brief was very much wider – wander round, talk to as many people as possible and just get a sense of the whole day for everyone. However, as a large part of the day focused around the W&M whisky media front man, Mr Paterson of the post title, I did spend more time with my sponsors than I planned.
The day started off in slightly random fashion with me being pushed towards a stage by Craig and Richard to take part in a whisky blending session, but more of that in my next post. The day continued with stops at pretty much all of the stands in the small ballroom of the Glasgow Thistle and a break after lunch for the main Whyte & Mackay event – Richard Paterson’s 40th anniversary at the company.
Richard Paterson is rather well known in the whisky industry. I’m not certain how much time he can devote to the duties his job title suggests, as for a master blender he seems to spend most of his time away from his blending room. He acts as the ambassador for almost everything in the Whyte & Mackay stable, including their range of blends as well as Dalmore, Jura and Fettercairn single malts. They are now part of United Breweries which, Richard announced, would soon overtake Diageo as the largest drinks company in the world. Richard has whisky in his family, with him being the third generation working as a master blender, and the week after Whisky Live Glasgow marked his 40th anniversary of working with Whyte & Mackay. In celebratory fashion there was a cake and to accompany it there was a, less traditional, ‘tache mob, with free drams of Whyte & Mackay’s 30 year old blend and Fettercairn 40 single malt offered to anyone who turned up dressed as Richard, or at least moustachioed as he is. There was also a box of rubber noses, to honour his trademark nose, immortalised in the title of his book (Goodness Nose) and his twitter account (@the_nose). Suffice to say this was the most surreal part of the day.
Outside of the fuss focused on Richard there was a good range of stuff going on. Each of the stands had things going on with the most noticeable being Glenfiddich’s, with one of their coopers (as they are one of the last distilleries with on-site barrel makers) demonstrating the art of building and disassembling barrels all day, complete with loud banging noises as he beat the increasingly beaten up looking barrel with a hammer:
I started the day with a dram of the Tweedale Blend. One of the ‘lost’ whiskies, similar to the Bailie Nicol Jarvie from Whisky Squad #6, that stopped production due to the second world war it has been recreated by Alasdair Day, great-grandson of Richard Day, the blender who produced the original whisky. Working from his grandfather’s recipe book (containing the recipes from 1899 to 1916) he’s put together a new version of the old whisky which was released earlier this year. I’d heard about it on WhiskyCast (with an update after Whisky Live in episode 278), was intrigued (especially with it appearing at the time when I was starting to want to reexamine blends) and have since been looking for a chance to try it. Annoyingly I don’t have any notes but I remembered that it was rather tasty, with a nice bit of woodiness and some good sherry-ness to it. It’s still on the list to be tried again and I would have bought a bottle of it, purchased from Alasdair himself at a knockdown “I don’t want to have to carry this back to the office” price if I hadn’t spent all my cash on new spirit…
The new spirit came from the Glenglassaugh stand, where they were showing off their newly released range of ‘spirit drinks’. Mothballed in 1986, the distillery restarted production in 2008 and has been keeping themselves afloat until their new whisky comes of age by selling off both old stock and new make spirit. They started off with ‘The Spirit That Dare Not Speak Its Name’, new make whisky (the ‘whisky’ before it goes in a barrel) diluted to 50% (from the normal mid 60s% ABV), and progressed to ‘The Spirit That Blushes To Speak Its Name’, young spirit that had been matured for 6 months in red wine casks. These were quite popular, leading to them creating a range of drinks that were release recently. I grabbed a bottle of the Blushes, the new name for the wine cask matured spirit, while visiting Edinburgh recently but hadn’t had a chance to try it yet, so decided to have taste of some of the rest of the range at their stand. I first tried their Fledgling XB, spirit matured for 1 year in american oak casks. It had taken on a light yellow colour, and combined the caraway seed hints of new make spirit with vanilla essence on the nose. To taste it had a little edge of wood but was mainly a worryingly drinkable new make spirit. I moved on to the Clearac, the new name for the ‘Spirit That Not Dare Speak Its Name’. On the nose it had a touch of citrus as well as the usual new make aquavit punch and slight oiliness. It tasted similar to how it smelled, but yet again was worryingly drinkable. I stopped at this point and grabbed a bottle of Clearac and Peated, the version of their spirit made with peated barley, to go with the Blushes I had at home, to be doled out when I have people round to taste whisky in the future. I’ve been looking for commercially available new make spirit for a while, of which there are a few brands although generally either not very good or very hard to get hold of, and while these aren’t at still strength they are both educational, if you want to see how whisky matures in wood, and quite tasty.
The next whisky I have notes on was a surprise on the Bruichladdich stand. I was walking past and heard someone mention Octomore 3.0 and doubled back quickly to make sure I hadn’t misheard. Bottled the week before this was one of the first outings for the distillery’s super-peaty whisky, with this one allegedly coming in at 155ppm of phenol, rather more than the 50-60ppm that you find in the regular ‘really peaty’ whiskies on Islay. After trying the Octomore 2.2 Orpheus the other week I was interested to see if this one lived up to my opinion of that previous release – in short, not really. On the nose it had strong peat with mulchy undertones, an underlying meatiness, some wood and a hint of ammonia. To taste it had the expected burst of sweet peat and smoke but it was backed up by a sweet synthetic rhubarb taste, almost like rhubarb half of a rhubarb and custard sweet. It was interesting and definitely one to try if you’re a peat lover, but it didn’t beat the Orpheus in my book.
The last whisky I have notes on was courtesy of the folk at Whyte & Mackay. I first helped out at group tasting by the stand, running out of hands and thus not writing anything down about the Jura Superstition. However I did grab a video of Willie Tait talking about it and passing around some Haribo sweets to go with the whisky:
The one I got to taste was Fettercairn 40 year old. Fettercairn sits on the edge of the Grampian mountains and isn’t particularly well known for its distillery bottlings, as most of its production going into Whyte & Mackay’s blends, but the brand seems to be being resurrected recently as an avenue to continue their release of some old and rare single malts. Only 463 bottles of the 40 year old have been released (and as the drams we got where poured from a variety of randomly branded bottles pulled out of bags behind the stand I assume this is some of the whisky that didn’t get officially bottled) and it costs over £700 – it is the most expensive whisky I have ever tried. This was handed out to everyone who was dressed as Richard Paterson, or at least either had a moustache (real or fake) or expressed an interest in facial hair while standing near the Whyte & Mackay stand. On the nose it had heavy vanilla and almonds, with light honey, heather, salt and candle wax. To taste it had a sweetness down the sides of the tongue with a sour fruit centre, with a slab of orange peel, that turned quickly into spicy wood. A drop of water brought a some sawdust, fragrant wood and a hint of dryness. An interesting dram with a fantastic nose that I didn’t particularly like the taste of. Not to the tune of £700, anyway.
I wandered out of the show with my two social media companions, Scott of In With Bacchus and Blair from the Aberdeen University Whisky Society, and settled down for a swift half and some reflection before we went our separate ways (me to my hotel, Blair to find more pubs and Scott to run back to Edinburgh and move into his university rooms to start a brewing and distilling course). The show itself was quite small and distinctly missing the big companies other than United Breweries (no Diageo, no Edrington group, no LVMH). Glenfiddich was there, along with the cooper and the second biggest stand in the room after W&M, but other than that it was the smaller names in whisky, along with some independent bottlers and a couple of food producers (with some excellent cheese, meat, fish and chocolate to nibble on). I got to try some interesting things, although as usual was rubbish at making notes, and the people on almost all of the stands were happy to talk about their whiskies and also knew what they were talking about, something you sometimes don’t get in larger shows, with distillery employees and whisky experts sent over rather than brand managers and professional stand staff. This is quite different to Whisky Live Taipei, which Blair helped out at this summer – a huge conference centre, all the big names, tens of thousands of visitors and a convention the likes of which you only find in the far east these days. The Glasgow show wasn’t something I’d normally travel a large proportion of the length of the UK to visit, but my trip does now mean that I have used the three oldest underground railway systems in the world and two of the three in the UK (Newcastle – you are next on my list).
Many thanks to Craig McGill and Richard Paterson for getting me a ticket and giving me a reason to get on a train to Glasgow. Also my fellow bloggers Scott and Blair for being lovely. Our coverage from the day, along with a load of other tweets, can be found on the Master Blender blog. There’s also a load more video up on their YouTube channel. I also bumped into Victor Brierley, often referred to as The Bagging Scotland Bloke, who has started doing whisky tours around Glasgow – you should all go.