Whisky Squad #20 – A Successful Grant Application with Ludo Ducrocq

After a couple of months with this blog not mentioning anything from the stable of William Grant and Sons I’ve been dragged back into the fold by this month’s Whisky Squad. After I met up with Grant’s brand ambassador Ludo Ducrocq a couple of months back, he and Squad boss Jason exchanged a few emails and with a sprinkling of organisational magic by scheduling guru Becky he was booked in to lead the September session at Albannach – he had some ideas that needed a bit more space than we usually have at The Gunmakers. Rather than repeat the walk through the range of Grant’s blended whiskies, as we had done with him already, he decided to go for a rather special tasting: a deconstruction of Grant’s 25 year old.

The Grant’s folks are all about the deconstructions at the moment, with Glenfiddich’s Jamie Milne breaking down most of their range and Balvenie doing sessions based around the components of the Signature, but this was slightly more extreme. The current edition of the Grant’s 25 is only available in travel retail, but as that exclusivity runs out at the end of the year they’ve been working on a batch 2 for general release. The second batch is made up of 25 component whiskies, each at least 25 years old, selected by master blender Brian Kinsman and mixed in a varying proportions. And Ludo brought them all with him…

Piccy by Alan. Or me borrowing his camera. Probably Alan, he used his camera a lot more than me

While tasting all 25 would make for an enjoyable, if not spectacularly fatal, evening, Ludo went for the sensible option of just choosing a number of representative whiskies from the line, leaving us 5 components to taste as well as the current release of the 25 year old. He declined to tell us, apart from the first component, where the whiskies had come from, as they were both from the Grant’s distilleries as well as elsewhere, as in a similar way to the SMWS he felt that it could prejudice either our tastebuds or future perceptions of the distilleries, as the components were all single casks and potentially very different from the distillery releases.

First up was a single grain, one of seven that they are using as a base for the blend. This one was from Girvan, which Ludo revealed as there are no production bottlings from the distillery, only independent single casks. It was quite a punchy number, pulled from the cask at 63.25% even after 25 years which suggests that it was put in a lot higher than the industry standard mid-60s for malt whiskies. The mash bill for Girvan is generally quite wheat heavy and Ludo reckoned this whisky was 10% malted barley and 90% wheat. On the nose it was gluey, with white rum notes and golden syrup. To taste it was big and toffeed, with pungent raisins, caramel coated wood, chocolate and hazelnuts. The finish was like Cadbury’s Whole Nut chocolate bars, with a tickle of sweet wood. Water tamed it, although it was worryingly drinkable at full strength, and revealed a buttery taste and texture as well as some sour fruit. To cut a long story short – I loved this whisky. Before I left work that night I’d nosed a cask sample of some old Japanese grain whisky and had the taste in my head when I got to Whisky Squad – this satisfied my grain craving quite happily. We have a few bottlings of old Girvan at work thanks to the Clan Denny range and I may have to investigate them further…

Ludo also handed around another pair of grains from the row of components on the side for us to nose, showing the range of flavours used in the blend. The first was very citrusy, with lots of lemon and lime, and the second was very sulphurous, probably from the North British distillery who are well known for the character. While both are used as flavouring components the second is especially used to add body – the sulphur note (struck matches rather than eggs) is not always popular amongst whisky drinkers but used sparingly in a blend it can make the whisky taste richer.

Girvan was a distillery built quickly due to Grant’s rapid expansion in the 1960s. Company chairman Charles Gordon decided to do TV advertising, the first whisky company to do so in the UK, which startled the companies that supplied them with grain whisky. They were not only suppliers but also competitors and with the potential expansion due to greater reach through the advertising campaign Gordon saw potential future issues with grain whisky supply. So, having checked how long the supply contracts ran for he started building the Girvan distillery to supply the company with their own grain whisky. Building started in early 1963 and Charles Gordon slept onsite in a caravan, pedalling around the fledgling distillery on his bike as it was built. The first spirit ran on Christmas day 1963, shortly before the supply contracts expired, and Charles Gordon awoke to find that his bike had been borrowed by the builders – they welded it to the top of one of the cooling towers. Girvan now produces 1.3-1.5 million casks per year, about 1 warehouse more whisky per year (they build a new one each year) than they currently use, giving them good stocks for aging in the future.

The Mat
The Whisky Squad has a new logo…

The next whisky on the mat was from the Lowlands, one of the two that are being used in the 25 year old. It came from the cask at a much more sensible 45% and provoked Mr Matchett‘s first audible tasting note of the night (having tweeted one previously that I’ve managed to lose) – ‘Like someone has juiced tangerines with their armpit’. On the nose it was dry and grainy, with flax oil, sweaty socks, mould, light cream and cornflower – quite nice despite the not so tasty sounding notes. To taste it was dry and floral, with fibrous card in the middle and sweet cream edges. The finish was excellent, with sugar, spice, cloves and fragrant wood turning into green leaves as it faded. Water left the dry flavour but brought out some sweet vanilla from the cream. A delicate and very different dram, but not one that many wanted to drink on its own.

Number three was a Speysider and from nosing it alone I reckoned it came from Glenfiddich – waxed fruit, apples and cream, lots of pears (the thing that made me say Glenfiddich), light vanilla, cinnamon and a touch of mint. To taste it started with sweet crunchy apples, with spice and cream, and faded across the tongue to dark tobacco-like wood. The finish was all pears, with spice and a bit of cigar box cedar. This was ‘simply’ a solid bourbon aged Speyside – technically excellent and very drinkable.

Next was a Highlander, matured in a Spanish oak sherry cask and decanted at 54%. It was a deep reddy brown and the nose had sweaty raisins, heavy oil/petrol, walnuts, big sweet wood and an incongruent hint of Copydex glue. To taste it started with apple fruit leather – long dried and much concentrated apple flavours with a hint of smoke. It continued with big sherry notes but was surprisingly light and fresh with it, with lemon and black liquorice. The finish was continued the liquorice and citrus, with sherbet lemons hanging on after the liquorice sticks faded.

The penultimate whisky was the surprise of the night for me – a really lightly coloured peated Islander. While my love of peaty whisky is returning I thought that the initial grain would win the day for me, but this one stormed in and took the crown. A nose of smoky fish, sardine tins, medicinal TCP and bandages, lime, cracked stone and pear drops. To taste it was very mineral led, with sweet lime, sweet smoked ham, sweet corn, cream and maple syrup following – surprisingly sweet at the same time as being crisp. The finish was lingering, with coal smoke and sweet cream. Johnny from Cadenhead‘s, sat next to me, pointed out a chestnutty tinge that I couldn’t help but taste after he mentioned it. An excellent whisky that we debated the origin of, deciding on Caol Ila or Laphroaig by the end of the night. We’re probably wrong. Grant’s use smoky whisky very sparingly in their blends (out of a 1600 cask batch of the Family Reserve they only use 10 casks of noticeably peated malt) and with whisky like this I can see how they might want to save some of it for ‘special projects’…

Mr DucrocqLast of the night was the blend itself, Grant’s 25 Year Old. This was the previous edition, as batch 2 hasn’t been vatted yet, but it’s very much along the same lines. On the nose it had apples and pears, wax, Whole Nut chocolate and maple syrup. To taste it had milk chocolate, nuts, a hint of smoke, light sultanas, brown sugar and more maple syrup. The finish was light, with chocolatey wood, some sap, sour fruit and a little puff of smoke. Elegant and rather nice, although the 40% bottling strength means that it’s not as concentrated a flavour as I’d like, although I’m not really the audience for high end, easy drinking blends.

An excellent tasting and many thanks to Ludo and Becky for organising it – it’s not every day you get to see all the various components of a blend and get some idea of how they’re put together. Next month’s Squad has already sold out (I heard that it spots lasted about 20 minutes) and will feature regular whisky guru, Whisky Guy Darren Rook, running through a range of bottlings by his occasional employer Master of Malt (boo, hiss, commercial rivals, etc). Unfortunately I won’t be along, my first missed session since my first attendance back at number 4, as October 7th, the day after, is the first day of The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show, which the first three words should let know may involve me. Hopefully I’ll be spending the night before helping at a whisky dinner rather than frantically running around finishing off bits of show organisation, but either way I won’t be drinking with The Squad. Hopefully they can survive without my awesome presence…there will be a bit more space at least.

Grant’s 25 year old
Blended Scotch Whisky, 40%. ~£150 from travel retail until the end of 2011.

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