While Whisky Squad started out at The Gunmakers, with even the initial formation of the idea happening at the bar, over the last year or so we’ve been letting Jeff have his upstairs room back from time to time to make a foray out into the world. For Whisky Squad #41 we took that to the next obvious level and had the tasting outside – in St James’s Park.
It was to be Squad co-founder Andy’s last session of organising and he picked out a theme that he’d been wanting to look out for a while – Lowlanders. While the other regions of Scotland are all quite full of distilleries, the Lowlands have slowly but surely been contracting over the last few decades, until now there are only three operating single malt distilleries – Glenkinchie, Auchentoshan and Bladnoch. That said, there are still numerous bottlings available from the closed distilleries, so it wasn’t going to be as short a Squad session as it might at first seem.
We started out with a ‘cocktail’. I use the scare quotes for good reason – the only ingredients are whisky, ice and water so it doesn’t quite make my definition of cocktail: a minimum of three ingredients, not including ice. It was whisky served mizuwari style, as popularised (as the name suggests) in Japan. It is simply whisky, water and ice, stirred with varying levels of obsessiveness. I’ve heard tales of bartenders in Japan insisting that it must be stirred 13.5 times and many have their own specific rituals while making the drink. Many Japanese bars are almost shrines to cocktail making, to the point that making a mizuwari can take some time:
The general rule that they go with is to use big lumps of ice, reducing the surface area of the blocks which should allow cooling of the drink without so much melting, keeping any extra dilution of the whisky to a minimum. I tried the sawing of lumps of ice that you see in the video this weekend – I used a breadknife, a carving knife and a rolling pin with mixed degrees of success. I still have all of my fingers.
Anyway, Andy didn’t quite go to those levels, with an equal mix of whisky and water with a handful of ice given a bit of a stir. It was cold so not much came off the nose, but to taste it was light and lemony with a light grassiness – a great drink for a hot and sunny day (and one that I even have a special bottle of Japanese whisky put to one side for).
We then moved on to the first dram of the night, the whisky that went into the mizuwari. On the nose it had sweet grass, floral notes and some fresh bread – still warm baguette with butter and jam? To taste it was lightly spicy, with lemon, ginger, milk chocolate and an oily mouthfeel. It finished with more spicy wood, some maltiness and lemon chocolate. The concealing paper was removed to show that it was Glenkinchie 12, Diageo’s lowland distillery. It’s often forgotten amongst the other members of the Class Malts range, with its light and elegant character, but it’s a decent malt that had much more to it than I expected.
Number two had a nose of sweet grass, pineapple upside down cake, honeysuckle, blossoming meadows, lemon peel and a touch of candle wax, To taste it had lemon sherbert, spicy wood, parma violets and an almost Bowmore-like burst of flowers. It finished with sweet grain and dry wood. The label came off to show this was the Bladnoch 20 year old, from the most southerly distillery in Scotland. It was closed down in 1993, sold in 1995 and came back online in 2000. Since then it’s become a rather quirky independent distillery, producing some interesting younger whiskies of their own as well as older ones from stock made during the distillery’s previous incarnation. In related news, owner Raymond Armstrong’s son Martin has started up WhiskyBroker, selling a variety of very well priced single cask whiskies (and whole casks) that he stores at Bladnoch – I’ve tried a couple and they’ve been rather good.
The next whisky had a nose that reminded me of iced bourbon – woody with a slightly hollow vanilla note at the centre. It also had caramel, a touch of liquorice and some spiciness that reminded me of rye whiskey. To taste it had sharp lemons, sweet vanilla, liquorice, mango (flesh and skin) and some sour wood in the middle. It finished with spiced butter, sponge cake, vanilla ice cream and a lightly floral note. This was revealed to be Inverleven 1991, bottled in 2010 by Gordon & Macphail. Inverleven closed in 1991, and all the currently available expressions are bottled by independents like G&M. This really reminded me of bourbon on the nose, maybe a side effect of using first fill bourbon casks and very light triple distilled spirit.
Next up was a dram with a nose of linseed, orange peel studded with cloves, wax polish, dark brown sugar, flower petals, buttercups and meadows. On the palate it started sweet, before quickly turning sour and woody with more cloves and driftwood, finishing very dry with lots of wood. This one was revealed to be Rosebank 12 year old from the Flora and Fauna range. As Rosebank was closed in 1993 this was bottled in 2006 at the very latest, and it’s becoming increasingly rare. Rosebank was the casualty from Diageo’s lowland portfolio, with Glenkinchie winning out at least in part due to its potential for expansion and the potential for a visitor centre not far from Edinburgh.
The last whisky of the night was a bit of a wildcard due to it not being an Auchentoshan, the one open lowland distillery that we hadn’t tried yet. On the nose it had spicy vanilla, brown sugar, Portugese custard tarts, cinnamon cream, maple syrup and bananas. On the palate it was deep and sweet, with horseradish, cloves, tannic dryness and lots of sherry wood notes. It finished with more spicy horseradish, burnt caramel, bitter wood and more tannins. The label came of to show this was Port Dundas 1990 from the 2011 Diageo Special Releases. It’s a grain whisky from one of my favourite closed distilleries and I was really looking forward to it when it appeared last year. However, I was rather disappointed by the woodiness of its flavour and ended up not getting a bottle. That didn’t seem to matter much to The Squad, with it going down very well, and the end of the bottle going home with Andy as a thanks for his help over the last couple of years.
Glenkinchie 12 year old
Lowland Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 40%. ~£30
Bladnoch 20 year old
Lowland Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£50
Lowland Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 40%. ~£50
Rosebank 12 year old Flora and Fauna
Lowland Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 43%. ~£100
Port Dundas 1990
Single Grain Scotch Whisky, 57.4%. ~£120