SMWS November New List Tasting

I’ve been a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society for a couple of years now (with my third year renewal sitting just on the other side of New Year) and have been rather a fan since the day I first walked through the doors of their London rooms. Since then I’ve visited both of their rooms in Edinburgh on a number of occasions (I like Edinburgh), stayed in their members’ flats and attended a tasting or two. However, it seems I have now graduated to the next level – I was invited along to a tasting of their upcoming mid-November new releases.

The Tasting

The society is a private members club who along with the three UK tasting rooms, flats in Leith, overseas branches and a website, bottle and sell single cask whiskies. Currently they do a couple of releases of new whiskies each month, ranging from a couple of bottlings up to larger numbers depending on what they have, with members having a chance to drink the whiskies by the dram in one of the tasting rooms as well as buying bottles in person or online. I was invited to taste six bottles from the new list (which is a big one – 41 new whiskies) with Jean-Luc and Pierre from Connosr, and Joel and Neil from Cask Strength. I think I was a late substitute for local boy Dave Broom, who is currently drinking tasty things abroad, but if so that’s a bit of a compliment. I’m taking it as such, whether true or not.

The slight strangeness to the invite was that instead of being at the London SMWS rooms, where tasting organiser Joe McGirr is manager and all five invitees are based, it was instead at the Hotel du Vin in Brighton. The SMWS is partnering with Hotel du Vin and Malmaison to add a ‘SMWS Snuggle‘ to many of their hotels, offering a selection of society whisky for members, and the Brighton branch is one of those that has one. It suited me, as it was a good excuse to take a half day from work and go to commune with the sea – a chunk of my family are from the Brighton area and I haven’t been down to the seafront for ages. Unfortunately I didn’t factor in either the vaguaries of British weather or the recent clock change and trudged along the beach in the darkness and rain, but some communing was done.

I arrived at the hotel a bit early, chased out of the street by the wet weather, only to find that due to the lack of resilience of British trains to rain (which, of course, we never have here in the gloriously sunny UK) everyone else was running late. Not a problem, as the hotel has a rather tasty beer menu and some Boon Gueuze made it’s way down my neck. Eventually SMS’d tales of Haywards Heath turned into materialised whisky drinkers and the tasting got started.

Firstly a word on the SMWS bottlings – they aren’t marked with distillery names. For a stated reason of ‘not wanting to dilute the distilleries’ brands by attaching their names to non-standard bottlings’, and an unstated one of adding mystery, they are instead marked with two numbers – a distillery code and barrel number. Each distillery keeps the same number over time, so it is easy to work out which is which with either a good memory or handy list, and the barrel numbers are incremented as the society puts out more bottlings. I’ve started to remember my favourite (121 – Arran, 27 – Springbank, 29 – Laphroaig…) but with 128 distilleries on the list from around the world (there’s some Japanese and Irish in the mix) I’m still working on it. Along with the numerical identification each whisky is also given a unique name, some of which are rather ‘creative’. ie. mad.

26.68The first whisky of the night was 26.68 – Morph and Minty. This is an 18 year old Clynelish matured in refill bourbon casks and bottled at 52.9%. On the nose it had chalky Refreshers, polished wood, peppery spice, vanilla and roses. It had a woody taste around the sides of the, mouth with the fizziness and flavour of the Refreshers from the nose, floor wax and a refreshing sweetness. A few drops of water brought out more wax and coalesced the general sweetness into some rich pineapple. The call from around the room was that this was quite a typical Clynelish, at least for the single cask bottlings, and it was very much my favourite of the night. This may well be my Christmas dram.

71.33We then moved on to 71.33 – Chutney on Hot Wood. This is from Glen Burgie, a distillery I only know as an entry in the SMWS list. It’s been around (officially) since 1829 (starting up in 1810 according to the internets) and was originally called Kinflat. It closed in 1870 and was reopened in 1878 with its current name. Things continued (with stills being added and replaced, and the distillery changing hands) until 2004, when the old distillery was demolished and a shiny new one built in its place. It’s owned these days by Pernod Ricard (who also own Chivas Regal, Glenlivet, Strathisla and a few more) and its production is almost exclusively used in blends, including Ballantines. There have been occasional official bottlings but most single malt that comes out of the distillery is via independent bottlers, like the SMWS. This one was from a refill sherry butt aged for 20 years, bottled at 57.4%. On the nose it was strange, with an eventual consensus of old food tins coming up – at the time I reckoned it was a bit like a part washed sardine tin, but I’ve just had another sniff and I’m thinking stale baked bean tins instead. Anyways, it had a metallic note, with blood coming up in descriptions around the table, a big Bovril meatiness, resinous wood, creme brulee, granny smith apples and BBQ sauce. To taste it was hot and powerful without water, with Branston Pickle (the chutney flavour of the title), Worcester Sauce, pepper, green wood, cream and slightly fruity custard. Water helped things along with coconut, sweet wood, vanilla, raisins, and hints of liquorice, citrus and mint appearing in the mix. I got to take home the generous remains of this bottle, hence my chance at a second pre-release sniff, and it’s still a very strange whisky. I think I quite like it, but I can’t be sure.

128.1Next up was 128.1 – A String Quartet of Flavours. Quite a special one this, as a .1 whisky is the first society release from a distillery, in this case Penderyn. Penderyn are quite protective of selling their casks so a single cask independent bottling is not something you often (maybe ever) see, making it surprising that the SMWS not only have this bottling but also a .2. They are famed for being the only Welsh distillery, and are based in the village of Penderyn in the Brecon Beacons, producing whisky from a mash made offsite at the Brains Brewery in Cardiff. I’ve tried a few of their whiskies over the years and as yet I’ve not been much of a fan, with everything from a recent taste of the Sherry Finish to a shot of their first malt (which I now forget the details of) in a pub at the end of a drunken night not quite tickling my tastebuds. This one was matured in a first fill port barrique and is bottled at 55.6% at a mere 6 years old. It poured very dark, looking a bit like a PX, and had a nose that matched up – christmas pudding, caramel sauce, rich fruit and, less expected, popcorn. In the mouth it had a buttery feel and a taste of burned sweetened butter, with bread and butter pudding, and port with the grapey astringency removed. Water killed the richness quite quickly, but a drop brought out some marzipan in the up front flavour and more wood in the finish. This is the nicest Penderyn I’ve tried as yet, but there was still something to it that didn’t quite appeal to me. I’m suspecting it must be a subconscious anti-welsh prejudice.

27.85We then moved on to 27.85 – Manly and Penetrating. This one is from Springbank, one of my remembered numbers, and was 12 year old matured in refill bourbon casks and bottled at 58.8%. On the nose there were damp, musty leaves, lemon sherbert and malt syrup. To taste it was spicy and astringent, with dusty wood, meaty tannins, spicy sour fruit and a long sawdust finish. Water softened the woodiness, bringing out a buttery mouthfeel and more sour fruit. Despite my love of Springbank’s official bottlings this one joins my list of SMWS ones that I didn’t like – it was too woody for me and didn’t have enough of the Springbank saltiness to make up for it.

29.91Next was 29.91 – Bovril and Neeps. 29 is another one of the numbers I remember – Laphroaig. This one was a 12 year old from a refill sherry butt, bottled at a scary 63.8%, making me suspect this was put in the cask a bit stronger than the 63-64ish% that the industry usually uses. On the nose it was sweet and smoky, like bbq sauce. This was discussed around the table until we decided exactly what it reminded us of – pulled pork from Bodean’s. Woody, smoky and sweet with a meaty undertone. As it sat in the glass the smoke thickened adding a whiff of tarred ropes. To taste there was stony coal dust with raisins and toffee, all covered over with a leathery dryness. Water calmed down the smoke and brought out more of the sherried wood, bringing in fruit and a more creamy mouthfeel. The taste on this one didn’t really match up enough with the intriguing nose for me, but it’s worth a try for the smell alone. If you can’t find any just go and eat some porky BBQ instead.

33.96Our final whisky of the night was 33.96 – Chocolate Caviar. 33 is one of the numbers I should remember, especially as my taste is coming round towards smoky whisky again – Ardbeg. This one is a 10 year old from a refill sherry butt bottled at 56.9%. On the nose it had sweet orangey peat with stoney coal and a light woody smoke, To taste it had cream and coal ash, meaty peat, burnt sugar and a long TCP finish that kicked in a few seconds after swallowing and hung around for minutes. Water revealed some ginger, more fruit and some liquorice. As with many single cask Ardbegs this one was a bit of a punch to the face – big and smoky with some good citrus sweetness. Maybe not for me, as my tastes haven’t quite got back this far up the peat tree, but I suspect that won’t matter – Ardbegs sell out quickly at the SMWS.

Unfortunately I had to run off a bit early, as I was off to stay with some friends one town over and the last train that would get me in at a not entirely anti-social hour left earlier than the last London train. I left the others pouring their Chocolate Caviar over creme brulees and ran (well, walked slightly faster than usual) up the hill to the station. Despite its rather unappealing name, the Whisky Snuggle is a very nice room and Hotel du Vin’s Brighton branch lives up to the expectations I established on a visit to the one in Bournemouth last year – friendly, with an impressive drinks list even without the SMWS bottlings. We got to have a look at some of the rooms and despite the fact that the beach front telescopes that some of them had installed were pointed in unuseful directions, the fact they were a) installed and b) next to bathtubs that sat incongruously in the middle of the rooms added to the (good) madness of the design. I also saw my first triple bed, alongside a shower cubicle that it was agreed could fit at least a five-a-side football team, if not most of a rugby team.

Most of the new list is available, having come out a couple of Friday’s ago, but the Penderyn has already, predictably, sold out. As I got the last bottle of the 126.1 and tried the 127.1 I can’t really complain…

SMWS 26.68 – Morph and Minty
Single cask highland single malt whisky. 52.9%. £58.30 from the SWMS site

SMWS 71.33 – Chutney on Hot Wood
Single cask highland single malt whisky. 57.4%. £56.20 from the SMWS site

SMWS 128.1 – A string quartet of flavours
Single cask Welsh single malt whisky. 55.6%. £49.50. Sold out online, there might be some in the tasting rooms.

SMWS 27.85 – Manly and Penetrating
Single cask Campbeltown single malt whisky. 58.8% £53.30 from the SMWS site

SMWS 29.91 – Bovril and Neeps
Single cask Islay single malt whisky. 63.8%. £48.70 from the SMWS site

SMWS 33.96 – Chocolate Caviar
Single cask Islay single malt whisky. 56.9%. £33.96 from the SMWS site

Many thanks to Joe McGirr from SMWS London for inviting me along and to Dave Broom for being out of the country…

Joel and Neil have a post about the evening over on their site, written in their usual inimitable style.

If anyone is thinking of joining the SMWS then let me know – I’ll talk you into it. They also have a referral scheme and any aid in funding my whisky habit is gratefully received.

One Year On…

It seems like only yesterday that I decided that writing about booze would be a good excuse for drinking more of it. Actually, that’s a lie – this year has limped by at a phenomenally slow rate and it already feels like a lifetime away that I played behind the bar at the Blaggers’ Banquet. In fact, it’s one year ago that I started this whole enterprise.

In the meantime there have been 102 posts clocking in at over 100,000 words – about 280 words per day. I’ve drunk lots of interesting things, tried many new things and learned significantly more than I thought I could fit in my brain from a pile of very lovely people. It’s been noted that this generally seems to be a whisky blog, with half the posts mentioning whisky so far, and I even pop up, as of writing, on page 3 of google for ‘Whisky Blog’, but I’ve managed to get out and try some tequila, sherry, vodka and random Bulgarian drinks this year, as well as some rather tasty beer, cider and cocktails. I’ve also made some rather awesome new friends, flavoured vodka to the recipe of a mad russian‘s grandfather, bought shares in a brewery, visited an incredible gin distillery (which I shamefully still haven’t written about), invested in a film about vodka, decided on two new favourite pubs, had a shave and grown a moustache.

Over the last 12 months the number of people visiting the site has increased by an order of magnitude, with my daily hit total often beating the total number of visitors during my first month of blogging, and the lovely Google Analytics I started playing with a few months back has started telling me that some people are even staying to read what I’ve written. Or at least leaving their browser window open for a while. Which is nice.

Anyways, thank you to everyone who’s helped me along the way – here’s to another year of imbibing. Responsibly, of course.

Photo on 2010-11-21 at 19.22 #4

If anyone’s knocking around London tonight, 2010-11-23, with nothing to do then I’ll be in the Euston Tap having a few light ales – please feel free to come along and say hello. I’m the one who looks like a bank manager.
Last night I celebrated the last day of the year of the blog by drinking the most expensive booze I ever have done. But that’s a story for another day… (it wasn’t that bad)

Update: it’s just been pointed out that the Euston Tap doesn’t have its address on their website. It’s in one of the gatehouses out the front of Euston station – here’s their Qype page.

Sazerac

My favourite cocktail of the moment, and for the last few months of moments, is The Sazerac. It’s a cocktail that I first tried in Match Bar near Oxford Circus a year or so ago (the first drink towards an evening which ended with me smoking out the back of the bar with the staff and ‘helping’ to close up before eventually finding a night bus home and eating a ropey kebab. On a Sunday night) and is generally considered to be one of the first cocktails.

Peychaud'sSimply put, it’s a tweak to an old fashioned, using bright red Peychaud’s Bitters, rather than the traditional Angostura, and rye whiskey, all poured into an absinthe washed glass. These days the modern sazerac is rye stirred with ice, sugar (syrup or a cube depending on the stirrer) and Peychaud’s, in some way then joined with absinthe.

While some bartenders add a drop to the mix I prefer to drop back to the recipe I was originally told and coat the glass with absinthe, which doesn’t add much to the flavour of the spirit directly, but adds everything through smell – when you bring the glass to your mouth the sweet aniseed hits you in the face just before you sip the sweetened, spicy whiskey.

I recorded a short video showing how I make them. Please forgive my dirty kitchen…

Mine comes out reminding me of a sweet shop – hints of aniseed overlaid with candy sweetness and spiciness, along with the red colouring of the drink fooling the brain into expecting a boiled sweet flavour all add to the scent of childhood, with an extra brain punching slug of booze.

If you want to know how to do it properly, then have a look at this video. He pretty much agrees with me, but says it much better. His accent is much more authentic than my Sussex sourced tones as well.

It’s become, along with the ‘Wet, slightly dirty Martini’ one of my standard drinks to order in a bar. So far they’ve generally been what I’ve expected, with varying levels of similarity (for good or ill) to the ones I make at home. However the one I had at Maze was both entirely different and also quite nice, which I wouldn’t have expected from the ingredients – Johnny Walker Black Label, Pernod, Angostura Bitters and a sugar cube, all stirred up with some ice. It may be an old cocktail and one not much known these days, but there are still a bunch of variations on the theme, many of them listed in bar bibles as ‘The Original Sazerac’… I still like mine the most.

Lech

Recently I’ve noticed that I’ve been moving away from my roots on this blog. Tastings, sherry, whisky shows and restaurant trips seem to have popped up rather than just drinking stuff and writing about it. As a step back to The Goode Olde Dayes I decided to write about a couple of beers I grabbed from the cornershop this evening – one an old acquaintance and one shiny gold and new, Lech Premium and Lech Pils.

Lech

Lech is a name in Polish beer that’s been popping up in cornershops since I’ve been living in Ealing, famed for its large Polish community as it is. While it hasn’t made the forays into mainstream lager drinking that Żywiec has it remains a popular alternative in the shop fridge. The Lech Browary is based in Poznań and is named, like the local football team, after the legendary founder of Poland (aka Lechia). It’s brewed by Kompania Piwowarska (english translation: Brewing Company), who are in turn owned by SAB Miller, brewers of other popular Polish beers such as Tyskie (which I’ve often bought due to thinking it was Żywiec, due to the similar cans) and Debowe Mocne. It’s not that old a brewery, appearing in the 1980s, and is rather modern, with the brewing equipment updated regularly to stay cutting edge. It’s not a small brewery, with a production capacity of 145000 hectolitres a week – about 6500 times the capacity of my current favourite London brewer, Redemption.

Lech PilsI’ve seen the regular ‘Lech Premium’ around but hadn’t noticed Lech Pilsner until this evening. Coming in 0.3% stronger and in a golden can it looks like it might be trying to appeal to those who assume that Gold = Better. It poured a light yellow and was quite dead on the nose, with a hint of sweetness. It tasted quite dry to start leading to a little bit of malty beeriness and some fruity hops before dropping to some lingering bitterness. There’s not much too it but it’s not offensive. The alcohol isn’t particularly noticeable and while nice and refreshing when chilled it doesn’t taste bad when it warms up a bit.

Lech PremiumI then moved on to the Lech Premium, which poured, surprisingly, even lighter than the pils. There was a lot of malty hoppy beeriness on the nose – almost ale like. However, there was a lot less in the taste, with some honey sweetness at the start fading to a spicy malty middle. This disappeared quickly, leaving a nice bitter grain taste. Much more to my taste than the pils, with some flavour and not quite so much fizz. Other than the beer itself, I found the can rather intriguing. As indicated by the arrow in the picture there are some bobbly bits on the sides of the can – the slogan (dobrze się trzyma) seems to translate as ‘It hangs on’ or something similar, so I’m assuming they are not only decoration but also an attempt to provide a less slippy can. I can’t comment on the efficacy of the bobbles in a slippery can situation, but I can say that I didn’t drop the can while pouring my beer.

As usual I had a look around for some advertising and was rather impressed by the website. Despite my Polish ancestry I understand very little Polish (and what I do know has been transcribed from beer cans) so have no idea what it says, but it seems to be well put together with some very pretty animations. However, I am especially fond of the advert I found on YouTube:

It’s not every day you hear some flamboyantly spoken German, see some faceplate related slapstick and have a medieval knight open a bottle of beer using the eyesocket of his helmet. Good effort.

A Twitter tasting – Balblair Vintages 2000 and 1989

I like Twitter (capital letter required). I’m @cowfish over there and talk a lot of rubbish for most of the day – one of the bonuses of being a computer programmer is the constant connection to the internet which works with my tiny attention span to allow me to context switch back and forth between the Twitter-verse’s stream of consciousness ramblings and whatever code is currently filling up my screen. One of the things that I like about it is that people are often trying new things, with trial and error being the common method of getting those things right, slowly iterating from failure to success. Happily it was at the latter end of the scale that a tasting I ‘went’ to ended up – an online tasting of Balblair’s 2000 and 1989 vintages.

Balblair setup

I’ve been involved with various online events using only twitter as the communication medium and they’ve been a bit of a mixed bag – filtering relevant messages for a large event becomes a chore for both attendees and others who are following the Twitter streams of the attendees who don’t care (Twitter is a broadcast to all medium – those who choose to receive a user’s utterances must filter them themselves if they don’t want to see everything), and a small event ends up with too little interaction and not enough spread across Twitter (as getting the details of the tasting out to those who aren’t directly involved is part of the reason why Twitter events are so effective from a PR point of view). Anyways, suffice to say that Lucas from The Edinburgh Whisky Blog managed to balance the size well, creating a group of tasters spread far and wide both geographically and in groups of followers on Twitter.

Balblair is now part of the Inver House group (the same guys who own Old Pulteney) but has been running since 1790. Sat on the Dornoch Firth in the Scottish highlands, along the coast from Glenmorangie, it was family run operation from opening until 1970 at which point it was sold on to Allied Distillers, being further sold on to Inver House in 1996. I first heard about them in 2008 during (as with so many whiskies) an interview with Mark Gillespie on WhiskyCast (Episode 170), when distillery manager John MacDonald talked about their newly revamped range – switching from age statemented expressions to vintages. I was intrigued by John’s talk of banana flavours in their 1989 vintage and after a bit of searching managed to find a bottle – I don’t remember much about it apart from finding it quite banana-y and being impressed by the packaging. They’ve not changed much since, bringing out new vintages but continuing to put them in pretty bottles and boxes, and I’ve been meaning to try more than just the 1989 so I was rather pleased to be able to join in the tasting.

Balblair '00The plan for the evening was simple – take the two samples that we’d each been sent, pour them, drink them and tweet about them. Added to that mix we had a Twitter host to lead us through the tasting, the previously mentioned John MacDonald. At 7pm Scottish time John announced the first pour – the Balblair 2000. This is the first release of this whisky, bottled earlier this year at 10 years old after maturing in a 2nd fill ex-bourbon cask. It was very pale, a light gold that I took issue with Whisky Emporium‘s Keith Wood describing as ‘Light straw in midday sunshine’ – that would be much darker than this I reckon. The nose changed a lot as it sat in the glass, with an initial waxiness fading away to reveal lots of fruity flavours – pineapple, apple and rhubarb & custard sweets. To taste it was fresh and light, but had an underlying woody caramel base with sweet vanilla cream, dark chocolate and slightly unripe grapes on top. It was spiced up with a hint of pepper and as it developed in the glass picked up a coppery tint – excellently described by Colin Campbell (aka TheScotsDreamer) as being like old coins. It finished quite woody – my notes describe it as ‘a bit too twiggy’. A drop of water, as it didn’t take much more before becoming washed out, brought out more astrigency – stronger vanilla backed with acetone, more heat and a thinner alcohol flavour. This was paired with some bigger creaminess at the back of the mouth, with thick custard coming through. The finish lost a lot of the wood, with a bit of minty menthol joining some spicy woody fruit.

Balblair '89After 20 minutes of tweeting John called for a move onto dram number 2 – the Balblair 1989. This is the second edition of this whisky, matured in 2nd fill bourbon and bottled from 37 casks this year rather than in 2008 like the one I tried previously, clocking in now at 21 years old. This also poured very light (no caramel colouring is to be found in either of these whiskies to hide their natural paleness, for which I applaud the distillery) although closer to Keith’s ‘light straw’ from earlier. On the nose there was a hint of ripe banana and an acetoney smell that faded quickly after pouring. This was joined by vanilla, unripe mangos, lemons and something I referred to as ‘cakey bread/bready cake’. To taste it was quite rich and rounded, or at least more than its light colouring would suggest (further evidence that whisky colour tells you little more than how light passes through it) with some smoky leather, more bananas, lemons and milk chocolate. There was more fruit, with lemons and pineapple, and it finished interestingly with sweet vanilla cream and tobacco. Water brought out more creaminess and mixed up the citrus and fruit into one big sweet & sour mess wrapped up in leather. It remained fruity with a lightly tannic tickle down the side of the tongue, and a hint of sawdust and pencil shavings on the finish.

On the side there was a competition running, with John’s favourite tasting note of the evening winning a bottle of the 1989. My slightly over the top suggestions of ‘Crushed rhubarb and custard sweets rolled in sweet scented candlewax and left to melt in the sun’ and ‘Ripe bananas squashed on a hot leather carseat’ for the 2000 and 1989 respectively didn’t get too far (other than a couple of retweets and a ‘Ew’ from Scott Spolverino, aka @InWithBacchus), with the bottle being won by a description of the 1989 being like ‘Earl Grey tea infused with pineapples’ from Dramming‘s Oliver Klimek.

All in all it worked rather well, with the a few people piping up and asking me how they could get involved next time and the discussion being friendly and akin to being in a large room full of people shouting at each other, but in a controlled manner. I grabbed a transcript of the whole tasting and have put it up if you want to follow through and see what we all said.

Balblair 2000
Highland single malt Scotch whisky. 10 years old. 43%. ~£30.75 from The Whisky Exchange

Balblair 1989
Highland single malt Scotch whisky. 21 years old. 43%. ~£40 from Master of Malt (although it may be the first edition)

Many thanks to Lucas of The Edinburgh Whisky Blog and Balblair for sending me over the samples, and getting me involved.

Barcamp – A Beginner’s Guide to Whisky

Despite the amount of time this blog implies I spend doing booze related activities I do also have a day job as a computer programmer. As part of this ‘secret’ second life I like to go and play at techy conferences and this last weekend I attended Barcamp London 8. Despite the potential of the word ‘Barcamp’ to refer to boozy activities (although there was a bar that I worked on and a lot of booze consumed, with drunken karaoke as the natural consequence of the latter) it is instead a free, community driven unconference, where there is no specific agenda and talks are all proposed and scheduled during the conference itself. While Barcamps are traditionally quite technical in nature they are not prescriptively so and I ran a session on one of my favourite topics – Whisky for Beginners.

WhiskyForBeginners

Anyways, you can grab a copy of my slides (which get updated to make them more readable) from my website, although they were more a thing to have behind me on a screen than something filled with a load of information. Many thanks go to Rachel Clarke, who in a previous life worked at a distillery and knows a lot more about the making of whisky than I, who filled in some gaps and told me where I went wrong – it seems that my knowledge of grain whisky mashbills, amongst other things, is even more deficient than I thought…

Here are some links to some bits and pieces that I mentioned during my talk:

The whiskies I brought along were:

moland127.3

  • Master of Malt Mo’land Movember whisky. Lowland blended malt Scotch whisky. 40% ABV.  ~£35 from Master of Malt.
  • SMWS 127.3, ‘Beach BBQ for Older Boy Scouts’. Islay (Port Charlotte) cask strength single cask single malt Scotch whisky. 67%. ~£50. Sold out at the SMWS site.

The unmatured new make spirit was from the Glenglassaugh spirit drinks rangeClearac and Peated. Both 15% ABV and £13.25 for a 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange.

Many thanks to all of those who came along. Please drop me a comment or email with any comments – it was my first Barcamp talk so any hints and tips are greatly appreciated. The talk has a page on lanyrd.com, so please add anything else you find about it up there.

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

Learning about Sherry with Gonzalez Byass, Lustau and Waitrose

During my last jaunt towards sherry knowledge, the trip to Camino el Puerto del Canario that involved more food and beer than fortified wine, I lamented my lack of learning to Andrew Sinclair of Gonzalez Byass, along with a grumble that you don’t get as many chances to learn about sherry as you do other beverages. I must have made some kind of impression (my whining often does – it cuts to the soul) as a few weeks after I received an email asking if I wanted to come along to a ‘Learn about sherry’ session at the new Waitrose cooking school in Finchley. I, of course, said yes.

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The event was a joint effort between Waitrose, wanting people to see their new enterprise (the flooring of the entrance of which had only been laid hours earlier, so still rather new), Lustau (the supplier of Waitrose’s house sherry) and Gonzalez Byass (suppliers of brand name sherries), as well as including some matched food from Spain as prepared in the cookery school kitchen. We started the evening with a glass of Waitrose Manzanilla, bottled for them by Lustau. On the nose it had lemon zest, a bit of sour honey and a light nuttiness. To taste it started with a sweet fruitiness but quickly became dry, with olives, grass and woodiness, and a light sour finish. Quite nice, but still a little light for my liking. This accompanied a run through of how the evening would go – we’d learn about the sherry making process from Lustau’s Michael Hall and Byass’s Jeremy Rockett while Maria José Sevilla, the UK representative of the Spanish food and wine producers, ran us through some foods that could accompany the various sherries that Waitrose sell.

Sherry is, by protected designation of origin definition, only made in the south west corner of Spain between Sevilla and Cadiz in an region known as The Sherry Triangle. The area is bordered by three towns: Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María, and the name Sherry is an anglicisation of Jerez. It’s very hot in the region and not great for growing grapes, although the chalky soil soaks up moisture when it does rain meaning that there is enough water for vines to grow even if their roots do have to dig deep. Most of the grapes grown are Palomino Fino, the base grape for sherry, but there is also some Pedro Ximinez and Moscatel produced, with PX often used as sweetener in wine and sherry production. Palomino doesn’t really make particularly great wine, it’s drinkable but isn’t that interesting, but the ‘magic’ of sherry production happens after traditional wine production has finished. The base wine is made to be dry and fairly bland with an alcoholic content of about 12-13% and is racked 500 litres per cask (not totally filling the casks, giving an air gap at the top) in January or February before it starts the journey of becoming sherry. There are two basic process for making sherry, each producing a distinctive style: Fino is pale and dry and Oloroso is dark and fruitier.

Fino is made by taking the base wine and fortifying it to 15% by adding grape brandy. This strengthens the wine but isn’t quite strong enough to kill the remaining yeast in the mixture, which forms a layer on top of the liquid in the barrel called flor. The flor eventually covers the surface of the maturing sherry and stops oxygen from making much contact with the liquid, as well as digesting sugar and glycerol remaining in the mix. This, along with the flor’s helping along of further fermentation in the maturing sherry, gives the distinctive dry fino flavour. Oloroso, by comparison, is made by fortifying the base wine to about 17%, which kills off the remaining yeast and allows the sherry to mature without the protective flor. This causes the liquid to darken as it oxidises as well as becoming fruitier and sweeter as the oxidisation and remaining sugars work on the flavour. The various other sherries are made by altering these processes slightly as well as working with the traditional system of sherry maturation – The Solera.

The solera system is method of maturation designed to give consistent results from year to year by blending sherries from different years and different levels of maturation. The maturing barrels are stacked about 4 high with the bottom row containing the oldest sherries and the top the youngest. When sherry is taken from the solera it is always taken from the oldest casks, which are then topped up from the next oldest, which are in turn topped up from the next, and so on until there are no more casks to transfer sherry from. The youngest cask is then topped up with new sherry and the process starts again. As long as barrel is never emptied as part of the filling process this ensures that each barrel contains a blend of sherries of different ages and the constant transference of liquid towards the oldest ‘Mother Solera’ barrels evens out any changes in flavour from season to season to give a slowly changing but year-to-year consistent sherry. As the process doesn’t rely as much on the quality or flavour of the base wine it is the location of the maturation, as well as the quirks of the individual solera, which leads to the variations in the flavours of the different houses’s sherries.

IMG_0322Our next sherry of the evening was the one that we opened the visit to Camino with – Tio Pepe Palomino Fino. The Manzanilla that we started with is a lighter version of the fino, made in a similar fashion, but you also get Manzanilla Pasada, which is aged longer and has more nuttiness. Tio Pepe is made in Jerez de la Frontera and is a benchmark of the standard fino style – a nose of lemons and honey with a quickly fading taste of soured grapes, citrus, yeasty undertones and wood. It’s a very light drink and is traditionally served very chilled to add to it’s refreshing nature. As a fino it doesn’t have much of a shelf life once opened – it oxidises quickly and goes off unless consumed within a couple of weeks – and the chilling also helps it keep for a bit longer. This sherry was matched with a prawn cooked with garlic, wine and pimento pepper. This worked really well – the flavour of the sherry fades quickly and the prawn filled the gap, the citrus flavours of the sherry cutting through the initial rich butteriness of the shellfish.

We moved on to the next driest sherry on our list – Waitrose Dry Amontillado, again selected by Lustau. Dry amontillado is from the same family of sherries as finos but is darker and more complex due to a double maturation. Wine is taken from the fino mother solera, as usual, but instead of being bottled as a fino it is further fortified to the 17% oloroso level and then run through a further amontillado solera. The fortification kills the flor and allows the wine to undergo a second oxidising maturation. On the nose it has raisins, bread and caramel – a chelsea bun in liquid form. To taste it has an initial fruity sweetness that fades very quickly to a dry, yeasty middle and a long sour grape finish. The sweetness on the nose is due to remaining glycerol in the wine rather than the usual sugars and the sweetness on the palate is due to a concentration of flavour during the maturation process rather than any particular production of sugars during the secondary solera. This was matched with a salad of warm broad beans, shaved manchego, smoky ground pepper, oil and salt which went very well – the earthy beans filled the dry hole in the middle of the wine’s flavour profile and the concentrated fruit of the wine provided a nice buffer either side, working well with salt and cheese.

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Next was La Concha Medium Dry Amontillado from Gonzalez Byass. An interesting style of sherry this, and one that is almost uniquely English and not generally found in Spain. Rather than being a true Amontillado it is instead a blend of regular dry Amontillado and PX to give a bit more of the fruity sweetness that is generally looked for in Sherry by us Brits. On the nose it was dominated by the PX, with raisins and toffee, but there was a hint of the sherry underneath with some dry hay coming through. To taste it had a rich raisin sweetness leading to a dry middle and lingering sweet and sour finish. This is the sherry that I’ve been drinking at Christmas for years and now I know how it’s made I can see why – I’m a big fan of PX but often find it a bit much. Cut the syrup sweetness of PX with some dry Amontillado and you have something that perfectly appeals to my sweet and sour loving palate. This was matched with three cured meats – lomo embuchado (cured pork loin), salsichon (a salami) and chorizo (coarse spicy sausage). The sweetness of the sherry cut through the strong spicy flavours of the meats, but not a lot more came through than that sweetness.

We then moved on to the sweeter wines, starting with the Waitrose Dry Oloroso. Matured using the regular oloroso solera process this was a rich reddy brown colour with a rich and sweet nose of fruit, caramel and brittle toffee. To taste it had the now expected burst of sweetness followed by grapes and unripe apricot – not actively sweet, but rich and dry. The finish was long with dry wood and a prickle of alcohol. This was matched with croquetas de jamón – ham croquettes. This again worked really well with a one-two combo of rich wine cutting through dairy richness, combined with salty ham enhancing the flavours of the sherry.

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Second of the sweeter sherries was Apostoles Palo Cortado. This is a rarer style of sherry and one that isn’t particularly well known. The choice as to whether particular base wine is to be used for oloroso or fino is now governed by science(!), with the chemical composition of the wines determining which process they will work best with. However, Palo Cortado starts with taking the best of the fino base wine and then fortifying it to 17%, as with oloroso. This wine is then aged for about 10 years in a single barrel rather than solera before being tested and, if it’s up to scratch, moved to a Palo Cortado solera for a further 20 years. Gonzales Byass, makers of the Apostoles, sweeten the wine with some PX when it goes into the solera, giving an old rich sherry which still has a chunk of dryness. It was a dark red wine with a nose of rich dried fruit, caramel sweetness and marzipan. To taste it had a deep wine sweetness with an astringent kick, and cherry stones (with a bit of flesh still attached) fading to a long fresh cherry finish. This was matched with a Galician Empanada – a Spanish pasty. It was mooted around the audience that this was made for similar reasons to the Cornish pasty, with both Cornwall and Galicia being known for mining, but either way it was a small tasty pasty that slipped down easily with the sherry, it’s pepperiness making a nice contrast and complimenting some of the richness in the middle of the wine.

IMG_0337We next tried one of the more maligned sherries of the evening – Waitrose Rich Cream. Harvey’s Bristol Cream is one of the UK’s best known sherry brands and the one (along with Crofts) most associated with the ‘old bottle kept in a cupboard by your gran’ image that often goes along with the drink. In years gone by Harvey’s produced some excellent traditional sherry, but as time has passed their product has become more generic and without some of the interest of the older iterati0ns. This blend is an attempt to get back to some of that older style, mixing together old Oloroso with PX and Moscatel. On the nose it had a hollow sweetness with grass, vanilla, figs and marzipan – quite Christmassy. To taste it had dried fruit, booze soaked bread, sweet grapes and a bitter finish. This was paired with a Christmas pudding parfait of gingerbread biscuit, cranberry, orange and mixed peel studded vanilla cream parfait. There were a wealth of common flavours and the astringency of the sherry cut through the richness of the parfait. I poured a drop or two of sherry into my dessert and the whole lot went a bit tutti frutti ice cream – a flavour that I haven’t had for ages.

Our last sherry of the night was one that my recent run of tastings with Richard Paterson had introduced me to – Matusalem. More specifically that’s the name for Gonzalez Byass’s old sweet oloroso, but it’s also the expensive cask that Whyte & Mackay prize for production of some of their more expensive sherried whisky. Going the same direction as the Palo Cortado, this is also matured in a cask before hitting the solera, but spends 20 years on its own before meeting the marrying barrels. PX is introduced early on the maturation process giving this wine a rich sweetness beyond the regular olorosos. It also, like the other long matured sherries, increased in alcoholic percentage while maturing, as the climate in Andalucia causes water to evaporate rather than alcohol, concentrating the sherry and making it more boozy over time. On the nose it had wood, cocoa, sour caramel, pepper, cinnamon and dried fruit. To taste it was sweet with fruit to start and rested on a bed of sour fruits – cherries, peaches (maybe nectarines) and pears. It had a long smoky wood finish and a hint of what reminded me of musty cheese rind – a hint back to its yeasty beginnings as fino before the flor died. This was paired with mahon, a cow’s milk cheese from Menorca, and mebrillo, the quince jam often served with spanish cheeses. I’m not sure this entirely went, but the cheese was nice enough that I’ve been nibbling at a block this last week and the mebrillo was impressively smooth and sweet.

From knowing nothing about sherry a few weeks back I now know enough to at least start asking the questions that will help me learn more. Unfortunately I’ve yet to find a Waitrose stocking many of the sherries from the tasting, but the Waitrose own range that Lustau have put together pops up in pieces in most of them. This post was written under the influence of Waitrose/Lustau Palo Cortado and I suspect that this year my traditional grabbing of a Medium Amontillado will be at least complimented, if not replaced, by a Matusalem, Palo Cortado and/or Dry Amontillado. Dryer sherries may not last all that long once opened, but I should get at least a month out of the stronger, sweeter ones, not that I expect them to last that long.

Waitrose Manzanilla
Manzanilla fina sherry. 17%. £8.19 for a 75cl bottle from Ocado

Tio Pepe Palomino Fino
Dry fino sherry. £9.49
for a 75cl bottle from Ocado

Waitrose Dry Amontillado
Amontillado sherry. 19%. £8.19
for a 75cl bottle from Ocado

La Concha Medium Dry Amontillado
Amontillado sherry/PX blend. £7.39
for a 75cl bottle from Ocado

Waitrose Dry Oloroso
Oloroso sherry. 20%. £8.19 from Waitrose stores.

Apostoles Palo Cortado
Palo cortado sherry. 18.5%. £16.29 for a 37.5cl bottle from Ocado

Waitrose Rich Cream Sherry
Oloroso sherry with PX and Moscatel. £8.19
for a 75cl bottle from Ocado

Matusalem
Rich old oloroso with PX. 20.5%. £16.29 for a 37.5cl bottle from Ocado

Many thanks to Andrew Sinclair and Jeremy Rockett from Gonzalez Byass for inviting me along. The tasting was free and filled with press, Waitrose customers, staff from elsewhere in the John Lewis group and me as the only admitted blogger. Just in case they’re reading I’d like to say hello to the lovely posse from the food hall at John Lewis on Oxford Street – thankyou for helping me find my way in to the cookery school and making sure that I ate my share of the olives.