The man who challenges the SWA – dinner with Dr Bill Lumsden

Bill Lumsden

[A guest post from Moscow-based whisky fan Anton Karpov, a regular visitor to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s London rooms]

It is not always easy to have an interesting interview with a whisky brand ambassador. Quite often (but far from always) these guys are not much more than trained marketeers, equipped with a broad range of fact sheets and prepared tales, but with no deep insight into whisky industry. A master distiller, on the other hand, is a whole different story. And if you take a master distiller who puts real science behind whisky making, you’ll get a lot of fun for whisky enthusiasts.

So here we are today with Dr. Bill Lumsden, the man behind creations from Glenmorangie and Ardbeg. We relaxed in the cozy atmosphere of the Whisky Rooms private club in the heart of Moscow city. The chef did a good turn trying to match a three-course meal with a line-up of Glenmorangie Original, Glenmorangie Milsean and Glenmorangie Signet. Being whisky enthusiasts of Moscow, we enjoyed the rare chance to speak with Dr. Lumsden about all things whisky. Continue reading “The man who challenges the SWA – dinner with Dr Bill Lumsden”

SMWS 33.132 Beauty and the Beast – Whisky Advent Calendar Day #12

SMWS 33.132 Ardbeg 8yo

I’m a man of habit. I wake up at the same time every day, go to bed about the same time, walk the same route when I go wandering around town, and almost every Saturday I go out for a whisky or two at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

Today, my schedule has been disrupted by various booze related activities (of which more tomorrow), but I have a brief trip to the SMWS planned shortly – hello Phil, Martyn and the gang, I’m on my way now. In the meantime, here are some notes about a dram from their latest outturn that they sent me a sample of – 33.132 Beauty and the Beast. Eight-year-old whisky from Ardbeg.

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Ardbeg Supernova 2014, COLA and the power to see the future

Ardbeg Supernova 2014

Update: The Supernova 2014 has now been properly announced, and is being released (at least in Europe) on September 12th 2014. Oliver Klimek has some tasting notes and details up on Dramming. Rambling about other vaguely related things follows.

Something that’s popped up while speaking to m’colleagues recently is our lack of ability to see the future. There seems to be an assumption from drinkers that those who work in the booze industry, especially retail, know all the news from the industry. While that’s flattering it’s not particularly accurate, with hundred of new products appearing across the booze spectrum each month it’s quite hard to keep up with all of the new releases. Fortunately there are a number of tools that help us seem a little more informed, one of which is courtesy of the US government – COLAs Online.

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Whisky Squad #33 – Raw Spirit (aka the 2nd Birthday)

How time flies. A mere two years ago I was an occasional drunk who sometimes wrote things up on his blog, who then bumped into Andy and Jason of WhiskySquad at a couple of booze events, leading to my attendance of almost every one of their sessions. These days I’m a professional drunk who still only sometimes writes stuff on his blog, but WhiskySquad has gone from strength to strength. Up to at least two tastings a month and at least three iterations into their website, tickets still sell out quickly and, as a crowning achievement, they’ve even had me along to present an evening. After last year’s shindig there was a standard to be lived up to, so the big guns were rolled out for birthday number two – a matured whisky and new spirit pairing.

Yes, after two years of schmoozing the assembled masses of the whisky industry Andy and Jason managed to lever a number of sample bottles of new make spirit out of the hands of the distilleries for a bit of a special evening – tasting blind, as usual, whiskies and the new make spirits that they started out as.

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Whisky Live(ish) #1 – SMWS and Bistro du Vin

This week has been ‘hard’. By ‘hard’ I mean that my normal ‘work’ has been supplemented by even more events than usual, culminating in the 2-day fungasm (fungasm might be going too far, I will admit) that was Whisky Live London 2011. I was at there under the auspices of work and I have at least one blog post bubbling in the back of my brain to be decanted onto the TWE blog, but I also did Other Things around the time which seem to fit better over here.

First up – a preview tasting of whiskies with the folks from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

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A Top Ten of Whiskies under £50

This post has been fomenting for a while, but the perils of work and thinking too much about whisky have forced it into the background until now.

Domu888 on twitter (Dominic Edsall in real life) asked me a while back what my top 10 whiskies under £50 were. I fired off a few off the top of my head but said that I’d need to have a think about it. Well, thinking has been done so here’s a list, in no particular order. A thing to note is that this is all distillery bottlings – sticking in independents would hurt my head too much:

Laphroaig Quarter Cask, 48%, ~£30: Cheap, cheerful and very full of flavour. LQC, to give it initials that may have a different meaning to two readers of this blog, is young Laphroaig which finishes its maturation in small ‘quarter casks’ which are a quarter of the size of the regularly used hogsheads. This smaller size changes the wood/spirit ratio in favour of the wood, upping the rate of maturation of the whisky and sticking on a ‘growth spurt’ at the end of its time in wood. This does mean that they can bottle their whisky younger, but it also adds a nice chunk of sweet woodiness to the whisky, which works well with the phenolic tang of the Laphroaig. It’s bottled strong and isn’t chill-filtered, and still comes out at about £30 a bottle, which is rather good. It’s also on offer in Tesco quite often, which doesn’t hurt.

Clynelish 14, 46%, ~£30: My default whisky at home, although it is currently replaced by the Distiller’s Edition which we had on special offer at work. Clynelish has recently started rocketing in popularity, in part due to Serge Valentin and John Glaser talking about how much they like it. Not much goes to single malt production still, and the 12 and 14 years old versions are the two that are generally available. While the 12 is good, and cheap, the 14 is my favourite of the pair – waxy, sweet and fruity with a hint of the sea. Pretty much a whisky made for me and one that seems remarkably good at luring people into the world of less well-known distilleries.

The Glenlivet 18, 43%, ~£40. This one is a steal – less than £40 for an 18 year old is something you just don’t see (and a quick search on TWE has it as the only 18+ whisky for under £40). Age isn’t the be all and end all of whisky selection, but this one has aged well and benefited from its time in the cask to produce and well rounded and tasty whisky – big, rich and fruity with a slab of The Glenlivet’s creaminess.

Nikka from The Barrel, 51.4%, ~£25 for 50cl. A small bottle so not quite as good a deal as it first seems, but an excellent one all the same. A blend of whiskies from Nikka’s distilleries, sweet and elegant with quite a big alcoholic punch. Quite bourbon-like in character and good for mixing as well as drinking neat (or even, sacriligeously, with a chunk of ice). And to cap it all, the bottle is REALLY pretty.

Tweeddale Blend, 46%, ~£30. I wanted to make sure there was a blend in this list, but I was torn between which one to choose – I could go for a traditional ‘one up’ blend like Bailie Nicol Jarvie, one of the more premium named blends, like the more expensive Chivas Regals, or even one of Compass Box’s two. In the end I’ve plumped for this one, as I like the story and the guy behind it. Basically, Alasdair Day decided to recreate a blend originally put together by his great grandfather, using the original recipe from his notes. I’ve tried it a couple of times and rather like it, and they released their second batch a couple of days back – time for a taste and compare I think…

Longrow 10 Year Old 100 proof, 57%, ~£45. Another one that used to be my default, before the Clynelish swept it away, and one that I feel slightly naked without a bottle of in the cupboard. Longrow is, missing out a couple of production details, the peated version of Springbank. It has that slightly briney Springbank note as well as a nice smoky hit, although not an overwhelming peaty blast. I’ve gone for the 100proof for two reasons: 1) This way you can water it down a bit depending on your mood, leaving it concentrated and strongly flavoured if you want; and 2) it’s cheaper per millitre of alcohol…

Ardbeg 10, 46%, ~£35. I’m rather liking Ardbeg again at the moment, as my previous sherry obsession fades in favour of a nice chunk of peat – I generally find I’m liking one end of the extreme whisky spectrum at a time, and it seems that peat is in again for me. This is big and mulchy, with smoke, mud and a slab of vanilla from the first fill casks they used to mature a lot of it. I’ve heard tales that it’s not as good as it used to be, but it’s still a top bit of peaty beast without the medicinal nature of Laphroaig.

Compass Box Hedonism, 43%, ~£50. Right on the limit this, sometimes tipping over the £50 but often on or under it (especially in Waitrose). I like grain whisky and this is one of the best out there, a blend that gives a masterclass in what the flavours of well looked after grain should be. It still varies in my estimation, but it generally sits very near the top. Stepping outside of the £50 limit, if you find £199 burning a hole in your pocket then the Hedonism 10th anniversary edition bottling is awesome – I’m still thinking about it 6 months after I tried it…

Old Pulteney 12, 40%, ~£25. While checking the price on this one I found that it seems to be currently sold out at both Master of Malt and The Whisky Exchange – it sells rather well, as you can tell. It’s a big and briney dram which I recently tried while wandering around the distillery up in Wick (the most northerly I’ve ever been). The range gets expensive very quickly, with the 17 year old next on the list and breaking the £50 mark, but this is eminently reasonable and also very tasty.

Aberlour A’bunadh, ~60%, ~£35. Bottled at full proof and varying in strength from batch to batch (the current one is #34, as I write) this is a massively sherried dram from Aberlour. They don’t give an age statement, but from what I hear it’s about 8 years old, a scarily small time to pick up quite this much from a cask, with loads of dry fruit and rich woodiness hiding behind quite a big alcoholic kick. It’s been, along with my now departed bottle of Glenfarclas 105, my sherried dram of choice over the last 6 months. I look forward to my sherry head returning…

Please let me know your suggestions in the comments below.

Tasting Ardbeg at the TWE Embassy

One of the bonuses of my new job is that I’m not only able to go along to many of the whisky tastings at the TWE shop in Vinopolis, but I’m half expected to so that we can write up the events on our blog. However, most of the time I’m backup writer and now that Toby from the shop has written up our most recent tasting I get to write about it over here. For this one it was especially fortunate that I managed to blag my way into one of the reserved seats as it was rather overwhelmingly oversubscribed. Luckily we predicted that and the right to buy a ticket was chosen at random from all the people who applied – over 300 for the initial 35 places. In the end we found a bigger room in the misleadingly cavernous expanse that is Vinopolis and managed to squeeze 50 people’s samples out of our tasting stock, and thus we had an Ardbeg tasting.

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Whisky Lounge – Islay ‘Blind Fury’ Tasting

Having rather foolishly double booked myself during the last Whisky Lounge event in London (a Springbank tasting that I was rather looking forward to that got dropped in favour of an evening of sherry) I grabbed a ticket to Mr Ludlow’s December extravaganza as soon as I could. This time the format was slightly different in that it was to be a blind tasting, with the whiskies revealed at the end of the night, focusing on whiskies from the whisky obsessed island of Islay.

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There are currently 8 distilleries on the island (with a 9th in the planning/building stages), which isn’t bad for a piece of land less than half the size of London and inhabited by only 3500 people. While traditionally Islay is known for its peaty spirit the distilleries produce a range of whiskies, with Bunnahabhain producing unpeated spirit (most of the time) and Ardbeg producing face melting bottles of smoky mud (also, most of the time). A blind tasting of these is quite interesting, as while each distillery has its own style different bottlings borrow ideas from the other producers, making things all a bit muddled. There are a few bottlings and distilleries that I reckon I could pick out, but I was interested to see how many I could guess. In the end though this blind tasting wasn’t about guessing. Knowing where the spirit in my glass has come from will often prompt an attitude or tasting note that comes from inside my head rather than from the glass. Tasting blind removes all of that and hopefully lets us taste without preconceptions.

IMG_6364It was a full house in the upstairs room of The Red Lion in St James’s and the man behind the Whisky Lounge, Eddie Ludlow, led the group through the whiskies. The plan was simple – we were to taste the whisky, talk about it and then give him a tasting note from each table to add to a record of the evening and compare against the other tastings of the same whiskies that he’d done around the country. We were the penultimate leg on his tour of the UK and the room did well in coming up with yet another totally different set of tasting notes for Eddie to try and consolidate. I was sat next to Chris Matchett, one of my occasional whisky buddies, a man well known for his lyrical descriptions of flavours – he was the one who came out with comments about bacon at the unsmoky The Glenlivet tasting last month…

IMG_6366First up was a coppery bronze dram that Eddie let us know was between 46 and 50% alcohol. On the nose it was sweaty and muddy, with camphor, apple, sea salt, a hint of oranges and salted caramel. To taste it had vanilla and light smokiness (more woody than peaty), with a syrupy texture and a dry, spicy wood finish. Water brought out more sweet creamy vanilla and some perfume from the wood, as well as some sticky glacé cherry. The tasting note we ended up providing was ‘Soggy marmite toast with salted butter and golden syrup, all spread with the same knife’, although Chris’s ‘Birkenstock sandals that someone else has been wearing all summer’ as one for just the nose almost pipped it. As an overall description his note of ‘A speyside whisky on holiday’ pretty much nailed it – not your usual Islay fair. My prediction for this one was that it was a sherried Bunnahabhain and I was rather pleased to see that I was right – it was Bunnahabhain 12 years old. This is a new version of their standard whisky, bottled at a stronger than before 46.3% and made up of a mix of bourbon and sherry casks. Totally unpeated and quite rich, it was a tasty start to the evening.

IMG_6369Next was a very lightly coloured whisky which we were told was between 50 and 55%. On the nose it was quite a big difference to the previous whisky – woody/muddy peat, mulchy seaweed, mint, mushrooms, pears, strawberry, cracked granite, meaty butter, a hint of the farmyard and a floral centre (maybe roses). To taste it maintained the muddiness from the nose adding in some piney smoke. It had a minerally, grassy finish that lingered around with a hint of the sweetly syrupy middle  flavour. Water tamed it nicely, adding orange, lime and a generic ‘fruitiness’ to the nose, pushing the smokiness back a bit. This revealed more stoniness and some sweet citrus hanging around in the middle. I didn’t have much of a clue on this one and put it down as maybe one of the peaty Bruichladdichs, focusing on the mineraliness. As expected I was entirely wrong – it was a Berry Brothers and Rudd 1989 Bowmore, bottled at 50.9% and 20 years old. Probably from a quite inactive cask and totally unlike any Bowmore I’ve tried before.

IMG_6372We then moved on to a darker dram, a nice yellow gold, which were told was 40-50%. On the nose there was sweaty salted butter, leather, marmalade, toast, lemon, mulch and Bisto gravy thickener (the brown cornflour rather than gravy granules). To taste it had a light caramel sweetness to start, with an oily mouthfeel, leading to a hot peaty finish through a core of creamy sugar and woody spice. Water extended the sweetness into the finish and softened the wood to a green twig sappiness. The smoke of the finish gave way to woodiness with orchard fruit and sweet and sour sauce. For this I guessed an Ardbeg, focusing on the peat/wood/sweet combination (which may not be general Ardbeg but for some reason sticks in my head), but was yet again entirely wrong. It was, instead, a bit of a ringer – Jura Prophecy. This has no age statement (although it’s probably 12-16 years old), is bottled at 46% and is the heavily peated expression of their range – a range of whiskies from the next island along from Islay, separated by a mere 250m of water. Eddie got round this ‘semantic’ argument by claiming that Jura was connected to Islay via an underwater causeway, and thus counted. There were murmurings…

IMG_6375Next up was a coppery dram that we were told was between 55 and 60%. On the nose there was turkish delight, dark chocolate, raisins, burned apple pie (very specifically listed by me as the burned bits on the top of the pie where the pastry cracks and the filling bubbles out, and by someone else as the layer between the filling and the pastry when the top has burned), bread and butter pudding, and a bed of meaty peat under it all. To taste it was very smoky, with a heavy coal smoke flavour almost obscuring vanilla and more apple pie. Water helped separate the flavours, leaving a spike of peat at the front leading to a sweet muddy mulch. The coal is calmed down to reveal vodka-like grain. Our note for this was ‘Apple pie and ice cream beside an iron coal stove’. This was the first whisky I was fairly certain of, writing down a definite Bowmore – the specific sweet smokiness is the flavour that I find in Bowmore and few other Islay whiskies, and this time I was right – Bowmore Tempest, a 10 year old whisky bottled at 56%. This one was from the second batch they’ve made of this and was matured in first fill bourbon casks.

IMG_6374Our penultimate dram was very light and between 46 and 49%. From the nose I was certain I knew which distillery it was from – a strong smell of the farmyard, light alcohols, white cabbage, menthol, caraway, vodka, a light oiliness (the smell of ‘flavourless’ cooking oils) and white pepper. It smelled young and was quite thin and prickly. To taste it had a creaminess combined with the smoke, bringing to mind Bavarian smoked cheese tubes. It also had sweet root vegetables, lots of caraway and a pleasantly creamy mouth feel. A drop of water brought out tropical fruit, sour wood and mulchy peat as well as more cream. I was certain that this was Kilchoman, the island’s newest distillery, as the whisky tasted very young and similar to the new make spirit and not-mature-yet ‘whiskies’ that I’ve had from them. Yet again I was wrong – it was Douglas Laing’s Big Peat Batch 10, a blended malt bottled at 46% and made up of whiskies from Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and Port Ellen (although as the latter is closed and bottles go for silly amounts of money we assumed that there wasn’t much of it in there). This is a really young tasting whisky and ones that makes me want to crack open the bottle of Kilchoman I have hiding at the back of my cupboard.

The last whisky of the night was a pale gold, and between 55 and 60%. On the nose it had golden syrup and salt, burning grassland, mint, white grapes and a stony minerality. To taste it was sweet with and almost cloying peatiness backed up by wood smoke. There was also sweet fruit (apple and strawberry?), fragrant tea and pepper. Water brought out lime and vanilla on the nose, and sherbert, wet carpet, cinnamon, lemon & lime, spiced orange peel and a tarry finish to the taste. Again, I was fairly certain I knew what this one was (especially bolstered by 6 drams as I was by this time) and both wrote down and called out Laphroaig Quarter Cask, focusing on the sweet peatiness and minerality that I find in that whisky. Predictably I was wrong again – it was a cask sample from Ardbeg. Drawn from the cask (a first fill bourbon barrel) quite recently it was at the cask strength of 56.3% and was distilled in 2000.

In the end I was quite pleased with two out of six, especially as most of my other guesses made sense (at least to me) and weren’t blind stabs in the dark. It was also nice to taste things without any foreshadowing, letting my subconscious whisky snob stay asleep and not jump in with its ideas. The evening was wrapped up by singer/guitarist/songwriter Tim Hain knocking out a quick rendition of his song One More Dram (last heard at The Whisky Show a month or so ago, accompanied by Colin Dunn in the Connosr Whiskypod) before Eddie had to run away to the snowy north again. There are already plans afoot for next year’s events and there is also a new Whisky Lounge dram appearing soon – Dram 101. It’s a blended malt with about 50 components and was put together by Eddie as a follow up to last year’s Whisky Lounge Festival Dram. It should be available from the Whisky Lounge website soon, maybe even before Christmas but so far the only evidence of its imminent existence are a couple of tweets and this video

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At the end of the tasting we all scored the whiskies out of 100 (something that I hate doing, hence the lack of scores on this site) and Eddie is now collating the results from all of the tastings ready for release to see which whisky came out top overall. My favourite of the night was the Berry Brother’s Bowmore, followed by the Big Peat, so I’ll be interested to see what the group reckoned.

Bunnahbhain 12 Year Old (new bottling)
Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 46.3%. ~£30 from The Whisky Exchange.

Berry Brothers & Rudd 1989 Bowmore
Single Cask Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 50.9%. ~£60 from BBR.

Jura Prophecy
Single Malt Jura Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£50 from Master of Malt.

Bowmore Tempest 10 Year old
Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 56%. ~£40 from Master of Malt.

Big Peat
Blended Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£30 from Master of Malt.

Ardbeg first fill bourbon cask sample
Single Cask Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 56.3%. Not available unless you go to the distillery and beg or rob Eddie.