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.

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

Whisky Squad #6 – Brilliant Blends

A bit of a unexpected move by The Whisky Squad this month. Having gone through various high powered single malts this meeting’s theme was to be the whisky snob’s enemy – the much maligned blend. The idea behind this was to help further put down the theory that blended whisky is by its very nature inferior to single malt. Granted there are a bunch of rubbishy blends out there, but with blended whisky still making up over 90% of the whisky market they must be doing something right.

Looking up blends brings up some interesting definition questions, such as the rather fundamental “What is a blended scotch whisky”. At the end of 2009 the Scotch Whisky Association (the love it or loathe it organisation who lobby government over whisky regulation) pushed through some legislation to formalise the nomenclature of whisky. There’s a full text of the definitions over on website of The Squad’s resident whisky expert, Darren The Whisky Guy, but as a quick precis here are 4 categories:

  • Single Malt Whisky – Whisky from a single distillery made with malted barley.
  • Blended Malt Whisky – Single malt from a variety of distilleries blended together.
  • Single Grain Whisky – Whisky from a single distillery made with any grains.
  • Blended Whisky – A mixture of grain and malt whiskies.

While many within the whisky appreciation world look down on blends the art of blending whisky isn’t something to be sniffed at (bad pun acknowledged) – to take a potentially large number of component whiskies from a variety of sources, all of which might change in quality, quantity and flavour between purchased batches of barrels, and then mix them together to create a consistently flavoured product in potentially large quantities is a serious skill. I still drink mainly single malt whisky but my prejudice against all blends has been hit on the head in recent times and this tasting certainly helped kick it further out the door.

IMG_0044The first whisky, tasted blind as is tradition, had loads of vanilla on the nose, along with a slab of wood at the back and a bit of floral oil. To taste it was lighter than the nose suggested with lots of wood leading to a spicy finish. Water brought out a lot more flavour with creamy custard, a little bit of fruit and a dry woody finish. Not the most complex of whiskies but quite happily drinkable. The paper sheath came off to reveal that it was Bailie Nicol Jarvie. Named after the bailiff from Rob Roy this is Glenmorangie’s blend and the whisky that my flatmates bought me for my 21st birthday. While the complete recipe is secret we heard that it at least contains malt whisky from Ardbeg, Glenmorangie and Caol Ila (although an unpeated version rather than their regular peated spirit), and grain whisky from North British. It’s one of the only blends known to have a good chance of containing Ardbeg, although as Glenmorangie and Ardbeg are both owned by the LVMH group it’s fairly obvious how they get their hands on it. Like most blends it does have caramel added to the mix for colour, but in this case (as it’s quite a light whisky) it’s very much more for consistency between batches than darkening younger spirit to make it look older (as the ‘older whisky is darker and better’ meme runs deep within whisky buying society). Darren’s quite a fan, buying some each Christmas for doling out to all and sundry during the festive season. He also recommended it as an accompaniment to creamy coffee.

IMG_0046Next up was a taller bottle which we were told we might recognise. On the nose the whisky had lots of fruit – with apples and pears, cherry and pineapple all popping up around the table. Darren also got Caramac and I got some almonds. To taste it was very creamy, with vanilla, a touch of dried fruit and a delicate woody spiciness. Water brought out more of the wood, a little bit of lower cocoa solid dark chocolate and raisins, but reined in the vanilla and cream a bit. With the paper off the bottle it was revealed to be my most polarising whisky – Compass Box Hedonism. The whiskies in the bottle come in at about an average of 20 years old, matured in american oak hogsheads, and come from Carsebridge, Cameron Bridge and Cambus grain distilleries – the conceit of this bottle is that it’s a blended grain whisky, a 5th category not mentioned above: a blend of single grain whiskies from different distilleries. It was the first booze I wrote about on this site and I am still as divided on it as I was then. Luckily I was in the mood for it that evening and rather enjoyed my dram although it won’t surprise me if I open my bottle tonight and decided that it’s thin, astringent and nasty…

IMG_0047Number 3 was the one I’d been waiting for – having been given a bit of a sneak preview of the whiskies a few weeks before this was the one I had remembered. On the nose it had gummi cola bottles (a flavour that I have ranted about being distinct from cola drinks for a while. Don’t ask me about it in real life, I can talk for up to half an hour on the topic), an acetoney tang, pine needles and Copydex glue. It also had a slightly meaty undertone to everything. To taste it had an initial burst of sweet pineapple and kola cubes with a strong lemoniness,  followed quickly by a tannic dryness and a prickly dry wood finish. Water helped, with more fruit appearing on the nose. The taste had more sweetness and the lemony citrus became more orangey. The dryness retreated, although was still present, and the finish was still very woody, but I also got some salt and menthol in the middle. A bit of a strange one this and one that I’m not sure I liked. It was revealed to be an Adelphi bottling of single cask Ben Nevis. The special thing about this cask was that it had been filled with a mix of malt and grain whisky, both produced at the distillery as they had a continuous still installed for grain production in the 1950s in addition to the pot stills for malt production, and then left to mature for 34 years. Thus it is a single cask blended whisky, bottled at cask strength, a very uncommon beast. Ben Nevis didn’t have the greatest of reputations in the past, with this going in the barrel in 1970, but they were bought by Nikka in 1991 and quality has been rising ever since. While I’m not sure I’ll seek this one out again it was a very interesting drink – unlike any whisky I’ve tried before. There was a little bit of it left behind the bar at The Gunmakers, so there’s a chance you might be able to try it if you get over there soon (before I decide I need another taste).

IMG_0056The final whisky of the night was one that I had no clue about at all. On the nose it had grapefruit, cordosyl mouthwash, cucumbers and single cream. To taste there were walnuts, coconut husks, liquorice root and cream, all tied together with a woody rubbery smokiness. Some water brought out salt and citrus on the nose and wood at the back of the palate. There was creamy pine, dark chocolate and tea, with delicate wood on the finish. Again the paper was torn off, this time to show a bottle of Ardbeg Serendipity, a blended malt. This is no ordinary blended malt, having come about (so the story tells it) by accident. Back in the days when Ardbeg was newly reopened they decided they needed to raise some cash, so prepared to bottle some casks of 1977 Ardbeg (about 25 years old at the time). They transported it to the vatting plant and turned on the taps to dump it into a tank ready for bottling only to discover that the vat wasn’t empty. So it was that they mixed four parts of an old and rare Ardbeg with one part of 12 year old Glen Moray (also owned by the LVMH group at the time). There is a cynical view that this was a story dreamed up by Ardbeg’s rather creative marketing department to explain away the strengthening of some spirit that had dropped below 40% ABV during its maturation (as 40% is the legal minimum that a spirit can be and be called whisky) by dosing it with some stronger, younger, cheaper Glen Moray. Whatever the truth, its price has risen and fallen as it has been snapped up by collectors and merchants over the years, having settled recently at a respectable £70ish a bottle, even though they can only put “12 years old” on the label.

Anyways, yet another interesting selection of whiskies, although happily not as potentially financially crippling as previous months – I already have a bottle of Hedonism (which gets drunk slowly due to my fear that I won’t like it when I open it) and my other favourite of the evening was the very reasonably priced Bailie Nicol Jarvie. I may not wait until Christmas until it joins the illustrious selection of boozes in my cupboard.

Bailie Nicol Jarvie
Blended scotch whisky. 40%. ~£18

Compass Box Hedonism
Vatted grain whisky. 43%. ~£50

Adelphi 34 year old Ben Nevis blend, cask 4640 (186 bottles in total)
Cask strength single cask blended scotch whisky. 50.3%. ~£130

Ardbeg Serendipity
Blended scotch whisky. 40%. ~£70

Whisky Squad organiser Andy already has a blog post up, as does Whisky Guy Darren.

Ardbeg and the Committee

Ardbeg is a bit of a strange distillery. They’re small but scarily well known, with fanatical fans (although I suspect that’s a tautology), scarily high prices for some of their bottlings and the backing of a big corporate. I’ve only recently started learning about them and haven’t really tried any of their whiskies since I first encountered the brand a few years back at a whisky evening around Adam‘s house – he’d gone on their website, joined their members club (The Committee) and accidentally ordered one of each of the whiskies they had available. An expensive accident, but one that kept us happy with a range of whiskies covering their entire production of the time.

Ardbeg’s had a spotty recent history but started officially started out in 1815, distilling on Ardbeg farm on the south coast of Islay. They produced whisky right through until the start of the 80s, when production started to slow until the distillery was mothballed in 1981. Allied Distillers, owners at the time, also owned Laphroaig and felt they had enough ongoing production from there, along with stored whisky from Ardbeg to meet their needs. It started producing small amounts of spirit again in 1989 but closed its doors seemingly finally in 1996, after several years of uncertainty. Allied put the distillery on the market, to great interest, with Glenmorangie buying it and reopening production in 1997. In 2004 Glenmorangie was acquired by the LVMH group (Moet Hennesy – Louis Vuitton) and Ardbeg went along as part of the package, giving it a big corporate backing. Glenmorangie and Ardbeg are generally left alone by the group, although they do get the backing money needed to push their increasingly well known brands. In addition they pool their technical resources, with Glenmorangie’s Bill Lumsden also acting as Ardbeg’s master distiller.

The whisky’s style is quite simple – very peaty. Using malt peated to 50ppm they are one of the peatier on the island and they relish in this distinction, pushing themselves as a peat lover’s dram.

Taster

Along with the reopening of the distillery Ardbeg also formed The Committee, a distillery ‘club’ with a bit more to it than many. Starting with the Very Young, their 6 year old bottling released in 2004, many of the releases have first been made available to the members of The Committee first, with their comments being solicited before general release. They go further than many distillery clubs with a members room at the distillery and all members receiving a book of Rules and Regulations, with special attention brought to paragraph 17:

17. The office of a member shall be vacated if:
He becomes of unsound mind to the extent that he develops a preference for a different spirit; or
He is directly or indirectly connected with the dilution of any dram of Ardbeg Islay Single Malt Whisky with any substance other than water.

I recently joined The Committee having heard that they were holding their 10th anniversary celebrations. I’d not tried any of their recent bottlings, but had a sample of one of their new releases and had been occasionally delving into SWMS bottlings when they appeared, so didn’t feel too bad about jumping on a free drink bandwagon a little late. The celebrations also showed me how they’ve upped their game online – the venue for both Edinburgh and London parties was revealed slowly via cryptic clues on twitter, with a goody bag going to the first person to guess –  annoyingly I didn’t have enough of a clue to even guess the London location and was about 2 minutes walk away with my guess as to the Edinburgh one.

In the end the London party was held at The Worx, on Heathman’s Road, near The White Horse in Parson’s Green (from the clues: ‘on the Ardbeg tube line’, ‘down south, however didn’t dare cross the river’, ‘Wretched Rector after a bumpy sail through Corryvreckan‘, ‘Poor Shortie [the Ardbeg dog and mascot] nearly got trampled by a fair stallion on the way’, ‘where the peat cutters of the heath reside’…obvious once you know the answer). The format of the evening was simple – turn up, have a cocktail and wander around the venue playing fairground games (I won a nice cashmere scarf on the hoop-la), eating food and drinking copious amounts of whisky.

IMG_0001The initial cocktail of the evening was simple and remarkably effective, especially as peaty whisky is a very difficult thing to mix effectively (and that act against paragraph 17, above). It was a combination of Ardbeg 10, crushed ice, simple syrup and bruised mint leaves. It was a bit like a sticky mojito with a slab of peat, but was also very refreshing and a great palate cleanser.

On the bar they had a selection of Ardbeg whiskies and I started off with the Ardbeg 10. On the nose there was a touch of acetone with the inevitable peat, along with a strong alcoholic sweetness,  a touch of woodsmoke and some butterscotch. To taste it was buttery with a sweet orangey peatiness and coal dust. Water dropped out a lot of the sweetness, compacted the coal dust into briquettes and brought out a woodsmoke finish. Not a subtle dram, but a good smoky, peaty whisky for those who like it quite sweet.

Next I tried the Rollercoaster, the most recent Committee bottling, bottled for the 10th anniversary, and one that won’t hit the general public because it’ll sell out before it has a chance. It’s a vatting of 10 casks, one from each year between 1997 and 2006 – Chris and Lucas have a complete list of the casks over on The Edinburgh Whisky blog. This was the one that I was most wanting to try, as I suspected it’d disappear before I got another chance. On the nose it had sulphur, sea salt, sea weed, oranges and a very hard edged peatiness, almost stony. To taste it had wood ash, eggs, more stony peat, coal smoke and a smokey sweetness. A bit of water toned everything down a bit and brought out more sweetness, with a hint of smoky bacon and sweet butter. I really rather liked it and have worryingly found that you can still buy it from the Ardbeg shop. I must resist.

IMG_0007_2Next I went for the Corryvreckan, another former Committee bottling that was brought in to replace Airgh name Beist, their previous top cask strength whisky. On the nose it had the BBQ chicken smell that I’m starting to think is my brain’s interpretation of woody wine/sherry influence, as well as white sherry, eggs and sea weed. To taste it was spicy with apples, burnt toffee, raisins and a lingering smoky peaty finish. Another good’un and one that deserved its win as best single malt whisky in this year’s World Whisky Awards, as well as numerous other gongs.

Finally, as I’d missed the last of the Supernova, Ardbeg’s super peaty whisky, that they had on the bar, I went for the Blasda. This one was described to me as “a lady’s dram”, with only 20ppm of phenols in the malt and a move to a lighter style. On the nose it was light and sweet with a hint of fruit that might have been cherry. To taste it was buttery and prickly, with sour peat and red berries. Most of all it was surprisingly light for a peaty whisky, especially an Ardbeg, even though this is the intention. Water brought out both cream and a bitterness from the wood as well as touch of cardboard and some struck matches. An interesting experiment, but not one that really grabbed my attention.

Overall it was rather a good night, although the free flowing whisky (there were tokens for some drinks, but by the end of the night the giant bottle of Rollercoaster they had on a smaller bar was being tipped into any glass that came near) meant that there was some drunkenness. If Jerry, the nice Glaswegian chap who tried (unsuccessfully) to teach me some Scottish toasts, is reading this then please drop me an email – I owe you a beer or two and I have the glasses you won, you left them in the pub. Yes, there was a pub after, which was probably a mistake.

IMG_0009_2
Some gorillas. It was safer not to ask.

While I may have missed the previous release of Supernova, I added a sample of this year’s one to my most recent Master of Malt order and thought I’d add it on the end here. Supernova is intended to be the peatiest whisky that the distillery produces, using 100+ppm malt, and the last release had a hint of the Marmite effect to it – many people didn’t seem to rate it, but those who liked it really liked it. After the success of the last bottling they’ve rolled out a new one for this year – Supernova 2010. It’s pale gold and has no age statement, but with the intensity of flavour I would guess it has a good range of whisky in it. On the nose it has (as expected) lots of peat, along with salted butter, fresh mulch and some wet grass. To taste it’s spicy and every bit of its 60.1%. It starts with a big burst of sherried caramel sweetness and then moves through coal dust to a bitter burnt wood finish. In the middle there’s a bit of a fizzy citrus flavour which the chaps at Master of Malt describe as being like Starburst chews. I see what they mean but a) still reckon they should be called Opal Fruits and b) reckon that the flavour is more like fizzy orange and lemon Chewits. Water kills a lot of the bitterness as well as bringing out more of the fizzy fruit. This release has generally been considered inferior to the last one from what I’ve read, but as I didn’t get to taste the old one I can only assume it was really good (it does now change hands for about £125 a bottle) – I rather liked this one, with its peatiness being mellowed, but not too much, by some of the younger flavours and with a depth that I didn’t necessarily expect.

Ardbeg 10
Single malt Islay Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35

Ardbeg Rollercoaster
Single malt Islay Scotch whisky, 57.4%. £50 from the Ardbeg shop

Ardbeg Corryvreckan
No age statement
Single malt Islay Scotch whisky, 57.1%. ~£60

Ardbeg Blasda
No age statement
Single malt Islay Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£45

Ardbeg Supernova 2010
No age statement
Single malt Islay Scotch whisky, 60.1%. ~£80

Eastercon Whisky Tasting with Iain Banks

Being a science fiction fan I spent the long easter weekend just gone hidden away in hotel by Heathrow airport attending Eastercon, the yearly british sci-fi convention. While the con committee managed to rustle up a bar full of London Pride and Old Rosie (even if the cider did its traditional thing and disappeared a lot faster than the bar staff expected) the other bars were fairly lacking in interesting booze. I continued my habit of drinking through the most interesting whiskies that they had (knocking back some Glenkinchie, Knockando and Caol Ila) but one program item above all caught my eye – a whisky tasting with Iain Banks.

IMG_4791Mr Banks is one of my favourite authors, not only for his excellent regular fiction and SF but also for his other book – Raw Spirit. It may claim to be a book about whisky, but the main things I remember are a page of waxing lyrical about Chateau Musar (which I now try and keep at least one bottle of in the house at all times) and many more passages about how much fun it is to drive around the great wee roads of Scotland in a Land Rover. However, the book is one of the things that kicked me into trying to explore non-beery boozes and also to write about it, so obtaining a spot on the whisky tasting became a mission. I foolishly turned up several hours before sign up to make sure I got one of the 15 spots only to find that a) noone was queuing at 8am and b) noone was awake at 8am. However, a queue did appear at about 9am and as number 4 in line I got on the list.

We convened later that day for the tasting, led by a panel including Iain Banks and Liz Williams, two of the convention’s guests of honour, with an original plan of going through six whiskies: a lowland, a highland (although one on the edge of speyside), two speysides and a pair of Islays.

First up was Auchentoshan 12 year old, our easy drinking lowland to lull the non-whisky drinkers into a false sense of security. I’ve not tried the regular Auchentoshan before (this having replaced the previous standard 10 year old expression), although I did work my way quite happily through a bottle of their Three Wood a few years back. This is a unique distillery in that it distills its spirit three times, rather than the standard twice of the other distilleries in Scotland. On the nose the whisky was quite strong, with a touch of vanilla and quite a slug of alcoholically themed scents – pear drops, lighter fluid and a hint of acetone, although I suspect that part of that was from the use of plastic cups and my already setting in con tiredness. To taste it was not as light as I expected, with a chunk of wood and tannin softening into vanilla and a touch of honey. A drop of water opened up the sweetness into a more honeyed caramel and revealed a touch of smoke, fruit stones and linseed oil as it developed in the glass. Definitely one to let sit with a drop of water in, it mellowed into rather an interesting dram over a few minutes.

IMG_4767

Iain Banks is quite well known for his ability to spin a yarn in person as well as on paper and in between whiskies there was a touch of discussion and story telling, even if it did inevitably splinter into 10 conversations as the booze started to settle in. It seems that I was not the only one to notice a hint of the petrolhead in Raw Spirit, but Banks has started to tone down his car collection due to a touch of green guilt. The Land Rover and fast cars seem to have disappeared to be replaced by first a hybrid and now a diesel, a tale accompanied by a slightly sad tone to his voice.

Next we moved to the highlands for the Dalwhinnie 15 year old. One of my fall back malts this is one that I know well, having visited the distillery a few times and had numerous bottles in my cupboard as a drink I know I like. On the nose there’s a touch of smoke and a sweetness that turns into fruit salad chews in the mouth. It also has a peppery prickle on the tongue and a bit of toffee. Water evens out the smoke a touch, letting a bit of the fruitiness come out.

Hiding at the back of the audience, behind the lucky people who got the drinking passes, was a lady who works in the perfume industry and as a discussion of flavours and scents flourished she chipped in with some interesting thoughts from a different but very similar industry. As we started describing the flavours of the whiskies, and comparing them to the traditionally flowery tasting notes, the inevitable contradictions started to appear. There are many reasons for this, with two main points coming up. Firstly the physical limitations of smell, from genetic heritage governing sensitivity to certain chemical compounds, to just the fact that over time (and with age) the senses start to dim, leading to them being less overpowered when you experience a strong flavour such as whisky. Secondly the role that experience plays in both forming sense memories and retrieving them, leading to flavours that may not perfectly line-up but mean something to the individual.

Next on the list was our next speyside – Glenlivet French Oak. This, like Macallan, is one of those whiskies that I kept meaning to get round to again – a big name that I assume I know the taste of, but don’t actually remember. The French Oak is yet another whisky that uses a bit of new wood in its production – a proportion of the blend of malts has been matured in new Limousin oak casks. On the nose it had vanilla and red fruit but became a bit more complicated in the mouth, with a malty sweetness, creaminess and a hint of smoke. A touch of water turned up the heat and added some more wood to the flavour but turned down both creaminess and sweetness. A much more interesting dram than I expected, especially with the creamy mouth feel that the oak brought, but one to drink at bottle strength.

It was about this point in proceedings that you could tell you were at a convention that attracted some people with a knowledge of science. Led by the perfumer a discussion started about the biology of scent detection, with the traditional lock and key explanation (certain ‘shaped’ chemicals clicking into similarly shaped receptors to produce nerve impulses) being questioned as current research suggests that similarity in the shape of chemicals doesn’t always lead to similar tastes. There is also some difficulty in doing experimentation on this as imaging people’s brains in controlled and repeateable conditions is not trivial, especially as everyone’s brain is wired somewhat differently leading to different areas ‘lighting up’ with the same flavour in different people. There’s rather a lot to the science of flavour…

Next was the first of our cask strength whiskies, bottled by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society – 24.106: Discordant Staves. It’s a 12 year old Macallan which I assume was matured in one of their regular sherry casks. On the nose it was fruitcakey with a thick caramel sweetness, but on tasting a lot of the cake fell away to give a sweet, slightly oily dram with hints of raisins and a touch of rubberiness running through the middle. A rather different flavour to the other Macallan’s I’ve tried recently and one that has pushed them towards the top of my ‘taste these when they arrive at the SMWS’ list.

Our discussions about flavours and experiences led to how we decide on what a ‘good’ whisky is. In the end a large part of that seems to come down to the associations that the whisky had. Liz Williams had a fondness for Glenfiddich, as it’s what her dad drinks, other people had drinks that they’d had a weddings or parties. When ‘researching’ (the quotes were explained as being implicit in all mentions of the word) Raw Spirit, Iain Banks actually did very little drinking at the distilleries – as the main driver he ended up buying a bottle from every distillery he visited for later sampling at home. However, he mentioned that one of his favourite whiskies was an Ardbeg, one that he tried at the distillery. The experience of drinking a one of a kind barrel, since sold to someone else, standing beside the distillery as the sun sets over the sea is an experience I can see sticking with you, especially if it’s a good dram.

Suitably, our next whisky was Ardbeg 10 year old. Ardbeg’s a bit on the up at the moment, with a lot of their limited production being snapped up quite quickly. I’ve not tried it since I met up with some friends a couple of years back to drink our way through the rather complete range that Adam had ‘accidentally’ bought while leafing through the Ardbeg web store. The 10 year old is the standard expression and it shows the distillery’s nature quite well. On the nose it has a strong peatiness, moving into a cattle feed and mulchy sweetness. On the tongue the smoky peat taste continues to dominate, with woody sweetness, a thick rubberiness and a slightly buttery taste combining to make a rather nice whisky. It’s not one for the fainthearted, with the TCP-like taste of the very peaty Islay whiskies shining through, but if you like that sort of thing it won’t disappoint.

By this time conversation was getting a bit confused – it’s quite surprising how many people can get a decent sized shot out of a bottle of whisky… We quickly moved on to our final dram in the tasting, another SMWS cask strength bottling, this time of a Laphroaig29.80: Wedding Cake in a Coal Sack. Laphroaig’s reputation preceded it, which made this dram a bit of a sheep in wolf’s clothing – a stealth whisky. Rather than the regular TCP, sea spray and peat that you’d expect, I got hint of burnt matches on the nose, along with a rich fruity sweetness. To taste it continued the nose with ash, citrus and dried fruit all coming through. A drop of water removed little, adding a taste of coal and a slightly socky tint. A very interesting whisky, not at all what we expected and a good one to finish the tasting.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your state of inebriation, a few of us had brought along a few samples of our own. 1/2r Cruttenden brought along a bottle of the St George’s English whisky, which very quickly was accepted into the running order as a final drink of the session. This is part of the first release, at 3 years old, with the distillery having released ‘Chapter X’ bottlings every six months over the maturation of the spirit. It’s only a limited release as they want to mature it a bit longer, a decision I thoroughly agree with. The whisky is obviously very young, with only a little of the wood’s flavour penetrating the spirit, leaving it with a definite hint of aquavit and caraway seed. However, it is a very smooth whisky with an incredibly thick and creamy mouth feel that makes me want to get my name on the waiting list for new bottles. There is also a peated version coming out in the summer which seems to be preferred by many, so I may have to look into obtaining a bottle. For scientific purposes, of course.

On top of that I tried a drop of my own Yamazaki Sherry Cask, still as good as ever, and a big sip of some 18 year old Bladnoch that was more fully flavoured than any lowland I’ve tried in a long time – another to move back up the tasting list.

A fun tasting with some fun stories, interesting science and some rather tasty whiskies. Well worth queuing up for…

IMG_4794_2

Auchentoshan 12 year old
Single Lowland Malt Scotch Whisky, 40%, ~£30

Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old
Single Highland Scotch Whisky, 43%, ~£30

Glenlivet French Oak Reserve
15 year old Single Speyside Malt Scotch Whisky, 40%, ~£30

SMWS 24.106 Discordant Staves
Single Cask Macallan Single Speyside Malt Scotch Whisky, 58.9% (Sold out)

Ardbeg 10 Year Old
Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky, 43%, ~£40

SMWS 29.80 Wedding Cake in a Coal Sack
Single Cask Laphroaigh Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky, 52.7% (Sold out)