Whisky Tasting Club #1 – Regions of Scotland

In a way I’ve copied one of my booze related goals from recently elevated Malt Maniac Keith Wood – to try as many whiskies from as many distilleries as I can. I may have started along that route before I saw Keith’s website but it’s an admirable goal that I’m pleased to be sharing. Along with my visits to the SMWS to try weird single cask bottlings and my attendance of The Whisky Exchange and Whisky Squad tastings I was rather pleased to see that Dominic Roskrow‘s whisky tasting club had branched out from Norwich to the online world and fired up TheWhiskyTastingClub.co.uk.

They have various whisky tastings sets that you can buy, but I decided to go for the thing that attracted me to them in the first place – regular sets sent out to you on a monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly basis. I went for the bi-monthly sets (as I have only one liver and too many things to drink in London as it is) and set up a standing order to kick them £28 every couple of months (£25 + £2.95 P&P for 5x50l samples). After a couple of mails back and forth I heard my first set was being sent out (back at the beginning of November in the middle of Dominic’s run through whisky dinner – the real one is coming up soon) and they arrived a few days later. One of the reasons I like the idea of a tasting by post is that it meant I could stretch the drams out over a few nights, and could also leave them for a few weeks to fit in with my rather boozy autumn. I’ve finally got round to writing this up just as my second set appeared in the post.

Along with sending out the tasting boxes they have a forum on their site for everyone to share their tasting notes, as well as the usual whisky chat, which will hopefully fill in the gap that not necessarily being around others drinking the whiskies leaves – I can’t wave my arms around and mumble about whisky on the internet, so it’s a bonus for everyone. I will hopefully have a copy of Dominic’s book appearing early next year as a thankyou for signing up for the regular sets and there are tales of bonus drams making their way out as well – I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.

Whisky Tasting Club - Box 1

This first set is an introduction to the whisky regions of Scotland and I was quite pleased to see that I’d only tasted two of the provided whiskies before, and one of those was one I very much wanted to try again. I went with the traditional light-heavy ordering and started off the lowland of the box – Bladnoch ‘Beltie’ 8 Year old. Named for the Belted Galloway cow on the label, a rare breed from the area around the distillery, it’s bottled at 55%. On the nose it had hint of farmyard – silage and mulching grass, which faded as it sat in the glass to be replaced by vanilla, linseed oil, candle wax, apples, foam strawberries, a hint of cinnamon and digestive biscuits. To taste it had big woody start and finish, with liquorice root at the end. A big booze hit was joined by pine & mint and a little bit of fruitiness in the middle – apple pies and unsweetened buttery mince meat, although unsweetened. It could take quite a bit of water, softening the flavours into black forest gateau, although the bitter liquorice remains at the end. The finish had some longering pear and apple. There was a surprising amount to the whisky, especially for an 8 year old, but it was maybe a little bit woody on the taste for my liking. The nose was excellent, however, and I’d almost be tempted to buy a dram for the smell alone.

Next I went for the Speyside – Linkwood ‘Flora and Fauna’ 12 year old. Bottled at 43% this is part of a range of whiskies released originally in the 90s by United Distillers (who are now part of Diageo) to show off the range of whisky styles in Scotland. It seems they weren’t one-off releases as some of them are still available for a reasonable cost, including this one – one of the only distillery bottlings of Linkwood available (although they are much loved by independents). On the nose an initially pungent mulchy grain quickly floated off to reveal fruit and grain underneath – barley and granny smith apples with a hint of Refresher chews. The taste was very light and thin, initially sweet and creamy with a hint of stewed and crunchy apples moving on to a more woody middle with vanilla and wood spice. It finished with a mix of barley and sharp apples. Water nrought out more spice on the nose and more sour fruit to taste, with hints of grapes and some sugary sweetness on the finish.
This was fine but nothing earth shattering and maybe a little light in flavour for my liking, although I liked it much more on my second tasting (finishing the other half of the 50ml sample when I started writing this blog entry).

I then moved on to the island contribution –  Arran 14 year old. Bottled at 46% this is the latest regular bottling to be released from the distillery – as they were founded in 1996 it’s obvious to see why it hasn’t appeared before. On the nose it had sweet pears, grass, lemons and brine. To taste it had the traditional Arran burst of icing sugar followed by wood polish, prickly spice, chocolate orange and vanilla. Water added some more sugary sweetness, an unexpected savoury note, floral overtones (orange blossom?) and a touch of minty menthol. I like Arran whiskies and this is the one that I wanted to try again, having only tried a drop at Whisky Live Glasgow a few weeks after the bottled it. This is definitely an evolution of their previous whiskies and one that I’m tempted to buy a bottle of. It’s still not a patch on the SMWS single cask bottlings that I tried a year or so ago – those are still some of my favourite whiskies of all time.

Next was the highland whisky – Balblair 2000. I tried this as part of the Twitter tasting I did last year and didn’t get much different from it this time. On the nose it had pineapple, vanilla, a hint of meaty anis, and rhubarb and custard sweets. To taste it had caramel with sweet vanilla, dark chocolate, just unripe vine fruits and a hint of pepper. I didn’t get the coppery note that we found last time so much this time, but I did still find a bit of dry twigginess in the finish. Water brought out more vanilla but also more astringent alcohol on the nose. The taste changed quite a bit, with more heat, more thin alcohols and more big wood, with thick custard at the back of the mouth.

The final whisky of the evening was the one from Islay – Port Charlotte An Turas Mor (The Great Journey). Part of Bruichladdich’s heavily peated range named for the long closed Port Charlotte distillery, this is the newer reasonably priced expression, as earlier releases have fetched a bit of a premium from the ‘Laddich lovers and also been bottled a lot stronger. On the nose there was initially a hit of baby sick, but this faded after pouring into sweet peat and muddy grass. There was also coal smoke, sweet oranges and tangerines. The taste was first dominated by big coal smoke fading away to be replaced by sweet fruit, lemon, and a dry woody end. Water adds some sweetness and a lot more citrus – the smoke is still there but hangs around out at the end rather than up front with some dusty coal powering it.

A nice first box, full of slightly more interesting drams than you’ll often find in a regular region sampling whisky flight. My next box is whiskies of the world, which I hope to get on to slightly faster than this one.

Bladnoch 8 year old – Belted Galloway bottling
Lowland single malt Scotch whisky, 55%. ~£35 at Master of Malt.

Linkwood 12 year old – Flora and Fauna
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40 at Master of Malt.

Arran 14 year old
Island single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£40 from The Whisky Exchange.

Balblair 2000
Highland single malt Scotch whisky, 43%.~£30 from The Whisky Exchange.

Port Charlotte An Turas Mor
Islay single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35 from The Whisky Exchange.

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.