Whisky Hub #2 at Albannach

Following hot on the heels of my last post about Albannach‘s monthly whisky club is this more timely write up of February’s gathering. Shifted downstairs into a darkened corner booth of Albannach’s A-Bar due to a private party having booked the entire upstairs we had a few of us from last time and some new people and, in a happily shocking turn for a whisky event, even numbers of men and women. Hopefully whisky producers will continue to stop advertising seemingly solely to gentlemen of a certain age and whisky geeks, and the whisky community will continue its trend towards no longer just being the domain of bearded men with notebooks – I for one am happy to see less people who look like me at whisky events… Anyways, on to the whisky!

Inish Turk BegFirst up this month was Cat from Albannach with a bottle of Inish Turk Beg. It’s the first release of a new irish whiskey, limited to only 2888 bottles, named for a private island off the west coast. It’s a whiskey that’s covered in marketing and digging through their website doesn’t get much information about the spirit itself – the island is owned by Nadim Sadek who has set it up as a brand in of itself, encompassing food, art, music and now whiskey. According to the site it’s finished in poítin barrels that have ‘long lain’ on the island, cut to bottling strength using rainwater collected on the island and sold in handblown bottles made with glass that contains sand from the island. There’s no information about the whiskey on the web apart from a few reviews and some theories from people who haven’t tasted it that it’s very young Cooley spirit aged in former bourbon barrels. However, I reckon it’s had a little bit of time in the barrel and despite the marketing guff I thought it was rather nice – on the nose it was salty and floral (violets?) with caramel and a light woody smokiness; to taste there was vanilla up front, a spicy middle with a bit of gravelly minerality and a dry honeyed woody finish. Water dropped out some of the sugary sweetness, adding more honey and a little bit of woody tannin. It’s a bit pricey for my liking (at about £125 per bottle) but it’s not bad, despite the story around it seemingly being more important than the liquid. I have already claimed the empty bottle from Albannach when they finish, if Cat doesn’t get it first (which she will)…it’s very pretty.

Amrut FUsionNext up was Will Lowe, who brought along some Amrut Fusion. It’s one I tried, and have no memory of, at last year’s London Whisky Lounge festival and one that is sitting on my ‘tasting shelf’ (aka unused monitor stand that’s part of my desk) as part of my next Whisky Tasting Club box (that I’ve had for about a month…I should get onto that). It’s (mostly) from India and is probably the most well travelled whisky I’ve ever tried. The Fusion part of its name comes from the fact that it uses both Scottish and Indian barley in its manufacture, with the Scots grain being peated and the Indian not. The Indian barley is grown in the Punjab before being sent to maltsters in Jaipur. After malting it meets the Scottish barley in Bangalore at Amrut’s distillery, where it is distilled and aged. From there it makes its way to the UK – quite a trip. On the nose it had caramel popcorn, a bit of gravel and a hint of woody smoke. To taste it was universally described as ‘pinched’, with its stronger 50% bottling strength compressing the flavours behind an alcoholic kick. I got some more minerals and a bit of peaty smoke, but mainly it was hot and spicy and didn’t reveal much. Water tamed it to a sweet and stony dram with an edge of farmyard, showing it to be quite pleasant under the fire.

Glen Grant Major's ReserveThird came Cat’s colleague Carolina who brought a bottle of Glen Grant Major’s Reserve. Glen Grant is a highland distillery on the edge of the lowlands which, from my recent reading of Richard Paterson’s Goodness Nose, seems to make lighter spirits in a more traditionally lowland style. I’d not tried this one before but Carolina had chosen it as one that she felt was a good introductory whisky – working in a restaurant like Albannach she often gets asked for recommendations for non-whisky drinkers and this is one at the top of her arsenal. On the nose it was buttery, with butterscotch, apples, custard and a light spice. To taste it was quite sweet for with a nice chunk of wood to balance it. There was liquorice root, sour polished wood and a little hint of menthol at the end before a short sweet wood finish. Water brought out more candied sugar on the nose but killed the flavour, leaving it simple, sweet and sour. This was rather easy drinking and one of my favourites of the night – a very good whisky for someone who isn’t sure what they’d like.

Benromach OrganicNext was me, with a bottle of Benromach Organic that I picked up from my visit to the distillery this time last year. I’ve not tried it since the tasting I did last March, but I remember being rather keen on it at the time. It’s the first Soil Association certified organic whisky, although a number have appeared since release, and is unpeated and aged exclusively in new wood casks. When I first tried it I assumed the choice of new wood was due to the difficulty of obtaining organically certified refill barrels, but it looks like other distilleries have managed it so I’m no longer sure of the motivation for the cask choice. Since I last mentioned the whisky it has now pretty much sold out everywhere, with its replacement, the peated ‘Special Edition Organic’, not going down anywhere near as well – hopefully the unpeated version will reappear soon. On the nose we got an interesting gluey smell (although a table of people arguing of what type of glue it smelled of hints towards a number of mispent youths) which in the end we settled on being wet papier mache (although PVA glue and primary school paste both came up) along with tea and bananas. To taste there was much more wood than I remember, overwhelming the palate with dry and dusty oak, and new wood spiciness a bit like an unrefined bourbon. Along with that there was the expected vanilla and some red fruit. Water tamed it a little bit, although while it brought out some sweet butter it did also soften some of the wood to damp cardboard. Not as much of a favourite this time as I remembered from before.

Ballantines 17Next was Melanie, who had a bottle of Ballantines 17. While the earlier Amrut Fusion had been respectably scored as Jim Murray’s 3rd best whisky in this year’s whisky bible this Ballantines came in first, even if it has caused a chunk of mumbling amongst the whisky community. I’m naturally suspicious of scoring things like whisky, especially when Murray admits that the 17 is one of the reference whisky that he uses to set his palate before tasting, as well as one of his favourite whiskies. It’s a difficult thing to blind taste when one of the things that you are tasting is something that you know you like and also know the smell of rather well. I used it as part of my last whisky tasting and it’s still not one of my favourites – on the nose there was acetone and apples; to taste smoke, sour wood, cinnamon, bits and pieces of fruit, and a good chunk of wood; water knocked out a chunk of the wood, bringing out more sweetness and woody caramel. Far from unpleasant I just find it to be quite uninteresting, although I assume that’s just me being biased without reason. The mind is a difficult thing…

Ledaig 10Last up was Lucas with a bottle of Ledaig 10. This comes from the Tobermory distillery on the Isle of Mull, where their unpeated spirit is named after the distillery and their peated Ledaig, it’s old name. It’s got a bit of a reputation for unevenness, with good whiskies at one end(such as the 5 year old Ledaig that Berry Brother’s bottled last year, which picked up various accolades) and filthy whiskies at the other (such as the Tobermory 15 that was tasted at Whisky Squad #3) but not a lot in the middle. They seem to have had a bit of a rebrand recently and I was quite keen, although apprehensive, to try the Ledaig. On the nose it had black junior school plimsolls (fresh from the box), tinned sardines, wet leaves, damp soil and a hint of lemon. To taste it had coal and tar, a bit of unscented soap, lots of minerality and salty preserved lemons. Water killed the interesting flavours, leaving just a wet and smoky mess. Despite the non-traditionally appealing flavours I list above this one was my favourite of the night – totally different to the rest of the whiskies with a very different smokiness to that which you normally get from peat. The harsh rubberiness of the spirit is not going to be for everyone, but if you like a sensual assault it’s worth a try.

With the whisky gone the evening broke down in what I assume will become a traditional fashion with random conversation appearing. I had to run off quite quickly due to a) impending drunkenness and b) an appointment with Gatwick airport to find a plane to get me to Porto in Portugal, where I had a further appointment with a lot of port. The things I do for this blog…

Hopefully there’ll be more Whisky Hub shenanigans next month – many thanks to Cat for throwing it all together again. As with last time, let me know if you are interested in coming along (probably the last Wednesday of the month) and I’ll see if there’s space.

Inish Turk Beg
Irish whiskey, no age statement, 44%. 1litre bottles available for £125 from Harvey Nichols.

Amrut Fusion
Indian whisky, no age statement, 50%. ~£35 from Master of Malt.

Glen Grant Major’s Reserve
Highland single malt Scotch whisky, no age statement, 40%. ~£20 from The Whisky Exchange.

Benromach Organic
Organic Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, no age statement, 43%. Sold out, but was about £35 from Master of Malt.

Ballantines 17
Blended Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40 from Master of Malt.

Ledaig 10
Single malt Highland Island Scotch whisky, ~£30 from Master of Malt (although I’d check that is the new edition, as the image on the page isn’t and the tasting notes are quite different from the rubbery punch we got).

Beginners Whisky Tasting at The Alma

So, Thursday has been and gone and my pre-Burn’s Night whisky tasting at The Alma has gone with it. It was a rather enjoyable evening and I thank those who came along to listen to me witter about whisky. Well, drink whisky while I wittered noisily in the background at least. As promised to those who came along, and as a record of what you missed (take that as a positive or negative as you will) for everyone else, here’s a sanitised version of my notes, without quite so many spelling mistakes and unused stage directions.

Alma lineup

Whisky #1 was Ballantines 17 year old, recently rated by Jim Murray as the highest scoring whisky for 2011 in his yearly Whisky Bible
with 97.5 points. Ballantines the company started out like many blenders as shop, opening in 1827, and by the mid 1860s had started blending whiskies for their customers. The brand was acquired Pernod Ricard in 2005 and isn’t all that well known in the UK. However, they are big around the world and increasingly so in the UK, with their premium blends (such as the 17) appearing more often as they get praised.

On the nose I got PVA glue, pear, unripe green grapes and sherry dipped sponge cake (a combination of vanilla, acetone + biscuits). It had a very tight palate, with an initial sweetness moving quickly to dry wood and a lingering grainy finish. It was buttery without an oily mouth feel and had sharp apples, cedar/teak/old cabinets, sour apple sweets and a little bit of lime. Water brought out some vanilla, bitter dark chocolate and lemon peel.

Whisky #2 was a Signatory Bladnoch 1993 16 year old. This comes from the most southerly distillery in Scotland, situated near Wigtown in Dumfries and Galloway in the south west of Scotland – latitude-wise it’s just south of both Newcastle and Carlisle. The distillery opened in 1817, closed in 1949, reopened in 1957, closed in the 1990’s and then reopened again in 2000. This whisky was distilled in 1993, before the last close, and is in a similar but different style to current production, which started being standardly bottled as an 8 year old in 2009.

This whisky comes from independent bottler Signatory, founded in 1988 as simply a bottler and expanding into distillery ownership in 2002 with the purchase of the distillery with maybe the smallest stills in Scotland – Edradour. According the internets, the name Signatory came from a plan to produce whiskies with a label signed by a celebrity, but they sold out their first bottling before they organised the signature and abandoned the idea while keeping the name.

On the nose it had light vanilla, unsweetened pineapple, cut grass and a touch of woodiness. To taste it was light with some sweetness, coconut, linseed oil and floral notes. Water added in some more grassiness and more vanilla.

Whisky #3 was Glenfarclas 15 year old. Despite this being the distillery I have visited most often, thanks to yearly visits to Scotland and it being one of the closest distilleries to where we stayed, I’ve not tried the 15 year old until recently. Glenfarclas was founded in 1836 but has been run by the Grant family (not to be confused with the other Grant family, the ones who own Glenfiddich and Balvenie) since 1865. They normally use a chunk of sherry wood in the maturation of their whiskies and this one is no exception – on the nose there’s rich dried fruit, hints of pedro ximinez, dark rum and cognac. To taste it has more of the dried fruit and raisins, dried orange peel and rich fruit cake in between. Water rolls out more sweetness and adds even more thick richness.

Whisky #4 was Clynelish 14 year old. I wasn’t sure about including this one, as it’s a distillery that’s not quite so well known and there are many more Highland whiskies I could have chosen. However, in the end I went for it because I really like it – it was my Christmas whisky this year and it’s in my hipflask. I’m rather pleased I did, as it seemed to be rather liked by the tasting group as well (and tales of its almost permanent special offer status at Waitrose didn’t hurt). The distillery is in Brora, up the east coast of Scotland from the Dornoch Firth, about 1/2 the way to John O’Groats. It’s the second distillery to be built in Brora and operated as Clynelish 2 from its building in 1967 until the older distillery was renamed from Clynelish to Brora in the 1970s. Brora closed in 1983 and the remaining stock is in much demand, but with a minimum age of 27 years (that being how long it was since spirit was last produced there) it’s getting rarer and closer to the point where it will be going bad in the barrel rather than continuing to add good flavour.

On the nose this had wax (as is traditional with Clynelish whiskies), brine, sweaty boiled sweets, a hint of meaty smoke (burning beef?), creamy vanilla and some leather. To taste it was initially sweet turning to sour wood by the finish. It had vanilla, mint, menthol, unripe red grapes and tannic wood to finish. Water added some more sweet and sourness and a touch of sherbert – a bit like Refresher chews.

Whisky #5 was Lagavulin 16 year old. Distilled on the south coast of Islay, a concentrated whisky production area with 8 distilleries squeezed into 240 square miles of island just off the west coast of Scotland near the Kintyre peninsula. It has distilleries to either side, with Ardbeg to the east and Laphroaig to the west, all three of them known for producing heavily peated whiskies, which is the style of most of the distilleries on the island.

On the nose this has coal and campfires with sweetness hiding underneath. To taste it has a big smokiness, sweet mulchy peat, rich dried fruit and spicy fruit cake. Water rolls back some of the smoke bringing out more fruitcake and and vanilla. A big one to finish and a nice contrast to the almost smoke-free others.

I also brought out some new make spirit. It was Glenglassaugh Clearac, which is unpeated spirit that’s watered down to 50% before being bottled and sold – not quite the 70%ish spirit that comes straight out of the still. It’s quite sweet to smell, with caramel and lemons, and simply flavoured, with citrus sweetness and cereal notes. It shows quite nicely how much the wood maturation of whisky adds to the flavour.

Anyways, that was it. I was quite pleased with the whiskies – they contrasted nicely and gave a nice overview of the range of flavour available, which was the point of the tasting. There was only one person that really needed to be converted to liking whisky – Kirsty, who organised the tasting. She wasn’t quite a total convert but did acknowledge that there was a chance that she might find a whisky that she likes, which I’ll take as a victory.

Ballantines 17 Year Old
Blended Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£30 from Master of Malt.

Signatory Bladnoch 1993 16 Year Old
Single malt Lowland Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£35 from Master of Malt.

Glenfarclas 15 Year Old
Single malt Speyside Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£35 from Master of Malt.

Clynelish 14 Year Old
Single malt Highland Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£30 from Master of Malt.

Lagavulin 16 Year Old
Single malt Islay Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40 from Master of Malt.

Glenglassaugh Clearac
“Spirit drink”, 50%. ~£15 per 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange.

Many thanks to Kirsty from The Alma for inviting me along and to Darren at Master of Malt for making sure that I got the whisky in time, even offering to bring it up to London from Tunbridge Wells for me if the post let me down