Whisky Squad #10 – Wee Speyside Beauties

The year has turned and time for another whisky squad has rolled around. This month, in a departure to the norm, we relocated from The Gunmakers to sample some more whiskies from Berry Brothers and Rudd, the eponymous Berry’s Own Selection, this time in the cellars beneath their shop at Number 3 St James’s Street. Due to Epic Camera Failage! (I forgot to charge it) I ended up with only a few rather noisy pictures courtesy of my iPhone but Mr Standing, Whisky Squad co-founder and probable boxing champion if he put his mind to it, has put up a flickr set with a few more piccies of the lovely location in.

Berry Brothers and Rudd
Upstairs, downstairs

While The Gunmakers has history (named for the nearby site where Hiram Maxim’s machine gun, the first of its kind, was manufactured as it is) Berrys have been selling continuously from their shop since 1698 and despite The Blitz hitting surrounding buildings quite heavily it is still made of a lot of original material. The floor in the main shop floor may be a bit on the wonky side, thanks to the settling of the foundations over the last 300 years, and the floor boards near the door may only be a few years old due to being replaced after the break in, but walking into the shop does almost feel like walking into a museum. In the back left corner there is a small room where Rob Whitehead, returning as our whisky guide for the evening, spends most of his time looking after Berry Brothers’ spirits selection, but most of their business remains selling wine. While most of the stock is no longer under the shop the cellars aren’t going to waste, having been refurbished and turned into a selection of vaulted venue spaces, one of which Rob led us down into for our tasting.

The plan for the evening was the same as usual, despite the change in location, and the focus was to be whiskies from Speyside. As it’s the largest, by number of distilleries, area of whisky production in Scotland, with the number of different styles of whisky that suggests, Rob decided to narrow the selection and work (mainly) with whiskies matured in refill bourbon hogsheads. Along with the four whiskies we were to taste he also put two glasses in the middle of the table with an attached challenge – whoever identified the difference in age between the two glasses would win a prize. More on that later…

BoS AberlourFirst up was a lightly coloured dram with an interesting waxy nose of apples, foam strawberries and green wood. To taste it was oily with vanilla, acetone, a caramel sweetness in the middle and hazelnuts to finish. Water brought out candy canes, spicy apple pie and some balsamic vinegar. In an effort to help with guessing Rob let us know that the distillery name didn’t begin with G or B, removing all the Glens and most of the other distilleries. However, even with this help and Whisky Guy Darren reeling through distilleries at a rate of knots we didn’t guess – it was a 1989 Aberlour, bottled after 15 years at 46% (as most BoS whiskies are – they are single cask but are diluted down to that strength if they haven’t already dropped below it). This is a bit different to regular Aberlour (which is well known for its use of sherry casks in maturation) and was a pleasant start to the evening.

BoS LinkwoodThe next whisky was a bit darker and before I got my nose in the glass it was announced that it smelled of “Swimming Pools”. I didn’t get the chloriney smell that others did, but I did get nail varnish, sweet & fruity air freshener, non-soapy pot pourri, rose water turkish delight, gin botanicals, candle wax, shortbread and ginger nut biscuits. The nose was fantastic and the taste didn’t quite live up to it. It had a slowly building gingeriness, reminding the table of Thai food, leading to an icing sugar powdery sweetness at the end. On the way there was rhubarb and butterscotch, married up with a pleasant sourness underneath. Water brought out more butteriness, spongecake and violets. Interesting, but one that I liked the nose of much more than the taste. The cover came off to reveal that it was a 1985 Linkwood bottled in 2006 at 21 years old. Linkwood doesn’t get out much as a single malt, with about 98% of production going into blends (mainly Diageo’s), but as it is sold for blending the independent bottlers can occasionally get their hands on casks like this one.

BoS DailuaineThe next bottle appeared and the whisky was yet again slightly darker. On the nose it had floor polish, a hint of salt and mincemeat, and a dark savouriness sitting under it all – the phrase “umami on the nose” was mentioned, causing me rather too much amusement (umami being specifically a taste rather than a scent, and all that) but made a lot of sense. To taste it had ozone (posh swimming pools…), sweet and sour fruit, and a vegetal tang leading a crisp sweetness and mix of green and old wood at the end. Its tannic taste and hints of vegetable added a tea-like feel to the flavour. Water tamed some of the dryness and added in some sweet butter. Again we had no correct guesses and the bottle was revealed to be 1971 Dailuaine bottled in 2005 at 31 years old. Dailuaine is another blending distillery that doesn’t make its way out into the single malt world very often and as this bottling divided the room I can see why. The savouriness didn’t appeal to everyone but I rather liked it. I’ve tried one or two other bottlings at the SMWS and will continue to keep an eye out.

Blue Hanger 4th ReleaseLast of the night was a dark whisky with a pile of sherry cask on the nose and Rob admitted that this was the one where he had departed from his ‘refill bourbon hogshead’ plan. On the nose it had hot gravel, dark fruit, deep savoury notes, hints of sugary rum, struck matches and wet undergrowth. To taste it had dry spicy wood up front, with a slab of vanilla, fine sawdust in the middle and a long finish of preserved fruit. Water brought out more depth, with liquorice and caraway, and butter and vanilla. There were no ideas around the table at all for this one and it turned out that was with some justification – it was Berry Brothers’ blended malt Blue Hanger, this being the previous 4th release. They’re on to the 5th release now but this version is made up of about 50% heavily sherried whisky from Mortlach, matured for about 17 years in two sherry butts, with some 33 year old Glen Elgin and 16 year old (I think) Glenlivet to make it up to 3500 bottles. Blue Hanger has been around for a while, named after William Hanger, the 3rd Lord Coleraine, who was nicknamed “Blue Hanger” and died in 1814. The Blue Hanger comes from the days when whisky was sold in bottles that the customer would bring in to be filled from casks in the shop – they had three barrels: a smoky whisky, a sherried whisky and one where the dregs of the barrels were married before refilling. The ‘dregs’ barrel thus picked up a combination of smoky and sherried whisky, mainly the sherried as it sold in much larger quantities, and as it was constantly topped up it had bits of a variety of older whiskies in. A bottle of original Blue Hanger was found a few years back and after tasting it Doug McIvor, Berry Brothers’s whisky king, put together the first new limited release and has been working on it with each batch. It was rather nice.

After the four main whiskies of the tasting all eyes turned to the mystery drams in the middle of the table. From colour alone we could tell that one was new make (being entirely clear helps with that) and thus Darren correctly guessed that we were looking at Glenrothes – BBR own Glenrothes which makes it significantly easier to get new make spirit. On the nose the new make had buttery grain, cereal and a hint of cream. To taste it had lemon, grass, and apples and pears to finish. I rather liked it, which is dangerous when you’re drinking something that is 68.8% abv. The other dram was a solid bronzey gold and obviously a chunk older. On the nose it was sweet with biscuits and a touch of citrus – maybe lemon shortbread? To taste it was buttery with spicy wood and a plimsolly rubberiness hiding behind. There was only a drop to share between the table and it became apparent why on the reveal.

Glenrothes SampleGlenrothes 1975

The second whisky was a 1975 Glenrothes bottled in 2006 and long sold out at Berrys. Known as an excellent whisky it’s not been easily obtainable for years and we got the last from Rob’s stashed tasting bottle.

Talisker 20Noone guessed the 31 years difference but there was a 30 and a 32, and the guessers very kindly decided to let everyone try their prize before dividing it up – a bottle of a very much long gone and rather pricey Talisker 20 year old that Rob happened to find knocking around in his increasingly enviable tasting cupboard. On the nose it had rubber tires and balloons, spicy fruit and muddy river banks. To taste it had marzipan dust, butter, spiky smoke, struck match sulphur, ketchup and violets. Water brought out more of the sulphur note (hated by many but liked by me) and fluffy powdered sugar. It was an impressive dram, especially after the almost entirely peat free evening we’d had, and one that I’m happy to have had a taste of.

Next month’s session (the mysteriously named Bottle of Britain) is already sold out, but keep an eye on the site as March’s will be up soon enough. Looking ahead to the future, there will be a group (well, at least three of us) going to Maltstock in The Netherlands in September under the Whisky Squad banner. Let us know if you’re coming along…


Berry’s Own Selection 1989 Aberlour
Single cask Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. No longer available, but was ~£50

Berry’s Own Selection 1985 Linkwood
Single cask Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. No longer available, but was ~£45

Berry’s Own Selection 1974 Dailuaine
Single cask Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. No longer available, but was ~£70

Blue Hanger 4th Release
Blended Scotch malt whisky, 45.6%. ~£60 at Berry Brothers and Rudd

Glenrothes 1975
Single cask single malt Speyside Scotch whisky, 43%. Available for ~£385 from Master of Malt

Talisker 20
Skye single malt Scotch whisky, 62%. ~£510 from The Whisky Exchange

Whisky Squad #7 – Berry Brothers & Rudd

Another month, another slab of Whisky Squad related delight Chez Jeff, the lovely landlord of The Gunmakers. This month we were treated to another special guest following in the rather hefty footsteps of Colin Dunn – Rob Whitehead from Berry Brothers & Rudd. Regular Whisky Guy Darren was off recovering from a whisky related sojourn state-side, so we were left in the capable hands of Rob to run us through some of the whiskies that Berry Brothers bottle.

Berry Brothers & Rudd are the oldest family owned wine and spirit merchant in the world. Generally they’ve been known in more recent times for their wine, with their cellars extending for quite a way under St James’s, but they are also a very well respected independent bottler of spirits. Despite having known about them for a while, something that is inevitable when your dad sells wine, I didn’t realise that they also did whisky until recently. Having tried a couple of drams at whisky live earlier this year I did a bit of research and found that they’d won Whisky Magazine’s Independent Bottler of the Year award last year, a feat they’ve recently repeated for a second time.

The shop started out in 1698 as grocers on the same site that it is now, 3 St James’s Street. The Berry clan became part of the business in the 1780s through marriage and Hugh Rudd joined the company in 1914 as a junior partner, completing its current name. While the wine side of things is more well known these days, with the full cellars of St James’s as well as a warehouse in Basingstoke allowing them to store 6 million bottles of wine, a million of which are looked after for customers needing proper cellaring, it was whisky that helped them keep going through the post-war period. In 1923 they released Cutty Sark, their own blend, which had great success in the US during the 50s and 60s giving a well needed boost in the still struggling British economic climate. They recently did a trade with the Edrington Group, swapping Cutty Sark for Glenrothes (which they already had a part share in) and a share in the Anchor brewery in San Francisco, but the whisky loving streak runs deep in the company.

IMG_0239

Rob works with the BBR spirit’s manager Doug McIvor to put together an impressive selection of spirits, from distillery bottlings to a range of their own – the Berry’s Own Selection. This doesn’t only cover whisky, but also rums, and they also bottle their own cognacs and gin – the spirits room at their shop is rather full of interesting looking bottles. However, the whisky is where we were at for the evening. They bottle quite a range, with their youngest being a 4 year old Ledaig and the oldest a 42 year old Carsebridge, from all over Scotland. They buy casks from various distillers and mature them in a variety of locations, having their own warehouse in Scotland as well as leaving many with the distillers themselves, although in order for a whisky to be called scotch it does have to be matured in Scotland. Their bottling policy is very simple – it’s bottled when it’s at what Doug thinks is the whisky’s best. If they miss that point or if they don’t think it will reach it they sell the cask on – the trade in casks is very active, with many companies needing whisky for blending and not worrying if it’s not up to single cask bottling as it will only be one component of many in a finished product.

IMG_0240In traditional Whisky Squad style we tried the whiskies blind, with Rob helping this along by bringing along a set of whisky socks to conceal the bottles. We started on what he described as ‘Breakfast Whisky’, a lightly coloured introduction to the evening. On the nose it had boiled sweets, liquid caramel and apples. To taste it had spice, orange candy, sherbert, polished wood and a hint of floral (rather than peppery) olive oil. Water brought out more of the woody flavours, with vanilla and sour wood joining the rest, along with blackjacks, menthol and a biscuity graininess. Guesses were made and Rob revealed the bottle to be a 14yr old Aberlour matured in a many times refilled cask. The standard Aberlour style is quite heavily sherried (as I’ve mentioned before), so this less active cask, as most of the wood flavour had been leeched out through the previous fillings, gave a more ‘naked’ tasting Aberlour, revealing the underlying new make more than usual.

IMG_0243We moved on quickly to number 2, a rather different beast. On the nose it had rubber boots, earthy smoke, turpentine, chilli and charcoal, with a sweet hit at the back of the nose. My tasting notes start with ‘charcoal butter’, continuing with lemons, brine and a smoky mineral (granite?) finish. Water tamed things slightly, revealing a rich spicy sweetness and more of a prickly mouthfeel – maybe revealing a hint of horseradish. This one at first seemed easier to guess, being quite blatantly made in the style of an Islay whisky, and predictions were made. However, this was another deliberate curve ball – a 12 year old heavily peated Bunnahaibhain. The regular production bottlings of Bunnahabhain are unique on Islay due to being almost entirely unpeated, however for two weeks a year, just before they close down for summer, they distill a heavily peated spirit that is generally used in making Black Bottle (a smoky blend using a bit of most of the Islay malts). They then thoroughly clean out the stills and tuns before returning to their regular spirit production when the distilling starts up again. Berry’s bought some casks either side of the closedown one year and released this rare peated version – the others are still waiting to reach their peaks.

IMG_0245Number 3 was my favourite of the night. On the nose it had flowers, wax, pears and linseed oil, along with a sweetness that I described at the time as ‘like when you mix together the strawberry and vanilla sections of Sainsbury’s neapolitan ice cream after it has started to melt. There’s not chocolate because the chocolate bit in neapolitan ice cream is rubbish’. I ate a lot of Sainsbury’s neapolitan ice cream as a child. To taste it had a big creamy sweetness with fizzy lemons, opal fruits, sour plums, and some oiliness and spicy dry wood. A drop of water opened it more with strawberries and custard, but it stilled retained the woody spiciness. An interesting dram that I dreaded discovering the price of. The sock was whipped off and it was shown to be a 26 year old Glen Mhor. This didn’t enlighten me much, but Rob continued with the story. Glen Mhor (pronounced ‘Vor’) was an undistinguished distillery in Inverness, not particularly admired but producing okay whisky until it closed in 1983. It was demolished in 1986 and is now a Co-op. This cask was distilled in 1982, just before the closure, and bottled in 2009, and unlike the regular whisky the distillery produced it has come out to be rather special. It’s an older style of whisky, as you might expect from a slowing down distillery in the early 80s, and Rob told us about whisky lovers who tried things back in the early 80s waxing lyrical about its old school flavour. The writing of this post was accompanied by a dram of it.

IMG_0249Number 4, the ‘official’ last whisky of the tasting, was poured out and sat a deep bronze in the glass. On the nose it had sweet orange, dark rum, vanilla and coconut. ‘Like a milk chocolate Bounty’ someone offered from the room. To taste it had a cool creamy sweetness with a touch of woodiness and a drying finish. Water brought out more flavours, with butter icing and sour fruit making an appearance. The finish was still woody, with some astringent booziness to the sides of the tongue. While the guessing went on I rather proudly detected the key USP of this whisky – it’s a single grain. With my recent discovery of and continued searching for grain whiskies I shouldn’t be quite so preening, but preen I did. The sock was removed and it was shown to be a 39 year old Invergordon single grain. I tried one of their previous bottlings of Invergordon at Whisky Live when I first discovered the Berry’s Own Selection range and thought it was quite special – this one beat it hands down. Distilled in 1971 this was bottled 5 weeks ago, with an outturn of about 190 bottles, missing out on its 40th birthday by a few months. After 39 years it still came in at a strength of 47%, which was helped along by the cask being filled with much higher alcohol distillate than usual – maybe 70% or above. The empty barrel has since been filled with Laphroaig new spirit and is now sitting somewhere thinking about what it’s done, waiting to be bottled some time in the future. This whisky reminded me of the Port Dundas that I own as well as the one that Colin Dunn brought along to Whisky Squad #5 even though this was matured in a first fill bourbon cask rather than sherry, as used in the other two. An interesting whisky that shows the delicate common characteristics of well aged grain and one that I was very tempted by.

IMG_0252Now that the tasting had officially finished Rob unveiled a special fifth bottle. Grabbed on the way out of the shop it’s one that was used for customer tastings of a whisky that sold out that day. Rather than leave it hidden in a cupboard Rob kindly brought it along for us to have a try. On the nose it was waxy with linseed oil, sherbert and thick vanilla. To taste it started with leather and stones before moving to a floral sweetness with red fruit and citrus, and a dry woody finish. Watter brought a chalkiness with the fruitiness, described as ‘fruit rennies’, sherry wood and more vanilla. Rob gave us a few hints, starting with the fact that the distillery is now closed. It’s a triple distilled (rather than the more regular double) lowland whisky that was matured in a fourth fill sherry cask. With blank faces all around the sock was removed for one last time to reveal a 26 year old St Magdalene from 1982. The distillery closed in 1983, another victim of the over production of the 70s, and is now a block of flats. This bottling sold for £90 and is now completely sold out.

We repaired, as usual, downstairs to find the place had been overrun by the London Perl Mongers on their monthly meetup. Being an occasional monger of Perl I knew a bunch of people and they soon started digging in to the left over whiskies that made it behind the bar – the Invergordon didn’t last long. I ended up running down to Berry’s the next evening to grab a bottle of the Glen Mhor (one of the last 5 or 6) and caught them just before they closed. I’m not sure if it counts as a lock-in but Rob walked me through a couple of their other whiskies including the fabled 4 year old Ledaig, the youngest they’ve bottled and also completely sold out, which was a young peaty slap to face (and good with it), and also their Guyanan demerera rum, which was dark, dangerous tasting and unlike any other rum I’ve tried before. It’s definitely worth the trip down to St James’s.

Berry’s Own Selection Aberlour 1994
14 year old speyside single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£35. No longer available online.

Berry’s Own Selection Bunnahabhain 1997
12 year old cask strength Islay single malt scotch whisky. 55.3%. ~£45. No longer available online.

Berry’s Own Selection Glen Mhor 1982
26 year old cask strength highland single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£70. No longer available online.

Berry’s Own Selection Invergordon 1971
39 year old cask strength single grain scotch whisky. 47%. ~£100. Available on bbr.com

Berry’s Own Selection St Magdalene 1982
26 year old lowland single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£90. Sold out.

There’s a chance that the whiskies that aren’t online are available at their St James’s Street shop, so it’s worth wandering in if you’re interested.