While Whisky Squad started out at The Gunmakers, with even the initial formation of the idea happening at the bar, over the last year or so we’ve been letting Jeff have his upstairs room back from time to time to make a foray out into the world. For Whisky Squad #41 we took that to the next obvious level and had the tasting outside – in St James’s Park.
It was to be Squad co-founder Andy’s last session of organising and he picked out a theme that he’d been wanting to look out for a while – Lowlanders. While the other regions of Scotland are all quite full of distilleries, the Lowlands have slowly but surely been contracting over the last few decades, until now there are only three operating single malt distilleries – Glenkinchie, Auchentoshan and Bladnoch. That said, there are still numerous bottlings available from the closed distilleries, so it wasn’t going to be as short a Squad session as it might at first seem.
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.
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.
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
In a way I’ve copied one of my booze related goals from recently elevated Malt ManiacKeith 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.
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.
Old Malt Cask 15 year old Bladnoch – A baby single cask bottle that I grabbed from The Vintage House a while back. The nose has white wine, a light savouriness and a hint of charcoal. The taste is sweet to start but quickly fades to lightly coloured wood, sawdust and a dry slightly fruity finish. Water brings out a light violet perfume, softens the sweetness and brings out a solid woody finish. Not as light as its lowland provenance suggests.
Sambrook’s Junction – Grabbed at The Draft House Westbridge after I a) not only said that I would turn up to the regular Thursday night beverages evening with my college drinking buddies but b) also suggested a pub. These are both very rare events. I rather like the Junction, having tried it at a couple of other places, but this was the best I’ve tried yet (which as it’s only a few minutes walk from the brewery and the hub for post brewery tour beers isn’t entirely unexpected). It’s a dark ale with a nice balance of malt and hops leading to a fruity, wine-like finish. Good.
York Guzzler – The second of the three beers on tap at The Draft House (I can’t remember the third, but it was something I’d already drunk lots of before). This was a golden ale with a big chunk of bitter hops, almost to the point of going soapy but not quite. It was nice and citrusy on the finish and I could have happily sat and drunk it all night.
Purity Pure Gold – Supped at The Bridge House (a pub that London.pm seem to like and that I need to return to) after Whisky Lounge (as drinking whisky all afternoon was obviously not enough). It seems that Adnams are putting Purity ales into some of their pubs, which is a Good Thing as this was a really nice light golden ale with a bitter citrus zing. I would normally have described it as ‘hoppy’, but was informed that the H-word (as well as malty, the M-word) has been banned as a flavour description by Melissa Cole of Taking the beard out of beer. I will try and obey from now on.
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.
Mr 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.
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 Laphroaig – 29.80: 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…
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)