I’m so very tired. It’s over a week since I got back from The Netherlands and still I am a broken wreck who looks on the concept of being a ‘shell of a man’ as being a step up. And what is to blame for this? Maltstock 2011 – the best whisky festival I’ve been to so far. A gathering of whisky fans from mainly across Europe organised by a group of whisky fans and with the intention of being pretty much the least commercial whisky festival in the world.
The weekend took place at an old Cub Scout lodge in Nijmegen, near the German border, and the plan was simple – turn up, bring whisky, put the whisky on one of the tables provided, share, talk toot and maybe sleep. A few companies had organised tastings, including my employers who had commented “do you want to do a tasting?” when I tried to blag some whiskies from our tasting cupboard to take along for the table, and I ended up showcasing some upcoming releases in the Elements of Islay range. There was also the promise of music and a BBQ, but mainly it was focused around sitting down with a bunch of new friends and drinking, talking and generally contemplating whisky.
Another month and another chance to show my dedication to the cause that is Whisky Squad. We were in The Gunmakers as usual but my head was partly elsewhere – it was IPA day. I’m a big fan of beer and IPA day sprang up quite quickly and quietly, thus clashing with Whisky Squad – nothing should happen on the first Thursday of the month apart from The Squad, this I decree. Anyway, I focused on the whisky and missed out on the rather epic looking IPA Day dinner at the Dean Swift, although I will be making a pilgrimage there to sample their wares soon enough.
Impressively it seems that a year has passed since the first Whisky Squad meetup. I wasn’t present back in that dim and distant time (having only met co-founder Andya few days earlier and already been booked up for three months of first Thursdays) but I have heard tales of whisky excellent and vile, and exploits terrifying and daring. The story-telling was mainly fuelled by beer but I trust the tellers implicitly, although I’m not sure how a T-Rex would get through The Gunmakers‘s front door or how a single pork scratching could drop one before it ate any customers.
This time our imbibing was led by other co-founder Jason and the theme was a secret, only revealed at the end (or at least when Jason got bored of not having told people) as being whiskies from distilleries with significant anniversaries this year. There was also cake, with recipe up on The Squad site – it was rather good, and last time I saw Jason he told me he had been dreaming about it. That might be going a bit far, but it’s one to have a go at, even if sticking in the last of your Bowmore Darkest isn’t recommended…
Anyways, the whiskies were all tasted blind, as usual, and the first one started of with a nose of bubblegum, apples and pear drops with a big savoury base. To taste it had citrus, cinnamon spice, sweet fruit, orange pips, sour wood and a hint of rubbery bitterness. Water brought out some fizzy Refresher flavours but left the big bitter finish. The paper came off to reveal that it was a Connoiseurs Choice Royal Brackla 1991, bottled at 17 years old. The distillery isn’t particularly well known, despite being the first to receive a royal warrant (hence the Royal in its name), and sits on the edge of Speyside, variously being described as a Highland or Speyside whisky depending on who you ask. The distillery was founded in 1812, its imminent 100th anniversary being the reason for being included in the line-up, by Captain William Fraser and was simply known as Brackla until receiving its warrant from William IV in 1835. It continued on, with the normal changings of hands and rebuildings, until 1985 when it was closed. It reopened in 1991 under the banner of United Distillers and Vintners (now Diageo) and was sold to Dewars in 1998, the current owners, who use the distillery to mainly produce whisky for their blends as well as Johnnie Walker and others. Its connection with blended whisky goes back a bit further, with Andrew Usher (the ‘father’ of whisky blending) being employed by the distillery in the 1860s and using its spirit in some of his initial blends. There aren’t many distillery bottlings (other than an old Flora and Fauna from the UDV days and a 10yr old from 2004 that I’ve seen mentioned) but thanks to its life as a whisky sold for blending it appears fairly often from independent bottlers, such as Gordon & MacPhail who bottle the Connoiseurs choice range.
Number two started the regular round of more evocative description with a ‘Smells like Timpsons’, and had a nose of pain stripper, PVA glue, a hint of leather, bananas, sweet fruit and gomme syrup. To taste it was backed with marzipan, with raisins, tart white grapes, butter and woody spice. Water brought out some citrus and transformed it into a Fry’s Orange Cream on the nose. Honey and spice appeared in the taste, along with oranges and lemons, and the finish brought in some burnt wood. The bottle was uncovered to reveal that it was a Gordon and MacPhail Linkwood 15 year old. The distillery is in Elgin, in the heart of Speyside and is owned by Diageo. It opened in 1824 and has been distilling continuously since, apart from closures during the second world war and from 1985-1990, two times when many distilleries went dark. When it reopened after the second world war not much changed, with distillery manager Roderick Mackenzie taking the ‘nothing must change, just in case it changes the characteristics of our spirit’ to a level beyond most managers, anecdotally insisting that spider webs must be left alone for fear of making changes to the flavours. Linkwood is another distillery that doesn’t get much love in the way of distillery bottlings, with the sole official release being a rather lacklustre Flora and Fauna entry, but it’s much loved by the independents and appears quite often – I’ve tried some especially good SMWS ones as well as a rather tasty one bottled for The Whisky Exchange’s 10th anniversary last year. Outside of those bottlings it can be found as a component in many blends, especially those managed by Diageo.
Number three came out of the gate with a call of ‘Buttered rum and biscuits’, with brioche, candied pineapple, wood, light tobacco and glue appearing on the nose. The gradual crystallisation of the more esoteric tasting notes led to ‘Like Colonel Gadaffi hiding in an old cupboard in Cuba’. To taste it started with soured fruit and moved through spicy cream to a lightly sour, rubbery finish. Water brought out more cream and softened the rubber, adding syrup sweetness and some dusty wood. Paper torn off, this turned out to be a Gordon and MacPhail Strathisla 25 year old. Another independent bottling, as Strathisla’s owners (Chivas Brothers/Pernod Ricard) only produce a single officially bottling (a quite tasty 12 year old that I tasted last year), this 25 year old is scarily cheap for its age, coming in at about £60, showing another bonus of independent bottlings – they often come in at much more affordable than an equivalent distillery bottling (if one was available). Founded in 1786 as Milltown and changing its name in the 1870s, Strathisla hasn’t closed since opening (making it the oldest continually operating distillery in Scotland, according to the internets and PR bumph) and these days is used as the heart of the various Chivas blends.
Number 4 didn’t inspire quite so much bombast, but got some quiet respect. It had a calm nose of sweet cream, light acidity and a bit of volatile alcohol, leading to a taste of lemony wood, sweet syrup and milk chocolate on the finish. Water brought out butter, foam strawberries, and some lingering unfinished wood. With the label removed we saw that the bottle claimed to be a Bowmore, but that was a sneaky substitution – it was in fact Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix, normally enclosed in their distinctively triangular bottle, but switched to keep us guessing a bit longer. The Snow Phoenix is a limited edition put together after the heavy snows in 2010 collapsed the roof of one of Glenfiddich’s warehouses. They fished the barrels out from the snow and rubble, and then vatted them together to produce a one-off commemorative whisky. It went on sale for about £50 a bottle and has quickly risen in price and sold out (with this bottle coming from a batch of bottles that I managed to grab recently in my local Waitrose for label price), with its rather pretty tin adding to the appeal. However, I’ve heard rumours that another tranche has recently been released and that it may not be quite so limited as originally though, which makes me question my investment in a couple of bottles for future sale to a collector a few years down the line. We shall see…
Number 5 was rather scary – as dark as Coke and dangerous looking. Initially on smelling it someone came out with ‘Dirty, but in a good way’, but that quickly lost the ‘in a good way’ as we stuck our noses deeper into our glasses. There were prunes, rubber, bitter orange, cubes of jelly concentrate, motor oil and sour molasses. To taste there wasn’t very much – it tasted very much like a light new make spirit backed up with burnt coffee. Water got rid of some of the coffee and might have added some orange (although that could have been wishful thinking), but didn’t do anything to improve it. Label removed this was shown to be Cú Dubh, gaelic for Black Dog. This is a whisky from Mannochmore, founded in 1971 and celebrating its 40th birthday this year, in the vein of the previously released Loch Dhu (black loch). They take a relatively young whisky and send it to Denmark for ‘special treatment’ which turns it very dark. As it’s still called whisky it’s fairly obvious what this special treatment is – the addition of spirit caramel. While I generally agree that a small amount of caramel doesn’t affect the flavour of a whisky noticeably, as the folks at Master of Malt examined recently, the burnt flavour hiding at the back of the palate in this whisky suggests to me that if you load a vat with it then it’ll start appearing on the tongue. Loch Dhu is often called one of the worst whiskies released in recent memory (with at least one review giving a half bottle a higher score than a full one due to there being less to hate) but it’s picked up a reputation as being something strange and due to the rapidly decreasing stock has risen rapidly in price – if you can find a bottle you’ll often pay over £250 these days. The Cú Dubh is an effort to get back in on the Loch Dhu action and the Danish processing is probably due to its popularity in Scandinavia. However, the reviews I’ve read suggest that this one is considered to be even worse than its predecessor and has even caused some people to reassess quite how bad the Loch Dhu was. Despite all that, I didn’t particularly dislike it – I blame my dangerous love of new make spirit…
The final dram for the night was rather distinctive in both colour and shape of bottle and even without that hint most people in the room would have guessed the distillery anyway. On the nose it started off with baby sick (dissected by those present into astringent sour milkiness) which faded with exposure to air to give mud, a hint of peat, and generally sour and salt scents. To taste there was a lightly sweet peatiness, sweet fruit, liquorice, peppermint and a touch of charcoal. Water brought out more minerality and a mulchy vegetable air. While the distillery wasn’t in question the exact expression was, with these guys being famed for the silly number of bottlings they’ve produced since they reopened 10 years ago (hence their inclusion in the list) – it was the Bruichladdich 2001 Resurrection Dram. This spirit was from the first batches that they produced when the distillery came back online in 2001, with this release was bottled in 2008 and limited to 24000 bottles, several of which have been sitting in Jason’s flat until needed. With Bruichladdich reaching their 10 year landmark they seem to be looking to cut down on their bottlings (a new one every couple of months as far as I can tell) and focus on producing a lightly peated core range (based around the 10 year old) and using their other brands (Octomore and Port Charlotte) to focus on the big peat that most people look for in Islay whiskies. It’s nice to see them calm down slightly, although whether they can stop master distiller Jim McEwan having crazy ideas is another matter.
So, Happy Birthday Whisky Squad. All going to plan I’ll be along as often as I can on the way to the next one(s). Speaking of which, the next one is this Tuesday…
A couple of weekends back I found myself on the 6am train out of London Euston bound for Glasgow and this year’s Whisky Live Live Glasgow. It was rather a last minute thing, as I’d answered a request for help on Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson’s blog the week beforehand offering my services as a tweeter or liveblogger during the event. Whyte & Mackay’s social media supremo, Craig McGill, invited me along, blagged me a freebie ticket and jammed a Flip camera into my hand for part of the day – it was rather good fun. While I was there under the auspices of a free W&M ticket the brief was very much wider – wander round, talk to as many people as possible and just get a sense of the whole day for everyone. However, as a large part of the day focused around the W&M whisky media front man, Mr Paterson of the post title, I did spend more time with my sponsors than I planned.
The day started off in slightly random fashion with me being pushed towards a stage by Craig and Richard to take part in a whisky blending session, but more of that in my next post. The day continued with stops at pretty much all of the stands in the small ballroom of the Glasgow Thistle and a break after lunch for the main Whyte & Mackay event – Richard Paterson’s 40th anniversary at the company.
Richard Paterson is rather well known in the whisky industry. I’m not certain how much time he can devote to the duties his job title suggests, as for a master blender he seems to spend most of his time away from his blending room. He acts as the ambassador for almost everything in the Whyte & Mackay stable, including their range of blends as well as Dalmore, Jura and Fettercairn single malts. They are now part of United Breweries which, Richard announced, would soon overtake Diageo as the largest drinks company in the world. Richard has whisky in his family, with him being the third generation working as a master blender, and the week after Whisky Live Glasgow marked his 40th anniversary of working with Whyte & Mackay. In celebratory fashion there was a cake and to accompany it there was a, less traditional, ‘tache mob, with free drams of Whyte & Mackay’s 30 year old blend and Fettercairn 40 single malt offered to anyone who turned up dressed as Richard, or at least moustachioed as he is. There was also a box of rubber noses, to honour his trademark nose, immortalised in the title of his book (Goodness Nose) and his twitter account (@the_nose). Suffice to say this was the most surreal part of the day.
Outside of the fuss focused on Richard there was a good range of stuff going on. Each of the stands had things going on with the most noticeable being Glenfiddich’s, with one of their coopers (as they are one of the last distilleries with on-site barrel makers) demonstrating the art of building and disassembling barrels all day, complete with loud banging noises as he beat the increasingly beaten up looking barrel with a hammer:
I started the day with a dram of the Tweedale Blend. One of the ‘lost’ whiskies, similar to the Bailie Nicol Jarvie from Whisky Squad #6, that stopped production due to the second world war it has been recreated by Alasdair Day, great-grandson of Richard Day, the blender who produced the original whisky. Working from his grandfather’s recipe book (containing the recipes from 1899 to 1916) he’s put together a new version of the old whisky which was released earlier this year. I’d heard about it on WhiskyCast (with an update after Whisky Live in episode 278), was intrigued (especially with it appearing at the time when I was starting to want to reexamine blends) and have since been looking for a chance to try it. Annoyingly I don’t have any notes but I remembered that it was rather tasty, with a nice bit of woodiness and some good sherry-ness to it. It’s still on the list to be tried again and I would have bought a bottle of it, purchased from Alasdair himself at a knockdown “I don’t want to have to carry this back to the office” price if I hadn’t spent all my cash on new spirit…
The new spirit came from the Glenglassaugh stand, where they were showing off their newly released range of ‘spirit drinks’. Mothballed in 1986, the distillery restarted production in 2008 and has been keeping themselves afloat until their new whisky comes of age by selling off both old stock and new make spirit. They started off with ‘The Spirit That Dare Not Speak Its Name’, new make whisky (the ‘whisky’ before it goes in a barrel) diluted to 50% (from the normal mid 60s% ABV), and progressed to ‘The Spirit That Blushes To Speak Its Name’, young spirit that had been matured for 6 months in red wine casks. These were quite popular, leading to them creating a range of drinks that were release recently. I grabbed a bottle of the Blushes, the new name for the wine cask matured spirit, while visiting Edinburgh recently but hadn’t had a chance to try it yet, so decided to have taste of some of the rest of the range at their stand. I first tried their Fledgling XB, spirit matured for 1 year in american oak casks. It had taken on a light yellow colour, and combined the caraway seed hints of new make spirit with vanilla essence on the nose. To taste it had a little edge of wood but was mainly a worryingly drinkable new make spirit. I moved on to the Clearac, the new name for the ‘Spirit That Not Dare Speak Its Name’. On the nose it had a touch of citrus as well as the usual new make aquavit punch and slight oiliness. It tasted similar to how it smelled, but yet again was worryingly drinkable. I stopped at this point and grabbed a bottle of Clearac and Peated, the version of their spirit made with peated barley, to go with the Blushes I had at home, to be doled out when I have people round to taste whisky in the future. I’ve been looking for commercially available new make spirit for a while, of which there are a few brands although generally either not very good or very hard to get hold of, and while these aren’t at still strength they are both educational, if you want to see how whisky matures in wood, and quite tasty.
The next whisky I have notes on was a surprise on the Bruichladdich stand. I was walking past and heard someone mention Octomore 3.0 and doubled back quickly to make sure I hadn’t misheard. Bottled the week before this was one of the first outings for the distillery’s super-peaty whisky, with this one allegedly coming in at 155ppm of phenol, rather more than the 50-60ppm that you find in the regular ‘really peaty’ whiskies on Islay. After trying the Octomore 2.2 Orpheus the other week I was interested to see if this one lived up to my opinion of that previous release – in short, not really. On the nose it had strong peat with mulchy undertones, an underlying meatiness, some wood and a hint of ammonia. To taste it had the expected burst of sweet peat and smoke but it was backed up by a sweet synthetic rhubarb taste, almost like rhubarb half of a rhubarb and custard sweet. It was interesting and definitely one to try if you’re a peat lover, but it didn’t beat the Orpheus in my book.
The last whisky I have notes on was courtesy of the folk at Whyte & Mackay. I first helped out at group tasting by the stand, running out of hands and thus not writing anything down about the Jura Superstition. However I did grab a video of Willie Tait talking about it and passing around some Haribo sweets to go with the whisky:
The one I got to taste was Fettercairn 40 year old. Fettercairn sits on the edge of the Grampian mountains and isn’t particularly well known for its distillery bottlings, as most of its production going into Whyte & Mackay’s blends, but the brand seems to be being resurrected recently as an avenue to continue their release of some old and rare single malts. Only 463 bottles of the 40 year old have been released (and as the drams we got where poured from a variety of randomly branded bottles pulled out of bags behind the stand I assume this is some of the whisky that didn’t get officially bottled) and it costs over £700 – it is the most expensive whisky I have ever tried. This was handed out to everyone who was dressed as Richard Paterson, or at least either had a moustache (real or fake) or expressed an interest in facial hair while standing near the Whyte & Mackay stand. On the nose it had heavy vanilla and almonds, with light honey, heather, salt and candle wax. To taste it had a sweetness down the sides of the tongue with a sour fruit centre, with a slab of orange peel, that turned quickly into spicy wood. A drop of water brought a some sawdust, fragrant wood and a hint of dryness. An interesting dram with a fantastic nose that I didn’t particularly like the taste of. Not to the tune of £700, anyway.
I wandered out of the show with my two social media companions, Scott of In With Bacchus and Blair from the Aberdeen University Whisky Society, and settled down for a swift half and some reflection before we went our separate ways (me to my hotel, Blair to find more pubs and Scott to run back to Edinburgh and move into his university rooms to start a brewing and distilling course). The show itself was quite small and distinctly missing the big companies other than United Breweries (no Diageo, no Edrington group, no LVMH). Glenfiddich was there, along with the cooper and the second biggest stand in the room after W&M, but other than that it was the smaller names in whisky, along with some independent bottlers and a couple of food producers (with some excellent cheese, meat, fish and chocolate to nibble on). I got to try some interesting things, although as usual was rubbish at making notes, and the people on almost all of the stands were happy to talk about their whiskies and also knew what they were talking about, something you sometimes don’t get in larger shows, with distillery employees and whisky experts sent over rather than brand managers and professional stand staff. This is quite different to Whisky Live Taipei, which Blair helped out at this summer – a huge conference centre, all the big names, tens of thousands of visitors and a convention the likes of which you only find in the far east these days. The Glasgow show wasn’t something I’d normally travel a large proportion of the length of the UK to visit, but my trip does now mean that I have used the three oldest underground railway systems in the world and two of the three in the UK (Newcastle – you are next on my list).
Many thanks to Craig McGill and Richard Paterson for getting me a ticket and giving me a reason to get on a train to Glasgow. Also my fellow bloggers Scott and Blair for being lovely. Our coverage from the day, along with a load of other tweets, can be found on the Master Blender blog. There’s also a load more video up on their YouTube channel. I also bumped into Victor Brierley, often referred to as The Bagging Scotland Bloke, who has started doing whisky tours around Glasgow – you should all go.
Bruichladdich are one of the most prolific producers of single malt whisky in Scotland at the moment. Based on Islay they opened in 1881, closed (as many did) in the mid-90s and then re-opened in 2001 under the eye of Mark Reynier, who led a group of private investors in buying and restarting the distillery. I first tried one of their whiskies shortly after the distilery reopened, but can remember very little other than it was the first whisky I tried that reminded me of the sea.
More recently they’ve become known for both their experimentation and for releasing of lots of their experiments – just looking at Master of Malt they have 68 distillery bottlings listed, which is more than one new bottling every two months since the distillery reopened. Everything from cask finishes and slight variations on the core range to their X4 quadruple distilled spirit (rather than the two that single malt scotch usually gets) and Octomore, supposedly the most peated whisky ever made at 140ppm.
They’ve done a couple of releases of the Octomore, each with a different twist on the idea, and I recently grabbed a sample of their most recent release from Master of Malt’s Drinks by the Dram – Octomore 2.2 Orpheus. The tweak on this one is simple – they finish the bourbon matured spirit in red wine casks. However, just to make sure that this is a little bit more exclusive they used Petrus casks. It’s a bit older than the earlier editions, at 5 years, and has been bottled at its full 61% cask strength as part of a limited edition of 15000 bottles, which are now starting to rise in price as collectors snap them up. The earlier releases of Octomore inspired a lot of underwhelming reviews, going up against the first edition of Ardbeg Supernova as they did, but this one seems to have done a bit better, even if it has produced the expected love-it/hate-it reviews.
The first thing that you notice about the whisky is its colour – it’s pink. It may have only been finished in the wine casks but has picked up a lot of the colour from the wood. On the nose it has sweet peat, as expected, as well as vanilla, grain mulch and an underlying savouriness that I’ve noticed in most wine cask matured whisky (the flavour that I have now stopped calling ‘bbq chicken’ because it was starting to get me funny looks). It was cloying, with the peat and sweetness sticking at the back of the throat as I sniffed. To taste it started with mud and sweetness before moving through bitter lemons and spicy wood. It had a menthol quality that dried the tongue and this lingered into the finish with more peat and salty caramel. At 61% and with this much peat it could take a lot of water, and it’s the peat which gets hit most by the addition. The mud and peatiness mellowed, leaving the sweetness, spicy citrus and menthol, and the finish got a slab of butteriness, rounding out the caramel flavour.
I’ve not tried any of the other releases of the Octomore but even if this is the best of the bunch I’d like to go back and have a go – this is really rather nice. A touch of water brings out the best in it, mellowing the fire of the young whisky and some of its peatiness and bringing out its underlying richness. The wine casks add a bit of meatiness to the body, but otherwise leave the spirit to shine (which from my point of view is how it should be) and it’s definitely gone on my ‘nice to have in the cupboard’ list.
Bruichladdich Octomore 2.2 Orpheus
5 year old Petrus cask finished Islay single malt Scothc whisky. 61%. ~ £80 at Master of Malt
It’s incredible how important one’s sense of smell is when tasting things. I have, of course, heard from numerous people (including my anosmic mate John) about how taste is predominantly smell, with the tongue painting in wide strokes while the nose adds the detail, so it was rather annoying to discover the actual extent to which my own sense of taste is reliant on my nose on the same day as I finally made it along to a Whisky Squad tasting.
The Whisky Squad is a monthly meetup set up by Andy of Good Drinks Etc and Jason B. Standing to be more informal than most of the tastings out in the wild, with a focus on learning, talking about whisky in a small group and generally having a good time. With assistance from Darren, The Whisky Guy, as whisky expert (a title he veraciously denies, despite working for Master of Malt and having hours of whisky related anecdotes to roll out at the drop of a segue) and moustache wearer extraordinaire, they take over the upstairs room at The Gunmakers (thanks to Jeff the easily bribed with whisky landlord) on the first Thursday of each month to taste through a bunch of whiskies focused around a theme. This month’s was Islay, Andy having just returned from a weekend up there and thus laden with bottles.
Islay is one of the most concentrated areas of whisky production in the world, with 8 distilleries dotted around the 240 square miles of the island floating just off of the Kintyre peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. Famed for their peaty whiskies it’s a bit of a whisky connoiseurs paradise, with each of the distilleries a short drive from each other and each offering something quite different.
I wandered along certain that my worst day of hayfever in about ten years wouldn’t hinder the tasting of pungent island malts. However, within seconds of the first dram being placed in front of me my worst fears were realised – I could smell nothing at all. Even the strongest snort did nothing but hurt the back of my nose as the physical reaction to the alcohol remained, but no twitch of sensory cells to inform me of what I was sniffing. Luckily, Andy acted as my seeing nose dog, pinging me tasting notes, and I grabbed a couple of samples to take home and try later on.
First up was a sample from Master of Malt to keep us going while Andy and Darren kicked off the evening with some talk of Islay and the makings of whisky. The Master of Malt 12 Year Old Islay is a blend of malts from the island and is peated to about 15ppm. On the nose it has bitter-sweet peat, a touch of sweet wood oil and digestive biscuits. To taste the peat is more subdued and joined with a hint of woodsmoke and wet cardboard. There’s a bump of malty sweetness in the middle, with a touch of orangey citrus, before a it trails off into a subdued, short caramel orange finish. Water brings out some vanilla sweetness to fight against the wood smoke, adding a prickly damp bonfire edge to the taste. It’s smoky and peaty, with a hint of citrus and some sweetness – a classic example of what is thought of as a ‘typical islay malt’, even if such a statement doesn’t really mean anything, as the whiskies to follow will demonstrate.
As a special treat before we started the tasting proper was a very small amount of Master of Malt Bowmore 26 Year old, accompanied by a parma violet. Unfortunately I didn’t get anything off the glass other than a burnt nose, but it was quite obvious to everyone else why a parma violet had accompanied it – it has a distinct sweet violet smell sitting in amongst the other flavours of a sweet shop.
The whiskies that are put on for the tasting, excluding random samples and donations, are tasted blind, with paper wrapped around the bottles to obscure labels and details, in an attempt to remove prejudices and prejudging of the flavours. Unfortunately for me I recognise the bottle shapes of most Islay distilleries, but having no sense of smell this was my main way of trying to work out what everyone was drinking before the big reveal.
Next up was a bottle that I didn’t recognise, the Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old. The Bunnahabhain (bunna-har-ven) distilleryis unique amongst those of the island in that its standard expression is pretty much unpeated , coming in at 1-2ppm. They do, however, produce a good quantity of peated spirit but other than for special bottlings this generally goes to other companies for blends, including Black Bottle which it makes up a significant component of. Andy had picked this up at the distillery, along with an armful of leaflets, maps, tasting note cards and other assorted propaganda, and had really liked it due to it being so different to the peat heavy assortment that he tried up until then. From everyone else’s tasting notes it had cheap chocolate brownies, honey and sherry trifle on the nose and was dry and woody to taste, with a salty buttery finish.
To follow this we moved on to the Bruichladdich Peat, a whisky that was difficult to tell from the bottle shape alone due to the distillery’s habit of doing so many releases – it was suggested around the room that it’s almost as if whenever Jim McEwan, the production manager, has a crazy idea they drop what they’re doing and make a batch of it. The Peat is a back to basics version of Bruichladdich – peated to ~35ppm, matured in bourbon casks for an unspecified amount of time and bottled without any of the finishes that have become their trademark in recent times. The notes I have for this are that it combines peat and wood smoke on the nose, with a nice balance of the two combined with some sweetness and dry vanilla wood to taste. One that I want to revisit, as I’ve been a fan of all the ‘Laddies I’ve tried so far.
This one brought up a point for discussion – the difference between peat and smoke. As peat is introduced into the malt by way of smoke people often assume that the two flavours are the same, but there is a distinct difference. In addition to peatiness there is also smokiness in the flavours introduced by the barrel used for maturation and this is a different kind of smoke to that introduced by the peat. Generally the peat will bring in more medicinal flavours, such as the TCP-like tang that Laphroaig is known for, or a sweet smoke, such as with Bowmore, whereas the wood will bring in more campfire tastes and smells. As ever, the various different bits of the whisky making process, from water to finishing, all have their effect on the finished product, all working together to produce interesting flavours.
After this I threw my contribution to the evening into the ring – the remains of my young Kilchoman sample, which Darren identified as having been in wood for 6 months. Kilchoman have recently produced their first 3 year old bottlings to quite a lot of acclaim (I have a bottle of an upcoming Royal Mile Whisky single cask bottling reserved, as recommended by Jason, which I’m very much looking forward to) and their new spirit is a great indicator of how Islay whiskies mature in the barrel. I usually describe this as tasting like ‘cattle feed and death’, but with a bit more delicacy it has lots of malty grain with sweet peat and a hint of woodiness that isn’t particularly developed in this young sample.
After that interlude we got back on to chosen whiskies with a Caol Ila 10 year old ‘Unpeated’ expression. Strangely for an evening of Islay malts half of the whiskies we tried weren’t heavily peated, with this one having little or no peat in at all, rather than the usual ~15ppm that the distillery uses. I grabbed a dram of this to take home, Caol Ila being a whisky that I’ve been intrigued by in the past (with a cask strength Tokaji finish being one of the most orangey whiskies I’ve ever tasted). On the nose there’s candy floss, a wisp of smoke and something almost toffee appley. To taste it has dry prickly wood, orange juice concentrate (a flavour that I’ve found to be especially strong in the Caol Ila’s I’ve tried) and sweet wood smoke. It’s cask strength, at 65.8%, so can happily take some water which opens the nose to add more oil and sweaty socks and a slab of sweetness to the taste, along with some coal dust, bitter oak, sweet butter and orchard fruitiness. A fearsome dram neat, but one that mellows nicely with water.
The citrus nature of many of the Islay whiskies seems a bit strange, but Darren explained it as coming from the saltiness inherent on being matured on the island. The salt interacts with the wood of the barrels creating citrus-like flavouring compounds which are picked up by the wood, thus introducing not only briney notes into the whisky but also the lemon and orange flavours that are often present.
Next was the last of the night, which by a process of elimination was the distillery only edition that Andy had promised us – Lagavulin Distillery Only 2010. This is a cask strength bottling that you can, as the name suggests, only get from the distillery. 6000 bottles were produced and it was released in time for this year’s Feis Ile. Along with the limited nature of the bottling it’s also quite special as it was finished in port casks. On the nose it’s pure Lagavulin, with seaweed, brine, a background of sweet peat and a hint of meatiness. To taste it’s spicy, with the port wood very obvious at the back of the mouth. It has seafood risotto, seawater, caramel covered twigs and a mixed spice tail. A drop of water takes the edge off of the prickle, bringing out big sugary sweetness, revealing the background woody savouriness and adding a chunk of smoky sweetness, like burned sugar. This is a really rather special dram and one that it’s worth going to the distillery to grab.
An interesting array of whiskies, with only 2 of the 4 actually being particularly peaty, showing just how big a range Islay actually produces. The guys know how to run an evening and having finished the tasting the conversation continued in the Gunmaker’s bar until the pub closed. I’m signed up for the next one (and am even missing a day of the GBBF to make sure I can go) which should be an evening of summer whiskies with Diageo’s Colin Dunn, who led the Talisker tasting I went to last year, which promises to be an event – putting Colin in a small room strikes me as a recipe for enthusiasm overload, in a good way.
Master of Malt 12 Year Old Islay
Islay Blended Malt Whisky, 40%. £34.95 from Master of Malt
Master of Malt 26 Year Old Bowmore
Single cask Islay malt whisky, 53.4%. £99.95 from Master of Malt
Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old
Islay Single Malt Whisky, 43%. £48.95 from Master of Malt
No age statement Islay Single Malt Whisky, 46%. £31.95 from Master of Malt
Caol Ila 10 Year Old ‘Unpeated’ 2009
Islay single cask single malt whisky, 65.8%. £51.95 from Master of Malt.
Lagavulin 2010 ‘Distillery Only’
Port wood finished Islay single malt whisky, 52.5%. Only available from the distillery – £70 for one or two for £130.
If you want to come along to a Whisky Squad tasting then keep an eye on their website and sign up when they announce the next event. The group is small (~15) and it’s first come first served, so you need to be quick. They do run a waiting list so it’s worth letting them know even if they have run out of spots.
Well overdue with this, so here is a not so quick list of quickish descriptions:
The MacPhail Collection 1969 Glenrothes. I grabbed a tiny taste of this at Hawksmoor while I was visiting to try out the ice ball machine. 39 years old and a recent acquisition, it’s much loved by the bar staff and they wondered if I’d agree. I did. Vanilla and spicy wood on the nose with struck matches, salty caramel and pepper in the mouth. Water softened the wood into vanilla and brought a background of charcoal. Tasty.
Blanton’s Single Barrel – Barrel 153. A 65% cask strength bourbon. I was chatting with the Hawksmoor bar staff about whiskey, having had a shot of George T Stagg (one of my most favourite whiskies, which there will be a post about sometime soon), and they ‘forced’ a taster of this on me. A bourbon that I was not that much of a fan of when I got a bottle for my birthday a few years back, this reminded me of the good elements of that bottle – prickly and perfumed on the nose, it tasted spicy and woody with a weird astringency not unlike PVA glue. A drop of water added a stack of vanilla. A rather complex and interesting whiskey, more savoury than most bourbons I’ve tried.
Port Charlotte PC7. One on the ‘find and try’ list for a while, this is from Bruichladdich‘s ‘other’ distillery. On the nose it was salty with mulching seaweed, which developed in the mouth to a citrusy charcoal burst and a buttery mouth feel. A drop of water piled on more smoke and a strange salty sweatiness. Impressive.
Horseradish gin. Not one on the menu on its own, but this is the base for Hawksmoor’s new brunch menu‘s drinky centre piece – a bloody mary. They make theirs (the ‘original’ way) with gin, and infuse a large jar of Beefeater with thumb sized chunks of horseradish to make an interesting starting point for the drink. The horseradish smooths out the bumps in the normally fairly rough Beefeater and adds a beautiful spicy warmth to the flavour. I’m off to buy some bottles, gin and a chunk of horseradish later today so I can make my own – I assume it’ll be great in a bloody mary, but it also tastes nice on its own.
1800 Anejo Tequila. Cactus based booze is definitely on my list this year (especially after speaking to Johan Svensson about agarve tequila recently) and I grabbed a shot of the second cheapest anejo that The Texas Embassy sell while abusing their free chips and salsa policy the other week. It had the classic salt and pepper tequila smell but was a chunk more complex to taste. A woody centre with fruitiness turning bitter on the finish. It burnt on the way down and after it had gone left drying tannins that turned to vanilla. Interesting and a place for me to start from.
Marble Chocolate Marble. A present left for me by Alan after my whisky tasting the other week, this is the produce of the Marble Arch brewpub in Manchester. I was meant to be up there this weekend and had already planned a 20 minute dash into the pub to buy some more of their beer, but unfortunately had to cancel my trip. The Chocolate Marble is excellently chocolatey, despite not containing any chocolate as far as I can tell. Stout-ish, as it says on the bottle, bitter-sweet and mouth filling, it may well be my favourite bottled beer I’ve had in a while.
Hop Back Taiphoon. The first of my birthday present beers (thanks Dad!) to disappear down my throat. It’s a weird one this, with a lemongrassy tinge that makes it taste more like a shandy than a regular beer, but with a dry malty aftertaste rather than the sweetness you’d expect. I’m still not sure about it and suspect I need to try another…