In a change form my normal obsessive note-taking, this year’s trip to Islay for Feis Ile, the “Festival of Malt and Music”, was surprisingly note free. I’m still trying to work out whether this was a deliberate choice, to step back and enjoy the experience in the moment without feeling a need to record it for posterity, or whether I just drank too much and lost the ability to write coherently. In the meantime I need to get the few notes I did scribble out of my notebook and brain and into the ether, so as to cement them in history rather than disappear slowly from my leaky head.
So, a pair of festival bottllings – Caol Ila Feis Ile 2014 and also last year’s, the 2013.
Hot on the heels of this month’s first birthday Whisky Squad the chaps managed to squeeze in another a mere two weeks later. Offered the back room at The Gunmakers for a larger than usual whisky and dinner affair they took up the challenge and matched the occasion with Diageo’s Colin Dunn, returning for his second leading of an evening. The theme this time was ‘Side by Side’ – we would be blind tasting six whiskies in pairs, with each pair having a connection, giving us three mini vertical tastings through the evening.
To start us off Colin pulled out an extra aperitif from his bag. Keeping the whisky secret, as usual, he matched this with a Maltesers easter bunny and instructed us to munch, sniff and sip our way through the first glass. On the nose there wasn’t a lot, with high alcohols and a hint of sweet wood. The lightness continued into the taste, but with a bit more to it than the nose – a hint of rubber, sweet orange and marmelade, a little bit of ripe vine fruit, and a sour, bitter wood finish. A drop of water brought out apples and pears, icing sugar and orange cream. Noone had much of an idea of what it might be and it was revealed to be Cameron Brig. Made at Cameron Bridge grain distillery near Leven in Fife, this is one of the only commercially available bottlings of single grain whisky on the market, although it’s not particularly easy to find. I’m a fan of older grain whiskies, but haven’t tried any younger ones before this – I can detect the flavours I like from grain whiskies in there, but they are masked by the youngness of the spirit (it’s not got an age statement, but I suspect it’s not particularly old or matured in active casks). Give this a couple more years in a barrel and I suspect it’d be right up my street.
Dinner was then run in and scoffed, leading us on to our first pair of whiskies. #1 was quite a dark bronzed gold colour and had a dry nose with an underlying meatiness, hints of sherbet lemons, dry oxidised sherry (Spanish style Amontillado?), yeast and a lick of smoke. To taste there was bread, dry fruit cake, caramel, dark chocolate, a touch of smokey spice and a sweet woody finish. Water homogenised the flavours into something sweet and bready – a red grape jam sandwich?
Number 2 was light gold and a bit more aggressive on the nose, with TCP, a bit of peat smoke, sherbet lemons, sweet fruit and a bit of sticky toffee – Colin identified that last flavour as being like Blue Bird hard toffee that he used to eat when growing up. To taste it started with sweet syrup and moved through sour fruit to a sour, lingering wood ash finish and a bit of a boozey burn. Water calmed down the booze, sweetened up the middle a bit and added a bit of muddy mulch to the finish.
The concealing labels came off to reveal that #1 was Johnnie Walker Black Label and #2 Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition. The connection was that the light smokiness in the first comes, in part, from a slug of Caol Ila in the blend, along with some Talisker and whatever else Diageo have in the smokey section of their extensive warehouses. Black Label is a fairly decent blend and does what it sets out to – have a bit of everything at the same time as being worryingly easy to drink. The Caol Ila was one that I’d not tried before, initially thinking it to be the cask strength version I tried at the Whisky Lounge Independent’s Day tasting. However, it was a bit sweeter than I remembered and that fits with the production method – the spirit is finished for 3 months in moscatel casks, adding a bit of wine fruit to the mix. Surprisingly, based on it’s current status as an increasingly respected Islay whisky (including winning a bunch of medals over the last few years at the San Francisco World Spirits competition, including ‘Best Single Malt Scotch Whisky’ for the Distiller’s Edition this year), before 2002 there were only independent bottlings, with 99% of its production going into Diageo’s blends. They released a 12, 18 and 25 year old back then and the range has continued to change and increase since, with the distillery now undergoing expansion to keep up with ongoing single malt demand.
To start the next pair number 3 had a rather ‘industrial’ nose, with me picking out a light rubberiness and the rest of the table chipping in with motor oil and burning tires. Along with that were lemons, brine, marzipan and a general savoury umami. To taste there was salt, more rubber, white pepper and raisins, leading to a sweet fruit finish. Water calmed things down, with butter, bread and hot cross buns appearing.
Number 4 was announced as being 14 years old, which was enough to convince me that I knew the whiskies and what the connection was. In the end I got the right distillery, but didn’t get the expression right for this one. On the nose it was rich and fruity, with wax, bananas, pineapple and glacé cherries. To taste there was lots of woody spice, rich fruit and woody smoke, with salt, a peppery burn and a lemon sherbet finish. Water simplified things to a syrupy sweetness with a hint of pepper.
When the bottles were revealed it wasn’t a surprise that number 3 was Clynelish 12 year old but I was taken aback that #4 wasn’t the regular 14 year old, my favourite everyday whisky of the moment, but was instead the Clynelish Distiller’s Edition. I’ve written a bit about the distillery before, but since then it’s very much become one of my faves. I’ve got a half bottle of the 12 year old in the cupboard, will have another bottle of the 14 next time I go on a whisky buying run, and now have the distiller’s edition firmly stuck in my brain. Similar to the Caol Ila, it is a sweeter and richer version of the regular bottling, having been finished in oloroso sherry casks.
The final pair started off with number 5 and a plate of fruit cake to accompany the drams. On the nose it was quite light, with sweet cream and butter, and a bit of red fruit. To taste it was woody, with the fruit and cream from the nose leading to a sour, but buttery, wood finish. Water didn’t help it much, knocking out a lot of the flavour and leaving it just syrupy and sweet.
Number 6 had a bit more, with a nose of sweet grass, vanilla, light cream, unripe grapes, plums, stewed fruit and a hint of cheese rind. To taste it was quite green in the middle, with nettles and leaves, starting with a salty butter and ending with a gravelly minerality and quite a lot of alcoholic fire. Water killed the burn leaving the butter and gravel, and introducing some sweet and salty shortbread.
Again the connection was easy to see on the reveal, with the bottles being The Singleton of Dufftown 15 year old and Dufftown 1997 Managers’ Choice. I had a bottle of The Singleton of Dufftown shortly after it came out and wasn’t that impressed, but it seems that the mix of my changing tastes and their gradual changes to the bottling over the years have matched it more closely with my likes (especially as this is a different bottling to the regular 12 year old – thanks to Jason for pointing that out in the comments). The Singleton range has a different distillery for each territory it’s released in, with Europe having Dufftown, the US Glendullan and Asia Glen Ord. The Manager’s choice is rather more interesting – a single cask selected by the manager of the distillery as a ‘distillation’ of what their spirit is about and bottled as part of a rather exclusive range of pricy bottlings. The Dufftown bottle of the range is from a rejuvenated cask, where they plane down the staves of a tired cask and retoast them to give the barrel a bit more life, and with this whisky coming in at 11 years and 11 months old and picking up a good chunk of flavour from the wood it seems to work.
So, another Whisky Squad done and a successful second expansion into the big room. Next week’s one is back in our cosy upstairs cupboard and is all about Highlanders, courtesy of Berry Brother & Rudd’s Rob Whitehead. Keep an eye on the Whisky Squad twitter feed and website if you’re around on May 5th as last minute spots do have a habit of popping up…
Single grain Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£20
Johnnie Walker Black Label
Blended Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£25
Caol Ila 1996 Distiller’s Edition
Single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£50
Clynelish 12 year old “Friends of the Classic Malts”
Single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£30
Clynelish 1992 Distiller’s Edition
Single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£30
Singleton of Dufftown 15 Year Old
Single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£40
Dufftown 1997 Managers’ Choice
Single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 59.5%. ~£200
Many thanks to Alan for letting me use his piccies after I singularly failed to take any that worked…
Mr Ludlow gets around a bit. I’ve been sitting on this post (well, to be strictly truthful I hadn’t actually got round to writing it until early March) for a bit to let him finish his national tour of this tasting, taking in his regular haunts from London to Newcastle. The reason for keeping it under wraps was simple – like the last one I attended we tasted everything blind and with London being the first leg of the trip he didn’t want anyone to spoil it for future punters.
The blind tasting had a more specific purpose this time as we’d be tasting the whisky in pairs – one distillery bottling and one from an independent. Distillery bottlings usually stick to the regular distillery character while independents often go a bit further afield, but without even knowing which distillery had produced the spirit we were tasting, would we be able to tell? Six whiskies, three distilleries – go!
First up was a yellowy gold dram that we were told came in at 40-46%. On the nose there was a buttery sweetness, with caramel popcorn, vanilla sweet citrus, linssed oil and foam bananas. In the mouth it was quite oily, with a tannic wood rolling in after a burst of syrupy fruit – apples turning to liquorice root and sour wood. Water knocked out some of the sourness and brought out some of the creaminess of the caramel.
Number 2 was a little darker with a nose of smoky leather, hard toffee, meaty undertones, mulching fruit, salty caramels and lemon. To taste it was thick and spicy, sweet and prickly, with unpolished leather and a sweet & sour finish. Water brought out more fruit, cut the prickle, and brought out the lemon from the nose and some vanilla – lemon drizzle cake, maybe?
At the end of the night we had the whiskies revealed, but I’m going to stick them inline so as to not confuse myself. This first one was not at all what I thought – I went for Balblair (thinking that the first was their 2000 vintage) and I wasn’t particularly close. The distillery was The Glenrothes, with the first bottling being Gordon & Macphail’s 8 Year old and the second the 1998 Vintage from the distillery. I didn’t even get the OB/Independent order right… Glenrothes is owned by Berry Brothers & Rudd and they seem to be quite nice about selling casks of their spirit on to independents, appropriate as they are an independent bottler themselves. It was interesting to see the bottlings the opposite way round to usual – the distillery bottling was big and ballsy and the independent lighter and more refined.
Our next distillery was revealed to be in The Highlands and the first whisky was rather light with an announced ABV of 46-50%. On the nose there wear fresh pears, pear drops, ‘watermelon nerds’ (thankyou Mr Matchett) and Imperial Leather soap. To taste it was syrupy sweet to start with apples, a prickly middle and a big dry woody finish. Water open things up, levelling the out the sweetness to leave polished wood and quite a bit of boozy prickle. Mr Matchett pronounced that it was like ‘An apple on the floor in B&Q’s wood section’.
Whisky number 4 was 56-65% and bronze coloured. On the nose it had marzipan, menthol, thick toffee, stewed raisins, rum/brandy and an underlying roasted meatiness. To taste it was spicy, sweet and woody with a good fieriness – very woody to finish, leaving me with numbed lips. It tooks a good chunk of water, cutting back the fire and revealing cream, cinnamon and squashed raisins. My notes also mention that there was ‘Lots of vanilla pod on the belch’. What can I say – I had been drinking…
I didn’t even guess the distillery this time, but was certain that the second of the whiskies was the independent – yet again I was wrong. The spirit was made at Glengoyne, the first an independent from Berry Brothers, their Berry’s Own Selection 1999, and the second the distillery’s own 12 year old Cask Strength. The distillery is quite unique in its location, being in the Highland region but being close enough to the boundary with the Lowlands (The Highland Line) that its warehouses, over the road from the distillery building, are considered to be in the Lowlands. That has the smell of marketing to it, in my opinion, but from what I’ve heard it strikes quite close to the the distillery’s regular style – a more refined Highland spirit. However, the whiskies we tried didn’t really go that way, with both the independent and cask strength OB stepping away from that into more punchy territory.
The first whisky from our last distillery was a deep bronze colour and declared to be between 55% and 65%. On the nose it was intense, with big medicinal notes, sherry, coal tar, stoniness and hints of fruit under the punch of the rest of the flavour. To taste it was very sweet and spicy, with a bit of hammy smoke (although not as much as the the nose would suggested) and big rich fruit. Water killed it dead – less sweetness and a little bit of fruit but generally less impressive.
Dram #6 was rather light and had brine, light TCP, lemons and bit of mulch on the nose – wet forest in a glass. To taste it had woody smoke, vegetation, mulchy fruit and something I described as ‘smoked chocolate’ in my notes. Water revealed sweetness, with candied lemons appearing.
I did cheat a little on this one as I was on a table with Colin Dunn, Diageo whisky brand ambassador, who could barely contain his usual excitement and may have let slip that he’d supplied one of the whiskies – a Caol Ila. This left us to decide which was which, helped slightly by Colin’s typically exuberant arm waving and surreptitious “this one’s ours” comments slipping out ‘accidentally’. First up was Gordon and Macphail’s 1996 Cask Strength, put together from three refill sherry butts, and the second was the distillery’s own Natural Cask Strength bottling. Our only Islay of the evening and one of my favourites – while I preferred the first without water, with its light approach to Caol Ila’s traditional flavours, the second had the punchy peaty smoke that is slowly returning to my list of likes.
Eddie got everyone to score the whiskies as we went along and his collated results from all the tastings across the country are up on Facebook. The next Whisky Lounge tastings are of Pernod Ricard’s range (sure to include at least The Glenlivet and Aberlour, if not a drop of Strathisla) and dates are already up on Eddie’s site. I suspect I may be along…
The Macphail’s Collection 8 years old from Glenrothes
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£20.
The Glenrothes 1998
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40.
Berry’s Own Selection Glengoyne 1999
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35.
Glengoyne 12 years old Cask Strength
Highland cask strength single malt Scotch whisky, 57.2%. ~£40.
Gordon & Macphail Caol Ila 1996 Cask Strength
Islay cask strength single malt Scotch whisky, 59%. ~£40.
Caol Ila Natural Cask Strength
Islay cask strength single malt Scotch whisky, 61.6. ~£40.
Despite having a backlog of posts to publish for the first time since starting the blog (a couple embargoed for various reasons [Hurry up and post the results of the last Whisky Lounge tasting run, Eddie…]) I thought I’d better catch up on a few bits and pieces I’ve not written up yet, so another (hopefully now more regular) quick tastings post:
Ballards Odd Couple (8.9%, Harvest Ale) – One of my Christmas present beers, picked up by my Dad from The Beer Essentials in Horsham as part of a bag of interesting looking bottles. I’ve keeping this one as I’ve rather liked previous things I’ve got from Ballards and a sunny evening on the day the clocks go forward felt like a good time to open it. It poured a deep red with no head and minimal fizz, looking more like a young tawny port than a beer, deep reddy brown and starting to lose its translucency. On the nose it was big and savoury, and my notes say simply ‘Cherries and Bovril’. To taste it started with a big sour fruit and meandered through green hops, more meaty Bovril (definitely Bovril rather than Marmite) and finished with a bit of fresh juicy cherry with a hint of sour unripeness.
Marks & Spencer Wiltshire Rum Beer (5%, Best Bitter with added Caribbean Rum) – I got this one as a swap for a bottle of Monsieur Rock and I think that my swapping buddy got the better deal. This is a blend of Wadworth 6X and rum, upping the normal 4.3% strength of the beer to 5% and adding a bit of rum related flavour – it’s regular bottled 6x, a dry medium bodied best bitter, with a hint of extra sweetness in the middle and a bit of raisin and fruit cake on the finish. Not my favourite and not as sweet as I was hoping – half of this went into the beef stew I’ve cooking and I added a couple of extra shakes of Lea & Perrins after tasting the beer. To add a bit of spice to the rest of the glass of beer I poured in a shot of Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, which further filled out the dry gap in the middle of the taste, adding a chunk of raisin, accentuated the maltiness of the beer and lengthened the finish to be a lingering mix of malt and sweet rum. There’s definitely a place for ‘grogging’ rum with beer, but you need a bit more than Wadworth added to make it special, in my opinion. However, I’ve heard that the laws about mixing spirits and beer are on the strict side, so I suspect that might have had something to do with Wadworth’s reticence as well.
Master of Malt Highland Park 13 year old Single Cask (57%, single cask Highland single malt Scotch whisky) – One of a pair of Drinks by the Dram that I got as an unexpected present from the folk at MoM at Christmas, this has been sitting on my tasting shelf amongst the last batch of drams that I bought from them and got forgotten until I did a bit of tidying this afternoon. This one is a bit on the light side for a 13 year old, looking a bit like a medium white wine, but has a much more oomph in the nose – peat, fruit cake, lightly roasted meat, butter and a bit of straw. To taste it’s sweet and sour, starting with a burst of sweet grapes and hard candy but quickly turning to sour grapes, tannins and caramel, with a finish of mulchy floral peat and sweet wood. At 57% it’s a bit prickly and a couple of drops of water killed the burn and revealed candied lemons and floor polish in amongst the initial sweetness, and lengthened the finish.
Master of Malt Caol Ila 30 year old Single Cask (57.4%, single cask Islay single malt Scotch whisky) – the second of the Christmas drams and one that’s kept its strength over the years of maturation (I suspect they filled the cask a bit stronger than usual), also picking up a bit more colour than the Highland Park. On the nose it had lightly muddy peat smoke underneath creamy vanilla, bananas and nail polish. To taste it was big and fruity to start, with green apples and light raisin sweetness before rolling through a very strange middle of menthol, sour liquorice root, liquorice pastilles and “tannic hot tarmac” (the sensation and flavour you get as you walk past some workmen laying a new road and breathe in), and finishing with stony peat coupled with a touch of barely ripe grape. A couple of drops of water helped this one come together a bit, with the sweetness mixing with the menthol and liquorice to give a big old-school sweet shop middle, but keeping the long peaty mineral finish. I’m really not sure about this one (although I suspect I like it a lot), but it’s rather interesting.
This post has been brought to you by occasional breaks to go and chop, fry and stir bits of a beef stew, and Nerf Herder’s self-titled and ‘How to Meet Girls’ albums. I never saw them headline a gig, but they are amongst the finest support band I’ve ever seen. Here’s their tribute to Van Halen. Many thanks to the lovely folk at Master of Malt for pinging me the pair of drams – much appreciated.
September flew by a bit for me and shortly after I finished writing up last month’s Whisky Squad another one appeared on the horizon. In honour of the fluffy top lips of a chunk of The Squad this session’s theme was Movember. Whisky Gandalf Darren, the man behind Whisky4Movember and random chap for Master of Malt, had done some looking around and brought us four moustache related whiskies to try.
First up was one half of Master of Malt’s special edition pair of Movember bottlings for 2010. Selected by Darren, bottled by Masgter of Malt and featuring five different labels per expression, each honouring one of the well known moustached chaps of the whisky industry – Richard Paterson, Dave Broom, Charlie MacLean, Serge Valentin and Marcin Miller. This first bottle was the Mo’land, a single cask lowland whisky, and our featured moustache was that of Richard Paterson who I’ve bumped into a few times over the summer. Richard is an especially appropriate candidate for honouring on the bottle as not only has he survived cancer but also removed his rather famous moustache for Movember. The whisky had a light nose with bees wax, butter, malt syrup and boiled sweets. To taste it started with a syrup sweetness which rolled through surprisingly rich polished wooden floors to a sweetly woody finish. Water brought out more butter and woody spice, with vanilla and a hint of fruit. A light and easy drinking dram that might entice whisky novices in as well as keeping me happy.
We moved on to another moustachioed bottle, this time last year’s Master of Malt Movember bottling – M’Orkney. As a spooned malt from Orkney, mainly consisting of the more well known of the distilleries on the islands, it’s not that much of a mystery where the spirit came from. ‘Spooning’ is a brand protection practise where a distiller will add a spoon of another distillery’s whisky to a cask when they sell it. This doesn’t affect the flavour of the whisky, a spoon is very small in comparison to a cask, but it makes the whisky legally a blended malt and prevents the buyer, and whoever the whisky is eventually sold on to, from bottling the whisky and selling it under the original distiller’s name. Certain distillers are well known for blocking bottlings in this fashion, with Glenfiddich and Balvenie (both owned by William Grant & Sons) being two of the more famous. The addition of a drop of Scapa to a cask of Highland Park (let’s just say…) hasn’t made much of a dent in the M’Orkney, with a nose of stony peat, sweet smoke, super sour candy balls and a pinch of salt coming through. To taste it’s sweet with a controlled dryness. There was wood ash, peppery spice, a citrus tang and a prickly finish. Water softened the prickle and brought out more lemon and vanilla. Annoyingly this one is sold out or I’d be grabbing one for my cupboard.
Next up was one of Richard Paterson’s whiskies – the Dalmore 15. A classic highland distillery, just down the road from Glenmorangie, Dalmore’s been in the news recently with the release of their newest whisky – The Trinitas. Named for the fact that there are just three bottles available it has taken the record for world’s most expensive whisky, at £100,000 for 70cl. Two of the three bottles are spoken for, one having gone to a private collector and one to Sukhinder Singh from The Whisky Exchange, but the other is still available from TWE, so If you’re interested you can give them a call. It looks to be a record that may not stand for long as Macallan’s ‘Cire Perdue’ decanter of 64 year old whisky has almost finished its trip around the world and will shortly be auctioned off in aid of Charity: Water – with 10cl samples going for over $40000 it looks like the whisky (with its rather special Lalique decanter) might break the Trinitas’s record. The rather more affordable Dalmore 15 is a rich deep red (although the colour is helped on its way with some added spirit caramel) with chocolate, cherry, shreddies and dry wood on the nose. To taste the cherries become glacé and are joined by almonds, ginger, orange and sweet spices – a bit like a rich cherry bakewell at Christmas. A bit of water, as it can’t take much before losing the richness, adds vanilla, more sweetness and some delicate dried fruit.
We then moved back to Movember whiskies, picking up the second of this year’s MoM bottlings – Smo’key. This was one was adorned with the face of Dave Broom. Dave is a well known drinks writer, especially known for his writing about whisky, which has appeared in pretty much every whisky publication under the sun, and also in a number of books, including his latest – The World Atlas of Whisky (which may shortly appearing on my shelf next to my World Atlas of Wine from the same series). The Smo’key is a blended malt like the Mo’land, but this time going for the opposite end of the flavour scale, featuring whiskies from Islay. On the nose there wasn’t all that much, with sweet mulchy peat and a touch of stone dust. The taste had much more, with sweet grassy peat, butter, sweet and sour oranges, a hint of coal and a vegetal back palate leading to a prickly finish. Water brought out more of the nose’s stoniness with some coal smoke. There was also more fruitiness and the butter gained some fat, making the mouthfeel creamy. Darren doesn’t know what whiskies went into the bottle, but after some discussion around the room it was thought that there was definitely some Caol Ila in there, cut with some lighter Blasda-like Ardbeg as well as a whole lot more.
Our fifth whisky of the night, breaking the rule (as seems to have happen at most Whisky Squads) that we only taste four whiskies, was Smokehead Extra Black. Smokehead is a range of bottlings by Ian MacLeod of whisky from an unnamed Islay distillery (it’s [almost certainly] Ardbeg). Along with the regular bottling and this 18 year old Extra Black they also used to do an Extra Rare, which I have a cloth bag covered bottle of in my whisky cupboard. Smokehead has been a great supporter of Movember this year, supplying whisky to a variety of the events celebrating the month, hence a bottle appearing at our table. On the nose it was sweet and lightly smokey, with a thin and nicely astringent smoke rather than a choking cloud. To taste it had a sweet start with TCP, tar, damp peat and wet smoke in the middle, and a sweet smokey finish. A bit of water brought oranges and a hint of lemon as well as a thick vanilla caramel.
My Mo’ (I hate that term) continues to grow, as do those of the other Whisky4Movember team members. To support our ‘tachey efforts you can sponsor us over on the Movember site, throw Richard Paterson some cash instead/as well or buy one of the Movember bottlings from Master of Malt – £8 of the £34.95 selling price will go to charity.
Another whisky squad done and another one scheduled. At the time of writing there are still a couple of places left at the Squad Christmas dinner – a three course meal from The Gunmaker’s seasonal menu with some matched whiskies and the usual random banter. Book soon or be disappointed.
Master of Malt Mo’land
Blended lowland Scotch malt whisky. 40%. £34.95 at Master of Malt
Master of Malt M’Orkney
Spooned Orcadian malt whisky. 40%. Sold out
Highland single malt Scotch whisky. 40%. ~£40 at Master of Malt
Master of Malt Smo’key
Blended Islay Scotch malt whisky. 40%. £34.95 at Master of Malt
Smokehead 18 Year Old Extra Black
Islay single malt Scotch whisky. 46%. ~£85 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.
Balvenie 12 Years Doublewood – a whisky grabbed as a chaser round the corner from the Sci-Fi-London film festival after a day of packing bags and herding punters. It had a grassy, olive oily nose with hints of sugary spice and a touch of wood. To taste it had a woody sweetness with some cinnamony spiciness with a bitter fruity finish. As it developed in the glass the sweetness increased and turned towards candyfloss.
Thatchers Old Rascal – I popped into the branch of Byron Hamburger that’s now hiding in the building that used to house The Intrepid Fox (I may never have drunk anything but Newcastle Brown or bottled cider when visiting, but RIP anyway. The new location just isn’t the same) and grabbed a quick bottle of cider to accompany my tasty burger. Described on the label as ‘Full bodied medium dry Somerset cider’, I would have stuck it more towards the medium sweet end of things. Anyways, it was quite nice – more mulchy farmyard flavour than you usually get from a mainstream cider as well as a nice tartness contrasting with the underlying sweetness. One to remember.
The SMWS release a new tranche of whiskies every first Friday of the month, so I stopped by to try a couple. Well, more than a couple after I got talking to the bar staff…I am weak:
SMWS 35.38, Fire in the hole! (Glen Moray) – Chosen specifically because of my interest in strange wood maturations, this one was matured for 9 years in a 2nd fill chardonnay cask. Wine finishes are generally badly thought of by whisky connoisseurs, but a few interesting ones do get out into the wild – this one is a bit of a mixture. A strange nose, with a slab of wood as well as a strange chicken and ammonia combination (to be honest there was a hint of the pub bog to it). To taste it was almost meaty, with overripe fruit and a bitter woody finish. With a bit of water it softened out, becoming more wine-like with some vanilla from the wood and an oily sandalwood flavour coming through. One to try, but not one I want a whole bottle of.
SMWS 93.38, Stirs the atavistic soul (Glen Scotia) – The intended final dram of the evening, this was to sate my love of Campbelltown whiskies, although as there are only two remaining distilleries, Glen Scotia and Springbank, this is quite a limited love. Luckily Springbank have a couple of brands they distill giving a slightly wider field for me to taste my way through. Anyways, this reminded me, from my notes, of a damp wood fire in someone else’s garden – smoke at a distance with a touch of damp woodiness. There were sour grapes and cured meat on the nose as well. To taste there was a touch of sweet wine as well as tannic wood, almost like a fruity rioja. A drop of water softened the wood, bringing out more sweetness and hiding the tannins. Overall the main memory I have is of a tingling menthol like finish down the sides of the tongue. Quite definitely from Campbelltown and really quite nice.
SMWS 27.80 (Springbank) – no name for this one as I can’t find it on the website. Continuing the Campbelltown kick I went for a recommended dram of this new (I think) Springbank. It had salt and a light sweetness on the nose, as well as a plimsoll-like rubberiness. To taste it had more salt and rubber as well as a sweetness and a prickly, numbing sensation. Water brought on more sweetness and a slick, buttery mouthfeel, along with more rubber and fisherman’s friends. It reminds me very much of the bottle of single cask Springbank I got from Cadenhead’s while at the Edinburgh Festival last year, although this one is even better. I may have to pick up a bottle on my next visit.
SMWS 53.140, Swelling, crashing, waves of flavour (Caol Ila) – a deliberate evening ending choice, although I was offered an even more peaty Ardbeg by the ever helpful barman. I declined, but made a note for my next visit. On the nose it had a sweet peaty smoke with a hint of disinfectant, mulch and parma violets. To taste it was crisply smoky with candy floss and citrus fruit, but rather complex and overpowering and in need of dilution. Water saves your palate from certain destruction, with the flavours combining to give a sweet wet ash smokiness, a touch of orange and a tingly finish. It’s good I stopped after it as I was still tasting it when I got home an hour later.
And my favourite of the week:
Fuller’s Bengal Lancer – I’ve tried this IPA on tap, but not grabbed a bottle yet, however, I’m glad I did. It’s a bottle conditioned, very heavily hopped IPA which is light on the palate but still wonderfully bitter, with the great taste of citrusy hops dominating in a rather pleasant way. As the hops die back there’s a nice touch of fruity malt and it finishes with the same bitterness that most Fuller’s beers display. Very good and one that I’ll be stocking up on when I find someone to drive me to the shops.