It’s that time of year again: Diageo has released the line-up for the yearly shiny-fest of The Special Releases. It looks like it might be a more egalitarian stack of drams than in some previous years – even after the Port Ellen and Brora fell out of the range last year, the prices started feeling a little pushed.
Anyways, this year’s announcement gave us the distillery and age of each whisky, along with a vaguely cryptic comment about it. Below are my predictions of what each of the hints means, and an update with what they actually meant, once we found out…
It’s strange working in the whisky industry. When people whose blog you read back in Ye Olden Dayes start not only putting out their own whiskies, but also inviting you along to the launches, you know the world has changed. It’s especially weird when you realise that your blog is a) almost 4 years old and b) that you’ve just attended your second whisky release from the chaps at Cask Strength – 3D Whisky.
Never ones to shy from a gimmic, this 4th whisky in Joel and Neil’s A-Z has a selection of pieces to it:
It’s a blended malt
It’s composed of three whiskies being with the letter D
It’s called 3D
I suspect you can see how they came up with the name.
Having done Islay whiskies last month the Whisky Squad chaps decided to go to what is traditionally the other end of the spectrum for this meetup – summer whiskies. Rather than the peated beasts, supped by the open fire as the darkness draws in (waiting, as we all do, for the ultimate inevitability of death…), this time we went for sweeter and, generally, lighter whiskies.
Whisky Guy Darren took a back seat this month, chipping in when he found a gap in the proceedings, with the King of Whisky role being filled by Diageo’s Colin Dunn, who I encountered last year at a Burns night (ish) Talisker tasting. He is a man possessed by a strange energy and he filled the room with waving arms, enthusiasm and tasty whisky from his personal collection. He’d been given the brief of ‘Summer whiskies’ and interpreted it as those that he drinks during summer, hence the transfer of 6 bottles from his stash to the upstairs room at The Gunmakers.
We started off with a blind tasting of a pair of whiskies, described by Colin as what he would drink on getting home after a hard day at work. Without the usual paper wrappings to cover up the bottle labels Colin and Darren did the pouring while the rest of us dutifully faced away from the table and admired the pub’s wallpaper.
Whisky #1 was golden with some fruit, caramel and a hint of salt on the nose, along with an acetoney sweetness underneath everything else. To taste it had some spicy wood and lots of vanilla, and was quite sweet but with a dry woody finish that went on for quite a while. At this point, after holding the whisky in our mouths for a mandated second per year (about 15 seconds for this one, we were instructed), Colin revealed what we were drinking – Dimple 1890. Dimple isn’t readily available in the UK, although it’s very popular in overseas markets, and is the latest name for Haig’s blended whisky, a very old brand (with records showing a mention of John Haig naughtily brewing on the sabbath back in 1655) that is now owned by Diageo. It’s a premium blend with an age statement of 12 years on the regular bottling, but the 1890 is a special, now rather rare, bottling (that Colin managed to pick up on the cheap – a benefit of working for the maker). The bottle itself is distinctively three-sided, a design brought in during the 1890s (hence the focus on the date), and collectors pay scary amounts for the bottles, even when empty. I suspect the actual blend is quite complicated, as the logistics of large scale blending require, but it seems that Dimple contains at least Linkwood, Glenkinchie, Dalwhinnie and a hint of Lagavulin in addition to the grain base, which explains some of its character. Colin advised us to try the Dimple with a bit of ice in, something that I usually find kills the flavour of a scotch, and was rather surprised to find that it retained a lot of its flavour even when chilled – the sweet wood carried on, making this work rather well.
We switched back and forth between nosing the first two whiskies before we tasted #1 and learned what it was, and there was a massive difference between the two. Whisky #2 was very bourbon-like, with astringent wood, thick sour fruit and a caramel sweetness on the nose. It made the nostril hairs quiver as well, suggesting that it was a bit stronger than the Dimple. To taste it had concentrated raisin fruit and sherried wood, going from sweet wine to sour wood. It had hints of PX and was wonderfully rich. A bit of water knocked out the alcoholic burn, bringing out the raisin sweetness further and softening the wood in the finish. It reminded me of one of my whiskies and turned out to be from the same distillery – it was a Duncan Taylor bottling of 32 year old Port Dundas. I’ve got a 14 year old AD Rattray bottling which I rather like but this blew it out of the water. Port Dundas is the recently closed grain distillery in Glasgow whose whisky I liked so much at the blending class I did with John Glaser and this is a single cask bottling of sherried whisky from the Duncan Taylor ‘Rare Auld’ range. There aren’t many bottlings of Dundas, but I recommend you grab one if you see one.
Next we moved on to tasting individual whiskies rather than immediate comparisons, with Colin hiding the lable on the rather distinctive square bottle with his hand as he poured. He started with a brief hint that this whisky was only available in Dubai airport’s duty free shop but quickly gave in and announced what it was – Johnnie Walker Double Black. This is a new blend from the Johnnie Walker stable, complimenting the range by being a premium version of the regular Black (with a 15-20% price premium). Whisky tastes very much change over time, with the 80s and 90s being hard for the Islay distilleries due to the fashion of drinking less peaty spirit causing a reduction of production (including the intermittent operation and eventual closing of Ardbeg). This has now come back to haunt the industry as old peated spirit is rarer and the modern taste for peaty whisky is hitting the stocks quite heavily. This new bottling is a modification of the regular black to appeal to those current taste, with more whisky matured in heavily charred casks and more peaty whisky (including Caol Ila and Lagavulin) for the smoke and peat sought after by many whisky drinkers today. On the nose it’s quite light with a hint of smoke and dry wood. To taste it’s a bit more interesting, with both wood and peat smoke, some fresh cracked stone, a hint of sweet alcohol and a dry burnt wood finish. It feels like a more refined version of Black Bottle (the blend made with whisky from each of the Islay distilleries), which seems to be precisely what the whisky’s intention is. It should be available in the UK later this year.
Next up was another one with the label obscured by Colin’s hand that we tasted blind. On the nose it had a hint of grain (wheat?) and perfumed sandalwood. It developed in the glass bringing in lightly prickly spice, meatiness, nuts and fruitiness – dried pineapple, citrus and fruity haribo chews. Water brought out more wood and more of the perfumed nature, with flowers and wood polish. It was really rather impressive and quite an intense flavour, which led to the reveal being a bit of a shock – it was a Rosebank. The distillery is now closed, shut down in 1993 in favour of Glenkinchie, the other lowland in United Distillers’ portfolio. These days United Distillers are part of Diageo (who also own the name, which is bad news for the builders of the new distillery on almost the same site) and the Rosebank distillery is some building-in-progress flats and a Beefeater. The regular bottling used to be an 8 year old and it was famed for being light and perfumed, but this one is both older and rather a lot bigger than that version. In addition to its age it was also put into the cask at a much higher strength than usual, about 80% instead of the regular 62ish%. Whisky is often watered down before being put in the cask, with low 60%s being common and generally accepted as the level at which the whisky matures best. This upping in initial strength has led in turn to less alcohol evaporating and its cask strength bottling at a rather strong 62.3%, despite the 20 years of maturation. For me this was the most impressive whisky of the night, even if it wasn’t my favourite.
We then moved onto the final pair of the night, part of the Classic Malts Distiller’s Editions range. Originally started by United Distillers in the late 80s, The Classic Malts collection is a range of whiskies that helped to popularise the now commonly known whisky regions (although they didn’t have a Campbelltown distillery and brought in Oban as a ‘West Highland’ instead). Along with the regular expressions they also produced premium bottlings, making up The Distiller’s Editions range, made from casks selected by the distillery managers. I’ve tried a few of them, with the Cragganmore one being my favourite whisky during my university days.
First of the pair was the Dalwhinnie Distiller’s Edition, taking the regular 15 year expression and finishing it for a couple of years in olosoro sherry casks. On the nose it was fruity with vanilla, digestive biscuits (milk chocolate ones), maybe with a hint of fruity shortbread. To taste it had thick custard, sweet sherry wood, juicy sultanas and an oily mouth feel. Water lightened things, bringing out more wood and giving a thick custardy finish. While the Port Dundas was my favourite of the night, this was a close runner up and one that I have much more chance of finding. I’ve been a fan of the regular Dalwhinnie for a while (I’ve been to the distillery a few times and have recommended it as an introductory dram for many people) but I’ve somehow managed to miss this until now – it’s on the ‘to buy’ list.
Darren grabbed a bit of video of Colin talking about the Dalwhinnie, somehow managing to keep him in the frame, so for more enlightenment:
Drawing the night to a close we moved to the lightest whisky – the Glenkinchie Distiller’s Edition. Glenkinchie is The Classic Malts’ lowland member, based just outside of Edinburgh. It survived where Rosebank didn’t due to the possibility of expanding the distillery, adding more capacity as well as a visitors centre, which was not possible on the space constrained Rosebank site. It now sits in the portfolio as the light and floral lowland whisky and this definitely comes across in the flavour. Building on the regular 12 year old this is a 15 year old finished in amontillado casks. On the nose it was light, with coconut, vanilla, hints of wood and a few raisins. To taste it was perfumed with flowers and wood polish joining the custard and woodiness, softening to an almost sherberty finish. Water simplified things, bringing out the vanilla wood flavours over everything else. It was a step up in oomph from the other Glenkinchie that I’ve tried and a worthy part of the Distiller’s Edition stable.
The night ended with the traditional descending into the bar for a couple of beers, with Colin running away into the night with his whisky case, leaving a couple of bottles for us to continue sampling. Again, a rather good tasting with Colin’s “Force of Nature” presentation style calming over the evening and keeping everyone drinking, entertained and informed.
Whisky Squad #6 is almost full already, despite not being open to the general public yet, so keep an eye on the website if you want to come and play – next month’s theme is Brilliant Blends. I’ve had a sneaky preview of some of the ideas for what we’ll be drinking and there’s something quite special in there if the plans come to fruition…
Blended scotch malt whisky. 40%. Not generally available.
Duncan Taylor Port Dundas 32 year old
Single cask single grain whisky. 59.3%. Very limited availability (I couldn’t find any…)
Johnnie Walker Double Black
Blended scotch whisky. 40%. Available in Dubai airport currently and in the UK later in 2010. ~£30 (predicted price…well, guessed)
Rare Malts Rosebank 20 year old
Single cask lowland single malt scotch whisky. 62.3%. ~£185 from Master of Malt
Dalwhinnie Distiller’s Edition
Single malt highland scotch whisky. 43%. ~£35 from Master of Malt
Glenkinchie Distiller’s Edition
Single malt lowland scotch whisky. 43%. ~£40 from Master of Malt
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)