I’ve met a lot of cool people over the past decade of whisky geekery, and amongst those is a gentleman by the name of Darren Rook. I’ve known him since his days managing the Scotch Malt Whisky Society rooms in London and being the original whisky guy for Whisky Squad, and he’s always talked about opening a distillery. That and orgies in hot tubs, but mainly distillery plans.
So, he opened a distillery – The London Distillery Company. They’re mainly known for their gin – Dodd’s – but they’ve got some spirit maturing that will one day become whisky.
I popped down to the distillery yesterday to pick up a bottle of a new gin – Kew Organic Gin – and came away with a sample of something that Darren had been pouring at the Whisky Picnic: my 13th advent calendar spirit and yet another ‘not a whisky for legal reasons, but sort of’: London Distillery Company Aged British Rye Spirit.
Keeping up with Whisky Squad meetings has been more difficult than usual recently, what with there being one every two weeks since the beginning of June. (Un)fortunately I’ve had an intervention of life and work, much of which was taken up with 5 days of drinking different boozes each day last week, filling all of my waking hours with Stuff and giving me no time to witter about the latest episode in the world of The Squad. However, after a few calming episodes of Babylon 5 (in which Bruce Boxleitner looks uncannily like my father, making me double take at almost every scene) and a glass of absinthe (of which more in a later post – I need to write about something other than whisky soon) my notebook has fallen open to the right page, photos have moved from camera to iPhoto and soothing musics are playing from my computer speakers. It is time to do a bit of ‘writing’.
After much speculation as to when it would happen it seems that The Whisky Squad has now officially run out of whisky to drink from Scotland. For that reason, or the more likely one that there are tasty whiskies made outside of the chilly northern territories of the UK, the month of June is to play host to two Squad sessions, both focusing on the far off land of Japan. The first of these was led by returning dodgy story king and Whisky Guy Darren Rook and focused on the world outside of Suntory, the original and biggest whisky maker in Japan. Darren has the added assistance of having a brother who lives in Japan which means that occasionally some interesting tidbits fall into his lap, some of which he kindly brought along.
As the year draws to a close the season of Christmas parties is upon us. I missed my office Christmas party for the last Whisky Squad (the unblogged #8a, which involved BYOB, chocolate and some impressive drunkenness – Jason managed to write something down and then read it back again, the latter part of which isn’t quite possible from my notes) and have somehow managed to avoid any others until last week when The Squad grabbed the back room of The Gunmakers.
The plan was ‘simple’ – there’d be more seats than usual, there’d be a three course Christmas meal from The Gunmaker’s rather excellent kitchen and Whisky Guy Darren would choose some whiskies to accompany the meal. Things veered away from simple when it was also announced that there would be a whisky quiz, knocked up by Darren and Whisky Squad founder Andy. There was even mention of prizes…
Anyways, Darren matched up one whisky per course, choosing a dram that would work with each of the three choices available. First up, although tasted blind as is usual, was The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s 93.40 – Clay and Pork Sausages, a ten year old from Glen Scotia in Campbelltown bottled at 61.9% from a refill bourbon cask. On the nose there was roast pork and apples, salt, woody smoke and caramel sweetness. To taste there was sweet coal smoke, salt and pepper, and lemons. Water brought out the appleiness, vanilla from the cask, sour wood and more lemons. This was matched with tomato and red pepper soup, smoked salmon and crayfish roulade, and wild boar pate and worked quite well with them all – the smoky saltiness combined with some meatiness backed up the soup and pate, and cut through the creaminess of the roulade.
Next up was the Berry Brothers and Rudd Ledaig 2005, bottled at a shockingly (after tasting it) young 4 years. It came from a sherry cask and was a rather spicy 62.7%. This one is sold out everywhere and appeared on our list thanks to Darren finding a bottle hidden in his house. I tried it on a visit to BBR after Whisky Squad #7 and was quite impressed, but had assumed that I’d not be able to try it again, so was quite pleased to have this chance. Along with everyone saying it was great at the time the chaps at Caskstrength.net gave it the top prize in their BiG (Best in Glass) awards this month, beating a Glenfarclas 10 times its age. On the nose it had smoke, custard, salt, marmalade and meaty bbq sauce. To taste it had coal, tar, a sweet rich fruity burst and a finish of coal dust. Water calmed it down, bringing out leather and more sherried fruit, while diminishing the smoke. This was matched with roast turkey, lamb shanks, baked whiting and butternut squash pie. I can’t speak for anything but the lamb, but it went well, the rather big flavours of the whisky happily stood up to the heaviness of the meat.
Going with dessert we had The English Merchant’s Choice 13 Year Old Glengoyne. This is a single cask whisky chosen as the second of the Glengloyne Merchant’s Choice selection, coming after the Scots version. It was selected by a group of English whisky sellers, including Darren’s boss at Master of Malt, Ben Ellefsen (there’s more about it on the Glengoyne blog). On the nose it had dark rum and nail varnish and the taste continued that with some heavy bitter wood and rubber, all with a demerara sugariness underneath. Water revealed some bitter orange rind along with the rich rumminess. Despite my love of sherried whisky, this one was a bit much for my liking – too much wood swamping the rich sweet fruit. This was matched with Christmas pudding, mince pies and some cheese, all of which went well. The richness of the whisky matched up with the fruit of both the pies and pudding, and cut through the fat of the cheese (even making me appreciate a blue cheese for the first time ever).
As a post dinner dram Darren unveiled The Octave 31 Year Old Cameron Bridge, a single cask grain whisky bottled by Duncan Taylor from a first fill bourbon cask at 54.6%. On the nose this one had a thin sweetness, with raisins, acetone and citrus syrup. To taste it had spicy, but controlled, wood, vanilla pods and a short finish of sugary wood. Water brought out more vanilla and cream, revealing school dinner custard, grape jam and a spicy woody finish. This was my favourite of the night, showing me that the bits of well aged grain whisky that I like are common between sherry and bourbon casks and thus due to the nature of the spirit rather than the wood it’s aged in. Unfortunately with only 70 bottles released I suspect I won’t be finding any more.
Now we come to the quiz. Composed of three rounds, a picture round and two of written questions and answers, it was marked out of 50 and was rather tough. I lucked out and had Rob and Rocky from Berry Brothers on my table (their experience was offset by our team size of 3 compared to everone else’s of 5, was our claim) and we quite convincingly won with a score of 40. We picked up some miniatures of whisky as well as accusations of cheating – the peril of having Darren (writer of round one) on our table as well (although being good and not taking part in the quiz). Anyways, winners!
So, Whisky Squad continues from strength to strength, with January’s session already sold out, but keep an eye on the website for February’s meeting.
SMWS 93.40 – Clay and Pork Sausages Campbelltown single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 61.9%. Sold out, was £42.20 at the SMWS.
Berry Brothers and Rudd Ledaig 2005 Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 62.7%. Sold out.
Glengoyne English Merchant’s Choice Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 54.1%. ~£100 at Master of Malt.
The Octave – Cameron Bridge 31 year old Single cask single grain whisky, 54.6%. Sold out, was ~£75 at Master of Malt.
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
Dalmore 15 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
To be perfectly honest I blame the Australians. It could have been any number of of countries in the southern hemisphere, but in the end it was the Aussies that have set things up ready for a month of pain for me: it is almost time for Movember. Started years back somewhere in the heat blasted antipodean wasteland, Movember is a charity movement dedicated to the cultivation of top lip facial hair during the month of November. As is usual with the charidee the participants approach everyone they see and demand sponsorship for their silly activities, this time the growing of a moustache and no other facial hair (unless it can be considered part of a moustache style). This post is that demand.
I’ve had a beard, which includes as part of its makeup a moustache, for coming on ten years. Over time bits of the beard have been removed and regrown (currently the whole lot is in full bloom due to an effort to make my Movember transformation all the more shocking) but the two constants have been chinny bit and moustache. The thing about Movember is that in order to grow a mo’ (an abbreviation for ‘tache that I’ve not heard outside of Movember) you need to not have one to start with, otherwise its more ‘cultivating an already existing hedge’, so I’m looking at Movember from a slightly different place than many of the participants. In short, I’m going to have a shave.
And this is where my Australian blaming comes to the fore – what kind of sadistic people would export a charity event that will lead inexorably to the exposing of my usually fur insulated face to the perils of a London winter? Our southern hemisphere summer experiencing far flung former colonial chums.
So, sponsoring me is sponsoring a three-in-one holy trinity of stupid activities:
Growing a moustache, like all the other Mo’ Bros (sistahs can join in with stick-on ‘taches if they wish)
Being clean shaven for the first time in almost a decade, and remaining that way (apart from the ‘tache) for a month
Exposing my poor delicate face to the ravages of biting winds
Movember supports men’s health charities, especially focusing on prostate cancer in the UK (one of those fun men’s problems that we generally keep quiet about, even though we moan loudly about the potential of getting a cold), so you could count this as enlightened self interest, what with me being a man and slowly encroaching upon the ages where the probabilities of experiencing many of the health problems in question rises, but you should all sponsor me anyway.
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…
Dimple 1890 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
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
Bruichladdich Peat 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.