Whisky Hub #1 at Albannach

Along with the more usual ‘proper’ tastings there seems to have been the start of a movement recently towards less formal gatherings. With the likes of Whisky Squad, and maybe soon my own regular whisky club at The Alma, popping up to quite frenetic take up (in the case of ‘The Squad’ anyway – tickets for the next session disappeared in 20 minutes) it’s good to see more people trying out the idea. Coming along to this last month, although I’m finally getting round to writing it up a week before the next meeting, was Albannach on Leicester Square with their Whisky Hub.

The idea is quite simple – a small group of people each bring along a bottle of whisk(e)y that they like and then share it with the group and tell everyone why they like it. There’s also some nibbles, kindly provided by Albannach, and the regular sort of banter when you get a group of whisk(e)y lovers in a room together. The first meeting was a bit slewed towards people from the booze industry, with me as the only non-professional drinker in the room – Cat and Ivo from Albannach, Will Lowe from Bibendum, James Hill from Diageo Select Brands and one of his friends, a barman (maybe manager? I was drinking) from (I think, remember the drinking) Sheffield. The plan was simple – go round the table, revealing your bottle and saying as much or as little about it as you wanted.

We started off with Will, who had brought along a bottle of Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon. Four Roses are a whiskey maker that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, ever since I did a tasting of their range (on their own and in cocktails) at Callooh Callay last year. Will met Jim Rutledge, Four Roses master distiller, a little while back and soaked up a chunk of information about them from him. They do a regular range of 3 whiskies – Four Roses Bourbon (aka Yellow Label), Small Batch and Single Barrel. Along with the regular bourbon distilling tricks of maturing the whiskies in different parts of the warehouse (often in large stacks that leave largish temperature differences between the top and bottom rows, helping to alter the maturation between barrels – Four Roses don’t generally go up much, stopping at about 3 barrels high, iirc) they produce the varying flavours in their whiskies by making a variety of different spirits from different grain recipes and using different yeasts. In total they have 2 different mashbills (ratios of corn, rye and other grains) and 5 different yeasts for a combination of 10 different spirits (which Whisky Magazine has described this month in a useful section that I’ll be pulling out to keep) which are blended together in different ratios to make the three whiskies of the regular range as well as other special bottlings. The Yellow Label uses all 10 recipes, the small batch 4 of them and the single barrel only one, depending on which barrel is chosen. The Small Batch ends up with 27.5% rye in its makeup, with the rest being corn (in order for a whiskey to be called Bourbon it has to have at least 51% corn) which gives a chunk of rye spiciness as well as the more well known corn sweetness. On the nose it had butter and biscuits, coconut, vanilla, salty caramel and sugared violets. To taste it had an underlying sourness with menthol, grainy sweetness and a sugary woody finish. A good start to a rather eclectic evening.

Next we turned to James, who opened his mystical whisky ambassador bag and pulled out the Glen Spey 21 Year Old (2010). This is part of Diageo’s special releases range, where they put out (comparatively) small batches of high quality whisky from some of their distilleries each year. This one was part of a 10 cask batch of about 6000 bottles, with the casks being american oak but formerly containing sherry rather than, as is more common, bourbon. A large part of the flavours that we get from bourbon and sherry barrels are not from the previous inhabitant but from the nature of the wood – american oak has a close grain and european oak a wider one, leading to different wood/spirit interaction as temperature changes move the maturing whisky in and out of the wood. The fluid previously in the barrels does also add its own touch, so american oak sherry butts are an interesting combination of maturation aids. On the nose this had coconut and vanilla (as one would expect from american oak), candle wax and, as a nod to the sherry, maraschino cherries and an undertone of beefiness (Bovril?). To taste it was quite citrusy, accompanied by sweet caramel, minty menthol and some drying tannins towards the end. Water added sponge cake to the nose and unbundled the taste, revealing toffee, prickly woody custard, big woody spice and a hint of sherry trifle.

I stepped in at this point and unveiled my contribution – Hammer Head, the 20 year old(ish) Czech whisky that I wrote about last year. I wanted to take along something that I was pretty much certain most people wouldn’t have tried before and that noone else would have brought, and this very much fulfilled my criteria. It seemed to go down well, with everyone being quite shocked that it was as nice as it was.

We then moved on to Ivo, Albannach’s whisky manager. He’d chosen the Mortlach 16 Year Old Flora and Fauna Edition. The Flora and Fauna bottlings (as I’ve mentioned before) are a range introduced by United Distillers (now part of Diageo) in the 90s to showcase some of their distilleries that didn’t normally produce single malts. While many of the range are no longer produced some still are, including this sherried dram showing off the traditional Mortlach characteristics. On the nose it had maple syrup, mint, slightly mulchy grass and sharp sherry fruit. To taste it was rich with caramel, smokey wood, polished wooden floors and a lightly floral note. Water brought out lavender, brittle toffee and more spicy sweetness. I rather like Mortlach and this one will be the one I turn to once I can’t get my currently favoured Boisdales bottling.

Next up was Cat, who had chosen The English Whisky Company’s Chapter 9, one of their first bottlings legally allowed to be called whisky, the first to be produced by their own distiller and the first peated English whisky. The distillery’s outside of Thetford in Norfolk and was put together by the Nelstrop family, farmers who owned some land near the river Thet. They built a new distillery from scratch and brought in consultant distiller Ian Henderson, formerly of Laphroaig, to start them up and also train up former Greene King brewer David Fitt to take over when Ian moved on. As the only whisky distillery operating in England they’ve also sensibly decided to jump on the tourist market and have a visitors centre at the heart of the distillery which, along with releases of their maturing spirit as Chapters 1-5, helped fund the distillery during the initial three years before any of their produce could be called whisky. I’ve got an unopened bottle of the Chapter 9 in my whisky cupboard so I was quite keen to have a taste without having to crack mine open. On the nose it was initially obviously young, with grain, sweet peat, wood smoke, citrus, cream sponge cake, bananas and creamy new make spirit. At first I thought it smelled quite boring, but it gained complexity and ‘age’ as it sat in the glass oxidising. To taste it was sweet with gravel, lime floor cleaner, pine and a sweet wet peat finish. Water brought out egg custard on the nose and more sweetness to the taste, although accompanied by the aforementioned floor cleaner. This isn’t one I’m going to jump on immediately, but I’ll be happy to open it if it doesn’t rise in price on the collectors market – it’s not sold out yet months after release, so I’m expecting that I’ll be drinking it rather than using it as a deposit on a house…

Last was James’s mate, whose name I have shamefully forgotten (especially as we discussed the uniqueness of his name for quite a while before he ran off with Mr Hill to assault the bar at The Dorchester). He’d chosen a whisky from James’s magic bag – Lagavulin 1994 Pedro Ximinez Finish Distiller’s Edition. The Distiller’s Editions are Diageo’s ‘finished’ whiskies, with each of the spirits sitting in a different cask for the end of their maturation to pick up some extra flavours. In the case of Lagavulin they’ve used PX casks and it seems to be lauded as the best of the range (and the prices for previous years’ releases demonstrate that). I think this one was the ’94, based on it being the most recent release and most likely to have been in James’s bag, and it was rather nice. On the nose there was sweet salted caramel and a big smokiness that slowly faded as it sat in the glass. To taste it was again sweet, and very easy to drink, with smoke, a hint of citrus and a little bit of syrupy PX. Water lightened the smoke revealing a bit of wet wood and some muddy peat. Not overly complicated but rich, smoky and sweet.

James then dipped into his bag again and brought out a non-Diageo whisky, independently bottled and from a distillery they don’t own – Queen of the Moorlands Rare Cask Bunnahabhain XXXIV. Bottled for The Wine Shop in Leek in Staffordshire, a shop that sells much more whisky than its name suggests, it was distilled in 1997 which was (according to their site) a year of experimentation at the distillery, where they switched their normal unpeated production to peated for the whole year. These days they distill peated spirit for a few weeks at the end of the season, but the glut of casks in ’97 allowed a lot more experimentation with maturation. This whisky sat in a sherry hogshead for 12 years and was bottled in 2009 at 54.3%. On the nose it was salty with light smoke, gravel and boiled sweets. To taste it was big and orangey in the middle, surrounded by mud and stone. It was quite spiky and water calmed it down, bringing out more sweetness and stony minerality as well as ‘smoked golden syrup’.

A good start to the Whisky Hub with a nice range of interesting whiskies and some interesting chat about whisky and the state of the universe. The next meeting is next week (hopefully it’ll take me less time to write it up this time) and the plan seems to be to put on one every month. Albannach are restricting numbers so that it’s possible to try all the whiskies and still walk out of the restaurant, but if you’re interested please drop me a mail and I’ll pass your details on for when they hopefully expand things further.

Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon
Bourbon whiskey, 45%. ~£25 from Master of Malt

Glen Spey 12 Year Old (2010)
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 50.4%. ~£130 from Master of Malt

Hammer Head
20 year old Czech single malt whisky, 40.7%. ~£30 from World of Whiskies

Mortlach 16 Flora and Fauna
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40 from Master of Malt

English Whisky Company Chapter 9
Single malt English whisky, 46%. ~£40 from Master of Malt

Lagavulin 1994 Pedro Ximinez Finish Distiller’s Edition
Islay single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£55 from Master of Malt

Queen of the Moorlands Rare Cask Bunnahabhain XXXIV
Islay single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 53.2%. ~£60 from The Wine Shop

No pictures due to a combination of camera fail and being too busy nattering. And drinking…

Whisky Squad #5 – Summer Whiskies

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.

Dimple 1890Whisky #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.

Port Dundas 32We 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.

Johnnie Walker Double BlackNext 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.

Rosebank 20Next 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.

Dalwhinnie 1990 DistillersFirst 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:

Glenkinchie 1992 DistillersDrawing 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