Dominic Roskrow is a busy man. He’s been writing about whisky professionally for the last couple of decades, but in the last few years he’s been involved in a scary number of projects. From editing magazines to starting the Craft Distillers Alliance, and promoting whiskies to starting a whisky and music festival, he’s had a large number of irons in the fire.
The last twelve months have been quite eventful for Dom, but he’s capped it with an adventure: he’s gone from writing about whiskies to putting out some of his own. Introducing Discovery Road – Four Lions and Smile.
In a step closer to being almost up to date I present Whisky Squad #40. Helpfully I couldn’t make #39, an excellent night charting the develop of Glenfiddich since the 1960s with Jamie Milne and a bunch of old bottlings of whisky, due to an appointment with a beer festival, but #40 was one that I was certain not to miss – an evening of whisky from round the world presented by Dominic Roskrow.
There are some fairly mad people in the world of whisky – and I use that term in a purely complimentary manner. This weekend has shown off a couple of groups showing the best that whisky and madness can accomplish: Balvenie are tasting whisky in a specially built in a hotel in Manchester this weekend and (the thing that I’m going to write about here) John Glaser of Compass Box and Dom Roskrow decided to do some driving.
Now, driving between whisky tastings isn’t a particularly new thing. Doing a bunch of tastings in a day is also not a particularly big thing. However, doing eight tastings in a day at eight different locations, starting in Inverness and finishing in Brighton, is slightly different. And slightly more on the mad side.
In a way I’ve copied one of my booze related goals from recently elevated Malt ManiacKeith Wood – to try as many whiskies from as many distilleries as I can. I may have started along that route before I saw Keith’s website but it’s an admirable goal that I’m pleased to be sharing. Along with my visits to the SMWS to try weird single cask bottlings and my attendance of The Whisky Exchange and Whisky Squad tastings I was rather pleased to see that Dominic Roskrow‘s whisky tasting club had branched out from Norwich to the online world and fired up TheWhiskyTastingClub.co.uk.
They have various whisky tastings sets that you can buy, but I decided to go for the thing that attracted me to them in the first place – regular sets sent out to you on a monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly basis. I went for the bi-monthly sets (as I have only one liver and too many things to drink in London as it is) and set up a standing order to kick them £28 every couple of months (£25 + £2.95 P&P for 5x50l samples). After a couple of mails back and forth I heard my first set was being sent out (back at the beginning of November in the middle of Dominic’s run through whisky dinner – the real one is coming up soon) and they arrived a few days later. One of the reasons I like the idea of a tasting by post is that it meant I could stretch the drams out over a few nights, and could also leave them for a few weeks to fit in with my rather boozy autumn. I’ve finally got round to writing this up just as my second set appeared in the post.
Along with sending out the tasting boxes they have a forum on their site for everyone to share their tasting notes, as well as the usual whisky chat, which will hopefully fill in the gap that not necessarily being around others drinking the whiskies leaves – I can’t wave my arms around and mumble about whisky on the internet, so it’s a bonus for everyone. I will hopefully have a copy of Dominic’s book appearing early next year as a thankyou for signing up for the regular sets and there are tales of bonus drams making their way out as well – I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.
This first set is an introduction to the whisky regions of Scotland and I was quite pleased to see that I’d only tasted two of the provided whiskies before, and one of those was one I very much wanted to try again. I went with the traditional light-heavy ordering and started off the lowland of the box – Bladnoch ‘Beltie’ 8 Year old. Named for the Belted Galloway cow on the label, a rare breed from the area around the distillery, it’s bottled at 55%. On the nose it had hint of farmyard – silage and mulching grass, which faded as it sat in the glass to be replaced by vanilla, linseed oil, candle wax, apples, foam strawberries, a hint of cinnamon and digestive biscuits. To taste it had big woody start and finish, with liquorice root at the end. A big booze hit was joined by pine & mint and a little bit of fruitiness in the middle – apple pies and unsweetened buttery mince meat, although unsweetened. It could take quite a bit of water, softening the flavours into black forest gateau, although the bitter liquorice remains at the end. The finish had some longering pear and apple. There was a surprising amount to the whisky, especially for an 8 year old, but it was maybe a little bit woody on the taste for my liking. The nose was excellent, however, and I’d almost be tempted to buy a dram for the smell alone.
Next I went for the Speyside – Linkwood ‘Flora and Fauna’ 12 year old. Bottled at 43% this is part of a range of whiskies released originally in the 90s by United Distillers (who are now part of Diageo) to show off the range of whisky styles in Scotland. It seems they weren’t one-off releases as some of them are still available for a reasonable cost, including this one – one of the only distillery bottlings of Linkwood available (although they are much loved by independents). On the nose an initially pungent mulchy grain quickly floated off to reveal fruit and grain underneath – barley and granny smith apples with a hint of Refresher chews. The taste was very light and thin, initially sweet and creamy with a hint of stewed and crunchy apples moving on to a more woody middle with vanilla and wood spice. It finished with a mix of barley and sharp apples. Water nrought out more spice on the nose and more sour fruit to taste, with hints of grapes and some sugary sweetness on the finish.
This was fine but nothing earth shattering and maybe a little light in flavour for my liking, although I liked it much more on my second tasting (finishing the other half of the 50ml sample when I started writing this blog entry).
I then moved on to the island contribution – Arran 14 year old. Bottled at 46% this is the latest regular bottling to be released from the distillery – as they were founded in 1996 it’s obvious to see why it hasn’t appeared before. On the nose it had sweet pears, grass, lemons and brine. To taste it had the traditional Arran burst of icing sugar followed by wood polish, prickly spice, chocolate orange and vanilla. Water added some more sugary sweetness, an unexpected savoury note, floral overtones (orange blossom?) and a touch of minty menthol. I like Arran whiskies and this is the one that I wanted to try again, having only tried a drop at Whisky Live Glasgow a few weeks after the bottled it. This is definitely an evolution of their previous whiskies and one that I’m tempted to buy a bottle of. It’s still not a patch on the SMWS single cask bottlings that I tried a year or so ago – those are still some of my favourite whiskies of all time.
Next was the highland whisky – Balblair 2000. I tried this as part of the Twitter tasting I did last year and didn’t get much different from it this time. On the nose it had pineapple, vanilla, a hint of meaty anis, and rhubarb and custard sweets. To taste it had caramel with sweet vanilla, dark chocolate, just unripe vine fruits and a hint of pepper. I didn’t get the coppery note that we found last time so much this time, but I did still find a bit of dry twigginess in the finish. Water brought out more vanilla but also more astringent alcohol on the nose. The taste changed quite a bit, with more heat, more thin alcohols and more big wood, with thick custard at the back of the mouth.
The final whisky of the evening was the one from Islay – Port Charlotte An Turas Mor (The Great Journey). Part of Bruichladdich’s heavily peated range named for the long closed Port Charlotte distillery, this is the newer reasonably priced expression, as earlier releases have fetched a bit of a premium from the ‘Laddich lovers and also been bottled a lot stronger. On the nose there was initially a hit of baby sick, but this faded after pouring into sweet peat and muddy grass. There was also coal smoke, sweet oranges and tangerines. The taste was first dominated by big coal smoke fading away to be replaced by sweet fruit, lemon, and a dry woody end. Water adds some sweetness and a lot more citrus – the smoke is still there but hangs around out at the end rather than up front with some dusty coal powering it.
A nice first box, full of slightly more interesting drams than you’ll often find in a regular region sampling whisky flight. My next box is whiskies of the world, which I hope to get on to slightly faster than this one.
Bladnoch 8 year old – Belted Galloway bottling
Lowland single malt Scotch whisky, 55%. ~£35 at Master of Malt.
Linkwood 12 year old – Flora and Fauna
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40 at Master of Malt.
This blog is quite good for getting me invited to slightly random events that aren’t just plain drinks tastings and when I was asked along to a combination practise whisky dinner and book launch at a Michelin starred Indian restaurant, I couldn’t really say no. The book in question is Dominic Roskrow’s latest, The World’s Best Whiskies and the restaurant Quilon.
Dominic has been writing about whisky for years, having been editor of Whisky Magazine amongst other writing poitions, and was made a Keeper of the Quaich in 2007 and a Kentucky Colonel in 2010. He now edits The Whisky Shop‘s inhouse magazine, Whiskeria, writes all over the place and runs whisky tastings around the country. It was more in this latter capacity that he we met him, as the plan was to taste some whisky rather than listen to a reading of tasting notes from the new book.
Quilon, specialising in food from the south west of India, wasn’t an entirely random pairing, as this was a test run of a whisky dinner that Dominic will be hosting at the restaurant at the beginning of next year. The fact that they also have a 50 strong whisky menu and a head chef who likes the odd dram, as we discovered when he came out to have a rest and a drink at the end of the night, didn’t hinder things either.
We started the evening with a cocktail of Johnny Walker Black Label and Créme de Mûre, topped up with champagne, which I was not that great a fan of – the champage overpowered the whisky and the liqueur didn’t help that. As I’m not a fan of fizzy wine it wasn’t my kind of thing, but the assembled journalists, with a couple of us bloggers for good measure, seemed to enjoy it well enough. While we sipped at these Dominic described his approach to writing the book, basically drinking a lot of whisky. He went through and tried all of the whiskies himself (bar one that I can’t remember) and wrote up fresh tasting notes for all of them in his own rather irreverant style, focusing on drinking whisky and having a good time rather than the more regimented tasting notes side of things.
Dominic is very much a lover of whisk(e)y from all over the world, as his Kentucky Colonel-dom (-ship? -ity? who knows…) attests, and we started the whisky tasting with the Amrut Double Cask. Amrut have been making drinks for many years, but their foray into the single malt whisky market was described by Dominic as a ‘Newcastle university student experiment’. One of the family who own the operation was studying in Newcastle and wondered whether it was possible to sell an Indian single malt whisky in the British market. The initial answer to the question was ‘no’, but they’ve persevered and over time the quality of product and the eagerness of reception has grown, leading to the current state where it’s no longer considered quite as strange that you can buy Indian whisky in the UK and their products are getting good critical attention. Due to the environment in Bangalore the maturation of the whisky is rather different to in Scotland, with 2-5 years of maturation being usual and 7 years the oldest that they’ve produced as yet. This speed of turnaround has allowed them to do a lot of experimentation, with various different barley types (both local Indian grain as well as imports from Scotland) and barrels as well as other fiddling. This bottling is a vatting of two old casks (from 2002 and 2003 – two of their oldest) demonstrating the main problem with maturing for so long in the tropics – the whisky lost 59% of its volume in evaporation over the 7 years. Rather than being alcohol evaporating, as you get in cooler climates, this was mainly water, with the alcohol content of the spirit rising from the filling proof of 62.5% to 69.8% before reducing for bottling. This is now pretty much sold out, as you’d expect from a total availability of 306 bottles. On the nose it had vanilla, a beefy maltiness, apples and chilli. To taste it was buttery, with sweet vanilla, black pepper, green peppers, a bit of chilli spice and long bitter wood finish. As it sat in the glass it opened up a bit more and I got a hint of aniseed – not the sweet heat of an aniseed ball but the seedy aniseed of the speck at the centre. Water softened the wood, bringing out more vanilla and calming the spiciness.
Next we tried out our one Scottish whisky of the evening, the Glenkeir Treasures 17 year old Macallan. The Glenkeir Treasures are a range of The Whisky Shop’s own bottlings and this one was a single cask which had produced 144 bottles. It was matured in bourbon and finished in sherry casks (I think that’s what Dominic said), showing Macallan’s increased use of bourbon casks in their production, something that was very much not the norm for them in the past. On the nose it was vegetal with some horseradish and mustard. There was also dark chocolate, a rich maltiness and a smell that my brain resolved to be “off limes” – a pleasant soured citrus. To taste there was sweet woody spice with salt and pepper, but these were overshadowed by a dry tannic wood that stepped in and dominated. Water rolled away a lot of the dryness, revealing vanilla ice cream which quickly faded through dried fruits to a long woody finish.
We then skipped continents again, this time to the USA and Hancock’s Reserve Single Barrel. Produced by Buffalo Trace (there are a lot more whiskey brands than there are distilleries in the US, with most companies producing a variety of different products) it’s a single cask with individual bottlings often coming in at 8-10 years, although the age is not stated on the bottle. This one had a lovely nose, with sweet varnish, pencil rubbers, bubblegum, dried apples, pastry, bananas and a rich caramel. To taste it was much lighter, with the apples returning along with some grapes, sultanas and sweet wood spice, finishing with light woodiness. It was the groups favourite of the evening and I can see why – very smooth and easy to drink in comparison with the rather spiky whiskies that preceded it. I found it slightly disappointing that the promise of the nose wasn’t quite borne out in the body, but still rather enjoyed it.
The last in our round the world tasting session was the most interesting for me – Karuizawa 1982 from The Whisky Exchange. Appropriately Tim from TWE (and writer of their rather good blog) was there to represent the bottlers, who had put this whisky out as part of their 10th anniversary celebrations. I tried it a week earlier at their official celebratory tasting (that I might one day get round to writing up here) and had to check carefully to make sure it was the same whisky. We tried it very soon after pouring at Quilon, whereas it was the penultimate whisky at the TWE tasting and had sat in the glass for about 2 hours, and it seems that it is very much a whisky that changes with exposure to the air. This time the nose was rich with truffles, struck matches, raisins, grapes and sherried wood. To taste it had sherry fruit and peppery spice, followed by a burst of wood that led into a rich, spicy, meaty finish. An impressive and very different whisky from the rest, and one that lost a lot of the ‘forest notes’ as it sat in the glass (which it didn’t do very long this time).
We then followed this with some excellent food from the Quilon menu, matched with a red and white wine rather than with the whisky, with the curry leaf and lentil crusted fish starter (as south west India has a whole load of coastline to obtain fish from), the lamb roast main course (which reminded me a lot of the excellent ‘dry meat’ at Tayyabs) and the rather special pepper ice cream (which I suspect had a chunk more than pepper in – I assumed it was cardamon until I read the menu) all standing out. With dinner finished we were joined by head chef Sriram Aylur who tucked into a pair of drams (with a spot of ice, as room temperature whisky after an evening in a hot and spicy kitchen wasn’t something he was a fan of) while we chatted with Dominic about the joys of whisky.
All in all a rather nice evening and encouraging to see the whisky industry outside of the core distilling reaching out to bloggers (something that Dominic himself mentioned in the latest Whiskeria – November 2010, page 50). I think that the restaurant need to have a chat with Dominic before next year to best work out how to set up the tasting though, as wine glasses aren’t great for nosing and chilled water isn’t the best for adding to a dram. That said, the food was very good and they’ve gone on my list of places to try and have a proper meal at.
I’d already occasionally spoken to Dominic on Twitter, so it was nice to meet him in person. I’d even signed up to his online whisky tasting club earlier that week, receiving shipping confirmation of my first box of samples while I was talking to him that evening. In a stroke of duplication it seems that in addition to the copy of the book that I was given after this tasting I’ll have another one arriving sometime early in the new year, as The Whisky Tasting Club are giving each of their regular members a copy after their second tasting. I’ll have a spare soon so I might even have to do a competition giveaway or something – while the book is (from my current browsing) rather good and beautifully designed (the front cover alone has given me both photographic and glassware envy) my house is too full of books and booze to allow any duplicates in. Worryingly, that even counts for booze…
Amrut Double Cask
7 year old Indian single malt whisky. 46%. ~£80 from Whiskys.co.uk
Glenkeir Treasures Macallan 17
17 year old Speyside single cask single malt Scotch whisky. 57.7%. Sold out, but was ~£70 per bottle
Hancock’s Reserve Single Barrel
Single cask bourbon aged approx 8-10 years. 44.45%. ~£70 from Royal Mile Whiskies
Karuizawa 1982, Whisky Exchange 10th Anniversary Bottling
17 year old single cask Japanese single malt whisky. Sold out, but was available from The Whisky Exchange.
Many thanks to Su Lin Ong of SLO London for inviting me, the staff at Quilon for feeding me and to Dominic for the whisky and whisky talk. I didn’t pay for the evening and did receive a copy of Dominic’s book to take home with me. And a copy of Whiskeria, but I think you can get those for free at The Whisky Shop if you buy something and ask nicely. I think that’s what I did last time.
Tickets are now available for the February 1st 2011 dinner. Details in this PDF.
Dominic is another person who is being foolish and growing a ‘tache for Movember. While it pains me to advertise a ‘rival’ (doubly so, as he’s a member of The Edinburgh Whisky Blog‘s team rather than infinitely superior Whisky4Movember posse) as it’s a rival for sponsorship cash and it all goes to the same place it’d be churlish of me not to link to his fundraising page. His moustache is also better than mine.