Discovery Road Four Lions and Smile – Dom Roskrow’s Drams

Discovery Road

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.

I met him back in 2010 at a rather posh tasting thrown in honour of his (at the time) latest book – The World’s Best Whiskies. Since then, he and I have crossed paths a bunch of times, from press jollies to whisky tastings (including a couple of Whisky Squad sessions – 1 & 2) and even working together. Well, I wrote a few entries for another book of his, 1001 Whiskies to Try Before You Die.

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.

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Whisky Squad #23 – The Smoking Section

The problem with combining the ever lengthening Christmas season with having two whisky squad sessions per month is that someone who works in whisky retail (me) gets a bit busy. As such this post has taken me rather a while to produce, even for a lazy drunk like myself. At least it should be appearing before the end of the month…if I get a move on and start writing about the whisky rather than myself…

Anyways, the first of November’s Squad meetups was to feature a topic that hasn’t really been broached since back in my first attendance, Whisky Squad #4 – Islay Malts. That session featured a range of whisky from the island, rather than focusing on the traditional peaty fare, so the chaps decided that a night for smoke heads was long overdue. Hence Whisky Squad #23 – The Smoking Section.

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Whisky Tasting Club #2 – Whiskies of the World

Despite my best intentions I do seem to let a lot of the things that I grab to write about stack up. While that may not seem like the worst thing in the world (Oh noes! I seem to have a pile of boozes on a shelf and I HAVE to taste them all…) it does make me feel like a naughty schoolboy who hasn’t done his homework. So, when a mail arrives from the Whisky Tasting Club to let me know that my next box of whiskies are on their way, reminding me that I haven’t even opened my last tasting box yet, I feel the urging boot of ‘get on with it’.

Rather than a gentle sampling over the space of a couple of weeks, like I did last time, I decided to sit down and make a ‘proper’ tasting. I will admit that it was in part to get use of the five watchglasses that I slightly drunkenly purchased at Whisky Live a couple of weeks back. I like glassware too much. Anyways, tasting set #2’s theme is Whiskies of the World and included drams from the USA, Japan, India, England and The Netherlands.

WTC #2

Taking them in the order in the accompanying leaflet I started with the Zuidam 5 year old Dutch Rye. I’ve written about this one before, as I have with most of the whiskies in this box, but found it a bit less sweet than last time. On the nose my notes describe it as ‘mentholated bourbon’, with sharp rich fruit, vanilla, coconut and foam bananas – overall sweet but with an underlying tannic dryness. To taste I got sour cream, sweet vanilla caramel, hints of cinnamon, sour white grapes and a creamy woody finish. Water brought out more sourness with grapes and wood and added vanilla to the finish.

Next was Nikka from the Barrel. I’m a big fan of Nikka and this blend was my choice for my own aborted Whiskies of the World tasting. It also has a really pretty bottle. On the nose there were raisins, sweet wood and flowers – very reminiscent of good aged grain whisky (one of my favourite things). To taste there was big dry wood, turning quickly bitter through plump sultanas to a dry cardboard finish with quite a lot of alcoholic prickle on the tongue. Water tamed everything and amalgamated the flavours – tannic vine fruits leading to a sour woody finish with a good chunk of booze hanging around.

Third was Amrut Fusion, which I tried at Albannach a few weeks back. On the nose I got much more this time, with butter, bread and a hint of vanilla standing out over a hefty alcoholic hit – ‘boozy brioche’ my notes say. To taste it was quite closed but I got a light creaminess followed by a spike of fruit and grain. It can take a good chunk of water and the flavour opened up to reveal cream, sweet crunchy apple and hints of grain leading to a woody finish of old furniture and fruit trees.

Next was the English Whisky Company Chapter 9, which I tried at the first Albannach Whisky Hub. At three years old this is as young as whisky gets and it definitely shows. On the nose there was cream backed by fruity peat, sweet lemons and a hint of green wood smoke. To taste it was quite light and oily, with a peat smoke burst surrounded by apples and lightly muddy vegetal notes. There was the taste of young whisky (the caraway/aquavit flavour of young barley spirit) and the finish was short and tasted of digestive biscuits. Water killed most of the smoke leaving sweet citrus and young spirit – a lemon aquavit? My bottle of this is staying in the cupboard unopened for now.

Last was Elijah Craig 12 year old, the only one I don’t remember trying before and one I’ve been meaning to for a while. I’ve been a fan of Elijah Craig for a while ever since my last stop at my first Whisky Live was their stand – I stood there quite wobbily, talking about barrel aging of spirits in different climates with a group of similarly wobbling punters and the stand owners, having very little clue about what I was saying and occasionally having my glass topped up by people who seemed to find that amusing. I may have tried the 12 then, but that was pre-notebook and the only thing I remember from that part of the evening was my misplaced certainty that I knew everything about barrels. On the nose the 12 year old had big sour caramel, rich PX-like raisins, golden rum, coconut, glace cherries, a hint of pepper and some underlying sour grain. To taste it was thick and waxy but lighter than the nose suggested. It started with sweet grain and moved through cherry, crunchy mango and violets to a throat-warming finish of sweet fruit wood. Water smoothed out the slight throat burn and brought out some sweetness from the wood – green apples in the middle, dusty raisins at the side and the cherries become more glacé-like.

My next box is sitting on my desk along with a copy of Dom Roskrow’s World’s Best Whiskies, a bonus for having for subscribed for 3 boxes, and this set’s theme is Wood. Hopefully I’ll get round to cracking these open a bit sooner.

Zuidam 5 Year Old Rye
Dutch rye whiskey, 40%.~£50.

Nikka from the Barrel
Japanese blended whisky, 51.8%. ~£25.

Amrut Fusion
Indian single malt whisky, 50%. ~£35.

English Whisky Chapter 9
English single malt whisky, 46%. ~£40.

Elijah Craig 12 Year Old
USA bourbon whiskey, 47%. ~£25.

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 #11 – The Bottle of Britain

The blessing, and curse, of the monthly whisky club is that it pops up so regularly. Unfortunately this does often mean that it is surrounded, in my diary at least, by other whisky related events, so now after one whole post of respite we move on to whisky deluge #2.

This month’s cryptic theme at Whisky Squad was The Bottle of Britain, but after a bit of deduction it wasn’t that hard to work out what we were going to be seeing – Whisky Squad usually does four bottles per month and there are four constituent countries to our glorious United Kingdom: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. All four have distilleries, so that’s a ready made tasting ready to rock.

Arriving at The Gunmakers I saw four bottles on the side and nodded my head sagely, smug in the knowledge that I was, as is obvious, best. Then Andy arrived and added a 5th bottle to the pile. All bets were now off. There’s only one distillery in each of Wales, England and Northern Ireland, and pulling in two Scotches isn’t Whisky Squad’s style, so one of the bottles was a mystery. And to add to the mystery we only had them revealed once we have tried all 5 – there wasn’t even going to be a chance of guessing by ticking options off the list…

ManxFirst up was a suspiciously colourless liquid that smelled suspiciously like whisky, that well known not-colourless liquid. On the nose it had a bit of barley grain (which I suspect wasn’t really there but was instead my underlying assumption that it was new make spirit), vanilla, red berries, bread and a hint of the farmyard. To taste it was sweet and didn’t taste much like a new make spirit – astringent fruitiness, peach stones and sweet vanilla cream. Water brought out some woody smoke and reduced a bit of the astrigency, but still left a bit at the end. It was almost like someone had bleached a whisky of all colour (and some of its flavour) and in a way that’s what had happened. It was revealed to be a spirit drink, rather than whisky as such, from the Isle of Man (Not part of the UK, but part of the British Isles, so I’ll allow it) – ManX Blue. Designed to be used in cocktails, where being clear is a bonus, ManX buy whisky (at least 5 years old) from Scotland and then redistil it to produce a clear drink with some of the flavour of whisky, but none of the colour. They variously claim a patent ‘intensification process’ where neutral alcohols are removed as well as that they ‘enhance the flavour of the drink by removing certain compounds found in the original whisky‘. It certainly removes something, but it is still worryingly drinkable. The thought in the room was that bad whisky was used as the starting product, either stuff that didn’t taste right or that which had dropped below 40% and thus couldn’t legally be called whisky any more (although fortifying it with stronger whisky is allowed – cf the conspiracy theories about Ardbeg Serendipity and the strength of the Ardbeg that went into it), and that this is probably better than the initial product. It’s not particularly easily findable at the moment, but you can get it on their website for £30 a bottle, or £54 when paired with the ‘distilled from at least 10 year old whisky’ (but still cheaper than the blue) red label. Weird stuff.

English Whisky Chapter 6We then moved on to something which was also rather different from our regular whisky fair. With a bit more colour than the ManX, not hard though that was, it was still very pale and had a nose of marzipan, amaretti biscuits, marshmallows and nuts, with a meaty silage note underneath that suggested relative youth. To taste there were caramel nuts, candly floss, sour apples and a woody finish. Water brought out sweetness and custardy cream, with brandy fruitiness hanging around as well. At the reveal I wasn’t particularly surprised to see that it was the English Whisky Company‘s Chapter 6, despite having tasted it recently and not picked it out before the concealing paper (this week a page from each of the newspapers that Gunmakers landlord Jeff had left downstairs) was removed. The Chapter 6 is the first release from the English Whisky Company that can properly be called whisky, the 5 releases before coming at 6 month intervals from distilling, and it was one of the last ones to be put together by consulting distiller Ian Henderson, with production taken over by the owners of the distillery now that things are up and running. It’s young, different and something that I suspect will get more interesting over time – roll on the later chapters…

Penderyn Sherry CaskNext was something that appeared to be much more traditionally whisky – darker in the glass and more familiar in smell and taste. The nose had caramel, spiced fruit, strawberry, rum and raisin fudge, liquorice bootlaces, wine gums and creamed coconut. To taste there was a big sweetness up front, almost cloying, followed by sappy wood, sweet coconut and milk chocolate. Water brought the sourness from the wood as well as woody spices, more fruit and Asian cooking spice. The paper was removed and the tall elegant bottle was revealed to be Penderyn Sherrywood. They are Wales’s only whisky distillery and I’m still not convinced, although this is the nicest one I’ve tried so far. There’s a taste in there that I can’t quite describe that not only tells me it’s Penderyn but also grates on my palate. The more heavily sherried whiskies I’ve tried from them have masked it, but it’s still hiding in the background, souring things for me.

Bushmill's 1608Our penultimate whisky was a bit of a divider, with it initially being my least favourite of the night, but developing into one of my favourites. On the nose it had, according to Whisky Guy Darren, ‘maraschino cherries and diesel oil’, sponge cake (from me) and ‘cheap apple shampoo’ according to Alan. To taste it was very tannic, almost causing my face to compress to a point, with wood smoke and struck matches. The tannins were too much for me and I quickly declared it to be nasty, however after a drop of water I ate my words. The violence of the wood was rubbed away, leaving a solid woodiness but also more sweetness and more of the cakey vanilla and fruit that the nose promised. The paper came off and it was shown to be Bushmills 1608, produced for the 400th anniversary of the distillery. While the location of the distillery that was built 400 years ago is down the road from the current distillery there was a license for distilling issued to someone in the area in 1608, so we can probably let them have the ‘oldest distillery in the world’ tag for the time being.

Speaker Bercow'sLast, but very much not least, was something a lot more familiar – on the nose there was spiced apple and pear, vanilla and soft wood. To taste there was creamy custard leading to a sugary wood centre and dry wood to finish. Water brought out more wood, more custard and some butteriness – a text book bit of rich Scotch whisky. The label came off and a Scotch it was – House of Commons Speaker Bercow’s Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Exclusively available at the House of Commons (and thus from eBay and other ‘secondhand’ buying locations), this was a leaving present to Andy from a job there, donated to us for the evening. There is a tradition of malt whiskies being produced in the Speaker’s name, with previous speaker Michael Martin definitely not being involved in the selection process due to the small problem of him being teetotal, and they are rather collectible, especially when signed by members of parliament or the speaker themself. The previous bottling, Speaker Martin’s, seems to have been overtly a Macallan but this one is quietly bottled by Gordon & MacPhail with no indication of origin, although Darren reckoned it might well be a Macallan. Tasty, no matter what it was – a reason to visit the Commons bar (or the Private Members gift shop).

Another month down and another tasting to look forward to next month. It’s not up on the Whisky Squad website yet, but March’s tasting will be with Compass Box, purveyors of fine blends to discerning drinkers since the year 2000. It’ll be up on the site soon, so keep an eye there and on Twitter – tickets go quickly…

ManX Blue
Whisky based spirit drink, 40%. ~£30 from their website

English Whisky Company Chapter 6
English single malt whisky, 46%. ~£40 from The Whisky Exchange

Penderyn Sherrywood
Welsh single malt whisky, 46%. ~£35 from Master of Malt

Bushmills 1608
Irish blended whisky, 46%. ~£40 from The Whisky Exchange

Speaker Bercow’s Single Malt Whisky
Single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. Occasionally available from eBay or more regularly at the House of Commons Private Members gift shop…

Alan beat me to finishing a write-up this month and you can find his, complete with very pretty pictures, over on his blog