I like Scotland. Despite living in London and growing up on the south coast of England, I’ve been making the pilgrimage north of the wall pretty much every year for the last 35. One thing has been constant through all those years: brown signs telling me the way to the next distillery on the Malt Whisky Trail.
I’m not very good at opening whisky. The physical act itself, of ripping foil and pulling corks, is something I have some skill in, but the mental shove to actually open a bottle is often beyond my grasp. Every time I reach for a sealed bottle a tiny voice in my head asks me if I’m sure. ‘Will you be able to get one of those again? Is that the last of it? Shouldn’t you save that for a special occasion?’. More often than not I put the bottle down, but a few nights back I decided crack open one of the more unique bottles in my collection – a hand filled bottle of Glen Moray, filled by me when visiting last year. It was from a cask sat in the visitors centre, inevitably finished by now, and is not the kind of bottle that people normally keep and sell on. When it’s gone, it’s really gone. It’s very nice and reminded me that I’ve not mentioned them on the blog, an oversight I now hope to correct.
Another month and another chance to show my dedication to the cause that is Whisky Squad. We were in The Gunmakers as usual but my head was partly elsewhere – it was IPA day. I’m a big fan of beer and IPA day sprang up quite quickly and quietly, thus clashing with Whisky Squad – nothing should happen on the first Thursday of the month apart from The Squad, this I decree. Anyway, I focused on the whisky and missed out on the rather epic looking IPA Day dinner at the Dean Swift, although I will be making a pilgrimage there to sample their wares soon enough.
Some more of what I done been drinking:
Balvenie 12 Years Doublewood – a whisky grabbed as a chaser round the corner from the Sci-Fi-London film festival after a day of packing bags and herding punters. It had a grassy, olive oily nose with hints of sugary spice and a touch of wood. To taste it had a woody sweetness with some cinnamony spiciness with a bitter fruity finish. As it developed in the glass the sweetness increased and turned towards candyfloss.
Thatchers Old Rascal – I popped into the branch of Byron Hamburger that’s now hiding in the building that used to house The Intrepid Fox (I may never have drunk anything but Newcastle Brown or bottled cider when visiting, but RIP anyway. The new location just isn’t the same) and grabbed a quick bottle of cider to accompany my tasty burger. Described on the label as ‘Full bodied medium dry Somerset cider’, I would have stuck it more towards the medium sweet end of things. Anyways, it was quite nice – more mulchy farmyard flavour than you usually get from a mainstream cider as well as a nice tartness contrasting with the underlying sweetness. One to remember.
The SMWS release a new tranche of whiskies every first Friday of the month, so I stopped by to try a couple. Well, more than a couple after I got talking to the bar staff…I am weak:
SMWS 35.38, Fire in the hole! (Glen Moray) – Chosen specifically because of my interest in strange wood maturations, this one was matured for 9 years in a 2nd fill chardonnay cask. Wine finishes are generally badly thought of by whisky connoisseurs, but a few interesting ones do get out into the wild – this one is a bit of a mixture. A strange nose, with a slab of wood as well as a strange chicken and ammonia combination (to be honest there was a hint of the pub bog to it). To taste it was almost meaty, with overripe fruit and a bitter woody finish. With a bit of water it softened out, becoming more wine-like with some vanilla from the wood and an oily sandalwood flavour coming through. One to try, but not one I want a whole bottle of.
SMWS 93.38, Stirs the atavistic soul (Glen Scotia) – The intended final dram of the evening, this was to sate my love of Campbelltown whiskies, although as there are only two remaining distilleries, Glen Scotia and Springbank, this is quite a limited love. Luckily Springbank have a couple of brands they distill giving a slightly wider field for me to taste my way through. Anyways, this reminded me, from my notes, of a damp wood fire in someone else’s garden – smoke at a distance with a touch of damp woodiness. There were sour grapes and cured meat on the nose as well. To taste there was a touch of sweet wine as well as tannic wood, almost like a fruity rioja. A drop of water softened the wood, bringing out more sweetness and hiding the tannins. Overall the main memory I have is of a tingling menthol like finish down the sides of the tongue. Quite definitely from Campbelltown and really quite nice.
SMWS 27.80 (Springbank) – no name for this one as I can’t find it on the website. Continuing the Campbelltown kick I went for a recommended dram of this new (I think) Springbank. It had salt and a light sweetness on the nose, as well as a plimsoll-like rubberiness. To taste it had more salt and rubber as well as a sweetness and a prickly, numbing sensation. Water brought on more sweetness and a slick, buttery mouthfeel, along with more rubber and fisherman’s friends. It reminds me very much of the bottle of single cask Springbank I got from Cadenhead’s while at the Edinburgh Festival last year, although this one is even better. I may have to pick up a bottle on my next visit.
SMWS 53.140, Swelling, crashing, waves of flavour (Caol Ila) – a deliberate evening ending choice, although I was offered an even more peaty Ardbeg by the ever helpful barman. I declined, but made a note for my next visit. On the nose it had a sweet peaty smoke with a hint of disinfectant, mulch and parma violets. To taste it was crisply smoky with candy floss and citrus fruit, but rather complex and overpowering and in need of dilution. Water saves your palate from certain destruction, with the flavours combining to give a sweet wet ash smokiness, a touch of orange and a tingly finish. It’s good I stopped after it as I was still tasting it when I got home an hour later.
And my favourite of the week:
Fuller’s Bengal Lancer – I’ve tried this IPA on tap, but not grabbed a bottle yet, however, I’m glad I did. It’s a bottle conditioned, very heavily hopped IPA which is light on the palate but still wonderfully bitter, with the great taste of citrusy hops dominating in a rather pleasant way. As the hops die back there’s a nice touch of fruity malt and it finishes with the same bitterness that most Fuller’s beers display. Very good and one that I’ll be stocking up on when I find someone to drive me to the shops.
My week up in Scotland recently not only introduced me to Benromach whisky, but also to the idea of putting whisky in new casks. Now, this may not sound like a particularly wild idea, but the majority of whisky is matured in casks that have already held some other form of booze – bourbon and sherry being the current mainstays before you get on to ‘wood finishing’. The first fill of booze will temper the barrel and remove a lot of the transferable woodiness, letting the second fill pick up different flavours and not be overcome by the wood. However, while up in Scotland I heard of three different whiskies using brand new wood – Benromach Organic and two from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a Glen Moray and a Glenmorangie.
I’ve written about Benromach before, but its use of new wood intrigued me enough while at the distillery that I quizzed our tour guide a bit about it. The wood comes from a US forest which, while maybe not intentionally planted as such many years ago, has been kept up to Soil Association ‘Organic’ standards and that certification suggests a reason why they are using new wood – in order to be certified as Organic they would have to use products that have not been subject to any processes that are not up to scratch, something that I suspect Jack Daniels (the usual first spirit in whisky barrels) don’t really aspire to. While the wood choice may be in part forced on them by their move to make the first organic whisky, it has also pushed them to make an interesting production whisky – the other two I found from new wood are single cask bottlings rather than generally available. The wood comes across clearly in the Benromach, appearing at the start of the taste as a tannic kick and adding vanilla to the aftertaste as well as a lingering woodiness. With water an oaky creaminess pops up and the tannins mellow slightly. During our tour the guide commented that the new barrels add a hint of bourbon flavour to the whisky and now that I have tasted it I can now tell some of the elements of Bourbon that come directly from the wood – some of the sweetness, the slight bitterness on the center of the tongue and the vanilla creaminess that you often miss if you drink your whiskey with ice. I rather like the Benromach organic and am slightly sad that it has almost disappeared in it’s original incarnation, currently replaced by the peated Special Edition, but Sandy the distillery tour guide did assure me that it will be reappearing soon.
While visiting the Edinburgh SMWS rooms on the way back from my sojourn in The Highlands I tried to grab a dram of their new Glen Moray, intrigued by the talk of new wood and my new found liking for the Benromach. However, due to an issue with the bottle labels (either they had the wrong ABV or they’d been stuck on the wrong side of the bottle, depending on who you spoke to) it hadn’t turned up in time and I was directed towards a Glenmorangie bottling using a similar idea – 125.31, Tropicana then luscious poached pears. At the recent Whisky Exchange Glenmorangie tasting I learned about the ‘designer casks’ that they had put together for the their Astar – specially selected trees, grown slowly so as to have the right consistency to allow the whisky to be flavoured by the wood in the manner they wanted. However, Astar is not matured in new wood – the barrels are sent over to Jack Daniels for the first four years of their lives, arriving at Glenmorangie after the whiskey has been removed. With a litle reading between the lines on the SMWS website it seems that it is a whisky matured in an Astar barrel untouched by JD. Rather than the upfrontness of the Benromach, the Glenmorangie’s wood was all at the end – it’s a sweet whisky with a slight prickly spiciness that lands in a mouthful of twigs. I wasn’t all that keen, but it wasn’t in any way unpleasant.
Glen Moray have until recently been part of the Glenmorangie family and were a testbed for some of their crazy ideas – according to the barman at the SMWS, if you saw something strange come out of Glen Moray and do well then you could be sure that it would probably appear from Glenmorangie shortly after. I finally managed to find a dram of this final new wood example at the London tasting rooms, after the bottle wrangling had been completed – 35.34, Moroccan Tea-room Masculinity. On the nose there was salt and aniseed, and not a lot of the woodiness I was expecting. To taste there was more wood and tannins, but also toffee, salt and peppery lemons. With water the wood came out more, with a chunk of vanilla, but it wasn’t quite so overpowering as it is in the Benromach. Interesting, but not one for me to add to the collection.
I also found another whisky which uses some new wood while wandering around Whisky Live – Compass Box Spice Tree. While chatting with the guy on the stand about the company’s obsession with wood, we talked about the process that led them to the current methods for getting woodiness into Spice Tree.
First there was a stage that I heard about elsewhere, where they put wood chips in the marrying barrels – a process well known in the wine industry, even if it is seen as a little dodgy. [They didn’t use chips – see the comment from John Glaser below] This was quickly stopped by the SWA, who don’t like it when people do strange things and try and call their product whisky, but they carried on the idea by putting whole new wooden barrel staves directly into the barrel, another trick pinched from wine. This was, again, quickly banned and they came up with their latest trick (not mentioned on their website yet, which tells the tale of their run-ins with the SWA) – new barrel ends. Rather than making a whole barrel from new wood, which would have a bit more of an effect than they wanted, they just replaced the ends of the barrels with the new wood, giving the whisky some contact while at the same time not breaking the rules. The folk at Compass Box are smart. And a bit mad. The Spice Tree is a 100% malt blend, currently made up of Clynelish, Teaninch and Dailuaine (I think that’s right on the last one – I had been drinking by then and my hearing was going) and it’s pleasantly spicy, as the name and intention suggest, with a rich sweetness and some woodiness from the new oak.
It seems that new wood is one of the latest experiments in the whisky world that’s starting to rear its head after a decade long maturation process. Without thinking about the time the whisky has been in the warehouse it almost seems as if the distillers are reacting to the work of people like Compass Box, who are doing interesting things with wood, but after some consideration (as Compass Box are only a decade old) it looks like it’s all part of the long cycle of whisky experimentation. I’m interested to see what other single barrel bottlings appear from new wood but am also intrigued as to what this new flavour might contribute to regular bottlings. Glenmorangie have already made a bit of a splash with Astar, I’m keen to see who’s next.