Chivas Regal Tasting at The Attic

It surprises me how many random booze related events happen around London every day. Little by little I’m finding where some of them are (and am writing a website that will hopefully have information about them, not that I’ve actually started yet) and this was another that fell into my lap – a tasting of Chivas Regal 48 floors up in Canary Wharf…

Dome

Thanks to a tweet from the lovely Mr Matchett I fired off an email and was invited along to an evening with Phil Huckle, Chivas Regal brand ambassador, at the Attic Bar in the Pan Peninsula building. The plan was to taste through the three flagship Chivas Regal bottlings (12, 18 and 25 years old) as well as some of the Strathisla single malt that forms the core of the whisky. Unfortunately, due to a delivery mixup we got a case of Glenlivet rather than the Chivas 12, so no proper vertical tasting, but we did start on a whisky that I rather like.

Chivas sits in the ‘premium’ blend category – still mass produced but made with finer whiskies than you’d find in the Teachers and Bells of this world. I found their story amusing, in a schadenfreude kind of way. In the mid 1800s the Chivas Brothers, James and John, had a posh grocers in Aberdeen and branched out into whisky blending (James moving from tea to whisky) in an attempt to make something smooth enough to replace cognac, which had recently been hit by phylloxera, wiping out a lot of production. It was popular and they started supplying the royal family. In 1909 the Chivas company produced a 25 year old blended whisky which they started selling successfully in the USA as the first premium scotch whisky, but the trail of woe then begun. In 1914 the first world war started, when that ended in 1919 prohibition started, shortly after that finished in 1932 the second world war begun, followed by the Wall Street crash and great depression. None of these things particularly helped the world of Chivas and the company started losing money. In 1950 they were bought up by Seagrams (for the knock down price of £80,500), who also bought Strathisla and some of the other components to ensure a continuity of supply. They relaunched Chivas Regal as a 12 year old blend shortly after, Frank Sinatra decided he liked it and off it shot into premium blend stardom.

Whisky CocktaiWhen we (Me, Chris and Alan) arrived we were presented with a cocktail by Phil – a classic mix of whisky (Chivas 18 in this case), cinnamon syrup and apple juice. A tasty cocktail, although the whisky didn’t real feel that integrated with the rest of the cocktail (and the 18 was a bit wasted on being mixed). We quickly moved (after a few photos on the balcony) on to the main part of the evening – the tasting.

We started on the Glenlivet 12, which is nothing to do with Chivas other than also being owned by Pernod-Ricard. After the focus group I was at the other week I had more of an idea what to expect from the whisky. On the nose there was biscuits, flowers, olive oil, candy floss and tropical fruit. To taste it is less sweet than the nose suggests, with wood, more biscuits and berry fruits. A touch of water brings out more sweetness from the wood, adds vanilla, spice and a creamy mouth feel, all finished with a bitter woodiness. It’s the second best selling whisky in the world and while I’m not a fan of Glenfiddich (the best selling) I can see why this does so well – it’s easy to drink and solid. Nothing too special, but a good one.

We then moved on to the core of the Chivas Regal 12 – Strathisla 12 year old single malt. Strathisla is a small distillery and almost all of their output goes into the Chivas blends, working as the core of the whiskies. On the nose it was quite light and savoury, with nuts and a touch of sweetness. To taste it had much more – hazelnuts, spice, burnt caramel and a background oiliness with a woody finish. It can take a slug of water, which opens the wood to creamy vanilla and floor polish, even more nuts and flowers. Strangely light on the nose, but quite a big bigger in body – a solid and tasty speyside whisky.

We then got to try a non-production whisky- the Strathisla 18 year old single malt. It’s the core of the Chivas Regal 18 year old blend and as such doesnt get out of the distillery unless it’s in a Chivas bottle or going to a tasting. This was a chunk darker than the last one, coming in as a dark gold, and on the nose it had an appley sweetness, a touch of hazelnut and an oily end. To taste it was very light, much lighter than the 12. The wood had had much more of an effect, giving it a lightly spicy vanilla taste. A tiny drop of water brought out the creaminess that I’d expect with so much wood, along with more peary fruit and vanilla, but more than a drop swamped it. A delicate whisky that I’m surprised survives so well in a blend.

Now we came to the reasons behind the tasting, the Chivas blends – first up was the Chivas Regal 18. On the nose it’s got sour fruit (cherries?), coffee and oaky vanilla. It had a very smooth taste, with lots of wood and vanilla, but not much else. A touch of water opened it up with the creamy mouthfeel of the Strathisla along with a touch of linseed oil, woody spice and a warming finish. It’s quite pleasant and I can see the intention – blending some good whisky together (with some cheaper, but still good quality grain whisky) to create a very easy drinking dram. It’s a bit light for my taste, but isn’t bad.

Chivas 18Chivas 25

The final dram of the night was something a little special – the Chivas Regal 25. Not a recreation of the original 25 year old blend, as the recipe for that is long gone and there are no known surviving bottles, but the very limited edition that they only make a few thousand bottles of a year. The UKs allocation is only 360 this year and somehow 3 bottles managed to end up at our tasting.  It had a really distinctive smell, with a strong scent of pears with a flowery perfume and a hint of butterscotch. To taste it was very delicate, with a creamy mouthfeel off the bat, spicy pears and cherries fading to a bitter dry wood finish. It didn’t need water, but with a drop there was more vanilla, apricots, the oiliness from the Strathisla and a peach stone bitterness to finish. A very elegant dram and very delicate with it. It was quite nice, but probably not something that I’d pay £200 for.

All in all a much more interesting tasting than I was expecting from the description. I’ve tried the Chivas 12 and it’s always just come across as Just Another Blend (although I need to have another try now that I’ve realised that being snobby about blends is stupid), but the older whiskies were in a different league. Strathisla has also gone on my ‘try again’ list and from reports the distillery tour is one for me to look out for next time I’m up in Scotland. A good night.

Glenlivet 12 year old
Speyside single malt scotch whisky, 40%, ~£24 with wide availability

Strathisla 12 year old
Speyside single malt scotch whisky, 42%, ~£25 in whisky shops

Strathisla 18 year old
Speyside single malt scotch whisky, ?%, not commercially available

Chivas Regal 18 year old
Blended scotch whisky, 40%, ~£40 and fairly widely available

Chivas Regal 25 year old
Blended scotch whisky, 40%, £150-£200 with very limited availability

The event was put on in conjunction with The Whisky Show, which is happening in late October this year. I’ve been waiting for tickets to go on general sale for the last month or so (after having it thoroughly sold to me by some regulars at the SMWS) and they’ve appeared in the last few days. It’s £95 a day or £160 for both, which is steep but does let you taste some rather special whiskies (the only tokens are for bottles that cost more than £800…you get one per day). Now to find out when anyone else I know is going…

Quick Tastings

Not all that many, but a couple I want to mark in my brain:

Harviestoun Old Engine Oil – the dark beer that I thought was the base of the Ola Dubh, but after a taste of this at the Vintage Ale tasting I’m not so sure. It’s a thick dark beer with loads of chocolate malt and not a lot that could be described as sweet. Dry and dark, it’s rather good but not as much like Ola Dubh as I was expecting.

Gales Prize Old Ale 2007Gales Prize Old Ale 2007 – another I tried at the Vintage tasting, but one I picked up at Whisky Live this year. It’s a worrying thing but I picked up significantly more beer than whisky, with a bottle of this and a brace of Fuller’s Brewers Reserve coming home with me. It looks like a typically flat and dark old ale, but is rather surprising to smell and taste. My tasting companions were rather split, with its smell of dry cider dividing lovers from loathers and leaving me on the lovers side. It reminds me a lot of the various Flemish red ales that I’ve tried recently (although not quite as scary as  Duchesse de Bourgogne) – thick, sour and fruity with cherries along with an unexpected bitter old ale aftertaste. It’s a bit of the flemish and a bit of the english old ale – I’ll be grabbing some more as soon as I find it.

Blanton’s Gold Edition – after an evening at Bob Bob Ricard (they’re rather good even when they’re not treating you to a vodka tasting, even if they didn’t have the zakuski or vodka I liked best on their normal menu) me and occasional drinking buddy Kosh stopped into Graphic on Golden Square for an evening ender. While I didn’t like the bar (and thought their regular cocktails looked a bit rubbish) they had not only a couple of interesting looking bottles of bourbon on the shelf but also a bartender who knew a chunk about Blanton’s and sorted us out with some of their Gold Edition. I don’t remember much other than that it was definitely the best Blanton’s whiskey I’ve tasted – typically dryer than most of the bourbons I’ve tried and with a nice rich body, with hints of grain, caramel and fruit. Annoyingly I was drunk and don’t remember all that much, but I may have to go back and try some more.

The Glenlivet 12 Year Old – a bottle given to me after doing a focus group about whisky branding. I’ve always thought of Glenlivet as the old dusty bottle that sits next to the Glenfiddich (a whisky that I’m not a fan of) and was rather surprised by this one. On the nose it has apples, linseed oil and caramel, with an overarching theme of the woodland. To taste it lightly sweet, with a hint of woodiness and a bit of richness fading to a bitter finish. There’s a hint of the oil and apple from the nose, and it’s remarkably refreshing for something that is still quite full bodied. A drop of water brings out some a fruity sweetness and lets the oily wood flavour develop at the same time as removing some of the prickliness and burn. It’s not going to go on my must have list, but it’s a perfectly decent dram.

Eastercon Whisky Tasting with Iain Banks

Being a science fiction fan I spent the long easter weekend just gone hidden away in hotel by Heathrow airport attending Eastercon, the yearly british sci-fi convention. While the con committee managed to rustle up a bar full of London Pride and Old Rosie (even if the cider did its traditional thing and disappeared a lot faster than the bar staff expected) the other bars were fairly lacking in interesting booze. I continued my habit of drinking through the most interesting whiskies that they had (knocking back some Glenkinchie, Knockando and Caol Ila) but one program item above all caught my eye – a whisky tasting with Iain Banks.

IMG_4791Mr Banks is one of my favourite authors, not only for his excellent regular fiction and SF but also for his other book – Raw Spirit. It may claim to be a book about whisky, but the main things I remember are a page of waxing lyrical about Chateau Musar (which I now try and keep at least one bottle of in the house at all times) and many more passages about how much fun it is to drive around the great wee roads of Scotland in a Land Rover. However, the book is one of the things that kicked me into trying to explore non-beery boozes and also to write about it, so obtaining a spot on the whisky tasting became a mission. I foolishly turned up several hours before sign up to make sure I got one of the 15 spots only to find that a) noone was queuing at 8am and b) noone was awake at 8am. However, a queue did appear at about 9am and as number 4 in line I got on the list.

We convened later that day for the tasting, led by a panel including Iain Banks and Liz Williams, two of the convention’s guests of honour, with an original plan of going through six whiskies: a lowland, a highland (although one on the edge of speyside), two speysides and a pair of Islays.

First up was Auchentoshan 12 year old, our easy drinking lowland to lull the non-whisky drinkers into a false sense of security. I’ve not tried the regular Auchentoshan before (this having replaced the previous standard 10 year old expression), although I did work my way quite happily through a bottle of their Three Wood a few years back. This is a unique distillery in that it distills its spirit three times, rather than the standard twice of the other distilleries in Scotland. On the nose the whisky was quite strong, with a touch of vanilla and quite a slug of alcoholically themed scents – pear drops, lighter fluid and a hint of acetone, although I suspect that part of that was from the use of plastic cups and my already setting in con tiredness. To taste it was not as light as I expected, with a chunk of wood and tannin softening into vanilla and a touch of honey. A drop of water opened up the sweetness into a more honeyed caramel and revealed a touch of smoke, fruit stones and linseed oil as it developed in the glass. Definitely one to let sit with a drop of water in, it mellowed into rather an interesting dram over a few minutes.

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Iain Banks is quite well known for his ability to spin a yarn in person as well as on paper and in between whiskies there was a touch of discussion and story telling, even if it did inevitably splinter into 10 conversations as the booze started to settle in. It seems that I was not the only one to notice a hint of the petrolhead in Raw Spirit, but Banks has started to tone down his car collection due to a touch of green guilt. The Land Rover and fast cars seem to have disappeared to be replaced by first a hybrid and now a diesel, a tale accompanied by a slightly sad tone to his voice.

Next we moved to the highlands for the Dalwhinnie 15 year old. One of my fall back malts this is one that I know well, having visited the distillery a few times and had numerous bottles in my cupboard as a drink I know I like. On the nose there’s a touch of smoke and a sweetness that turns into fruit salad chews in the mouth. It also has a peppery prickle on the tongue and a bit of toffee. Water evens out the smoke a touch, letting a bit of the fruitiness come out.

Hiding at the back of the audience, behind the lucky people who got the drinking passes, was a lady who works in the perfume industry and as a discussion of flavours and scents flourished she chipped in with some interesting thoughts from a different but very similar industry. As we started describing the flavours of the whiskies, and comparing them to the traditionally flowery tasting notes, the inevitable contradictions started to appear. There are many reasons for this, with two main points coming up. Firstly the physical limitations of smell, from genetic heritage governing sensitivity to certain chemical compounds, to just the fact that over time (and with age) the senses start to dim, leading to them being less overpowered when you experience a strong flavour such as whisky. Secondly the role that experience plays in both forming sense memories and retrieving them, leading to flavours that may not perfectly line-up but mean something to the individual.

Next on the list was our next speyside – Glenlivet French Oak. This, like Macallan, is one of those whiskies that I kept meaning to get round to again – a big name that I assume I know the taste of, but don’t actually remember. The French Oak is yet another whisky that uses a bit of new wood in its production – a proportion of the blend of malts has been matured in new Limousin oak casks. On the nose it had vanilla and red fruit but became a bit more complicated in the mouth, with a malty sweetness, creaminess and a hint of smoke. A touch of water turned up the heat and added some more wood to the flavour but turned down both creaminess and sweetness. A much more interesting dram than I expected, especially with the creamy mouth feel that the oak brought, but one to drink at bottle strength.

It was about this point in proceedings that you could tell you were at a convention that attracted some people with a knowledge of science. Led by the perfumer a discussion started about the biology of scent detection, with the traditional lock and key explanation (certain ‘shaped’ chemicals clicking into similarly shaped receptors to produce nerve impulses) being questioned as current research suggests that similarity in the shape of chemicals doesn’t always lead to similar tastes. There is also some difficulty in doing experimentation on this as imaging people’s brains in controlled and repeateable conditions is not trivial, especially as everyone’s brain is wired somewhat differently leading to different areas ‘lighting up’ with the same flavour in different people. There’s rather a lot to the science of flavour…

Next was the first of our cask strength whiskies, bottled by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society – 24.106: Discordant Staves. It’s a 12 year old Macallan which I assume was matured in one of their regular sherry casks. On the nose it was fruitcakey with a thick caramel sweetness, but on tasting a lot of the cake fell away to give a sweet, slightly oily dram with hints of raisins and a touch of rubberiness running through the middle. A rather different flavour to the other Macallan’s I’ve tried recently and one that has pushed them towards the top of my ‘taste these when they arrive at the SMWS’ list.

Our discussions about flavours and experiences led to how we decide on what a ‘good’ whisky is. In the end a large part of that seems to come down to the associations that the whisky had. Liz Williams had a fondness for Glenfiddich, as it’s what her dad drinks, other people had drinks that they’d had a weddings or parties. When ‘researching’ (the quotes were explained as being implicit in all mentions of the word) Raw Spirit, Iain Banks actually did very little drinking at the distilleries – as the main driver he ended up buying a bottle from every distillery he visited for later sampling at home. However, he mentioned that one of his favourite whiskies was an Ardbeg, one that he tried at the distillery. The experience of drinking a one of a kind barrel, since sold to someone else, standing beside the distillery as the sun sets over the sea is an experience I can see sticking with you, especially if it’s a good dram.

Suitably, our next whisky was Ardbeg 10 year old. Ardbeg’s a bit on the up at the moment, with a lot of their limited production being snapped up quite quickly. I’ve not tried it since I met up with some friends a couple of years back to drink our way through the rather complete range that Adam had ‘accidentally’ bought while leafing through the Ardbeg web store. The 10 year old is the standard expression and it shows the distillery’s nature quite well. On the nose it has a strong peatiness, moving into a cattle feed and mulchy sweetness. On the tongue the smoky peat taste continues to dominate, with woody sweetness, a thick rubberiness and a slightly buttery taste combining to make a rather nice whisky. It’s not one for the fainthearted, with the TCP-like taste of the very peaty Islay whiskies shining through, but if you like that sort of thing it won’t disappoint.

By this time conversation was getting a bit confused – it’s quite surprising how many people can get a decent sized shot out of a bottle of whisky… We quickly moved on to our final dram in the tasting, another SMWS cask strength bottling, this time of a Laphroaig29.80: Wedding Cake in a Coal Sack. Laphroaig’s reputation preceded it, which made this dram a bit of a sheep in wolf’s clothing – a stealth whisky. Rather than the regular TCP, sea spray and peat that you’d expect, I got hint of burnt matches on the nose, along with a rich fruity sweetness. To taste it continued the nose with ash, citrus and dried fruit all coming through. A drop of water removed little, adding a taste of coal and a slightly socky tint. A very interesting whisky, not at all what we expected and a good one to finish the tasting.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your state of inebriation, a few of us had brought along a few samples of our own. 1/2r Cruttenden brought along a bottle of the St George’s English whisky, which very quickly was accepted into the running order as a final drink of the session. This is part of the first release, at 3 years old, with the distillery having released ‘Chapter X’ bottlings every six months over the maturation of the spirit. It’s only a limited release as they want to mature it a bit longer, a decision I thoroughly agree with. The whisky is obviously very young, with only a little of the wood’s flavour penetrating the spirit, leaving it with a definite hint of aquavit and caraway seed. However, it is a very smooth whisky with an incredibly thick and creamy mouth feel that makes me want to get my name on the waiting list for new bottles. There is also a peated version coming out in the summer which seems to be preferred by many, so I may have to look into obtaining a bottle. For scientific purposes, of course.

On top of that I tried a drop of my own Yamazaki Sherry Cask, still as good as ever, and a big sip of some 18 year old Bladnoch that was more fully flavoured than any lowland I’ve tried in a long time – another to move back up the tasting list.

A fun tasting with some fun stories, interesting science and some rather tasty whiskies. Well worth queuing up for…

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Auchentoshan 12 year old
Single Lowland Malt Scotch Whisky, 40%, ~£30

Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old
Single Highland Scotch Whisky, 43%, ~£30

Glenlivet French Oak Reserve
15 year old Single Speyside Malt Scotch Whisky, 40%, ~£30

SMWS 24.106 Discordant Staves
Single Cask Macallan Single Speyside Malt Scotch Whisky, 58.9% (Sold out)

Ardbeg 10 Year Old
Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky, 43%, ~£40

SMWS 29.80 Wedding Cake in a Coal Sack
Single Cask Laphroaigh Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky, 52.7% (Sold out)