Since I’ve started helping out with Whisky Squad I’ve not had the chance to contribute a session’s title, but with #48 I dropped a bad pun and the chaps for some reason went along with it. An evening of grain whisky with occasional whisky photorgrapher and evil tempter Philip Storry – The Storry of Grain.
I am not proud.
I’ve known Phil for a few years. He’s an almost constant fixture at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in London, comes along to many of our tastings at The Whisky Exchange, and has photographed both those tastings and The Whisky Show for a while. He’s also the reason I’m a grain whisky fan, ‘forcing’ me to try some Port Dundas at a Compass Box blending school, and since then filling my head with knowledge and my hand with random grain whiskies almost every time I bump into him. I approve.
This post has been fomenting for a while, but the perils of work and thinking too much about whisky have forced it into the background until now.
Domu888 on twitter (Dominic Edsall in real life) asked me a while back what my top 10 whiskies under £50 were. I fired off a few off the top of my head but said that I’d need to have a think about it. Well, thinking has been done so here’s a list, in no particular order. A thing to note is that this is all distillery bottlings – sticking in independents would hurt my head too much:
Laphroaig Quarter Cask, 48%, ~£30: Cheap, cheerful and very full of flavour. LQC, to give it initials that may have a different meaning to two readers of this blog, is young Laphroaig which finishes its maturation in small ‘quarter casks’ which are a quarter of the size of the regularly used hogsheads. This smaller size changes the wood/spirit ratio in favour of the wood, upping the rate of maturation of the whisky and sticking on a ‘growth spurt’ at the end of its time in wood. This does mean that they can bottle their whisky younger, but it also adds a nice chunk of sweet woodiness to the whisky, which works well with the phenolic tang of the Laphroaig. It’s bottled strong and isn’t chill-filtered, and still comes out at about £30 a bottle, which is rather good. It’s also on offer in Tesco quite often, which doesn’t hurt.
Clynelish 14, 46%, ~£30: My default whisky at home, although it is currently replaced by the Distiller’s Edition which we had on special offer at work. Clynelish has recently started rocketing in popularity, in part due to Serge Valentin and John Glaser talking about how much they like it. Not much goes to single malt production still, and the 12 and 14 years old versions are the two that are generally available. While the 12 is good, and cheap, the 14 is my favourite of the pair – waxy, sweet and fruity with a hint of the sea. Pretty much a whisky made for me and one that seems remarkably good at luring people into the world of less well-known distilleries.
The Glenlivet 18, 43%, ~£40. This one is a steal – less than £40 for an 18 year old is something you just don’t see (and a quick search on TWE has it as the only 18+ whisky for under £40). Age isn’t the be all and end all of whisky selection, but this one has aged well and benefited from its time in the cask to produce and well rounded and tasty whisky – big, rich and fruity with a slab of The Glenlivet’s creaminess.
Nikka from The Barrel, 51.4%, ~£25 for 50cl. A small bottle so not quite as good a deal as it first seems, but an excellent one all the same. A blend of whiskies from Nikka’s distilleries, sweet and elegant with quite a big alcoholic punch. Quite bourbon-like in character and good for mixing as well as drinking neat (or even, sacriligeously, with a chunk of ice). And to cap it all, the bottle is REALLY pretty.
Tweeddale Blend, 46%, ~£30. I wanted to make sure there was a blend in this list, but I was torn between which one to choose – I could go for a traditional ‘one up’ blend like Bailie Nicol Jarvie, one of the more premium named blends, like the more expensive Chivas Regals, or even one of Compass Box’s two. In the end I’ve plumped for this one, as I like the story and the guy behind it. Basically, Alasdair Day decided to recreate a blend originally put together by his great grandfather, using the original recipe from his notes. I’ve tried it a couple of times and rather like it, and they released their second batch a couple of days back – time for a taste and compare I think…
Longrow 10 Year Old 100 proof, 57%, ~£45. Another one that used to be my default, before the Clynelish swept it away, and one that I feel slightly naked without a bottle of in the cupboard. Longrow is, missing out a couple of production details, the peated version of Springbank. It has that slightly briney Springbank note as well as a nice smoky hit, although not an overwhelming peaty blast. I’ve gone for the 100proof for two reasons: 1) This way you can water it down a bit depending on your mood, leaving it concentrated and strongly flavoured if you want; and 2) it’s cheaper per millitre of alcohol…
Ardbeg 10, 46%, ~£35. I’m rather liking Ardbeg again at the moment, as my previous sherry obsession fades in favour of a nice chunk of peat – I generally find I’m liking one end of the extreme whisky spectrum at a time, and it seems that peat is in again for me. This is big and mulchy, with smoke, mud and a slab of vanilla from the first fill casks they used to mature a lot of it. I’ve heard tales that it’s not as good as it used to be, but it’s still a top bit of peaty beast without the medicinal nature of Laphroaig.
Compass Box Hedonism, 43%, ~£50. Right on the limit this, sometimes tipping over the £50 but often on or under it (especially in Waitrose). I like grain whisky and this is one of the best out there, a blend that gives a masterclass in what the flavours of well looked after grain should be. It still varies in my estimation, but it generally sits very near the top. Stepping outside of the £50 limit, if you find £199 burning a hole in your pocket then the Hedonism 10th anniversary edition bottling is awesome – I’m still thinking about it 6 months after I tried it…
Old Pulteney 12, 40%, ~£25. While checking the price on this one I found that it seems to be currently sold out at both Master of Malt and The Whisky Exchange – it sells rather well, as you can tell. It’s a big and briney dram which I recently tried while wandering around the distillery up in Wick (the most northerly I’ve ever been). The range gets expensive very quickly, with the 17 year old next on the list and breaking the £50 mark, but this is eminently reasonable and also very tasty.
Aberlour A’bunadh, ~60%, ~£35. Bottled at full proof and varying in strength from batch to batch (the current one is #34, as I write) this is a massively sherried dram from Aberlour. They don’t give an age statement, but from what I hear it’s about 8 years old, a scarily small time to pick up quite this much from a cask, with loads of dry fruit and rich woodiness hiding behind quite a big alcoholic kick. It’s been, along with my now departed bottle of Glenfarclas 105, my sherried dram of choice over the last 6 months. I look forward to my sherry head returning…
Please let me know your suggestions in the comments below.
Twelve down, many to go – Whisky Squad has almost reached its first birthday and to mark the occasion we had a rather special evening nestled in the hands of Chris Maybin from Compass Box. I’ve mumbled out Compass Box in the past and they remain one of my favourite whisky companies, with consistently interesting and tasty products as well as a really friendly team working to put them together. I met Chris briefly at Whisky Live London in 2010, when I went to the Compass Box stand for a second time at the end of the show and he insisted on making me taste everything they had for a second time…what an evil man.
Picture by Chris Matchett and his shiny iPhone
The company has just had its 10th anniversary, starting out in 2000 with former Johnnie Walker marketing director John Glaser putting together his first whisky and selling some cases of it to Royal Mile Whiskies in Edinburgh (if I remember the story correctly). Ten years on they’ve created a variety of interesting blended whiskies (as well as a few very limited single cask bottlings), won a stack of awards and stuck out as an innovator in the generally conservative world of blended whisky. They take the opposite tack to most blending companies, focusing on producing whiskies where you can taste the various components, and how they compliment each other, rather than a more amorphous combined flavour. This is in part achieved by using a smaller number of component whiskies (typically three) as well as doing the blending in smaller batches a number of times a year, creating whiskies that vary slightly from batch to batch but always keeping the same idea behind the flavour.
From the tasting I did with John Glaser last year I know he is not a fan of spirit caramel, used to colour many whiskies for a variety of reasons good and ill, and Chris agreed, passing around a bottle for us to have a sniff. I rather liked it, burnt sugar that it is, but am not a fan of it in whisky. While I understand the usual use for colouring whiskies, so that they are consistent between batches, and don’t think it has as much of an influence on flavour as many say, it does mask flavours and alter the mouthfeel of a whisky when used in larger quantities, and isn’t something that I think should be needed if consumers understood their drinks more. However, most people aren’t whisky geeks and don’t care so the colouring continues. Compass Box also don’t chill filter their whiskies, a process that definitely has an impact on the flavour and mouthfeel of whisky, leaving their bottlings as close to ‘natural’ as you can have without leaving chunks of charred barrel in the bottle (cf Blackadder whiskies…).
Their production process is quite simple for their regular range – buy maturing casks of spirit, test them until they get to the point where they are ready to be used, make small test batches of blended whisky in their Chiswick office, send the finalised recipe up to Scotland where the whiskies are vatted together, recask the whiskies after blending, leave them to marry and further mature, bottle. The marrying process takes at least 6 months, but they leave some whiskies longer depending on what they are trying to do with them. The choice of wood for that final maturation stage is very important, with their experimentation in the area getting them into trouble with the SWA (as John Glaser explained in a comment when I wrote about it before), but I’ll talk about that a bit more later on. On with the whisky!
As usual we tasted blind, with each bottle being revealed after tasting, and first up was a lightly coloured dram. This was my first correct guess of the evening, although my cheating by looking up its recipe in an earlier blog post fell down due this batch having different components. The nose had stacks of vanilla, backed up with some lightly sweet wood smoke, coconut, sweet butter, apples, pears, marzipan and a hint of cherry – cherry bakewells in a fruit bowl? To taste it started with sweet citrus (candied lemons?) and worked its way through sour wood and fruit salad chews to a dry wood and spice finish, with a bit of a boozy prickle. Water brought out big sweet caramel (rather than the evil burnt caramel) and left a nice chunk of woodiness at the end. This was, as expected for the first dram of the tasting, Asyla, the closest that Compass Box have to a ‘regular’ blend and a great entry point to their range. It’s 50/50 grain and malt whisky, with the grain half coming this time from Cameron Bridge (for sweetness), and the malt from Teaninich (for grassiness) and Glen Elgin (for rich robustness). All the whisky is matured in first fill bourbon casks and after vatting is put back into those casks to marry for 6 months before bottling. The name isn’t the bad pun on Islay that many people think it is, myself included, but instead the plural of ‘asylum’ (a word meaning both sanctuary and madhouse) and taken from the name of a piece of music by Thomas Adès. They make about three batches of Asyla each year, with tweaks to the recipe to keep it in the same area of flavour based on what whiskies they have available, and are planning on numbering the batches soon. Chris mentioned that the SWA, traditional foils of Compass Box, are planning on regulating the listing of batch numbers and blending constituents, but I can’t find any information on that – anyone know anything? It wouldn’t surprise me, although in recent times I’m coming around to not disliking the SWA as much as the initial stories I heard about them, from Bruichladdich and Compass Box, encouraged me to.
Next up was the beginning of my no longer having any idea of what the whisky was, despite having tasted most of them before. On the nose there was whiteboard marker sweetness, foam and real bananas, vanilla and a hint of woody smokiness. The taste was bigger and richer than the Asyla, with more fruit salads, astringent wood, hints of marzipan, thick sweet woody spice and a thicker, slightly oily mouthfeel. Water brought out more of the fruit chew-ness and more prickly wood along with some sweetened cream and liquorice. The paper came off to reveal that this was Oak Cross, the first of a trio of whiskies that vary mainly in the wood used for maturation. It’s made up of mainly Clynelish (about 60%) with the rest split between Teaninich (for the grassy freshness) and Dailuaine (for structure). After vatting this whisky is filled half back into the original first fill bourbon casks and half into special Oak Cross barrels – first fill bourbon casks with the regular heads (the barrel ends) replaced by new French oak, not touched by other drinks and lightly toasted. New French oak is used a lot in the wine industry but not really touched by whisky as the nature of the spirit quickly draws lots of tannins from the wood, making whiskies dry and woody before their time. However by only using new oak heads during the 6 month marrying process the whisky can pick up some of the French oak characteristics without going too far. In a way this technique can be seen as retaliation for the SWA’s reaction to the next whisky.
This one was one of my favourites of the night, with vanilla, candied lemon, some floralness, raisins and wood on the nose – ‘Crepe Suzette’ according to whisky wordsmith Mr Matchett. To taste it had spicy apple, creamy custard, raisins, hints of chocolate, big woody spices and a woody end. Water brought out more wood and fruit, as well as some sourness. When the label came off I was pleased to see that this was one I’d not tried before, having no clue what it was – Illegal Spice Tree. The illegal bit isn’t quite right, but it was Compass Box’s first edition of Spice Tree, which the SWA told them they weren’t allowed to sell, under threat of legal action, due to the wood maturation process. Taking the same recipe that is now used for Oak Cross they filled some of the vatted whisky into first fill bourbon casks that had new heavily toasted French oak barrel staves tethered to the inside, giving the whisky contact with a lot of wood, including a big surface area of the new oak. However, the SWA felt that this was not a traditional enough maturation method to allow the product to be called whisky and thus was it withdrawn from sale in 2006. This was from Jason’s personal stash and one that only occasionally appears in the wild these days.
Next up was the third in bottle in the Spice Tree saga and one that most of us guessed even before pouring would be the newer, legal version of Spice Tree. On the nose this reminded me heavily of Fry’s Orange Cream bars, with an underlying spicy earthiness. To taste it had sweet polished wood leading to a lingering, warm, woody finish. On the way there there was lightly burned toast, a sherbety fizz, dark caramelised oranges and coffee. Water brought out dark chocolate in the nose, some floral notes (violets? I need to find some violets to smell to see if the scent I think is violets really is…) and Turkish delight. A more elegant whisky than the older Spice Tree but one that I didn’t like as much, although that could well be a subconscious love of that which I can no longer easily obtain oozing out. This whisky is very similar to the Oak Cross in nature, but with the 6 months of maturation in the new oak headed casks extended to 2-3 years, the new oak heads undergoing a heavier toasting, 60% of the whisky coming from the special casks and the bottling strength upped by 3% to 46%. It’s made a bit of a stir, appearing on a number of 2010 best of lists including getting the Best New Whisky award in Jim Murray’s 2011 Whisky Bible.
We moved on to a whisky that everyone who knew the Compass Box range immediately guessed after a quick sniff – stony peat, coal smoke, smoked meat and a hint of iodine medicinalness. To taste it was sweet, with a creamy slightly cheesy note, ending with coal smoke and a blue cheese sweetness (the latter note one that others told me, as I don’t touch the evil, mouldy stuff). Water brought out soft, mulchy fruit in the middle, more fruit in the upfront sweetness, and left the finish intact – like breathing in while standing next to a coal burning stove. It was, of course, The Peat Monster. Much less peaty than the name suggests, a whisky that shows that peat and smoke in a whisky don’t need to be overpowering. This is made up of a combination of 20% Laphroaig, 40% Caol Ila and 40% Ardmore, the only mainland highland distillery doing exclusively heavily peated spirit, and comes in at 25ppm. The Laphroaig and Caol Ila really come through on the nose, with the minerality and medicinal punch, but in the taste they are overcome by the more rounded smoke of the Ardmore – an excellent combination. This one was originally put together for Park Avenue Liquor in New York, as The Monster, and was a chunk peatier, but after some softening it joined the regular range with a different name, even if that name does confuse people who are looking for something to strip away the inside of their faces with a peaty punch.
Next was a whisky that I knew very well from just the nose – Hedonism. This is the whisky that I wrote about in my first entry on this blog and one that I still vary from day to day whether I love or hate it, although my increasing love of nicely aged grain whisky has hacked away at the days when it’s not one of my favourites. Fortunately it was a day when I really liked it. On the nose it had sweet candied fruit, vanilla, acetone, buttery pastry, rum, garibaldi biscuits, coconut, tropical fruit and banoffee pie. To taste it was sweet and floral, with high alcohols and ripe tropical fruit. Water dropped out some of the sweetness, replacing it with woodiness, and added more prickle, more body and some creamy vanilla. This was Compass Box’s first whisky, starting with a product unlike others on the market – A blended grain whisky. They do a couple of batches a year and this one (H29MMIXB – 29th batch, second batch of 2009, the one after the bottle I have) is a blend of 14 and 29 year old from Cameron Bridge, Cambus (now closed) or Carsebridge, with a little drop of 30 year old Invergordon (not usually added, but in this batch for a little more richness). This one is a more limited release than the others in the range in part due to the niche nature of grain whisky but also due to the difficulty in sourcing good quality older grain whisky, as most is decanted young and used in blending.
The last whisky was the wildcard. For their 10th anniversary Compass Box had bottled a number of interesting whiskies and having tasted through the rest of their core range it seemed likely that one of those would appear as whisky number 7. On the nose there was acetone, vanilla, cherries, flowers (maybe violets?) and icing sugar – combining to give “Cherry bakewells with superglue icing” (thankyou Mr Matchett) and “Manhattan cocktails”. To taste it was less sweet than the nose suggested and like a rich dessert wine with concentrated grapes, a burst of grassy new make spirit and long lingering sweet fruity finish. Water brought out roses, Turkish delight and glacé cherries. I was quite blown away by this and a bunch of head nodding down my end of the table confirmed what we had hoped, it was Hedonism 10th Anniversary Edition. Different to most of the other Compass Box whiskies (apart from their Canto bottlings, I think) in that it is a single cask whisky. It’s 1971 Invergordon (rumoured to be a sister cask to the now no longer available Berry’s Own Selection bottling which I tried last year and which was also excellent) bottled in 2010 at 38 years old, so a single cask single grain whisky, a type of whisky that doesn’t appear much and one that I have so far almost always enjoyed every time I’ve found it. There were 120 bottles produced from the cask, 24 of which were allocated to the UK market at £200 each and there are a few around still to buy. Despite the price I’m very tempted as it was very good indeed and I was thinking about it still two days later, despite having Whisky Live London in between.
Speaking of Whisky Live, which was the day after the tasting, I met up with Whisky Squad organiser Mr Standing at the show and having just visited the Compass Box stand we had our tipsy states taken advantage of by the folk of Connosr and recorded a video about another of the Compass Box limited editions, Flaming Heart, in their Whisky Pod. My only comment on the video is that Niceness is an excellent word. Please do not count the number of uses of the suffix -ness in the text above, I just did and it’s shocking. My fairly drunken tasting notes for the Flaming Heart read: “Nose – Muddy peat, light burning hay, orange peel. Taste – sweet start moving through rich spicy caramel to a smoky fiery end. Water – More Clynelish, but with burnt wood over the finish. Fruity middle, mango and pineapple, butter and ash”. Not bad after 5 hours at a whisky show.
Next month’s Whisky Squad is yet unannounced, but with it being the first anniversary I suspect Things may be happening. We shall see…
Whisky Guy Darren very rudely didn’t attend due to having become a dad the day before. I will forgive this terrible breach of etiquette on this occasion and wish him, Mrs Darren and Baby Darren all the best.
A bit of a unexpected move by The Whisky Squad this month. Having gone through various high powered single malts this meeting’s theme was to be the whisky snob’s enemy – the much maligned blend. The idea behind this was to help further put down the theory that blended whisky is by its very nature inferior to single malt. Granted there are a bunch of rubbishy blends out there, but with blended whisky still making up over 90% of the whisky market they must be doing something right.
Looking up blends brings up some interesting definition questions, such as the rather fundamental “What is a blended scotch whisky”. At the end of 2009 the Scotch Whisky Association (the love it or loathe it organisation who lobby government over whisky regulation) pushed through some legislation to formalise the nomenclature of whisky. There’s a full text of the definitions over on website of The Squad’s resident whisky expert, Darren The Whisky Guy, but as a quick precis here are 4 categories:
Single Malt Whisky – Whisky from a single distillery made with malted barley.
Blended Malt Whisky – Single malt from a variety of distilleries blended together.
Single Grain Whisky – Whisky from a single distillery made with any grains.
Blended Whisky – A mixture of grain and malt whiskies.
While many within the whisky appreciation world look down on blends the art of blending whisky isn’t something to be sniffed at (bad pun acknowledged) – to take a potentially large number of component whiskies from a variety of sources, all of which might change in quality, quantity and flavour between purchased batches of barrels, and then mix them together to create a consistently flavoured product in potentially large quantities is a serious skill. I still drink mainly single malt whisky but my prejudice against all blends has been hit on the head in recent times and this tasting certainly helped kick it further out the door.
The first whisky, tasted blind as is tradition, had loads of vanilla on the nose, along with a slab of wood at the back and a bit of floral oil. To taste it was lighter than the nose suggested with lots of wood leading to a spicy finish. Water brought out a lot more flavour with creamy custard, a little bit of fruit and a dry woody finish. Not the most complex of whiskies but quite happily drinkable. The paper sheath came off to reveal that it was Bailie Nicol Jarvie. Named after the bailiff from Rob Roy this is Glenmorangie’s blend and the whisky that my flatmates bought me for my 21st birthday. While the complete recipe is secret we heard that it at least contains malt whisky from Ardbeg, Glenmorangie and Caol Ila (although an unpeated version rather than their regular peated spirit), and grain whisky from North British. It’s one of the only blends known to have a good chance of containing Ardbeg, although as Glenmorangie and Ardbeg are both owned by the LVMH group it’s fairly obvious how they get their hands on it. Like most blends it does have caramel added to the mix for colour, but in this case (as it’s quite a light whisky) it’s very much more for consistency between batches than darkening younger spirit to make it look older (as the ‘older whisky is darker and better’ meme runs deep within whisky buying society). Darren’s quite a fan, buying some each Christmas for doling out to all and sundry during the festive season. He also recommended it as an accompaniment to creamy coffee.
Next up was a taller bottle which we were told we might recognise. On the nose the whisky had lots of fruit – with apples and pears, cherry and pineapple all popping up around the table. Darren also got Caramac and I got some almonds. To taste it was very creamy, with vanilla, a touch of dried fruit and a delicate woody spiciness. Water brought out more of the wood, a little bit of lower cocoa solid dark chocolate and raisins, but reined in the vanilla and cream a bit. With the paper off the bottle it was revealed to be my most polarising whisky – Compass Box Hedonism. The whiskies in the bottle come in at about an average of 20 years old, matured in american oak hogsheads, and come from Carsebridge, Cameron Bridge and Cambus grain distilleries – the conceit of this bottle is that it’s a blended grain whisky, a 5th category not mentioned above: a blend of single grain whiskies from different distilleries. It was the first booze I wrote about on this site and I am still as divided on it as I was then. Luckily I was in the mood for it that evening and rather enjoyed my dram although it won’t surprise me if I open my bottle tonight and decided that it’s thin, astringent and nasty…
Number 3 was the one I’d been waiting for – having been given a bit of a sneak preview of the whiskies a few weeks before this was the one I had remembered. On the nose it had gummi cola bottles (a flavour that I have ranted about being distinct from cola drinks for a while. Don’t ask me about it in real life, I can talk for up to half an hour on the topic), an acetoney tang, pine needles and Copydex glue. It also had a slightly meaty undertone to everything. To taste it had an initial burst of sweet pineapple and kola cubes with a strong lemoniness, followed quickly by a tannic dryness and a prickly dry wood finish. Water helped, with more fruit appearing on the nose. The taste had more sweetness and the lemony citrus became more orangey. The dryness retreated, although was still present, and the finish was still very woody, but I also got some salt and menthol in the middle. A bit of a strange one this and one that I’m not sure I liked. It was revealed to be an Adelphi bottling of single cask Ben Nevis. The special thing about this cask was that it had been filled with a mix of malt and grain whisky, both produced at the distillery as they had a continuous still installed for grain production in the 1950s in addition to the pot stills for malt production, and then left to mature for 34 years. Thus it is a single cask blended whisky, bottled at cask strength, a very uncommon beast. Ben Nevis didn’t have the greatest of reputations in the past, with this going in the barrel in 1970, but they were bought by Nikka in 1991 and quality has been rising ever since. While I’m not sure I’ll seek this one out again it was a very interesting drink – unlike any whisky I’ve tried before. There was a little bit of it left behind the bar at The Gunmakers, so there’s a chance you might be able to try it if you get over there soon (before I decide I need another taste).
The final whisky of the night was one that I had no clue about at all. On the nose it had grapefruit, cordosyl mouthwash, cucumbers and single cream. To taste there were walnuts, coconut husks, liquorice root and cream, all tied together with a woody rubbery smokiness. Some water brought out salt and citrus on the nose and wood at the back of the palate. There was creamy pine, dark chocolate and tea, with delicate wood on the finish. Again the paper was torn off, this time to show a bottle of Ardbeg Serendipity, a blended malt. This is no ordinary blended malt, having come about (so the story tells it) by accident. Back in the days when Ardbeg was newly reopened they decided they needed to raise some cash, so prepared to bottle some casks of 1977 Ardbeg (about 25 years old at the time). They transported it to the vatting plant and turned on the taps to dump it into a tank ready for bottling only to discover that the vat wasn’t empty. So it was that they mixed four parts of an old and rare Ardbeg with one part of 12 year old Glen Moray (also owned by the LVMH group at the time). There is a cynical view that this was a story dreamed up by Ardbeg’s rather creative marketing department to explain away the strengthening of some spirit that had dropped below 40% ABV during its maturation (as 40% is the legal minimum that a spirit can be and be called whisky) by dosing it with some stronger, younger, cheaper Glen Moray. Whatever the truth, its price has risen and fallen as it has been snapped up by collectors and merchants over the years, having settled recently at a respectable £70ish a bottle, even though they can only put “12 years old” on the label.
Anyways, yet another interesting selection of whiskies, although happily not as potentially financially crippling as previous months – I already have a bottle of Hedonism (which gets drunk slowly due to my fear that I won’t like it when I open it) and my other favourite of the evening was the very reasonably priced Bailie Nicol Jarvie. I may not wait until Christmas until it joins the illustrious selection of boozes in my cupboard.
Being someone who likes to talk I’m jealous of those lucky folks who get paid to wander around and talk about whisky. So, in an effort to get at least part of that I invited an exclusive posse of people around to my flat to have a bit of a whisky tasting. The intention was to try a few things that were in someway different to the norm and to span as much of the whisky spectrum as I could with 4 or 5 bottles.
So, here are my notes on what to say about each one, as well some audience reactions:
Compass Box Hedonism: There are number of different legal classifications of whisky, which due to recent lobbying by the SWA changed at the end of 2009. The three main types are:
Single Malt Whisky – malt whisky from one distillery. It will be most probably be a mix of various different batches (to get a consistent flavour and style for each line of whisky), but all of the whisky comes from the same distillery.
Blended Malt Whisky (formerly known as vatted malt) – changed November 2009, a move not entirely popular amongst many whisky makers. This is a blend of malt whiskies, which can come from any distillery. It is, however, only made up of malt whisky.
Blended Whisky – whisky that is made of malt and grain whiskies from any producer.
This is a fourth type – a vatted grain (maybe now a blended grain…who knows?). While grain whisky is usually used as a bulking agent for blends, produced quite cheaply in a continuous rather than batch distillation process, there are some producers who take a more malt-like approach to its creation and there are companies who try and do interesting things with it – Compass Box are part of the latter group and buy whiskies from the former. Run by John Glaser (who corrected me last time I wrote about them), they produce interesting blended whiskies that are in a totally different league to the Bells and Teachers of this world. This has some flavours in common with a bourbon, coming from grain as it does, but definitely has a different style.
From the audience: It seemed to go down fairly well. It’s the lightest of the whiskies I was presenting, hence its position at the front of the line-up, and even the less keen whisky drinkers appreciated it.
Benromach Organic: The distillery reopened in 1996, after years of closure. Rather than the more regular ‘mothballing’ of the site, where they leave everything in place, Benromach was pretty much stripped of all its equipment and had to be almost rebuilt. Their regular whisky is lightly peated (slightly more than the Speyside norm of 0-5ppm of phenols at about 8-12) to try and capture the flavour of speyside whiskies when peat was a more common fuel for drying malt, but the Organic is different. It’s the first Soil Association certified organic whisky and as part of this process everything involved in the making needs to be organic, from malt to barrels. Whisky barrels are normally used before the whisky gets to them – sherry and bourbon are the two main spirits that go in beforehand, and they take on a lot of the woody flavour from the barrel, allowing whiskies to mature without extracting quite as much of those flavours. However, In order to keep with the organic certification the Benromach Organic uses new american oak barrels that have never seen another drop of booze. This whisky is also entirely unpeated, which is fairly normal on Speyside, although their stocks of the regular Organic are running out due to their switching of production to a peated version. I’m not a fan of the new “Special Edition Organic”, so I’m pleased that after a short while they switched back to the unpeated version, so while there will be a gap in availability it will be returning in the future.
From the audience: this one started off less popular, with the woodiness not well received. However, with a drop of water the flavour changes a lot, with creamy vanilla appearing, and it grew in popularity.
Kilchoman New Spirit: One of the problems with whisky production is the time it takes between making your whisky and making money from it. This is especially difficult for brand new distilleries as they have no older stock to keep themselves afloat with until they can start selling their wares. Kilchoman opened in 2005, the first new distillery on Islay in 124 years, and was setup to be slightly different. Their barley is grown on the attached farm, they are one of the last 6 distilleries who have their own maltings and they bottle on-site. In order to keep cash coming in they sold cask, case and bottle futures for their first production runs, keeping them going until they hit the 3 year mark at which their maturing spirit legally became whisky and could be sold as such. The first release was in 2009 and has been received quite well, although their upcoming 5 year is something I’m keeping an eye out for. Another way that they raised money was to sell samples of their maturing whisky – their New Spirit. This bottle doesn’t have a maturation time on it, but the otherwise identical one I bought at the same time claimed that it had been in wood for 1 week…
From the audience: I didn’t pour everyone a shot of this – a very young, heavily peated 63.5% spirit is not something that you generally knock back much of – instead pouring a small slug into a large wine glass so that everyone could get at least a smell. Almost everyone tried it in the end, with the reactions being what you’d expect for something that I generally describe as tasting like cattle feed and death. That said, I do quite like the flavour and there were a couple of nods that it wasn’t all that bad, even it was burny and eye watering.
BenRiach Curiositas: I’d not heard of the distillery until recently (and I now have a box of miniatures of their aged expressions to try) but heard of the Curiositas through Anna’s twitter stream when her friend Jon got a bottle and rather enjoyed it. The distillery is another that has changed hands a lot, recently being picked up by the independent Benriach Distillery Company (who recently picked up their second distillery – Glendronach) in 2004. It had a sad beginning, opening in 1892 and then mothballed in 1900 when the bottom fell out of the whisky market. It reopened in 1965 under Glenlivet, sold to Seagrams in 1978 and then dropped to a 3 days per week production in 2001, before the more recent purcahse. This is one is different because it’s a peated Speyside whisky. As I mentioned earlier Speyside whiskies are normally peated lightly to not at all, coming in at about 0-5ppm, with Islay whiskies like Laphroaig and Ardbeg being much more famed for their peaty smokiness (with barley peated to about 40ppm and 54ppm respectively). The Curiositas is peated to 55ppm – which is about as peaty as you get for a widely available whisky. They also have a younger version (3-5 years?) of their peated spirit, Birnie Moss, which I found at Whisky Live – it’s mainly sold into the French and Spanish markets, where there is a strangely high demand for young, unmellowed, peaty whisky.
From the audience: As expected this one was the least popular, although the speyside sweetness coming through the smoke brought it up the popularity scale quite a lot. The progression from raw spirit to matured whisky worked quite well though, with the mellowing process really showing (although choosing something as powerfully flavoured as the Kilchoman probably helped there).
Yamazaki Sherry Cask: The whisky that I ran from Blackfriars to Soho to buy the day before the tasting; one that I tried in Milroy’s at Christmas and rather liked. The difference with this one is that it’s Japanese, which isn’t really all that unusual as there are 90 years of history backing up their produce, and very heavily sherried, which is slightly more so. Whisky production in Japan was started by Shinjiro Torii, a pharmaceutical importer, who founded the company that became Suntory and started bringing foreign booze into Japan. He hired Masataka Taketsuru, who had trained at Hazelburn in Scotland (a name now used by the Springbank distillery to brand their triple distilled, unpeated Campbelltown whisky, as the original distillery has closed), to start distilling at the Yamazaki distillery and Japanese whisky was born. Taketsuru left Suntory in the 1930s, travelled around Japan looking for a spot that felt like Scotland and built a distillery in Yoichi on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, starting Nikka, the other famed Japanese distiller. The mix of whiskies that goes into a single malt will often contain at least some spirit matured in sherry casks and other whiskies will be matured for a length of time after they have been married together in a cask which has held sherry or another drink to ‘finish’. However, you don’t get many bottlings which have sat exclusively in a sherry cask for as long as this – a very dark reddy brown whisky, it almost looks like flat Coke and is a bit thicker and stickier than your average dram.
From the audience: Far and away the favourite of the night (which is one of the reasons why I did my cross-central-London run the day before to make sure I got some before Milroy’s closed). It’s sweet and rich, with fruitcake and dates. It’s quite unlike the ‘regular’ whisky flavour that people expect, although with enough hiding behind the dried fruit to remind you that you’re not drinking port. I’ve tried an even more heavily sherried Yamazaki at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, but that almost felt like a fortified dessert wine than a whisky – this is an excellent winter dram, and unfortunately one that seems to be becoming scarce as stocks start to sell out.
Anyways, my choices seemed to work and lasagna was fed to the assembled throng. On top of my selections there were also some pressies and temporary donations brought along, with Nikki‘s sloe gin, and Alan and Ruth‘s chocolate vodka, blackcurrant vodka, homebrew beer and bottle of MarbleChocolate Marble all sitting on the side waiting for me to do some tasting and writing about them. Alan also brought along his bottle of Glenallachie single cask 18yr old, also matured exclusively in sherry casks, to compare to the Yamazaki – it compared very well, coming in as the second favourite of the night on flavour and favourite for price – £35 from the web or in person at the Strathisla distillery, home of the Chivas Brothers experience…
I suspect this may happen again, especially as Nikki and Ruth now seem to be whisky converts. I must use my powers for good…
Alan and Anna have also done write-ups on their blogs and I think I need to give a general thanks to all of my victims for letting me talk at them for an afternoon: Anna, Alan, Ruth, Paul, Nikki and Michael.
Compass Box Hedonism Blended scottish grain whisky 43%, component whiskies 14-29 years old £45 from Waitrose
Benromach Organic Unpeated Organic speyside whisky No age statement, 5-6 years 43%. Limited stock available
Kilchoman New Spirit Islay new spirit, 1 week old 43.5%. Occasionally available in whisky specialists (I got mine from Cadenhead’s in Edinburgh)
Benriach Curiositas Peated speyside single malt whisky 40%, 10 years old. Peated to ~45ppm. Available from whisky specialists (I got mine from The Whisky Shop)
Yamazaki Sherry Cask Very sherried Japanese single malt whisky 48%, 10-12 years old Limited availability – worldwide release of 16,000 bottles (I got mine from Milroy’s)
For my first proper post I thought I’d start out as I probably will be going on – with a whisky.
Compass Box are a whisky company known for their blending skills. Blends have got a bit of a bad name in recent times, but until the late 70s the concept of single malt whisky was fairly alien to most people. The standard blend that you see hanging from an optic is a load of cheaper grain whisky doctored with some single malts to create a hopefully tasty whisky. While many single malt fans turn their noses up at them there are a few good’uns, but Compass Box’s fare is something quite different. John Glaser, the man behind the blending, is known for his skill at bringing together whiskies to make rather special bottles and I’ve been meaning to pick up one for a while.
They change the available whiskies quite often, making the blends in small batches, but Hedonism is a name that has recurred pretty much constantly since the first bottling. Each batch is different, but as far as I can tell working towards a similar idea. There is normally a conceit behind each whisky family that they put out and Hedonism is no different – it’s made of grain whisky.
Grain is normally considered the poor cousin to the malt whisky that most people drink, mainly used for blending, but, as I’ve discovered recently through the Scotch Malt Whisky Society‘s single grain bottlings, it is not always the case. One of my introductions to non-blended whiskies was with grain when I unknowingly picked up a bottle of Black Barrel as I wandered through duty free shortly after entering the world of work and disposable income – I rather liked it and was quite shocked to find that it was made of ‘inferior’ materials.
According to the website Hedonism is made up of between 8 and 15 different grain whiskies, generally matured for over 20 years, and this definitely shows up in the glass, albeit with a delicate flavour. Colour-wise it’s quite light and yellow, contrasting from my initial preconceptions that it would be a dark and sticky dram. On the nose it’s quite poky, with a hint of the back of the chem-lab, with pear drops and a hefty slug of alcohol. Without water it’s quite strong, feeling more than its bottled strength of 43% and tastes quite different to a regular malt – it’s sweet but with a lingering bitterness and a light rubbery taste creeping around the sides of the tongue. A drop of water definitely helps it in my opinion, knocking off some of the burn and opening up the sweetness into its component parts, but emphasising the quite sour and bitter aftertaste – icing sugar fading to fisherman’s friends, with a hint of woodiness. I didn’t get much of the toffee promised on the website, but such is the problem of small batch bottlings – sometimes you get one that is at the extreme end of the flavour range.
All in all this isn’t really a whisky for me – it’s quite delicately flavoured despite its alcoholic kick, missing out on the big mouth feel that I normally go for, and the finish is definitely on the bitter side for my liking, which the lighter whiskies I enjoy don’t tend to. It’s interesting and I can see similarities between it and the other grains I’ve tried over the years, but in the end they chose the flavours that I’m not all that keen on. If you’re a big fan of rubbery whiskies and are looking for something more delicate then this might be something to look at, although be wary that each bottle you find will probably taste different.
Update: This one’s been wearing at me for a while, as I’ve changed my mind a number of times – I don’t quite agree with my final thoughts any more. Firstly, I’ve tried Hedonism in a few other places now and it’s always been the same, the differing batches isn’t something that I’ve heard from the rather solid production line of Compass Box, however it seems my tastes are not – from day to day my opinion on the whisky changes, with the flavours I don’t like one day being my favourite the next. It’s still not one that is definitely for me all the time, although the Hedonism Maximus is definitely something I need to try more often, but when I’m in the mood it’s really very nice.
Compass Box Hedonism Blended scottish grain whisky No age statement (generally over 20 years) Bottled at 43% Widely available – I got mine in Waitrose.