It’s almost Christmas and that means it’s time to be on the look out for booze bargains. On the whisky front, there is a lot of discussion about one particular deal – a good whisky, at a good price, with a hidden origin: Lidl Ben Bracken 16 Year Old. But could it secretly be Lagavulin 16 Year Old?Continue reading “Ben Bracken 16 Year Old and Lagavulin 16 Year Old – are they siblings?”
It’s that time of year again: Diageo has released the line-up for the yearly shiny-fest of The Special Releases. It looks like it might be a more egalitarian stack of drams than in some previous years – even after the Port Ellen and Brora fell out of the range last year, the prices started feeling a little pushed.
Anyways, this year’s announcement gave us the distillery and age of each whisky, along with a vaguely cryptic comment about it. Below are my predictions of what each of the hints means, and an update with what they actually meant, once we found out…Continue reading “Diageo Special Releases 2019”
Lagavulin’s 200th birthday celebrations continue to roll along. The launch of an 8-year-old expression at the beginning of the year – and a second release mentioned for later on – and events at the distillery during Feis Ile have started things off, but there’s been rumours of another release since the end of 2015. That release has now been revealed – a Lagavulin 25 Year Old.
It’s the last day of my advent calendar series. 24 posts in 24 days has more than doubled the number that have appeared on this blog in 2016, so expect radio silence for a little while – my liver needs time to regenerate.
For this last day, I thought I’d return to the beginning – the whisky that started me on the road to where I am now. Lagavulin 16 Year Old.
How time flies. A mere two years ago I was an occasional drunk who sometimes wrote things up on his blog, who then bumped into Andy and Jason of WhiskySquad at a couple of booze events, leading to my attendance of almost every one of their sessions. These days I’m a professional drunk who still only sometimes writes stuff on his blog, but WhiskySquad has gone from strength to strength. Up to at least two tastings a month and at least three iterations into their website, tickets still sell out quickly and, as a crowning achievement, they’ve even had me along to present an evening. After last year’s shindig there was a standard to be lived up to, so the big guns were rolled out for birthday number two – a matured whisky and new spirit pairing.
Yes, after two years of schmoozing the assembled masses of the whisky industry Andy and Jason managed to lever a number of sample bottles of new make spirit out of the hands of the distilleries for a bit of a special evening – tasting blind, as usual, whiskies and the new make spirits that they started out as.
Hello. I’m in Scotland, surrounded by snow and equipped with inadequate footwear, a combination of facts that should make post(s) later this week a beacon for schadenfreude tinged enjoyment. Anyways, as whisky distilleries treat weekends in February with appropriate level of contempt (they’re working but don’t open for tourists, as there are only four of us here who want to come and visit, and we’re all sleeping, going to the pub and bemoaning our inadequate footwear) today is a day for writing things, in this case a quick note (edit: quick was the intention, however it didn’t happen) about Whisky Squad #30 – The Management presents.
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
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…
So, Thursday has been and gone and my pre-Burn’s Night whisky tasting at The Alma has gone with it. It was a rather enjoyable evening and I thank those who came along to listen to me witter about whisky. Well, drink whisky while I wittered noisily in the background at least. As promised to those who came along, and as a record of what you missed (take that as a positive or negative as you will) for everyone else, here’s a sanitised version of my notes, without quite so many spelling mistakes and unused stage directions.
Whisky #1 was Ballantines 17 year old, recently rated by Jim Murray as the highest scoring whisky for 2011 in his yearly Whisky Bible
with 97.5 points. Ballantines the company started out like many blenders as shop, opening in 1827, and by the mid 1860s had started blending whiskies for their customers. The brand was acquired Pernod Ricard in 2005 and isn’t all that well known in the UK. However, they are big around the world and increasingly so in the UK, with their premium blends (such as the 17) appearing more often as they get praised.
On the nose I got PVA glue, pear, unripe green grapes and sherry dipped sponge cake (a combination of vanilla, acetone + biscuits). It had a very tight palate, with an initial sweetness moving quickly to dry wood and a lingering grainy finish. It was buttery without an oily mouth feel and had sharp apples, cedar/teak/old cabinets, sour apple sweets and a little bit of lime. Water brought out some vanilla, bitter dark chocolate and lemon peel.
Whisky #2 was a Signatory Bladnoch 1993 16 year old. This comes from the most southerly distillery in Scotland, situated near Wigtown in Dumfries and Galloway in the south west of Scotland – latitude-wise it’s just south of both Newcastle and Carlisle. The distillery opened in 1817, closed in 1949, reopened in 1957, closed in the 1990’s and then reopened again in 2000. This whisky was distilled in 1993, before the last close, and is in a similar but different style to current production, which started being standardly bottled as an 8 year old in 2009.
This whisky comes from independent bottler Signatory, founded in 1988 as simply a bottler and expanding into distillery ownership in 2002 with the purchase of the distillery with maybe the smallest stills in Scotland – Edradour. According the internets, the name Signatory came from a plan to produce whiskies with a label signed by a celebrity, but they sold out their first bottling before they organised the signature and abandoned the idea while keeping the name.
On the nose it had light vanilla, unsweetened pineapple, cut grass and a touch of woodiness. To taste it was light with some sweetness, coconut, linseed oil and floral notes. Water added in some more grassiness and more vanilla.
Whisky #3 was Glenfarclas 15 year old. Despite this being the distillery I have visited most often, thanks to yearly visits to Scotland and it being one of the closest distilleries to where we stayed, I’ve not tried the 15 year old until recently. Glenfarclas was founded in 1836 but has been run by the Grant family (not to be confused with the other Grant family, the ones who own Glenfiddich and Balvenie) since 1865. They normally use a chunk of sherry wood in the maturation of their whiskies and this one is no exception – on the nose there’s rich dried fruit, hints of pedro ximinez, dark rum and cognac. To taste it has more of the dried fruit and raisins, dried orange peel and rich fruit cake in between. Water rolls out more sweetness and adds even more thick richness.
Whisky #4 was Clynelish 14 year old. I wasn’t sure about including this one, as it’s a distillery that’s not quite so well known and there are many more Highland whiskies I could have chosen. However, in the end I went for it because I really like it – it was my Christmas whisky this year and it’s in my hipflask. I’m rather pleased I did, as it seemed to be rather liked by the tasting group as well (and tales of its almost permanent special offer status at Waitrose didn’t hurt). The distillery is in Brora, up the east coast of Scotland from the Dornoch Firth, about 1/2 the way to John O’Groats. It’s the second distillery to be built in Brora and operated as Clynelish 2 from its building in 1967 until the older distillery was renamed from Clynelish to Brora in the 1970s. Brora closed in 1983 and the remaining stock is in much demand, but with a minimum age of 27 years (that being how long it was since spirit was last produced there) it’s getting rarer and closer to the point where it will be going bad in the barrel rather than continuing to add good flavour.
On the nose this had wax (as is traditional with Clynelish whiskies), brine, sweaty boiled sweets, a hint of meaty smoke (burning beef?), creamy vanilla and some leather. To taste it was initially sweet turning to sour wood by the finish. It had vanilla, mint, menthol, unripe red grapes and tannic wood to finish. Water added some more sweet and sourness and a touch of sherbert – a bit like Refresher chews.
Whisky #5 was Lagavulin 16 year old. Distilled on the south coast of Islay, a concentrated whisky production area with 8 distilleries squeezed into 240 square miles of island just off the west coast of Scotland near the Kintyre peninsula. It has distilleries to either side, with Ardbeg to the east and Laphroaig to the west, all three of them known for producing heavily peated whiskies, which is the style of most of the distilleries on the island.
On the nose this has coal and campfires with sweetness hiding underneath. To taste it has a big smokiness, sweet mulchy peat, rich dried fruit and spicy fruit cake. Water rolls back some of the smoke bringing out more fruitcake and and vanilla. A big one to finish and a nice contrast to the almost smoke-free others.
I also brought out some new make spirit. It was Glenglassaugh Clearac, which is unpeated spirit that’s watered down to 50% before being bottled and sold – not quite the 70%ish spirit that comes straight out of the still. It’s quite sweet to smell, with caramel and lemons, and simply flavoured, with citrus sweetness and cereal notes. It shows quite nicely how much the wood maturation of whisky adds to the flavour.
Anyways, that was it. I was quite pleased with the whiskies – they contrasted nicely and gave a nice overview of the range of flavour available, which was the point of the tasting. There was only one person that really needed to be converted to liking whisky – Kirsty, who organised the tasting. She wasn’t quite a total convert but did acknowledge that there was a chance that she might find a whisky that she likes, which I’ll take as a victory.
Ballantines 17 Year Old
Blended Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£30 from Master of Malt.
Signatory Bladnoch 1993 16 Year Old
Single malt Lowland Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£35 from Master of Malt.
Glenfarclas 15 Year Old
Single malt Speyside Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£35 from Master of Malt.
Clynelish 14 Year Old
Single malt Highland Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£30 from Master of Malt.
Lagavulin 16 Year Old
Single malt Islay Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£40 from Master of Malt.
“Spirit drink”, 50%. ~£15 per 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange.
Many thanks to Kirsty from The Alma for inviting me along and to Darren at Master of Malt for making sure that I got the whisky in time, even offering to bring it up to London from Tunbridge Wells for me if the post let me down