Mark Gill, aka The Cocktail Geek, started up a tradition a while back of posting up your last drink of the week on Twitter, complete with a hashtag to aid in the finding of other participants. It didn’t really catch on, but I flung a drink up each week and Mark did a blog post. It’s gone a bit quiet over on the Twitters, so I thought I’d have a go at joining in again, but this time with an actual blog post. Just a short one…
Tonight I’ve decided to go for a couple of Last Drinks. Which is obviously cheating, but it’s a vaguely special day for a couple of reasons so I thought I’d reward myself.
The first outing for the Whisky Squad in February (after a late January tasting with me at the helm which I was too busy talking at people during to make notes – the drams are all listed on the ‘Stuff we’ve drunk‘ page on the Squad website) handed the reins of to Joel for a tour through Speyside. While the region is named after the river Spey there are a bunch of other rivers, with the big ones being the Findhorn, Isla, Deveron, Avon and Lossie. However, despite the session’s moniker the focus of the evening was the whisky rather than any other bodies of liquid…
As I don’t think I’ve written about whisky enough recently (sarchasm) I thought I’d put something down on paper/the screen/the interwebnets about Whisky Live London 2011. I’ve been almost entirely fail-y when it has come to writing about whisky shows in the past, mainly as a day of walking around pouring whisky down my neck does lead to incoherence (as my nice performance at the nice Connosr‘s nice WhiskyPod this year demonstrated nicely), but this time I also booked up a ticket to a tasting of The World’s Most Collectible Whiskies with Whisky Magazine’s auction king Jonny McCormick and sitting down helped my pen write slightly more legibly.
Yes, the Signet glass is empty. I only noticed after taking the picture and pinched a glass of it from one of the empty spots on my table. There were a surprising number of empty spots.
Jonny writes for Whisky Magazine mainly about whisky collecting and auctions, looking after their whisky auction price tracking ‘WM Index’, and brought that expertise to selecting five whiskies that either are already rising in price or could be the auction stars of the future. First on the mat was Highland Park St Magnus, the second entry in their Earl Magnus series of limited bottlings, named for distillery founder Magnus Eunson’s namesake, Earl Magnus of Orkney. The first in the series, the eponymous Earl Magnus, was limited to 6000 bottles, this one to 12000 and the final one, Earl Haakon (named for Magnus’s cousin), to 3000, showing some tricksiness from a company who know that investors like them. The St Magnus comes in at 55% ABV and on the nose had punchy sherry fruit, mulchy peat, almonds and marzipan, and a hint of farmyard mixed in with a meatiness that spread from the nose down to the back of the mouth. To taste there was sweet overripe fruit, sour citrus, sour wood, quite a bit of boozy heat and a lighter flavour than I expected from the quite forthright nose, although mainly the heat of the booze overpowered everything. It could take quite a bit of water, as you’d expect, bringing out spiky wood, sour Fruit Salad chews, spicy lemons and still more boozy heat. I kept dropping in bits of water from time to time as the tasting went on, which eventually tamed it into a flavoursome dram with a buttery mouth feel. The Earl Magnus has already done rather well value-wise, with its release price of £85 leading to a fast sellout and a rapid rise in value to £250-£300 in shops today. The larger release of the St Magnus suggests that it won’t reach the heady heights of the first bottle, but will be a key part of sets of all three bottles in the future, so grabbing one now if you have the Earl Magnus is a no-brainer. You might have to fight for a bottle of the Earl Haakon, but that’s all part of the fun of collecting whisky…I hear.
Next we turned to the Dalmore 1981 Matusalem. Matured for 22 years in american oak before being recasked for 6 months to finish in 30 year old Gonzalez Byass Matusalem Oloroso sherry butts, this is part of Dalmore’s increasingly silly range of premium whiskies, although very much at the lower end. It currently seems to be selling at about £400 a bottle in travel retail, a further exclusivity that should help it in the future at auction. On the nose it had oxidised tawny port, dry wood, red grapes and candied lemons. To taste it was quite sweet with sappy wood and twigs – “like licking the inside of a sugar tree” my notes helpfully add – and stone-in stewed fruit (hints of almonds and cherry stone along with the big fruitiness). Water brought out some more sweetness and the wood softened into creamy vanilla, although leaving a bit behind for a long sweetly woody finish. Dalmore seem to be building their range around collectors, with the world’s most expensive whisky (sold in a normal bottle rather than one of a kind Lalique decanter, that is), Trinitas, leading the way with it’s silly £100,000 price tag. Dalmore is currently sitting just outside of the top 10 of the Whisky Magazine index’s auction movers and shakers, but that may well change over the years thanks to their special releases.
Third was the Glenmorangie Signet, an interesting dram produced using some chocolate malt (dark roasted rather than actually involving chocolate) based spirit as well as some older whisky from the original Glenmorangie maltings. On the nose it was soft with sweet orange, lime leaves, rich sweet malt and golden syrup. Behind the richness there was a distinctly leafy vegetal note. To taste it had sweet dark chocolate, some gravelly minerality and a leafy nettle finish – “Mossy chocolate paving stones” says my notebook. Water added more sweetness, turning the dark chocolate towards milk chocolate, and added some sweet chocolate malt (hints of milk stout) to the leafy finish. A very interesting flavour which I’m still not sure I’m a massive fan of, but one I will be trying again to make sure. Maybe several times. Along with the interesting liquid in the bottle Glenmorangie, recently a distillery who have been upgrading packaging all over the place, have created a rather fancy bottle, with the glass darkening from bottom to top and having a large silvered cap on top – something that will help the value in future, especially as many people seem to have opened their bottles due to the reports of how good it is. A whisky to buy two bottles of – one to drink and one to hide for a rainy day.
Next wasthe Bowmore 21 year old Port Cask, one of a number of peated port casks that were on show at Whisky Live (despite being recommended it by a number of people I missed out on trying the impressive sounding Benriach Solstice – one for the follow-up list). Another travel retail exclusive, this one is made up of whisky distilled on March 10th 1988 and kept for all of its 21 years in port casks. On the nose it was lightly peaty with big dry red wine, plum jam and glacé cherries. To taste it started with flowery air freshener, moved through a meatily spiced middle with lipsticky wax to a stony peat end. The overpowering air freshener flavour that I got up front pretty much ruined it for me and water didn’t improve it, adding in more waxiness and spicy sweetness but leaving the cloying start. Not one for me, although appreciated around the room. Bowmores are currently riding high in the WM Index, both by sales volume and price per bottle, with old bottlings, such as the Black Bowmores, being spoken of in hushed tones and going for thousands of pounds at auction – their continuing range of premium bottlings will hopefully help them to keep up this momentum.
The final whisky of the tasting was Macallan Oscuro, part of their 1824 range of travel retail exclusive whiskies and made up of spirit distilled between 1987 and 1997. On the nose it had raisins, milk chocolate, a touch of struck match, buttered toast, marzipan and shortbread. To taste it was thick and sweet with cinnamon custard and a caramel wood finish. Water brought out more sugar, raisin cordial (not that I’ve tried raisin cordial, but it’s what I imagine non-alcoholic PX to taste like) and butter. My favourite of the night, with my current whisky sweet tooth being firmly satisfied. It’s currently rather pricy, at about £500 a bottle, but Macallans have a lot of success at auction and it might be a nice place to invest, if you don’t drink it. Macallan sits at the top of both Whisky Magazines’s price and volume indices, in part due to the large number of bottlings that their long history has produced, with vintages back to the beginning of the 20th century sitting behind the counter in the distillery shop ready for sale. With an almost constant barrage of interesting bottlings across the price spectrum it looks like they’ll be pretty much permanent fixtures of the auction market.
I’m not really a whisky investor, buying to drink as I do, but vaguely inspired by the tasting I did take advantage of the Friends of Laphroaig “It’s your birthday!” discount offer (another reason to sign up to the FoL) to pick up a couple of bottles of their 12 year old cask strength batch 2, one to drink and one to keep, as it was a nice low-cost way of having a punt at the whisky collecting game. The sold out batch 1 has already increased in price by 50% (to about £40 a bottle) so we shall see…
The thing that most surprised me when discussing collecting with Phil Huckle of Pernod Ricard after the The Glenlivet tasting I went to last year was the emphasis on distillery bottlings – in general independents won’t go up in price to anywhere near the extent that original distillery bottlings will. His advice on the night was simple – buy independents to drink, buy distillery to keep. While my lack of cupboard space is currently beating my love of hoarding things, my love of drinking whisky will continue to keep the collecting bug away. For now. I hope.
Highland Park St Magnus
Highland single malt Scotch whisky, 55%. ~£85 from The Whisky Exchange.
Dalmore 1981 Matusalem
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 44%. ~£400 from World of Whiskies (travel retail exclusive).
Highland single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£110 from Master of Malt.
Bowmore 21 year old Port Cask
Islay single malt vintage Scotch whisky, 51.5%. ~£150 from World of Whiskies (travel retail exclusive).
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 46.5%. ~£400 from World of Whiskies (travel retail exclusive).
This blog is quite good for getting me invited to slightly random events that aren’t just plain drinks tastings and when I was asked along to a combination practise whisky dinner and book launch at a Michelin starred Indian restaurant, I couldn’t really say no. The book in question is Dominic Roskrow’s latest, The World’s Best Whiskies and the restaurant Quilon.
Dominic has been writing about whisky for years, having been editor of Whisky Magazine amongst other writing poitions, and was made a Keeper of the Quaich in 2007 and a Kentucky Colonel in 2010. He now edits The Whisky Shop‘s inhouse magazine, Whiskeria, writes all over the place and runs whisky tastings around the country. It was more in this latter capacity that he we met him, as the plan was to taste some whisky rather than listen to a reading of tasting notes from the new book.
Quilon, specialising in food from the south west of India, wasn’t an entirely random pairing, as this was a test run of a whisky dinner that Dominic will be hosting at the restaurant at the beginning of next year. The fact that they also have a 50 strong whisky menu and a head chef who likes the odd dram, as we discovered when he came out to have a rest and a drink at the end of the night, didn’t hinder things either.
We started the evening with a cocktail of Johnny Walker Black Label and Créme de Mûre, topped up with champagne, which I was not that great a fan of – the champage overpowered the whisky and the liqueur didn’t help that. As I’m not a fan of fizzy wine it wasn’t my kind of thing, but the assembled journalists, with a couple of us bloggers for good measure, seemed to enjoy it well enough. While we sipped at these Dominic described his approach to writing the book, basically drinking a lot of whisky. He went through and tried all of the whiskies himself (bar one that I can’t remember) and wrote up fresh tasting notes for all of them in his own rather irreverant style, focusing on drinking whisky and having a good time rather than the more regimented tasting notes side of things.
Dominic is very much a lover of whisk(e)y from all over the world, as his Kentucky Colonel-dom (-ship? -ity? who knows…) attests, and we started the whisky tasting with the Amrut Double Cask. Amrut have been making drinks for many years, but their foray into the single malt whisky market was described by Dominic as a ‘Newcastle university student experiment’. One of the family who own the operation was studying in Newcastle and wondered whether it was possible to sell an Indian single malt whisky in the British market. The initial answer to the question was ‘no’, but they’ve persevered and over time the quality of product and the eagerness of reception has grown, leading to the current state where it’s no longer considered quite as strange that you can buy Indian whisky in the UK and their products are getting good critical attention. Due to the environment in Bangalore the maturation of the whisky is rather different to in Scotland, with 2-5 years of maturation being usual and 7 years the oldest that they’ve produced as yet. This speed of turnaround has allowed them to do a lot of experimentation, with various different barley types (both local Indian grain as well as imports from Scotland) and barrels as well as other fiddling. This bottling is a vatting of two old casks (from 2002 and 2003 – two of their oldest) demonstrating the main problem with maturing for so long in the tropics – the whisky lost 59% of its volume in evaporation over the 7 years. Rather than being alcohol evaporating, as you get in cooler climates, this was mainly water, with the alcohol content of the spirit rising from the filling proof of 62.5% to 69.8% before reducing for bottling. This is now pretty much sold out, as you’d expect from a total availability of 306 bottles. On the nose it had vanilla, a beefy maltiness, apples and chilli. To taste it was buttery, with sweet vanilla, black pepper, green peppers, a bit of chilli spice and long bitter wood finish. As it sat in the glass it opened up a bit more and I got a hint of aniseed – not the sweet heat of an aniseed ball but the seedy aniseed of the speck at the centre. Water softened the wood, bringing out more vanilla and calming the spiciness.
Next we tried out our one Scottish whisky of the evening, the Glenkeir Treasures 17 year old Macallan. The Glenkeir Treasures are a range of The Whisky Shop’s own bottlings and this one was a single cask which had produced 144 bottles. It was matured in bourbon and finished in sherry casks (I think that’s what Dominic said), showing Macallan’s increased use of bourbon casks in their production, something that was very much not the norm for them in the past. On the nose it was vegetal with some horseradish and mustard. There was also dark chocolate, a rich maltiness and a smell that my brain resolved to be “off limes” – a pleasant soured citrus. To taste there was sweet woody spice with salt and pepper, but these were overshadowed by a dry tannic wood that stepped in and dominated. Water rolled away a lot of the dryness, revealing vanilla ice cream which quickly faded through dried fruits to a long woody finish.
We then skipped continents again, this time to the USA and Hancock’s Reserve Single Barrel. Produced by Buffalo Trace (there are a lot more whiskey brands than there are distilleries in the US, with most companies producing a variety of different products) it’s a single cask with individual bottlings often coming in at 8-10 years, although the age is not stated on the bottle. This one had a lovely nose, with sweet varnish, pencil rubbers, bubblegum, dried apples, pastry, bananas and a rich caramel. To taste it was much lighter, with the apples returning along with some grapes, sultanas and sweet wood spice, finishing with light woodiness. It was the groups favourite of the evening and I can see why – very smooth and easy to drink in comparison with the rather spiky whiskies that preceded it. I found it slightly disappointing that the promise of the nose wasn’t quite borne out in the body, but still rather enjoyed it.
The last in our round the world tasting session was the most interesting for me – Karuizawa 1982 from The Whisky Exchange. Appropriately Tim from TWE (and writer of their rather good blog) was there to represent the bottlers, who had put this whisky out as part of their 10th anniversary celebrations. I tried it a week earlier at their official celebratory tasting (that I might one day get round to writing up here) and had to check carefully to make sure it was the same whisky. We tried it very soon after pouring at Quilon, whereas it was the penultimate whisky at the TWE tasting and had sat in the glass for about 2 hours, and it seems that it is very much a whisky that changes with exposure to the air. This time the nose was rich with truffles, struck matches, raisins, grapes and sherried wood. To taste it had sherry fruit and peppery spice, followed by a burst of wood that led into a rich, spicy, meaty finish. An impressive and very different whisky from the rest, and one that lost a lot of the ‘forest notes’ as it sat in the glass (which it didn’t do very long this time).
We then followed this with some excellent food from the Quilon menu, matched with a red and white wine rather than with the whisky, with the curry leaf and lentil crusted fish starter (as south west India has a whole load of coastline to obtain fish from), the lamb roast main course (which reminded me a lot of the excellent ‘dry meat’ at Tayyabs) and the rather special pepper ice cream (which I suspect had a chunk more than pepper in – I assumed it was cardamon until I read the menu) all standing out. With dinner finished we were joined by head chef Sriram Aylur who tucked into a pair of drams (with a spot of ice, as room temperature whisky after an evening in a hot and spicy kitchen wasn’t something he was a fan of) while we chatted with Dominic about the joys of whisky.
All in all a rather nice evening and encouraging to see the whisky industry outside of the core distilling reaching out to bloggers (something that Dominic himself mentioned in the latest Whiskeria – November 2010, page 50). I think that the restaurant need to have a chat with Dominic before next year to best work out how to set up the tasting though, as wine glasses aren’t great for nosing and chilled water isn’t the best for adding to a dram. That said, the food was very good and they’ve gone on my list of places to try and have a proper meal at.
I’d already occasionally spoken to Dominic on Twitter, so it was nice to meet him in person. I’d even signed up to his online whisky tasting club earlier that week, receiving shipping confirmation of my first box of samples while I was talking to him that evening. In a stroke of duplication it seems that in addition to the copy of the book that I was given after this tasting I’ll have another one arriving sometime early in the new year, as The Whisky Tasting Club are giving each of their regular members a copy after their second tasting. I’ll have a spare soon so I might even have to do a competition giveaway or something – while the book is (from my current browsing) rather good and beautifully designed (the front cover alone has given me both photographic and glassware envy) my house is too full of books and booze to allow any duplicates in. Worryingly, that even counts for booze…
Amrut Double Cask
7 year old Indian single malt whisky. 46%. ~£80 from Whiskys.co.uk
Glenkeir Treasures Macallan 17
17 year old Speyside single cask single malt Scotch whisky. 57.7%. Sold out, but was ~£70 per bottle
Hancock’s Reserve Single Barrel
Single cask bourbon aged approx 8-10 years. 44.45%. ~£70 from Royal Mile Whiskies
Karuizawa 1982, Whisky Exchange 10th Anniversary Bottling
17 year old single cask Japanese single malt whisky. Sold out, but was available from The Whisky Exchange.
Many thanks to Su Lin Ong of SLO London for inviting me, the staff at Quilon for feeding me and to Dominic for the whisky and whisky talk. I didn’t pay for the evening and did receive a copy of Dominic’s book to take home with me. And a copy of Whiskeria, but I think you can get those for free at The Whisky Shop if you buy something and ask nicely. I think that’s what I did last time.
Tickets are now available for the February 1st 2011 dinner. Details in this PDF.
Dominic is another person who is being foolish and growing a ‘tache for Movember. While it pains me to advertise a ‘rival’ (doubly so, as he’s a member of The Edinburgh Whisky Blog‘s team rather than infinitely superior Whisky4Movember posse) as it’s a rival for sponsorship cash and it all goes to the same place it’d be churlish of me not to link to his fundraising page. His moustache is also better than mine.
Again, the internet doth provide. I saw a post on Judith Lewis’s Mostly About Chocolate blog the other day that Macallan were doing a whisky and chocolate tasting, and that she had some tickets to give away. I’ve been to quite a few whisky tastings in my time but as yet I’ve managed to avoid (undeliberately) any food pairings and have been keeping an eye out for one that I could do. Naturally, I entered the competition and was quite surprised to be rewarded not only with one ticket but also a few more to give away to some friends, courtesy of Macallan’s twittering PR folk. I roped in my partner for this year’s NomNomNom, Melanie, work buddy Darren and one of his mates, and off to Ladbroke Grove we did trot.
On arrival we were presented with a Cocoa Pulp Bellini, part of Artisan’s Chocolateria cocktail menu, a glass with cocoa pulp topped up with prosecco. The pulp was fruity with hints of lychee, peach and fizzy apple, which worked well to create a light, fruity bellini. I’ve noticed Artisan du Chocolat popping up a lot on Twitter, being in with the London foodies as they are and also an active participant in the world of online interaction, but have yet to make it over to one of their shops. They’ve been selling chocolates in London for a while, starting out in Borough Market about 10 years ago (back in the days when it wasn’t quite so well known and there was a lot more fighting for every customer who walked past) and expanding their business to now include a few shops and a concession in Selfridges on Oxford Street. Gerry Coleman, founder and chocolatier, and his team have been making their own chocolate, rather than buying it in, to make their various tasty things since 2007 and are one of the only posh chocolate shops to do so. Basically, I was impressed and may have hung around a bit at the end of the night, interrupting the staff’s well deserved pizza, talking at Gerry and realising that I now have to add chocolate onto my list of things to learn about.
Macallan I’ve generally not been so keen on. While I was quite impressed by their regular 10 year old whisky when I visited the distillery, I wasn’t quite so fond of the 12 year old version and the 12 year fine oak that I bought miniatures of. However, from their style (mainly sherried Speyside) they should fit happily into my likes, so I’ve always thought it must be some kind of snobbery rather than the fault of the whisky. One of their current marketing pushes is to find masters in other industries, to match up with their own Master of Wood and Master of Spirit. So far they’ve released a Masters of Photography bottlins, with accompanying photographic exhibition, and have done a few events matching up Macallan with other masters, and this tasting was part of that idea – combining the Masters of Wood and Spirit with the Masters of Chocolate.
The plan was simple – Gerry and his team had tasted a selection of Macallans, chosen a matching chocolate bar (or two) from their range, and they would present us with both whisky and chocolate to see what we thought. Leading the whisky side was Maxxium UK’s Toby Shellard along with Annabel Kohler from the Edrington Group (the owners of Macallan), and the whiskies chosen were not a regular vertical tasting.
The first whisky we tried was the Macallan 15 year old Fine Oak, a mixture of Macallan whiskies matured in european sherry, american bourbon and american sherry oak barrels. On the nose there was linseed oil, apple and pear, a hint of salt and some almost banana-like sweetness. To taste the first thing I noticed was a big woodiness, which was tempered by some vanilla and pear flavours as well as lightly toasted bread. Water brought out some smokiness (from the wood rather than any peat) as well as more oil, orchard fruit and a floral note that was hidden behind the wood beforehand. I much preferred this to the 12 year I’d tried before, but it was still a little woody for my liking.
The chocolate selected for this whisky was a single origin Jamaican 72% cocoa dark chocolate, a dark tasting chocolate with overtones of tobacco as well as a floralness. Gerry also pulled out a flavour I was having trouble describing – olives. When pairing the whisky and chocolate I tried it both chocolate first and whisky first and was surprised by the difference. Tasting the chocolate first the oil and wood of the whisky were emphasised, combining with the tobacco and olive flavours of the chocolate. The other way around the floral notes of the whisky combined with the tobacco of the chocolate to bring out a sweet coffee flavour that wasn’t present when tasting the chocolate first.
They had also selected a second backup match for this one, a milk chocolate with lemongrass and ginger. Tasting the whisky first didn’t really give anything new here (leading me to focus on tasting the chocolate first from then on), but tasting the chocolate first coated the mouth and filled a hole in the middle of the whisky, that I hadn’t noticed before, with the gingery citrus sweetness. Very different to the last match but equally good, splitting the room.
The next whisky was the Macallan 12, one that I have talked about before, matured in oloroso casks. To help see what the whisky had got from the wood each table was presented with a glass of dark oloroso to nose – it was fantastically raisiny, like a sweet wine concentrate but without the thickness of PX. On the nose the whisky has the regular oiliness, dried fruit and cereal (that I described before as being like Garibaldi biscuits) and some spicy caramelised orange. To taste it had rounded sherry woodiness (with dried fruit, hints of wine and all the norm) as well as candy floss, tobacco wood and some vanilla – all combining to make something like a dark chocolate Terry’s Chocolate Orange. Water knocked out a lot of the lighter flavours, boosting the vanilla sweetness and the wood and not really helping much. I enjoyed it much more than previously, maybe more than the 10 year old that I was comparing it to last time.
To match it the team had chosen their Mole Chili bar – a tobaccoey chocolate with a long chilli savouriness running throughout the flavour. It was made with more than just chilli peppers, with the 4 types of chilli accompanied by a variety of other mole ingredients including ground tortilla and thyme. I don’t like chilli chocolate usually, but this one was really very nice. With the whisky the leafy tobacco combined with the citrus to provide a background for the richness of the whisky, all wrapped up with a chilli zing. A very good match that enhanced the flavours of both whisky and chocolate.
We then moved onto the more difficult to obtain whiskies, firstly the Macallan Select Oak. Available in the travel retail market (ie. duty free shops) it’s part of the 1824 collection, a range named after the year of the distillery’s founding and all released without age statement. On the nose it’s got the regular oiliness as well as malt toffee, vanilla wood, and a touch of saltiness and flowers. To taste it’s got linseed, a hint of pear, creamy vanilla, a little bit of hazelnut and a spicy gingery finish. Gerry described it as being like vanilla ice cream cones.
The chocolate for this one was the Artisan Almond Milk Bar, made using almond milk rather than that from cows, and thus vegan friendly. It was very almondy, having a taste that invoked a sensation of grainy almond powder, despite the chocolate being smooth – it was almost like eating unsweetened marzipan mixed with chocolate, which is on the way to what it is. When paired with the whisky it enhanced the light nuttiness and creaminess, turning into a chocolate-whisky combination that was big and flavourful.
There was a second choice chocolate, the Tonka Bar. The tonka bean has a chunk of vanilla as well as the taste of cherry stones which came through quite clearly in the chocolate. Adding cherries to the already slightly nutty, woody whisky brought out a cherry bakewell flavour that was nice, but not as coherent as the Almond bar.
The last paired whisky of the night was the Macallan Whisky Makers Edition, the next in the 1824 collection and bottled a little stronger at 42.8% – the ABV that Macallan’s whisky king, Bob Dalgarno, thinks is the perfect strength for Macallan bottlings. On the nose it has oil, apricots and a hint of raisin, and to taste it has orange juice concentrate, more oiliness and a underlying earthiness. The finish is lightly woody and long, but not particularly intense. This was more delicate than the previous drams and didn’t go down all that well with a room of fading palates, but it struck me as one that definitely needed another go when my tastebuds were a bit fresher.
The chocolate paired with it was their Tobacco Bar, sold with an awareness of the public backlash against the evil leaf – while smoking may kill (says the ex-smoker who sometimes misses cigarettes), tobacco in its unsmoked form can add an interesting leafy, earthy flavour to a variety of food and drink. The chocolate was leathery with liquorice and leafy tobacco, thanks to the two different types of tobacco they use make it – one to bring smokiness and one to bring the leafiness. When tasted with the chocolate the whisky felt more complete, with fruity and smoky tastes mixing in with the oil and citrus to create a well rounded, complex chocolate and whisky combination.
This also had a second choice, the Black Cardamon bar. On its own the chocolate had a strong spicy cardamon feel with a touch of wet wood, but when mixed with the whisky the orange and spice dominated, emphasising the Christmassy middle of the spirit.
Having finished our run of whiskies our next treat was unveiled – Artisan du Chocolat had been experimenting with making whisky truffles based on the various expressions we’d tasted. When they were first made they’d been described as too strong but when we tasted them, two weeks later, much of the whisky flavour had dissipated, leaving vaguely alcoholic truffles. The whiskies were mixed with white chocolate and then combined with various coatings:
Macallan 12 – Single origin jamaican chocolate ganache
Macallan 15 – Orange blossom and orchid ganache
Select Oak – Milk chocolate ganache
They were all very nice but the whisky flavours had faded, leaving only hints of what could have been.
I was quite lucky at the end of the evening, as while speaking to Annabel about how I was surprised that I didn’t like the Macallan whiskies more she recommended that I try the Macallan 18 if I got a chance, as she thought it might fit in with my tastes. Unfortunately she didn’t have a bottle, but Toby overheard, nipped out to his car and brought in one he happened to have knocking around. The cork broke on the way out of the bottle, but a corkscrew was found and I got a taste. On the nose there was loads of raisiny fruit, a savoury leatheriness and the distinctive Macallan oiliness. To taste it had dark chocolate, tannic wood, light fruit without much sweetness and a spicy lingering finish. With water a lot of the sweetness was initially knocked out, although it returned as it matured in the glass, and the wood came on a bit strong. More towards my tastes, but again the wood stood in the way a little bit.
This was a try out event, followed by one for paying customers the next night, and as yet they don’t have any more scheduled. However, after speaking to Gerry for a while I suspect that we might see more of these type of events coming out of Artisan du Chocolat in the future, and I’m tempted to come back for more.
Macallan 15 Year Old Fine Oak
Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky. 43%. ~£40
Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky. 40%. ~£30
Macallan Select Oak
No age statement. Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky. 40%. ~£50
Macallan Whisky Maker’s Edition
No age statement. Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky. 42.8%, ~£75
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.
Mr 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.
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 Laphroaig – 29.80: 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…
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)
I am a big fan of gimmicks, even if I try not to give them too much credence, but when I heard about Macallan’s latest it gave me a kick to go and find somewhere that could demonstrate it – The Ice Ball Serve… Basically, serve Macallan 10 yr old over ice, but instead of using cubes use a giant sphere of ice created with much theatre in a machine constructed from two large heavy copper lumps with a ball mould carved into them. I’m generally not a fan of ice in scotch whisky, although it has its place, but I decided to abandon my principles and wandered down to Hawksmoor to give it a try.
The machine is excellent – two large copper blocks, each with a hemisphere carved into the centre of one side, between which you place a large block of ice and then let the combined forces of gravity and ambient temperature take their toll. The heavy copper presses on the ice and being at ambient temperature it melts it a bit. Slowly but surely the weight of the upper copper block squishes the ice into the mould, while strategically placed holes in the blocks let water escape, until it’s a fairly decent sphere. There’s a turny thing on the bottom block to lever the ball out, leaving the barman to pick it up with some tongs and plink it into the specially shaped glass before sploshing on some Macallan 10. It is a perfect piece of point of sale bar theatrics – little can go wrong (other than not having enough pieces of big ice), it’s not messy, and is quite easy to explain. Hawksmoor don’t have much in the way of branded furniture on their bar, but I can see why they said yes to this one.
They are, however, quite scarily expensive (a few kilos of decent copper isn’t cheap) and Macallan have distributed them to about 20 places around the country (a list can be found over on Whisky Intelligence). They are originally from Japan, home of the excellent bar related gadget, and it seems that Macallan have a license to distribute them in the UK. While I won’t be seeking one out for my kitchen, I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out to see how far they spread amongst the posh bars of London – it’s nice to have an excuse to go to posh bars…
It’s definitely worth a try, although while I felt the cooled Macallan was quite nice, it was nothing special – certainly not as nice as if drunk at room temperature. The big ball of ice may not melt as fast as a bunch of smaller cubes, but getting it out of the glass when you’ve got to the concentration of whisky/water that you want is difficult, as the glass has been designed to have an opening about the same size as the ball – it does make you drink your whisky a little faster, I suppose, which is something that Macallan won’t mind. So, one for the gadget lovers and those who like ice in their scotch. I fall into one half of that camp and while I may not be having another ice ball of my own I will certainly sit around and watch other people smile as the machine does its work.
Macallan 10 year old
Sherry cask aged single malt scotch whisky
40%. Widely available for about £30 per bottle. I had mine at Hawksmoor. As you may have noticed. They’ve also got the 21 year old and many other tasty whiskies (that may appear in the next Quick Tastings post, if I can decipher my drunken notes) on the shelf. I like Hawksmoor.