Diageo Special Releases 2019

Diageo Special Releases 2019

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…

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Whisky Hub #1 at Albannach

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

Hammer Head
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…

Whisky Squad #10 – Wee Speyside Beauties

The year has turned and time for another whisky squad has rolled around. This month, in a departure to the norm, we relocated from The Gunmakers to sample some more whiskies from Berry Brothers and Rudd, the eponymous Berry’s Own Selection, this time in the cellars beneath their shop at Number 3 St James’s Street. Due to Epic Camera Failage! (I forgot to charge it) I ended up with only a few rather noisy pictures courtesy of my iPhone but Mr Standing, Whisky Squad co-founder and probable boxing champion if he put his mind to it, has put up a flickr set with a few more piccies of the lovely location in.

Berry Brothers and Rudd
Upstairs, downstairs

While The Gunmakers has history (named for the nearby site where Hiram Maxim’s machine gun, the first of its kind, was manufactured as it is) Berrys have been selling continuously from their shop since 1698 and despite The Blitz hitting surrounding buildings quite heavily it is still made of a lot of original material. The floor in the main shop floor may be a bit on the wonky side, thanks to the settling of the foundations over the last 300 years, and the floor boards near the door may only be a few years old due to being replaced after the break in, but walking into the shop does almost feel like walking into a museum. In the back left corner there is a small room where Rob Whitehead, returning as our whisky guide for the evening, spends most of his time looking after Berry Brothers’ spirits selection, but most of their business remains selling wine. While most of the stock is no longer under the shop the cellars aren’t going to waste, having been refurbished and turned into a selection of vaulted venue spaces, one of which Rob led us down into for our tasting.

The plan for the evening was the same as usual, despite the change in location, and the focus was to be whiskies from Speyside. As it’s the largest, by number of distilleries, area of whisky production in Scotland, with the number of different styles of whisky that suggests, Rob decided to narrow the selection and work (mainly) with whiskies matured in refill bourbon hogsheads. Along with the four whiskies we were to taste he also put two glasses in the middle of the table with an attached challenge – whoever identified the difference in age between the two glasses would win a prize. More on that later…

BoS AberlourFirst up was a lightly coloured dram with an interesting waxy nose of apples, foam strawberries and green wood. To taste it was oily with vanilla, acetone, a caramel sweetness in the middle and hazelnuts to finish. Water brought out candy canes, spicy apple pie and some balsamic vinegar. In an effort to help with guessing Rob let us know that the distillery name didn’t begin with G or B, removing all the Glens and most of the other distilleries. However, even with this help and Whisky Guy Darren reeling through distilleries at a rate of knots we didn’t guess – it was a 1989 Aberlour, bottled after 15 years at 46% (as most BoS whiskies are – they are single cask but are diluted down to that strength if they haven’t already dropped below it). This is a bit different to regular Aberlour (which is well known for its use of sherry casks in maturation) and was a pleasant start to the evening.

BoS LinkwoodThe next whisky was a bit darker and before I got my nose in the glass it was announced that it smelled of “Swimming Pools”. I didn’t get the chloriney smell that others did, but I did get nail varnish, sweet & fruity air freshener, non-soapy pot pourri, rose water turkish delight, gin botanicals, candle wax, shortbread and ginger nut biscuits. The nose was fantastic and the taste didn’t quite live up to it. It had a slowly building gingeriness, reminding the table of Thai food, leading to an icing sugar powdery sweetness at the end. On the way there was rhubarb and butterscotch, married up with a pleasant sourness underneath. Water brought out more butteriness, spongecake and violets. Interesting, but one that I liked the nose of much more than the taste. The cover came off to reveal that it was a 1985 Linkwood bottled in 2006 at 21 years old. Linkwood doesn’t get out much as a single malt, with about 98% of production going into blends (mainly Diageo’s), but as it is sold for blending the independent bottlers can occasionally get their hands on casks like this one.

BoS DailuaineThe next bottle appeared and the whisky was yet again slightly darker. On the nose it had floor polish, a hint of salt and mincemeat, and a dark savouriness sitting under it all – the phrase “umami on the nose” was mentioned, causing me rather too much amusement (umami being specifically a taste rather than a scent, and all that) but made a lot of sense. To taste it had ozone (posh swimming pools…), sweet and sour fruit, and a vegetal tang leading a crisp sweetness and mix of green and old wood at the end. Its tannic taste and hints of vegetable added a tea-like feel to the flavour. Water tamed some of the dryness and added in some sweet butter. Again we had no correct guesses and the bottle was revealed to be 1971 Dailuaine bottled in 2005 at 31 years old. Dailuaine is another blending distillery that doesn’t make its way out into the single malt world very often and as this bottling divided the room I can see why. The savouriness didn’t appeal to everyone but I rather liked it. I’ve tried one or two other bottlings at the SMWS and will continue to keep an eye out.

Blue Hanger 4th ReleaseLast of the night was a dark whisky with a pile of sherry cask on the nose and Rob admitted that this was the one where he had departed from his ‘refill bourbon hogshead’ plan. On the nose it had hot gravel, dark fruit, deep savoury notes, hints of sugary rum, struck matches and wet undergrowth. To taste it had dry spicy wood up front, with a slab of vanilla, fine sawdust in the middle and a long finish of preserved fruit. Water brought out more depth, with liquorice and caraway, and butter and vanilla. There were no ideas around the table at all for this one and it turned out that was with some justification – it was Berry Brothers’ blended malt Blue Hanger, this being the previous 4th release. They’re on to the 5th release now but this version is made up of about 50% heavily sherried whisky from Mortlach, matured for about 17 years in two sherry butts, with some 33 year old Glen Elgin and 16 year old (I think) Glenlivet to make it up to 3500 bottles. Blue Hanger has been around for a while, named after William Hanger, the 3rd Lord Coleraine, who was nicknamed “Blue Hanger” and died in 1814. The Blue Hanger comes from the days when whisky was sold in bottles that the customer would bring in to be filled from casks in the shop – they had three barrels: a smoky whisky, a sherried whisky and one where the dregs of the barrels were married before refilling. The ‘dregs’ barrel thus picked up a combination of smoky and sherried whisky, mainly the sherried as it sold in much larger quantities, and as it was constantly topped up it had bits of a variety of older whiskies in. A bottle of original Blue Hanger was found a few years back and after tasting it Doug McIvor, Berry Brothers’s whisky king, put together the first new limited release and has been working on it with each batch. It was rather nice.

After the four main whiskies of the tasting all eyes turned to the mystery drams in the middle of the table. From colour alone we could tell that one was new make (being entirely clear helps with that) and thus Darren correctly guessed that we were looking at Glenrothes – BBR own Glenrothes which makes it significantly easier to get new make spirit. On the nose the new make had buttery grain, cereal and a hint of cream. To taste it had lemon, grass, and apples and pears to finish. I rather liked it, which is dangerous when you’re drinking something that is 68.8% abv. The other dram was a solid bronzey gold and obviously a chunk older. On the nose it was sweet with biscuits and a touch of citrus – maybe lemon shortbread? To taste it was buttery with spicy wood and a plimsolly rubberiness hiding behind. There was only a drop to share between the table and it became apparent why on the reveal.

Glenrothes SampleGlenrothes 1975

The second whisky was a 1975 Glenrothes bottled in 2006 and long sold out at Berrys. Known as an excellent whisky it’s not been easily obtainable for years and we got the last from Rob’s stashed tasting bottle.

Talisker 20Noone guessed the 31 years difference but there was a 30 and a 32, and the guessers very kindly decided to let everyone try their prize before dividing it up – a bottle of a very much long gone and rather pricey Talisker 20 year old that Rob happened to find knocking around in his increasingly enviable tasting cupboard. On the nose it had rubber tires and balloons, spicy fruit and muddy river banks. To taste it had marzipan dust, butter, spiky smoke, struck match sulphur, ketchup and violets. Water brought out more of the sulphur note (hated by many but liked by me) and fluffy powdered sugar. It was an impressive dram, especially after the almost entirely peat free evening we’d had, and one that I’m happy to have had a taste of.

Next month’s session (the mysteriously named Bottle of Britain) is already sold out, but keep an eye on the site as March’s will be up soon enough. Looking ahead to the future, there will be a group (well, at least three of us) going to Maltstock in The Netherlands in September under the Whisky Squad banner. Let us know if you’re coming along…


Berry’s Own Selection 1989 Aberlour
Single cask Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. No longer available, but was ~£50

Berry’s Own Selection 1985 Linkwood
Single cask Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. No longer available, but was ~£45

Berry’s Own Selection 1974 Dailuaine
Single cask Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. No longer available, but was ~£70

Blue Hanger 4th Release
Blended Scotch malt whisky, 45.6%. ~£60 at Berry Brothers and Rudd

Glenrothes 1975
Single cask single malt Speyside Scotch whisky, 43%. Available for ~£385 from Master of Malt

Talisker 20
Skye single malt Scotch whisky, 62%. ~£510 from The Whisky Exchange

Quick Tastings

I was rather restrained over the Christmas period, with the combined fun of being on-call at work and spending most of my time asleep getting in the way of the drinkathon that normally accompanies the time. However, I did get to try a bunch of boozes and rather than go into my normally excessive levels of detail I thought I’d slip back into my old Quick Tastings post style, something that I seem to have forgotten to do in recent times.

(Yes, this is a tissue thin excuse for not being bothered to write my normal levels of obsessiveness, but give me a break, I’m still tired from all the sleeping)

Eurotrash 2BrewDog Eurotrash: picked up at the same time as my recent lot of Punk X, this is one of BrewDog’s prototypes that I hope appears more widely. It had the traditional BrewDog muddy hoppiness on the nose, but with an underlying sweetness that I wasn’t expecting. To taste it had a nice chunk of hops but was very much more a fully flavoured continental style beer – hints of Leffe and other big malty golden beers from the other side of the channel. It wasn’t quite as big as those beers, but was nicely balanced between hop bitterness and malty sweetness – one I’d like to get some more of.

Dark Island Special ReserveOrkney Dark Island Special Reserve 2009 – I picked this up for Christmas 2009 but forgot I had it and have had it sat on the side ever since waiting for an occasion to crack it open. I went for it on Christmas day this year and was very pleased I did – it was rather special. It poured very thick and dark, pretty much opaque even when held up to my brightest lamp. On the nose it was heavy, with Marmite, slightly squishy apples and warm orange peel. To taste it was clinging with defanged Worcester sauce (not quite so astringent or salty, but still big and fruity with a meaty umami behind that), braised red cabbage with apples and vinegar, and a finishing mineral note. It had notes of my favourite heavy beers of the year, combining the strange fruitiness of Gale’s Prize Old Ale with the chocolate notes of Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout and the bitter richness of Kernel London Porter. I just wish I’d bought two bottles…

Clynelish 14 Year OldClynelish 14 Year Old – picked up from Waitrose as my Christmas whisky this didn’t get much of a look-in on the day itself, although it has become my new favourite hipflask whisky now that I’ve run out of Longrow Cask Strength (which I need to find some more of). As is usual at Christmas it was sillily priced at £25 (I also picked up some The Glenlivet 18 and Aberlour A’bunadh batch 31 a few days later for similar prices – no more whisky buying for me for now) and is definitely worth more than that. On the nose it has the traditional Clynelish waxiness, with brine, sweaty boiled sweets, creamy vanilla, leather and a touch of meaty smoke – my note says ‘burning beef?’. To taste it’s initially sweet turning to sour wood by the finish. There’s vanilla, mint, menthol and sour sugar to start, and unripe red grapes and tannic wood to finish. Water adds more sweet and sour fruit to the start as well as a prickle of white pepper. Again, my slightly drunken notes add ‘more lemony if you burp’. I’m pleased with this bottle and it’s on my list of things that I should always have in the house.

Boisdale MortlachBoisdales Mortlach – this is one I tried after the The Glenlivet tasting with Caskstrength, which I found to be rather pleasant. On a random wander into The Vintage House I saw a row of bottles of it hiding in their rather excellent independent bottlings selection and for £37 couldn’t really say no. On further inspection I noticed a familiar name on the back of the bottle – Berry Brothers and Rudd’s Doug McIvor, as they selected and bottled this for Boisdales. It’s the colour of golden syrup and the nose continues that feel with salted caramels backed up with a hint of smoke, shiny polished wood and lemons. To taste it has a big sweet caramel with raisins, cinnamon and allspice, balanced by unripe grapes and wood polish. The finish is short with sour wood and a hint of smoke. Water doesn’t change much, bringing out a little more sweetness and lengthening the finish. Easy drinking and very tasty, I suspect some more of this maybe sitting at the back of my cupboard soon waiting for next Christmas.

Hankey BannisterHankey Bannister 12 Year Old – part of a Christmas care parcel from Lucasz over at the Edinburgh Whisky blog on behalf of Inver House. This is part of a range of blended whiskies that are now distributed by Inver House, although not all that easy to find in the UK, that stretch back to 1757, when Hankey Bannister & Co was founded in London to provide drinks to the locals. The 12 year old is the second in their range, with their Original sitting beneath it and 21 and 40 year olds above it. I’ve had a look and can’t find it easily available on the web in the UK (although TWE have the 40 year old available for £360 per bottle…), but it pops up abroad and in duty free from time to time. On the nose the 12 year old had acetone, pear drops, muddy smoke, apples, vanilla and a underlying meatiness. To taste it was quite delicate, starting with a quick burst of pine and moving through tannic dryness to fruity sweetness and a light creaminess. The finish was quite light and long with sweet wood and digestive biscuits. Water didn’t reduce the flavour very much and brought out more red fruit fruitiness and creaminess. It has the nose of a blend and is easy to drink like a blend but doesn’t have a heavy graininess like you get with some blends. Not stunning, but not bad.

anCnoc 16 Year old – anCnoc (with crazy capitalisation) is the brand name that is now being used by the Knockdhu distillery, also owned by Inver House, to distinguish it from similarly named Knockando. On the nose it has pink foam shrimps, refreshers and vanilla, with a slightly sweaty salty note behind the sweetness. To taste it was astringently woody with fizzy sherbert and woody vanilla leading to a sugary woody finish. It could take a good chunk of water bringing out sour Skittles, more creamy vanilla and a big sweet and sour fruitiness. I wasn’t a fan of this neat, but water brought out the some balancing sweet and sour fruit that I rather liked.

Anyways, welcome to the new year and here’s to twelve months of interesting imbibing.

Many thanks to Lucas and Inver House for my Christmas parcel. There were also a couple of Old Pulteney samples, but as I’ve written about those before and there’s a Twitter tasting coming up soon I’ve left them to one side for now.

BrewDog Euro Trash
Prototype golden ale/blonde beer, 4.1%. Not generally available.

Orkney Dark Island Special Reserve 2009
Orcadian dark ale, 10%. Not generally available.

Clynelish 14 Year Old
Highland single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£30 from Master of Malt

Boisdales Mortlach 1991 (17 years old)
Speyside single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£37 from The Vintage House

Hankey Bannister 12 Year Old
Blended scotch whisky, 40%. ~£25 from Loch Fyne Whiskies

anCnoc 16 year old
Single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£40 from Master of Malt

BrewDog End of History tasting at The Rake

Tuesday was a special day. Originally I was meant to go to a tasting of Jura with the distillery manager, but that got cancelled at the last moment. Then a message popped up on the BrewDog blog that they’d be running a tasting at The Rake. Perfect timing it seemed, to start with, until I realised that my recent weeks away from town had moved my chubby fingers even further from the pulse of London than normal and I’d missed a key fact about the day – London Underground were going on strike. Plans were made, starting with working from home and culminating in a train and bus meander into London Bridge. However, in the manner of all good plans, I foolishly changed my mind at the last moment and my bus/train/train/train plan turned into bus/train/train/walk, leaving me at Waterloo a bit later than I hoped and The Rake a decent walk down the road. I turned for the first time to London’s new saviour – the hire bike (aka Boris Bike [even though the plan was initiated under Ken Livingstone] aka Red Ken’s Unmotorised Metal Steeds [an acronym that I am trying to push without much success]). So, I arrived at The Rake redder in the face than normal, sweating more than normal, significantly deader than normal and in need of a beer even more than normal.

HalvesThe BrewDog chaps had brought along quite an interesting selection, complimenting the free tastings that they ran upstairs with a couple of interesting beers on tap. I started out with a half of each. First up was Dogma. Formerly known as Speedball, it’s a malty beer with added stimulants: Scottish heather honey, poppy seeds, kola nut and guarana. The beer poured almost headless and reddy brown in colour, with a crisp malty nose. To taste it was chewily malty but cut off quickly with a dry lager crispness. It finished with a little bit of hop bitterness and a hint of fruity malt. It was worryingly drinkable, despite its additions and 7.8% alcohol content, and I blame it in part for the slow decent into drunkenness that the evening became. More worryingly, I have a case of it in the post which I think I ordered when I got home…

The second of my brace of pre-tasting beers was a preview of Abstrakt:03 aka AB:03, the next in the Abstrakt series and follow up to the Abstrakt:02 that I tasted earlier in the year. In Abstrakt fashion it’s one of BrewDog’s experiments released in one batch with the caveat that the recipe will not be repeated and this time it’s one of their early IPAs, brewed at 9% and then matured for 2.5 years in some 1965 Invergordon whisky casks with strawberries and raspberries. The whisky was bottled at 42 years old and each of the 10 casks was filled with the IPA and 20kg of strawberries from brewery co-founder Martin Dickie’s grandmother’s strawberry farm (as picked by the BrewDog staff). After a couple of years 2kg of raspberries were added to each barrel for a finishing sourness. The beer has been recarbonated, as many of BrewDog’s aged beers are, and this carbonation level was the only real difference between the keg version I started the evening with and the bottled version I tried later at the tasting.

The beer poured flat and red, as you’d expect for something with 22kg of red fruit per cask, and didn’t have all that much to the nose other than a slug of sour fruit. To taste that sourness came through, with the raspberries dominating the underlying sweetness of the strawberries and complimenting the bitterness of the base IPA – it was more sour cherry than berry. The wood seems to have done more accentuating than adding, with an oranginess coming out heavily at both ends of the flavour, almost adding a citrus pettiness to the beer, although there was a hint of smokiness that may have come from the rather exhausted wood (42 years of whisky maturation is going to pull out quite a lot of what the cask had to give). There was also a less hoppy bitterness that my notes suggest was ‘like sucking a peach stone’ that popped up in the middle along with some sweet fruit. A very interesting beer that tasted almost like a belgian sour cherry beer than an fruity IPA.

Shortly after finishing my beer, and having a chat with Neil from Yet Another Gin who popped by on one of his whistlestop tours of the bars of London, I was called in for the third tasting of the night, having grabbed a ticket from BrewDog’s London sales manager Tom Cadden, and made my way to the rather full upstairs room where BrewDog boss James Watt was waiting to pimp his beer at us.

First up for the tasting was the AB:03 again, this time from a bottle and, as mentioned earlier, slightly fizzier. This fizziness focused the flavour a bit more but didn’t change much. It is designed to get better in the bottle with age but I’m not sure how it’ll change. From my recent reading I think the hoppiness will calm down which should make the beer a bit sweeter and rounder, which might be nice. James also gave us a quick advance preview of what AB:04 will be: a 15% beer with coffee, cocoa beans and a naga chili – they added one naga to the 20 hectolitre brew…

Devine Rebel Mortlach ReserveWe moved on from there to the Devine Rebel Mortlach Reserve. Originally brewed in collaboration with Mikkeller in November 2008, the beer started out as a 12.5% barley wine before they decanted it into two Mortlach whisky casks that had held sherry before the whisky. These were then left until a few weeks ago when they were bottled, advertised on the website and quickly snapped up by the BrewDog fanboys, including three that went to me and arrived a couple of days after the tasting. Before bottling they highly recarbonated the beer in an effort to control the sweetness, as carbon dioxide has a souring effect on liquids it is dissolved in (hence the sweetness of flat soft drinks and the sour flavour of carbonated water).

It poured deep brown with a hint of orangey red and smelled of fruity grain, grapes and overwhelmingly of perfectly ripe pears. To taste there was more pear, sour caramel, uncooked malt, red grapes and a general background of mixed fruit as you often find with barley wines. It had a long woody finish which lingered with the fruitiness and, in short, it was fantastic. One of the best beers I’ve tasted and one that I’m very pleased I have a few bottles of. All I’ve got to do now is make sure that I save two of my three to sit on the side and wait a bit, as it should age well.

Last of the night was the beer that we had all come to try and the reason that I had made the journey across town on strike day – The End of History. The final chapter in BrewDog’s super strong beer war with German brewer Schorschbräu this 55% beer beat the german’s previous effort (a 43% version of the Schorschbock) and BrewDog have announced that they will do no more of these stupidly high alcohol brews. I suspect that this is in part due to a ‘get out while the going’s good’ approach to the publicity that they have garnered, as well as a more practical topping out of their freeze distilling process – it seems that to produce this beer they not only needed their local ice cream factory (-20ºC) and their industrial chiller (-40ºC) but also a piece of medical cryogenic freezing equipment (-60ºC) which was leased and has to go back soon. Each of their super strong beers has had a different base beer, with the Tactical Nuclear Penguin using an imperial stout, Sink the Bismarck an IPA and this one a belgian blond (infused with nettles and juniper berries), and this has led to each of them being quite distinct in flavour.

SusanHowever, flavour isn’t the main reason why people have been interested in The End of History. The first of the two things is the price, with it coming in at £500 and £700 per bottle, amounts that have led to BrewDog’s claim that it is not only the world’s strongest beer but also the most expensive. However, the beer inside the bottles is not the main source of the price, instead it’s the second reason why people know about it, the packaging. Only 12 bottles were made available to the general public (although I suspect that a chunk more beer was made and not part of those 12, to allow tastings and the like), which sold out in tow hours, and each was then placed inside an expensively taxidermied stoat or squirrel – the stoat brought along to our tasting was called Susan. This is a bit of a classic BrewDog move – deliberately shocking, ready-made for the media to pick up and with a point behind it that some will see as the excuse for the first two bits and BrewDog claim is the main reason why they did it (in this case, trying to make a point about beer as a luxury item and something hand wavy about honouring the lives of dead animals – the stoats and squirrels used were already dead rather than killed for the project, with the word ‘roadkill’ appearing often). I rather like the advertising campaign myself, tasteless as it is to many, and was rather pleased to be able to meet Susan. She was lovely. There is, of course, a video.

So, the ‘beer’: We were presented with a baby shot each and it was a beautiful golden colour, shining under the room’s lights. On the nose it had oranges, concentrated malt, citrusy hop and a hint of dry hops. To taste it started with an intense sweet citrus hit fading through fizzy refreshers (although uncarbonated) to seville orange, with hints of beery malt and bitterness, and with a long bitter orange finish. In true whisky drinker fashion I added a drop of water to see what happened and it softened out some of the alcoholic hit, brought out more bitter orange but helped it all amalgamate into more of a constant whole. Overall it was pretty impressive and definitely more of a proper drink than I felt the Sink the Bismarck was – I find it disappointing that this isn’t something that’s going to appear again and that it will be almost impossible taste outside of the occasional BrewDog special occasion.

The End of History

Anyway, it was certainly worth the multi-modal journey to London Bridge (along with the walk/bus/bus/night bus/cab and 2.5 hours that it took me to get home afterwards). The evening continued after the tasting with a slow slide into drunkenness, talking with some proud beer tickers (recording every beer they drink and trying not to drink the same one more than once) and then enthusiastically telling someone else that they seem to be very smily. I also caught the tail end of a conversation with James Watt in which he mentioned the BrewDog shareholders AGM – “It’ll be later this year and it’ll be awesome”. One train ticket to Aberdeen coming up soon…

Dogma
7.8%. Limited availability on draft. Available from BrewDog for £1.79 per bottle.

AB:03 (Abstrakt:03)
9%. Available soon from http://abstrakt.com. £3 per half at The Rake (now run out). Probably £9.99 per bottle when released.

Devine Rebel Mortlach Reserve
12.5%. Sold out. £11 per bottle while available.

The End of History
55%. Sold out. It was £500 or £700 a bottle (stoat and squirrel respectively).