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…
While the Christmas season is normally fairly quiet when it comes to whisky releases, occasionally one pops up. While the regular market is saturated with gift packs and stocking stuffers, there’s one place that a new product can get a bit of space at this time of year – global travel retail, the market formerly known as duty free.
The latest arrival on the airport shelves is a new bottling from Diageo – introducing Talisker Neist Point.
The last year has gone alarmingly quickly. 365 days ago I was in Canada preparing for a day of whisky tasting at the Victoria Whisky Festival and today I’ve been buying trousers and changing phone contracts. Needless to say that I’ve been rather jealous of those who made it over to Victoria this year, but their tweets and Facebook posts have also given me a kick to try some more whisky. So, I sat down with a couple of samples that I received from the folks at Diageo – the Friends of the Classic Malts exclusive Royal Lochnagar and Talisker Triple Matured whiskies.
A quick note before I start my normal rambling – Whisky Squad numbering. You may notice that my last Whisky Squad post was about #25, which implies that I’ve missed a session – I can safely say that I haven’t, but that I won’t be writing about #26, Whisky Surprise. It was an excellent session, but I spent my time drinking and talking rather than note taking, so unfortunately the line up may disappear for ever. That said, I did try a Ledaig that totally blew me away – delicate, floral and unlike anything I’ve tried before. Now I have old Ledaig on my to find list…damn.
Anyways, #27. This was another evening in the hands of Berry Brothers and Rudd‘s Rob Whitehead, but this time with a big twist. We were were going to taste the whiskies more blind than usual: In the basement of Berry’s, two floors below the streets of St James’s, with the lights off.
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.
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…
First 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Last 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.
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.
Noone 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
I can date the beginning of my love of good whisky fairly accurately to December 1997. I’d been working in my student Union bar for about 6 months and had recently tried single malt whisky, rather than my usual foray into the spirits world of Bells and Coke, and found that It Was Good. To keep me going through Christmas I decided to splash out in rather a large way for a student and grab two bottles of good whisky. I picked up a bottle of regular Lagavulin (16 year old?) and a bottle of Talisker 10.
These days I can’t really remember the Lagavulin, other than it was fairly ballsy and I enjoyed it, but I have been a fan of Talisker ever since. So, when I saw that Chris Osburn had lined up, through Qype, a whisky tasting event with the Diageo’s chosen PR company for Talisker at a whisky bar in London that I’d not been to I may have been slightly heavy handed in my claiming to be an excellent potential invitee. It seemed to work and on Wednesday evening I found myself at Salt Bar on Edgware Road for some whisky.
I’ll write in greater length about the Salt Bar at sometime in the future, I’m on their mailing list now and it looks like they have some interesting tastings coming up soon (including a night of Bowmore and Suntory whiskies in February), so I’ll keep my general description of the bar short – it’s pretty good. They have a good whisky selection, containing the complete set of the varied Good whisky that you find in pubs as well as some interesting extras and a shelf of eye-watering expensive bottles (some bought at auction, including the £100 a shot Dalmore, which the bar manager I spoke to happily blamed Richard Paterson for), and do cocktails, tastings and an interesting selection of food. It’s well worth a look in, although I hear that the average clientele all need to be taken outside and shot for crimes against drinking.
I rounded the corner at the bottom of Edgware Road and kept an eye out for the bar, not having been there before. I thought I saw it ahead and removed my headphones only to be hit by the sound of bagpipes – it certainly was the right place, there was a piper standing outside the front door, tooting away. Rather than the small informal tasting that I’d been expecting the PR folks had decided to put on a bit of an event, with a piper, a Burns Night MC and one of Diageo’s whisky ambassadors on hand to roll the evening along.
We started with an opening cocktail described as a Skye Manhattan. I’m wary of using as peaty a whisky as Talisker in a cocktail, as it’s quite an overpowering flavour, but was surprised at first how well this worked. It was made as a sweet Manhattan using a double shot of Talisker 10 and (according to the recipe I was given) 15ml of Antica Vermouth (which I’ve not seen before and is sweet, according to a quick google and a quicker chat with the very busy barman) along with the traditional dash of Angostura bitters and a pile of ice to stir it with. I wasn’t that big a fan of the drink, preferring my Manhattan’s dry and with bourbon (probably sacrilege to someone, but meh), but the orangey note from the peel garnish worked quite well with the peat from the whisky. However, peaty whisky, sweet vermouth and bitters are all strong flavours which didn’t marry well in the glass and by the time I’d reached the end of mine I was not a fan.
The event was not all about the booze – with Burns night less than a week away they decided to put on a show. So, we had Clark McGinn giving us the full Burns host bit, with the now traditional talk of Burns as the first blogger (as he stuck his writings up on gorse bushes to see, just like we spray our work onto the internet…there’s some water in it) as well as a an impressive Address to a Haggis, complete with fantastic delivery and some cutting wi’ ready sleight.
Along with Clark we had Colin Dunn, from Diageo, running the tasting of the Taliskers, and as the first burst of Burns based wisdom faded we were presented with our first dram of the night – the Talisker 10. Colin’s approach to running the tasting involve improbably precise numbers, oozing enthusiasm, holding the whisky in your mouth for a long time and a bit of hugging of grinning people.
I know the 10 rather well, but haven’t really bothered to properly taste it for a while. On the nose it’s prickly with alcohol, peat and sweet smokiness, with an undertone of the sea. In the mouth it’s similar – a punchy kick of booze with sweet peat smoke and salt. It’s a long taste and although the claims of it lasting for 4.6 minutes maybe going a bit far, it does linger for a good while. It’s not a subtle whisky, laying its cards most definitely on the table, but it’s a good’un. It was paired with smoked salmon piled crumpets, which worked quite well, although the whisky was quite overpowering compared to the more delicate salmon.
This led on to the aforementioned haggis address, complete with kilt clad piper piping it around the room, before Clark slayed it with poetry and a knife. To accompany the beast we were presented with our second dram of the night – the Talisker Distillers Edition. Matured for 10 years in oak and 2 in Moscatel barrels (although the website contradicts Colin with a claim that it’s Amoroso barrels) it’s part of a series of “Distiller’s Editions” from the distilleries that make up Diageo’s Classic Malts collection. I’ve had the Cragganmore before and for a few years (going through a phase of loving Speyside whiskies) it was my favourite bottle I’d bought, but I’ve not tried the others. It was quite obviously sherried on the nose with a lot less peat than in the 10, but still a noticeable Talisker tang. It tasted much more refined, with lots of fruit coming through from the finishing cask and a lingering smoky aftertaste to ensure you didn’t forget it was a Talisker. It’s much more reined in than the the 10 year old, and hides the 45.8% strength behind a smoothness that the 10 year old (at the same ABV) doesn’t quite achieve. A nicely balanced dram and a nice accompaniment to the haggis, neeps and tatties, happily working with the sweetness in the mash.
This brought us to the last dram of the evening – the Talisker 57°North. Named after the distillery’s latitude it’s bottled at 57% and holds quite a powerful punch. It combines some of the characteristics of the other two whiskies, with the distinctive salty sweet, peaty initial punch of the 10 year old combined with a more refined and smooth finish similar to the Distillers Edition. It was matched up with a good chocolate mousse which don’t go all that well – bitter chocolate dusted, dark chocolate mousse and a powerful whisky didn’t make for a good combination, although both survived the eating and drinking when taken separately. The 57°North was a favourite for many, but I preferred the slightly less over the top flavours of the Distiller’s Edition. I suspect this means I’m getting old…
With the official tasting out of the way the crowd started dispersing and more cocktails appeared – the Cool Walker (that I didn’t try, made with 40ml of Talisker 10, 15ml of Drambuie, 10ml lime juice and 10ml gomme shaken with ice and topped with ginger ale according to my menu) and a Hebrides’ Old Fashioned, made pretty much as I’ve mentioned before but with the now ubiquitous Talisker 10 as the spirit, and a honey and ginger syrup instead of simple. Being an Old Fashioned obsessive I was prepared to dislike the cocktail on principle, but was pleasantly surprised. Again, I don’t think it entirely worked, with the peatiness still coming over as quite overpowering, but the dilution, gingery honeyness and another slice of orange peel took some of the edge off and made it my favourite cocktail of the evening – a bit like a cold hot toddy.
All in all a great night – well put together by the Diageo PR posse, drinks presented well by Vamsi and his team at Salt Bar, and well compered by Colin and Clark. I suspect that some of the effort was slightly wasted on me, as I arrived liking Talisker, left liking Talisker and had a glass of Talisker when I got home while gazing out of the window at the glowing red Diageo sign that shines across the park by my flat from their West London offices, but I did very much enjoy it and it’s great seeing more companies from different industries trying to tap into the blogging market.
A while back I bumped into Laissez Fare at a wine tasting and I quickly admitted that I didn’t really have much of an idea about wine. However, in an effort to pull back my boozey reputation, I started rambling about the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, my tongue slightly loosened by the magic voodoo wine that we had been tasting, and he mentioned that he wouldn’t mind learning some more about whisky. I promptly forgot about this until last month’s Blaggers’Banquet, when I both briefly bumped into Mr L-F again as well as going on about my love of scotch at great length at Mark of FoodByMark, who also expressed an interest in learning more.
And thus was a plan formed.
Each month on the first Friday the SMWS release a number of new whiskies, and in order to promote them they do an open tasting on the Wednesday before. Despite having been a member for a couple of years I’ve never made it along to any of their tastings, so with Christmas approaching, my whisky cupboard emptying and two whisky neophytes expressing an interest I thought it was time to change the state of affairs. So, with a friend of L-F, who happens to work with a bunch of my former uni-mates, which was quite random, the four of us assembled at the SMWS for some whisky.
The society open tastings are very informal affairs. Basically, you turn up as usual at the tasting rooms but are given a piece of paper (as seen in the above piccy) on which you write down which whiskies you’d like. You give it to the bar staff and they then give you whisky, and at some point in time a big plate of cheese. This appeals to me on a number of levels. Rather than filling in the list all in one go and letting the bar staff tell us which order we should be drinking things in, we went for the more reactive route of choosing things and then trying to find things less or more strongly flavoured from there on.
A quick word about the SMWS – they select individual casks from the various distilleries (not all in Scotland – I need to return shortly and try a couple of drams from Yamazaki and Hakushu in Japan. The Hakushu looked especially interesting, coming out of the bottle almost black and with a stickiness that intrigued me) and then bottle and sell them at cask strength. They don’t attach a distillery name to their bottles, instead using a numbering scheme of distillery.caskNumber – for example the 125.29 that I started the evening on. While they don’t officially provide a list of which distillery matches up with which number the staff know and there are a few places on the web where you can grab a list (including my own rather simple page that I Instapaper‘d onto my iPhone). The official reason is that the distilleries don’t want their names to be directly associated with these potentially very different expressions which might change expectations of their stock whiskies. The real reason seems to be that it adds a layer of mystery and exclusivity. I like mystery and exclusivity.
As mentioned, I started off with a 125.29 – a Glenmorangie. There are only 126 malt distilleries on the societies list, so Glenmorangie is a fairly recent addition. I’ve seen a few since I joined, including the bottle I received when I did, but haven’t tried any of them. Being a fan of standard production Glenmorangie (and a satisfied visitor to their distillery), I thought I’d kick off the evening with it. It was pretty much what I expected – a straight down the line, medium-full bodied highland whisky. From my notes: Spicy sweet, but with a distiinct burnt sour finish. Vanilla and wood. Water calms the burn, reveals boiled sweets. It was a nice start to the evening – not heavy enough to break my palate so early, but also not overly light. A good solid dram.
I then moved on to a probably ill advised choice, but with my preference generally being towards the heavier whiskies one that made sense – 14.17, a Talisker. As can be seen by the low distillery number and low cask number (they are both assigned in order) the society doesn’t get many whiskies from Talisker and being a fan I’ve been waiting for one since I joined. From my notes: Sea and smoke. Honey, vanilla and lavender with water. Short and to the point – this is very much a Talisker, with the hints of the sea and slab of smoke that implies. It had a chunk of smooth sweetness behind that as well, with honey joining the normal woody vanilla. A very tasty dram. I chatted with one of the barman about it and he expressed his disappointment, a sentiment I can understand – with so few whiskies appearing from Talisker he had expected something very special. As it was he, and I, just got a very good whisky – nothing different or special, just a tasty dram. Disappointing but in a good way.
With the whiskies clocking in at full cask strength, 57.2% for each of my first drams, it was decided that maybe a break for some dinner would be a good plan. The SMWS London rooms get their food from The Bleeding Heart, which they conveniently sit above. The Bleeding Heart is known for being a rather good restaurant and the SMWS bar food satisfies their reputation. My companions had fish & chips and burgers but I decided to go for one of the smaller dishes – a ham hock scotch egg with homemade piccalilli. I’m only a recent convert to the joys of piccalilli but am a bit of a scotch egg obsessive, eating them as a standard snack as well as seeking out special ones (such as the excellent ones produced by Andy of EatMyPies that I grab on a weekly basis from Whitecross Street market). This was up with the best – a tasty ham hock coating, with firmly adhered breading (my only complaint about Andy’s) and a slightly runny egg. The piccalilli was an excellent accompaniment, just sharp enough to cut through the egg as well as being tasty to eat on its own with a spoon…
On to dram 3 – 3.150, a Bowmore. Bowmore are one of my favourite distillers – they know what they do well and keep doing it well. They do big smoky, sweet whiskies with a fairly big kick to the teeth. However, the description on this one suggested it was non-typical so I though it deserved a try. From my notes: Smoke and rubber with salt and seaweed. Water brings out sweetness and lemons. The big difference here was the saltiness – there was a distinct slab of the sea-saltiness that I really love in whiskies and this ticked all the boxes. A touch of water opened it up, adding a citrusy flavour that I hadn’t expected and that worked rather well.
Swiftly on to my next – 19.43, Glen Garioch. I tried the standard production Glen Garioch (pronounced ‘Glen Geery’ according to the website) a few years back when I picked it up on offer while passing through Heathrow (the presence of a branch of World of Whiskies in the terminal may influence my choice of airline…) and it was a fairly boring but tasty highland whisky. The description of this one intrigued me and it was definitely not what I expected. From my notes: Sweet and spicy with linseed oil, salt and a touch of smoke. Rather than the normal spicy sweetness I expected I got a rather complicated whisky with distinct layers of flavour – normal sweet and spicy leading into a spicy oily centre taste and trailing off with a whiff of smoke. Not my favourite of the night, but definitely interesting and one that I may have to try again.
Picture by Laissez-Fare
At this point our cheese appeared. The society does branch out a bit from whisky, with bourbon, port, sherry, brandy and wine all appearing on the menu, but they also know how to choose a cheese. We had a cheddar, a heavily smoked, a goat, a runny sheep and a blue cheese. Being a cheese wuss I avoided the blue and tried and disliked the goat, but the other three were quite excellent and definitely a good thing to protect us from further whisky consumption.
Onto my final dram of the night – 82.18, a Glencadam. I chose this one based on a sniff of one of my companions’ drams and the description, and I’m happy I did. I’ve not tried anything from Glencadam before and only knew the name as one on the list of distilleries that the SMWS bottles from. From my notes: Thick caramel sweetness with a centrepiece of rubber. Water dulls the intensity but leaves the flavours almost intact. This was good. For a fan of sweet whiskies as well as rubbery ones this came in as almost my perfect whisky. Only my already very heavy bag stopped me from grabbing a bottle on the spot (the cheapest of all the ones I’d tried, at £40) and I suspect that I will be returning to the society soon to grab a bottle, hoping that the Talisker and Glenmorangie will distract everyone long enough that it won’t sell out.
Anyway, a successful trip and something that I may have to repeat. All I need is drinking buddies…
SMWS New List December 2009 Open tasting – members tickets £25, non-members £35. Includes five 25ml drams of whisky from the new list (2 days before everyone else gets to try them) and a plate of cheese.
125.29 – “A Garden Breakfast Dram”
12 years. 57.2%. 280 bottles.
14.17 – “Earth-shaking and Eye Watering”
20 years. 57.2%. 202 bottles.
3.150 – “Air Freshener in a Parrot’s Eye”
18 years. 55%. 260 bottles.
19.43 – “Morning Dew in a Pine Grove”
19 years. 53%. 244 bottles.
82.178 – “Rubber Truncheons and Bargepoles”
11 years. 59%. 771 bottles.