Whisky Squad #53 – The Rivers of Speyside

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…

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Whisky and a Cigar – Trinidad Coloniales

One of the things that often comes up as a whisky fan is the combination of whisky and a cigar. ‘Brandy and cigars’ is a stock phrase to talk of the end of an evening but it in recent times the the strength of flavour of robust whiskies seems to be the choice of the cigar smoker. As a Christmas present to myself this year I bought myself a small humidor and a sampler pack of sticks (as I do believe the vernacular goes) in an attempt to educate myself in the way of tobacco, but after getting myself a bit ripped off I decided to speak to an expert and see what they recommended for a second selection.

One of the creams of this new crop of cigars was a Trinidad Coloniales. The story I was told matches up with a lot of what is said online – this was Fidel Castro’s private cigar brand for many years, only leaving Cuba as presents to foreign diplomats, until 1998 when they released the Fundadores, the founder, a single size of cigar for export. Elsewhere the tale is that Trinidad was an inferior blend of tobacco to the Cohibas that were more famously Castro’s to give, but as with much in the Cuban cigar world it is all about the stories. Over the years the range has expanded and the nice chap at Davidoff recommended one to me as part of a selection of medium to full-bodied cigars.

Trinidad Coloniales
Only the band and chopped off cap as I didn’t photograph it before smoking

The cigar looks really good, with a twisted end (rather than the usual smooth cap), and a fairly smooth wrapper, although with more thick veins than with many of the cigars I’ve tried. At 5.1 inches and a ring gauge of 44 it’s a bit thicker and longer than the petit coronas I’ve been trying up until now, but it was recommended that I try some longer cigars as the extra length gives more time for the flavours to develop – in other words, more tobacco for the smoke to build up in and flavour. It started off quite lightly flavoured and remarkably creamy, a term I’d read in reviews and didn’t really understand until trying this one, with some sweet wood and a “milky coffee” softened bitterness. As expected the flavour changed through the cigar, adding more woody spice, losing some of the cream and bringing in some almost menthol flavours on the palate after exhaling.

I decided, having read the comments about the Coloniales’s creaminess, to try and pair it with something creamy and dug around in the cupboard to discover that I didn’t have anything particularly suitable. I turned to the random miniatures shelf and chose The Glenlivet 15 year old French Oak Reserve, acquired in a goody bag from Caskstrength.net‘s The Glenlivet tasting at Boisdale’s last year – quite apropos as that was the night I had my first cigar in years and decided to start investigating.

On its own the whisky has a nose of sweet fruit, waxy grain and vanilla (as one would expect from a whisky finished in Limousin oak barrels) and a creamy taste which follows the nose, with fruit and vanilla rolling into a finish of granny smith apples and dry brown cardboard (in a good way). Water kept the cream intact but soured things up, with the fruit turning to unripe grapes and the granny smiths coming through more strongly, although with a vanilla cream coating. With the cigar a lot of the trademark The Glenlivet creaminess blended in with the cream of the smoke, and the combined flavours were spicy cinnamon, clove, vanilla and a tiny bit of menthol, as well as woody marzipan with a pleasantly metallic tang on the finish.

Glenlivet 15 French Oak and Laphroaig Cask Strength 10 Batch 002The cigar burned well, only going out as it started on the last third (in part due to me being distracted by the whisky) and as it had started to get a bit more full bodied (although still very much a medium cigar) I decided to switch up a notch to the Laphroaig 12 year old Cask Strength Batch 002. I ordered this one on my birthday, as the Laphroaig website offers the Friends of Laphroaig (let me know if you want to join and I’ll fill in the form to get you a miniature sent out for sampling) a further discount on that day, and grabbed a couple of bottles as the batch 2 was coming to a close and has since been replaced by a new batch 003.

On its own the whisky has a nose of meaty peat, cut with a drop of the Laphroaig’s normal TCP, and some sweet fruitiness underneath – sharp grapes and maybe some bananas? To taste it was heavily minerally, with gravel and granite, and peaty (as expected) with a big slab of lemon, milk chocolate and a sherberty tingle. Water took the edge off the boozey bite and brought out more chocolate, as well as some raisin sweetness – rum and raisin Dairy Milk by a peat fire? The cigar picked up more woody aromas as well as more prickly spices and dark chocolate and kept the smoke’s creamy mouthfeel, but the whisky contrasted rather than complimented. The fruit of the nose was swamped by the wood, leaving a burst of ripe grape, but the stony peat lingered on the finish with an apple skin bitterness and cask strength booze hit. A bit too much for the cigar, but a rather nice whisky.

I need to do more work on matching flavours, but both whiskies held up to the, admittedly not particularly overpowering, flavour of the cigar, with the overlapping tastes reinforcing and the contrasts standing out against each other in differing levels of successfulness. My humidor is almost bare, which I was told (in a ‘useful for sales’ but still true kind of way) is a problem due to the difficulty of maintaining the correct humidity in an empty box, and I will shortly be obtaining some more cigars for my occasional forays into smoking – I may have to pick up a few Trinidads as an occasional treat.

The Glenlivet 15 year old French Oak Reserve
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£30.

Laphroaig 12 year old Cask Strength Batch 002
Islay single malt cask strength Scotch whisky, 58.3%. ~£30 on your birthday from the Laphroaig site when it was available. ~£40 from elsewhere.

Trinidad Coloniales
Cuban corona cigar, 5.1 inches, 44 ring gauge.~£12.

Quick Tastings – Whisky Live London Special

Flicking through my notebook to remind myself of what I’ve been up to of late (I don’t bother storing such information in my brain any more, it’s too full of useless facts that I’ve accidentally learned from Wikipedia) I came across a bunch of tasting notes from Whisky Live London. Rather than let them sit in an analogue and unsearchable pen and paper format I thought I’d better get them typed up into a nice digital form just in case I lose my notebook again like I did last week (it was on the sofa).

Berry’s Own Selection 1997 Clynelish – my first whisky of the evening was predictably a Clynelish (my new favourite distillery) and from the Berry’s stand (my new favourite shop). On the nose it was floral and, inevitably (to the point that I’m not even sure it’s really there or if it’s my brain inserting it), waxy with buttered Fruit Salad chews and butterscotch. To taste it was sweet but astringent, with big tannic wood and sweet lemons. Water turned some of the wood into butterscotch and brought out more citrus.

Bowmore 16 year old Port Finish – one of the peat plus port wood whiskies that seemed to be the underground craze (well, there were two) at the show. On the nose it had muddy peat, caramel, well roasted beef and flowery hand soap. To taste it had big astringent peat with restrained smoke, pulled pork and a mustardy heat. I didn’t get to add water as I was talking to some people on the stand, but I think it could have done with a drop to pull out some more flavours.

Teerenpeli – Finnish whisky. First distilled by brewer Teerenpeli in 2002 and released as a 5 year old in 2008 and a 6 in 2009. Their website’s all in Finnish, so I don’t know much more about them. I’m not entirely sure how old the one I tried was but the chaps on the stand were lovely. They were so nice that even though I wasn’t asked I stuck a couple of whisky tokens (the currency of the Whisky Live shows which noone seemed to want to take this year) into their jar – the nice man told me that any money they got from them would go to charity. The nose had boiled milk, egg custard and sour fruit. To taste it had rich cream with spice, malt and raisins. A bit like a bowl of museli.

The Glenlivet 1964 – grabbed from the The Glenlivet Guardians balcony after I signed my life away to their mailing list. It was something I’d been meaning to do for a while as they send you a pretty key to stick on your keyring that gets you into the special Guardians lounge at the distillery. On the nose it had marzipan, pencil shavings, sweet butter, cream, cinnamon and butterscotch. To taste it had rich buttery wood, sweet dry wood, shortbread and spongecake with a dry finish. Water added more butter and more spice, leaving it soft and oily. The lady on the balcony poured me a rather generous sample of this and it lasted me for a good long while (through dinner, chatting with people from some of the stands and wandering around a bit) – I rather liked it. In the end I necked the end of it before grabbing a dram of something that I no longer remember. I knew nothing about it until I looked it up online the next morning, at which point I discovered that at £1000 a bottle it was the most expensive whisky I’ve ever tasted and the sample I tried would have cost me in a bar significantly more than my ticket to the show. It was really good, but maybe not £1000 good, but if you’re paying that much for a bottle of whisky you’re probably not caring about the price.

Compass Box Flaming Heart – my penultimate whisky of the night (the last was some Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old, but as I was being herded out of the door by then by some CIA-lookalike guys in suits with ear-pieces my notebook stayed in my pocket) this was the only whisky on the Compass Box stand that I hadn’t tried at the previous evening’s Whisky Squad. It was poured for me by the lovely Chris Maybin, who conducted the previous night’s tasting. On the nose it had muddy peat, light burning hay and orange peel. The taste started sweet and the moved through spicy caramel to a smoky fiery end. Water brought out more Clynelishy-ness (wax and salt), fruit in the middle (mango and pineapple?) and burnt wood over the end. My final tasting note of the night was ‘Butter and ash’. Unfortunately this is the also the whisky that me and Mr Standing wittered about in the Connosr Whisky Pod. Since then I’ve deliberately tried not to use the word ‘nice’ and the suffix ‘-ness’ (apart from the one above in Clynelishy-ness. That was deliberate). I hope you appreciate the effort that has required.

This blog post has been brought to you by the remains of my second Whisky Tasting Club box (blog post to appear shortly), a Cohiba Siglo 2 cigar, the windiness of my balcony and an amusing eBay posting.

Berry’s Own Selection Clynelish 1997 (bottled 2010)
Highland cask strength single cask(?) single malt Scotch whisky, 56.8%. £45 from Berry Brother’s & Rudd.

Bowmore 16 year old Port Finish
Islay cask strength single malt Scotch whisky, 56.1%. ~£60 from The Whisky Exchange.

Teerenpeli 8 year old (I think that’s what I tried, thanks to the WTC blog)
Finnish single malt whisky, 43%. No idea on price or anywhere you can buy it other than in Alko in Finland.

The Glenlivet 1964 (first release)
Speyside cask strength single malt Scotch whisky, 45%. Sold out, but was ~£900 from Master of Malt. Second edition ~£900 from The Whisky Exchange.

Compass Box Flaming Heart (10th Anniversary Edition)
Blended malt whisky, 48.95%. ~£65 from Master of Malt.

Tasting Glenlivet with Phil Huckle and the chaps from Caskstrength

One thing I didn’t realise when I started this blog and have started to find over the last year is that there are lovely people out in the world of booze blogging. Thanks to my rather specific focus on the world of whisky (it’s only half my posts…I do try to do other things) I’ve mainly bumped into folk from that area and one of the best known (currently number 5 on Google for Whisky Blog) are Neil and Joel of Caskstrength. I’ve been reading their blog for a while, ever since the folk at the SMWS were shocked that someone who lived on the internets as much as I wasn’t doing so already, and their informal, metaphor and pun laced prose is a breath of fresh air compared to the rather staid world of obsessively long posts that me and my ilk inhabit. Anyways, enough flattery, they’ve already invited me to something: After meeting up with both halves of the Caskstrength gang at the SMWS new list tasting last month I was asked along to the first official tasting of their own – trying a range of whiskies from The Glenlivet with brand ambassador Phil Huckle at Boisdale.

I’ve met Phil a few times before, at Chivas Regal and Aberlour tastings, due to his job as the Chivas Brothers/Pernod Ricard whisky brand ambassador in the UK, and he had got together with Neil and Joel to plan an evening exploring The Glenlivet’s range, touching on some of the less well known expressions as well as a couple of those that pop up in the supermarket. The Glenlivet is currently the second biggest whisky in the world, sitting behind Glenfiddich, and has been around for rather a long time. In 1823 there were over 200 illegal distilleries operating in the Glenlivet valley in Speyside – isolated and hilly it was the perfect location to hide from the excise men, with lookouts able to see any incoming trouble and warn the stillmen, who’d pack up and hide their stills until the officials had moved on. Illegal distilling was very much the norm, as high taxes meant that it wasn’t financially viable to distill in anything but ridiculously large quantities. However, the illegal whiskies were known for their quality, with even King George asking for a dram during his 1822 visit to Scotland, and eventually the British government relented and lowered the taxes in 1823. In 1824 George Smith, the founder of The Glenlivet, went legal, despite the danger of violence from the illegal distillers, which led to him wearing pistols at all times and arson attacks on the fledgling distillery. His spirit, however, became popular and other distillers started using the name of the valley as part of their names – there were at one point 27 different Glenlivet whiskies (including Macallan Glenlivet, Longmorn Glenlivet and Aberlour Glenlivet) and Andrew Usher, one of the fathers of whisky blending who at one point was buying the entire output of The Glenlivet, bottlled his blend as OVG – Original Vatted Glenlivet. In 1884 The Glenlivet went to court to claim the name and won, hence the obssessive use of the word The in front of every mention of the distillery so far, an affectation that I may not be as careful with from here on in. These days Glenlivet is part of the Pernod Ricard group and its whisky is no longer used in the production of their blends – the entire output, including that of the recently opened new wing, now goes to single malt production.

The Glenlivet

I’ve been wary of The Glenlivet in the past, thinking of it as the dusty bottle next to the dusty bottle of Glenfiddich on the back bar of the pub, but after a bottle landed in my lap after a focus group (from a company trying to pitch for an update to the Glenlivet website) I found that I quite liked the regular 12 year old. I’ve tried a couple of the others since, but not in nice vertical tasting or with my notebook to hand, so I was quite keen to see what they had to offer. First on the list was a variation on their standard bottling – The Glenlivet 12 year old First Fill. Rather than using the usual mix of various casks this one, available only in travel retail, uses solely first fill american oak barrels for maturation. On the nose there was banana, pineapple, cinnamon and custardy apples. To taste it was lightly creamy to start, a bit of Glenlivet trademark, moving on to woody spice, honeyed apples and then a biscuity, woody end. Water enhanced the woods astringency, adding some tropical fruit (maybe mango?) as well as sweet cream. The finish was quite fruity, with a mashup of orchard fruit and wood lingering for a little bit. It’s not that different from the regular 12 year old, from my fading memory of it, but has more of the traditional american oak flavours (tropical fruit, vanilla, light spices) than I remember in the standard bottling.

We then moved on to The Glenlivet 15 year old French Oak Reserve. This is made by taking the regular 15 year old Glenlivet (that I assume is a mixture of different wood types) and mixing it half-half with some 15 year old that has been finished in new Limousin oak for a few months. Limousin is the wood used to make Cognac and wine barrels in France and is known for its tannic nature and high quality, and the barrels are brand new oak allowing the whisky to get the maximum influence from the wood that it can. It was quite coppery in colour and the nose had salty butter, apples, woody spice and heavy brown sugar. Someone in the room shouted out ‘organic solvents’ and I could see what they meant, with a hint of sweet alcohols wafting from the glass. To taste it had a ginger and hazelnut center, surrounded by burned orange peel and spicy wood after a thinly sweet and creamy start. Water brought out more of the trademark cream, with dried strawberries, raisins and a vanilla biscuitiness. From around the table we cobbled together ‘Like salty raisins sauteed in brandy butter’ and ‘a bit like Lidl garibaldi biscuits’…

Next was the Nadurra Triumph. The original release of Nadurra was my first experience with Glenlivet that I remember, with a bottle being picked up in duty free on special offer, and the only thing I remember about it was that I didn’t like it. This is a special edition, using spirit that was produced solely with Triumph barley, the strain they used before switching to the current choice of Optic and Oxbridge, distilled in 1991 and bottled in 2010. Nadurra means natural and this one is bottled without chill filtering or colouring at a stronger than usual 48%. There was a mixture of wood used in the maturation, with at least some European oak complimenting the American casks. On the nose it was citrusy, with lemons, Seville orange and bitter pith, and creamy with a hint of tutti-frutti ice cream. To taste it was big and fruity, with a touch of leathery wood and little bit of banana. The assessment at our end of the table compared it to a Christmassy orange studded with cloves. Water brought out cream and bitterness, dried fruit, woody spice, nutshells and added to the heat of the finish. An interesting dram and definitely more to my taste than the regular Nadurra was when I last tried it.

Fourth on the mat was The Glenlivet 18 year old. This one was noticeably darker than the other whiskies we’d drunk so far and it wasn’t much of a surprise to hear that it contains about 20% of spirit that is matured in former sherry casks. On the nose it had dark chocolate, glacé cherries, rich fruit, the expected cream and biscuits. There were also suggestions of cherry blossom and creme brulée, the latter marrying the cream, dark notes, biscuity vanilla and sugary sweetness together nicely. To taste it was thick, with lots of cream running on to sweet fruits (cherry & stewed apple) and orange peel, and then astringent wood which became dry on the finish. It didn’t take much water and didn’t change all that much, bringing out more sweet vanilla from the creaminess. This was the whisky from the regular range that I was most looking forward to tasting, as I’ve heard that I might like it. It’s got the right amount of sherry for my current taste and is also going for surprisingly low prices in Waitrose at the moment, despite being reasonably priced usually. This one might appear in the cupboard by Christmas.

The last whisky placed in front of us, for now, was The Glenlivet 25 year old. Deep reddy brown, this whisky is finished for 2 years in oloroso sherry casks and is the oldest and most expensive in the regular range. On the nose there was sherry fruit, wood spice, crisp fino and fruity oloroso sherry, buttery wheat and maple syrup. To taste it was silky in the mouth, with cinnamon, sweet burned butter, marzipan and a touch of linseed oil. From around the table came ‘flat Dr Pepper’ and ‘sweet cured bacon’. A drop of water brought out more fruit and some savoury wood, as well as cream and red grape jam. A word needs to be said about the packaging of this bottling – justifying its £175 price tag it comes in a special display box, complete with metal slide on the front to keep it shut. While impressive, the general opinion from around the room was that it did look a bit like a (very well made) school woodworking project…

Founder's ReserveAt this point the answer to our wondering about the empty, question marked space on the tasting mat was revealed as The Glenlivet 1824 Founder’s Reserve was rolled in. Only available from the distillery there were only 1824 bottles of this 21 year old whisky produced, commemorating the opening of the new production wing at the distillery in June this year. It was made up from 10 casks, 2 first fill sherry and 8 bourbon, and poured a deep bronze. On the nose it had cocoa powder, chocolate orange, pineapple, mango, raisins, sweet red grapes, minerally smoke and butter. To taste it had a load of spicy Christmas cake – bitter orange, walnut and figs – as well as mint and more creamy butter. A drop of water brought out more sweetness, more spice, cinnamon toffee and bananas, but I wouldn’t want to add too much. Again, this one comes in a nice box, this time with a sliding presentation section and tasteful burned in branding. Very pretty and also rather tasty, although only available at the distillery (if there’s any left).

After the tasting broke up I ended up on Boisdale’s cigar terrace with a dram of their own bottling of Mortlach, famed as they are for their independent bottlings and cigar selection (the guy running the terrace that night was Victor Ferreira, 2010 UK Cigar Sommelier of the year), and had a chat with Phil Huckle about the hard life of being a whisky ambassador. Despite the heaters it was a snowy evening and what I thought to be cigar ash blowing across my field of vision turned out to be snow, sneaking around the side of the awning and pinging horizontally across the terrace – a fitting end to an interesting evening.

I’ve been examining my whisky prejudices in recent times and while my dislike of Glenfiddich’s whisky still stands (and is due to not liking it rather than just not liking them for being market leaders) my opinions on Glenlivet have changed over the last year. While it’s not my favourite whisky it’s definitely one that I won’t stay away from and while I might have a bottle of the 18 year old before this year is out I suspect the occasional bottle of the 12 will also make its way through my house over the next.

The Glenlivet 12 Year Old First Fill
12 year old Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£30 from World of Whiskies for 1 litre. Travel retail only.

The Glenlivet 15 Year Old French Oak Reserve
15 year old Speyside single malt Scotchwhisky, 40%. ~£30 from Master of Malt.

The Glenlivet Nadurra Triumph
19 year old Speyside single malt Scotchwhisky, 48%. ~£50 from The Whisky Exchange.

The Glenlivet 18 Year Old
18 year old Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£35 from Master of Malt (although it’s about £30 in Waitrose for Christmas).

The Glenlivet XXV
25 year old Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£175 from Master of Malt.

The Glenlivet 1824 Founder’s Reserve
21 year old cask strength Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 55.6%. ~£250 only available from the distillery

Many thanks to Joel and Neil at Caskstrength for inviting me, and to Phil Huckle for talking toot with me until closing time and passing over a couple of drams of the 21 year old. The tasting was free for everyone and we all got a rather shiny goody bag to take home with us. You should all go and read Neil and Joel’s blog, it’s rather good. They even wrote about this tasting way before I did…